Earlier this month I spoke at a social media conference in Melbourne. When you wear a badge that says you work for Rupert Murdoch at these events, it’s like sitting in the middle of the Collingwood cheer squad in a Carlton jumper. With some people the best you can hope for is that their initial horror will eventually subside to a mild hostility.

The Not Ted Kennedy newsfeed site on Twitter: every tweet contains a link to a mainstream news outlet.

I was there to speak about strategy for social media, including Twitter, which The Punch has engaged to a fair degree of success. It is second only to the mighty Google in terms of the number of readers it helps the site reach. My presentation was on using social networks to connect with people.

The Social Media Summit 2009 came just days after the announcement that News Corporation planned to charge for access to its websites. It was the hottest topic of conversation in the wings and with the exception of one or two people, the view among the delegates was that it wasn’t going to work.

With most of them being accustomed to the news delivery powers of social networks – say, learning Ted Kennedy has died on Twitter – this is a natural response. Why the hell would you want to pay for news when you get it all for free from your friends?

The trouble is that when someone like Ted Kennedy dies, the first people to know and tell other people are journalists working in newsrooms that cost millions of dollars to run. Many are struggling, though, and some are going broke.

As Twitter has repeatedly demonstrated by being at its best in the heat of a big story, social networks are powerful news platforms. But this is just a technologically turbo-charged reality. Newspapers and, more recently, radio and television have always produced information that people have gone on to talk about.

A sports writer I used to work with would tell how his father, a farmer and one of the few people who could read in his village, would read the newspaper aloud in the pub to other locals. “Tell us what it says in the leading article,” they’d say.

This physical gathering of people seeking news and analysis was the Facebook or Twitter of the town. The difference is that the farmer would have paid for his newspaper.

Yes, real money was exchanged for news. These days that almost never happens – and it’s this trend, combined with the flow of advertising dollars away from news organisations, which has led to the current upheaval.

Distributing links to news stories across the web is something that journalists are learning is an easy and effective way of reaching more people. Networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as sharing sites like digg and mixx are giant digital playgrounds - at their extremes, a popular link can result in hundreds of thousands of new visitors to a website.

But these huge networks are just the beginning. Once people find links they like on there, they might share them on other networks or post them on their blogs. The piece of content can then go viral, leading to millions of visits. I’ve seen it happen on content I’ve worked on, and it’s breathtaking.

American journalism professor and new media writer Jeff Jarvis calls it the “link economy” – links from other sites are valuable because they get more people visiting you. Then it’s up to you to make money out of that audience.

It’s this last part of the equation – how to make serious money from having a big audience – that remains unsolved. Jarvis’s theory is appealing to digital evangelists who say the dollars will eventually flow, but in the meantime, news organisations have got bills to pay.

Nobody says the answer is easy. Jay Rosen, another leading new media thinker who collaborates with Jarvis, had a minor outburst on his Twitter stream last week when he said: “I have no ****king clue what the next business model for news is. Never said I did. Were there room I would put that on my Twitter profile.” He obviously gets asked about it a lot.

To return the earlier example, I was in a meeting last Wednesday afternoon when two text messages and four emails arrived at the same time, all saying the same thing. Ted Kennedy was dead.

I told the people in the room and thumbed in a tweet. The six messages had all come from multi-million-dollar news operations which pay people - at considerable cost - to report, check, and publish this kind of information every minute of every day.

Now while the emails were free, the two text messages were from paid subscription services. Maybe those two got back a few cents for their efforts in distributing the news. But for the four companies that sent the emails, they were giving it away - in fact, it was costing them to do so. But hey, weren’t they performing one of the fundamental duties of news organisations? As it was put in The Times, 157 years ago:

The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.

That might be the “duty” of the media, but publishers have started to realise they can’t continue to fulfil it by giving away their product.

The Kennedy death is an extreme example - it’s the kind of story that zips around the world in a matter of seconds. The family issued a statement and within minutes the world knew, thanks to CNN. Now a trusted independent citizen reporter could, possibly, have broken this story, but the only way the world has found yet to cover all the stories, all the time, is to have an organised group of people make it their life’s work to bring the news to people. You know, journalists.

