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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Digital-Journalism Entrepreneurs: Lured by Technology or Fleeing Journalistic Decadence?

How does a business model premised on abundance rather than scarcity look? Will the budding journalistic entrepreneurs end up freely adding to the trove of abundance subtly yet indelibly points to selective scarcity, or will the sea of free abundance dry up once the economic need for a viable revenue stream finally calls in the loan? If only we had infallible crystal balls capable of showing us the future. Rather than staring into the still-foggy abyss, let’s try breaking off pieces of the mammoth digital-media revolution that can be answered.  In this essay, I tackle the question of whether the expansion of online journalism has been primarily chasing the open-ended promise of the burgeoning technology, or pushing away from increasingly decadence in the traditional media. In investigating this question, I do not mean to imply a direct relation to the broader question. Putting GlobalPost under the microscope, I contend that shortcomings increasingly evident in the traditional media have been giving the online revolution a “shot in the arm” in the form of a transfer of talent.  


Phil Balboni and Charles Sennott became digital-journalism entrepreneurs in 2009 by founding and running GlobalPost, an online news business whose mission from the start has been “to help fill the gap caused by the massive retreat from international coverage by traditional news outlets.”[1] In the midst of the 2014 winter Olympics, for example, the for-profit online news-site reported that the Hindu-nationalist party would likely appoint the next prime minister of India.[2]

The traditional herd’s retreat began as broadcast networks willowed international coverage to countries in which the U.S. had a strong political or military interest. For example, the signing of a proposed E.U. constitution in Rome in 2004 received negligible coverage on American newscasts, whose international news stories galvanized between Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan (i.e., George W. Bush’s priorities). The circumscribed international coverage meant fewer stories chasing a 24/7 time-slot at the dedicated news-networks; the pattern of going on and on with one story at the expense of all others was on its way. I submit that this pattern is itself a viable reason why seasoned journalists would ditch the established ships for row boats in the churning digital waters devoid of immediate revenue.

Referring to the online media start-ups, Balboni opines that the “only thing wrong with journalism today is the revenue equation. . . . Until it sorts itself out, it’s going to be difficult for journalism entities to be very successful financially.”[3] Broaden this out to include the traditional American outlets and the online revenue problem can be seen as a consequence of American broadcast journalism itself having gone off the rails.

Besides the obsessive binges such as CNN’s “extended” coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, the encroachments of commentary and the underlying advocacy onto journalism at television news-networks including Fox and MSNBC have compromised journalistic credibility sufficiently for serious journalists of the “shoe-leather reporting” ilk to want some distance from the sickness that does not even recognize itself as sordid. That a sustainable “revenue equation” for online-news commercial ventures has not been in place suggests that their founders were running from more than running toward.

My conclusion may seem counter-intuitive because the marvels of computer technology are so much more visible than has the gradual downward path of traditional broadcast journalism. Although “guilty by association,” news-print publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have likely been losing talent due to the potentials in online outlets whose very existence hits the traditional revenue streams even in spite of not having viable ones themselves. Therefore, although the blight causing broadcast journalism to hemorrhage credibility is perhaps not always given its due as prompting the migration to online outlets without any viable revenue-model already constructed, the impact of the technology on the traditional revenue-equation is also in the mix.




[1] Rem Rieder, “’GlobalPost’ Thrives, But It’s Not in the Black,” USA Today, February 13, 2014.
[2] James Tapper, “The Rise of the Hindu Fundamentalists,” GlobalPost, February 19, 2014.
[3] Rieder, “’GlobalPost’ Thrives.”