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Towards a Sustainable Journalism

The old model of journalism is the filter model, where various corporate entities publish “all the news that’s fit to print,” or all the news that’s fit to scintillate (the more current model). The editors select, in their opinion, worthy stories, writers, photographers, points of view, etc., and then decide on the placement of stories, editing words and pictures (or videotape) to make it consistent with the publication’s style and sense of priorities.

This system, when it works, has the obvious advantage of directing society to issues and events that the public might not be aware of and the government might not want us to focus upon. When it does not work, as happens much of the time, it distracts us from what might be considered important in a morass of celebrity gossip and sensationalism. Furthermore, this model is failing because these publications, and broadcast television, are having increasing difficulty attracting both readers and advertisers.

But what is not failing is the will of journalists to cover difficult stories in order to inform society. They lack sufficient financing (an old refrain, but a quickly growing one) and often a platform to publish their work. The latter, it seems to me, will not change until we are willing to sometimes forego the prestige that went with publication in the “branded” media - Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, Stern, etc. - and create our own credible and personal vehicles for dissemination, using the best of Web 2.0 and 1.0. As far as I am concerned, this kind of a publication has not yet been created, but it will be when people find the will to band together and innovate seriously.

Cory Doctorow portrait by Jonathan Worth

Cory Doctorow portrait by Jonathan Worth

There are those who are creating individual models for a sustainable journalism that are somewhat promising, although it is still too early to say where they will lead. Jonathan Worth, for example, an English photographer, has been arguing that he can do assignments for free and still make money. His test case, a portrait of science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, was done free of charge, with Mr. Doctorow getting free use of the image. But in return the writer signed every page of the first part of his new novel and the photographer sold them online at various prices (along with the photograph) to Doctorow’s fans. As a result, Worth made money, Doctorow was thrilled, and a fine portrait was made. Worth has made a passionate proposal for sustainable journalism at his blog, which I think everyone should read.

Stephen Mayes, one of the most forward-thinking people in the photojournalism world, is cognizant of the changes in the music industry and in some senses thinks that VII, the photo agency that he directs, might learn from them. In a recent interview with Photo District News he remarked: “I think there’s a role for VII as an agency to become a publisher. And I am working on a strategy at the moment which will have VII publish bodies of work. We will then partner with magazines as distributors, where VII will be the publisher and the magazines will be the distributors, which is a bit of a shift in the old ways of thinking.”

This shift of editorial control is, in some ways, a logical next step for the photo agencies who so often worked on their own longterm stories and then sold the imagery to various publications for them to lay out. In an online environment the entire project can be developed and then sold to multiple publications — strategic thinking that also lies behind Magnum in Motion or MediaStorm’s capsule videos. (I highly recommend David Campbell’s thoughts on these issues.)

But I also want to add a thought from Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column yesterday. He argues that, while we often blame our leaders for our woes, we also need to be better citizens: “The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things. Otherwise, folks, we’re in trouble. A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power — no matter how much imagination it generates.”

And I think that we can apply the same reasoning to our readers. Finally they, and we, will only get as good a journalism as we are willing to pay for. In a Boston Consulting Group poll published last week people in nine countries were surveyed asking if they would pay for online news: from 48 to 60 percent said they would, ranging from US$3 per month (Americans and Australians) to US$7 (Italians). Maybe we should take them at their word?

One Comment

  1. An update and review to the Copyleft experiment:


    Monday, January 11, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

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