February 3rd, 2008
What IS the relationship of blogs and professional journalism? Are they friends? Enemies? Uneasy neighbors? The question comes up because last week e.politics was chatting with some visiting German journalists about blogs and the roles they’re playing in the American political and media world. Some of them had questions similar to common concerns of newspaper professionals in the States a couple of years ago, for instance how does a newspaper site integrate and market blogs, and how do sites handle objectionable content? Some seemed more rooted in the unique concerns of the German political world: what is the potential for far-right or other extremists to hijack mainstream media properties? And, should extreme political voices even HAVE a place in the online public discussion?
But one newspaper editor asked a blunt question that should be familiar to just about anyone trying to produce things online for a living: at what point will people will stop paying for content at all, because they can get what they want online for free? With newspapers watching subscription rates fall, classified ads move to the web and big advertisers disappear in a wave of retail consolidation, a fear of the web and of blogs is natural. But besides their obvious economic threat, bloggers are also usually amateurs, and in the hauteur of professional journalists toward their pajama-clad cousins, there is an echo of the disdain of a knight or samurai toward a low-born musketeer.
But will an army of bloggers bring the walls of traditional journalism crashing down, just as gunpowder crushed the castles and pierced the armor of the late-medieval warrior gentry? Probably not: whether newspapers exist in print in twenty years or not, I’m confident that professional news-gathering entities WILL exist and that they will be supported by their readers, though whether it’ll be by advertising or subscription or some now-nonexistent alternative is yet to be seen (my bet’s on a mix of models).
As the explosion of newspaper blogs shows, the blog publishing model — fast turnaround and a somewhat-less-journalistic “voice” — works for professional reporters as well as for amateurs. As with so many other parts of the communications world, I think that we’ll see in the coming years a continuing convergence of different forms of publishing. In 20 years, newspapers may still sell newsprint and television networks may still sell commercials on political shows, but online, they’ll increasingly be indistinguishable from each other and from plenty of online-only competitors. We’ll have a continuum of media outlets, ranging from lone bloggers howling in the wilderness to well-staffed newsrooms at CNN and the Post, but with a blurring of the sharp distinctions in reach, resources, skills and abilities that have traditionally marked the difference between amateur journalists and professionals.
With a continuum of outlets, we’ll also see a continuum of business models. Niche publications that offer valuable information or analysis may still be subscription-only, as may some other sites and newsletters with particularly loyal audiences. Many other online publishers will earn money from contextual (Google) ads, display (banner) ads and video ads, or from content syndication and republishing. As the Post demonstrates, creative targeting options for advertisers can yield excellent (and lucrative) results. Some sites (like e.politics) will support themselves indirectly (one hopes) by raising the profile of a company or consultant and generating business.
Traditional publishers will have to adapt to changing business models, but that’s inevitable in world in which communications technology refuses to stop evolving. I’m sure that some won’t make it, but I’m also confident that enough people will continue to pay for quality, one way or another, that it will be possible for plenty of profesional journalistic outlets to thrive online.
As for bloggers and journalists, sometimes they’ll be rivals, sometimes they’ll be friends (with or without benefits), and sometimes they’ll take cheap shots at each other. But I suspect that they’ll be a lot more alike than either would admit.