The Digital Revolution in Higher Education Has Already Happened. No One Noticed.

This post originally appeared on Medium, and is cross-posted here with permission of the author.

The digital revolution in higher education has happened. In the fall of 2012, the most recent semester with complete data in the U.S., 4 million undergraduates took at least one course online, out of 16 million total, with growth up since then. Those numbers mean that more students now take a class online than attend a college with varsity football. More than twice as many now take a class online as live on campus. There are more undergraduates enrolled in an online class than there are graduate students enrolled in all Masters and Ph.D. programs combined. At the current rate of growth, half the country’s undergraduates will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade. This is the new normal.

The first for-credit classes appeared

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Pay attention to what Nick Denton is doing with comments

As comment bait goes, I’m a Gay Mormon Who’s Been Happily Married for 10 Years is a corker. That’s Gawker’s headline for a piece by Joshua Weed (excerpted from a longer version posted on Weed’s own site) about how he balances his homosexuality, his marriage to a woman, and his Mormon identity. Once up on Gawker, it quickly attracted several hundred comments.

As you might imagine, some of those comments are moronic. One read, in its entirety, “lol mormons.” Some are grating: “…the idea of putting something in a slimy vagina is not sexy” (a comment since dismissed). Some are ad hominem: “This article is bullshit, by a self loathing brainwashed moron.” Of the hundreds of replies, however, the seven currently highlighted on the article page form a conversation between Weed himself and and a handful of other users; the replies are civil, thoughtful, and even, mirabile dictu, spell-checked. These seven replies don’t just happen to be highlighted — they are highlighted because they are part of a conversation.

Most news sites have come to treat comments as little more than a necessary evil, a kind of padded room where the third estate can vent, largely at will, and tolerated mainly as a way of generating pageviews. This exhausted consensus makes what Gawker is doing so important. Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder and publisher, Thomas Plunkett, head of technology, and the technical staff have re-designed Gawker to serve the people reading the comments, rather than the people writing them.

The technical choices here are simple, but their social ramifications are not. The new design dispenses with the tyranny of time order. On most systems, the most prominent comments are posted either by the most obsessed users (when comments are posted oldest first) or the drive-bys (newest first). On Gawker, a user who replies to an existing comment is likelier to get her contribution seen than an earlier user who added another reaction directly to the original post.

Gawker’s default assumption is that most comments won’t ever appear on the article page — like the Slashdot comment system, they are all there, but only accessible with extra work by the reader. This ensures that there is, by design, no way for regular participants (the Commentariat, a group Denton loathes) to use either volume or aggression to maximize attention. On Gawker (and, soon, on its seven sister sites), anyone can still say anything, but it’s no longer the case that anyone can say anything to everyone.

This lets Gawker to do less policing overall. If vapid or aggro comments are unlikely to make the main article page, Gawker can expand its support for anonymous comments, as with its burner accounts (a nod to the phones favored by drug dealers) and its instructions about how to report information anonymously.

They have been rolling out this system in pieces — burners and the ability of commenters to accept or dismiss replies came in April, shifting most comments off the main page happened in mid-June, and comment search is still coming. Remarkably, as the system has rolled out, it has proven to work even retroactively — a lovely Gawker piece by Maureen O’Connor, When My Mother and I Were Obsessed with Death, acquired its comments back in May, under the old system, but when the replies are sorted under the new system, the three featured comments (out of a hundred) add up to a heartfelt thousand-word coda, written by other women grappling with the same issues. If you view the same hundred comments in time order, you come across someone hitting on the author — “maureen you are so attractive, death-obsession is just the icing on the cake” — long before you find anything you’d care to read.

Gawker’s plan might fail, of course. When there are complicated user reactions to big posts, as with the Gay Mormon piece or John Cook’s recent Watergate post, the system buries many replies that are, to my eye, more thoughtful and engaged than the ones that made it to the main page, including many interesting replies by the posts’ authors, one of the things Denton explicitly hopes to highlight.

