Avoiding The Big Yellow Taxi Moment

There was an exchange between RickG and me in the comments to the "A Focus Group Of One" post I did on thursday.

Rick said the following:

First, you don’t report. You opine. That’s fine and I very much like
reading the site, but it’s not a substitute for news reporting. For
example, in Seattle we’re debating a large transportation project… a
good reporter will talk to various sources from the governor to urban
planners and city officials, then synthesize that into a story. They’ll
do this over and over. Bloggers almost never do that. They won’t have
access to the officials and they might not even know who the urban
planners are to talk to them.

Second, the blog approach does
NOT scale for the reader. One advantage of blogs is that the urban
planner in Seattle could offer their opinion directly on a
blog…that’s great, but it is one piece of a story and I as the reader
have to find that. Again, a good reporter will bring together a lot of
sources into one place and present the information from them in one
article. With online stories, I’d like to see them link out more to
things like an urban planning blog too.

So blogs aren’t doing
reporting for the most part. For the ones that do… what’s the
aversion to finding a model to actually pay the people who are doing
real reporting? We seem to have gotten the idea that we should get
value for nothing, not only in this case, but in music, etc. I don’t
think a direct translation of the subscription/local ads model will
work for newspapers, but if we want people to spend time digging into
stories vs commenting on them we need to find some way to pay for that.

As I was reading Rick’s comment, I thought of that great song "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell:

They took all the trees
Put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

I think all the hand wringing about the death of newspapers comes down to this very issue. Are reporters/journalists like the trees in Joni’s song? Will we miss them when they are gone? And if so, what can we do to ensure they don’t go away?

As much as RickG has got me thinking, I’m not sold that microjournalism (aka blogging) can’t get the job done. Look at what Henry Blodget is doing at Alley Insider for example. He’s doing a lot more than opining. He’s doing real work on a lot of the issues he’s covering. The same is true of many other bloggers. And as reporters/journalists leave the big papers and start writing for their own blogs/brands, I think they’ll keep doing what they’ve been trained to do their entire career. Can they all make good money doing this? That’s not nearly as clear. As we talked about in the "scale economics" post (I do mean we, read the comments), revenue per ad impression is going to be a dollar per thousand not ten or twenty dollars per thousand. I make about $30k per year on this blog and it is read by 150,000 people per month (web and feed) and gets around 250,000 page views per month (web and feed). So that means I am still getting ten dollars per thousand on this blog running only one ad unit. If I was getting one dollar per thousand and running three or four ad units, I’d be making around $10,000 per year on this blog. And my numbers are pretty good for a one man band. And $10,000 to $30,000 per year isn’t enough for most reporters/journalists to live on. So even if the microjournalism approach works from a content production point of view, it doesn’t seem to work from an economic point of view.

As to Rick’s point about blogs not scaling for the reader, I think that’s a solvable problem. We’ve got a few investments, like zemanta and outside.in, that are working on aspects of smart aggregation and there are a host of other startups working on it. We’ll get that problem solved.

So to me, avoiding the Big Yellow Taxi moment comes down to solving the business model question for microjournalism. Is there a way beyond ads to compensate microjournalists? Subscription seems like one approach but what can you charge for online? Participating in expert networks might be another approach. Speaking and writing books could be a third. My gut tells me that microjournalists are going to have to do more than just post to their blog to earn a living. In fact the blog will probably be the loss leader that keeps them in the game.

I am not sure that anyone has the answer to this question and that’s why it’s bothering so many people right now. I’m an optimist and I think we’ll work it out. And our firm is investing in the services that play  a role here. And we’d like to do more of that.

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