If you get time, it’s well worth watching Vincent Browne’s programme from Monday night. It’s a highly intelligent (not to mention passionate) discussion of Irish journalism’s most pressing problem; ie the disappearance of the business model underwriting much of the professional journalism in Ireland.
It was fun (despite the dire implications of the topic), not least because gamekeeper turned poacher Susan Daly (aka @biddyearly on Twitter) took great delight in highlighting some of the blatant short comings of the mainstream media, much to the annoyance of Noirin Hegarty, former boss at the Sunday Tribune, and currently the online editor of independent.ie.
I know for a fact that Noirin’s annoyance is shared by a lot of respectable mainstream journos in Dublin. But my feeling is that they are misunderstanding the Journal.ie as a product. It does, and has, cannibalised some of the material from mainstream media. But as Susan says, that should be sending traffic to the Time and the Indo. If those papers are not picking up revenue from it, then the fault lies with the established papers, not the aggregator.
On this score, there was some very good stuff from Hugh Linehan (@hlinehan) of the Irish Times, who argues the whole business model underlying the print model of journalism needs to be looked again:
…you still need story telling, you still need analysis, and you still need the context, all the things that make sense of this world where there is a massive amount of data being thrown at you in the digital space all the time.
Speaking as someone who still loves newspapers, you can see that at the weekends when people have a little more time the circulation figures are holding up much better. But we need to recognise that when advertisers migrate online they are not coming to our sites, so we need to think about our business model.
There’s another point he makes later in the discussion to which we new digital hacks have not yet come up with an answer. Who has the business model that pays a journalist to attend hours and hours of committee meetings at Leinster House to report on what the government and public elected representatives are up to?
New media resources like Kildare Street do a fantastic job of making the records of the Oireachtas available in readable, researchable and digitally re-presentable forms. But ‘speaking truth to power’ means you need precise knowledge of the protocols and content of such proceedings, and a clear human understanding of the context of any given story. Just ‘responding to the audience’, does not make up for that potential loss.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the curation being done by the likes of theJournal.ie and Storyful, to mention but two, is important pathfinding work; not unlike some of Slugger’s earlier approach to story gathering, only with a more functional business model in a market (courtesy of Facebook and Twitter) which is nearing critical mass.
In the case of the Journal.ie, they are certainly doing things the right way. Starting resource light, keeping agile and building both their audience and their qualitative relationships with that audience.
Just look at the site’s Whitey Bulger coverage on the day the story broke, and you’ll get the idea, that, pound for pound, it’s coverage was unmatched by any of the other on or offline Irish media.
But this is an evolutionary game, and the win line still remains a long way off. Linehan has it right. It is time for MSM organisations to go into listening mode and then to experiment, albeit lightly and with as few resources as you can get away with.
Not everything theJournal.ie does or will do is replicable or desirable for others to emulate. I am not sure, for instance, that we on Slugger could sustain the kind of conversational engagement that the Journal’s hacks do on Twitter and Facebook. Although, we have, presumably unnoticed by Susan (‘we’re probably one of the only Irish sites that are engaging properly with the public’), been engaging the collective intelligence of our readership for many years (albeit with more success at some times than at others).
But the big papers already have one thing they should not underestimate, even (or rather especially) in such challenging times: the Brand. What most now know is that you cannot sustain the authority of the print product by stuffing it carelessly online. It requires an evolutionary process, and a re-engineering of the business model into something sufficiently protean to begin to rebuild the news business in a more sustainable form.
The challenge in an era when even neo classical economic models are falling apart, which is almost perfectly articulated by Eric Beinhocker, is to adopt an evolutionary approach:
Evolution is a process of sifting from an enormous space of possibilities. There is no foresight, no planning, no rationality, and no conscious design.
Helping business, organisations and government to rise to this very challenge (digital pathfinding), is an emerging core of the work I’m currently doing through Slugger Consults…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty