“I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment.“
Anyone deeply engaged in the days of blogging will relate to these views.
That was an exciting time that seemed capable of capturing the utopia the Internet appeared to offer. If only it hit mainstream before the social networks got their claws in.
Of course, sometimes I wonder if our memories deceive us and that the people’s struggle to break free of control was never any more attainable during the blogging days than it is today.
Perhaps the fight is eternal, an innate anthropological prison humans find themselves trapped within, sometimes both emotionally and physically.
I’m not that fatalistic, really. There have been many battles won on our behalf before our time that have made our lives much better than our predecessors’. And there will be other great victories won by the people in the future.
Unfortunately, in the case of blogging, I agree with Hossein that freedom got outflanked before that revolution had legs to stand on. Annoyingly, we’re all complicit and every time we ‘like’ and ‘retweet’ we’re pumping more collective fuel into the centralized machines that defeated it.
Being a parent is a fantastic education. Watching my kids take toys apart to see how they work only to discover they can’t put them back together is a sharp reminder of how our brains work.
Computers, networks, phones, and social networks weren’t invented by people who wanted to control the world. They were invented by intensely curious and ambitious people who wanted to take apart ‘the system’.
They took great pride in their David vs Goliath stories, never more brazenly than the historic Apple Big Brother ad.
But after dismantling the status quo many of these folks have spent the rest of their careers putting the pieces of their foe back together again in their own image.
Instead of defending the freedom they espoused in obtaining their position of power they focused all their power on securing their future for themselves, constructing impenetrable walls against the threat of a younger and hungrier version of themselves attacking.
The promise of freedom from tyranny is a great marketing strategy for a startup. That message resonates deeply within our psyche because it is a universal sentiment.
But sometimes it’s a lie.
We need startups to invent better ways of doing things. We need people to lead the never-ending fight for our freedoms. We all need to be more honest about when those two things are in conflict.
I’ve always looked up to independent-minded people who can strike a balance between operating within ‘the system’ and changing it through their work, particularly when that work is in the public interest.
Vivienne Westwood is such a person.
I met her recently to discuss working together, and she didn’t disappoint. She began the meeting describing a world view that concerns her, one that should concern all of us. And we considered ways to use people-supported journalism to improve public dialog about it.
The world view that concerns her is the way global power is getting rewired. She’s going to edit the next issue of Contributoria to focus on this.
It’s about international trade agreements and corporate law. It’s about the democratic process within and between countries. It’s about human rights and the environment. And it’s about those who we normally depend on to keep power in check but either can’t do it, won’t do it or fail to do it well.
It’s a big topic with lots of nuance that I don’t understand, yet, but it is easy to see the erosion of democracy when international trade deals result in agreements that disregard laws and policies won through hard-fought democratic processes.
Democratic principles can be interpreted in different ways, but at minimum people should have a voice in the decisions made on their behalf. And they need a role in choosing who is making those decisions.
Everyone, including profit-motivated groups, have a right to question the law. But democracy is pretty good at making sure we know what we’re gaining and losing if we decide to change the law.
Is democracy really at risk here?
I dunno. I find it hard to believe we would let it get to that.
But then again I had no idea that ISDS existed until very recently.
ISDS is an “instrument” of international law. This isn’t a musical instrument. It’s a method or standard for enforcing trade deals, enabling companies to sue governments for lost profits. It means public policy can’t conflict with what’s been decided in the deal. ISDS ensures that the law is subservient to the trade agreement.
In one of the pamphlets (pdf) championing ISDS in the UK they say proudly, “ISDS gives UK companies access to independent tribunals and to possible compensation when they are treated unfairly by [partner countries]. It also deters [partners] from acting unfairly in the first place.”
In other words, “Don’t worry about international laws. We’ve got your back. And if any government gives you trouble, we’ll help you to sue the sh*t out of them. They won’t f*ck with you again.”
It’s being used more like a weapon than an “instrument”.
To be fair, an international court may in fact fuel growth if companies have some assurances that they can fight back if they’ve been treated unfairly somewhere. But only big corporates with deep pockets are going to benefit, and they will likely only use that system against smaller countries with weaker legal systems who might threaten their business model, perhaps for good reason.
“I.S.D.S. was originally meant to protect investors against seizure of their assets by foreign governments. Now I.S.D.S. lawsuits go after things like cancelled licenses, unapproved permits, and unwelcome regulations.”
The context becomes clear when you look at what Philip Morris did when Australia passed plain packaging legislation on cigarettes there. Philip Morris sued Australia because they claimed the new plain packaging law affected their profits.
Even more bizarrely, they didn’t have the right trade deal in place to sue Australia directly. They essentially invested in operations in Australia in order to use a different trade deal in Hong Kong that then made it possible to sue Australia.
