Will We Pay for Online Media? Will Journalism Survive?

by Eleanor Haas

Yes and yes.  But
there’s a lot more to these questions than that.

“People pay for things they value. Ask people to pay for
content that’s worth paying for.  Some things
publications once provided no longer have value, such as daily stories on ball games
just played . . . people who care about the ball game know what happened before
the newspaper comes out.”  So said
Richard Tofel, General Manager, ProPublica, at a recent Gotham Media Ventures
panel discussion.  Richard Hofstetter,
partner, Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein & Selz, was moderator.

ProPublica is a not-for-profit newsroom that produces
investigative journalism in the public interest through an innovative pro-am
model that relies on both professional journalists and a distributed network of
2,500 citizen journalists.  Stories are
distributed by major media, who benefit by getting stories their readers can
find worth paying for – and the media get these free of charge.  The organization deploys its amazing network
to cover stories no one else has the manpower to cover, such as how stimulus
money is actually being spent.  As a
result, ProPublica has better data on this than the Government!

Merrill Brown, of MMB Media, a strategist who works for Journalism Online,
among others, agrees about the value proposition.  “The business model will change profoundly,” he
said.  “It will be successful only if the
product changes.  People won’t pay for
commodity news, sports scores or stock quotes. 
They will pay or new products.” 
Journalism Online will give newspapers tools that enable them to market
their new products by providing an e-commerce platform that adds convenience
for users by allowing users to register once and then click for specific
subscriptions to multiple media.

Government funding for the arts or news is just not part of
the American culture, the panel agreed, but the classic not-for-profit economic
model of foundation grants could be. 
That’s what ProPublica is testing. 
“People support arts institutions. 
Some kinds of journalism can be supported that way too,” added Mr.

Beyond issues having to do with business models and even the
role of journalism, however, is the fact of today’s polarization, as Neal
Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET.org, pointed out.  “This is a polarized country with polarized
debates.  A narrow group is gripped in
its own feedback loop.”  Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of NYU’s Carter Journalism
, expressed concern that we have
lost the common culture we once had.  “The
only way to get it back is for people to want to live in the same world
together,” he suggested.  “Some people
can no longer be reached by fact – including one political party.  It’s up to the public, not changes in the

Citizen journalism as part of a pro-am model appears to have
a major role to play in cost-effective news gathering In addition to ProPublica’s
distributed network, Mr. Merrell referred to NowPublic, a Canadian enterprise,
that raised $10 million for a citizen journalist network around the world and
sold it to examiner.com, a citizen journalism site   It will be used to create local news sites on
the pro-am model with a positive cost model.

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