The great is rare; the dull quite common. But — and this is the genius of the online format — that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to. When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.——Felix Salmon.
The Journal Register Company has cast itself as an avatar of the future of news, making tough decisions now that other, less stout-hearted and forward-thinking news executives—its CEO John Paton called them “crappy”—are unable and unwilling to make.
Paton says such decisions are “dramatic, difficult and bloody.” (This of course begs the question, “bloody for whom?” But that’s a bigger story, isn’t it?)
But, as the news business contemplates JRC’s second bankruptcy in three years, it’s important to keep mind that the JRC model isn’t just a model for a digitally centric journalism but, as Ryan Chittum says, for a very particular kind.
Its main distinction isn’t that it’s “Digital First,” the name of the umbrella company that controls JRC. Most of the journalism practices that the company advocates—engaging readers, using social media and digital tools, etc.—are now commonplace in American newsrooms. The idea of the grumpy old print man resistant to change is mostly a straw man. If not every news organization wants to hold its news meetings online or open its newsroom to the public, that’s not necessarily a sign of backwardness.
The most distinctive thing about JRC at this point, rhetoric aside, is its business model: It gives away online for free what it charges for in print. Digital subscriptions—paywalls—are not part of the mix. Its online business relies on digital ads pretty much entirely.
In using this model, JRC is joined in an increasingly lonely orbit by Advance Publications, another closely held company that, consequentially, owns the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, among many other papers, including, ominously, the Plain-Dealer in Cleveland and the Star-Ledger in Newark.
Why these two companies stick with this model—whether for ideological reasons or for financial reasons, or for some third reason—is a separate question. In JRC’s case, the logic of a free model certainly flows from Paton’s declaration in June 2011 about what he believes is journalism’s low market value:
As career journalists and managers we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.
Whether that remark has been later, as they say in the Senate, “revised and extended,” it says what it says. If you don’t believe “what we know and what we traditionally do” is worth much, you’re not going to charge for it. That is all part of the “Confidence Game.” Point is, you need some.
Normally, I’d just say, “let a thousand models bloom,” or “may the best model win,” and root for them all.
But whether the free online news model succeeds financially is one thing, and, put it this way, bankruptcy is never a good sign. The free model, however, also carries with it real implications for the kind of journalism that it can support.
We know this going in: The online game is a volume game. More content generates more traffic, which hopefully means higher ad rates. Felix above was discussing The New York Observer, the once-cheeky and literate source of readable and gossipy stuff about Manhattans three obsessions: media, real estate, and food (and money; make that four). Whatever’s become of the Observer, his broader logic is true blue. Online, more is more.
Given these incentives, as well as limited newsroom resources, more posts mean less time spent for each. In today’s destabilized news environment, this spinning of the hamster wheel is a familiar theme. The Project for Excellence in Journalism picked up on the trend back in 2008:
In today’s newspapers, stories tend to be gathered faster and under greater pressure by a smaller, less experienced staff of reporters, then are passed more quickly through fewer, less experienced, editing hands on their way to publication.