“The forced removal of [Philip Morris] brands and trademarks by the Australian Government is a clear violation of the terms of the bilateral investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong, and we believe we have a very strong case for actual damages that may amount to billions of Australian dollars.”
Most democratic societies have a system of checks and balances to prevent corruption and too much power concentrated in one area. These international trade agreements are creating cross-border super-systems that are too opaque with fantastic opportunities for corruption and concentrated power.
We are unable to vote for or against what’s being decided on our behalf by unelected people in far away places. They are making their own rules about some pretty important stuff – the environment, labor laws, culture, etc.
The game needs to be exposed so we can deal with it. The good news is that it is becoming clearer to see with deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP (“tee-tip”) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.
However we only know the details now because documents have been leaked, not because the information was made public.
Even our own elected leaders are unable to get involved in the details.
In a Politico report US officials behind TPP said that we can “expect the real horse-trading to begin now that Obama has signed “fast-track” legislation requiring Congress to pass or reject TPP without amendments.”
Occupy-ers, if you were ever unsure of how you could bring your fighting spirit to something tangible, now is your moment.
The fight against TTIP and TPP is a symbolic move we can all make together to say, “Hang on, how is this decision getting made? Who is signing up to it and with what authority? Who is going to benefit and how? What happens if we don’t like it? Who will monitor it and tell us all if it’s working or not?”
The fight against international trade deals is a line in the sand between the new global powers and the people. Whoever wins is going to have a massive leg up in whatever comes next.
Have no illusions about what’s at stake – these kinds of trade deals are marginalizing democracy. You have a right to know what your country is deciding on your behalf. Given the scale of these deals I think we have a right to know what other countries are deciding on our behalf, too.
If it all feels too technical or inaccessible, then just start asking around…see if you can find anyone who understands it. Better yet, see if you can find someone who has read these agreements.
When you come up empty you may come to the same conclusion I did which is that whatever this is all about it’s not being done for the good of the public.
Let’s get a good look at these deals. Let’s run the proposed terms through ‘the system’. Of course ‘the system’ needs to change. It always will. It’s made by humans. And maybe there are provisions in the deals that we should consider.
But as it stands today TTIP and TPP and their legal weapons like ISDS look very much like people in positions of power using their advantages to lock down even more of it.
That’s not independent-thinking. That’s not improving ‘the system’. That’s not working in the interest of the public.
There is an increasingly obvious pattern explaining how the Internet works at scale, and it seems like it could shed light on how future Internet activity will unfold.
Here’s how it works:
A new media model on the Internet enables exciting new ways for people to share information and to communicate. As the volume of activity increases the experience becomes more complex. The complexity growth curve eventually forces a change - it starts increasing at a faster rate than the growth of the activity itself.
A breaking point occurs. Participating becomes something people have to do in order to be part of the network, not something they want to do.
As a result, a new type of activity appears in response, something that solves the complexity problem and enables exciting new ways of connecting.
The cycle begins again.
The cycle appears to happen via two distinct but parallel waves – information sharing and new ways of communicating evolve across a 5-year wave, while new hardware, operating systems and dominant network protocols evolve on a slower 10-year wave.
Ultimately, there are three run away champions. One that dominates the space via advertising, one that dominates through transactions, and one that owns the key hardware and operating system that people use to participate. They all achieve this position by establishing business models that benefit from the current pattern, optimized to leverage the characteristics of the new activity.
Five years ago when I was looking at this stuff the pattern indicated that by this year, 2015, social activity was going to become overwhelming and a breakthrough would appear in response to it.
Hello private messaging!
WhatsApp, Snapchat etc are a direct response to the overwhelming amount of activity happening on the big social platforms. Private messaging solves today’s complexity problem.
If the pattern is going to answer questions about the future then it needs to answer some other things like, “Who benefits from a world where people value privilege over sharing? How do you make money if people value exclusivity? What kinds of financial resources are going to accelerate growth in a market shaped like this?”
Private ad exchanges, members-only programs, privileged access services, private transactions and cybercurrencies will all flourish in this environment. Inequality will become a commercial virtue.
However, a large-scale network that values privilege is going to create serious long term problems if we fail to at least acknowledge the implications of it.
Inequality breeds resentment and power struggles. The Internet’s amazing democratic capabilities will become even more politicized. Divergent agendas will wage legal, economic and cultural battles with increasing sophistication and with more at stake.
But perhaps we can keep an eye on what to expect further down the line in order to maintain perspective on these short term shifts.
What comes after the current wave? What happens in 2020?
If the pattern continues then the volume of this new activity will become overwhelming which will trigger a response. We’ll hit a ceiling when the amount of exclusive activity becomes unmanageable.
A great outcome would be a reinvestment in the open Internet, but, if history serves us, then the incumbents will be deeply established and too strong to overcome. A total rejection of the network is more likely than a return to its roots.
