“1 of 4 news start-ups flamed out” was the subject line of one my three daily emails from Bo Sacks, which turned out to be a Newsosaur blog by Alan Mutter. Mutter found that one of every four of the 141 news ventures listed in an online directory published by the Columbia Journalism Review since 2010 appear to have failed. He searched for every site listed in the CJR list and counted the number that either were defunct or had not posted any new content since 2014.
The failure count looks low, given the utter naïveté of many of these enterprises. Even the ones that are touted as “successful" such as the Texas Tribune look like a very modest factor or passing stage in the evolution of civic media, although they offer important lessons.
News ventures don’t take the “business of their businesses as seriously as they take their journalism,” according to Mutter. But looking at a particular case suggests to Mutter that
“the most intractable problem for news ventures may be a hopeless reluctance in the marketplace for paying for what journalists do.”
Mutter’s point is key: if the problem is lack of market interest in what journalists do, news ventures need to change the product or whom they are trying to sell it to and probably both. They have a business model problem not just a problem of execution. More attention to selling subscriptions and advertising is not going to help if it is ultimately too hard a sell.
The current paucity of viable new business models within the “Fourth Estate” should concern us all. News ventures are part of a larger political-economic model: the democratic republic. Belief is fundamental factor of political economics. So news ventures, as we know them, can be regarded as political-economic models disciplined by business forces. To limit innovation in news enterprises simply to the realm of business models is a blinding constraint on possible solutions. We need to think about what civic media does for whom in terms of political-economics.