Social networks are useful, entertaining, engaging things thanks in a large part to the efforts of journalists who gather and publish information. They’re also useful for stacks of other things, including collaborating on new ideas. Perhaps they could be used to look for answers on how journalists can continue to deliver the news everyone so loves to discuss.

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    • Eric says:

      06:11am | 31/08/09

      So, without journalists we would have had to wait an extra five minutes to learn that Kennedy was dead. Maybe a whole hour. I can deal with that.

      I can’t deal with paying good money for biased and inaccurate opinion pieces masquerading as news, which is what the legacy media provide. I can get all that for free on the Internet.

    • Don Clark says:

      06:25am | 31/08/09

      Eric, said it all in a nutshell. When I want an opinion, I can form my own.

      Dashed if I’ll pay for idle mischievous wafflings.

    • Bruce Wallace says:

      07:20am | 31/08/09

      I subscribe to an online version of the New York Times for $US15 a month. For accuracy, it’s probably not much better than most broadsheets, but the quality of writing is high. I don’t know of any Oz papers that can match it. Reading the SMH or the Age, for example, and then reading the NYT is like moving from high school to university. For people who like well written english there aren’t too many choices around.

    • Cascade Lily says:

      08:13am | 31/08/09

      I’m interested to know why Eric and Don think the media outlets providing ‘free’ news will continue to be in a position to do so further down the track. As Paul said, the Kennedy example was used for descriptive purposes. I agree, however, that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of investigative journalism being reported in our major dailies these days, at the expense of opinion, but I have always supposed that is because reader research has indicated that’s what people want. As the advertising ‘rivers of gold’ remain in drought and turn to permanent dust, media outlets will have to find new ways of staying profitable. You surely don’t want them run by the state, do you?

    • alan cotterell says:

      08:14am | 31/08/09

      Rupert Murdoch once pointed out that most of what comes off the internet is garbage.  Should we believe him?

    • pc says:

      08:15am | 31/08/09

      Bruce, like you I too am an avid reader of the New York Times. If you are searching for similar well written journalism I suggest The International Herald Tribune, The Nation, the Guardian and Observer.

    • Don Clark says:

      08:20am | 31/08/09

      Each to his own, I guess. $A18 to read some daily throw-away where the pos s and the tense are where they should have been in the first place but the news/fact standard is still slack as? Seems pretty lame to me.

      For me, $A18 is real money. That’ll buy me two quality print journals each and every month, useful on the desk today, and with useful lives in the bookcase for a couple decades or more…if I last that long!

    • @BlokesLib says:

      08:29am | 31/08/09

      I think the wider problem with general media nowadays is that people are tired of the tricks they play. The misleading sensationalised headlines, articles written by people who have no idea about the topic they are writing about, articles and indeed entire stories skewed in the direction of advertisers, the never ending supply of tabloid level news, articles themselves written in a way that is designed to provoke response, the difficulty in getting your news item contemplated by general media.
      I believe there would be no such term as “Social Media” if “General Media” as a whole got it’s act together and learned to interact with their market, not dictate to it.
      In years gone by it was a noble profession to be a Journalist. Nowadays it’s standing in the public eye has slipped to not far from that of a used car salesman? Doesn’t that offer some clues? Is it little wonder that people are turning to an alternative source for news?
      The problems within general media are big, but not irreversible. Get back to grass roots journalism, involve the opinion of the man in the street in the process develop a fan. If general media can work on cleaning up the public perception of them, perhaps the future wouldn’t be so bleak afterall.

    • Eric says:

      08:32am | 31/08/09

      Cascade Lily,

      You forget that there have always been media outlets that provide “free” news. TV, radio, public-funded media—all have their own websites. They won’t go away if more newspapers fold, since their revenue model doesn’t depend on user subscriptions.

      As for news sources, as opposed to media—these are rapidly becoming directly accessible. I don’t need to read a journalist’s summary of a politician’s press release when I can read the release itself on that MP’s website. Likewise for stock prices, schedules, and many other things that were previously restricted.

