Journalism's Problem Isn't Gawker. It's Advertising.

Washington Post's Ian Shapira fired the latest salvo in the ongoing debate about paid media content with his thoughtful "rant" over the weekend about Gawker "stealing" his story. But he raised the bar by invoking legal considerations, wondering aloud if Gawker's (mis)use of his work amounted to copyright infringement.

And now, more believe he, along with many other "conventional" media outlets, may have a case. Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab has stats possibly backing Shapira's argument. So should the central issue of what constitutes "fair use" determine how things will pan out? It's not exactly prudent when most debates on that leads down a slippery slope. Besides, technologists have insisted moves made by The Associated Press last week to "protect" its content are backward and will be bad for business in the long run. 


But at the end of the day, it is the bottom line that drives business decisions. People such as Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen may eventually be right about the intellectual architecture of the mediascape, but the details of how we actually get there are what matter most. This is really about advertising revenue. 

Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School and the former managing editor of WSJ.com, writes in Paid Content that the death of journalism is really a masquerade for the death of advertising, or at least the way we know it. Grueskin writes: 

"This is a huge problem facing journalism (and more generally, media), and it's easy to get caught up in debates over linking and copyright while missing the bigger issue. It's troubling that, even as traffic to news sites is growing, their once-lucrative home pages and article pages are displaying house ads or remnant ads with CPMs of no more than $1. At that rate, even a link from Drudge, which could refer 500,000 page views, generates only $500. That sum covers the server costs and not a great deal more. It certainly doesn't pay for the salary and benefits of the reporter and editors who worked on the story. And it's not just a function of this bad economic cycle." 

 There has been much debate about how news sites must change the way they present the news in the Internet age and it's necessary to acquire an understanding of how differently people consume the news these days. But it is now time to move the debate onto the next phase: finding new revenue sources that do not compromise editorial integrity and reforming the advertising business model to bring advertising rates in line with new technologies. The current rationale of deriving CPM for print is a flawed premise for the online medium. 

But there is also a wider, related issue that Shapira pointed out: that people do not understand what journalists usually do to get a story. It is more than just about writing and people need to know that. And unless people do, the work of journalists, especially public service news content that do not fall under any niche segments, would always be undervalued and this might in turn affect any advertisement value. 

So, the sooner we ask more pertinent questions, the faster this mess will/can be resolved and hopefully, the quicker young, budding journalists like me would be able to get jobs that pay us and come with some benefits. 

Disclosure: The writer is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where Bill Grueskin is professor and academic dean, and Columbia Journalism Review is based.
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