There is no doubt about it, the whole media landscape is in turmoil and has been for the better part of the last decade.The news industry has been struggling to adapt as readership rates continue to plummet and advertisers are looking to market their wares in places with larger audiences.
New methods for generating extra revenue have emerged such as “advertorials” ( an advertisement mixed into an editorial) and “Custom Content”, but both are wrought with their fair share of ethical sacrifices. If you don’t know what custom content is, it’s essentially the act of giving the advertiser the ability to buy pages in the paper and having the writers from the news provider create the section for them.
The kicker? It isn’t necessarily labeled as such and therefore there is absolutely no possible way to distinguish it from the other news pieces surrounding it.
This is how how custom content works as explained by The Tyee:
A business agrees to buy pricey ads with the assurance those ads will be accompanied by stories that fit desired themes but which seem to have sprung straight from the publication’s newsroom. Indeed, custom content often runs under the bylines of staff reporters and without any disclaimer. Naturally, though, it’s understood those stories aren’t going to be muckraking extravaganzas targeting the ad buyer or their industry. “Custom” is inevitably a euphemism for “soft.”In The Globe’s Report on Business section, for example, a single page of custom content costs advertisers a cool $40,071; a four-page spread clocks in at $132,586. (Source)
So I guess the question that needs asking is:
Is it alright to sacrifice a little journalistic integrity in order to keep reporting on the real news?
If we agree that the conventional news format is in steady decline then it is apparent that the news industry will have to resort to whatever sources of revenue are available.
But when does the end no longer justify the means? When the news outlet has 25% custom content? 50% custom content? 75%?
As you can see this path is a slippery slope with very little to hold on to if prices for traditional advertising spots continue to rise and readership continues to decline.
An impressive report called Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present was published in January by The Tow Center for Digital Journalism. It proposes that the role of journalists is rapidly evolving in today’s society and in many ways already has.
The full report is an enlightening read and covers many aspects of the ever-changing mediasphere and what it means for the newsroom. However not everyone has the time or attention span to read a 122 page report so Nieman Journalism Lab has nicely summarized the main points which include these excerpts and many more:
This essay is part survey and part manifesto, one that concerns itself with the practice of journalism and the practices of journalists in the United States. It is not, however, about “the future of the news industry,” both because much of that future is already here and because there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.
We start with five core beliefs:
— Journalism matters.
— Good journalism has always been subsidized.
— The internet wrecks advertising subsidy.
— Restructuring is, therefore, a forced move.
— There are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways.
Every journalist can now be a publisher. One very obvious side effect of newsroom automation is the lowering in value and utility of the role of editors.
To touch on that last point, not only can every journalist now be a publisher, anyone can now be their own publisher. Citizen Journalist’s play a huge part in shaping the future of journalism like reporting during the Arab Spring and organizations like the Community News Commons.
The About section on CNC’s homepage describes itself as:
An online news hub authored by the Winnipeg community. All content on this site is created by you, your friends and neighbours, who are sharing stories to make Winnipeg a better place. By creating CNC, The Winnipeg Foundation believes that a more informed and engaged community is a more caring and giving community, building the capacity that creates stronger, healthier neighbourhoods.
Not only can the average citizen become a community journalist but they actually receive some guidance and can obtain help editing their article. Then the CNC gives the citizen journalist a place to post that story on CNC’s website. The project is funded by Knight Foundation and The Winnipeg Foundation, two very well-respected organizations.
From Knight Foundation’s website: Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.
From The Winnipeg Foundation’s website: Canada’s first community foundation – is committed to connecting donors with opportunities to support causes they care about, as well as identifying and responding to the changing needs of our community.What is a community foundation? To find the answer, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.
The Community News Commons is certainly a brilliant example of what happens when strategic subsidies meets with good journalism. Hopefully projects like this can act as a counter-weight for the news industry and prove to the world that there is still hope, you just have to find it using new, innovative ways.
Further reading on the subject:
The future of investigation
Investigative journalism is one of the most valuable – and vulnerable – elements of the journalism industry. But dwindling funds from newspapers feeling the pinch mean that investigative reporters are having to rethink how to make money in the future. Award-winning investigative journalist Mark Lee Hunter talks here of his experiences and those of his journalism students.
The Paywall vs. non-Paywall debate seems to miss the larger point: this ad-revenue supported business model will no longer be viable after 2015.
Gutenberg’s Last Stand: Reinventing the Modern Newspaper
Newspapers came late – and somewhat reluctantly to the Web. Then they embraced “digital first,” SEO and all things Internet as the way ahead. But, with digital dollars stalling, what’s next? Video, longreads, quick hits? Lou Clancy, vice-president of editorial and editor-in-chief of Postmedia News; Michael Cooke, editor of the Toronto Star; Charlotte Empey, editor-in-chief of Metro English Canada; and John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail discussed the latest challenges to journalism and strategies to save the news business. Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press, moderated.