      Finally, we have the phenomenon of actual experts blogging and twittering in their areas of interest. I don’t need some journalist’s flawed interpretation of science or technology or war when I can get it from actual professionals in the field.

      From being the only public voice, journalists are becoming just another voice in the crowd. And not a particularly impressive one at that.

    • Adam Dennis says:

      08:35am | 31/08/09

      Ted Kennedy dead, Michael Jackson dead, we won/lost the Ashes. Wow, all the big stories come from old media. But what about the stories that actually affect the day-to-day lives of real people? Let’s take the North-South Pipeline in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, for example. That’s a huge and complex story that will affect the future of every Victorian one way or the other ... and old media has by and large failed in reporting it. There’s one or two journos who have taken the time (or been allowed the time) to have a look at it, but by and large it’s been overlooked. Too hard, I guess. Here and there, online writers and small local media outlets have picked up the slack, and often done a pretty good job, too.

      And there’s the thing: old media has largely dumped the job of complex reporting, but wants kudos for its banner headlines about the bleeding obvious. I don’t blame the journos, I blame the management. It’s not the readers, it’s the media bosses who have a 30 second attention span. I think it’s as simple as this: if you’re going to charge for online content, it’d best be compelling. Otherwise the very last “free” online paper will wipe you all out and make a killing on the advertising.

      Before online news, I had the choice of about three newspapers if I wanted the news of the world. Now I can choose between hundreds of sources, to get essentially the same news. Given that a huge proportion of stories come from sources such as AFP, we really only need those primary sources.

      Here’s a model for the future: each international agency can charge me a reasonable monthly fee, preferably paid through a single automated channel, and give me access to aggregation software for my various platforms - mobile, desktop, digital TV. That takes care of event-based news such as the latest cricket scores, the precise location of Ted Kennedy’s coffin at any given moment, breaking disaster and traffic accident news. The online newspapers should ditch that content altogether and teach their journalists to write incisive pieces interpreting the stories, drawing my attention to background threads and helping me understand what it all means. I’d pay for that. But of course it would mean that there would be far fewer major outlets, far fewer jobs for real journalists.

      The truth is that the 24/7 online world really doesn’t have room for more than ten international online papers. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we have loads of currently-unfilled room for quality regional papers, giving us incisive reporting on what’s going on in our own area.

    • Don Clark says:

      08:38am | 31/08/09

      Hmmm. Ignoring Cascade Lily’s carefully baited barb at the end, it follows from her first point that critics - who like all posters are doing so without recompense for their effort -  should therefor put forward advice on *how* to fund on-line media.

      That’d be commercially valuable advice…posted for free. Nup. Respectfully decline. 

      My online presence, tiny though it may be, is public-good and not for profit. If you want options how to fund/profit from on-line media without giving readers the terminal irrits (I can see two off the top of my head), you’ll have to find a commercial firm to nut it out. And pay them commercial rates.

    • Liz says:

      09:02am | 31/08/09

      Looks like you journos will be seeking new jobs and the news industry will be redundant.Very few will be sorry to see it go and new ways of news gathering and sharing come into play as they already have and will continue to gather steam.Why have a middleman who interprets and puts a skew on the facts when you can have the truth straight from where it’s happening?

    • Valerio says:

      10:30am | 31/08/09

      I think there’s an obvious elephant in the room here that is being overlooked as far as this entire debate - it’s the ad model that is broken, not the fact our online news is free.

      Newspapers are in huge trouble because ad revenue has dried up - thanks largely to the death of the classifieds.

      Journalism was never a profit-making enterprise - the $1.20 you pay for a newspaper covers the printing and distribution costs, not the newsroom costs. Now the online arm is meant to prop up the ailing newspaper? I don’t think so…

      While some subscription models may have moderate success maybe a bolder move is this:

      Separate the online and newspaper arms, with the online arm only buying the newspaper content it NEEDS, then sell engagement based advertising around that (CPM is a self-defeating joke). Watch the newspaper fail and the online arm flourish.

      Newsrooms are understaffed by journalists but newspapers are bloated by useless sections that only exist to sell advertising. It’s time news organisations got lean, mean, and prioritised their content for their readers, not their advertisers. Then you have a compelling case to pitch premium advertising based around ENGAGED, loyal readers.

