Elitist journalism and bad competitors

I don't "liveblog" very well, but at this week's "The Future of Journalism" conference at the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, I will be posting a few items today and tomorrow. I'm on a "citizen journalism" panel in the afternoon.

The first session focused on "working journalists and the changing news environment" included some provocative thoughts, particularly from Carl Sessions Stepp of the University of Maryland and Phil Meyer of the University of North Carolina.

Stepp argues that individuals matter, pointing to a history of innovation from Benjamin Day and William Randolph Hearst (who revolutionized the business model of journalism) up through Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg (who invented Facebook and is revolutionizing the way people connect with each other -- and information). And he says journalism needs entrepreneurial action from individuals.

Meyer painted a picture of professional journalism evolving toward an exclusive, specialized focus on serving the "elites of the community," with printed newspapers surviving in a form more similar to that of a magazine, and perhaps with lower frequency.

I think the obvious problem is that if you build an elitist journalism model, it's going to have to be coupled with an elitist business model. That's not going to work if your company owes a few billion dollars to an assortment of angry bondholders, bankers and stockholders.

Meyer has an answer for that, though: "The future of journalism is going to lie with 'bad competitors.'" In business school language a bad competitor is someone who doesn't fit the normal profit-driven model. In other words, elitist journalism will belong to those who care more about public service (or perhaps influence, depending on your point of view) than about profit.

You can already see this unfolding in some cities, and I'd point especially to the online-only Minnpost, an elitist effort if there ever was one.

If Minnpost survives, it will be on the largesse of contributors, both financial and in-kind, whose motivations are not purely commercial. In other words, "bad competitors." Foundations and individuals who pitch in, and especially in the case of Minnpost, some prematurely retired professional journalists who are willing to work for a pittance that they never would have accepted in the old, capitalist, pre-elitist era.