Can We Make Media Better? We See Reason to Hope.

by: | Apr 27, 2017

I took a break from social media and the news for two full weeks during the holidays. It was amazing.

When I got back online, I was struck — more than ever before — by how depressing much of the media I consume is. What am I supposed to do or feel when I read “Donald Trump just said this crazy thing (again)” or “fire/avalanche/gunman kills a bunch of people”?

Most of the media these days leaves me feeling angry, scared or helpless. Sometimes all three at once. And I know I’m not the only one.

Of course, this has been true for a long time, and many people ranging from Spark News (where I had my first internship!) and the Solutions Journalism Network have been working to make progress. But — as my colleague Christie outlined in her article about how media and social media undermined our democracy in this past election — rarely have the challenges of media been on starker display than they are today.

Media heavily influences people’s decisions. If we’re going to address the issues facing our democracy and spark meaningful civic participation, media needs to improve. Luckily, in this crazy moment, I think we have a real opportunity to reshape how media works

I see two main opportunities to make media more informative, delightful and inspiring of action:

1) change media’s ad-driven business model and

2) harness social media for 2-way conversations.

Changing the business model of media

Can revenue be connected to trust and community building, instead of audience size and amount of content published? Instead of breadth, can business models encourage depth and time well-spent?

The vast majority of media depends on advertising for its revenue. Because revenue growth is tied to ever more content, and ever more people reading this content, media — in particular online media — is filled with clickbait and dubious “news.” Never has there been more content, and never have we been less informed. Sean Blanda breaks it down in his post, Medium, and The Reason You Can’t Stand the News Anymore. The post is so good and also really terrifying.

Changing the business model of media will be an uphill battle, but I’m inspired by a few models from up-and-coming startups.

Subscription models: The ideal if you can make it work.

Subscription models are the holy grail for content publishers. It’s one of the most straightforward way to fund the business of content production, as we explained in our revenue generation white paper, Making Money for Impact. As your subscriptions grow, so does your revenue. The Information, for example, has a $399 paywall for access to the content on its site. This model has been viable for The Information because its target audience of wealthy professionals can afford it and value quality reporting. In short, nice work if you can get it!

Micropayments and patronage: Making it easy to support better content

For people not willing or able to pay the full subscription fee, companies like Blendle and PennyPass allow people to pay only for the content they want to read. It’s the iTunes model but for journalism. But will it work? Will people be willing to pay for content they can largely get for free? Will this model lead to further polarization if people only pay for the news they like? For now, it’s a controversial but interesting model

Patronage is a similar, though less transactional model, that shows promise. On sites like Patreon, people can signup to support content creators they admire for just a few dollars a month. It’s the NPR pledge drive for anyone!

Events: Deep engagement delivers value for everyone involved

Events are a promising way to deepen ties with your audience, while creating content that can be used across platforms. It also offers multiple revenue opportunities. Blavity, an NMV investee, is a great example of this model. People pay to attend their sold-out AfroTech and EmpowerHER conferences. In addition, sponsors back the events as an effective way to connect with their target audiences. With the strong sense of community that the events create, Blavity’s audience is more likely to engage on an ongoing basis and write about issues that they care about, which in turn supports Blavity’s online revenue streams. It seems to be working, WIRED magazine recently reportedthat 60% of Blavity’s content is written by readers.

Harnessing the power of social media for 2-way conversations

How can we use different formats and communications channels to make stories more engaging and more authentic? How can we elevate new voices and bringing richer, more diverse perspectives to the table?

With all the issues of fake news and filter bubbles, it can be tempting to throw out the social media baby with the bathwater (ha!). Social media still is a powerful way to distribute content, bypassing the gatekeepers of traditional journalism. From Tomi Lahren on the far right to Trae Crowder on the left, “independent” personalities have emerged. They are able to draw huge audiences on social media, completely outside of traditional newsrooms.

User-generated content: New voices and more information to distill

User-generated content is often synonymous with low-quality. Yet, it’s also free (or nearly) and created by people who don’t typically have a voice in traditional media. From Huffington Post to Blavity, it’s interesting to see a growing number of media companies seeking the right middle-ground by editing, curating and publishing user-generated content, under their own brands. Another example, Odyssey, a digital collegiate ‘magazine,’ generates 30 million unique views monthly and is powered by free or near-free contributions from students.

User-generated content and the volume of content that comes with it create their own set of challenges, of course — specifically, how do these new voices get heard in the cacophony? We still mostly discover content when a piece surfaces on our Facebook newsfeed or is on the first page of our Google search results. While these user-generated platforms offer a potential alternative, still, 81 percent of Odyssey traffic comes from social media shares. Facebook’s and Google’s algorithms continue to act as the arbiters of what we see and what we know about.

Beyond the one-way conversation of traditional media

The power of social media is in its authenticity, rawness, and ability to foster conversations with anyone in the world (at least in theory). A great example is Justin Trudeau’s live town hall on SnapChat. When has a country’s leader ever made him or herself so available on a platform that is designed for very personal interactions? People loved to connect in a more personal way — there were nearly as many questions about his haircare as there were about about his policies.

NMV investee Hearken helps newsrooms deepen engagement and build trust with their readers. Whereas journalists usually only look to the audience to help distribute or comment once a piece has been published, Hearken is helping newsrooms bring the audience into the story creation process at the very beginning. This deep engagement is also an effective business model. If you have an authentic, two-way conversation with your audience, people are more likely to spend more time on your site, which results in them exploring more content and generating more ad-dollars.

These innovations give me hope that we are headed in the right direction to transform media. What signs for hope are you seeing? Are you building something new and promising? If so, our Innovation Fund Open Call is live (until March 3rd). We’d love to hear your pitch.