      It will be a bloody battle and some big names will fail - but the media in general will be better for it at the end.

      And yes - as someone who runs a bunch of websites for a public broadcaster - paid content will play into my hands, but not for the benefit of the industry overall.

      More here: http://valerioveo.com/2009/08/10/five-reasons-why-paid-content-model-will-fail/

    • martin english says:

      10:38am | 31/08/09

      The three (at least !!) issues I have with paying for news contents are:
      1) Why pay Murdoch when his publications are the middleman for 80% plus of what they publish ? (press releases, sourced from AP etc)  And of course, how many times have you heard something or seen something on ‘old media’ and thought “is this a copycat xyz, or the one I saw online last week ?”
      2) Whenever I paid for a newspaper, I was not covering the cost of its production.  The business model of newspapers has most of the income from the “rivers of Gold” classified advertising.  Reading content fro free isn’t killing papers, craigslist and ebay are.
      3) What DOES the ‘journalism’ give me ? regurgitated opinion pieces.  I KNOW how many of our local columnists will react to a policy announcement as soon as I know which politician uttered it.

      The final killer for paid content ?
      I don’t see my local area in the national press.  heck, I don’t even see it on the web (I do see it occasionally on local TV).  I learn more about local (within 20km of where I live) issues from the local FREE newspaper.  And they have real journalists (who get paid !!!) for ferreting out stories about what happens in their neighborhood.

    • foraggio says:

      11:32am | 31/08/09

      Saying we never pay for news anymore is naive in the extreme. We all pay for internet access via ISPs - we or our workplaces. The Internet is NOT FREE!!! That is one of the biggest myths doing the rounds as this discussion continues to gain momentum.

      Thinking more laterally with regard to generating revenue from online content is required. The “you pay for a newspaper” argument just doesn’t stack up. A newspaper’s content is completely different, and it’s a physical object. You can’t tell me the dollar you pay for the paper covers the cost of all the journalists and staff involved with putting it together everyday.

      As Valerio quite rightly comments, it’s falling ad revenue that is killing newspapers, not the availability of news online, where the ad model is flawed. New approaches to generating ad revenue online must be tried before we just say “charge for content”.

      Not paying the readers/users that have put in positions of power that courtesy would be impolite in the extreme.

    • Leon says:

      11:37am | 31/08/09

      people will pay for services that save time and add value to their lives. figure out how to make your journalistic skills relevant in this context and you’ll continue to have an income.

    • Chris says:

      11:51am | 31/08/09

      @  Don Clark
      “When I want an opinion, I can form my own.”

      So, why are you here? Why don’t you start up a blog “Don Clark’s Opinions”. Then you wouldn’t need to bother with all this journalism nonsense.

    • Don Clark says:

      12:05pm | 31/08/09

      “Why are you here?”
      Rather an old chestnut and a pretty tired one.  Easily answered by The Punch itself…

      “About us
      The Punch is for every Australian with a passion for debate.”

    • Nathan says:

      12:26pm | 31/08/09

      What Twitter has done is show that journalism is not a profession. It also shows that we can get by just fine without being subjected to a useless diatribe whenever we open the paper. Long live Twitter, the newspaper is dead.

    • pc says:

      12:38pm | 31/08/09

      Psst Paul, I couldnt feel horror, initial or otherwise and the best I can summon is indifferent contempt. Mild hostility is for passive aggressives and most of them work for Newscorp. The death of Ted Kennedy and the loss of the ashes were certainly news, but as some of the other commentators have pointed out they are not examples of journalism, and this might be news for you Paul, journalism revolves around news stories that relate to peoples everyday lives. Some stories about rupert murdochs everyday life for example, these are all available at the guardian.co.uk. You will not have to pay to read them. He’s having money troubles so hes renting out his yacht, his london paper - like Mx has died, his subsidiaries and newscorp in the US have been discovered tapping cell phones and emails of politicians and celebrities. This is a story. I do not think Rupert is an ideologue. He is a genius. He has a talent for making money, and now it looks like the empire might come unstuck. The internet does not give you as much power as Rupet. Dont fool yourselves. But using the internet we can begin to neutralise their toxic influence.

