Newspapers, Colleges, and 'Geeks Bearing Gifts'

Lessons from the news business for the higher ed business?

September 24, 2015

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News by Jeff Jarvis

Published in November of 2014.

Journalism and education. Newspapers and colleges. Reporters and professors. Readers and students. Circulation and enrollment. Advertising and tuition. Subscriptions and state funding.

What can we, in the higher ed business, learn from our cousins in the news business?

This is not a question that Jeff Jarvis asks in Geeks Bearing Gifts. This is the lens, however, that higher ed people will peer through as we read Jarvis’ insightful book.

Some quick and disturbing news business facts:

  • From 2003 to 2014 newspaper ad revenue declined from $46.1 billion to $19.9 billion (in constant dollars).
  • Digital ad dollars have not replaced print ad dollars, as digital ads only accounted for $3.5 billion in 2014.
  • Newsroom employees peaked in 1989 at 56,900, declining to 36,700 in 2014.
  • Total weekday circulation of newspapers has dropped from 62.3 million in 1990 to 44.1 million in 2014.

How much should trends in the news business influence our thinking about the higher education business?

Higher education sells a highly regulated and bundled set of services, all attached to the right to distribute a scarce credential.

This should mean that our business is less susceptible than the news business to commoditization and digital unbundling. Right?

Still, there are cautionary tales for higher ed in the decimation of the newspaper world - and some of these lessons can be found in Geeks Bearing Gifts.

The main argument that Jarvis makes in this concise book is that the news business needs to move from a producer and disseminator of content to a connector and nurturer of communities. He chides the newspaper industry for failing to understand that digital tools are not simply opportunities for doing old things (producing and disseminating news) in new ways, but rather platforms to catalyze an informed and productive conversation.

Geeks Bearing Gifts is something of a playbook for journalism experimentation. It was written, I think, more for news business insiders than those of us trying to draw larger lessons (including higher ed lessons) from the impact of technology on journalism. You will need to make your own connection from Jarvis' world to our own, but I encourage you to attempt the leap.

What books about the changing news business, and the role of technology in driving that change, would you recommend?

What is your favorite book about the news business?

What are you reading?


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