Feeling a bit better after Aspen conference

By Steve Outing

This week I was lucky enough to participate in an Aspen Institute conference, “Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism.” The participants were an all-star bunch, including Madeleine Albright (a journalist before becoming a diplomat) for day 1, Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, Marissa Mayer of Google, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, and other assorted top dogs from News Corp., MediaNews Group, Associated Press, American Public Media, the Knight Foundation, etc. (Here’s the full list; it opens up a Word doc.)

A significant part of the 3-day event was devoted to business models to sustain journalism (legacy news institutions, upstart digital news entities, community bloggers, and non-profit news initiatives), and especially the idea of getting online users to pay for news, whether through force (pay-wall schemes) or persuasion (donation models).

I’ll write more about the event later, but for now I want to toss out one quick impression: It didn’t turn into the jihad over business strategy that I expected going in.

First, some context. … In recent months, some of the news industry’s leaders have made some statements that seemed to indicate that they were gearing up to put a lock on a lot of their online news content (or even all of it) and make users pay for access, that they’d seriously go after people “stealing” their content, and that even headline-and-excerpt news links might be banned. For example:

Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.: “Quality journalism is not cheap and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting. … We can be platform-neutral but never free.”

Tom Curley, Associated Press: “If someone can build multibillion-dollar businesses out of keywords, we can build multihundred-million businesses out of headlines, and we’re going to do that.”

Dean Singleton, MediaNews Group: “The content is ours and we can do anything with it we choose to do with it. If it’s in our best interest to give it away, we will give it away. If it’s in the best interest to charge, we will charge.”

But after spending a few days in Aspen, I returned to Boulder feeling more optimistic. While overall the news industry remains in a state of confusion, with no clear immediate solutions to the decline in legacy news organizations (especially newspapers), the outcome of the conference discussions were, I dare say, reasonable. I had feared either that the conversation would become hostile between “paid vs. free” camps, or that the group would come to bad decisions, such as a stronger move toward unity on charging for news online. Rather, I’m thinking that recent statements like those above are mostly bluster.

While it’s not clear that all news publishers will follow the quasi-consensus of the elite Aspen Institute crowd, I got a sense that for the most part, really bad moves like putting up high pay-walls on news websites won’t happen.

Here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Most news publishers recognize that many revenue streams will be necessary for digital news. They’re not stuck on just advertising, just paid content, or just both; they know they’ll need more, including new models not yet devised. To quote Clay Shirky on saving the news industry: “Nothing will work, but everything may work.”
  • Most everyone wants to charge for some premium content, but few think that any news publisher will be able to get money out of more than 10% of their most-loyal users. That sounds too high to me, since newspapers and other old media have cut back so much on staff and they’ll have a hard time creating content and services that online users will pay for. I didn’t sense any kind of death wish, so for the most part we’ll probably see 90%-plus of legacy news sites’ content remain free.
  • That desire to find the right “freemium” model leaves room for implementing other options simultaneously, including allowing users to donate and support their favorite sites via networked donation solutions (e.g., Kachingle, whose founder was an Aspen participant), as well as tracking copyright infringement and making revenue-sharing offers to the offenders rather than punishment being the only option.
  • The non-profit news sector will grow quickly, as more foundations, philanthropists, and the public become aware of the “news crisis” and support investigative and public-interest journalism as the struggling private sector falls down on that job.

More later…

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!