Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How do you resist global information hegemony?

What if civic news has always been a niche market and we just didn’t recognize that? Mixed up with the sports readers and food page readers and folks who just wanted to see what was on TV, the people who bought and read the newspaper mainly for civic news probably were no more than a fraction of the total “news audience” all along.

This is at odds with my sense that most people are inherently social creatures — that we’re motivated by civic urges, want to participate, like being part of a community bigger than ourselves. I often argued that the most important thing newspapers did as mass media was to “provide the vocabulary for civic conversations.” Even people who read the paper mainly for sports (or whatever) presumably glanced at the front page, saw some headlines, got sucked in to some level of awareness of the civic life around them. Maybe that little bit was enough.

But maybe that limited, serendipitous exposure never really mattered; perhaps we simply flattered ourselves that it did. Maybe only a small percentage of citizens ever thought about issues and made reasoned decisions; perhaps they were then and now remain the only ones who need sophisticated, nuanced civic news.

It’s pretty clear now the overall business model that enriched newspapers over most of the last 40 years was largely accidental. Newspaper publishers never had a strategic plan to have television eliminate half their rivals, leaving them with non-competitive pricing power. I doubt any ever realized their audience-building packaging decisions — news, sports, business, features, comics — were mainly artifacts of production and distribution realities. We delivered all that content in one newspaper package because that was at the time state-of-the-art: the best, most cost-effective way to distribute on a daily basis. There was no natural order involved.

Media success is still driven by distribution prowess and uneconomic, accidental circumstances, but those no longer work in favor of newspapers. Google is today’s dominant example.

No less than the organizations that ruled the infosphere in prior decades, Google’s success owes much to fortune and circumstance. The founders never set out to create an Adwords and Adsense behemoth. There’s no evidence they associated their indexing and searching with advertising, or that they initially contemplated the network effects that would one day give them near monopoly power of their own.

In fact, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were opposed to "advertising funded search engines," they wrote in early days, and they didn’t come up with the idea of search-driven ad sales or the mechanisms to power it. Those were developed elsewhere, and Google became good at it only after settling a court case and licensing Omniture technology from Yahoo.

It’s important to understand this not because it diminishes their accomplishments – they had many brilliant insights and have executed splendidly – but because it adds a different perspective to all those admonitions to “do what Google would do.”

You can’t.

Newspapers were protected against competition by barriers like the expense of presses and costs of delivery. Google’s supremacy grows form the fact that it makes so much money on its brilliant, friction-free advertising it can give away billions of dollars worth of services — YouTube, Maps, Gmail — to create and protect a self-serving ecosystem that keeps Google at the center. Meanwhile, its search pages and algorithmic Google News aggregation have become a crucial source of news distribution that gain strength every day.

Net result? Google now combines the equivalent of yesterday’s newspaper monopolies with control of today’s state-of-the-art distribution system.

There are still ways for a Rebel Alliance to fight global information hegemony, but challenging Google at its core — online advertising and online traffic — doesn’t seem like a good bet.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Should government policy affect news? Come on, it already does

I guess Jim Barnett must trust rich people a lot more than I do.

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends, yada-yada, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if my sister married one. (If I had a sister). But why on earth does he think putting media decisions in the hands of the richest few Americans is the best way to go?

I hope Jim and everybody else understands my own preference: journalism needs to be rooted in the community, and in a capitalist society, there’s no better way than to make things work in the marketplace. I’ve spent more than 40 years advancing that idea, and I’m trying to help do so once again.

I’m not against non-profit news orgs, either. Hell, let a thousand flowers bloom. What I object to is the specious reasoning here that says “Whoa, the government has no role in this. Leave it to the philanthropists and other independently rich people to decide.”

Come on. Government has played a huge role in shaping the press industry at least since Ben Franklin’s introduction of a postal subsidy for newspapers. Similarly, the government is the chief determinant of how non-profits operate, chiefly by deciding what qualifies for tax breaks. (You know anybody giving away millions that’s not tax deductible?) I've written about that a couple of times in the last few month, and said this: “... government inevitably puts its thumb on the scale in all kinds of situations. It's naive or disingenuous to pretend otherwise.”

