Monday, March 15, 2010

State of the News Media highlights pro-am collaboration

The annual State of the Media report from the Pew Research Center and Project for Excellence in Journalism was released today. This project each year offers a treasure trove of information, statistical and narrative, that does exactly what the name says it does: provide an overview of the state of the news media.

It documents in very stark terms just how bad off the newspaper industry is, with numbers on plummeting revenue and circulation. As the report's overview put it:

"For newspapers, which still provide the largest share of reportorial journalism in the United States, the metaphor that comes to mind is sand in an hourglass. The shrinking money left in print, which still provides 90% of the industry's funds, is the amount of time left to invent new revenue models online. The industry must find a new model before that money runs out."
The six major trends highlighted in the introduction to the report also offer valuable perspectives:

  • As we learn more about both Web economics and consumer behavior, the unbundling of news seems increasingly central to journalism's future.
  • The future of new and old media are more tied together than some may think. One concept that will get more attention is collaborations of old media and citizens in what some call a "pro-am" (professional and amateur) model for news. Yet how traditional news organizations cope with such partnerships, the rules for what is acceptable and what is not, remain largely uncharted.
  • The notion that the news media are shrinking is mistaken. Reportorial journalism is getting smaller, but the commentary and discussion aspect of media, which adds analysis, passion and agenda shaping, is growing -- in cable, radio, social media, blogs and elsewhere.
  • Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial account of events.
  • The ranks of self-interested information providers are now growing rapidly and news organizations must define their relationship to them.
  • When it comes to audience numbers online, traditional media content still prevails, which means the cutbacks in old media heavily impact what the public is learning through the new.
Some other highlights from the overview that stood out for me:

"Citizen journalism at the local level is expanding rapidly and brimming with innovation. This year's report includes a new study of 60 of the most highly regarded sites. The prospects for assembling sufficient economies of scale, audience and authority may be most promising at specialized national and international sites -- efforts like ProPublica, Kaiser Health News and Global Post.For all the invention and energy, however, the scale of these new efforts still amounts to a small fraction of what has been lost."

"Yet the energy and promise here cannot escape the question of resources. Unless some system of financing the production of content is developed, it is difficult to see how reportorial journalism will not continue to shrink, regardless of the potential tools offered by technology."

"Old media are trying to imagine the new smaller newsroom of the future in the relic of their old ones. New media are imagining the new newsroom from a blank slate and news ecosystem.Among the critical questions all this will pose: Is there some collaborative model that would allow citizens and journalists to have the best of both worlds and add more capacity here?"
I think it's significant that Pew and PEJ recognize the importance of an emerging pro-am model for news. How exactly that relationship takes form is an open question at this point, but clearly the additional eyes, ears and perspectives of citizen journalists can offer a useful supplement for shrinking legacy operations. Equally clearly, "volunteer journalism" isn't sufficient to do the job alone, any more than volunteer EMTs could be expected to provide all of the emergency care in a community. (See analogies in posting about the "fifth estate" a while back.)

Figuring out the connection points may not be easy, but it will be necessary.

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