Lessons in digital disruption
Many busy people take journalism for granted, but the disruption of journalism should be a matter of urgent concern to democratic societies because the free flow, integrity and independence of journalism is essential to citizens who vote, according to journalism professor George Brock in his book Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age. The book aims to explain why the news media is undergoing radical alteration, and what the result ought to be and might be.
The book provides an entertaining overview of the history of journalism, from its messy and opinionated beginnings featuring sensational and unreliable news stories through to the Leveson Inquiry in 2011 and 2012 into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal. In a 2000-page final report, Justice Leveson made a range of recommendations which would improve the protection of privacy in the UK and restrain the excesses of the press.
However, it is not the Leveson recommendations which provide the greatest threat to the press; rather, it is the digital disruption brought about by the Internet. Shrinking subscriber bases and advertising revenue have resulted in the crumbing of the established business model. Experiments have been made with paywalls and meters, but so far no-one has established a clearly viable new business model. The author suggests that news sites which prosper online require:
- a clear and distinct promise of value;
- a lean organisation that only scales up cautiously;
- diverse sources of income;
- niche target audiences served by different sites or contributors;
- high-calibre software;
- proficient capture and use of customer data;
- willingness to experiment
The author is pessimistic about the future of the press as we know it, but optimistic about the future of journalism, which he believes will find new ways to address financial sustainability. In my view the book provides some useful lessons for other types of businesses which are at a less advanced stage along the path to digital disruption.