This kind of opportunity helps organizations not only to think differently, it helps them to actually act on those ideas.
Innovation around the edges of your business is critical, and many publishers are learning from places like the Guardian and NYT how to do that more effectively. But unless you have a way of taking on much larger systemic issues, reinventing your own core activities and supporting failures which will happen now and again as part of the process you may find yourself changing only incrementally and watching the world go by without you.
You will ultimately be managing decline instead of focusing on producing great journalism.
This is not good for publishers large and small. It’s not good for publishing as a market. It’s not good for wider society.
And, as Google and even Facebook are aware, a healthy publishing market is good for business on the Internet.
I’m always a fan of finding ways to create opportunity in the face of adversity. Given the challenges journalism is up against in the world investing in new ideas is going to do a lot more for the trade than costly and destructive legal battles.
What did I learn at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia?
First, I learned that I want to come back to this event again. It’s just a fantastic experience.
I also learned that the journalism pack is circling around a few common themes:
Here is a bit more on what I heard people talking about there:
1. Crowdfunding is a feature, fuel for open journalism, not a standalone model.
The role of crowdfunding in the creation of de Correspondent is a short story, but the implications of the way it was established extend into the way it operates today. Paying members created the business, and now they are invited into the daily journalism experience, led by the staff writers.
Frederik Fischer of Krautreporter gave an excellent overview of the crowdfunding journalism market. He made the case that it is a very challenging business to run as a pureplay platform without other sources of revenue. Though, as Krautreporter and Kickstarter both demonstrated, crowdfunding has proven itself as one of many methods for supporting independent journalism in the world.
All this resonated with me given what we’re learning at Contributoria.
There were many demonstrations of advocacy layered onto journalism creating outcomes in addition to the reporting. I was surprised not to hear any defenders of the status quo. It’s conceivable we will witness a sweeping and dramatic change in the way journalism relates to outcomes across mainstream media very soon.
As Ben Rattay of Change.org showed journalism can be a compelling signal telling us where help is needed and inspiring others to get involved.
Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gilmor and other journalism academics have argued for a long time that it’s impossible not to bring bias to the reporting process, but the methods for expressing it were dependent on the media and models delivering it. Now that digital media has taken over and transparency becomes a feature of the reporting process it almost becomes an expectation.
Advocacy in journalism just requires an increased investment in methods for maintaining trust.
“We can’t be neutral here. We should be openly biased toward openness and freedom. Period.”
3. Data, video and storytelling are making NGO work look like journalism
I was pleased that none of the speakers were talking about their successes using social networks for delivering journalism.
Instead, I heard innovative journalists talking about how they try new things on their own platforms or create new technologies themselves.
Facebook made it very clear why journalists are reluctantly using social networks and generally only for driving traffic back to their web sites when Andy Mitchell delivered his keynote in the form of a product pitch. Making the case for why journalists should believe in Facebook and partner with Facebook was a foregone conclusion to him. As the angry Q&A period made clear, what Facebook needed to do was get back to basics and explain why it wasn’t the enemy of journalism.
As proof that the definition of journalism and its role was being tested through different means, Oren Yakobovich, Gabi Sobliye, and Balazs Denes showed how NGOs are using the techniques of journalists to expose human rights abuses and raise social issues through data, video and new tools.
Videre est Credere, for example, distributes cameras and trains individuals in threatening situations and then uses the footage to challenge abusive regimes. It’s a powerful example of journalism outside the context of a media organization bringing about meaningful change to people whose voices can’t be heard otherwise.
Clearly with some personal bias here, the Guardian feels like it is on its way to becoming the gold standard for all this type of activity. Aron Pilhofer gave the Thursday keynote showing the #keepitintheground campaign, the internal editorial analysis tool Ophan, the GuardianWitness platform (powered by n0tice, a platform built by us here at the Guardian which other publishers can also use) and the structural changes Aron has been making to operate this way with even more sophistication.
4. The threats to journalism are more serious and more daunting than ever before
I was late to join the queue and missed several of the most important talks at the event including Snowden’s chat and a panel about ISIS. But the threats to journalism was an undercurrent throughout the event.
