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Annual Public Lectures Series > Tom Rosenstiel

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 8-12, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 3:30 p.m.
Is Journalism Dying? The Future of News, Journalism, and Journalists
Tom Rosenstiel, Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism


There's good news and there's bad news, but the point is, there is still news and people still want access to it.

The good news, Tom Rosenstiel said at Thursday's Metcalf Institute Public Lecture, is that the audience for news outlets - traditional news outlets - is growing. The bad news is that for traditional news outlets, a bigger audience no longer means a bigger revenue stream. Rosenstiel regularly monitors these trends as Director of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism, based in Washington, D.C.

"Journalism's challenge is not fundamentally an audience problem," Rosenstiel said, "It's a revenue problem."

Advertisers no longer need newspapers to reach an audience because there is plenty of free or cheap advertising available online. And even newspapers with successful Web sites only make about 10% of their revenue from the Internet.

"And they can't figure out a way to make that grow anymore," Rosenstiel said.

There are some indicators, however, of what direction the traditional news outlets will have to go in order to turn profits that come close to the ones they have made in the past.

One of the changes in how news outlets represent themselves online is in the direction of the flow of information. Instead of trying to draw readers into a Web site - and charging them once they get there - news outlets are focusing on pushing content out onto the Web.

They are also forging partnerships with other news and information services. "Do what you do best and borrow the rest," Rosenstiel said. And public participation is growing, with the encouragement of some news outlets. Both of these circumstances are putting more power in the hands of individuals, shifting it away from journalistic institutions.

These changes will force traditional news outlets to change how they perceive themselves. No longer "gatekeepers" of information, Rosenstiel said, there are a few new roles that journalists can play in the 21st Century:

  • Authenticator: How much of what is found on the Internet is true? Traditional media can remain a place for facts, helping readers know what is true and what is not.
  • Sense-maker: "When information is in oversupply, knowledge is harder to create," Rosenstiel said. One Web site says that a new piece of legislation is bad. Another says it's good. But what does the bill actually say? Traditional media can help explain the world around us without simply abiding to an ideology.
  • Watchdog: As it's been in the past, traditional media can still serve as a watchdog, it can help shape dialogue and hold people accountable to their actions.
  • Smart Aggregator: There are currently a variety of news aggregation sites, such as Yahoo and Google News. But these aggregators can return a daunting 2,000 stories per query, Rosenstiel said. Traditional news outlets can skim through those stories, presenting readers with a smaller number of relevant articles.
  • Forum leader: Traditional media Web sites can help guide public conversation and provide a space for the conversation to take place.
  • Role model: As more members of the public find themselves in the role of journalist - snapping photos on a mobile phone, or writing on a local blog, trained journalists and traditional media institutions can help them into the world of journalism.

Rosenstiel affirmed that there is still a place for traditional media, but is there a way to fund these outlets? He has several suggestions for new financial models:

  • Cable model: Ad a fee to an existing bill - an Internet bill, for example - that covers a user's access to news content.
  • Retail mall: Have media outlets create a virtual space for communities with links and information about local goods and services and an online marketplace with the revenue from transactions and business going toward the parent news outlet.
  • Niche products: Industries pay a lot of money for specialized information about their field. Successful news outlets may end up covering just Washington, or just the pharmaceutical industry, or just the Parks and Recreations Department.
  • Challenge aggregators: Anyone can opt out of Google. If they chose to, news organizations could all pull out of this largest news aggregator, making the news searchable on a new search engine, funded by advertisers and unavailable to other Web sites.

So there's good news and bad. But, Rosenstiel said, the bad news isn't nearly as bad as the industry had been predicting. People thought the public was going to flee traditional journalism in favor of blogs and aggregator sites.

If the future that we had imagined had actually happened, Rosenstiel said, "the news industry wouldn't have a chance."

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July 9, 2009