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Jeff Jarvis: „Page views are poison“

News companies and journalists should give up the idea that more is always better: Jeff Jarvis campaigns for a new journalism where the quality of relationships matters. But how can we earn money in this new digital media world of platforms, networks and relationships?

>> Das Interview auf Deutsch

Jeff Jarvis is book author (his book Public Parts will be published in Germany as “Mehr Transparenz wagen!” on Oktober 12), blogger, podcaster und journalism professor. He is director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY). Journalism students in his entrepreneurial program specialize in how to found their own journalism start-ups. Jeff Jarvis has an astute interest in the relationships between journalists and the public and in new business models for news in a digital media world.

VOCER: What are the developing trends in entrepreneurial journalism?

Jeff Jarvis: I don’t think we know yet. The first trend is still merely the idea that journalists can be entrepreneurs. Because for a long time you couldn’t be. You had to be the person who was rich enough to own the press or had the capital to work with. And now it’s possible for me to teach my students that they can start businesses of their own, because the capital requirements are so low. I think we’re trying to understand new ways to do existing forms and models of news and content and then to rethink what we are. I’ve been arguing lately that we’re not in the content business, we should see ourselves as in the relationship business.

Is content unimportant?

The content will still remain and still has value. But Facebook and Google understand how that content has value to generate signals about people so that you can serve them better and target advertising. And we have to get those skills now. That’s very hard. I think when it comes to serving our advertisers the mere idea of just selling space or time isn’t good enough. We have to help them with their goals online and with digital relationships. So we get away from the old media model that says more is always better – pageviews, pageviews, pageviews – and get to a more direct model of relationships and media.

Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis

Does entrepreneurial journalism have fashion trends? For a while it seemed that everybody wanted to start a hyperlocal site, then a data journalism project, and now Knight News challenge asked to submit projects that build upon existing platforms.

I think that vertically integrated industries get replaced by ecosystems made up of three layers: platforms, entrepreneurial investment and networks. And that one can play in various of those areas. Because the platforms exist it’s possible to do the entrepreneurial efforts inexpensively but sometimes you need to get critical mass so you form networks. That’s what Knight is saying: because these platforms exist you can now build atop of them. That’s a safer way to go. Yes, you can also build a new platform, that’s a scalable, very wonderful thing to do, but it’s hard and expensive to build a Google or a Facebook. It’s possible now to take advantage of what has come before and build new things. But we have to add value to what exists – the key lesson being that information will flow on its own without us. We then add value to that. Whether that’s fact checking or distribution or curation or all these buzzwords we talk about. One way or the other we no longer have a hold on everything, and so we have to prove our value.

Which skills do students of the entrepreneurial journalism program at CUNY learn which they wouldn’t learn in a more traditional journalism school?

It starts with this: When I came to journalism school I was taught to stay away from business. That was corrupting. So none of us learned the business of journalism. And that’s really my not so secret agenda in teaching entrepreneurial journalism. First: It’s simply to teach journalists their business, to make better decisions about it and be better protectors. Second: Students inevitably come in and pick stories they want to write about. They do the same thing when they pick businesses. They come in and say, I want to start a business. And my smart-ass line back to them is: No one gives a shit about what you want to do except perhaps your mother. That’s not the point. You have to understand what the public needs and serve that. A passion or strong interest is not good enough. You need to learn to listen first to the public and figure out what’s there. Another very broad skill: journalists tend to see problems and we teach them to see that whereever there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity. There’s a chance to serve people and make money.

Do journalism students at CUNY learn how to make money?

Revenue is the hardest lesson for all of them. It’s the hard business challenge obviously for all start-ups. Our students have to be able to sell their ideas or their companies to investors. That’s really hard. There have been some really good businesses right now, but they are struggling to get investment from the start. Finally, my students have taught me that one skill they definitely need is project management which includes creating a good prototype and understanding management processes. Journalists are used to having made processes made up for them. They are going to have to think up new processes.

Are there changes that journalism education in general should embrace?

