Sunday, August 7, 2011

Real World Media: The Reinvention of Journalism

By Susan Older, Founder of Displaced Journalists and Real World Media
I refuse to give up on good journalism. I refuse to give up on displaced journalists, either. Not just the members of our Displaced Journalists community on the Web, on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but all journalists who can’t find a place where they belong anymore.
We need to reinvent our profession to keep good journalism alive.
Our society depends upon a free and vigilant press. It is a fundamental building block of our democracy.
  • It provides citizens with the news and information they need to make their lives safer, easier, happier and more fulfilling.
  • It gives citizens the comfort of knowing someone is out there looking after their interests.
  • It provides the fundamental role of ensuring an informed electorate.
  • It holds accountable the officials citizens elect at the polls.

Why is journalism broken? We all know the answer: It's money. It's not the Internet. It's the lack of revenue models for both print and online news and information operations.
Only Steve Jobs has hit on a real revenue model. The App Store is brilliant, but it appears publishers who try to sell their content as apps will get only a small bite of the Apple – too little for sustenance. We need to think about how we could emulate that model without giving our product away.
We need to determine who will pay for quality content. I believe the demand still exists.
We need to restore citizens’ trust in the news they read and the journalists who report it. We can do this. The solution lies in getting the best and the brightest back to work and in a position to mentor young journalists, to pass on the mojo, the dedication, the ethical standards and the devotion to excellence that once defined our profession.
I propose a revolutionary solution to save journalism and journalists.
Real World Media.
It is a big idea and it will require serious funding. Can it be done? Absolutely. Can I do it alone? Of course not. We need help and we need funding. I do believe, though, that it is a start.
We must pose the question of how to find buyers for quality content. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s come together to devise a plan that will improve as it evolves. We need solutions that address the concerns of citizens of local, state, national and global communities. Let’s be realistic: globalization has changed the rules of the game. Almost all of the things we cover are playing out to some degree on a global scale.
So what is the future of journalism? How can we address these issues.
Real World Media: What is it? Why participate?
Real World Media is designed to be the first location-based (think FourSquare), mobile-device-driven global news web. It will provide tailored news and information coverage by top-notch, vetted reporters, photojournalists and news videographers who are already at or near the scene – and top notch editors who interact with these journalists and fine-tune their work.
Real World Media will provide journalists with the work they haven’t been able to find and the respect they deserve. Journalists will be paid fairly and immediately (think PayPal) – a rare occurrence for freelancers in the wake of our industry’s massive job losses.
Journalists will be associated with the best and the brightest colleagues – reporters, editors, photojournalists and news videographers – all of them drawn to Real World Media because it’s a prestigious, trusted network and it’s their best chance of getting fair compensation for a job well done.
The editorial board of Real World Media will screen journalists who seek to be part of its global network. Journalists who have the right stuff will start receiving assignments once it’s up and running. Journalists who don’t make the cut right away will be referred to customized training and performance-improvement solutions to help them qualify at a later date.
The first step in any new venture is to look at it from the point of view of the customer. Of course, this has always been the case for journalists. We’ve been trained to make coverage decisions based on what our readers want. I have always referred to this as the “what does it mean to me” factor. Readers didn't subscribe to newspapers unless they delivered news and information that directly affected their lives. How can we make our coverage so good that readers or users will pay for it online? It's a tough question, but we must come with a solution. We can't just give up.
What about coverage of “what they need to know”? Yes, we’ve always done that, too, because the great thing about newspapers was that readers stumbled upon things they couldn’t have predicted they would want to read. It was serendipity. That’s something we’ve lost to varying degrees as news and information migrated to online sites. Now users tend to go to the sites that reflect their specific interests or views. Real World Media will offer engaging enterprise stories, photos and video designed to put the serendipity back into news sites.
What keeps Real World Media customers up at night?
Entrepreneurs in every field look for the “pain point.” They ask the question: “What keeps our potential customers up at night?” If they can't answer that question, they need to go back to square one and figure it out.
Let’s look at our potential customers’ needs and address them as if we were speaking directly to them.
This is a sample scenario:
You are a managing editor at a news and information operation – either print or online. You have dismissed more of your staff than you knew was wise. You did it because, financially, you believed you had no choice. You or your publisher felt it was necessary to trim the budget to stay in business. Unfortunately, you got rid of the best and the most experienced journalists because their salaries were the highest.
Now you’re looking at a decimated newsroom and a big story breaks – one that directly affects your readers and your community. It could be floods, drought, and forest fires. It could be corruption in your local police department or city hall. It could be a scandal, playing out in Washington, one that involves local or state officials. It could be a story about a local military man or woman engaged in battle half way around the world. You want to cover these things, and you want the local angle, probably with photos and video, but you don’t have a staffer to spare.
What do you do?
  • Do you send a journalist, possibly insufficiently experienced, to deal with a difficult assignment, bagging the important story he or she was working on before you had to shift gears?
  • Do you resign yourself to using a wire service story, knowing that they are extremely unlikely to give you the local angle and that the same story will appear everywhere else?
  • Do you call a freelancer whom you may not know? Are you confident he or she will get to the scene on time? Are they any good? Do you need to find a photojournalist or news videographer, as well?
  • How much time can you afford to spend setting this coverage in motion?
You get the point. No matter what you do, you rob your readers of one thing to give them another. That hurts. You never had to make this tradeoff in the past. You once had a good and sizable staff that was capable of doing it all and doing it all well. Your newsroom ran smoothly – okay, as smoothly as possible. You could afford to take time lining up freelancers around the world for a big story, and once you did that you had a big enough staff to assign your own reporters to get the local angle.
Readers were loyal because you gave them news and information that truly affected their lives – their children, healthcare, family budgets, safety, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, housing, etc. When it came to investigative reporting or breaking news coverage that affected your readers anywhere around the globe, you gave readers your best. Can you do this now, with sparse resources?
Real World Media clients: what we give you
So you decide to become a Real World Media client. Real World Media will provide a simple and affordable solution to the many problems brought about by staff shortages. You will get full coverage without breaking the bank. You, your publisher, your readers and great journalists can all sleep at night.
Real World Media takes your requests and uses cutting edge technology to locate journalists, photographers and videographers around the world to cover the story to your specifications. Maybe it’s a story breaking halfway around the globe, but it affects people from your town, city or state. Real World Media will cover the global and the local angles of the story.
You will pay Real World Media and its journalists well because you know they are worth it and you get what you need from them. Just think about what you once paid your most valuable staff members, the ones you had to dismiss as advertising dwindled and news and information took off into uncharted digital territory.
Real World Media is not designed to take jobs away from working journalists. We’re happy to see journalists working at all. As for jobless journalists, we genuinely hope they will find great jobs again. For now, though, why not tap into their talent and experience through a system you can trust. But let me be clear: Real World Media is not a content mill.
It’s a win-win for everyone. You will save on salary, benefits, travel expenses, and expensive equipment by using the services of Real World Media. Journalists will get what they need by joining the Real World Media network, which ensures that they will be paid fairly and rapidly. As our network grows, we hope to negotiate group rates on benefits such as health care.
Your readers will get what they want, whether it is international or domestic coverage with a community angle or an investigative reporting project right down the road that you cannot begin to staff. It might even be a feature story you just know your readers would enjoy, one that would enrich their lives.
As a client of Real World Media you  will have at least three options:
  • You may make a special request for a local angle on any given story. Real World Media journalists will report it for you. This will serve your needs regardless of whether the story is happening inside or outside of your geographic community. It doesn't matter. You will have the option of informing readers of more than what's happening. You will tell them exactly what it means to them, with quotes from local citizens and local officials.
  • You may request an exclusive story that will not be available or even visible to other clients on the Real World Media site. This will serve your needs if you want an exclusive on a breaking story or if you want a highly qualified team to handle an investigative project or local story that you don’t have the staff to handle.
  • You may buy a story that appeals to your audience straight off the Real World Media site. This will serve your needs if you simply want the best possible coverage on an important story. This would serve your needs if you don’t need a local angle and aren’t concerned with exclusivity, but don’t want to run a wire service story identical to the one your competition carries.
Real World Media will run the network. We will find, evaluate and direct the reporters, editors, photographers and videographers. We will have layers of editors – all highly experienced, respected and trustworthy. We will maintain a website featuring synopses of all the stories available for purchase, the price, and the option to negotiate exclusive stories or big stories with local angles.
You will tell us what you need and we will find the best journalists for you. We will use cutting-edge, location-based, mobile technology to stay in touch with journalists (reporters, editors, photographers or videographers) who are at or near the scene and prepared to take the assignment. If another journalist is required to interview people in your community for a local angle, we will provide that service, too.
You will pay a fair price for stories produced by Real World Media’s global network of journalists because you know they are worth it. They will fill the void created when you laid off your best staffers.
Real World Media will charge for the story, the photos or the video you commission from our network of journalists. You will be obligated by contract to buy the assigned story, photos or video, regardless of whether you use it. You will pay more if you decide to alter your original request. Of course, good reporters, photographers and videographers think for themselves and are highly likely to deliver more than you asked for, simply because of the situation they find on the ground when they are in the process of reporting or shooting photos or video.
Real World Media will have a multi-layered network of highly experienced and vetted editors to ensure that customers receive professionally edited products.
None of this is carved in stone. In fact, this is just a jumping off point.