Sustainability is always a threat to journalism, but there seem to be a few escape hatches from what seemed to be a sinking ship a few years ago (see crowdfunding above for one example). While the existential crisis may seem less threatening in some respects, there are many indicators that the transformation of journalism into its future self is not only spread unevenly but that it may be weaker than we want to believe.
Andrew Finkel and Yavuz Baydar gave a powerful lecture on media in Turkey. They described the not-so-gradual take over of production, distribution and access to journalism by powerful authoritative forces in the region. It’s a terrible state of affairs now and should be considered a warning shot across the bow of democratic societies around the world who have not reinforced independent media with the policies and resources required to hold power to account without fear of retribution.
Around the world people are willingly relinquishing control of personal information to entities such as social networks that maybe shouldn’t be trusted to hold that information. Systematic manipulation of the journalism process is a deterrent to democracy itself.
Conditions are much much worse in places like Bahrain where Ali Abdulemam of BahrainOnline was forced into a year of captivity, abuse and torture on charges of having circulated false information.
Why put yourself and your family through such an ordeal? Abdulemam said,
“I want my son to grow up in a better world.”
It was Abdulemam’s simplest of needs that unified everyone in attendance at the event. Journalism can make the world a better place.
We’ve now produced 12 issues using the same model but instead of a handful writers we’re now supporting thousands.
There was a particularly interesting team meeting after that first issue went out where we asked ourselves whether Contributoria was a publisher or a marketplace. This critical distinction would determine the shape of everything that we would do subsequently.
1) Publishers depend on audiences and advertising. Marketplaces grow as supply and demand increase.
Capturing audience attention is getting harder and harder, but demand for journalism is only going to increase over time.
Publisher 0 – Marketplace 1
2) Publishers focus on their own assets. Marketplaces help others develop valuable assets.
The only reason to be a publisher seemed to be to support our marketplace ambitions. Publishing can be a good marketing strategy.
The “Writers first” Mantra
The gap between where we were in March 2014 and where wanted to be was big. We needed principles that would help us achieve marketplace conditions.
We knew the first principle without even thinking – “Writers first“.
We then explored ways to enable commissioning, the demand side of a journalism marketplace.
In discussions with potential media partners we found that this was a much more complicated proposition than we initially imagined.
Media orgs have very closed, bespoke commissioning systems and processes. It’s a market opportunity ready for some fresh thinking, but with our first principle, “Writers first” we knew this would be a distraction.
But how would we unlock the demand side of the market if media orgs were too challenging for a small startup to serve?
It was hard to see at first. The answer eventually found us.
We were talking to many people who wanted to work with writers via Contributoria who were not traditional media orgs. Universities, non-profits, campaigners, foundations, etc. were all crazy about what Contributoria meant as a new way to surface important stories that don’t often grace the home page of a big media site.
We just needed to figure out how to let the demand side of the marketplace express demand.
After starting over on the concept of commissioning our designer Dean Vipond got his ah-hah moment. Instead of replicating what happens in a news room where editors call the shots, Dean came up with the idea of ‘Topic Suggestions’, an invitation to write rather than an assignment – a pull-style model.
The idea began to permeate our thinking in all kinds of ways and resulted in a full-fledged partner program, the realization of our marketplace where supply and demand can negotiate.
The crucial twist is that the marketplace is optimized for the needs of the writer with an additional layer for buyers, not the other way around.
This model requires that we frame the conversation between the seller and the buyer. But that’s easy. That’s where our publishing roots become incredibly useful.
Leading by example
The partners we’ve signed up in the first instance are all people who value journalism. They want quality journalism to spread far and wide. They want it to raise the profile of the issues they are working on every day. These are human rights and free speech organizations including:
Open Society Foundations, Arcus Foundation, Oak Foundation, Equality Now, International Press Institute (IPI), the global free expression network IFEX, Internews, Committee to Protect Journalists, and the World Wide Web Foundation. We’re also working with The Atlantic and PBS Mediashift.
The premise that they could be part of the journalism process rather than bystanders was what captured their imaginations. I’m hopeful we’ve unlocked a lot of useful resources that are willing and eager to support independent journalism in the world.