I think we have to change the way in which we teach tools, because we need to teach more tools, yet we don’t want them to take over the education so that in the end its all about gadgets. We also need to be more efficient and less expensive in how we teach. We need to teach more practice. I also think that we need to be able break up our education into units other than just degrees and offer them to anyone anywhere according to their current needs. There are lots of professional journalists who are left behind now by the changes in the industry, who need to be retrained. We need to teach them. There are citizen journalists as we we called them for a while who are out there and need skills, we need to train them too.

Is there an international demand?

For our entrepreneurial program we have a surprising demand internationally from people who want to learn these skills all around the world, some in the EU, but especially in Africa. So we need to train them in a way that doesn’t mean flying them to New York. They can’t afford it or it’s irrelevant to what their needs are. But this is important for their societies and our scociety as a whole. So have to figure that out.

Should journalists, especially start-ups, learn the art of collaboration?

Of course, yes. Journalists should learn to collaborate in all kinds of ways. Collaboration takes many forms. Curating the work of others – do what you do best and link to the rest. That’s a form of collaboration. Crowdsourcing, distributing. Repost.us is a platform built upon the idea that you can distribute someone else’s content while the creator still gets the business benefit of having the brand and the content, because the advertising and the analytics go with it, that’s a form of collaboration. When you work in an ecosystem of platforms and entrepreneurial efforts and networks you have to learn to collaborate with those other elements and ecosystems and hope that they will collaborate well with you. Which is part of the issue with Twitter now – is Twitter still a good collaborator or not? We don’t know. Collaboration isn’t just about you being generous, it is about you being able to hope that others are generous too and enable you to work within their structures.

Should legacy media collaborate more with journalism schools?

Yes, for the benefiit of both. For the school, because we need more places to teach students through the practice of journalism. And for the legacy media, because they get the benefit of more effort and new perspectives. Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation here in the U.S. has talked about the teaching hospital model applied to journalism and there are a few examples of this either through an existing legacy organization or through an organisation the school starts.

What is a teaching hospital model in journalism?

A teaching hospital model is that after would-be-doctor’s go through a certain amount of class time they have to be interns in a hospital and learn through practising there. They’re working on real patients. So we need to do the same thing with our journalism students where they spend some time in the classroom to get their skills together, then they go out and they serve a real community. The only way they can do that is by working with and for a product that really does serve that community. I think journalism schools can work with legacy organisations to do new kinds of reporting the legacy organisation would not otherwise be able to afford.

CUNY collaborates with the NYT for The Local. What will happen with that site when the NYT pulls out by the end of the year?

We haven’t decided yet. In essence they pulled out before. The Local started too ambitiously. They had a full-time staff on it that was never going to be sustainable even in their richest days. When they moved management to us they were still distributing. Because they had their name on it they required that it be New York Times like. That required a lot more effort and expense on our behalf. It was a great experiment and it taught us a lot, it involved our students with the New York Times in new ways. We now need to figure out what the next generation in this is. There’s another new start-up in Brooklyn that I’m very excited about and I’m trying to help raise the funds.

What is the name of this project?

It is not out yet. We’ll look at how to serve Brooklyn as a whole. Brooklyn, New York, if it were alone, would be the 6th largest city in America. It has more African-Americans than Atlanta. It is big in many, many ways and yet it is terribly underserved. And so well-respected journalist has a great idea for how to serve Brooklyn in new ways. If this gets funded and it exists it becomes a teaching hospital, in which our students can report and take part in strategic and technology and business discussions and learn the practice of new business. So I’m really hoping for that.

In legacy media one big debate is free and ad-based versus paywall. Is this a major business decision for startups too?

For some of them, yes. We see a reflexive attitude among journalists and other people to start something new that will bring in revenue from the readers who pay, but once they hit the business reality it doesn’t make much sense because startups are different. First, their cost structure is much less. And second, they have to get to scale. If they start by putting up a paywall, all they’re doing is increasing their marketing cost. When I worked in magazines, there was this subscriber acquistion cost: it’s 15 to 30 dollars marketing money spent to get you to subscribe to the magazine. And even then readers paid us not nearly enough for the magazine, the advertising paid for it. Most startups don’t have the marketing money to get people to come to it and see how wonderful it is behind the paywall. To take that gamble on pay is going to be very hard.

Can crowdfunding be a viable model for journalism funding? And a finance souce journalism startups can build upon?