A less dramatic outcome would be about alternative protocols on alternative networks. Technologies enabling Internet-of-Things are obvious candidates for the new hardware wave. If that’s happening then it’s easy to imagine physical gestures becoming the dominant way we experience the network.
Who benefits? How will people make money? These are big question for another time.
Can we zoom out on this model? Is there a meta pattern in the pattern?
Maybe there’s a 20-year wave where complexity across all network activity increases to unbearable levels. If that is actually what happens then it’s reasonable to expect a transportation revolution.
When remote communication becomes overwhelmingly complex then we will want better ways to get places and to be with people. This might be forced on us all by external events such as climate change, so it seems likely to happen at some point, anyhow.
Maybe this pattern offers some clarity on what circumstances will get us there and when.
You can’t take any of this too seriously, obviously.
The pattern lacks rigor. There’s no data behind it. It doesn’t take into account external events that shape rates of change. And the time frame we’re looking at is too small to draw meaningful conclusions.
It’s merely a working hypothesis.
However, if Bill Gross is right about the importance of timing then maybe this pattern is worth applying to whatever you are working on.
If privilege is what matters then you need to have a position on it.
Are you building trust as a core activity of your work? Do you make your customers feel privileged? Does activity increase in value to your customers the more exclusive it becomes?
You don’t have to do those things as a pureplay like messaging apps or dating services or private trading networks to be relevant. But you can be sure that those issues will matter more and more over the next 3 to 5 years.
Equally, who is keeping privilege in check? Who becomes more powerful in a privileged world, and who is ensuring they are using that power fairly?
Who is going to worry about all this on behalf of the rest of us who get caught up in it?
The nuances of privacy in this new world are going to make it harder than ever to keep power in check and to challenge authority.
We’re going to need clever journalism now more than ever before.
What does it take to get on the wave?
If you’re reading blog posts like this about current trends then you’ve probably missed the leading edge of the current wave already. Rather than ride this one you may get thrown by it, and going against it may get really difficult. You might be forced to shift your agenda in ways that contradict your latest 5-year plan.
It’s certainly not too late to try to get on it.
Being open to partnering with people who are closer to the leading edge than you are can be a good way to navigate unfavorable conditions even if they challenge the very core of why you exist. An external mirror is very useful when facing existential crises.
Also, I don’t know if “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” works in a world built on coopetition. But it’s a good idea to know who Facebook worries about.
The good news is that you can be sure that there will be another chance to get your timing right.
When there’s too much privileged, private and exclusive activity the network will become too complex again. And everything will change because of it. That’s one thing we can all count on.
Get up early, paddle out to the waves you want to catch, and try a few to warm up. Stand up when the right one comes along and ride it for all it’s worth.
“When will micropayment technologies be good enough to buy articles?”
This was a question posed at a journalism event recently.
I was really surprised to hear it.
I wasn’t sure whether to list the many technologies and examples of places where it has been tried and failed over the last 15+ years at news orgs large and small or to respond to the business model implied by the question.
It’s easy to understand why people still believe sustainable journalism can be achieved through traditional commercial trade like this – reader gives publisher money, publisher gives reader articles. It sounds very sensible because it used to work just fine this way.
New thinking will eventually clear out the old thinking, but in many cases we also need to unlearn what we think we understand.
There’s a great example of this by SmarterEveryDay who demonstrated a brilliant experiment in cognitive dissonance. He unlearned how to ride a bike (h/t @albertwenger).
It turns out that the reason riding a bike feels easy once we’ve learned is because our brains ruthlessly protect our understanding of how to do it. We tend to lock down hard-earned knowledge and keep it that way, though children’s brains are very willing to adjust to changes in conditions.
Paywalls, micropayments, paid news apps, etc. are all industrial production-style business models translated for the Internet. They make sense given what we thought we knew, and, as a result, a lot of people are certain they will work.
Just like TV is much more than radio with pictures and how a web site is much more than a magazine on a computer, the business models enabling sustainable journalism can’t be translated from the technological predecessor.
A generation of entrepreneurs is going to wipe away those ideas and reinvent network-native business models for sustainable journalism that have a lot less friction and benefit many more constituents.
While some of those models are already proven and many more are still playing out I do think there is a bigger challenge for future visionaries to take on:
What models for sustainable journalism operate beyond the limits of the medium through which the journalism materializes?
It’s probably the wrong question, come to think of it. I’ve got my own biases that need to be recalibrated, too.
Regardless, a change in thinking is required in the hivemind that believes the answer is a digital version of past successes, and I suspect it’s going to be much harder than learning how to ride a backwards bike.
The state of the open Internet and the role of journalism in the world is more precarious than I understood just a few months ago. It’s easy to focus on your day-to-day agenda and forget to look up sometimes.
