September 15, 2005

Yahoo Answers the Question: Who Will Pay for the Journalism?

Is Kevin Sites a precursor of the future of journalism or is he simply the new Geraldo?
Is Sites the first indicator that non-traditional news organizations are going to step in an underwrite journalism at a time when traditional vehicles, like newspapers and television, are cutting back?

I'm betting against Geraldo (although Gawker did key in on Sites' brawny biceps appeal.)

Sites, as you know by now, is the NBC producer, war correspondent and blogger hired by Yahoo to report from war zones around the world. Sites, who reported on his own from Iraq and Afghanistan, will file in all formats for the soon-to-come Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone.

By hiring Sites, Yahoo has jumped the fence from news aggregator to news producer. The reason: The New York Times attributes it to Yahoo's desire to create "signature programming" that can attract the "rapidly growing demand for video advertising on the Internet."

In other words, Yahoo is going to use an old idea (journalism) done in new form (digital, cross-platform) to attract an old source of revenue (advertising) delivered in a new manner (digital video). Sounds like a good thing to me - a new source of money to pay for journalism.

Phil Meyer, the venerable professor of journalism at University of North Carolina, wrote in his book "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age" that as the traditional economic models of journalism erode - newspaper advertising, mass television audience - new entities are likely to arise to pay for the journalism. Said Meyer:

"There is, in short, more than one way to pay for the next news." [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]

Meyer mentions the Center for Public Integrity as the type of organization, one underwritten by charitable trusts, that could produce quality journalism outside the eyeballs-for-advertising model.

Yahoo's backing of one well-coiffed "sojo" (solo journalist) doesn't necessarily signal a full-scale move by the portal (or its rival, Google) into being a news producer (in fact, a Yahoo executive told the Times that Yahoo is not "building any kind of news organization") but it does indicate the business side of new media thinks money is to be made doing a very old media thing, journalism.

As public credibility drops in mainstream journalism and newspapers continue to slash staff, community-minded entrepreneurs like Craig Newmark occasionally wonder aloud about whether they should venture into some form of public-spirited journalism to help fill the gap. I suspect that will happen some day, just as I believe Google is likely to some day move beyond aggregating to production.

Citizen-journalism start-ups are everywhere, efforts to create from the grassroots what the upper echelons of journalism have eschewed - local news. These, too, are possible replacement vehicles.

I like to say the future of news belongs to those who invest in it. In my summary of Meyer's book I wrote:

If there is an "ism" journalists should embrace to ensure they have future vehicles to support John Knight's "essential mission ("Get the truth and print it.") then it is entrepreneurism. Don't wait for new forms of media to emerge - build them yourselves.

That's what Yahoo is doing, one Sites at a time.

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Posted by Tim Porter at September 15, 2005 08:02 AM