Can the media sell something else? And, if they do, will they still be the media?
“We buy balloons and a helium tank,” explained the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Oktyabrsky Vestnik at a Russian media conference. “We inflate some balloons and sell them at local festivals. It doesn’t bring in huge revenues, but it’s fairly profitable.” Several editors in the room were unable to conceal their amusement at the speaker’s suggestion, as if they don’t do similar things to pad their own profit margins. In reality, what they do is often much less amusing.
News has practically ceased to be a stand-alone product. The old business model is becoming less and less sustainable, and publishers are trying to find alternative sources of revenue. Few of them recognize that such alternatives are, at the very least, evidence of the end of an era, if not the very reason for the end.
Have you ever seen a beach resort photographer? Once upon a time they did rather good business at Russian resorts. But since everyone has their own camera now, what is there for a beach photographer to do? Photographers found the answer – they have bought adorable little monkeys (though an adorable little crocodile would work just as well).
Anyone can take pictures with their own cameras now, and they’re pretty much satisfied with the quality. But, wow! Look, a monkey! Cool! No one packs their own monkey for vacation.
In this case, the value of a service (or commodity) is determined not by its quality but by its scarcity (people have cameras, but not a monkey on hand). In today’s circumstances, news seems to work in a similar way. If news is readily available, it loses its value. Quality almost doesn’t matter anymore.
News is no longer about each piece; it has become a stream. And the concept of quality is far less relevant for a stream. In a digital environment, people supply the news to one another, and between them they manage to cover all types of interests. In general, the quality and breadth of coverage are becoming good enough for most people – rarely excellent, but good enough. Yes, traditional media is also participating, but they are just one player. They don’t have a monopoly anymore. In fact, they no longer even dominate. The environment is able to produce and spread news by itself. People now receive news as a matter of course, without any effort or demand on their part. For example, Americans today simply cannot avoid news about presidential debates. The news will be delivered regardless; one only has to turn on the nearest electronic gadget with a social media feed.
It doesn’t require a paper. It’s not really about newspapers. The core issue here is the replacement of broadcast media (one-way media) with “mutual media.” The right to broadcast now belongs to anyone who wants to be a broadcaster.
Readers are not merely ceasing to pay for media consumption, they have already started paying to create their own media. They are even paying for the right and ability to be media – for access, gadgets, and programs. They pay not only with money but also with time. The money and time ordinary people invest in being their own media probably exceeds the investment of big media owners many times over.
A huge amount of money, time, passion, and knowledge is spent on amateur “me-media.” Traditional media has lost its monopoly.
How should media owners respond to an environment in which everyone has their own media? Find a monkey. The editor of Oktyabrsky Vestnik has already found one such monkey – helium balloons. But this is a small monkey. And one is not enough.
What do media try to sell besides balloons? Books, conferences, public events, souvenirs, analytical materials, blog hosting, educational courses, coupons and discounts, collectible cars or planes models (or even collectible dinosaur bones), marketing services, all sorts of directories and guides – and the list goes on and on.
Now that everybody has the right to broadcast news, the news business has little in the way of marketable goods. Previously, the media had two main revenue streams – advertising and sales of copies. These two streams, in different proportions, were the basis of the old business model. Now both these streams are drying up. Publishers and editors are still accustomed to drawing money from big streams, but these streams will probably never be restored. This means that publishers have to find new springs, none of which will ever be sufficient on their own.
“Print dollars are becoming digital dimes,” John Paton once said. (His solution was to “start chasing the dimes”, but even he wasn’t able to put it into practice.) Now, print dollars are becoming print dimes, as well. So, all that traditional media can do now is chase print dimes, and they will do this until a print dime is considered just as valuable as a digital dime.
We are witnessing perhaps the most fundamental shift in the media business. The hope for one or two big, homogeneous revenue streams has been shattered. The need to build a multi-revenue stream is becoming more and more evident. It is important to recognize that there is no single solution anymore, making the concept of “many small bets” appealing.
The problem is that the photographer with the monkey is really selling the monkey, not photographs (alas, the photograph has become merely a supplement). That local Russian newspaper is selling balloons, not articles. Theoretically, journalism can amass enough monkeys to save traditional news media, but their business will be zoo keeping, not journalism.
It seems that there are no more market solutions for the long-term survival of mass broadcast media except for the patronage of someone who has a message to get out. This means that broadcast journalism will be paid for only from “above” (from news suppliers), but not from “below” (news consumers).
Curiously enough, this is good news for one branch of mass media – brand media, such as corporate newspapers, government media and other sponsored sources. Old accountability journalism, if at all in demand in future, will only survive with support from special foundations. Otherwise, it will have to hand over responsibility to self-supported amateur journalism.
Will this new guerilla journalism be trustworthy? The implicit answer to this popular question is “no.” One amateur journalist no necessarily deserves the trust. But the entire environment of emancipated authors – surely deserves it (see the concept of the Viral Editor).
On the other hand – was traditional print journalism ever really trustworthy? If yes, how did it become so? When, why and how was traditional media accepted as an important social institution? Or is it a birthright? And, moreover, is every single journalist licensed as a truly reliable source, or do only some journalists receive this honor? If so, when and how did the trustworthy journalist originate?
Self-appointed media activists are no doubt searching for answers to these very questions, while traditional media continues to look for monkeys.