Saturday, September 7, 2013

Why investigative journalism is good business

Versión en español aquí.

I may have misled people for the last few years by saying that investigative journalism is not a business but a public service.

Other people -- namely Felix Salmon, Jeff Bezos and four journalists cited by -- are reminding me that investigative journalism does, in fact, have commercial value.

First, Felix Salmon, the Reuters blogger. He made the case in a recent post that while investigative journalism may not produce the web traffic of popular topics, a media organization reaps intangible but valuable benefits. 

For example, advertisers will see that a site is a serious news outlet "and be that much more willing to pay premium rates to advertise on the site as a result. Readers who like having fast news during the day like having meatier stuff to read over the weekend," Salmon says. 

Recruiting journalists, attracting sources

I saw this myself while editor of a weekly business newspaper in the 1990s. We published an investigation into some of the excesses of spending and sponsorship related to Ohio State University athletics. It created tremendous buzz because no one had ever covered the business side of those sports.

The fact that all the Ohio State football coaches at the time received free use of automobiles from local auto dealers created tremendous buzz, and readers commented to me about that story for years afterward. We later did an investigation into fraud and mismanagement in the state's workers' compensation system. 

Our news organization became identified with this type of investigative story. It became our brand.
Salmon correctly notes that this branding power translates into pricing power. Such a brand also helps attract the best journalistic talent and encourages sources to come forward with news tips. 

The value of WaPo

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos just paid $250 million to acquire the Washington Post, and he told the editorial staff during a visit last week that the value he saw was a legendary brand identified with in-depth reporting of the highest quality. 

He does not believe the value of the Post's journalism is in big traffic numbers, according to a report on the newspaper's website:

“What you can’t do is go for the lowest common denominator, because then what you have is mediocrity.”
He repeatedly said that the success of The Post depends on its ability to draw readers into a “daily ritual habit” of reading across a collection of different topics — and paying for it. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said, “they will not pay for a story.”
In other words, he sees commercial value in the journalism and is trying to figure out ways to unlock it. 

A New York Times report on Bezos's visit to the Post newsroom reinforced this view of the newspaper's value: 

Mr. Bezos told reporters that the paper should focus on delivering important, compelling stories to its readers. If it does that, advertisers will come, he said. Several reporters said that message left them upbeat after the meeting, convinced that Mr. Bezos was committed to high-quality journalism.
Entrepreneurial journalists

The website just published a post on 10 revenue streams for funding investigative journalism.  It describes the tactics of four entrepreneurs who have found ways to get paid for their work.

The revenue ideas are not new. What is unique in each case is the way the news organization figured out a way to execute one or more of the revenue strategies. The trick is for a news organization to match its own product and talent pool to the revenue possibilities. 

Matter, according to the article, executed a Kickstarter campaign that raised $140,000. Not every such campaign will be that successful. You have to study exactly what they did and how they did it to meet or exceed their results. 

ThaiPublica in Thailand raises money through sponsor-supported events. The Muckraker in Ireland offers excerpts of its investigations free and sells the full reports for £3.

Each news organization has to take these 10 ideas and find its own solutions. And that's hard. 

In the long-gone days of media monopolies of production and distribution, any fool could make money.  The sources were advertising and subscriptions. Now you have to be creative. There are more possibilities but less certainty of making them work. The value is there, you just have to find a way to exploit it.


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