Who’s Going to Foot Journalism’s Bills?

By Staff
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Normally, I don’t spend much time fretting over the plight of marketers. These are the creative types that irked me with their solid post-graduation plans and now rake in the dough by seducing me into wanting things my bank account can’t afford (thus sowing a nagging suspicion that I should have gone into a more lucrative field like, say, marketing). So when I went last night to hear Bob Garfield, the host of NPR’s On the Media and a columnist for Advertising Age, talk about “The Future of Media,” I was a bit disappointed to learn that he’d really be talking about  “The Future of Advertising.” Since advertising pays the bills, though, I decided I’d better stay put and listen.

Madison Avenue, it seems, is in danger of becoming Skid Row. We can thank the Internet for that. Advertisers are recoiling from the printed page, abandoning the 30-second televised spot, and scrambling to recreate these bygone paradigms in the digital world. But there’s no going back. Craigslist has siphoned the classifieds section money stream, the few people who click on banner ads probably do so by accident, and blocking pop-ups is a much-appreciated default setting. As for commercials? “Online video has killed the video star,” says Garfield. That, and TiVo. Why sit through silly spots when you can blip blip blip your way through commercials, catch programs online, or, better yet, make your own entertainment for all the World Wide Web to see?

So far, the marketing biz hasn’t found its footing in this brave new world, says Garfield. But, he assures, there is money to be made because people love consuming and crave information about their consumables. That’s why smart companies are abandoning the conceit of the captive audience and are instead pouring money into the IT infrastructure that will drive search optimization, aggregate consumer data, and build “relationships” with consumers. Don’t bother with a scripted ad, the logic goes, just build a really good website and let the buyers come to you. Or devise super clever ways to entice consumers. To drive this point home Garfield showed a slide of a handy new technology out of Canada that essentially functions like a marketers’ version of VH1’s Pop-Up Video, though instead of snarky observations you get brand names, company links, and sales info when you mouse over the people and objects in the video.

That’s when my heart sank, because the solutions for marketing in this new media world seem apocalyptic when applied to journalism. Product placement has long since infiltrated and cheapened entertainment, but it would kneecap good reporting. And if marketers don’t have to rely on advertising anymore, what does the news business do for funding?

When I asked Garfield what happens to good journalism in this new media landscape, he talked about some hopeful developments. First, there’s the symbiotic relationship forming between mainstream news outlets and the blogosphere, whereby newspapers churn out the daily news and the blogosphere aggregates it, points out the holes, and contextualizes what’s going on for readers. Second, there’s the opportunity to involve readers, either through the crowdsourcing that’s proved a gold mine for document dumps or by tapping readers not only for input on their interests but as citizen journalists.

There are pitfalls and potential in both these realms, and I’m excited to see how they hash out, but neither speak to the question of funding; they address only the new possibilities afforded by online technology. The problem remains: Who’s going to pay for it? Some, like Garfield did last night, raise the specter of minimal charges, a la pay-per-view. “Why bother shoplifting from the dollar store?” he asked. I’m skeptical that such charging schemes will work: the New York Times already abandoned its premium content scheme, and the internet has reared folks to expect free content–weaning them of that now is nigh impossible. There are others that say journalism should turn to foundation funding. And there are those that argue that government may have to step in. If you’ve got any ideas, let us know. We might need them.

Hannah Lobel

Image by DRB62, licensed under Creative Commons.

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