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Column: How the news industry is missing the point

News organisations have lost their way. Why? Because they’ve forgotten what business they’re in, writes Dylan Collins.

Dylan Collins

SINCE I WAS a kid, I’ve always been a complete fiend for news. And chocolate biscuits (although the former has generally had less consequences for me). I’ve studied both with huge interest over the years and have reached two broad conclusions:

  1. Chocolate HobNobs are the very pinnacle of biscuit evolution and anything else is really just going to be downhill from this point.
  2. An awful lot of people seem to be confusing news with the business of news.

The business of news is based on a very simple formula. For companies like MailOnline, Huffington Post, Gawker and TheJournal.ie, it’s about the amount of traffic they generate (the crunchy biscuity centre) versus a) the cost of their content and b) how many ads/subs they sell (the delicious chocolate topping).

Once upon a time, news organisations like the New York Times, Irish Times and many others were in the business of news. Somewhere along the way they appear to have forgotten the distinction and very slowly, the numbers in the formula above started to change. Gradually (and then suddenly) things fell out of kilter.

So if the formula hasn’t changed, where the problem? It does seem to lie with the people who are meant to be managing the formula. The management. You guys have been skimping on the chocolate topping again.

So while we have ample (and interesting) debate about the ‘morals’ of aggregator sites ‘stealing’ content from news organisations, it’s really just masking a truth which most people are far too diplomatic to say out loud.

You’ve made a balls of it.

These same companies which you pillory and attack for being immoral? They’re in the business of news, the very same as you. They’re doing what your companies were doing a decades ago. The formula hasn’t changed. You’ve just forgotten about it.

‘I’d make a simple decision’

Think I’m wrong? Only a week ago, Warren Buffett announced that he’d just purchased a network of local US newspapers. While Buffett has made his share of investment mistakes, in general he’s right. My bet is that he’s working off the same formula.

One of the smartest investors in the world believes that the business of news can be sustainable.

If I was the CEO of a news organisation looking at my shrinking balance sheet right now, I’d make a simple decision. Let’s join the aggregator model. What choice do you really have? I recently polled about twenty 21-year-olds about their media habits and about half used news aggregators. Which was actually less than I expected.  Established news brands still have a chance. If you act this afternoon. Before 5pm.

So who’s going to stand up for the standards of journalism and investigative reporting? It’s very simple – the people in the business of news will. Because they’ll be able to afford it.

I’ve watched the efforts to sue for linking to to news stories with the utmost amusement and mild embarrassment. Clearly this content protectionism tactic was instructed by people who don’t quite grasp the nature of the Internet. Yes, in principle it may well be immoral. But that’s what people thought about adding sound to movies.

Adapt and move on. Or don’t. The choice is pretty simple.

As with most things in life, people will tend to gravitate to what’s most convenient. Once it was buying a paper on a street. Now it’s reading the MailOnline from your phone while on the toilet.

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Hiring lawyers to try and turn the tide around may well be a sideshow which wins applause in the boardroom and at lawyer conferences (if such things exists), but it’s ignoring what your readers want. Or more precisely, how they want it.

‘We’re going to see major newspapers closing. Soon.’

I struggled with a Google+ Hangout the other night to speak with a friend of mine who insisted upon using it. It took me eight crash-filled attempts to get it working to appease said friend. The first thing he said to me? An anecdote about how his eighteen-month nephew was able to use the App Store. Nothing like a nightcap of user-interface irony.

Two news organisations were making a big deal about changing their comments system recently. One was Irish and the much ballyhooed change was a relatively minor upgrade to their existing system (I’d link to the Irish Times here, but TheJournal.ie would risk being charged for it). The other was Gawker, news devil-child, which was trying to change the entire concept of commenting on the Internet. Clearly there are different visions at work here.

I’m going to call it now. We’re going to see major newspapers closing. Soon. In the next three to four years. Normally I’d say “This is where I hope I’m wrong.” But not any more. I’m convinced it’s too late for many.

(By the way, for all those newspaper groups who are interested in not dying, do the following things:

  1. Hire a group of people between the ages of 20-30 for a week.
  2. Shut up and listen.)

To be completely clear, I’ve no financial interest in any news startups or companies.  I do however have a subscription to FT.com and would probably pay Twitter (or somebody) for a premium version of Tweetdeck. One day, someone may build a news service which is so convenient that I’ll happily pay money for it. Until then, it will continue to be spent on Chocolate HobNobs.

Dylan Collins is executive chairman of Fight My Monster and chairman of Treemetrics. He has previously co-founded a number of tech startups including Jolt Online, DemonWare and Phorest.

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