A Conversation with Jeff Jarvis & Chris Callahan

Christopher Callahan's picture
Dean, Arizona State University

The following is a conversation between Christopher Callahan, dean, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University & Jeff Jarvisassociate professor & director, Interactive Journalism Program, Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York; founder of Buzzmachine and columnist for The Guardian:

Chris:  How can traditional newsrooms bring the culture, spirit and skills of entrepreneurship that you’re teaching in your CUNY classes into their news organizations? Or can they? 

Jeff:  I'm not sure given our experience that news companies - and plenty of other companies in other industries - are loath to disrupt themselves, to create their own successors. But I have hope we can find ways.

Start here: When newspapers buy out talented staff, instead of just letting them walk out the door, why not invest in their futures: set them up with blogs; promote their content (because the paper trusts them and helped establish their brands); sell advertising for them. The paper invests in innovation - the next Politico? - with low cost and low risk while still getting the advantage of that talent.

When I brought up this notion at the Aspen Institute when we at CUNY presented out New Business Models for News Project funded by the Knight Foundation, I was delighted that the idea resonated. Media people understood that this was just a different business relationship. 

 What matters about this to me is that here we see the beginning of the newspaper as a platform and a network rather than as the necessary owner of all the news, for once you have this relationship of independence but mutual benefit with a former employee, you can have it with anyone talented. I think news organizations need to recast themselves as such networks and platforms. That's the lesson, the example of Google.

Chris:  Can you give a few examples of news sites around the world that best exemplify the “Google-y philosophy?” 

 Jeff:  Start with news organizations that see the need to think distributed, as Google does, to go to where the public is rather than making them come to the news site. NPR, the BBC, The New York Times, and the Guardian do that by releasing APIs - application programming interfaces, instructions for building applications around their content. The Guardian is releasing all the content to which it has rights in its API because, in their words, they want to be part of "the fabric of the web."

 For the group in Salzburg, I told the story of Brian Lehrer on WNYC public radio in New York mobilizing his public to create collaborative works of journalism that wouldn't be possible with a lone reporter. We're seeing that attitude spread and I think it's another example of news organizations acting as platforms and networks.

I was also impressed with what Kai Diekmann, editor of Bild in Germany, did when I showed him the Flip camera. Other editors in his position reflexively thought of it as a tool for their staffs. 

Diekmann instead created a Bild-branded camera, set it up to send video directly to Bild, priced it reasonably at 69 Euro, and as a result sold more than 20,000 of them in four weeks. In other words, he didn't equip his staff. He equipped Germany to make news with him: another network.

Chris:  Your belief that future news organizations will be smaller, collaborative and operate with greater efficiencies is well stated. In these uncertain times, various revenue-generation models are under consideration: advertising-based, subscription, per story fees, reader donations, community support, foundation support, university partnerships, non-profit organizations, tax breaks, government subsidies, etc. As a leader in the national conversation of new business models for the news, what successful business system(s) do you see on the horizon? Or perhaps more fairly asked, are there models that you believe will not be part of the future? 

 Jeff:  In our New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we envision a sustainable future for news in a metro ecosystem. We found local bloggers covering towns and bringing in $100-200,000 a year in advertising; that gave us hope that these are sustainable businesses. We looked at how to optimize those businesses, primarily by creating advertising alliances to bring them greater value from large advertisers as well as local merchants wanting to reach a few towns. We saw new news organizations that operated with great efficiency - at much lower size but much greater profitability than today - because they could specialize and work collaboratively with the network. We have much more detail on our site  (the models are here).

There is much discussion of pay models and if you can do it, great. I have nothing against pay. But we need to be aware that pay brings costs and risks. It raises marketing costs. It cuts off content from the conversation and thus (free) distribution. As New York Times columnists found when they were behind the TimesSelect wall, it reduces their influence and thus value. Most important, I believe, it reduces Googlejuice - the value that comes from links and clicks. I think it is a mistake to look for an old model, a silver bullet to solve problems in a new economy. The economics of news and media have changed completely and permanently and news organizations will survive only if they utterly reinvent themselves for this new reality. Carrying over one old revenue line - because people used to pay in a monopolistic market, because you think they should (that's a matter of entitlement and emotions, not economics) - does not answer the need to innovate entirely new products, new relationships, new efficiencies, new opportunities.

Not-for-profit endeavors will have a role in this new ecosystem but I think it would be a mistake to pin too much hope on charities, foundations, and donations (and I'd argue it would be a huge mistake to take money from government when it's government we're watching). Again, there is no silver bullet. And I think our real work, our hard work has to be to experiment and innovate with new profitable and sustainable business models for news and that will come from market-driven entrepreneurship, I believe.




Jeff says; "it would be a

Jeff says;

"it would be a huge mistake to take money from government when it's government we're watching".

Some of the conversation this week has been edging towards an idealised taxonomy of who should give to what.

Ivar said bilaterals should continue to do media training, etc. but that multilaterals should stay clear of it. Others lumped bilaterals and multilaterals together.

i.e. What about a world where bilaterals and multilaterals focus on governance and accountability and foundations focus on directly supporting media development?

I wonder what the issues and unforeseen consequences of  that approach might be.