24 February 2010

ABC News Embraces Kubler-Ross Stage Five: Acceptance

"Media Convergence" starts with the death of "traditional media," which has been withering on the vine for a while now. The latest casualty is a big one - a huge chunk of ABC News.

It's not just layoffs due to the lousy economy. It's the simple fact that the news industry has held on to a business model and cost structure that hasn't worked well for years. I was struck by something ABC News honcho David Westin said in his memo to staff.

The memo listed several provisions of the news division's restructuring plan, including an expanded use of digital journalists (who both produce and shoot their own stories), the combination of weekday and weekend operations for both "Good Morning America" and "World News," and, at the newsmagazines and other long-form programming, "a more flexible blend of staff and freelancers."

"The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it," Westin said in the memo.

The good news is the industry can look to several business models to overcome its many problems. Here's something I wrote back in March, and it sounds somewhat similar to what Westin wrote yesterday. (of course, I'm not the only person writing stuff like this.)
...if you want to see the news network of the future, just look at Global Voices Online or Green Options today. These networks leverage resources (i.e., writers) that are already in the places old-school networks would establish bureaus. Most of these independent writers already have their own platforms - and since they're freelancers, they have the ability to shop their work to a number of outlets at once. Right now it may seem weird to think you'd see the same reporter working for multiple papers or networks. But I follow the reporters I think do the best work, just as I look to specific bloggers who demonstrate their expertise in certain subjects. You could still have one network send a particular reporter to, say, a war zone and pay their way for exclusive content. But getting paid by the job might work best for both sides.

This business model would still be ad-driven, I think. I like the pro publica idea but it's limited to the resources of the foundation community. BBC is also an interesting model but difficult to justify in the US.
I'd argue that my pals at Live Oak Media are probably a better example today than Green Options, but I contribute there so take it with a grain of salt. And I readily acknowledge the ad-driven model has limitations, but we've already seen how paywalls fail.

I also think the news industry is ignoring a very important resource and process - business incubation. Non-profit media relies quite a bit on foundations; those foundations are not going to fund organizations forever. But if a few foundations got together to establish a virtual business incubator for the journalism industry, with a path toward "graduation" and profitability for fledgling news companies, we'd probably develop a few business models that worked.

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