This week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” On the occasion of the publication of the report, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with two of the authors of the report, Bill Grueskin and Lucas Graves, in a CJR podcast, which you can listen to here. They spoke about the motivations behind the report, some of the more interesting findings of their research, and their hopes for how journalists and news organizations can use its findings to try to shore up the industry. Below is a transcript of that conversation.
What was the genesis of this report? What made you want to start this research project, and what questions did you hope to answer with it?
Bill Grueskin: Well, it actually came about a little over a year ago, when Nick Lemann, the dean of the journalism school, was very interested in doing a follow-up to a report that Columbia did back in late ’09—that one was done by Len Downie, a former editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor here at the journalism school. It was entitled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” and it was a deep look at a number of the problems that the journalism industry was facing, and was followed at the end with a number of recommendations, many of which were based in policies that could be enacted to help journalism get over the straits that it finds itself in. Most controversially, they recommended a federal fund for news that would be funded by FCC fees. They were also recommending the relaxation of anti-trust regulations, getting universities more involved in doing journalism, and that kind of thing.
Nick Lemann and I were talking, and he and I were very interested in kind of going to the next step, which is, What is the commercial market for journalism—especially digital journalism—in this day and age? As you know, there’s been a lot of disruption in this business. So he asked me to get a team together of people who could look into this question and come back with some analysis of what’s going on, and also some recommendations of where the industry might go from here. So at that point I recruited Ava Seave, who is an adjunct at both the Journalism and Business schools, has an MBA from Harvard, and also Lucas Graves, who’s with us today, a Ph.D. student here at Columbia who did a report a few months ago on the faulty metrics and data that online news sites deal with.
Can you describe your process a little bit—how you chose the news organizations that you did to feature in the report and what the research process was like overall?
Lucas Graves: Well, most of the research consisted of interviews that we did. We were just trying to figure out how many we did in all—I’d say that it’s probably north of a hundred.
BG: Yeah, I’m sure that we talked to at least thirty-five organizations—you know, big companies, small ones, traditional ones, new ones .
LG: So that included a lot of telephone interviews, but also a lot of on-site interviews. For most of the fall and part of the spring, Bill was flying around the country—to Detroit, to California, to Florida—visiting newspapers at their headquarters and getting a sort of inside view of their digital strategies.
BG: One of the things we were looking for was: What are the companies—newspapers, but also broadcast outlets, new digital-only outlets—what are the companies that are doing something that we thought was really interesting, and that would be revealing to people who have read and heard a lot about this situation? So I went to the Detroit newspapers, for example, because they drastically cut back their home delivery to four days a week, and I was interested on the level of, What does that mean when you cut back your cost structure in that way, what does that mean for your digital growth? We were interested in an outfit in Denver called Examiner.com, which is a site that’s only been around for three years, but that has already built an audience of well over twenty million unique users a month: How did they achieve that rapid growth, and what is the economic model?
And I noticed that you focused on just for-profit organizations, correct?