One step at a time
In March 2014 we produced the first issue powered by the community – articles pitched, selected and edited by the community. A year later we’re opening more elements of the journalism process – commissioning, funding and distribution.
I won’t guess what next year holds in store for us.
We’re just looking ahead to the Spring, and it seems we’ve got a marketplace nearly ready to bloom.
The many media channels that have blossomed so dramatically over the past few years now provide fantastic fuel for supporting journalism in the world.
While this is a good thing, generally, it’s important to recognize that the business models supporting many of these media channels are optimized for something other than journalism and its effects.
Unless journalism is the core commercial activity at a company or its reason for being then journalism will be used along with many other tools to capture attention. It risks being tossed out the window when ROI as seen through an attention lens drops compared with other activities.
Few organizations are capable of withstanding the cost argument in the face of adversity. We’ve seen this play out recently as budget pressure weighs heavier and heavier on traditional media and opportunity cost embeds itself deeply into decision-making at the fast-growing digital platforms.
Despite pressure on budgets traditional media seems to be increasingly aware of the unique opportunity in front of it right now.
The processes, policies and staffing that enable the challenging reporting that hold power in check could help news orgs recapture their role as both trusted information provider and as independent voice for the people.
The new digital platforms are looking the other way still, too busy trying to grow.
On the other hand, I’m seeing more clearly now than ever before how open contribution platforms are capable of adopting, applying and reinventing most of those processes and policies of traditional editorially-led organizations that we as a very well informed society have taken for granted in our transition to digital media channels.
The two worlds may in fact collide or rather consolodate as they swirl around seemingly more common goals. And those that understand how to create and extract real value from journalism or things that act like journalism are going to matter more to people, have an impact on real issues and build meaningful brands.
If the journalism budget is merely a row in your customer acquisition spreadsheet then it will only take one or two public smackdowns to kill that function of the business. It needs a stronger foundation supporting it.
Tony Fadell, creator of the iPod, once told the crowd at LeWeb, “There is a reason they call it hardware. It is hard.”
Journalism is hard, too. It’s not an add-on. It’s something you are.
It’s a good read. He breaks down some of the metrics that have come to dominate the way people in the digital media industry view success.
tl;dr Being big is not everything.
In the media world revenue is predicated on the existence and actions of customers who value what the medium carries across it. Certainly having more of those people is a good thing, but if none of them value what you offer then failure will be looming around the corner.
How do you measure value? Maybe numbers aren’t the answer.
Despite tons of data points you can get from an app, a web browser and a web server, those technologies aren’t very good at identifying what people care about and how things change when ideas resonate.
Yes, the Internet is very smart about what we are doing, and many digital media companies can work out some things that interest us. And when it can’t identify those things from our direct actions the Internet is getting better at inferring our interests by association, through proxies and relationships.
But digital media companies trade in something more elusive than those things. It’s not Monthly Active Users and Session Duration that matter. Those are indicators of success – symptoms, not drivers.
The good media organizations (the ones I tend to value, anyhow) live and die by the way they catalyze ideas.
Twitter, Facebook and some of the new media players such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy are recognized as winners because they have millions and millions of people using them. They are remarkable, no doubt, but ultimately the metrics qualifying their ‘success’ are weak.
The packaging wrapped around an article or video in whatever form it takes says a lot about the substance itself, and the more our many Internet services repackage and manipulate the way links are shared the more distant we will feel from the meaning behind those articles and videos.
I’m certainly thankful that so many people can inform and influence what I think about. Free speech must protect our right to share things as much as it needs to protect our right to say things.
But the value of the things that are said and therefore the medium carrying those things is not measurable in terms of how successfully they were packaged and delivered alone.
Apple’s white boxes and the unveiling that happens when you open them have a big impact on the way people think about their products, but ultimately it’s the product itself that Apple customers love.
Mat Honan’s Wired article from December is yet another industry amplifier of metric obsession that leads people into very short term thinking. In the end he grounds it all in the knowledge that he and everyone at Wired know very well:
“A good story, well told and suited for its audience, has always been the thing and always will be. But never more than now, when the story has to live on its own.”