Please join the discussion and add you thoughts on this concept. I am working on the website and marketing materials now. I could use some help if any of you have the skills and the time. I'm in a tough spot, because refusal to work for nothing is part of the Displaced Journalist credo. I would love to hear what you think, here on the Displaced Journalists site, on the Real World Media Facebook page, or privately at susanolder@realworldmedia.org. If you have other networking ideas, let's find a way to implement them.
Let the reinvention begin.
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Editor's note: You may be wondering why I chose to speak to the customer rather than directly to journalists about this idea I've been hatching for the past year. The answer is this: You, my fellow journalists, can see your role as you read this. We need to draw attention to the concept and get customers and funding sources interested. All of the information I've come up with thus far is in this piece, except for how we will price stories and how much Real World Media journalists will be able to earn. At this point, I don't know how much you will earn if we do get funding and this becomes a reality. However, I am devoted to ensuring that journalists are paid fairly. You will be part of the process as we begin to determine rates. In no way will this resemble a content mill. If any of you can offer your programming, design or marketing skills for the cause, I can certainly use them. I have no funding at this point, and, of course, Displaced Journalists has never been about making money. On the other hand, it goes against our very credo to work for nothing, so I'm in somewhat of a bind. It's been interesting learning web development of WordPress.org, but I'm certainly not going to learn design and programming fast enough to get this off the ground when we need it most – now. 
– Susan Older