Post 16, 2009: Two new ways to fund journalism

I think everyone now agrees that while newspapers in their current form are in strife, nobody wants quality journalism to disappear.

But no-one knows how to fund it.

I’ve got three ideas and in this post I want to deal with two.

1. Industries should fund journalism directly

I cover a couple of obscure industries that have little dedicated media and only a very small number of writers with any appreciation of the technical nuances of the fields concerned. I’d argue (in a self-interested way, of course) that these industries are the poorer for their lack of a full-time focus on their activities, services and products. These industries also lack the vibrant hub that a good publication creates. They also miss out on the chance to reach prospects and customers through a medium they trust, namely journalism.

So I can imagine that farsighted industry associations could start to talk to publishers about subsidising a journalist’s wages, in order to ensure there is a resource dedicated to covering their industry. An Association’s investment in a journo could benefit its members by creating a virtuous circle in which the dedicated writer means a publication becomes more attractive to readers and therefore more useful as a marketing vehicle.

Is this feasible? I do some work with an industry association that could probably not afford to do this. But not by a vast distance.  (Obviously this is my personal opinion and in no way reflects the position of the association, in case anyone knows the association concerned)

2. License PRs to access journalists

I think the way PR relies on journalists, but does not pay for them, is in many way analogous to publishers’ complaints about the way search engines monetise their content without any financial contribution.

I recognise that PR probably lowers the cost of operating a publishing house by providing content and/or making it easier to access (albeit with the content groomed for commercial intent, rather than reader value). But let’s face it: PRs are stuffed without influencers to influence!

I can imagine publishers licensing access to their journos to PRs that have paid for the privilege. Such a scheme could be run through a PR industry association and would involve a sliding payment scale,  so as not to disadvantage small PR shops. But unless a PR had paid their dues, a publisher’s journos would not take their calls. Blocking their email would be simple.

I imagine PRs would hate this regime. Everyone hates it when new costs arrive in their industry.

But seeing as the way we fund journalism now is borked, costs are going to land somewhere. And right now, PR cannot exist with media but does not fund it at all. Maybe that needs to change to help journalism survive.

These ideas are both thought experiments and have obvious problems in terms of how this kind of funding impacts’ media independence and the likelihood of fearlessly critical coverage. They both also devolve to industry paying for coverage, either through associations or via. increased PR bills. I suspect that, over time, industry will miss having a media to read about itself in. Or maybe not – which is a whole other kettle of fish and something I will blog about with my third funding idea soon.

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21 thoughts on “Post 16, 2009: Two new ways to fund journalism

  1. Ouch. Idea two is a recipe for compromised journalism, don’t you think?

    Idea one is somewhat similar to what happens already. During boom times, vendors with significant marketshare often buy display advertising without checking whether it works in part as a way of supporting trade press that benefits their industry.

  2. OK, i rammed too many phrased into that sentence, leaving it’s meaning unclear. I should have said:

    “During boom times, vendors with significant marketshare often buy display advertising without checking whether it works. They do this in part as a way of supporting trade press that benefits their industry.”

  3. Do vendors really do that? I’ve never heard of it! Which is not to say I don’t believe you, just that I’ve never heard of it. With so much advertising going online and/or direct, media could sure use a similar injection in bad times too!

  4. Absolutely. Once a vendor reaches a certain size, the marketing team usually has a sense that moderately investing in trade media is “the done thing”, despite great doubts about its effectiveness as a marketing and sales tool. And when it comes to paring back that trade media budget for whatever reason, discussions often focus on which trade media we really need as an industry and want to support, rather than their claimed reach and frequency.

    When I was editor of Australian Macworld, Apple had no need to advertise with me to reach potential local customers. So why were they in there every month in a big way? I can only assume it’s because they thought their market needed a local Mac mag in order to thrive.

  5. I like the first idea – and I seem to remember that the CCMA used to support TelCall magazine. It would be good to see organisations like the AIIA and ACS providing some broad-based media/journalist support as part of their charter (maybe they already do?). Also, I back Steven Noble’s view on vendors sometimes advertising to support the publication. But this isn’t sustainable – the advertising often costs you the same again in design/artwork costs – so advertising represents a much bigger spend, especially for organisations that don’t use advertising generally as part of their marketing program.

  6. I think idea two would kill the publication quicker than any other change that is happening in the media.

    It takes me back to when magazines used to call me up and say “saw your press release, we want to run the story… but you need to pay a colour separation charge for the printing.” I always advised my clients not to pay it because who needs coverage in a magazine that is not discerning about what they write?

    I also found the comment “PRs are stuffed without influencers to influence!” interesting… Media (and print media specifically) is not the only place of influence (although please dont think for a moment that I am downplaying its importance).

    PRs spend a lot of time working around conferences, with analysts and increasingly direct to the customer through social media. We have plenty of people to influence – our job tends to be deciding which are the most valuable to go after on our clients’ limited budgets. Savvy PRs don’t look for quantity coverage, but quality, and a decline in the numbers of magazines may simply extend the influence of those that are left.

    PRs do already fund media in indirect ways – flying journalists to key shows, paying their costs at events like those run by Media Connect, writing byline articles like they are going out of fashion… if we take a broad definition, vendors also provide financial aid to publications when they loan reviews equipment (yes they get valuable coverage, but the publication also gets that half page filled without the hardware investment).