The Internet gives us some incredible insights into how media businesses work because it records every action by a customer in a log. Those logs tell fascinating stories, but it’s the soul of the business that enabled those numbers to talk in the first place.
I’ve been lucky in my career to work with some pretty inspiring leaders. I’ve found myself reflecting on the lessons from some of those people recently given the time of year and, more importantly, because one of them, Pat McGovern, died in March this year and one of the others, Alan Rusbridger, announced he is leaving his long time post at the Guardian.
Pat McGovern was a remarkable person. He had some unusual quirks as most great leaders do, and you couldn’t help but wonder if those things that made him unusual were fuel for his accomplishments.
A good example of that was his notorious holiday handshake. I loved that he did that, as painful as it was for himself and for the hundreds of staff members he spent a few minutes speaking to directly, one on one. But it showed a deep commitment from him which everyone valued and respected.
“His emotional and intellectual investment in the company he founded was boundless. Why would he not love traveling to IDG offices to talk with IDG employees about their work at IDG?”
Pat also had some strong philosophies underpinning his approach to working.
Pat used to say, ‘the specific wins over the general’. He understood the Long Tail before that became a thing.
He didn’t want big, centralized command-and-control systems and preferred to keep decision-making with self-contained business units that were focused on a particular market or customer base. He was happy to put money behind people he believed in and let them run their business…unless they started losing his money which never lasted very long.
He used those concepts to build a global network of 350+ businesses.
When I first started at the Guardian in 2008 I was under the impression that Alan’s presence was more directive than what I later learned to be the truth.
Yes, he was very good at achieving the results he wanted and was clear about what he expected. And there was never any doubt about who was in charge.
But he achieved that state by supporting those whose ideas and intentions would lead him in a direction that interested him rather than directing everyone’s actions. And with an unending collection of interests and an insatiable curiosity that meant the many explorers he surrounded himself with were expanding his influence in all those areas and, as a result, the power of the Guardian brand.
Alan was very loyal to his people, and that loyalty was given back to him.
I recall an eye-opening chat with one of his long time lieutenants as the initial hacking coverage by Nick Davies began to unfold in the pages of the Guardian.
“Alan is putting himself out there pretty far with this one, and I’m not sure we know how to back him up. That’s the problem with visionaries. You don’t always know what you’re following until you get there.”
By the time Edward Snowden got through to Glen Greenwald, Alan had created the window through which others could see where he was taking the Guardian. He had the kind of support needed not just to execute the journalism he envisioned but, more importantly, to act as a truly independent voice in the world.
Similar to Pat, it was a philosophical underpinning to the meaning of his work in the world that he was able to apply every day. His 2010 Cudlipp lecture is a classic in that regard.
“There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK. It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.
As Scott said 90 years ago: “What a chance for the newspaper!”
Alan’s strategy for the Guardian meant that the Snowden revelations and other stories of that scale were possible in a way that the digital era had not yet seen. For that we should all be thankful, regardless of your view of the Guardian.
I’ve had many encounters with people who dislike the Guardian yet willingly admit they want it to exist. Alan’s accomplishments are so great that competitors and enemies alike respect and admire him.
I imagine John Wooden was a similar type of character in his world in his day.
There are several other people I’ve worked with who I use for inspiration from time to time, too, people in various stages of careers that I believe will be extraordinary if they aren’t already – Chad Dickerson, John Battelle, Emily Bell, to name a few.
Of course, reducing the contributions of these or any other individual to a word or some forgettable listicle-style chunks of knowledge is antithetical to the type of leadership they’ve all offered. Simplicity and clarity should never be confused with vapidity.
But the short version of the key observations here is worth amplifying:
Being committed to your team makes them happy and committed to you.
Distributing authority and enabling your best people to do what they do expands your influence as they expand theirs.
Grounding your vision with a philosophy that others can apply in their day-to-day jobs creates a network of support required for executing the more risky things a leader wants to achieve.
Now that the tech and media worlds have begun maturing in the era of Life After Jobs it’s worth understanding the styles employed by some of the people who lead from behind the scenes instead of from the stage.
In that respect, you won’t find many role models better than either Pat or Alan.
