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How can news be saved?

Almost every time I do an interview with a TV business leader these days, I ask him or her how TV’s production and distribution business model will be fixed. I have yet to hear someone come up with THE answer, but people are getting closer. They’ve stopped pulling their hair out trying to do what they’ve always done, and they’ve started taking risks and trying new approaches.

This question is perhaps even more important for the news business. It’s clear that the newspaper model is, if not failing, at least drastically changing, while the digital model is now a runaway train. That news is distributed instantly is now a fact (remember The Daily Show’s Jason Jones asking The New York Times’ Rick Berke why ‘aged news is better than real news?’ “Charming but not profitable,” Jones says), but what’s not clear is how delivering that news becomes profitable again. That’s not to say profitability does not happen now and cannot happen again, but it’s not happening in such a way that reinstates confidence in the business of news. That must change.

In an old-school way, I believe news and its dissemination is the bedrock of democracy, so I’m very interested in seeing the business heal itself. In this piece on, Nic Brisbourne tosses around some ideas toward that end.

Brisbourne’s headline is “The Future of News is Scarcity.” To wit: “The good news is that every abundance creates new scarcities and this is where the news industry must go to make money in the 21st century. The scarcities created (and enabled) by abundant news are interesting stories, thought-provoking analysis, conversation and community, and trust/verification.”

Put more simply, Brisbourne seems to be saying that news done well will always find an audience. I think quality journalistic content actually exists right now in spades. Here are just a few examples out of many possibilities: NPR, PBS and yes, the beleaguered New York Times. NPR and PBS each have done a fantastic job understanding how the Web enhances their radio and TV content, and both organizations run very dynamic and deep online operations that complement their radio and TV product. Of course NPR and PBS are quasi-public organizations, and thus do not face pressure from Wall Street to demonstrate constantly growing margins. I’m not saying all news should be produced by non-profits, but I do think that when profit is a news outfit’s main priority, the actual news suffers.

That brings us to the Times, which is very much a for-profit organization. I am well aware that the New York Times – like all newspapers — is struggling financially, but in my view its content fully meets Brisbourne’s criteria. In fact, The New York Times demonstrates the paradox of Brisbourne’s concept: doing news well costs money, but doesn’t necessarily earn back its keep.

Perhaps the answer – and now I’m preparing to be called a socialist and all sorts of other nasty names — is that news should not be done for profit. I don’t think it should be done for free either, but when news outlets are owned by public corporations that are expected to grow their margins every quarter regardless of whether their actual business supports such growth, things are out of whack. Just a little reminder for us all: the point of producing news is to inform and educate a republic, not to line corporate and shareholder pockets. The news business does have to support itself though and giving it all away for free is not the answer.

For his part, Brisbourne recommends keeping production and distribution costs down as many Web sites do very successfully. It’s always a good idea to keep costs down  — aren’t we all learning the hard way that good times don’t last forever? – but there’s some things worth spending money on, like correspondents who actually live and work in the places that they are covering. (Please ignore the irony that I live in Denver and mostly cover New York and Los Angeles.)

Like everyone else I know that tries to take on this subject (including myself), Brisbourne addresses the issue and tries to provide a solution, but mostly he just ends up back where we started: How can you run a healthy, for-profit media company by providing excellent content if the advertising market isn’t supporting your efforts and consumers have been trained not to pay for your product? What alternative business models should we be considering?

If I had these answers I’d go hire myself out as a consultant, but since I don’t, I’d like to know what you think: How do you think the news business will sustain itself in the digital world?