The Moxie Sessions: Can journalism survive when the punters stop paying?

Rupert Murdoch once described the classified ads that filled his newspapers, funded his newsrooms and possibly his nuptials as “rivers of gold.”

These days, the torrent has turned to a trickle and there’s no sign of rain. Readers are reading just as much as ever, but the advertising revenue that once funded the journalists now flows steadily (and mostly unimpeded by pesky taxes) across the ocean to Facebook, Google and the like.

Media reaction has varied. A few operations (this august organ included) have chosen to ask readers to pay for most of its content. Others (such as the Huffington Post) have tried to balance the revenue equation by not paying most of their contributors.

The most popular approach, though, is to engage, boots and all, in the war for eyeballs and therefore advertising dollars. More stories about more things that people will click on, curated in real time to ensure the most popular newsbites float to the top.

But is this a recipe for journalism-with-a-capital-J? Is there a better way? And do enough people even care for this to be a fight worth taking on?

Well, a dozen people certainly cared enough to brave a blustery Auckland night recently and assembled around the GridAKL table for a Moxie Sessions discussion on the future of journalism.

Leading the chat were long time journalist and NBR Radio producer/host Andrew Patterson, Spinoff founder and editor-in-chief Duncan Greive and AUT journalism curriculum leader Dr Helen Sissons.

For business journalism specialist (and one-time banker) Andrew Patterson the onus is on the content creators themselves to find an audience. He sees a future where journalists operate like an entrepreneurially-minded travelling circus – constantly on the move and working as hard to draw a crowd as to write a story. He’s even coined a name for this new breed of self-promoted journalist: journapreneur.

Wellington-based data visualisation expert and part-time journalist Keith Ng proposes a similar model (albeit with a sexier name) in this TEDxAuckland talk. His concept of “batman journalism” has the stories that matter being written by those with day jobs that give them the freedom and the funding to do journalism unfettered by the need to be paid for it.

For The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive, one answer lies in cutting the connection between funding and content. His news website, with its respectable 350,000 unique visitors per month, started life 100% funded by Spark and its video platform Lightbox (although it has since diversified) and the majority of its income comes from custom content created for brands.

While the Spinoff crew does openly create sponsored content for its funders, the majority of what the site publishes, says Duncan, is entirely driven by what the editorial team wants to write about. It pays its writers, and by most accounts it’s doing good work.

It’s an approach that’s resonating with the next generation of journalists, says AUT’s Ms Sissons. This year, Ms Sissons reports, The Spinoff is the number one choice among students looking for a place to work as an intern. “They want to write stuff that has meaning,” she says, “and that has humour.”

While that might be a cause for optimism, Ms Sisson’s next comment suggests that the war for content is not one that journalists – even journapreneurs – are going to win any time soon.

Yes, journalism courses are popular, and yes, plenty of smart and motivated people are taking them. The problem is, she says, grads are smart enough to see that traditional newsrooms are up against it. So while plenty head to established newspapers, websites and broadcasters for that first paid job, many of them find they’re tempted from the newsrooms. Two years later (on average) they’re off to a PR or corporate comms job offering better pay and conditions, working in a sector that some estimate outnumbers journalists six to one.

What’s a journalist to do, then? While not everyone agreed that the good ship Journalism is about to go under, an approach that got a lot of support around the table was for New Zealand to recognise the importance of good journalism to all of us: to our system of government, to a fair justice system and even to our business ecosystem; then to invest as a country in helping make good journalism happen.

Funding things that matter to the country is not a new idea. We do it for sports ($84m last year), the arts, business and technology. We happily fund music videos and films of all sorts. (We even pay for a radio station and its growing online presence.)

So what about a Media Innovation Fund? Even if we started small – say 10% of what we spend on sport – that would invest $8 million or so into businesses looking for new ways to tell the stories that matter, rather than just the ones that pull eyeballs, clicks, and fractions of advertising dollars. Of course the sweet spot would be to do both… and that’s exactly the problem the MIF would focus on solving.

This isn’t a public-good charity idea; this is an investment in something that matters to New Zealand, and a global business opportunity in one.

Journalism isn’t broken, the business of journalism is. Approaching it as a business problem (and managing the MIF through MBIE rather than some other ministry) might not get those rivers of gold flowing again. But it might unearth some nuggets. And those nuggets could be just enough to fund a new model of journalism, based not on the most popular stories, but on what George Orwell once described as, “printing what someone else does not want printed.”

The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.

http://www.nbr.co.nz/opinion/moxie-sessions-rivers-old-can-journalism-survive-when-punters-stop-vd

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