Innovator Marc Andreessen falls short with his warmed-over analysis of news business

andreesen
Marc Andreessen in 2007

Marc Andreessen did as much as anyone to upend the model of the news business that had held steady for more than a century. Andreessen developed Mosaic, the first widely used Web browser, and went on to create Netscape Navigator. He became wealthy, went into venture capitalism and helped give birth to Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

But after reading his prescriptions for the future of the news business, I wondered how he got so rich.

It’s not that his ideas are dumb. They’re just not new.

In a lengthy piece, he offers few if any insights that haven’t been discussed in depth — for many years — by dozens of news business analysts. Jay Rosen, Ken Doctor, Seth Godin, Greg Mitchell, John Temple, John Paton, Rob Curley – all have addressed this topic and offered much of the same analysis.

Even I, someone who writes a column in his spare time from a day job, have repeatedly touched on many of these themes.

And what are they? It’s a long piece, but among them:

  • Traditional media don’t have a monopoly any more and so have lost monopoly pricing power
  • The best chance of survival lies with large outlets possessing national (or international) reach, along with small, intensely local outlets
  • Media will have to get more money directly from their audiences and rely less on selling advertising
  • The “objective” news model must give way to an advocacy model; advocates can often sharpen an issue for the audience
  • News media need to be adaptable and experimental

Andreessen then gives a list of media outlets he believes are doing it right, and that’s where a real weakness is revealed. He praises organizations like Politico, Vice, Talking Points Memo, Buzzfeed and the New York Times.

These outlets may indeed be doing well. I’m a regular consumer of many. But they’re all national or international in scope. They can attract a slice of the population that’s intensely interested in the areas they cover — and even if their audience is a small percentage of the population, it’s a small percentage of a large number. If a news or opinion outlet can attract 1 percent of the roughly 250 million adults in America, that’s 2.5 million people.

But if you’re a news outlet in Fargo and you’re attracting 1 percent of 100,000 adults, that’s only 1,000 people. Kind of tough making a living with those numbers.

Andreessen also believes that hard-hitting investigative journalism can be funded by philanthropy, crowdfunding and subsidies from healthy news organizations. That approach might work for a few stories of national scope, in which a deep-pocketed funder pays to assemble an all-star team to look into a pressing issue of national importance.

But most investigative stories arise out of beat reporting. A reporter learns something during the course of their regular coverage and decides it’s worth looking into more deeply. Every town and city needs reporters who are doing that. And wealthy philanthropists are unlikely to fund these kinds of efforts in places like Grand Rapids, Mich.; Laramie, Wyo.; Spartanburg, S.C.; or hundreds of others.

Andreessen’s ability to analyze shifts in the digital world has made him a rich man. It’s a good thing he didn’t have to rely on his ability to analyze the news business. His bank account would be a lot smaller.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by William Hansen on 03/10/2014 - 10:22 am.

    Local news

    A bright spot on the local news landscape, especially in rural areas are the community radio stations. Funded by listener-members combined with public subsidies, business underwriting and foundation support, they are providing in-depth, ultra-local news that is very high quality.

    Check out WTIP in Cook County or KAXE in north central Minnesota for a couple of examples.

  2. Submitted by Sean Fahey on 03/10/2014 - 12:31 pm.

    Micropayments

    I wouldn’t mind seeing micropayments used by news sites. I run into that Strib paywall and just stop reading until next month because I don’t read it consistently, and it feels like too much hassle to subscribe and then deal with constantly being up-sold and getting spam.

    I know this shows profound laziness, but lower that transaction cost! Offer me a one-click option to pay 1 mBTC to read an article. Now I control how much I pay based on how much I read. There is no need to enter my contact info or update my credit card information.

    A16z made a big investment in Coinbase, so they seem to think this is the future. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

  3. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/10/2014 - 01:50 pm.

    Very interesting, Sean

    Micropayments have been discussed for the better part of a decade, and yet I’m not sure if any sites have actually implemented them. Are you aware of any, Sean? I’d be interested to know.

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 03/12/2014 - 10:58 am.

      Opportunity?

      I am not aware of sites using it currently, and you are right that the idea has been out there forever. It’s like commercial fusion power, always 20 years off. Bitcoin makes it as possible as it has ever been, though the number of users might still be too low to make it worth the effort to develop right now.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/10/2014 - 03:56 pm.

    The advocacy model

    Roger Ailes surveyed the cable news landscape and determined that all the cable news channels were singing out of the same hymnal. As I mentioned elsewhere on this site, there was no news anymore. There was only the liberal narrative.

    So being the free marketer that he is, he decided to create a niche that satisfied a need in the marketplace. Little did he realize that the niche was 50% of the cable news audience.

    It’s not that Fox News is overtly conservative in their news presentation (their opinion shows notwithstanding, but at least they’re labeled as opinion shows). It’s just that they’re not liberal. Which means, frankly, that they cover stories that you don’t see anywhere else. That’s what accounts for their cross-over viewership. And then their news readers wrap up stories by suggesting to viewers that they can read more about it on the Fox News website.

    The trick is to cover enough stories of general interest and have contributors on both sides of the argument so you don’t come off as Pravda, like MSNBC has. It’s the formula that has given Fox twice the audience of the advocacy network for the other side.

    Granted, it’s harder for a news organization to pull that off when their advocacy is the dominant POV in the marketplace. But I give this site kudos for at least trying.

  5. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/10/2014 - 08:57 pm.

    There’s no doubt Ailes found an unserved niche

    I’d disagree that Fox shows a conservative slant only on clearly labeled opinion shows, Dennis. But no matter your politics, you have to give Roger Ailes credit for identifying a desire that wasn’t being met, and meeting it.

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