A journalistic limbo until we reach The New World

According to many, the perfect storm is approaching. The winds have been whipping for a while. But there’s a problem. The Old King is dying but the New King, apparently, isn’t quite ready yet.

Clay Shirky, internet theorist and the harbinger-in-chief of newspaper death, encapsulated the problem at a recent Harvard Shorenstein Center talk:

“We are headed into a long trough of decline in accountability journalism because the old models are breaking faster than the new models will be put in their place.”

He’s right. But, intriguingly, he also slings in a caveat. Shirky imagines a time in the future when everything is hunky-dory, and a broad conglomeration of multiple news organisations will ‘overlap and provide a small percentage of journalism individually, but taken as a whole, represent the same position of accountability held by newspapers in the 20th century’.

Perhaps. But until then, we’ve got a problem.

So what’s going to happen in this imminent limbo stage; when journalism enters an intermediate ‘state of nature’?

Allow me to imagine…

1) The paywalls go up, and a black market for scoops emerges

Paywalls and micropayment schemes begin to appear on news websites. A few of them make a decent stab of it: News International in particular, as they have a competitive advantage.

As Malcolm Coles at Econsultancy suggests, Murdoch’s sites begin corralling in Sky News, Sky Sports, Fox as well as umpteen other publications and broadcasters that it owns, offering an attractive package behind the wall.

Jason Wilson, writing at NewMatilda.com, suggests that News Corp will ‘draw on its corporate experience with pay television to leverage audiences and money using niche content of various kinds’ kicks in, and, for a while, it all seems to be working.

Desperate to lure readers beyond the paywalls, the organisations that enacted them scramble for scoops. They get dirty. They hunt for drug scandals and nip slips like never before. Investigative journalism becomes feral. They get some real goodies.

Infuriatingly, the exclusives start being screengrabbed and hijacked on pop-up sites.

A black market for scoops emerges,  but readers don’t care if the scoop they are reading is 14th hand and poorly delivered, because they’ve still got it.

Shane Richmond notes in the Telegraph that ‘it doesn’t matter that versions of the story on free sites ‘won’t be as good’ because they’ll be free, which offsets the loss of quality considerably’ (and Google’s Eric Schmidt agrees).

In their death throes, the news organisations desperately extend the paywalls, harvesting as much profit as possible while waiting for the web fairies to work out how to monetise content differently.

They start collaborating, agreeing on micropayment schemes across a broad spectrum of organisations, hoping to regain a semblance of market control. It’s too late. The black market is growing exponentially (in the same way as news stories used to, before the walls stripped them of any possible magnifying effect).

As Mike Masnick suggests in a brilliant debate at PBS Mediashift, with the media heading over a cliff, paywalls become an anvil rather than a parachute.

2) The non-paywall sites are damned because they didn’t

Those organisations who resist the paywalls enter a brief honeymoon period. They have a whale of a time as readership goes through the roof following The Great Paywall Migration.

As Masnick imagines, ‘many of their biggest competitors just took themselves out of the market. If I’m running a major newspaper the night that everyone starts to charge, I’m dancing for joy because my competitors just stepped out of a huge market and left it to me’.

But there’s no plan B. After the initial migration surge, the profits of the non-paywall organisations resume their downward spiral, albeit from a higher peak.

They try building their businesses around an events model, but this quickly runs out of steam, and distorts their raison d’etre – news – into a poor-quality loss leader.

They experiment with membership schemes, but find that in an increasingly mobile, classless age, there just isn’t a demographic for them to rely on.

3) The fall of ‘quality’ news

All the big news organisations find themselves in a major pickle. They have century-old reputations to maintain, and a decimated budget with which to maintain them. But their readers expect the same volume of content. So the news organisations begin churning out rubbish.

Freelancers are axed, in-house editors and writers are forced into frantically doubling their output, and original reporting is replaced by regurgitated press releases and wires.

As Roy Gleenslade already sees, ‘the press is no longer acting as a watchdog. It does not bite or bark. It has muzzled itself and retired to the kennel to live off PR scraps.’

Scandals begin to go un-investigated by the big organisations because of a lack of funds and a burgeoning, necessity-driven penchant for boobs and celebrities. Regional controversies are deemed not ‘mass-appeal’ enough to be pursued by the nationals, and there’s no regional paper left to fill the void.

Society flounders without a thriving journalistic watchdog. Clay Shirky’s dystopian prediction, voiced at Harvard, of an increase in ‘casual endemic corruption’ in small communities comes to pass, writ large.

4) The rise of ‘all blogosphere’, and the government subsidy solution

Meanwhile, in tiny office-bedrooms across the country, thousands of new online news organisations are doing nicely. The black market scoop-jackers die out, and a new, mature breed begin to emerge.

The vast majority are rubbish. But some aren’t. They start getting the local scoops that the big organisations don’t have the resources to cover.

Occasionally they get something big. The good ones build enough of a readership to start cashing in.

Without the giant newsrooms and overheads, they begin to turn a modest profit. The blogosphere becomes what it has always threatened to be (and in some places – notably the US – already is, almost) a fantastically broad, fragmented organic news source.

But the quality still isn’t quite there. Obama’s prediction of an ‘all blogosphere’ news environment becomes dangerously close to realisation. The old news organisations that are still clinging on for life have one final play left in them, and turn to the government en masse.

In the face of widespread industrial pressure, and public pressure born of a desire to see journalism saved from the realms of populism and boobs, governments begin to bail out the bigger news organisations. In Britain, the BBC subsidy is chopped up and dished out to a handful of stripped-down organisations in return for a stake and light-handed influence.

5) The New World

Shirky’s vision of a conglomeration of multiple news organisations begins to take shape. A handful of old media names, dramatically reduced in size and scope, survive thanks to government propping. This ‘new BBC’ competes with the vastly augmented blogosphere, and journalism becomes healthy once again.

A version of this post first appeared on BenjiLanyado.com. Benji Lanyado (@benjilanyado) is a freelance journalist based in London and a travel writer for the Guardian and the New York Times.

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