Generative Media Networks: Fueling growth through action: What it means for journalism

Market context may seem far away to when you’re reporting and editing the news every day, building web pages, writing code, selling display ads, presenting marketing plans, managing managers, etc.  But, equally, failing to recognize when market conditions are affecting you and your company is a sort of occupational hazard.

Let’s get to the real question: “What is different today?”

Where media businesses once believed that winning digitally meant attracting eyeballs to web pages today there’s a greater understanding about the role of the various platforms around the network and the value of the network itself.

This blog post from Jeff Jarvis articulates the idea well:

“In the new distributed world you want to be where the people are…The media brand is less a destination and a magnet to draw people there than a label once you’ve found the content, wherever and however you found it.”

This is very much the kind of thinking that inspired the Open Platform.

The Open Platform is the suite of services that enable people to build applications with the Guardian.  We have a Content API that gives people access to republish Guardian content.  The Data Store offers raw data for people to download and reuse.  Our Politics API is an open database of candidates, voting records, election results, etc.  And, finally, the MicroApp framework is a plugin architecture for integrating apps built by partners and our own teams into our platform.

What this platform enables is a different kind of relationship with everyone and everything around us.

Whereas the pre-internet newspaper world looked like a one-way relationship, the new era is one where we grow as others grow, a circular relationship, a self-reinforcing marketplace.

Increasing bi-directionality through mutualization

Alan Rusbridger has given a couple of fantastic speeches this year that put more perspective around this philosophy.  Of the many quotable passages in the Cudlipp Lecture from January 2010, Alan says,

“Our most interesting experiments lie in combining what we know with the experience of the people who want to participate rather than passively receive.”

He refers to some wonderful imagery by Andrzej Krauze, the first depicting a staff of journalists chucking newspapers over a wall to people scampering about madly, the second of two men standing nose-to-nose with a hole through the newspaper as if the journalist and reader are both uncomfortable with their proximity.

Alan is embracing “mutualisation”, breaking down the wall between publisher and reader, reinforcing the strengths of ideas through collaboration, making a greater impact by working together.  It’s an approach to social media that has a clear intent.

There are many many approaches to evolving journalism in this new world, and we therefore must get back to some basics and consider what it’s for.  I think Jay Rosen is often very insightful in this context.  He recently said:

“Journalists should describe the world in a way that helps us participate in political life.”

On a macro level, journalism should inspire people to change the things that they can change or at least to understand what it is that they are accepting that won’t change as a result of inaction.

On a tangible level, the results of good journalism mean that people read, watch, think, talk, write, participate, help, challenge…that people do things.

The commercial intent is the same, of course.  The media business wants to inspire people to explicitly show interest in things, to promote things, to sell things, and to buy things.

If a media organization can make a virtue of inspiring action across all the things that it does, empowering people to do things, whether as individuals or as groups and organizations, then more people will want to participate and partner, building more value for everyone…creating a generative media network.

To be clear, this approach mustn’t be mistaken for advocacy journalism.

Time spent, referral activity, sharing and re-use, commenting, and response can all be used to measure what kind of actions result from a story without threatening a journalist’s independence from external influences, either political or commercial.

Equally, spaces must exist for biases to be expressed.  This is particularly important when there’s an expectation to form a relationship with people.

At the Guardian, our future is dependent on trust, on our ability to produce insightful, responsible, and accurate information.

We can wrap general editorial policies and standards around our work to reinforce that trust, but we must also make extra efforts to ensure people don’t misinterpret any biases and feel deceived as a result.

As Jonathan Stray blogged recently:

“Journalism has no theory of change — at least not at the level of practice.  I’ve taken to asking editors, “what do you want your work to change in society?” The answer is generally along the lines of, “we aren’t here to change things. We are only here to publish information.” I don’t think that’s an acceptable answer.

Journalism without effect does not deserve the special place in democracy that it tries to claim.”

The core mission of the news business is still about good journalism.  It always will be.

The business side of the house needs to worry less about controlling how journalism is delivered to people and more about what people do as a result of it affecting them…and, crucially, that it is, in fact, affecting people.

This series is an attempt to assemble some ideas I’ve been exploring for a while.  Most of it is new, and some of it is from previous blog posts and recent-ish presentations. I’ve split the document up into a series of posts on the blog here, but it can also be downloaded in full as a PDF or viewed as a sort of ebook via Scribd: