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Journalism is dead – unless it’s about big-breasted kittens

Every month, The Moxie Sessions bring together a small group of Auckland business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the internet and boost its competitiveness. This month, we looked at the future of journalism in the age of the internet.

The internet, claims Idealog editor and author Hazel Phillips, has ruined journalism.

The internet, soothes Public Address founder Russell Brown, is a positive force in media.

The internet, chips in Public Address founder Russell Brown, is both hugely positive and damaging for the business of news and the viability of journalism as a job.

Luckily, this being The Moxie Sessions and not some kind of new media cage fight (now there’s an idea I should put on Kickstarter), the only claws bared were on the adorable kitten pictures Hazel used to illustrate just how far the public’s taste for news had sunk. (This on a day when the most clicked-on story on the New Zealand Herald website was about two large-breasted identical twins.)

While readers’ eyeballs have shifted from print to the web, advertising revenue hasn’t necessarily followed. The problem is particularly acute, Brown says, in New Zealand, where the numbers visiting anything other than a totally mainstream site just don’t light up media buyers’ eyes. And arguments over the quality of the audience versus its size, he says, hold about as much water as an op-shop colander.

The result, says Hazel, has been a fairly rapid change in newsrooms around the country. “It’s gone from having time to research, check and review for print, to journalists having to file four stories a day for the online edition.” In short, it’s moved from Watergate to click bait.

This hasn’t sat well with older journalists and goes some way to explaining why they’re becoming a rare breed, replaced by an endless stream of journalism graduates eager to file their quota of kitten stories en route to that cushy PR job.

But the news isn’t all bad. Russell Brown points out that The Guardian now reaches 36 million people worldwide – a figure the print edition could never have done (although the operation still loses money).

And this excellent post points out that compared to the challenges of setting up a newspaper, blog platforms like Wordpress form part of a golden age for anyone with an idea to share.  

When it comes to attracting those saleable eyeballs, though, New Zealand presents challenges of scale. When Lorde’s concert at Vector Arena was offered as a free live stream, it attracted a fairly pathetic total of 7000 viewers – a fraction of what even a niche show might pull on broadcast TV.

So if most New Zealand content can’t fund itself through advertising, what are the options?

Paywalls can work and both APN and Fairfax have been open about erecting them this year. Expect these to be “porous,” Brown says, possibly following the New York Times model of 10 free stories a month before the tollgate closes.

Crowdfunding – either an NPR-style drive to fund the whole platform or having a particular story sponsored as Keith Ng has done – is an option, but as crowdfunders like filmmaker Taikia Waititi have learned, donors are a needy bunch and the effort involved in keeping them happy can sometimes outweigh the upside.

The consensus in the room was that one possible future, at least in this market, is in micropayments. While iTunes has played its part in, according to some, destroying the music industry, its “99c a track” model and seamless payment makes for a very efficient way to connect listeners’ credit cards to artists’ bank accounts (albeit with a 35% ticket clip along the way).

A Spotify-like platform might work too – readers paying a monthly licence for all-you-can-read access to a wide range of online news. (An enterprising telco could even give it away for free!).

The problems of payment, ease of use and content aggregation aren’t trivial, but the opportunity to create an online marketplace for journalism is real. And if there really are enough people willing to pay, there might yet be a future for journalists writing about something other than boobs and kittens.

*Footnote: As I write this, Hazel has resigned her editorial position to take up a corporate communications role. And despite publicaddress.net attracting 62,500 unique visitors last month, advertising still isn’t covering costs and Russell is currently busy running his annual (and annually successful) appeal to readers.

The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.

Check out the standing invitation, the podcasts and the records of previous events at http://themoxiesessions.co.nz, and follow @moxiesessions on Twitter.

Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.