With many proclaiming the death of print media and even online media reeling from recession, the future of journalism has never been more in question.

A lot of the discussion around the future of journalism has to do with business models and money. But is there more to the discussion of business models than how to generate revenue? Is it possible that the product of journalism needs to be reevaluated entirely?

According to L. Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and current executive vice president of Dow Jones, the answer is ‘yes.

In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, he reminds us of the words of former Journal managing editor Bernard Kilgore: “It doesn’t have to have happened yesterday to be news.Kilgore’s thesis: people are interested in what happened yesterday, but they’re more interested in what’s going to happen tomorrow.

When Kilgore took over at the Journal, its primary reason for being (to report on the stock market and provide share prices) had been disrupted by the free availability of this information by the ‘new media‘ of the day (radio). By the time today’s Journal was printed, much of the information it provided was yesterday’s news.

So Kilgore looked to tomorrow and reinvented the Journal to focus on what yesterday’s news would mean to its readers going forward. It paid off. Other newspapers that Kilgore encouraged to take the same approach didn’t heed his advice and some went out of business.

And so it goes that yesterday’s news is today’s news: today’s traditional media must cope with new media and difficult economic circumstances. Thanks to the internet, breaking news is distributed in as close to real time as is possible and reports on current events have largely become commoditized. Yet while media businesses of all kinds struggle to monetize in this environment, Crovitz points out that not all traditional publishers are suffering.

He notes that The Economist is actually growing its print circulation. The key to its success? It doesn’t just report on today’s current events; it focuses on analyzing and discussing the implications of current events.

If The Economist can succeed by adding context to the news and helping its readers make sense of how yesterday’s events will shape tomorrow’s events, is it possible that all journalistic ventures, whether offline or online, should consider that their biggest problem is their product? Yes.

Aggressive legal stances, pay walls and content cartels may address the symptoms that so many publishers are facing today but if journalism is to have a solid foundation to stand on going forward, asking the simple question ‘What do consumers want?‘ may provide the answer to everything else.

Photo credit: AdamL212 via Flickr.