Making small digital news providers sustainable has become the holy grail of journalists and the search continues for workable business models and revenue streams.
Advertising may produce some revenue, but it will never generate sufficient resources to support digital journalism because so little advertising money is available for sites with small audiences. About three-quarters of all online advertising goes to the top 10 sites and Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo account for about 60 percent of all online revenue. This leaves very little advertising expenditures to be contested among all other players--of which news providers are only a small fraction. At the same time, the prices paid for online advertising are falling because there are so many sites offering advertising, the advertising inventory is nearly infinite, and audiences continue fragmenting.
This means the majority of funding for start-up digital journalism must come from elsewhere and online news sites—especially start-ups—are having mixed success trying to construct multiple revenue streams from philanthropy, memberships, events, consulting services, and payment systems. Both large legacy news organizations that dominate provision of news in the digital space and free automated aggregators are hampering efforts of small sites to develop audiences. The primary successes that can be observed have been for start-ups carrying out special forms of journalism or concentrating on highly specific topics.
The answer to sustainability may not lie in the business creation and business operational approach. The key to making emergent digital news providers sustainable may lie in the 18th and 19th century approaches to journalism, in which journalism was an avocation and not a profession (or at least only a part-time profession).
If one reviews the history of newspaper start-ups around the world, one finds that the bases of journalistic compensation were not journalism itself. It many cases it was funded by public employment—serving as postmasters, teachers, or other civil servants—or by operating commercial endeavours—such as printing firms, taverns, and retail shops (Even brothels funded the costs of newspapers in some towns in the Western U.S. during the nineteenth century).
The current inability to effectively fund small-scale digital journalism means that we all need to be thinking more broadly about how we can support the functions and people involved in them. If the past is a guide, we may need to return to provision of local journalism as community activism, political activity, or business support service—all of which played significant roles in establishment of news provision in years past.
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