    • Cameron Price-Austin says:

      12:44pm | 31/08/09

      Years ago, the makers of Encyclopedia Britannica thought Wikipedia wasn’t a threat. After all, it was publicly editable content - surely people would pay for a reference source they could trust?

      Maybe social news is next.

    • Chris says:

      12:46pm | 31/08/09

      @ Don
      Sorry, your comment read like you held no value in the service (albiet free one) that The Punch provided and that you were currently (assumedly) enjoying. I wouldn’t pay for “idle mischievous wafflings”, but that’s an extremely subjective call that seems to dismiss the efforts of some very skilled and entertaining opinion writers. Are you saying you still wouldn’t pay for such writing?

    • John Foster says:

      12:50pm | 31/08/09

      @ Nathan

      Twitter is a tool, not a resource. Enjoy feeding off the Twitter rumour-mill for your free news all you like. You are obviously from the Richard Wilkins school of journalism, and yes, Jeff Golbum is dead. Again. And next week too. I know, I read it on Twitter. FACT!

    • Julie Coker-Godson says:

      12:50pm | 31/08/09

      Paying for online access to news?  No way, not when I already pay $44.90 per month for my laughingly called fast speed unlimited broadband.  Pensioners such as myself are on fixed incomes and should not be considered as part of the “cash cow”.  It is all very well for people to suggest the ways and whys of their paying for online news content when they have a regular income but others don’t have that luxury and, for myself at least, it provides an opportunity to exchange views with people and join in the debate about current affairs.  I would have to give it a big miss altogether if I had to pay and I would be very disappointed about that.

    • h says:

      01:35pm | 31/08/09

      @ eric “So, without journalists we would have had to wait an extra five minutes to learn that Kennedy was dead. Maybe a whole hour. I can deal with that.”

      Imagine for a second the story was about someone you really cared about. Imagine you want to be really sure that the story is true. Are you going to base your next action on a facebook status, or do you want to get confirmation that it’s real?

      Consider how badly Richard Wilkins was hammered for reporting the Goldblum death hoax. Journos are expected to check facts and they experience real repercussions when they don’t. Do you think that holds true for every blog, twitter, facebook status…?

      @ don “Rather an old chestnut and a pretty tired one.”

      Actually no it’s a completely reasonable question. You can’t say you have a passion for debate then claim you won’t read anyone else’s opinion, particularly when you’re doing it in response to an opinion site that you clearly just read. Debate goes back and forth, if you truly ignored everyone else you’d just be pontificating.

    • Joshua Tate says:

      02:04pm | 31/08/09

      @  Don Clark: “When I want an opinion, I can form my own.”

      Yes but what will you base it on? If/when traditional print journalism dies off, are you going to collect the news yourself from the source to form your own? I doubt it. What a silly comment to make.

    • Don Clark says:

      02:23pm | 31/08/09

      Hmm. “Chris” is sounding a bit like a journalist.  At the risk of repeating myself, and on two current threads at that, no, I won’t pay for online news and opinion content. 

      Not even for well-founded, verifiable, rational, entertaining opinion? No. I’d give that some respect, perhaps. 

      Not even for well-founded, verifiable, factual news content? No.  I would accord that some respect.

      Can Chris assume that taking the time to post is (paraphrasing) “enjoying the service that The Punch provides”? No. 

      Enjoying poorly argued partisan rants, misrepresented data, overstated cases, irrelevant and nasty personal remarks…no. 

      Occasionally, topics are worth keeping abreast of. Some may be topics for which either a reasonable or a terse non-ranting reply may be of use to others. That’s all, really.

      I’m not a fan of flames, flounces or trolls and expect a higher standard or moderation than The Punch has so far shown.

      I pay for occasional print copies of the several journals whose content on selected topics I respect. I decline to pay again for their on-line content. No, you may not know what those journals are.

      Time to get on with the day.

    • Don says:

      02:44pm | 31/08/09

      H is either confusing some-one else’s post with mine or trying to mislead. Nowehere did I “claim (I) won’t read anyone else’s opinion”. 

