Journalistic Holy Grails

Late last year, Sustainable Business Models for Journalism published the results of a research study it had conducted across a range of countries and publishers. Edited by Esa Sirkkunen and Clare Cook, the report documents “international research on 69 journalistic pure players and their business models”. The full report (135 pages) can be downloaded as a PDF.

In a post that appeared at the Nieman Journalism Lab, two of the authors note that “finding journalistic startups who make a profit by selling original content directly to an audience is a challenge.” The most likely candidates appear to be located in the United States, perhaps suggesting a bit of myopia in these parts.

In their Nieman post, Johanna Vehkoo and Pekka Pekkala talk about three broad categories for generating revenue to support journalism. These included:

  • Hyperlocal sites that depend on advertising
  • ‘Do journalism, but find something else to fund it’
  • New kinds of news agencies

Advertiser-driven hyperlocal sites may have taken a hit with the recent announcement that Patch will be scaling back its efforts. The authors talk about The Batavian, West Seattle Blog and as sites that have made some progress with an advertising models.

Generally, the “something else” to fund journalism appears to be either licensing technology or providing (paid) access to data generated as a result of journalism. I think this is an approach that has better legs than the ad-supported model.

An example of the new kind of news agency is Demotix (now owned by Corbis). The authors describe its model:

Demotix has around 5,500 paid contributors around the world. Demotix sells their photographs, videos, and stories to mainstream media, notably The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Wall Street Journal. The revenue from sales is split 50/50 with the contributors. “We’ve completely ignored the U.S. and are really focused on places like Iran and lots of African countries,” [CEO Turi] Munthe said. “Our understanding is that AP doesn’t have a staff reporter in 40 percent of the world’s countries, whereas Demotix is in almost every country.”

Both this report and the U.S.-focused Tow Center assessment (released in November 2012) make plain that no single path to success (what Vehkoo and Pekkala describe as a “Holy Grail”) has yet emerged. No one thinks waiting for it is a good idea, either.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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