Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Is There A Business Model For "Innovation Journalism?"

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 24, 2011

I'm spending much of this week at the 8th Conference on Innovation Journalism at Stanford University, speaking on panels, keynoting on ethics, and listening and discussing "innovation journalism" with journalists and academics.

But what is innovation journalism?

David Nordfors, the founder of the conference and Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Innovation and Communication, describes it in this way:

-It uses the same best practices of journalism that apply to quality reporting of any kind.

- It's a way to describe a specific type of beat that produces stories that include elements of tech, business, culture, and political reporting.

- Calling it by a specific label: innovation journalism -- allows people to discuss its unique qualities.

Journalism beyond the silo...

Mr Nordfors believes that journalism is stuck in silos: a story is either about politics, business, arts, sports, celebrity, etc. Innovation journalism is about reporting stories that cut across these silos and producing a far more valuable form of journalism about an important subject.

It's certainly a more fulfilling form of journalism for a reporter, and one that produces a more interesting story for readers. So why don't we see more of this type of reporting?

That was a question I was asked by Burton Lee, who gave a presentation about his work in helping countries build centers of innovation, as part of the European Entrepreneurship and Innovation program from Stanford University.

His talk highlighted the importance of innovation journalism in building self-sustaining innovation ecosystems. Yet newspapers and media the world over, are all compartmentalized in their coverage: it's either world, local, business, tech, sports, arts, etc, news. Why is that?

I said it was due to the financial models that support each silo: advertisers fund news sections that are relevant to their business because that's where they get the highest return on their spend.

A furniture store will advertise in the "Home" section; a financial services firm will advertise in the Business section. It's understandable that advertisers shy away from being next to stories that span multiple sectors: say a story about a hot new gadget generating huge profits, that shows how kids are using it in school but it's creating calls for new privacy legislation in Washington.

Which is why we don't see much innovation journalism because we don't have the business models to fund it.

Who will fund innovation journalism?

- Could it come from enlightened advertisers? Unlikely, because focused media works best for them and that's not going to change.

- Should governments support innovation journalism through some form of grants or taxes? This might work in some countries, not in the US. There is also the problem of political influence on media funding.

- Should innovation communities subsidize or somehow fund innovation journalism? That won't happen because startups are narrowly focused on what they are trying to do. They understand the benefits of good media coverage for themselves, but they don't recognize any responsibility towards supporting high quality journalism in society.

- Subscriptions? Sure, some people might pay for innovation journalism but that means limiting the audience to a small sector of society, when the story is about how all sectors are affected.

So what's the business model for innovation journalism? It's the same question as: what's the business model for any form of high quality journalism?

A click is a click...

We lack a mechanism to recover the value created by quality journalism. It's the Gordian knot of our times, one of the most challenging problems on the Internet. If we solve it we all win.

In the online advertising world, a click is a click, a page view is a page view -- the monetary reward for quality content is often little more than for mediocre content.

Google tried hard to rectify this problem earlier this year with its "Panda" update to its algorithm but it caused pandemonium instead. Long established news sites such as Ubergizmo and others, woke up to find sites that scraped their content ranking higher in Google's search results.

Google, despite its massive staff of top computer experts among its 26,000 employees, couldn't figure out a solution to what's quality content on the Internet? That shows the inherent difficulty in solving a seemingly simple task: What is quality content?

But that's precisely the business model for content mills such as Demand Media -- cynically engineered to take advantage of the Internet's inability to reward quality content from what's not.

New media re-learning to walk...

When I left the Financial Times in mid-2004, and witnessed firsthand the economic reality of online media, I've warned that this model cannot support the costs of producing traditional, mainstream media. The gap is too wide.

"You can't get there from here," is one of my favorite American expression but one that didn't make much sense to me until I saw it in the context of the media industry.

Many media companies won't make the transition from old to new, many have already gone, many more will follow.

I've often asked: "What will happen if the old media dies before the new media learns to walk?"

We will lose the best practices that have built up over many decades, if not centuries, of publishing.

To some extent we are already seeing this happen, where we are losing some of the knowledge that we used to have. The debate over the ethics of Mike Arrington, editor of Techcrunch, being allowed to make investments in companies that Techcrunch covers, is an example.

We used to know the answer to this question: Is it ethical for a reporter to invest in companies in their beat?

Today, there are many people that have said to me: "Yes, it's OK for reporters to make investments, provided that those investments are disclosed."

I disagree and believe we will come back around again, to drawing the ethical lines in the same place as before: It's not ethical for reporters to make investments in their beat companies. And that disclosure doesn't change a wrong into a right.

The babies and the bathwater...

There are aspects of journalism that do need to change and adapt but there are plenty more that apply to the world as it is now and will continue to apply in our future. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, we are left with the stark reality that the only way we can retain best practices in journalism is if we have the business models to support them.

But we don't.

Which means we are headed for a very disruptive period, where wealthy individuals and special interest groups will have a field day, buying and manipulating media across sectors and society to enrich themselves and their friends.

It's a world where corruption of reporters by companies offering them shares is considered OK -- as long as it's disclosed.

Is this the brave new world for journalism, and for that matter, innovation journalism? Or a temporary phase, an aberration formed from the transition from one economic model to a new one.

- - -

Please see:

Innovation Journalism: Why Silicon Valley Startups Deserve A Level Playing Field

Mike Arrington Replies To His Critics

Paper Or Electron ... The Medium Doesn't Define Journalism


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