The naive part of Barnett’s post comes here: “By design, [non-profits] put mission ahead of profit. And as a result, they will live or die based on their commitment to transparency.” You don’t have to look very far into stories about the United Way or American Red Cross to start laughing about that observation. Some do, some don’t, Jim — just like come for-profit corporations seek admirable goals and some don’t, just like some government subsidies serve the public good and some don’t.

The disingenuous part comes in the same paragraph: “When the government gets involved, it introduces the appearance of special favors and the potential for political interference. That’s the death of transparency.” The straw man here (or is that red herring? I can never remember) comes from arguing that the government better not get involved.

The government is involved, neck deep. Tax policy and regulatory barriers and philanthropic rules already dictate the economic landscape. We can change them or tweak them or reorient them (and we should) but they will always be there.

While we’re at it, let me say this: for all its flaws, government is hugely more open and transparent than philanthropic decision-making. Nobody lets you hear all the debates at the Ford Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

People can exert “political interference” on government policy? Oh, my. I thought that’s what we were supposed to do, to interfere in favor of changes that meet public needs. No need to interfere in philanthropies; their bias comes built in. Nothing wrong with that, either; it’s why they exist. But stop with the purity arguments, please.

Let me say this once more in closing: I like non-profits, I think they play a constructive role in society, and if they can help the news business navigate the turbulence of this phase transition, wahoo.

NOTE: This post was originally written as a comment to Jim Barnett's Nieman Journalism Lab post, linked above. I did clean up some typos, though.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking toward one future for local civic journalism

If you’re a reader of this blog, chances are you’ve already heard about the new online news organization being formed in Hawaii by Peer News. The brainchild of Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, this next-generation news service will bring a lot of web cred to an issue of considerable current interest: the future of local accountability journalism.

I’ve spent some time with them as an advisor, and plan to do whatever I can to help ensure success. I think this can be an important step in the evolution of news in the digital age and a chance to strengthen the role professional journalism needs to play.

I’m interested for a lot of reasons, but I’d sum it up this way: the new venture intends to demonstrate that a digitally native, technologically fluent web organization can profitably serve targeted readers who want sophisticated journalism focused on local civic affairs.

There are lot of key words in that sentence that all speak loudly to me. If I was tagging it I might choose “digital” “targeted” “accountability” and “civic.” I guarantee I would select “profitable,” and add another: “sustainable.”

I think tomorrow’s best local public service journalism (like today’s) is most likely to come from organizations built on success in the marketplace. I applaud any effort to create the journalism democracy needs — profit, non-profit, hybrid or otherwise — but my heart and my guts both tell me that journalism that meets real needs can pay its own way — and should.

Peer News hasn’t revealed many details of the new venture at this stage, and it’s certainly not my place to do so. But they have started looking for an editor, and that’s a subject I know something about; I’ll be part of the team looking at candidates. You can find rudimentary information and an opportunity to express interest online at the Peer News blog.

Like most things digital, this project is on a fast track, with announced plans to launch in “early 2010.” There will be a lot more details and transparency as the project nears launch. After all, this is all about transparency and accountability, about involving readers and audiences in the process, about listening as well as speaking. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What if internet advertising is a foundation made of sand?

I spotted a pithy, insightful notion early on while reading Ethan Zuckerman's post What if they stop clicking? , paused and sent it out as a Tweet right then. Moments later, I came across a second and Tweeted it, too.

When I Tweeted a third too-good-to-pass-up nugget, I realized I should just encourage people to read the whole post. It's a cohesive, carefully sequenced contemplation and will mean more if you do.

In short, he's gathering bits of string that seem to be adding up to a big idea: What if online advertising stops working? What if the only thing that really makes money turns out to be search ads, not banners on news sites or display ads on Facebook?

Ethan doesn't claim to have any final answers, but his logic and supporting data should make you worry if ad-supported anything is a big part of your online future.

This roller coaster is a long way from finished yet.

The three insights I couldn't help Tweeting:

Ads may not be a viable [for] anything but search...we are increasingly reliant on systems [on] shakiest of foundations
"comScore’s study suggests we – collectively – may be becoming more [online] banner-blind over time."
What if social being built on sand, on ads almost no one looks at now & fewer will look at in two years?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jerks, tweets and news

A TechCrunch article by Paul Carr (NSFW: After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth) stirred up a good bit of Twitter discussion for a Sunday morning.

To me, the important question is not whether non-professional news reporting will be available or whether "jerks with cellphone" will run amok, but rather how we learn to handle that and incorporate it into the public newsstream.

