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A research-academic-industry collaboration to accelerate legacy media's transition to digital. An ongoing effort by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to highlight examples of elements in the emerging news and information ecosystem -- to stimulate collaboration and additional ideas, experiments and solutions.Champion: RJI and Peggy Holman.



The U.S. news industry is at a pivot point. It can stay the same as innovators gradually do pieces better, faster, cheaper. Or it can declare a new goal to be the most-trusted friend, informant, advisor, agent, steward and broker to people awash in abundant information -- but too little knowledge. Key media-ecosystem changes already underway include: (1) Content converging and atomizing, (2) Advertising becoming a one-to-one marketing conversation and (3) A publisher shift from gatekeeper to "infovalet."

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute is prepared to help lead the industry in an urgent, time-bounded assignment. Call it the 120-day sherpa sprint. The assignment we are prepared to accept: Define and assemble the building blocks for news that matters to 21st-century citizens. We don’t own this idea.

Early in April, we exchanged email with an innovative thinker in the American news ecosystem – a veteran technologist committed to the task of sustaining the values, principles and purposes of journalism. He said: “Getting past the cost control, declining revenue mindset to aggressive action and audience-building investment is and will continue to be a real challenge.” Another thought leader, Rich Boehne, the president and CEO of E.W. Scripps Co., says: “I hope we find ways to work together at much more scale, but it just has not happened to date."

Alan Mutter on his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur,” discussed the urgent need for the news industry to pool its resources for innovation. He wrote April 11, “The time to act is now. The contest will only get more intense, with Groupon, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and a host of wannabes feasting on fresh capital faster than you can spell IPO.”

At the Reynolds Journalism Institute, this caused us to ask ourselves: “How can we provide leadership to both sustain the best of the past, yet build for the future? Is it writing, meetings, behind-the-scenes work, and partnerships? What’s the effective strategy? All of those things fit RJI’s mission.

The changes, and challenges, are immense.

Thinkers like Stijn Debrouwere at Cedar Rapids are laying out why innovation is eating away at the news industry’s sinew. His view is called: “Fungible.” Henry W. (“Buzz”) Wurzer, a former Hearst Corp. and Tribune Company senior strategy and advertising executive has developed a set of 10 pivot points for the industry that he’s shared with RJI. It’s entitled: “Reinvesting in Story Telling – A Path to New Revenue.” Yet there are answers emerging.

Last August, one of our Reynolds Fellows, Bill Densmore, authored for us, “From Paper to Persona: Sustaining Journalism in the Attention Age.” It recommended formation of a non-profit collaborative to share technology, users and content and concluded this could help news organizations to find new revenues and become better at serving the public. The last week in April was RJI’s annual “Innovation Week.” It was a chance to ask probing questions about the future of news, and the news industry, informed by some of the unique experiments, research and scholarship we have underway.

Future in relationships, not advertising?

In one session headed by Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times and a 2008-2009 RJI fellow, it was sobering to hear Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) declare that for the news industry: “The future may not be in advertising.” He added: “We are in the creating knowledge business, not [necessarily] the business of writing narratives and selling ads.” Rosenstiel said competitors like Google and Facebook are developing intimate, personal knowledge about the information habits of people in newspaper’s communities. Another RJI fellow, former Tampa Tribune Executive Editor Janet Coats, added in that same session: “It is all about relationships.”

In Chicago, informed by pre-convening phone discussions with our virtual and on-site participants, we focused on communities -- and how news organizations seve them -- as the building block for a new news ecosystem. We proposed, explored or fleshed out at least six related project ideas.

RJI’s 120-day assignment is to help move to action several of those ideas.

Moving beyond tension, to a new trusted relationship

In a March 5, 2012 recent report for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The Search for a New Business Model,” Tom Rosenstiel and Mark Jurkowitz reported on detailed, on-site interviews with more than a dozen U.S. newspaper ownership groups and gathered proprietary digital revenue data from about 40 newspapers. Beyond all the data, which detailed the immense revenue challenges facing the industry, Rosenstiel said the most important thing they found was “a still seething tension internally between those pushing for a more digital future and, for want of a better word, people still steeped in a legacy culture.”

In their report, they anonymously quoted one industry executive:

    The big issue . . . is who gets the right to deliver the time- and location-sensitive message. It won’t be everybody that gets the right to come into my picket and beep me because I just walked into the mall . . . So how do we, as the newspaper in town, do what we need to do now to make sure a year or two years down the road, we are the ones with permission and a trusted relationship with the consumer.

We believe RJI is obligated to help mediate that seething tension and reinvigorate a trusted relationship with our public. The ideas we brought to Chicago, ideas that we test and shape, will form the basis of our 120-day action sprint.