Tech Tools Day 1: Lauren Rich Fine speaks on Tomorrow's Journalism and Journalists

I just wrapped up the first day of the Tech Tools for Journalists Workshop at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. It was great to see a diverse group of journalists who share a common passion for exploring the new tools and new opportunities we have.

But at the gathering, there were some stark reminders of just how grim things are at the moment. One attendee hails from the Rocky Mountain News, which could close within days. Another comes from The Detroit Free Press, which is preparing to cut home delivery to just a few days a week. So new solutions are urgently needed.

To set the stage, the workshop began with a keynote called “New and Old Roles for Tomorrow’s Journalism and Journalists” by Lauren Rich Fine, a former newspaper analyst at Merrill Lynch and now director of research for ContentNext and a faculty member at Kent State University. Though I hadn’t met her in person, I had spoken with her several times back in 2006 when I had the great misfortune to cover the demise of Knight Ridder.

Fine used the occasion to alternately look back at some of the missteps by newspapers, and look ahead to what comes next. The first part tends to interest me less than the second. So I’ll focus on her thoughts about what newspapers should be doing next. It struck me that many of her suggestions aligned very nicely with the principles for the newsroom of the future that we advocate here. So I’ll break her talk down into those categories:

Business Models

She began by putting together some numbers that bolstered an important point: People have never paid us for journalism. Never. This is an important concept that often gets lost in the discussion about new business models. It’s also a painful reality that most journalists don’t want to face. We like to think we’re the most important part of the newspaper and that everything else exists to enable our work.

“Readers have never been willing to support this industry economically,” Fine said.

Fine noted that at the peak, subscriptions generally only accounted for 20 percent of a newspaper’s revenue. Classifieds, on the other hand, used to contribute 50 percent of revenues, 70 percent of pre-tax profits. That’s a purely non-journalistic function that will likely be close to zero in the coming years. And it’s the loss of this role as the marketplace that has really crippled newspapers.

The next marketplace? There was discussion of how the majority of small businesses are still not online. Newspapers have been trying to crack that for years, but the opportunity is still there. For someone.

Innovation

Fine rattled off a pretty strong list of news start-ups that are demonstrating just how much entrepreneurial energy there is right now. There are big sites like The Huffington Post and GlobalPost.com and then there are countless local news start-ups, such as the Lakewood Observer and the Mother Nature Network.

“There are some great examples out there,” Fine said.

Her advice for anyone in the news biz was direct: “I know that not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur,” Fine said. “But if you want to continue in this industry, you need to be more entrepreneurial.”

Collaboration

Fine said that her newspaper of the future would find ways to partner with these emerging news organization. Maybe turning to some for international news and others for hyper-local content. I agree. This points to the idea that there is an emerging ecology of news organization and any newsroom needs to recognize this and find ways to work with the other relevant parts of this system.

On this subject, Fine was a little bit more uncertain. For instance, when it came to video, she recognized the fact that trends point to the fact that most people will likely consume their information on line primarily through video in the coming years. But she personally is not a fan of online video, still very much likes the print version of her papers, and acknowledges that even YouTube hasn’t really figure out how to make money from online video.

Fine was much more emphatic about the growing importance of mobile devices. In fact, her next research piece is going to focus on that subject. And this is perhaps where another big opportunity lies for the news biz. The growth of mobile devices like the iPhone are pointing to the day when that’s the primary way we access the Web. The key is now whether news organizations can make the leap here and hopefully learn from past mistakes.

Mobile news and information remains an enormous opportunity just waiting for someone to grab.

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