Digital news.

The headlines don’t look too good for newspapers. With falling readership and growing competition from the Internet, newspapers are questioning how and whether they can survive in the digital age. What they need to find is a successful business model for the future. Gates scholar Andrew Gruen is investigating just what that might look like for a new media start-up.

My goal is to find out how you build a successful new journalism organisation and what accountability journalism means when you have no newspaper attached

Andrew Gruen

Gruen, who has himself worked for a range of media including BBC News Online and an NBC affiliate tv station in Florida, is interested in the kind of accountability journalism which many fear is on the way out, the kind which holds people and institutions in power to account.

He is studying whether media which has started up in the digital era without the baggage of a traditional media beginning does accountability differently, what its business model is and how successful it is. He has done most of the theoretical background work and will this year apply that to three case studies – a for profit, a low profit and a non-profit organisation on three different continents – before writing up his thesis and setting out to promote his findings.

He plans to interview most people working in the organisation, to look at their books to assess their costs and revenues – not unlike press surveys do in the print world and like the Inland Press Association does amongst American newspapers.

“My goal is to find out how you build a successful new journalism organisation and what accountability journalism means when you have no newspaper attached,” he says. “I suspect it is not the same as traditional accountability journalism. There’s a lot of discussion about data journalism, for instance. It might not be the straightforward digging for stories of malfeasance by some person in power. It could, for instance, be about building a searchable database of public representatives and lobbyists, including their portfolio details and what they are paid.”

He believes digital start-ups work differently to traditional media. OhmyNews, Korea’s huge citizen journalism site, is one example. Gruen worked there for a year after completing his MPhil thesis on the Development of Citizen Journalism looking at whether specific factors, such as a lack of free expression and a highly technologically developed infrastructure, were crucial to its success.

In addition to its website, OhmyNews earns money through its book publishing arm. If an issue is important enough it will publish a book on it. “The books are another source of revenue to go along with putting a big story online. It’s a dual-pronged approach,” says Gruen.

He wants to see what kind of resources a new organisation would need. He believes it will be substantially less cash than for traditional media, given that the manufacturing of newspapers, including newsprint, as well as distribution costs make up over 60% of a newspaper’s costs.

One resource digital media may need is flexibility.  Perhaps they will specialise in certain types of analysis or hire in experts as and when needed. “I suspect successful digital organisations are much more adept at adapting to the rapidly changing pace of digital news, that they are pretty nimble compared to traditional newspapers,” he says. “They are able to compete on what improves their content. They won’t do the unnecessary stuff, for instance, sending a reporter to cover a basketball match which several others are covering. They will take pool copy and add extra value, for instance, through the quality of their analysis of the match.”

Gruen believes new media will develop different types of jobs, for instance, people who are good at monitoring the blogosphere or know how to exploit citizen experts, as OhmyNews has expertly done [it has access tens of thousands of active participants]. “In an increasingly complex world we need to make good decisions based on good information,” he says. “We shouldn’t be worrying about whether newspapers are going to survive into the future. What we should be concerned with is whether what they do is going to survive. It will be okay if there is something to replace them.”

Gruen says he wants his research to be of immediate practical use. “The last thing I want is for it to be just another interesting paper,” he states. “I want it to add value and have direct impact on the way the media develops.”

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