The Guardian’s home-brewed analytics platform called Ophanfeatured on Journalism.co.uk this week. It’s well worth the read if you are a publisher.
While the detail on what it does is useful to understand, the conditions that made it possible to create such a thing are also important.
There is often an uncomfortable gap between the technology teams and the editorial teams at news organizations. That cultural mismatch often gets expressed through the tools used internally at those organizations.
Editors hate the pace of change for the small things that they need like approval buttons and copy&paste features, things that will make them more effective in their jobs. Equally, developers hate the lack of understanding of the things they are trying to accomplish, things that could solve much bigger challenges for the entire company.
It can be two sides of the same coin that just can’t see each other.
Magic is possible, though, when developers listen well and bend the path to fulfilling their vision in order to accommodate realworld tactical needs of the editors.
That’s what happened when Graham Tackley was given the freedom to create his realtime analytics platform at the Guardian alongside Chris Moran. Graham had ideas about some new tools that would give editors insights on what’s happening on the web site in realtime. And Chris had experimented with Yahoo! Pipes in Hack Days to look at referral traffic in a different kind of dashboard format.
The project was initially about technology. But it adopted bigger ambitions as it started answering questions for them. Chris told me, “We realised how useful it would be to others and started listening to more editors around the building. They had interesting questions, too.”
The project was explicitly endorsed by the CEO Andrew Miller, the Chief Digital Officer Tanya Cordrey and Graham’s manager Shanon Maher. They all knew the project mattered and needed to be handled differently. Creating that space for Ophan to happen was a brilliant investment – it didn’t cost much and it wasn’t hard to do.
Of course, Graham’s time was in high demand, and the effort required to evolve Ophan would have to come from somewhere. So he was careful not to spread himself too thin and applied his time wisely in order to progress it without failing the day-to-day needs of his colleagues.
Similarly, getting it adopted internally would require time and patience. Chris worked closely with Graham and fellow architect Phil Wills to shape it into something that could be demo’d in meetings, bringing on one editor at a time and eventually informing the daily publishing process.
It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen in the end. Ophan became business critical at the Guardian. You can see why in the Journalism.co.uk article.
Ophan tells editors the stories they need to hear about what’s happening on the site in language that is relevant to their jobs in ways that are enjoyable to use.
The Guardian editors don’t have to think about how Ophan works. It just does. And it makes them better at their jobs.
The lesson here is more about attitude than technology. Graham says straddling the technology/editorial divide helps him to write better code. “When I work this way I have a much better understanding of what’s important and what is not.”
Yes, Graham is clever, but he did something unusual with his talent. Rather then solve a hard problem for the sake of solving problems, he listened.
“We never planned to create our own real time analytics system. But we just kept talking to people and implementing the next thing that would make a difference. And here we are today.”
I was dubious as one who works at a news org tends to be any time a technology company says it can fix publishing as if it were a surgeon merely exacting a remedy on torn tissue.
There are certainly structural issues in the world of journalism and the wider publishing market, but incremental advances in the way display advertising works are only going to shore up Google’s own flaws. Reversing its own display performance declines disguised as a solution to the woes of an industry that were arguably a result of Google’s dismissal of that industry in the first place is a sign the company has truly failed to listen.
At a more fundamental level, swapping one display advertising solution for another is not the answer publishers need from Google.
It’s worth saying that being a fast-follower of the tech titans is not a bad strategy for publishers to use. But if you’re applying that strategy you must also recognize where departure is necessary.
Not viewing ads is a far cry from funding articles via the crowd.
Framing the web-vs-apps debate either as a zero-sum-game or an it’s-all-internet-traffic argument seems to reflect much larger issues or ‘symptoms’, as Mathew Ingram noted.
The debate ultimately keeps reinforcing my views about the importance of the open Internet.
First, I’m repeatedly reminded how remarkable the network is to enable differentiation like this. It would have been impossible to create a system where both things co-existed if you planned it this way.
I mean, how could it be that we agreed to a collection of open standards that were adopted by influential individuals and organizations who helped to scale them in a way that would support the amount of activity happening across the many technologies that have been deployed on top of those standards globally so many years later?
