Thought #2 on the Chicago Media Future Conference: Let’s find a sustainable model for online journalism

When I was first hired as editor at a local free-press magazine in Rome, Italy, I came with ideas, enthusiasm and willingness to work as hard as I could to increase readership.

The publisher looked at me and said without hesitation: “That’s all wonderful, but in the end all I care about is that you get advertisers in. I don’t really care if no one reads the magazine.”

The struggle to make any news business profitable and keeping it interesting at the same time was at the center of the second half of the Chicago Media Future Conference, held at Columbia College Chicago on Saturday, June 13.

The four panelists exchanged very different views on what an online news organization must be in order to be financially successful.

Patrick Spain, CEO of Newser, had a pretty doomsday vision of things.

In essence, he said that even if a news-website were to get 5 million hits a  month it still wouldn’t be a profitable model. He also said that newspapers such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times are all going to disappear by 2011 because advertisers are running away.

I think this “We need to make huge profit margins” mentality is what has driven newspapers to today’s disastrous situation. Maybe I’m still a young and foolish idealist, but I didn’t get into journalism for the big bucks. I knew very well that I wouldn’t be making millions of dollars.

Steve Rhodes of the Beachwood Reporter was very frank about this topic. Multi-billion dollar news corporations, he said, aren’t the model to pursue because, as we’ve all seen in recent years, they’ve all failed miserably.

Small and successful news-business models are possible. An example of such a business was exemplified by Brad Flora, who started The Windy Citizen little over a year ago and told us the website can already claim to make between $50,000 and $60,000 a year.

Patrick Spain said he didn’t believe local news coverage could be a sustainable model.

On the contrary, I think that’s where web-news might be heading right now.

The “all the news that’s fit to print” model hasn’t yet been developed online. The aggregator model represented by Newser is still too confusing, especially if compared to the simplicity and clarity of newspapers.

Local and hyper-local news models such as Chi-Town Daily News, Chicagoist or Chicago Talks, on the other hand, are gaining readership because people are going on the internet to find specific news about specific topics or areas of interest.

In my opinion, the newspaper as a general container of information will still exist even after 2011 (maybe a reduced and more compact version), while the web will continue to specialize in opinion writing and local news coverage.

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  1. Journalists & media providers; ask what are the present & future major public information needs.

    Everyone lives in a home, in their vehicle or on the street. Those living in homes & driving vehicles need to know how to reduce their energy usage.

    There is an endless need for more know why, & know how, in these human cost & quality of living equations that would be of core interest to a broad public, therefore, there is no excuse for not doing sustainable journalism. – Darrell Udelhoven




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