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Life at the confluence


The prototypical confluence

The prototypical confluence

It was a regular, and solemn, invocation for Monday Night Football in the years when the Pittsburgh Steelers turned up there as often as ABC and the NFL could manage it: Howard Cosell, in his fullest declamatory splendor, telling America that he and we would spend the next several hours “at the confluence of the Al-le-ghe-ny and Mo-non-ga-he-la Rivers” – the origin of the Ohio River, and therefore the very eponym of Three Rivers Stadium.

There are a couple of football games this weekend that don’t include the Steelers, but we are spending the end of January at a confluence nonetheless.  Two mighty rivers of ink are flowing together, inexorably, even as we speak: that which has been spilled in anticipation of the Apple tablet, and that which has been spilled in anticipation of the emergence of a coherent strategy for paid news content on the World Wide Web. For a handy list o’ links that should satisfy your need to drown in either river, visit the Nieman Journalism Lab for Mark Coddington’s week in review.

Perhaps it was when Bill Keller, editor of the NYT, talked about an “impending Apple tablet” to his staff in October that the stories became inevitably linked.  But, once the Times sketchily sketched out the state of its sketchy plans on Wednesday morning, we had to wait less than 24 hours for the heartwarming Wall St. Journal headline, “Apple Sees New Money in Old Media.”

In between – actually, just a few minutes after the Times announcement on Wednesday – I was in front of a class of first-quarter Medill graduate students, introducing them to some of the ideas that I flesh out further in my current class, “How 21st Century Media Work.” The Q&A centered not on the Times, but on the larger question of finding the money to support the journalism they feel called to do.

As a matter of fact, my answers dipped a toe into each of the merging rivers.

  • I do expect to see models for paid content emerging, and this year; some will be for-profit (GlobalPost), some low-profit (Chicago News Cooperative), some nonprofit and intentionally so (Texas Tribune).  They will have in common a focus on what their users find valuable, not their managers.
  • I do expect that many new devices will carry with them ways to extract revenue in exchange for the convenience or other value they bring; the media’s battle for desktop revenue will be miserable, but the chance for different models to flourish in the palm of your hand seem high.

Meanwhile, it’s back to waiting – till 2011 for the debut of the Times pay wall; till next Wednesday for whatever it is that Apple wants to tell us. Hey, Vladimir!  Hey, Estragon! Can I wait alongside you?

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About Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development, Chicago Tribune.