    Just wanted to add that last point because its interesting to note that in other countries (like Sweden) the media value their editorial independence so highly that they won’t even let a vendor give them a cab charge. They paid to fly themselves to my client event in London…

    Reading this back, I am playing devil’s advocate a little as this comment paints me as someone who doesn’t think we all have a vested interest in keeping the media alive. We do. I just wanted to expand the picture a little.

  7. @EmVicW – I understand that journos are not the only influencers. But we are, IMHO, the most endangered. And I’m pretty sure that most PR campaigns still have media relations as the dominant tactic. Correct me if I am wrong.
    I don’t think idea 2 would kill publications, were it done unanimously. I imagine that to be a registered PR, one would stump up a fee that goes into an independently administered fund that is then redistributed to publishers with oversight to ensure it goes on wages. (yes, I know, very complex and hard, but this is a thought experiment) With the right structure, it could work IMHO. It would also be useful inasmuch as it strengthened a central PR organisation.

  8. Yeah OK, as an exercise in thought experiement, it could work.

    Essentially it would work like PRIA membership fees. A PR tax, if you will.

    – except the fees would go to the media for salaries. And journalists would need to see our certificate of membership before they talk to us on the phone.

    • @Simon: you’re hungry for great stories, which are so rare. Are you really going to talk to some dweeb with no news because they’re accredited? Are you really going to let a great story slide because it comes from someone who isn’t?

      @Em: presuming you work on the agency side, I’m sure you have a hard time convincing clients or your own management to pay for anything. Do you really think you can convince either to cover such a fee?

      @Everyone: Let’s just say PR does agree to pay and media does agree to screen calls. Then, what do we call this new commercial transaction between the vendor and media sectors? I always thought this was called advertising?

  9. @Steve In this wee scenario, I won’t talk to anyone that is not accredited and would not be able to. Non-registrants emails won’t land. Their phone numbers would be screened and blocked at PABX level. Non-members’ client lists would be known to the subs and ruthlessly expunged. In short, if PRs want to play, they pay. But the fee only gets them into the game. They still need to play well in order to engage with a journo. We already register lobbyists. This is an experimental extra step.

  10. @Simon what about the little guy that doesn’t have a PR agency? Is the MD still allowed to call you and sell in a story? Surely he is benefitting from the media without paying a tax? Is that fair?

  11. Maybe if we are so endangered, then we deserve to go away? If we can’t provide value to either advertisers or readers, what job are we performing? The idea scares me s***less, but it is worth thinking about.

    As for having industry associations subsidising our salaries directly, would that not lead journalists to only write nice things about the associations that pay their salaries?

    And as for licensing PRs, that may also result in under pressure to cover the activities of those PR companies’ clients.

    You’re right to be looking for a new model, but unfortunately I think we have already given away the farm. I don’t think quality journalism will go away, but we need to get used to the idea that the current cost structures are unsustainable.

  12. @Brad Whenever I contemplate the future of journalism, people immediately express great affection for it. But I think that the way we are thrashing about using journalism in an attempt to somehow get a few more clicks or page impressions disappoints readers. They want and deserve better. Meanwhile, some of the most visible journalism is so objectionable that the craft gets a bad name. I’m thinking of 6:30 PM current affairs shows and celebrity mags here, which IMHPO get worse each year.
    I also think that the two ideas I raise here can be done if the funding sources are sufficiently opaque to individual journos. A writer given a round would not necessarily have to know exactly how it is possible for them to cover that round. And if ALL PRs contribute, it becomes unnecessary an individual consultancy to play the “but we pay for part of you” card.

  13. Communism also looks great on paper.

    I just don’t think either idea would work. If I am reporting on the medical round it would be pretty obvious who would be paying my salary – the AMA. If I worked for the SMH, and wrote articles critical of the AMA, would that not possibly cause them to pull funding and give it to my more compliant competitor at another publication? You’d hope not, but the danger is there, and the pressure to please would be even higher with limited sources of revenue.

    The second model means showing favouritism to organisations who play ball – ie, the stick is that ‘we won’t cover your clients if you don’t pay us to’. And I can’t see every single PR (both agency and in-house) coming to the party.

    I realise this sounds somewhat dismissive, and I agree that we face a problem that we don’t have an answer to. I just don’t believe that either of these solutions can work in practice.

  14. @ Brad – great call re communism, but I think that knowing one’s source of funding can actually galvanise journos to be critical. Did stacking the ABC board with right-wingers make the ABC any more inclined to consider their positions? Not a direct funding example, I know, but perhaps an interesting precedent.
    The PR funding caper is of course a very complex proposal and I cannot imagine it working unless PR needed it to happen. Which PR doesn’t and probably won’t for a while, if ever.

  15. Is this a long term solution? Funding from the PR industry would be a diminishing return as media relations become a smaller part of what PR agencies do.

    Blogged this at Just Another 24 Hours.com.

  16. Pingback: Options Still on the Table to Support the Future of Quality Journalism | Just Another 24 Hours - Dan Young

  17. @Daniel. I’ve no idea if it is a long-term solution.
    But I do know from talking to PR folks that media relations remains the dominant PR tactic. And a PR n00b contacted me on a back channel to say he is astounded by the amount of media relations. This guy was hired because of their “2.0-iness” and finds they get very little chance to exercise it.

  18. Pingback: Bad for journalism, terrible for PR | jonathan nguyen

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