Is There a Business Model for Serious Journalism in the Age of Trump?

The press has arguably never been more vulnerable. But there are some surprising — and practical — glimmers of hope for critical media.

  • Ridicule from public figures like Sean Spicer has been propelled by historically low approval ratings for journalists.
    Photo by Flickr/gageskidmore
  • The team behind "Politico" ultimately plans to charge high-dollar subscriptions for insider information on the Beltway.
    Photo by Flicky/TAEDC
  • Placing serious journalism behind subscription paywalls has worked for publications like "The New York Times."
    Photo by Flickr/andrepierre

Donald Trump has a bully’s nose for the vulnerable and the defenseless, and he sees the American media as both. The White House’s vicious attacks on the press, and the often-timid response from journalists, stem from the fact that, as a business, the press at this moment couldn’t be more exposed: Most of the biggest media companies in the country still haven’t settled on a business plan that works (and the smaller ones, in ever-larger numbers, are simply closing up shop); reporters continue to lose their jobs; and magic-bullet answers that once offered hope for turning things around — video or live events or virtual reality — seem to disappoint by the day.

No wonder the ridicule from Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon, propelled by historically low approval ratings for journalists, has turned into an existential threat to journalism that is gleefully being fanned by the commander in chief. There’s nothing new on the horizon, no business-model savior set to rescue media companies at the very moment they are facing their most critical journalistic test. There are, though, strands of hope, little bits of ideas that are working, albeit in limited ways. By mixing and matching them, we can begin to compile a recipe for a new journalistic model that may work — emphasis on the may.

1. “Free” is not a business model.

We can now bury for good any hope that giving away content and paying the bills solely through online advertising is a sustainable media strategy. The digital-ad revenue simply isn’t there to support real journalism. As a result, digital-only shops like Mashable and Medium are sharply scaling back. On the flip side, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are proving that paywalls can work, even on a massive scale, while niche sites like The Information, in tech, and Politico and Axios, in politics, are insisting that readers must pay for detailed scoops about their respective industries.

The message from readers is that they’re willing to pay for information that tracks closely with their interests and worldviews, while more generic content is falling off. This threatens to create a new kind of content divide: higher-quality and more accurate journalism for those who can pay, less accurate and more trivial reporting (not to mention fake news, which has no subscription future) for those who can’t. The higher the price, the more insidery the information: Axios, launched in January by the team behind Politico, eventually wants to charge $10,000 a year for its inside-the-Beltway news feed. That may make sense for lobbyists and others looking to make government a profit center, but it’s pretty much out of the question for everyone else.

One all-too-plausible outcome is that access to the information the public needs to meaningfully participate in self-governance will become even more two-tiered: The well-off will receive accurate and timely news, while the struggling will have to settle for unprofessional, misleading “news” that costs them nothing but the effort required to wade through a barrage of down-market advertising. This scenario, in turn, will play into the hands of anti-journalism tyrants, who will be able to point — correctly — to a popular press that is ever less credible.

2. The old competitive walls don’t apply.

David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post’s breakout star of the 2016 election, was lionized by other reporters for his scoops (particularly about Trump’s nonexistent charity work), but also because of the way he approached his job. Fahrenthold’s default mode was complete transparency: He would tweet about what he was working on before it was published; he’d ask competing reporters for leads and lavishly praise competitors for their scoops. The result was a wiki-style reporting model that runs counter to the siloed world of big media. In return, he was rewarded with tips from competitors who normally would have guarded them jealously, and his paper saw a significant increase in readers and visibility.

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