Team of Rivals

Media business strategists on watchdogging, branding, and paying for it all

Last night’s “Innovation in Media: Global Meets Digital” panel—part of the Levin Institute’s “Innovate New York” series—was, per its name, ostensibly about New York City. “It’s global meets digital…meets New York,” the panel’s moderator, Levin president Garrick Utley, noted in his introduction to the event.

But the audience didn’t want to talk about New York so as much as they wanted to hear from the event’s panelists—Betsy Morgan, CEO of The Huffington Post; Tom Phillips, Google’s Director of Search and Analytics; Marc Frons, The New York Times’s CTO; and Geoffrey Sands, McKinsey’s director of Global Media, Entertainment and Information Practice—about the future of journalism. And, in particular, how we might finance it.

Business strategy is itself in flux right now, Sands noted. “It used to be about setting a goal for three or five years down the road,” he said. Now, though, the market forecast for media is so uncertain that business planning “is all about the process of gaining familiarity and developing pattern recognition, as you go down this path leading to Lord knows where,” Sands said. So McKinsey usually advises clients “to establish a portfolio of initiatives and forms of innovation”—small, strategic experiments. “They embark on these things,” Sands said, and “if they’re really good, they shut them down when it’s appropriate.”

Morgan, the HuffPost’s CEO, echoed Sands’s emphasis on reaction and preemption. “You really focus on your staff—and the agility of your staff,” Morgan said, noting that the HuffPost, despite its reach on the Web, has a total staff—editorial, reportorial, business, and tech—“just shy” of sixty people. “It’s about how fast you can move,” Morgan noted. Because, in particular, “you’re always reacting to what your competitors do.”

“The fundamental question,” Sands said, is: “are you providing something of value to people who truly understand what it is that they value, and understand what their alternatives are? I think that’s been newspapers’ challenge over the past few years: trying to figure out people actually value.”

But what about a service that people undoubtedly value—like watchdog journalism? Foreign Affairs editor Jim Hoge, in the audience last night, reflected a concern foremost in the minds of many media watchers during the discussion’s Q&A session: “One of the things that I think is being lost, in this period of transition, is the close monitoring of politicians,” Hoge said—and that’s especially true at the local level. How, Hoge asked, will we pay for that, in particular?

“It’s a market failure,” Sands admitted. “I don’t think there’s a financial model that supports hardcore investigative journalism.” Noting that he serves on the board of PBS—“so I may be biased,” he warned—Sands declared his belief that investigative journalism, in the future, will likely be financed the way that public broadcasting is financed. “I think we’ll see the Sesame Street model,” Sands said—a hybrid of membership donations and public funding that, together, will finance the watchdog journalism that the public needs.

Morgan echoed Sands’s sustenance-via-shakeup assumption. “There is a role for local reporting going forward,” she said, “but I’m not sure it will take place with the existing brands.”

While the tone of the conversation was collegial, the “gatekeeper” question—and, relatedly, the payment question—proved a matter of polite disagreement among the Levin panelists. “The role of media over the last eighty years has been to be the gatekeeper of consumer information,” Google’s Phillips noted. “Electronic media has now removed those barriers; you don’t have to read the newspaper anymore to figure out, ‘What do I want to consume?’”

Frons acknowledged that shift. “Your readers are your content,” he said. “People as much as companies are brands” nowadays. But while news organizations’ brands still factor greatly into consumer decisions on the Web—“We may put up links to lots of entities,” Phillips said of Google’s search engine; “the ones that get the clicks are the brands that are known and trusted”—monetizing those brands remains a key challenge for those organizations. And paywalls, in particular, run counter to the ethos of information-sharing that Google has engendered.

“It could be suicidal for news entities to put all their content behind a paywall,” the Google director declared.

Morgan agreed. At the HuffPost, “we try not to link to paywall sites,” she noted. “We’re a proud, practicing member of the link economy.”

Sands was more hopeful about the monetization question. “I think there are plenty of business models; that’s not the issue,” he said. “As long as you’re producing something of value, you’ll find people who are willing to pay for it.”

The strategist was less hopeful, however, about monetizing journalism within its current corporate infrastructure. The real problem facing news organizations—and newspapers in particular—Sands noted, “is that there just aren’t models that will [finance quality journalism] while paying for printing presses and union costs—and compensating executives in the way they’re used to being compensated.”

Thus, the particular challenge facing the Times and its fellow papers: innovating upon a platform of legacy assets. As far as that goes, the mood on 41st Street is “determined,” Frons said. “I think a lot of the folks in our newsroom have never worked harder,” he declared, “and are proud of the product we turn out every day.”

At the same time, the Timesman noted, a question hangs over his newsroom’s sense of purpose. “How do we evolve faster, so that we can continue to evolve and keep creating the kind of journalism that we do?”

It’s a question that this panel of high-level strategists left unanswered.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.