Making news pay: no easy answers at Oxford

Green Templeton College, Oxford University

I attended Andrew Currah‘s interesting talk on business models for news today at Oxford’s Green Templeton College. Currah has just released a report for the Reuters Institute called “What’s Happening to Our News.” Lots of good insights on the scary economic trends in the U.K. news media. Real problems urgently in need of solutions. Well worth a read.

Currah spoke of the “messianic” belief among news executives that digital products will become engines of productivity and profitability. Unfortunately, “the new platform doesn’t seem able to support journalism in its current form,” he said. He quoted a McKinsey report that found online revenue per user to be, at best, about 1/20th of print.

Currah outlined some of the potential alternatives being tried or proposed: micropayments, hybrid “freemium” services, charitable models of various kinds (Washington Post would supposedly need a $2 billion endowment to support its journalism). Substantial asterisks and drawbacks to all the options mentioned. Not particularly encouraging.

But what bothers me about Currah’s conclusions is that they’re partly based on what I think is the flawed assumption that “following the audience” is a bad thing and inherently at odds with a higher public-service purpose.

I believe that a news organization can follow the audience and be of service to it at the same time. In fact, I think one of the reasons why many newspapers — in the U.S., at least, and I suspect here too — find themselves in their current state is because they’ve fallen out of sync with the needs of the audiences they claim to serve.

Maybe I’m overly idealistic on this point, but I think it’s not only possible to do serious journalism that’s commercially viable, it’s a waste of time to do otherwise. Put another way: If I publish a sound, well-researched investigative piece on a topic nobody wants to read about, how is that serving an audience?


Currah’s book is here. His presentation is here. (Note: Both files are large PDFs.)

(My own two cents’ on the revenue picture and what newspapers can do about it is now up on OJR.)

Photo: Green Templeton College, Oxford University, by Eric Ulken.