Tuesday Reads: Bankruptcies, AOL and Conversations
Some quick reads on a simmering summer Tuesday afternoon:
At Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld goes on an interesting journey in response to a question: If he were starting a news organization, what would he focus on first? Design? Community? Personality? The question strikes Langeveld as a good way for existing news organizations to reinvent themselves, but then he runs into a problem: The eroding business model of today and the unformed business model of the future are so different that news organizations may not be able to get from Point A to Point B. Or at least not without “a major restructuring event.” A strategic bankruptcy, in other words. (This isn’t just a cultural problem — the potential new business models for journalism seem like poor bets to support the legacy debt load incurred by a number of publishers.)
It’s a sobering thought. The first impulse is to shrink from it. The second impulse is to mourn that journalism’s current problems have reached the point where bankruptcy looks like a way forward. But neither denial nor mourning are particularly effective responses to what’s happening to the industry right now.
In Advertising Age, Michael Learmonth ponders an irony: The ill-fated merger of Time Warner and America Online was supposed to create a digital-publishing titan, with AOL’s reach leveraging Time Warner’s content. Nearly a decade later, AOL is indeed using its traffic to help create successful publishing ventures, only Time Warner content isn’t part of the equation — rather, AOL is creating lean, efficient niche sites. Those sites might have seemed like trivial ventures amid the ambitions of a decade ago, but in stripped-down media era they’re successes to consider.
Clay Shirky posts the graduation speech delivered by Nicholas Lemann last week at Columbia Journalism School. It’s an interesting analysis of journalism moving beyond the vaguely feudal model of papers owned by dynastic families as public trusts. What really jumped out at me, though, was Lemann’s insistence that to find new forms of journalism, journalistic institutions need to broaden the conversation about how journalism is practiced. What were internal arguments within the “family circle” have to now include the voices of readers. I’ve argued this myself, pointing out that the spread of social media is changing expectations about what we share about ourselves and know about each other. In that world, the cloistered model of journalism will no longer meet readers’ expectations — and the best way to find a model that will is by listening to those same readers.