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Techonomy's Take on Reinventing Media

Friday, 6 Aug 2010 | 2:55 PM ET
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Valerie Everett
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What is the future of media and journalism?

Techonomy is organized by three former Fortune Magazine journalists, who have thought a lot about that question.

Friday's panel on "Reinventing Media" was moderated by Christopher Alden, the CEO of Six Apart, the world's largest blogging company, but his background is in journalism, as the founder and editor of Red Herring.

The panel's experts were Paul Steiger, the CEO of ProPublica, Bruce Brandfon, the Publisher of Scientific American, and Jacqueline Leo, editor-in-chief of TheFiscalTimes.com. They all come from traditional journalism backgrounds and are now trying to find a model that works in the digital age.

Steiger's ProPublica is a non-profit investigative reporting venture, working to compensate for the dearth of in-depth journalism at cash-strapped newspapers. "This is a model, but it's not a business model," Steiger says. The organization tries to partner with traditional media partners for its biggest stories but ultimately will rely on philanthropy. "Donors support hospitals, museums, opera companies, there's no reason why in my mind this kind of reporting can't earn that kind of support from donors?"

Brandfon, the Publisher and Vice President of Scientific American'ssays "Information wants to be free, but it also needs to be really expensive, because it's important." Bottom line: it's a great time for information, but it's a lousy time to be a journalist. Scientific American still relies on revenue from selling its magazine at the newsstand, but is trying to build a "bespoke media" business, in which it creates custom content for marketing partners, to distribute to a short list of influentials.

"This is a model, but it's not a business model."" -ProPublica, Paul Steiger

Leo is now editor-in-chief of TheFiscalTimes.com, a new digital news and opinion venture, covering fiscal, health care and economic issues, and was previously editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest and Consumer Reports. She says the problem is that news has become a commodity — the same story is reported everywhere. And there's been such a proliferation of content, that some of the best journalistic work is getting no attention whatsoever.

Brandfon sees opportunity in the flood of content, because it creates the need for curation, from publications like Scientific American, Wired, and the like. The downside, Brandfon says, is the fact that content is being narrowly targeted at a specific audience — the proverbial preaching to the converted. But Leo reminded the room that this is nothing new — fifty years ago the New York subway was crowded with a diverse group, all reading newspapers targeting their ethnic group or political belief. The difference now is all media is niche and targeted.

The conversation raised several unanswered questions: What's the future of online ads? Can ads be more engaging — and more profitable — by incorporating them in online conversations? Can traditional publications find a profitable business model online? Will Apples' iPad change the equation and get people to pay for content on a mass scale? Is there 'fact-checking' in online journalism? If not, does it matter?

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.