      Joshua Tate is apparently unaware of the depth and range of public broadcasting/online and free-to-air/free-to-screen services.

      And as I’ve already said, there are other ways to raise on-line revenue than by reader subs. Time for some paid market/tech research there.

      And time for someone else to have a go, too. I’m off for a cycle ride.

    • Chris says:

      02:48pm | 31/08/09

      So to paraphrase Don, “I’d respect good quality opinion if it existed but not with my wallet, I post comments on The Punch but I don’t enjoy it, and I only pay for print media that I respect the likes of which I’m not prepared to contaminate by exposing it to the vulgar masses. And now that people are actually putting arguments to me I suddenly have better things to do”.

      Thanks for the journalist compliment. It is an aspiration, but it seems that if your position is the current mass position, I’m not sure if there’s a single red cent to be made in the word game, unless it’s writing copy for the next Nissan X-Trail. And mate, right now, you’re probably right. Five years from now though, who knows. But it sure seems to be an important thing to nut out though right now doesn’t it?

    • Don Clark says:

      03:04pm | 31/08/09

      Passing by to switch off on the way to the cycle shed, I’d like to thank Chris for a first class illustration of the case for no payment.  Paraphrase my foot.

    • Darryl Mason says:

      03:17pm | 31/08/09

      Rupert Murdoch, 1989 :

      “If someone goes bust, too bad.”

    • OODH says:

      03:39pm | 31/08/09

      I love the idea of journalism by the people, for the people, to coin a phrase. Trouble is, most of the time, ‘the people’ can’t be bothered - they have other priorities. That’s why we need journalists and news-gathering networks with the dedicated purpose of finding and telling stories. OK, they might have become dumbed down, but here’s a thought - you get the media you deserve. How many investigative, thoughtful magazines or papers still exists in Australia? Bulletin, anyone?

    • AJ says:

      04:46pm | 31/08/09

      Can’t agree with OODH enough.  Demand drives the form of media, as well as the content, which is why Fox News leads the ratings in the US, because it’s VERY good at pandering and slanting perspectives to fit the audience.

      That said, there are some partial user-pays models out there that seem to do OK, notably the Economist (with a ‘premium’ content section for its more detailed analysis).

      I wouldn’t want to see paid journalism die, and two words describe why. ‘Factual Accuracy’.  Whoever mentioned the ridiculous Jeff Goldblum story above makes a good point, Twitter is, at best,  a rumour mill, not a news source.

      Then again, so is Fox News.

    • Eric says:

      05:13pm | 31/08/09

      @H: No, I would not trust a journalist. I have personally experienced too many events for which the “professional” reporting had little or no relation to the reality.

      If I really cared about a particular event, I would dig deep into the Internet and find the actual witnesses. It’s easy enough to do. I certainly wouldn’t trust a half-competent, biased and uncaring journalist. I’ve seen them lie too many times.

      However, just possibly, if the profession of journalism admitted its sins, and sincerely undertook to do better, I just might pay a professional to research a topic I’m interested in. But I have little confidence that those biased know-it-alls will ever humble themselves enough to actually pursue facts, even if they were paid to do so.

      Journalists are an arrogant, privileged class. They want to dictate their opinions, not report the facts.

    • Rob says:

      12:17am | 01/09/09

      So does this mean the end of televised news on free-to-air television as well? 

      Why should users (who, by the way usually have to pay for access to the Internet) have to pay for news when it is broadcast in virtually every country in the world on free-to-air (supported by advertising dollars and/or government funding no doubt)?

    • h says:

      10:23am | 01/09/09

      @eric: OK, so you’re going to go and dig around on the net. You’ll find any number of versions of the story and plenty will seem plausible. Several are mutually exclusive and none of your personal contacts knows anything about it at all. How do you verify your sources?

      Curious that you’re so willing to dismiss an entire industry as “arrogant and privileged”. You don’t think there are bloggers and individuals out there who are arrogant and privileged?

    • basketball betting says:

      11:38am | 27/02/12

      QU8BnZ Yeah, now it’s clear !... And firstly I did not understand very much where there was the link with the title itself !!...

 

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