In addition to the concerns shared at journalism conferences there are troubling events happening in small closed countries  and big open ones  demonstrating very clearly that we are not protecting some things that should be looked after better.
Serious consequences are becoming apparent. Future generations will wonder what we were thinking.
The good news is that there are solutions and there’s still time.
Let’s be clear about what’s wrong, first:
1) Authority in all its forms has been flattened irrevocably except when it’s not
Now that we have the Internet in our pockets and can shout to the world whenever we want there is no power or unfair advantage that will go unchallenged…
…except when authoritative figures and institutions fight back unfairly and even violently to keep us from challenging them.
Some countries have no qualms about killing access to the Internet or parts of it to keep people quiet, something very difficult to imagine for people who have never been offline before.
2) The Internet doesn’t belong to us, and we don’t seem to mind.
There’s no such thing as a private conversation anymore, but we’re not doing much to un-invite them.
It’s as if we’ve entered the New Restoration and decided we don’t want to self-govern afterall.
3) Structural weaknesses are corroding the effects of independent journalism.
The business models enabling sustainable journalism aren’t dire, but meaningful funding without strings attached is trickier than ever. Policies that once protected free speech are being used to protect people from being offended. Some are being amended to increase control of the media. The tools of the trade leave journalists and their sources exposed. And the more modern structures of the journalism trade aren’t mature enough yet to replace the more traditional tactics that got us here. The transition is happening, but it’s not a smooth one.
All these things create serious trust issues, the founding principle shaping our belief in journalism as a health check on democratic principles.
Of course, not everyone values the role of journalism and regulators in the world equally, some not at all. That’s fine. But those of us who do value the role it plays must fight harder for it as others turn away from it.
What can we do about these issues?
Frameworks and ecosystems are supportive structures and fuel for solutions, whereas rules and policing tend to incite conflict and battles. What does this picture look like through a constructive lens as opposed to a combative one?
Pragmatically, none of the solutions will mean anything without a physical manifestation of independence. If we can’t say things in private then everything else is a non-starter. There actually is a silver bullet to the technical challenge in front of us – cryptography.
Encryption is the sticky glue holding the envelopes closed on all of our correspondence. It should be embraced wholeheartedly by anyone and everyone who cares about democratic principles in the world whether you have something to hide or not.
Equally, we should all be better about supporting and embracing open standards on the Internet.
Before Facebook and Twitter we had a distributed messaging standard owned by nobody that made possible a global content network for sharing stuff that people could choose to follow. Tons of interesting, useful and entertaining sources were publishing in real-time through it. It was called RSS.
The new “social” platforms came along and treated openness and sharing as a core activity rather than as a tiny button deep in the ‘About Us’ pages of the web site as publishers did with RSS. Now those platforms dominate content sharing on the Internet.
If you don’t want to learn about open standards (they can feel like nonsense sometimes, so nobody would blame you for being annoyed by them) then maybe consider them like a tax we all need to pay in order to maintain an open Internet.
Why isn’t the Internet a public good? This network we inhabit doesn’t have to be controlled by either nation states or corporations.
That ideal may be aiming too high, for now, but there are things we can do to level the playing field.
Primarily, we can be much more distributed in the way we publish – the things we say, where we say them and the commercial activity around those conversations. There is plenty of room for a lot of people to make a lot of money producing important information and art at a global scale without having to own all the inputs and outputs for it.
Things like crowdfunding, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, open licenses, net neutrality and media pluralism policies can all be very effective means of distributing control of the Internet and journalism in the world.
Now that “hate speech” and “free speech” are being used as weapons of war we need to re-think what we wanted those terms to do for us in the first place. They are losing their meaning, and people are getting hurt.
We don’t like everything we can see and hear now that we’re all connected, but even so, the Internet should not be used as a weapon.
More urgently, people are being punished for speaking out.
Bloggers and journalists are being jailed and killed, and the perpetrators carry on with impunity. This is the greatest weapon authority has in its arsenal today, and in many places it is becoming very effective in applying it.
Impunity breeds very dangerous conditions that easily snowball into fear. Exposing it relentlessly, as Joshua Oppenheimer did with ‘The Act of Killing‘, is the first step. For that, we need professional journalists who can operate safely.
Some of the solutions above are more mature than others. But we mustn’t lose sight of the opportunity and what we’re trying to achieve.
The enemy here is not the government or capitalism or God. It’s not social media, either.
There is no enemy.
In our ongoing pursuit of independence as individuals, communities and countries we tend to seek power through tools – tools that are physical, religious, economic, political or a combination.
The trade off where we authorize power to act on our behalf in exchange for reaching beyond our individual capabilities creates room for our darker nature as humans to exert itself.
A little too much of that has crept into the Internet.
While I prefer to avoid seeing the world as a series of boxes and battle lines, there are many who are playing a zero-sum game on the Internet and doing a lot of damage in the process.
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.