The mind boggles. It also worries. Was it an isolated event? Will it last?
Second, when corporate interests’ self-serving tactics unwittingly blast through our interests as a global society inequality abounds. They can be too quick to leave standards bodies behind and often the needs of real people.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with self-serving interests. Used the right way that can be the fastest route to solving huge problems collectively. And competition needs to be protected just as the public spaces need to be protected.
But equally we should never be surprised when commercial interests build marketplaces on top of public spaces and turn those marketplaces into winner-takes-all games at the expense of the common benefit of the space. That’s what they do.
And that’s why Obama’s bold position in favor of the Internet-as-utility matters so much.
History’s pendulum of public opinion needs to swing back the other way and help all the things that are caught in the middle of this push-pull relationship between the commons and the free markets.
Yes, standards and trade orgs and policies can all be slow to form and annoying to work with and incapable of understanding commercial opportunity, but when they do successfully enable marketplaces for us all to benefit from then you get a far healthier environment in the end.
It’s ‘the rising tide lifts all ships’ argument.
While the app market is a commercial variant that may bring some uncomfortable baggage with it into the public spaces, the question that should worry us more is about how we secure the context for this kind of market to happen again and again.
My reading of the web-vs-apps debate is that we have yet more reason to strengthen and fight for open network principles in the world.
If the current spaces failed to move fast enough for mobile marketplaces to form the way they probably should have been formed using open standards then what can we do now to ensure the public spaces underpinning the next network can support it for the benefit of all?
Does the “Internet of Things” have a strong enough commons-based underpinning to support the wave of commercial activity flooding it now, for example? Or is the race to establish inequality and win the whole thing too far gone already?
The network model we have now that includes the web and apps and many protocols most people don’t even know about might just be a once-in-a-generation slice of magic. But it might also be a principle used by future generations to build new markets.
I’m hopeful it’s the latter. It’s certainly not too late for that.
Maybe the debate can evolve into a constructive conversation about the “network we want”.
(Btw – Yes, I realize I’m late to this meme. I’m trying to get my blogging pace back up again. Not sure if I can do that or not yet.)
Before we had domain names we had numbers and dots. How could any normal person be expected to remember an address made of numbers and dots? The answer is obviously to use words instead.
Branding the way addressability was handled on the network would surely make it easier for nontechnical people to find stuff, right?
The free web servers and web browsers and the open industry standards they embraced created an information explosion, with clearly defined addresses that organizations learned how to promote in a big way.
Yes, it worked! Everyone embraced the Internet very quickly as a result.
But there were repercussions.
This combination of forces signalled to every commercial entity in the world that it had to own the nodes on the network. And thus began cyberspace’s great property landgrab.
When domain names were established as the prize ecosystems thriving on their existence formed to enshrine them. Business models were defined by how well they could draw audiences to a domain and control people’s time when they ‘arrived’ there.
The ability to publish what you want on your own server and making it freely accessible globally is a critical principle in the network’s design, but the attachment of that server to a branded address sends a heavily weighted signal about the importance of the server as opposed to the published material or the creator of it.
Without a domain name we would’ve had to work out means for distributing material with authorship attached to it as it went across the network.
That concept was already cooked into the hardware and software standards, but it wasn’t yet enshrined in the media production process when the domain + web server + web browser combo permeated every aspect of the Internet.
And now that model is in question, perhaps even outdated already. Mobile internet traffic growth, for example, has nothing to do with domain names. It doesn’t need them.
Why are organizations struggling to identify mobile-native business models? Because so many of them have invested 15 to 20 years in driving people to spend time on their domains instead of developing their roles via the wider network.
The moment to redefine how syndication works across the network might be right now – while the transition to mobile is still fresh, as new legal definitions of ISPs take shape, as increased awareness of the threats imposed by centralized platforms shake people’s trust in domains, etc.
It’s clearly an exaggeration to blame DNS for the closed Internet trend, but it’s equally naive to think that we can secure the future of free speech by entrusting the way we access it to a handful of people at ICANN.
Could this moment right now be the much-needed window of opportunity needed for reshaping what digital media means on the network?