06/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of Journalism is... eBay

What is the future of large-scale journalism? Meg Whitman might know more about it than Rupert Murdoch. As television networks, newspapers and websites rely increasingly on freelancers, the market for journalism is heading in only one direction: auctions.

For several years now, large news organizations have been closing bureaus, cutting staff and replacing full-time correspondents with freelancers. It's a shift that has helped news outlets to trim their budgets, but it does have a downside. Editors have to search hard to find reliable writers and reporters who do quality work, and freelancers have to pitch ideas endlessly to editors - usually several at a time - so they can piece together a decent living.

The matching process between freelancers and editors is woefully inefficient. Editors don't often know about all the stories a freelancer is preparing and, if they already have a story in mind, they can't always find the right person to report it. Freelancers, meanwhile, have limited time for pitching their ideas and don't always know what interests editors, and so they might miss out on productive matches.

As a response to this problem, some freelancers are already coming together to form clearinghouses for their work. The freelancers submit their ideas to a central database, and editors from various media can log in and pick what they like. But there's still a problem here, since more than one editor might be interested in the same story... and more than one freelancer might be willing to write it.

With many potential buyers and sellers in the market for journalism, how can freelancers and editors assure themselves of the greatest possible gains from trade? The answer, as in many markets, is an auction - or, to be precise, two auctions.

The first type of auction takes place at the freelancers' clearinghouse. The reporters post their pitches, editors bid on them, and the reporters can choose which bids to accept. As on eBay, they enter a binding contract to supply the story, as proposed, to the winning editor. Only accredited editors can see which stories are being offered, so that freelancers can't steal ideas from each other.

The second type of auction takes place at a news organization. Editors post stories or coverage periods that they need, freelancers bid for them, and then the editors can choose who will do the reporting. The freelancers sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents them from sharing the story ideas with other news outlets.

In both auctions, the offerings are updated on a 24-hour basis. An auction for a story about an assassination might last just half an hour, whereas one for a feature on birdwatching might last a week. It's a flexible process, as well as a quick and agile one.

Entire arms of news organizations would be reduced to small groups of editor-traders who could use different combinations of freelancers every day. But the provision of news would become much more efficient, and thus more news would remain available to the public - which would be the first good news about the news in a while.

(Daniel Altman, a former economics columnist for The Economist, The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, is writing a book about the future of the global economy.)