Napster 2.0: Now with news

Journalism is facing its version of the music industry’s peer-to-peer crisis of a decade ago.

With plenty of free content online, sales of hard-copy are tanking. Just as listeners were no longer forced to buy the whole CD to get the one song they wanted, readers are no longer forced to buy the whole newspaper to read only the articles pertinent to their interests.

They can just go online and find it.

Doing so is by no means a new feat, but as social media evolves, it becomes easier. Using tools like Google Reader, media consumers streamline the information-collecting process and avoid being bothered with off-topic drivel.

But with this, comes audience fragmentation. Readers will be acutely educated on a specific topic (or few), but won’t posses the variety in their wealth of knowledge that leads to more informed decisions.

When you only find what you’re looking for, you loose “the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally,” said William McKeen in an article in The New York Times.

That’s why McKeen, a professor at the University of Florida, requires students in his freshmen journalism class to read the print edition of The New York Times Monday through Friday. (There’s your subsidy, guys.)

But journalists need to connect with readers who aren’t a captive audience.

Apparently, newspapers aren’t doing the job. Just look at the financial problems of companies like Tribune.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson posit that allowing newspapers to register as non-profit organizations for tax purposes is the answer. Certainly, the government-subsidy model has certainly worked for the BBC.

To some, the idea is heretical: Government must not interfere with the press. Yet, some believe the First Amendment requires the government to ensure survival of a free press. Hence, the subsidies.

Endowments work. Just ask Propublica, but they are not easy to acquire and aren’t usually permanent.

One thing is clear: There is no one-size-fits-all model for news organizations to base their restructuring aspirations on.

The best that can be done is to experiment with new media in order to create a desirable product.

Downie and Schudson said news reporting is evolving into a mutual exercise between journalist and consumer.

If so, then the emphasis on the role of citizen journalism needs to increase ten fold. As Doug Fisher, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, notes, “At least half of your audience knows more about the story than you do…”

Realize this. Include audience participation through social networking and media resources like Facebook and Twitter. It will bolster your credibility and connection with the audience.

So will linking, whether to other Web sites with more information or to in-house sources providing definitions of strange words and concepts like The New York Times does.

Forget the idea that journalists are journalists and citizens are not. If this were true, the Washington Post wouldn’t entertain the likes of Daniel Lippman at a great loss to themselves.

In Alan Rusbridger’s response to Downie and Schudson, he includes an anecdote about The Guardian being prevented from publishing parliament news due to a gag order. After he lamented about it on Twitter, his followers engaged in journalism of their own and forced transparency upon the government regarding the issue. There’s an example of a mutually beneficial relationship between audience and press.

Social media only makes that bond stronger. The newspaper might loose relevancy, but the news never will.

Like social-media writter Fred Cavazza said, “There was a life before Facebook and there will be one after.”

If it were possible for digital media to destroy an industry, then the music industry wouldn’t be prosperous post-Napster.

Remind me again, how much money did Beyonce Knowles make last year? (Answer: $87 million)


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