Funding Journalism in the Digital Age: Business Models, Strategies, Issues and Trends. Jeff Kaye and Stephen Quinn (2010). New York: Peter Lang. pp. 185.
Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age. Michael Bugeja and Daniela V. Dimitrova (2010). Duluth, MN: Litwin Books. pp. 86.
In a dazzlingly short time, our communication and research habits have dramatically changed. Thanks to technology and the Internet, we’ve found new ways to share, store, connect, search, and inform. In so doing, we’ve damaged, outgrown, or abandoned systems that supported “old” ways—as is plainly seen in the news industry’s turmoil of the past decade. Some functions those old ways served, however, need protecting. These books address two such challenges. The difficulty of finding new economic underpinnings for the production of journalism has been the focus of heated attention. The need to be able to consistently retrieve what has been shared online has not. Both areas deserve explication, which the books’ authors ably provide.
Anyone who has said the word “paywall” in discussions of current journalism likely knows it provokes passionate defenses and attacks. The concept—requiring people to pay for digitally distributed news—sparks broad debate over how journalism might be funded, what journalism means and should mean, who qualifies as a journalist, and journalism’s role. Jeff Kaye and Stephen Quinn’s book brings perspective to those rightfully touchy subjects. After all, business models that sustained huge news organizations and efforts for centuries have crumbled, the authors point out, resulting in slashed staffs and budgets, about ten U.S. newspaper closures annually, and a murky financial outlook. The “talk is of survival” (p. 1). Meanwhile, journalism has flourished “in remarkable ways—from instant global distribution to community participation and more powerful storytelling techniques” (p. 1). What hasn’t changed, they note, is a long-held perception that “an informed public is an intrinsic social good” (p. 1).
While the book initially appears to view the news industry primarily as victim, it gains in context and breadth as it develops. The opening three-chapter section gives an overview of how emerging technologies and social trends affected mass distribution of news. Increased competition from a growing number of sources drew readers and viewers away from established news outlets.
Without masses being attracted in the same numbers to print newspapers and (much less known) to newscasters, advertisers found increasingly fewer reasons to buy ad space or time. Newspapers’ dual-product model—selling “eyeballs” to advertisers while bringing in far less money from ad-news print sales—foundered. Readers’ attention was going to the web. Attempting a similar model online, however, was problematic because of strong competition from online advertisers (such as Craigslist and Google) and an interlaced web culture built on free transfer of information.
Other factors in news organizations’ slow embrace of the web, the authors explain, included a risk-averse culture, an ability to maintain high profit margins through cuts to the core product, an interest in staking a claim online through quickly built readership, and poor methods for collecting secure payments. Newspapers’ first forays into online journalism were in dial-up days, which were slow, frustrating, and pricey for consumers. Nevertheless, news organizations’ failure to charge for content from the beginning is seen by some as “Original Sin” (p. 23).
The authors cover the 1990s dotcom boom and subsequent bust, the emergence in 2004 of Web 2.0 and social media popularity, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. They then explain various approaches to paid-content models including subscriptions, micropayments, and third-party fees. Because Kaye and Quinn built a firm foundation, it becomes understandable why news organizations would at the same time lure free “hits” through search engines, social media, reporting strategies, and distributed media of all kinds.
Chapters 4 through 9 are richly drawn but concise case studies of different funding models. They represent projects across the globe. In Asia, for example, they showcase two successful pro-am collaborations: South Korea’s OhmyNews and Singapore’s Stomp. Other news sites chosen for study include The Guardian and the BBC in Great Britain; Propublica and Spot.us in the United States; and Schibsted in Scandinavia.
One of the strongest case-study chapters deals with the effect of organizational structure on the news product. It compares corporate companies to those under family or trust ownership. “The essence of this chapter is simple,” they write, “In tough economic times dedicated media companies do whatever is needed to protect the core journalism” (p. 89). Kaye and Quinn cite a 2001 book by Gilbert Cranberg, Randall Bezanson, and John Solosoki (Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company). Its documentation of boardroom decisions having already been long fueled by non-journalistic concerns is presented as prescient; Funding Journalism’s authors offer multiple examples of that continuing behavior in the eight years between the two books.
The final chapters detail a wealth of innovative concepts while illustrating ideas with small case studies and many examples. Throughout, the “why” of various innovations or behaviors is explored, which adds interest and depth to the accounts. Why are people more willing to pay for content on e-books or mobile devices than through a browser, for example? Why are current online payment services unpopular with so many people and how can that be over- come?
This is a book for ready reference and ideas. Too often, books that attempt to explain current conditions are mere snapshot collections. This book includes those, but goes beyond them to become history, explanation, and practical theorization. Its readability (opening summaries for each chapter, for example) makes its rich contents widely accessible. Books grounded in “current” technology are quickly outdated. Indeed, some popular devices (such as the iPad) have become topics of journalistic interest since the book’s publication. Because its explanations go so deep, Funding Journalism’s vulnerability in that regard may be minimal.
Michael Bugeja and Daniela V. Dimitrova warn of dangers inherent in citing material that is stored digitally. A large proportion of what we think is securely online and permanently available is not, they and others have found. For example: Articles could be taken offline, placed behind a paywall, or moved to a different server. Unless specific steps were taken to redirect searches, all of those moves would have rendered an article’s web address useless. Web storage, while vastly more convenient, is currently more ephemeral (and less redundant) than physical storage.
Their book starkly dramatizes a need for stability in what we place online, and they argue that academic rigor depends on it. They write: “The tilt toward convenience over substance has put at risk peer review and scientific processes upon which research, invention and innovation have been based since the Enlightenment” (p. 2).
“Link rot” is a term for what happens when material is no longer accessible from a given web address (the URL, also known as a link). In 2003, Bugeja was checking web citations in a book he was about to send to press. To his surprise, almost half the material was no longer available through links at which they’d been previously found. He found replacement URLs for all after an extensive deadline-delaying search. He made photocopies of each citation to prove they existed, at least at that time, at the new location. How often might this happen, he wondered. He and Dimitrova, “aghast at the implications for scholarship in the digital age” (p. 5), began research that resulted in several studies involving links in academic journals.
They found that link decay was related to the link’s age, its domain (.edu, .gov, etc.), and its placement in the site’s hierarchy. If the link went to a home page it was more likely to be found several years hence than if it were deep in the site’s navigational order. There were enough correlations to suggest predictability.
“Half-life” is the term they devised for the time it takes for half the online citations in a particular publication to decay. In a 2006 study of nine top journalism and communication journals, the average half-live estimation was 3.95 years (Appendix D). Forty-seven percent of the 2,035 online citations found in articles those journals published in 2000 through 2003 and checked in 2006 were accessible; 53% were not. The research is described in detail in the book, as is a summation of others’ work, and includes the results of interviews Bugeja and Dimitrova conducted with the journal editors. Also in the book are cautions about other pitfalls of digital storage, such as citation inaccuracy resulting from reformatted material.
The book presents a troubling picture about who owns and who safeguards information now that physical libraries are “shelved” by licensed electronic databases outside librarians’ control. Primary and secondary sources are increasingly archived digitally and are equally vulnerable. One potential mitigation, the authors suggest, is the use of Digital Object Identifiers, digital “barcodes” managed by an international organization. Until then, they suggest, increased awareness and backup copies are prescribed.
Arizona State University