There was a lot of anticipation for the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, which took place earlier this year. After a rash of layoffs and financial turmoil in newsrooms across the city, many journalists were chomping at the bit to talk about ways to fix the news business. While well intentioned, the discussions at the Town Hall quickly digressed into venting, finger pointing at various websites, and debates about imagined business models that will save the day. Producing little direction, it was most notable for highlighting a clear generational divide. (You can listen to audio from the CJTH at WBEZ’s website.)
A few of those in attendance that day have decided to keep the conversation going by organizing the Chicago Media Future Conference, scheduled for June 13 at Columbia College. The conference plans to address two main questions: 1. How do people consume the news and what do they do with it? 2. How do you make money selling the news and who is willing to pay for it?
I strongly suggest the conference focus on the first question before getting anywhere near the second. Understanding how media habits are changing – and how news operations can adapt – should be a top priority for all media managers. Before you can talk about how to make money, you have to know how people are consuming your product. In all the debates going on, I have heard very little acknowledgement from journalists that news consumers feel let down by the media. A Zogby poll from 2008 indicated that 67% of Americans view traditional journalism as “out of touch”. Google isn’t killing journalism, but Google has changed the way people find, consume, and share the news – and do so in ways that circumvent the old revenue models.
The good news is that in the same Zogby poll, 70% of respondents felt that journalism is important to the quality of life in their communities. Professional journalism is still wanted and needed – but we have to start saying out loud that news organizations are not providing their work in ways that meet the needs and habits of their audience. And by not adapting to this reality, the news industry is losing credibility, relevance, and revenue. News orgs need to figure out the nature of their product and its value to the consumer before setting their sites on making money. Business models are not solutions for what ails journalism right now.