MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
We've all heard before that the new world of social media has gutted a lot of old school news outlets. News executives are looking for a little help.
And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, some of them are turning to one of their most relentless critics for guidance.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Jeff Jarvis is a professor and entrepreneur, but he's best known as a successful media blogger. So it should surprise no one that he's a relentless self-promoter. He wears a button on his lapel to tout his book and he has a pretty loose definition of personal boundaries. The man blogged and Twittered about being diagnosed with prostate cancer right after informing his family. On Jarvis' blog, buzzmachine.com, he takes shots at the newspaper industry.
JEFF JARVIS: You've had all that time to reinvent your products, services and organizations for the new world, but you didn't. You blew it.
FOLKENFLIK: And the executives who run those papers.
JARVIS: Well, gentlemen - and that's pretty much all I see before me: angry, old white men.
FOLKENFLIK: The Associated Press newswire.
JARVIS: Sorry, AP, but you're the problem.
FOLKENFLIK: Not even digital media are exempt.
JARVIS: I never liked Slate and now I like them less. (beep) Slate.
FOLKENFLIK: But that one even he regretted that very day. And in person, Jarvis proves quite affable.
JARVIS: Bloggers can be blunt and I can be too blunt. But I spent a long time in the industry and my career hoping to try to see the industry move forward and take advantage of this Internet.
FOLKENFLIK: Jarvis is author of "What Would Google Do?" A book in which he took inspiration from the success of that Web giant and developed a new philosophy for business. His (unintelligible) for the media, oversimplified, is that they should offer news online for free, blur the line between amateur and professional, disclose personal beliefs and do reporting in public view. Many journalists disagree. Yet, Jarvis gets a polite even interested response from those he criticizes, including Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, whose new venture would charge people money for the right to read articles online.
Mr. GORDON CROVITZ (Former Publisher, The Wall Street Journal) We may be at a low point now in terms of the prospects for news in an industry that, you know, very much seems besieged and uncertain as to its future. So, I applaud anyone who is coming up with potential new business models and new ways to - as business people would say - monetize the content, support the journalism.
FOLKENFLIK: Jarvis has been testing new models for decades. At just 21, he became assistant city editor at the Chicago Tribune. He was the creative force behind Entertainment Weekly magazine and the first Web sites for the Advance newspaper chain. And he's been a consultant for The New York Times company. Jarvis is now director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's new Graduate School of Journalism.
JARVIS: Rather than surrendering and believing there isn't a model, what we've set out to do at CUNY was to see whether we could find sustainable business models for the future of journalism. And we believe we have. And so, that's where the discussion should go now. How can we not just preserve the past of journalism, but update journalism? What does that business look like? And then, very importantly, how the hell do we build it?
FOLKENFLIK: Jarvis says people need to prepare for the collapse of big regional newspapers. In their place, he proposes alliances of small news Web sites - each intensely focused on local news. He says they can provide useful coverage and still be profitable at a much smaller combined cost than the big older newsrooms. But in making this pitch recently at an Aspen Institute conference, he faced some tough questioning from investor Esther Dyson, who asked about profits.
ESTHER DYSON: The numbers are unrealistically high unless you chop them in four everywhere.
FOLKENFLIK: And from Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.
JON LEIBOWITZ: I'm not so sure that the ecosystem that you propose - and particularly given the First Amendment values - is necessarily as good for society as some aspects of the current system. So...
FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Jarvis is pressing ahead. His virtual laboratory extends to The New York Times, where his graduate students are working on hyper-local blogs reporting on a handful of communities in Brooklyn and suburban New Jersey. While they're relying on local residents for some content, it's an expensive experiment.
JIM SCHACHTER: We knew that the economics - there were no economics. It was a learning process.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Jim Schachter, editor for digital initiatives at The Times.
SCHACHTER: There may be places where the economics of hyperlocal work. And Jeff and his team have found what they say are a handful of places. But there is not a universal formula that is putting food on the table for a proprietor and quality news and information on the Web.
FOLKENFLIK: Jarvis says journalists have to be open to new definitions of their trade.
JARVIS: It's not about embracing me. I don't care if anybody embraces me. The problem today is there's not a good business model for the future of journalism.
FOLKENFLIK: If this vision doesn't work, he'll be back. Ailing news organizations are casting about for solutions. And Jarvis is full of ideas prescribing radical change.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.