The discussion seems worth more than evanescent 140-character exchanges. To keep the conversation going, I collected a little of the colloquy from an hour or so this morning, mainly between NYU's ay Rosen and me.

Jay Rosen: Paul Carr is going contrarian on citizen journalism's ass. Jerks with cell phones and Twitter accounts appall him

Jay Rosen: I don't find the "you're ga ga, I'm de-illusioned" style of argument very persuasive … I think it's cheap.

@jayrosen_nyu I think you're writing off Carr's concerns a little too cavalierly. Those jerks were not just present, but widely cited.

@howardweaver I don't get what you want. Jerks with cell phones will Tweet wrong or voyeuristic stuff because they can. True. Therefore...?

@jayrosen_nyu The more impt issue is how they're received, retransmitted, cited by pro & am journalists alike. Indicative of filter failure.

@jayrosen_nyu What do I want? Recognition of the issues at play in trying to replace one system of reporting and filtering with another.

@jayrosen_nyu As Christ said of the poor, the jerks are always with us. Let them screech. It's how we collectively handle them that matters.

@jayrosen_nyu In that regard, criticism of how jerks feed public news stream does matter. Don't kiss it off as "ga-ga ... de-illusioned."

Jay Rosen: @howardweaver And you find those filtering-the-live-web issues, which are real, framed for our consideration in Paul Carr's post? I don't.

Howard Weaver: Agreed: RT @kmartino: @Chanders worst is that it goes both ways - every single event has choruses promoting - "its great" or "its bad".

Patrick Thompson (@kiconoclast): For citizen journalism to be really valuable, it will require strong curation. Otherwise it's just noise.

@jiconoclast It's *always* been about the signal-to-noise ratio. The way to increase the value is to filter ruthlessly (and professionally).

I'd welcome continued conversation on these issues in the comments here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Enduring truths and narrative coherence

Let us start with Plato and finish with Dave Pell, with a little Jeff Jarvis mixed in to help bind it all together.

Sometime around 370 BC Plato held forth against the invention of writing, a mere crutch that would cause memory to atrophy while offering only a pale reflection of discourse in its place.

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you're equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. (from The Phaedrus).

And he was right, of course. In the age of Socrates there must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, who could recite The Odyssey from memory. Are there a dozen such today?

As he often does, Dave Pell offers a striking contemporary insight, clothed in exaggeration:

“I just became nostalgic for a tweet I read about two minutes ago but I’ve forgotten the subject matter and author because my brain is completely dead. I also planned for this to be a five page essay, but I could barely break 140 characters.” (from More Nostalgic By the Second).

And he’s right too, of course. As future media advocate Jeff Jarvis worries today:

I’m fretting about us all forgetting things because we’re using Twitter.
Twitter is temporary. Streams are fleeting. If the future of the web after the page and the site and SEO is streams – and I believe at least part of it will be – then we risk losing information, ideas, and the permanent points – the permalinks – around which we used to coalesce. In this regard, Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed. (from The Temporary Web)

And so it goes, medium and message, world without end.

The pattern is hardly confined to writing. In his day, Michelangelo created art much like Paleolithic artists in the caves of Lascaux: drawing on walls. Likewise a master architect and sculptor, his frescos and murals were huge. He was so much the master that other artists in Florence and elsewhere simply followed his lead.

But then the medium shifted: with the invention and use of oil paints and canvas surfaces, art went mobile. Though he dismissed the trend as worthy only of women and children (“Real men paint on walls,” you can almost hear him declaiming), the new wave emerged triumphant, mutating again and again through photographs, moving pictures, talking pictures and back again to drawings: computer animations displaying mastery of all those forms. Today's mashups and sampling performances extend the legacy even farther.

Unlike Jeff, I feel no cause for alarm as the paradigm shifts again. Form and fashion ebb and flow, technology marches inexorably onward.

Yet love today is no sweeter than that of Romeo and Juliet, no more deceitful than Samson and Delilah. The muscular, epic stories painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel lost none of their majesty to Leonardo da Vinci’s newfangled Mona Lisa, still less to Toy Story or Up.

Consistent through all these channels are steadfast truths constructed of human experience and the power of narrative coherence. The best work endures while the trivial fades. Society filters what it values – whether through editors or critics or curators – and sustains it.

World without end. Amen.