Hopefully you enjoyed that film. It’s fun and it makes a good point. And hopefully it defends me against being accused of making the point you might think I’m making as you read this.
Let’s start at the beginning. Go to any journalism gathering and it won’t be long before ‘new business models’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’ come up. News Rewired was no different, but what I was looking for was a little more specific. Prompted partly by general interest and party by the need to make a living, I’ve been wondering for some time if it’s possible to put a value on the creation of content – because that is what I do.
At first glance it looks as if we’re awash with journalists who have set up successful businesses. There’s almost a standard presentation which involves Journalist Person talking about their great business which ultilises whizzbang technology to work a niche and, what’s more, gives what they do away for free. At which point you think – so how are you making money? Closer examination reveals that what is actually happening is that the journalism is being used as a showcase for skills that can be sold to clients who want to make use of them.
At News Rewired, we heard from Video News Agency‘s Daniel Kennedy. He said lots of really interesting things. VNA make good video. And give it to journalists for free. It was only in discussion with delegates afterwards that it became clear that the money was being made when VNA was approached by clients who wanted to use the skills on display for particular projects. There was a similar story from Alex Wood of Not on the Wires. Their socially engaged, internationalist and inquisitive journalism does not, in itself, make money. It’s the corporate work Wood and his colleagues are able to get which brings in the readies.
Talk about the subsidy
This is really not so new. The idea of one part of the business subsidising another has been around for ages, and it’s always been particularly applicable to news. Harold Evans recognised that when he set up The Sunday Times magazine all those years ago, bringing in the ad pounds that helped subsidise the paper’s news operation. But it does mean perhaps that it is even more vital for those of us in the media business to think of ourselves as communicators rather than journalists, or a narrower job description within that field.
That means, for example, an end to the old divide, hostility, staring down the nose that tended to characterise the relationship between journalists and PRs. The functions are different but the skills needed to carry them out are very similar.
Interestingly, Wood shares my view that ‘teaching’ entrepreneurialism is a bit of a red herring. It’s an attitude, a drive, rather than a skill to be learned. And it’s not something everyone can do, for any number reasons. Although I’m a freelance media worker, I wouldn’t describe myself as an entrepreneur, and I haven’t taken the kind of risks required to classify myself as one. That’s not through lack of ambition, or an aversion to hard work. It’s because I can’t afford to work for nothing, which is often what the advice given to wannabe entrepreneurs boils down to.
Gnawing at the bone
Which is why I keep gnawing away at the value of content bone. A former colleague used to rail about the fact that it was the packagers, marketeers, salespeople, distributors, advertisers, you name it, who made money out of content “while the people who actually produce the bloody stuff get bugger all”. Dismiss that as the whining of a delicate creative if you want, but you’d be missing the point. I see why we laugh at the bear wanting to work for the New York Times. Really. I do.
But. And there are two buts. One is that there is a danger in relying as heavily on advertising as much of the media trade has become. In the end, that can kill off the good, the original, the challenging, the uncomfortable. Take two very different examples, one general and one specific. Barry Levinson’s TV cop show Homicide: Life on the Streets was killed off when advertisers stopped taking slots during the show because of the political storylines. And a once vibrant UK monthly magazine market was reduced to a tired stable of me-toos as publishers drew up the feature list and coverlines based too heavily on what the advertisers wanted. This made them lose readers, and the advertisers too. (But they could blame it on the web and overpaid staff, so lesson not learned).
In many of the News Rewired sessions, the recognition that content must have quality seemed to be coming through more strongly than it has for some time. But that doesn’t seem to get us any closer to valuing that content. We seem simultaneously to know that content is king, but not think it is worth anything. Relying so heavily on the advertising subsidy model means we’ve too often seen content as the stuff to build the ads around which makes the money, rather than ask whether the content in itself could have a value.
Earning a living
I don’t have an ideological objection to any concept of paying for content, because I recognise that the people who produce content need to earn a living. If the only people who could afford to be journalists could rely for their income on mummy and daddy’s trust fund I suspect most of us wouldn’t be happy with the press we’d end up with. (And I know there’s an only half-joking riposte waiting in the wings there). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing the big end, corporate. well-paid work in order to fund the ground-breaking, challenging, ambitious stuff a lot of us creative types would like to do. But shouldn’t we also be looking out how to realise the value of this stuff?
When I asked Peter Kirwan at one of the panel discussions about the value of content he looked genuinely puzzled. I may have come across like the NYT bear, and I may be doing so again, so I’ll use one more illustration from a different part of the business. I’ve written 10 books in the last six years, mostly with a trusted writing partner. Total sales are around 100,000. Let’s say each book sold for £10 (trust me, as a rough average, it works). That’s £1m. One million quid created by the work we did in writing, researching and publicising the books. Now, of course we needed printers and publishers and distributors – all the things without which we wouldn’t have made that million. (And, trust me again, e-publishing or self-publishing would not have got those returns). And we’re lucky that we have a good publisher who plays it straight and works hard for us– and of course takes the risk that our product will sell.
But at a generous estimate what we have earned is in the low teens. And that balance, that proportion, just seems wrong. We originate and produce the content, but the people who do all the stuff that goes around it get between 80-90% of the benefit. That’s vastly weighted in one direction, away from the creatives. And the message that sends is that if you want to make some money, don’t create content. Leave that to someone else who is happy to do it for some glory or self-satisfaction. Now I like a bit of glory and satisfaction. But it doesn’t pay the bills.
Less of a fragment there. more a dirty great chunk, and the train of thought is still in progress. But that’s what’s good about the web. It’s a conversation.