The Netflix of Journalism

How cutting out the middle men could ultimately save the news

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Stick any word in there and you might say you have a glimpse of the future. In its simplest form “The Netflix of [blank]…” usually signifies a change from a traditional business model that often works by paying money for one specific service from one specific provider to a subscription model where you pay one recurring fee and you, in turn, receive a range of services from a variety of providers.

This model has hit the world like wildfire and all the big players are out staking their claim. Microsoft is working diligently to develop its GamePass service into the Netflix of games. Spotify, with its recent purchases of Gimlet Media and Anchor, is angling to be a Netflix of audio. There’s a Netflix of porn, libraries, ties, airlines, legos, and Bible studies all on the horizon, and Apple is making headlines with its Netflix for news subscription.

We’ve all seen the plethora of articles that read like obituaries for the industry, pronouncing the noble profession of gathering the news dead or at least on life support. Much has been written on what the news industry must do to survive, and now it’s been heavily reported that Apple thinks it has the answer. They are currently working on releasing a pro subscription to its Apple News service. This would allow customers to pay a fixed price in order to access a wide range of content, and publishers of that content would receive money strictly based on customer engagement. An intriguing idea in theory, and if there was one company that could pull it off it would be Apple. Controversy did arise though when it was reported in the Wall Street Journal that Apple wants a fifty percent cut from every publisher who signs up.

This news is disheartening, but not all together surprising that Apple would implement such a steep price. In the last ten years, the US news industry’s revenue has decreased from a high of $32 billion to $23 billion in 2017. Save for a few big fish, most publishers are rabid for any potential revenue stream they can get their hands on. What started off rocky for Apple’s news service seems to have been steadied as publishers swallow Apple’s fifty percent cut in the hopes of unlocking a much wider audience for them in return.

Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

The Problems That Plague Our News

It’s not hard to understand why publishers are so desperate. When we take a bird’s eye view of the news industry not only has revenue fallen precipitously, but according to the Pew Research Center (PRC) in 2004 there were around 70,000 people employed in the news sector. In 2017, there were just under 40,000 people working in the news industry. PRC also estimates that in 2006, news organizations were raking in about $40 billion in digital advertising. That figure has dropped to $16.5 billion in 2017. In all of this,local news has been hit hardest, with newsrooms all across the country being slashed to skeleton crews or worse.

The problem is that the news isn’t your typical product. It’s important, valued by society as a public resource, and useful to the greater good. It also necessitates that there be little to no impediment to the access of it. An informed citizenry is the only way a democracy works, and the news is where we get that vital information.

Traditionally, the way to keep the news free and profitable was through ads, but with the rise of social media, almost all digital ad revenue has been eaten up by Facebook, Google, and others. To add further pain, the amount of print subscriptions has fallen tremendously in the past five years, and the way it looks that trend is on track to continue.

Some national publications have been able to make the transition to digital successfully. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have all reported strong numbers for digital subscriptions. Sadly, these big papers are usually the exception to the rule, and even the Washington Post had to be rescued by Jeff Bezos in 2013.

It’s clear that how we get our news has fundamentally changed, and the news industry needs to recognize this as a problem. The current incarnation of the news industry is falling apart. Most publishers didn’t adapt to the internet fast enough or weren’t properly equipped to transition to digital. With their failure to adapt, fake news has become a dominant problem. “Both sides”-ism is more rampant than ever before, and most TV news is biased crap, filled with scripted “gotcha” moments and bad-faith yelling over each other. Anything worthwhile is usually buried under a ratings-infused, like-baiting mess.

Something is terribly wrong in how we finance the news and many organizations are now desperate for anything that can save them whether it be a paywall, obnoxious digital ads, a wealthy investor, or most recently a digital news market.The hitch is that most of these avenues beholden news organizations to wealthy investors, companies, or ratings. The news should only serve its audience no one else. Neither Jeff Bezos, Apple, or Nielsen should hold the keys to newsworthy information.

We should aim for long term stability. and also rethink how we see the news, what the issues are, and why we like the news we like.

A New Way Forward That’s Not Netflix

I’ve written about why the subscription model of funding a service won’t work. All the participating publishers compete for a pot and as more join, the pot gets smaller and smaller. The cost to the consumer doesn’t change, but god help the service that tries to change it in order to pay its creators more money. Also as more and more companies switch over to a subscription model, the more disposable income that’s committed to these services until there’s a hard stop. I’m assuming this will be the start of the great promo, free trial wars amongst services. Whoever can offer the best temporary deal wins. The point is that the market is already over-saturated as it is, and the news is too important to let fall to its fickle whims.

We should aim for long term stability and also rethink how we see the news, what the issues are, and why we like the news we like. To me, the answer is simple. We must cut out the news organizations and just leave the news.

By that, I mean journalists should not be tethered to any one organization. There is a lot that can be cut out so that the basics of journalists working a beat can stay intact and thrive. I want to separate them from traditional news-presenting platforms. No editors, no physical newsroom, no nothing. Every journalist in America should immediately go freelance and operate for themselves. All that’s required these days is a computer and website to host content.

With this route, journalists would be free to pursue the stories that interest them and publish any story unabated by the whims of an editor. Journalists working for themselves could mute criticisms of bias with a simple wave of their hand, shooing haters away to find someone they like better. It would be far easier to find and follow reporters with different viewpoints. Most have social media presence or at least a Twitter account.

Even now, we’ve seen Maggie Haberman, Ronan Farrow, Jim Acosta, Chris Wallace, Jake Tapper, and others have their status elevated as a direct result of successful effective reporting. If any of them went freelance, they would be totally fine. This is true, not just for the big players, but journalists at any scale. With sites like Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and even YouTube, consistent funding wouldn’t take that much work, and as said, a lot of reporters most likely have social media audiences already.

It’s my belief that not all opinions are created equal and some are far less equal than others. Journalists would face minimal pressure to adopt “both sides” rhetoric. They would have control, not editors. There would be no imperative to run stories that present both sides has valid, even if one side is clearly disingenous. Supporting quality journalism would be cheaper for consumers too, who could be confident that their money is only going to the people and journalism that they find useful. This idea also scales down to any market. Local journalism would be way more feasible. Lots of towns don’t actually need a whole newspaper, editors, etc. All they need is a few journalists working beats and a website (A lot of local news organizations still don’t have one!).

Finally, in this model, institutional, philanthropic, and organizational support could still exist for journalists. Pro Publica has established a decent model of grant support on a per-project basis. Journalists.org offers up another good option. In addition, social media training, larger project funding, social groups, collectives, codes of ethics, journalist licensing, legal assitance and other forms of loose support systems could be established to equip freelance journalists with a host of further tools that could be utilized effectively to assist in their work.

I know this idea seems radical, but I think our news could be better for it. All I’m proposing is putting journalists back in control of their stories and restoring their position as the most important piece of the news industry. All it takes is realizing that the job of journalist is actually tailor-made for the times we live in. This fact is paramount to the survival of the industry. These men and women would essentially become social media influencers in the truest sense of the word.

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