Straddling the consumer/professional divide can be a stretch. “A lot of the things a consumer news organization is good at, we’re not,” Wenig said. “We are building those muscles.” Building this model from the opposite starting point, the FT’s Ridding describes the change from his perspective as one of psychology as well as skills: “This is quite a mindset change for newspapers and for newsrooms. It is a challenge to the very deeply rooted instinct of journalists to want to reach as many people as possible. It may be easier if you are a more specialist publication to begin with. Journalists have to focus more on the quality and depth of their relationship with their readers, rather than pure reach.”
The private/public balancing act has echoes in other areas of journalism. One cousin is an older model, the columnist/speaker. Consider Charlie Cook, the political analyst.
Here’s how Cook described his business model: “It is like a stool with four legs. One leg that is twenty-six years old is the Cook Political Report. It has two editors and doesn’t cover its costs. It is the research and development part that differentiates me from a lot of windbags in Washington. The second leg is a contract with National Journal Group to write weekly columns for National Journal magazine and CongressDailyAM. The third leg is a small contract with NBC. The fourth leg is the speaking circuit, and that is very, very lucrative.”
Speaking at conferences—a high-cost service delivered to a small and exclusive group of clients—is Cook’s equivalent of the private-news businesses of Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, and the FT. His other work, including TV appearances, is the equivalent of the consumer platforms that attract sources and burnish the brands of the big business news organizations. The analogy isn’t perfect—the Cook Political Report is a niche business, albeit a loss-making one—but the basic principle is the same. Cook uses his consumer exposure to market the time-honored money-making side of his operation: speeches. And meanwhile, “There is a subsidy taking place,” Cook said. “The speaking subsidizes the journalistic enterprise.”
Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, likes the private/public hybrid idea so much he used it to help build the thesis of his recent book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson helped spread the term “freemium”—first popularized by New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson—to describe the mix of free and premium (i.e., very expensive) content that he believes is the dominant business model of the Internet age. He practices what he preaches, giving away electronic copies of his book to help build a personal brand he cashes in on by giving speeches.
In-person appearances are a profitable part of the private offerings of bigger news organizations, too. The FT’s Ridding says there is “a lot of interest and value in physical engagement. It is a very high margin business.” David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Group, with which Cook is affiliated, told the same story: “The live component is what the really high-end clients are interested in.”
The quiet rise of companies and individuals pursuing the professional/consumer hybrid should be a source of comfort—but also of some new concerns.
The upside is obvious. The private/public model is financing a lot of expensive-to-produce journalism. Its reach and ambitions are expanding as organizations trying to rework the advertising/subscription model are shrinking. It seeks better-trained journalists at a time when we are bemoaning the disappearance of good-paying journalism jobs.
One possible concern: as any freelancer can tell you, news organizations with an attractive consumer platform have realized they can free-ride on their contributors’ desire to build a consumer presence. Bradley explained: “The HuffPost is the leader, but all of us as followers are on to the same idea that contributors are looking to build their personal brands.” That imperative—which Tina Brown, founding editor of The Daily Beast, has described as the “gig” economy—lets companies like The Huffington Post buy freelance content for little or nothing; they are effectively renting space on their consumer platform to writers who hope to monetize that exposure. This deal only works for freelancers who have the profile and entrepreneurial energy to cash in on their personal brands in other ways.
But there is a larger principle at stake with the private/public hybrid, the question of who is journalism for? “All of us have an obligation: What are we doing to make the world a better place—better informed, for instance?” Winkler said. “The Web site goes a long way towards our commitment to the public interest.”