Archive for the ‘paywalls’ tag

Re: #futureofnews – this much I know

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I’m tempted to say ‘not very much’ since no-one really knows too much about the future of news just now. You know this is true because senior news folk have given up on the doom and gloom stuff and are starting to get all optimistic, talking about ‘the golden age of journalism’, and how it’s a ‘bright dawn’ and that sort of thing. This would make sense if there had been any structural change in the economics of news but there hasn’t, so their optimism has the hollow twang of hope over reason.

Still, the optimists have got it half right. As Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of Caledonian Mercury, said at a #futureofnews conference a week or so back (I paraphrase):

“This is great time to do journalism. It’s just not a great time to earn your living as a journalist”

But, in these turbulent times, as I earnestly make my way from one #futureofnews conference to another, a few things are starting to become clear. So this much I know:

  • Even if paywalls provide a secure financial future for news organizations – which right now seems unlikely – they will reduce the pool of shared information, and cut those news organizations’ content off from the openness, sharing and linking that characterizes the web. ‘You cannot control distribution or create scarcity’, Alan Rusbridger said in his January Hugh Cudlipp lecture, ‘without becoming isolated from this new networked world’.
  • The paywall is not the only way to sustain the digital newsroom. Advertising – much maligned by many – could yet make online non-paywall newspaper content viable within 5 years. Peter Kirwan does the sums in Wired – calculating that if Guardian News Media manages a 20% annualized growth of digital revenues (it estimates growth will be 30% this year) it will be able to maintain a £100m digital newsroom seven days a week by 2015.
  • There are other revenue models for online news. Ones that allow you to keep your news open, linked and shared, and make money. For example, what I call the ‘carrier pidgeon’ model. In this model you let people share, link to, recommend, search, aggregate, and even re-use you content – you just make sure it’s properly marked up and credited first, so you can keep track of it, and develop revenue models off the back of it. You do this with – excuse the geek terminology – ‘metadata’. Embedded metadata has all sorts of potential benefits we’re only just starting to take advantage of (hence why we’ve spent so much time on hNews and linked data). I call it the ‘carrier pidgeon’ model because the news doesn’t just go out, it comes back.
  • The cost base is still going to have to go down. The cost of producing news will necessarily have to be a lot lower than it has been historically. This doesn’t have to mean cutting journalist’s jobs or getting out of print. There are lots of ways to rethink costs in a digital world. One of the most inventive is Roman Gallo’s Czech model. Gallo opened cafés in the centre of towns across the Czech Republic. He then put his news teams in the cafés. Not only does this mean they have very low office overheads (the café covers basic costs), but it means the journalists are working in amongst the local community and getting readers directly involved in production.
  • There will need to be accessible, re-usable public data provided regularly and in a consistent format. Without this it will be much harder to keeps costs low because of the amount of time it will take to coax information out of public authorities and then to analyse it. This is why the launch of data.gov.uk was such an important development, and why we need to join Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s quest for ‘raw data now’ (as he shouts in his wonderfully quirky TED appearance).
  • Whether or not paywalls work or online news makes money, there will be a public interest gap. Some newsgathering and reporting will almost certainly never again be commercially profitable in an open market. Online news is highly unlikely ever to pay for a journalist to sit in a local court for days on end, for example. This was one of the most important things to come out of Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie’s report ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’. Schudson and Downie could not find a market solution to some of the news problems they were exploring, and so settled instead on a mixture of tax breaks, subsidies, foundation grants, and donations.
  • We will rely, for aspects of watchdog journalism, on a combination of journalists, NGOs, and motivated members of the public. Note the use of the word ‘motivated’. News organisations will need to find ways – other than money – to motivate and sustain people to help them scour data, dig through school and healthcare records, and alert them to corruption and injustice.
  • As well as motivating people, news organizations will need to build the tools that help the non-professional journos be watchdogs – tools like whatdotheyknow.com, a site built by MySociety that makes it relatively easy for people to make freedom of information requests, and then share the results of those requests to a wider community. Or the way the Guardian got the public to search through the millions of MPs expenses claims.
  • News organizations and journalists will need to form and re-form partnerships with other organizations, journalism co-operatives, NGOs and members of the public. We’re seeing thi
    s start to happen with sites like The Bay Citizen in San Francisco (see good post by Mallary Jean Tenore on Poynter) and OpenFile – the beta site just launched by Craig Silverman et al in Canada

Even taking all this into account there’s a good chance that, without some tweaking of the market; a few tax breaks here, maybe a start-up fund there, there will be a lot of public interest news blackspots.

So there it is. Not so bleak, but not so rosy either. And take it with a big pinch of salt since the only ones who seem to know about profitable business model for news just now are those running #futureofnews conferences.

