A couple of weeks ago I used Twitter for one of those things that Twitter is good at: sending out a trial balloon for an idea. Here’s all 129 characters of the original tweet:
Can for-profit publishing be separated from nonprofit journalism, and then recombined, with their roles now distinct and defined?
The trial balloon got picked up by two gusts of metaphorical wind: it was retweeted twice, once by @knightpulse, the Twitter feed of the Knight Foundation’s future-of-news community. I took this to be a good sign, and I wanted to start developing the idea further.
It has always seemed odd to me that the discussion of the future of news has focused so much on the business model. Maybe that’s not quite the right way to put it; on the one hand of course, it’s exactly the business model, not the journalism itself, that is in trouble. Newspapers are dying, not reporting. The problem with that is that it is newspapers that have been the support structure for reporting for give or take 136 years, and they basically invented the practice. What seems odd to me, then, is that it is the journalists themselves who have taken it upon themselves to find the business models. If they want to do that, great, but already journalists are dealing with a strangely mismatched skill set: there’s no reason to believe that someone who is naturally good at digging up a story and hounding sources will also be good at the skills required to tell that story, whether that be in prose or video or animated infographic or whatever. But then to ask them also to be the business minds? Seems a bit much.
I’m not the first to suggest separating the tasks of reporting and storytelling from the business side of a publication. For one thing, that has been the norm at respectable publications for a century. But even more recently, others have commented on the separation of the business and reporting aspects of the new, smaller, sleeker reporting outfits that seem to be cropping up everywhere (see this blog post by the tech and advertising guy for an English hyper-local site, for instance). And I do believe that journos should be entrepreneurial in the sense that they need to constantly be inventing new forms of presentation and new ways of interacting with their sources and their audience (who ultimately are one and the same). See Jeff Jarvis on the entrepreneurial future of news.
But my tweet, I think, was getting at an even more drastic delinking of the newsroom and the counting room, based on journalists being able, finally, to grasp one of the qualities of professionalism that they haven’t been able to in the past—the ability to determine the value of their own services. What I am suggesting is a reorganization of the entire journalism ecosystem that creates two completely separate types of entities. On the one hand, you would have publishers. They would run a web site or a print product or a video product or whatever they chose. They would be entirely a business: buy journalism, sell ads—or subscriptions or whatever. I don’t know how they make their money, but that’s sort of the point. They figure that out.
On the other side of the equation, you would have independent groups of journalists who form themselves on a model akin to a law firm or an architecture firm or a medical practice—call it a journalism firm, or a journalism practice. I think maybe the latter is a better term. There could be small firms of investigative teams. Maybe one focuses entirely on developing those interactive infographics, so they hire solid reporters and the best information designers. A larger firm could spend its time covering specific beats (a law firm’s tax specialists become a journalism practice’s education reporters) or devote itself to covering breaking news in a particular city (a newspaper might want to keep this firm on retainer). These firms would hire promising young reporters who could apprentice with the more experienced journalists at the top of the hierarchy. They could work their way up, making partner—editor?—someday. (I would note that some new news organizations are working somewhat in this vein; ProPublica comes to mind, or the arrangement that the New York Times made with a journalist/photographer who financed her reporting through Spot.Us.)
But these hypothetical firms are not the publishers. They’re journalists. Sure, they probably need an office manager and someone who can maintain business ties with the actual publishers (one of the senior partners/editors, perhaps?). But they’re focused on producing the best product, journalistically. Unlike lawyers or doctors or architects, they serve two clients: the publishers who buy their work and the public that reads it. But that’s always been true. This just seems to be a way to turn journalists into quasi-autonomous professionals, rather than employees of an industry (the current, fading model) or businessmen in their own right (the alternative current proposition).
Journalism at its best is a practice, not an industry. And maybe the best way to achieve that ideal is to completely delink the business of journalism from the practice of journalism—and to establish journalism practices.
Or maybe it’s completely impracticable. Maybe it would take a complete realignment of the entire news ecosystem. But it’s an idea.