Making money from online journalism

How can anyone make money from journalism when we have become used to getting our news and information from the web for free?

Publishers of large media titles are turning to paywalls, micropayments, charging for mobile apps, and even cheapening print editions (in the case of the new ‘i’ paper) in order to increase revenue from news content.

But at the moment there does not seem to be any business model that anyone can agree on.

Adam Tinworth, editorial development manager for Reed Business Information (the business publishers behind New Scientist, and Flight International and Farmers Weekly) talked CJS students through the model RBI uses, and helped dispel some widely held ‘myths’ about the world of online media.

To set the record straight, he revealed that RBI make more money online than they do from print (which is pretty uplifting to hear amid the doom and gloom about publishers ‘giving their product away’ on the internet).

He showed us a conceptual map of the layout of RBI websites, which can be roughly displayed as a series of concentric circles.

Research derived data lies at the very centre of the site – the only part of the site Adam believes a paywall can enclose, and the area that only someone who needed that information would go.

Outside the centre are journalistic articles; informed by the central data but accessible to people without the same level of esoteric or business-minded interest.

Finally, on the outside of the site are blogs, which draw traffic from social networking sites and the wider web through conversation.

Fundamental to the site design is the idea of niche interest – in the sprawling mess of the internet, the sites that succeed have a very specific audience that the authors tailor their content to.

Through conversation and direct connection with the customer at blog level, RBI is able to attract users to their articles and ultimately to the hard data which they can afford to charge for.

Adam suggested that the idea of the niche blog is essential to building up a following, no matter how small the site starts out. He pointed to the purchase of TechCrunch, a 5-year-old site run by a handful of people from WordPress.com, by AOL for $30 million.

Whether centred around a niche interest or niche geographical area, blogs are in some ways unrivalled in their ability to bring interested communities together to share information.

But there are seemingly areas in which the blogosphere is unable or unwilling to venture. Who will deal with material that has little niche interest for anyone, but could have huge ramifications for the world at large once unencrypted?

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, spoke about why it was necessary to break material through traditional media, rather than rely on bloggers to pick up on leaked raw material, during an investigative journalism debate at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism:

“All those bloggers that are busy pontificating about the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan [..] who are complaining that they can only respond to the New York Times because they don’t have sources of their own…surely those people will step forward given fresh source material, and do something?

“No, it’s all bullshit. In fact people write about things in general – if it’s not part of their career – because they want to display their values to their peers, who are already in the same group. Actually, they don’t give a fuck about the material: that’s the reality.

“[…] We have to liaise with other journalists to give the material to them on an exclusive or semi-exclusive basis to get them to extract it into easily understandable, human-readable form – otherwise it goes nowhere.”

Julian Assange Iraq War Logs Guardian WikiLeaks

Would the Iraq War Logs have reached such a large audience if it was publicised solely through special-interest sites, rather than the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel?

And would it be ethical to contain this data inside a paywall?