Future of News: Matching Readers and Advertisers

A lot of sense from Alan Mutter, former newspaper editor and now a new media maven and blogger, in this interview with mediabistro. He echoes a lot of my thoughts on how the news business has to develop, if professionally generated newsgathering and reporting is going to transition from the old to the new.

His position is the same as mine: there are only two options when it comes to monetizing the news – namely, charging for content or relying on advertising. Charging for general news has failed when tried in the past and will continue to fail despite the upcoming efforts of the likes of Rupert Murdoch. Readers may pay for specialized information and niche products – business information primarily – but otherwise they have plenty of free sources of news to choose from.

Advertising has been the real financial bedrock of news in the past and will continue to be so but only if the industry becomes far more sophisticated in matching content with audiences and advertisers and to do that publishers have got to understand their audiences far more and to gather much more information about them. As Mutter notes: “if publishers owned that information and could sell it, [they] could sell advertising at a much higher rate than they can today. If publishers owned their own system to capture demographic information about their readers and the content that they are reading, they could really gain a considerable amount of the power that they’ve lost in terms of being able to sell and the profits that they can extract from that business.”

Trawl through the online versions of newspapers. How many request registration and secure even basic information of those viewing their content? NGOs – from think-tanks to charities – have been a lot more sophisticated in trying to finds ways to identify their traffic and the audience landscape than many media companies.

An entrepreneur, Mutter has been pushing Viewpass. “Our idea is to create a well-known brand and get a lot of affiliates — in the interest of getting people to register with the service so that we begin to track their activities (who they are, where they’re living, what they buy, what we know about their families, and also what they’re reading…)…Publishers on the ViewPass system — if they are able to capture a holistic view of the person’s reading patterns as well as deep, detailed demographic data about consumers, publishers will have an unsurpassed advantage in the future, when it is all about creating ‘audiences of one in the moment.’”

Spot on. I like especially his comment: “Modern advertising is going to be like nano-surgery.”

The Future Of Foreign News Reporting

The lament in today’s Christian Science Monitor by Andrew Stroehlein, the communications chief at the International Crisis Group, about the disappearance of experienced foreign correspondents and the consequences of that for our understanding of global affairs is pretty spot on. As a former foreign correspondent, I am pained about what is not being covered and horrified frequently at the nature and qualityof the reporting of foreign events that are covered. Stroehlein cites the puerile and simplistic US coverage of the piracy off the coast of Somalia. “We were stuck with stories of tangential importance, written like Hollywood film scripts from editorial offices thousands of miles away,” he rightly sniffs.

He points out that as international news coverage decreases, the traffic to the Web Sites of organizations like ICG’s increases as people search for reliable information. But he points out that  “non-news organizations have neither the capacity nor the aim to provide daily news” and so they can’t replace the disappearing foreign correspondents.

I agree with him that they can’t replace, but they can supplement the news and inform more than they already are doing. It is a point I have stressed to NGOs, universities and international organizations I have worked for or advised: Think-tanks and universities, NGOs and charities have all experienced massive increases in Web traffic with a lot of it coming from search engines. Visitors have a thirst for news and information that they find hard to secure from the official news sites. So whether they like it or not these knowledge-based organizations are becoming news producers and serving as news platforms. They should embrace it more and start to learn to develop this function more thoughtfully and systematically. More resident journalists should be employed. On Capitol Hill there is a debate about allowing newspapers to become non-profits. I would argue that some non-profits should develop specialist news arms.

It would be a public service and is clever marketing and allows these knowledge-based organizations to help shape news and political agendas. Would they be objective in their coverage? Have newspaper reporters been objective? The best you could hope for from old-fashioned foreign correspondents was some fairness and balance — and I don’t mean of the Fox News variety!

Of course, it doesn’t solve all the problems of the disappearing foreign correspondents. But the past is past. In the future we will get our news from a variety of sources and be able to be our own news editors. NGOs and non-profits are going to be one major source.