Media leaders struggle with how to make online journalism pay

The new player in the game is the internet, and the news industry is experiencing similar growing pains. So journalism students at Toronto's Centennial College invited members of the local and national media to get together and brainstorm an answer to this question: what is the future of journalism?

The internet has radically changed the news business forever

When radio was introduced into Canadian homes in the 1920s, people predicted it would be the death of newspapers and the decay of journalism.

Sybille Forster-Rentmeister, publisher of the German magazine Echo Germanica, summarizes the session on trying to make online news profitable. ((Claire Brownell, CBC))
Suddenly, the same message could be broadcast into millions of homes at the same time. Amateur radio broadcasters sprang up. People stayed home from church to listen to sermons on the radio.

Today, the story is the same, but the medium is different. The new player in the game is the internet, and the newspaper industry is suffering from the competition.

Journalism students at Toronto's Centennial College recently invited members of the local and national media to get together for a summit meeting and brainstorm on the question: What is the future of journalism?

The radio comparison came up more than once. Media professionals find it comforting to remember that in the past, new formats haven't eliminated the old ones.

But Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism and the keynote speaker at the summit, doesn't think online journalism will coexist with traditional print and broadcast news. He believes the internet is completely changing journalism as we know it, and the days of newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts are numbered.

Having access to the internet is like owning your own printing press, he says. People don't rely

exclusively on the mainstream media for information any more. And anyone with a message to send has a lot more options than just putting out a press release and hoping a news organization covers their story.

The Canadian mainstream media is definitely in serious trouble. Canwest Global Communications Corp., which owns the Global television network and newspapers across Canada, is missing debt payments. News organizations across the country have had layoffs and some papers in small communities have closed. The federal government is even considering a bailout for private local television stations.

The recession has contributed to the recent layoffs and shutdowns. But at the summit, everyone was focused on the internet.

The problem is that no one has figured out how to make online journalism pay.

The wide selection of online news options means that if one site requires visitors to pay to see its stories, people can look for the information somewhere else. Pay walls also keep a site's content from appearing in search engines, which drastically reduces the number of visitors who could be converted into viewers and subscribers.

This has created a strange situation where news organizations are under pressure to deliver the fastest, freshest online stories with more video, audio and pictures than their competitors — for free.

While nobody at the summit came up with a definitive solution to this problem, participants did reach a consensus on a number of other points about how the internet is changing journalism. Here's a summary of some of the biggest and most surprising findings.

Specialization is key

When people got all their news from one daily newspaper, it made sense to report movie listings, the fire at the local post office, and what happened yesterday during question period in the same package.

Online, it is less important. Editors can easily link to work done by other news outlets or wire services.

"Do what you do best, and link to the rest," Jarvis said.

Some newspapers have stopped producing TV guides, due to high production costs and low revenue. Newspapers may slim down even more, focusing on local news and areas they've developed expertise in like arts or politics.

Have a personality

Before the internet, all anyone knew about the person reporting the news was their name from their byline, their voice from the radio, or their face on television. Today, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, reporters can share more of their personal thoughts and interests with their audience.

Interestingly, no one came to the defence of the traditional objective journalist — removed from the story and reporting only the facts. Some reporters admitted to feeling uncomfortable about blurring their personal lives with their work, but said they eventually came around.

Still, don't expect your favourite political reporters to start blogging about what they really think about Stephen Harper. Angela Pacienza, director of online news for The Canadian Press, said the mainstream media still expects news reporters to keep partisan opinions out of their writing, including personal blogs.

Focus on context, not breaking news

Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can have a blog. And people using new forms of instantaneous online social media sites like Twitter often break stories before the traditional news outlets.

But not all blogs and Tweets are created equally. So instead of concentrating on being the first to report the news, journalists might find their role shifting. Someone needs to filter out what's new, what's correct, and what's relevant in all the internet noise and explain why it's important to the average person.

Instead of feeling threatened by the competition, news organizations can use citizen journalists to communicate what's important to them and tell stories they would never have known about. One example that came up more than once is the BBC's "Were you there?" tool. On many major global news stories, the BBC has an online form encouraging people who are there to tell them about their experiences.

Conference organizers said they plan to hold another summit on the future of journalism in the fall, which due to the increasing importance of citizen journalism, will be open to the public.