Written by Martin Moore

June 4th, 2010 at 3:33 pm

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Paywalls, Dogmatism and my Hansel and Gretel Theory

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Arguments about paywalls around news content are becoming increasingly dogmatic and ideological. As a result, lots of sensible ideas about how to make money from new models of journalism are being obscured. Not least, how to add value to existing content so it becomes more identifiable, more searchable, and helps lead people ‘back home’ (that’s where the Hansel and Gretel theory comes in).

On one side of the fence you have pro-paywallers, led by the Murdochs, for whom paywalls seem to answer the question, ‘how are we going to solve the economic crisis in news?’. They’re in the process of trying to convince a great swathe of big news organizations to stop providing their content free at the point of delivery. By doing this, the theory goes, they will enhance the value of news content by reviving scarcity and convince a new generation to start paying for news. The ‘freeniacs are wrong’ writes Nicholas Carr, ‘Charging people for news, even online, is by no means an impossible dream’.

On the other side you have the anti-paywallers, led by a growing and increasingly coherent group of technologists, liberal educationalists, and bloggers for whom paywalls represent a complete misunderstanding of the new era of information abundance. To them, the construction of paywalls is a frantic attempt to recover a 20th century era of constrained media by a generation that ‘just doesn’t get it’. Building paywalls is ‘desperate stuff’, writes Stephen Foley, ‘It won’t work, and if newspaper executives on both sides of the Atlantic follow Mr Murdoch’s apparent lead, I predict we will witness the collective suicide of scores of news organisations in the US and elsewhere’.

Both sides are becoming more and more trenchant in their beliefs and ramping up the rhetoric. But, as with the fight between the Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels (about which end to crack open your egg), this ideological dogmatism is distracting us from the more difficult questions. And it doesn’t get us much closer to working out long term ways in which to enable journalism to pay for itself.

The pro-paywallers need to acknowledge that paywalls are not the Holy Grail that will solve all their economic woes. They should listen to polls – like the PaidContent Harris poll this week – indicating that most people would leave their favourite news site if it started charging , in favour of a free site elsewhere on the web. They should accept that it will not be possible to close the digital Pandora’s Box that is the internet and recreate the constrained published content environment of the twentieth century.

The anti-paywallers should concede that there will be areas of content where paywalls work. Paywalls do not have to cordon off all – or even the majority – of information on a site. The Racing Post has a smart and sustainable hybrid strategy of offering significant amounts of content free, and only charging for that which it knows its readers highly value (as reported in the Independent earlier this week). For £7.50 a month members get a horse racing TV channel streamed live to their computer (for which 3,000 people signed up in the first week). For £9.50 a month members can receive a ‘premium tipping service’ and for £199.95 a year they can get ‘ultimate membership’ with access to tips, races and the Racing Post database. Equally, the antis should acknowledge that journalism – as we’ve grown to understand it – is far from free to produce.

Mired in ideological silos, the pro and anti-paywallers are also missing some of the most important aspects of the debate. How do you add value to the content itself such that people will be more willing to pay for it? A question made more urgent for the Murdoch camp by the fact that most content becomes ‘invisible’ as soon as it goes behind a paywall.

Here’s where my Hansel and Gretel theory comes in. For those that don’t remember the Grimm fairy tale it goes something like this. Woodcutter’s wife convinces woodcutter they can’t afford to feed the children. Woodcutter therefore dumps children in the forest. But clever children find their way back by leaving a trail of pebbles. So woodcutter dumps them in forest again. This time, with only a breadcrumb trail, they can’t get home. They then get imprisoned in a gingerbread house by an old witch and… you can read the rest here.

News stories have been, up till now, a little like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Spread by news organizations round the web, they quickly attract an audience, but that audience gobbles them up and rarely follows the breadcrumbs back home. What if, instead of breadcrumbs, journalists and news organizations dropped pebbles? That way people wouldn’t eat them and there would be more chance they could lead them back home.

The difference between a breadcrumb story and a pebble story is metadata. Embed some good consistent metadata in a story and it turns something ephemeral into something much more solid. People suddenly know, for example, where it came from. A story can have the equivalent of an address and a zip code built into it, so people follow it back – by whatever trail they want.

Metadata has the significant added benefits that it is visible and malleable. It can be identified and picked up by search engines and aggregators. It can then be displayed such that people have enough information to know if they want more. A little like seeing the front page headlines on the news stand before deciding to put your hand in your pocket for some change. It can also be used for cross referencing stories, for digging through the archive, for building mash-ups.

Google has an example of how, using metadata, it can display more information about a site in its ‘search snippets’. Similarly, we (the Media Standards Trust) have been working out how to best integrate metadata in news through our Knight / MacArthur Transparency Initiative.

The ‘great paywall debate’ is not going to end anytime soon – but needs to be a little less polarized than it has been to date. Working out how to leaving a trail of pebbles would be a good start.

Written by Martin Moore

September 25th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

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