The dots are getting more interesting to connect. Consider the TV and film writers strike. What sparked it? The concern that digital revenue will soon surpass what writers have been taking through traditional channels led to the strike. And since it's really tough to estimate digital revenues -- and digital profits -- in the next several years, it has dragged on. When the two sides don't really have a solid foundation on which to bargain, and too little trust in each other, it's hard to make a deal.
So today's story in the L.A. Times, by Joseph Menn, put a quite interesting spin on the strike and one that should resonate among news journalists. The story, headlined "Striking writers in talks to launch Web start-ups," put the issue clearly: "Dozens are turning to venture capitalists, seeking to bypass Hollywood and reach viewers directly online". Of course, this is the delayed promise of the web. Creators -- think screenwriters, songwriters or journalists -- create. Their intended audience is not all the middlemen betwixt and between, the agents, the studios, the publishers. Their intended audience is, well, the audience. TV watchers, music listeners, news junkies.
The Internet is the medium that connects the two -- creators and audience -- much more directly than was previously possible in pre-digital days.
The screenwriters are turning to venture backers, and creating an alternative to being beholden to the studios:
"What effect this would have on the strike is unclear. So far, the percentage of the guild's 10,000 striking writers who are in discussions with venture capitalists appears to be small. Any deal of this kind, however, could put pressure on the studios and help the writers' public relations campaign. Writers who are talking to venture investors say the studios would suffer a brain drain if high-profile talents received outside funding and were no longer beholden to them."
In the music world, reeling from declining CD sales and uneven payment for downloads, Thom Yorke's Radiohead unleashed an experiment with its audience, asking it to pay directly, from zero to $212, for the group's latest CD. "It feels good," said Yorke.
These are new, high-tech business enterprises on the one hand and old-fashioned guilds on the other. Create good work, place it smartly, live well and prosper.
Let's see how these dots connect. Face it. Until the last year or so, journalists saw little alternative than to work for big, well-established, professional-salary-paying media companies. But then the companies started shedding higher-priced talent in cost-cutting -- better to remove a $80k FTE than a $40k one -- and lots of journalists are being turned free. It didn't first feel like freedom of course. It felt like a layoff. But within the last year, middle-aged, middle-income job fears have given way, in part, to new models, new beginnings. Some were pushed (or incented) by buyouts. Some began to understand the allure of building something rather than feeling imprisoned in enterprises in which conversation focused on decline. Journalists are beginning to join Free Agent Nation, a term author Daniel Pink apparently coined in 2001. .
Look at some of the sprouts popping up this year. Politico, led by leading journalists from the Washington Post, Time and the New York Times, launched. ProPublica's been announced. Led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, ProPublica's been hiring leading editors and journalists to produce high-profile investigative projects -- seed funded by angels -- and then place them on the web. It is in metro areas though that the needs for more local reporting and with the potential for dozens of start-ups that we're seeing more urgent action. The newest entrant is MinnPost, Joel Kramer's fledging regional effort in the Twin Cities. It has corralled a few dozen bought-out and/or enterprising veteran journalists and gone direct to a new audience ("20,000+ monthly uniques, 20,000 daily page views, 600 paying members," he told me today). Paul Bass's New Haven Independent builds on his two decades+ experience in journalism. (He describes here the Independent's founding.) There are many others, start-ups of all kinds, some seed-funded by ambitious Knight Foundation attempts to jumpstart something good as the old world crumbles.
We're at the beginning of this re-ordering of the entertainment/news world. The old order is crumbling, and mortar just starting to be applied to the bottom bricks of what's coming next. Yes, journalists face a more difficult time in some ways than screenwriters and songwriters because journalism's traditional business revenue is fading faster, and the new revenue models are just coming on line. But maybe that means the opportunity to reform and reformulate will come faster too. It's worth all journalists stepping out of our own craft and learning from the "guilds" next door. The models won't be exactly the same, but we've got more in common than we ever would have believed.