I have one graduate, Noah Rosenberg, who just had a successful Kickstarter campaign for a business called Narrative.ly. He raised more than 50.000 dollars for a new concept to cover New York in new ways with a story over a whole week, with new content and new advertising models. I’m very excited and delighted that he got that. But you can only do that once. He used crowdfunding to raise money, but he can’t go back to Kickstarter next month. In part of his business model he will have advertising, in part he has membership privileges out of the Kickstarter model where people who spend a certain amount will get certain privileges. They get access to events, more parts of the content and other things like that. So that’s a form of crowdfunding, of paywall subscription, of membership, you can call it many things. He hopes for some level of consumer revenue. But the only way he is going to get that is by being open enough to draw an audience in without the cost of marketing. So it’s got to be a mix.

But not every journalist can ask for money this way…

Design and games are a far better fundraining target than journalism. But he most important thing about Kickstarter is: you have to come to it with your tribe. It’s about relationships once again. If no one knows who you are and no one’s ever heard of you and you have a great design product you might make it. But to come in for the first time and say, I’m a journalist and I want to do this worthy project, come pay for it – Kickstarter alone will not do it for you. If you have people who really do want to support you, Kickstarter is a means by which they can do that.

How do you measure success in journalism?

I think we have measured the wrong things. Page views are poison. They drove us to bring in mass and untargeted content, it was an extension of the odl media model. I’m rethinking what are the metrics are we should be measuring. Rather than just pure page views or pure unique users I think one starting point is relationships and data points about those relationsships. What do we know about our users? Then the next level is the quality of relationship, depth of engagement, time spent, how much do people recommend you? How do these relationships carry on in a valuable way? That’s where we need to head. I’m not sure actually what those measurements are yet, but I think this a really important question. Because I know of sites that just went after pageviews and they got the majority of traffic from people who are not in their market which was of no value to them. And it skewed how they ran their business. You get what you measure and we’ve got to rethink what we measure.

What are the metrics for success in a journalism startup? If it still exists after a certain time?

I think there is the option now to have more pop-up companies. What Kickstarter really is – it’s not an investment, it’s using your customer’s capital for pre-orders and benefits. Most of these start-ups on Kickstarter use other’s intrastructure and platforms. So let’s say you come out with a hot hip product whether that product is physical or entertainment or even reporting. You are using outsourced manufacturing, outsourced distribution, outsourced marketing, outsourced bill payment, all the stuff is out there. You can do it for as long as it is valuable to do it and then you can stop doing it and now one is hurt. It is not like starting a company necessarily where you have a huge staff and then you close the door and they’re all unemployed. You can do a pop-up company using other’s infrastructure and make it very efficient, pay for it and then close it.  No one is goint to invest in that kind of business per se because investors want to get a manifold return, but nonetheless it’s another oportunity to run a business in a different way.

This post was published in an abbreviated version on the book fair blog. Crossposting courtesy of book fair blog.

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  1. Werner Nieke sagt:

    Uhm. At the risk of sounding condescending, I think Prof. Jarvis has some valid points. In particular taking the piece of information and adding value to it, managing its flow and also being highly connected with the right audience while knowing entrepreneurial skills – these are all good ideas as to how to adjust to changed media consumption and challenges brought about in the web 2.0 era. However, I’m not all convinced as to his take on crowdfunding platforms. So far, he has one student that managed to make his kickstarter goal. That’s great and I’m happy for them. Basically from what I understand, though, they got to raise funds for doing a project. And Prof. Jarvis seems to say that whereever that project goes or doesn’t go, it’s not going to hurt those who gave their money for it.
    This is where he loses me: On one hand, he promotes building relationships, on the other he sounds a bit too easy for my taste on dealing with them when it comes to crowdfunding. From what I see, crowdfunders get onboard BECAUSE of the relationship more than anything else. I guess, I’m missing for Prof. Jarvis to say something about consistency. Because if life in general and the social media and similar platforms tell us anything than it is that success – as in: lasting relationships – comes to those who are being consistent in nurturing the networks they’ve built. I don’t see him stressing that point. But I also understand that it’s all moving target at this time, as new insights from fairly new experiences are being gained as we type.
    Other than that: I like his fresh take on the role of media professionals in general. I think, he’s on to something there. (condescing alert again, sorry… ;-))

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