The spectacle of various media tycoons over the summer proclaiming that paywalls are coming back for news content has felt like watching a car crash in slow motion. I suppose if you're a news publishing executive you have a vested interest in blaming the Web for killing print media, but frankly I think it's time to put a stop to the bluster. It's not the Web that killed their businesses, it was the media owners' own callous lust for profit during the boom years when making money was easy and good journalism was too hard to cost-justify (especially if you left morals and integrity out of the equation).
So while I applaud the latest initiative by subscription billing start-up Zuora to save journalism, I don't believe that saving big media is the way to do it — even though Zuora's platform, in other hands, may play a key role.
Many people are worried that the tradition of fearless, relentless investigative journalism that is one of the guarantors of our democratic freedoms is under threat from the financial bankruptcy of big media and its consequent inability to fund such initiatives. But it was the industry's moral bankruptcy that killed off investigative journalism and replaced it with mindless reproduction of press releases and spin — all the while diminishing reader loyalty and respect. Good journalism costs money and (like prudent banking) it became a casualty of short-term greed, with the Web coming along just in time to pick up the mantle of convenient scapegoat.
Casting around for solutions, some people feel that investigative journalism in the online era should be funded by community donations or public subsidy. Neither charity nor government resonate for me as trustworthy paymasters of media freedom, but I do think that community funding — in the widest possible sense of community — is the way forward.
While established big media companies flounder around for a way of reinventing the bubble-funded economics that for too long sustained the illusion of a successful business model, Web pioneers are finding innovative new ways of funding independent journalism and analysis.
I'm particularly impressed by the GigaOm Pro model of offering in-depth research and participation in an expert community as a paid supplement to their free-of-charge content (perhaps because I pioneered a similar model ten years ago with the ASPnews.com website, before it was acquired by an eyeball-driven online publishing business). This model succeeds because it is funded by the people who care most about getting accurate, detailed information from those whose expertise they've grown to respect. In the Web, of course, 'community' is no longer defined by geography or affiliation but by shared interest, and that is precisely what the GigaOm model monetizes.
It turns out that GigaOm Pro runs its subscriptions on the Zuora service, which is why I said earlier that Zuora may well play a part in saving journalism (although it has a lot on its plate, with existing initiatives to underpin online business models for Web 2.0, cloud and SaaS). But I'm not holding my breath for an early end to the gnashing of teeth in big media, which is too hung up on rescuing a business model that's no longer viable.