Why Media? Part II: Journalism As a Service

This is part two of a three-part series that summarizes our latest media partners meeting at the Gates Foundation. Part one looked at innovative approaches to storytelling of complex topics. Next week I’ll look at how some media organizations are measuring their impact.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two of the wealthiest individuals on the planet, and they have each pledged to give away the majority of their fortunes to alleviate poverty. Here’s a lesser known commonality: they both worked as paperboys. This is back when newspapers were a product — something bought and sold — and actually made of paper. Whether it still makes sense to think of journalism as a product is now up for debate. Over the past few years CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has been promoting the concept of journalism as a bundle of services that meet the needs of a community rather than a product that is bought, sold, and consumed.

We invited Jarvis to our annual media partners convening at the Gates Foundation to have a friendly debate with Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat. Haile believes that, in order for media organizations to stay in business, they must demonstrate to advertisers, corporate sponsors, and philanthropic foundations that they are able to attract and sustain the attention of a significantly sized audience. He has been one of the most vocal proponents of moving beyond the page view as a proxy for attention, and looking at more granular measures of how readers interact with content on the page.

Jarvis counters that, while attention is one important metric, it’s not the most important. Beyond capturing attention, media organizations must provide utility to their readers. For Jarvis, this is more than just giving readers relevant, timely information; it also implies connecting them with resources to make that information applicable to their lives. It means providing readers with services.

Using Superstorm Sandy as an example, Jarvis argues that too many media organizations merely compete for attention, and too few offer helpful services that enable readers to improve their lives and communities.

As I listened to their debate, it seemed that Haile and Jarvis were hovering over a deeper issue: how journalism should be funded in the 21st century. Haile’s focus on attention assumes that journalism is funded by advertising and sponsored content. Jarvis’ model allows for the possibility that media organizations provide sufficiently useful services to their readers that those readers are willing to pay for them.

Unfortunately for Jarvis, there are few successful examples of media organizations that have reached sustainability by charging for the services and content they offer their readers. One example that comes to mind is Kinfolk Magazine, which has eschewed all advertising and generated significant revenue by organizing workshopsdinners and sponsored events around the world. At the Texas Tribune, an online outlet dedicated to state news and policy debates, over a quarter of revenue comes from sponsored, live events.

Following the Jarvis vs. Haile debate, we heard from three media organizations that are providing services that go beyond merely informing their readers.

Code for Africa

Kenya’s Star newspaper regularly covers fake doctors — like Francis Kadaya who entered Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru with a fake name tag and began attending to patients during the night shift. But, until recently, readers had no way to check whether their own doctor is a licensed physician and free from malpractice lawsuits. The Code for Kenya team worked with The Star to build Dodgy Doctors, a website that allows users to check the names of their doctors to ensure they are licensed and free of malpractice. Users can also check for the nearest health specialist and whether their public health coverage will be accepted.

In South Africa, prices for generic and brand medicines are regulated by the government. Still, amid allegations of kickbacks, many doctors and pharmacies push patients to the more expensive alternative, or overcharge for generics. Code for South Africa built What Should Your Medicines Cost? to empower South Africans to look up the costs of their prescriptions before they head to the pharmacy.

Univision

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2021, one of four U.S. students will be Latino. In Texas and California, nearly half of all students are Latino. But, unlike whites and blacks, which have made steady growth over the past few decades in high school and college completion, Latinos have made few gains. These are the headlines, but what can be done to change the statistics?

Univision, by far the largest Spanish-language media organization in the US, has made education their priority beat. This goes beyond your usual news coverage. A number of tools have been launched to keep Latino parents engaged in their children’s education. There is a is daily email (or series of text messages) with tips to prepare for college. They have also compiled a database of all college scholarships and local education resources with Spanish-speaking staff. Tu Educación Tu Inversión is a Spanish translation of College Reality Check, a platform to help students find the best universities for their needs and budget. They partnered with YouVisit to add Spanish voice-over to virtual campus tours of hundreds of university campuses. Offline, they host education fairs that bring together parents, students, college admission groups, and local education non-profits with the goal of getting more Latinos to enter and complete college.

Seattle Times Education Lab

As I mentioned in the last past, the Seattle Times launched Education Lab to cover more than just what’s wrong with Seattle’s education system, and dig deeper into what seems to be working. Like Univision, they also have an email list with tips for parents, and regularly organize events that bring together parents, education non-profits, and policy makers. One of the latest events, co-hosted with the Road Map Project, looked at ways to increase parent engagement.

Last week’s post looked at how solutions-oriented journalism moves media from covering problems and debates to evaluating solutions and their implementation. The next logical step is to connect readers with those solutions so that they can improve their lives and communities.

Next week, in the final post of the series, I’ll take a closer look at how media organizations are attempting to measure their impact and influence. If you’re interested in following the Jarvis vs. Haile debate even further, check out this Storify of their Twitter exchange, some additional thoughts by Matthew Ingram of Gigaom, and this follow-up post by Jarvis on engagement and membership models.

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