Things to be optimistic about

So many discussions about journalism in the past few years have featured journalists from established media crying into their beer, I often forget how refreshing it is to have a different kind of conversation. One where people are working out for themselves how to rebuild the business model for journalism.

It is hard to convey the happiness you can feel when you hear people describing how they are taking a simple, empirical route to discovering and delivering what people need to know – and then finding ways to keep doing it.

I had one of these moments at City University a few days ago when a conference gathered to look at new ways of sustaining local journalism, arguably in much more immediate economic danger than the national and international varieties. An energetic group of our students, Wannabehacks, used Storify, as well as a liveblog, to record the day.

The point wasn’t agreement – there was very little on what works and what doesn’t – and speakers varied from Will Perrin of talkaboutlocal and the King’s Cross blog to Jeff Jarvis, of City University New York’ entrepreneurial journalism programme and the buzzmachine blog. Perrin illustrated what might be called the “pure, simple need” origin of a local blog: a local community identifies a problem and gathers to try to solve it, puts pressure on various local authorities and eventually ends up with what Will called a “community information burden”.

In other words, he kept losing track of who had said what to who and when. So he started a blog to keep track. Journalism, with a capital “J”, is fine, Perrin said, if you can afford it; then you can investigate and maybe do more difficult stuff. But if can’t afford journalists, just get out there and do it anyway.

Jeff Jarvis covered the other end of the scale, pointing out to the audience that there were a few local news sites in the US now recording annual incomes (mostly from local advertising) of $200,000 a year. No one came up with a European equivalent of that number, or anything close.

Two things stood out for me. If people who care about news in their communities are going to build something which lasts, they have to think about how to make a sustainable business. In a mature business later on, a “church and state” separation between editorial and business may make sense. It isn’t feasible or practical at the start. Second, it is as useful to hear about failure as about success. Sarah Hartley, in charge of winding down The Guardian’s local blogs, also came to talk about that project’s downfall (lack of ad revenue, more than anything else).

Chewing on these things, I fell across this commencement speech by the science journalist Robert Krulwich to the Berkeley school of journalism, whose optimistic theme can be grasped from his title: “There are some people who don’t wait.”

And still in the US, there is a sizeable report from the Columbia school of journalism on the business of digital journalism. I confess I haven’t read it yet and was put off from doing so by this post from the Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, who says that you only reach the nub of the argument on p110 (give me shortcuts! now!). Here’s Salmon’s shorter take.



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