Blogs & Comment

North Korea proves the news is broke. Here's how to fix it

Bill Clintonreturned to the United States on August 5 an international hero. Not only had the former President’s intervention in Pyongyang, North Korea, saved two hapless American journalists from a miserable fate 12 years’ hard labour in a North Korean prison camp it had also, on the face of things, opened up a new era of bilateral U.S.-North Korean relations. The journalists were saved; Clinton had dinner with jumpsuited dictator Kim Il Sung; and we all came one small step closer to achieving world peace.
What’s most interesting to this writer, however, is why and how those two journalists got into that situation in the first place. And what that sad story shows is that it’s high time journalism fixed its broken business model.
Laura Lingand Euna Leeworked for a San Francisco-based new media organization, Current TV . They were in North Korea to research a documentary about women and human trafficking.
Founded by Al Gorein 2005, Current TV employs “citizen journalists” to roam the planet with videocams and notebooks, backpacking their way into stories that professional networks can’t or won’t cover. Though production standards vary, the citizen journalists of Current TV produce work that is daring and thought-provoking: consider this piece by Portuguese TV journalist Mariana Van Zelleron the immense risks El Salvadoreans are prepared to take to get to the U.S.
The problem is that the journalists are sent out on their own, and paid on a shoestring. A budget for security is non-existent.
In America, what Ling and Lee were doing is not illegal; it is practicing freedom of speech. But that’s a freedom that doesn’t exist in a dictatorship like North Korea’s. What’s painfully clear, as the curtain closes on this saga, is that the pair were inadequately briefed, inadequately financed and inadequately supported to do the kind of investigative work that involves navigating the murky politics of a totalitarian state.
Advances in videocam technology combined with high-speed internet connections mean anyone with a computer can set themselves up to go cover “the news” around the world. But as the lines between journalists and audience blur, the protections afforded reporters weaken, as Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at The Poynter Institute, points out in a recent article . “If a journalist is not working directly for a news organization, or one that is not a long time, traditional news organization,” he says, “there might be a heightened risk. There might be questions about whether they’re really journalists.”
Most journalists would respond that any story worth covering involves a certain element of risk. But what the Current TV debacle in North Korea shows, is that it’s time to seriously rethink whether citizen journalists are the answer. That means casting aside the notion of audience as content providerat least when it comes to the trickier aspects of foreign correspondence. Instead, media organizations should get back to thinking through how best to get those tough stories in a more professional way.
Of course, more professional story-telling requires professional-style revenues. Which brings me to the heart of the problem. It is hard, some would argue impossible, to charge for content or audiences when content is available everywhere online for free, and audiences are going everywhere online to look for it. That’s why advertising revenues at media companies everywhere are falling off a cliff. It’s also, conversely, why failed pay-for-content schemes litter the Internet.
Poll after poll appears to bear out this conventional wisdom. A new poll published Aug. 5 by the European Union found that fully 33% of 16- to 24-year-olds wouldn’t pay to download or view online content, as opposed to 15% of older age groups. (Though up-to-the-minute poll data for Canada and the U.S. is not available, t rends are similar on this continent.) Given 16- to 24-year-olds are precisely the audience that media organizations are looking to court, it’s no wonder so many media outlets are either going bankrupt (the Chicago Sun-Tribune ), are on life support (the New York Times ) or are engaged in a series of high-profile firings, as panicked executives attempt to do somethingabout the crisis.
However, even in the E.U. poll, glimmers of hope remain. Fully 10% of the 16 to 24-year-olds claimed to regularly pay for online content. What’s more, young people said they would pay for content if they felt it offered something above and beyond a standard download. And in time, that willinclude well-reported stories, decent investigative reporting and properly resourced foreign correspondentswhose meticulously researched stories shouldcost more to access than the uninformed ramblings of a basement blogger.
Consider: we’ve been here before. Recall the late 1980s, when the debate was over who would pay for cable television, when they could get the network version for free. Yet last I looked, cable subscriptions in both the U.S. and Canada are up, in a recession year. The cable TV example indicates overall audience size may fragment, but people will pay for quality content.
Secondly, consider the experiences of The Wall Street Journal . The newspaper’s pay-for-content program claims to reach 3.8 million people worldwide. Though those numbers aren’t confirmed by independent sourcing, the continuity and longevity of their program indicates the Journal has found an audience that is content to pay a decent price for regular access to a credible news source. (For more on the Journal’s web business savvy, check out this fascinating interview on how best to generate revenues online from executive editor Alan Murrayof
Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review , has taken a look at American newspaper companies’ second quarter results and analysed revenue from advertising and circulation. He has found that although ad revenue is falling at companies such as McClatchyand the New York Times, income from circulationis actually increasing.
Ad revenue at both companies was down 30% in the last quarter compared to the same period last year. (The story is not quite as dire in Canada. For example, CanWest Media, the organization that publishes the National Post among other publications, reported results for their most recent quarter on July 10; its overall revenues were down 7%, and publishing revenues were down 19%, year over year.)
Chittum found that revenue at American newspapers from circulationactually rose 5% in the second quarter at McClatchy, to $69.4 million. (The daily circulation actually fell, but price increases made up for this.) And at the New York Times , Chittum points out, circulation revenues will pass ad revenues sometime this quarter for the first time ever, if current trends hold. In this year’s second quarter, the paper brought in $185 million in ad revenue and $166 million from subscribers. So if the ad income continues to decline at a rate of 30% and the circulation revenue keeps increasing, the latter is likely to overtake the former any time now.
It’s as yet unclear what the ceiling might be for media executives looking to continue hiking prices. However, Chittum suggests it points the way toward a new model based less heavily on advertising. He suggests charging $15 a month for full access to . If only half of paper’s print readers and 2.5% of the website’s visitors were to pay, the paper could bring in $189 million a year: enough to pay for the entire Times newsroom. And of course, the paper could still advertise.
The Wall Street Journalis expected to bring in $120 million in online advertising this year despite its paywall, Chittum notes. If the Times was able to bring in a similar amount, it could easily survive in online-only format, he proposes.
Chittum’s findings hold out significant promise for those bemoaning the death of paid content. Given the urgency, it shouldn’t be too long before his insights, and those of savvy practitioners such as’s Alan Murray, find their way into the business strategies of media organizations everywhere. Once the business model is on sounder footing, it’s to be hoped that the days of citizen journalists backpacking their way into the prison camps of tinpot dictatorships are numbered.
However, this rosy outlook on the future of media comes with one very important caveat. Until the economy recovers, it’s probably wisest to keep all brave new pay-for-content ideas on the beta burner.