There are also real design challenges — the reader is supposed to understand that a grayed-out comment placed next to a featured one is an alternate response to the same parent comment. (It was confusing even to write that sentence; the current design doesn’t make it much clearer.) Conversations now have URLs, so readers can send traffic directly to a particular set of replies, but few people seem to understand or use this function. Comment search has yet to be launched. All these things will affect reader reactions.

There could also be deeper problems. On the list titled “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things On The Internet,” Item #1 has always been human nature. The Commentariat, who know little about the subject of any given post, still have a lot of time on their hands, and they may yet come to dominate the new system. It may also be that readers are in fact as horrible as industry consensus has it, that without the bread and circuses of cursing and trolling, commenting will lose its appeal.

Many news sites seemed to have entered an endgame with their comment sections a year or so ago: give up on any real participation, give up on anonymity, fall back to “Login With Facebook.” This reaction has come about in part because comments on news sites have been stagnant for a long time. Gawker is demonstrating that a good part of that stagnation came about because the way readers have been asked to participate has been stagnant for a long time too.

Nick Denton photo by Matt Haughey used under a Creative Commons license.

Are Newspapers Finally Figuring Out How To Reward Their Best Customers?

Money Wall

This may be the year where newspapers finally drop the idea of treating all news as a product, and all readers as customers.

One early sign of this shift was the 2010 launch of paywalls for the London Times and Sunday Times. These involved no new strategy; however, the newspaper world was finally willing to regard them as real test of whether general-interest papers could induce a critical mass of readers to pay. (Nope.)

Then, in March, the New York Times  introduced a charge for readers who crossed a certain threshold of article views (a pattern copied from the financial press, and especially the Financial Times.) Finally, and most recently, were a pair of announcements last month: The Chicago Sun-Times was adopting a new threshold charge, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said that their existing one was working well. Taken together, these events are a blow to the idea that online news can be treated as a simple product for sale, as the physical newspaper was.

For some time now, newspaper people have been insisting, sometimes angrily, that we readers will soon have to pay for content (an assertion that had already appeared, in just that form, by 1996.) During that same period, freely available content grew ten-thousand-fold, while buyers didn’t. In fact, as Paul Graham has pointed out, “Consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren’t really selling it either…Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant.”

Commercial radio is ad-supported because no one could figure out a way to restrict access to radio waves; cable TV collects revenues because someone figured out a way to restrict access to co-axial cables. The logic of the internet is that everyone pays for the infrastructure, then everyone gets to use it. This is obviously incompatible with print economics, but oddly, the industry’s faith in ‘every reader a customer’ has been largely unshaken by newspapers’ own lived experience of the move to the web.

A printed paper was a bundle. A reader who wanted only sports and stock tables bought the same paper as a reader who wanted local and national politics, or recipes and horoscopes. Online, though, that bundle is torn apart, every day, by users who forward each other individual URLs, without regard to front pages or named sections or intended navigation. This unbundling leads to the odd math of web readership — if you rank readers by pages viewed in a month, the largest group by far, between a third and half of them, will visit only a single page. A smaller group will read two pages in a month, a still smaller group will read three, and so on, up to the most active reader, in a group by herself, who will read dozens of pages a day, hundreds in a month.

Against this hugely variable audience behavior, a paywall was all-or-nothing: “If you won’t give us any money, we won’t show you any ads!” Offered this all-or-nothing choice, most readers opted for ‘nothing’; the day they launched their paywall, the Times  of London shrank its digital audience from a large multiple of its print circulation to a small fraction of it. This isn’t a problem with general-interest paywalls — it is the  problem, widely understood before the turn of the century, and one to which there has never been a convincing answer. The easy part of treating digital news as a product is getting money from 2 percent of your audience. The hard part is losing 98 percent of your advertising base.

To understand newspapers’ 15-year attachment to paywalls, you have to understand “Everyone must pay!” not just as an economic assertion, but as a cultural one. Though the journalists all knew readership would plummet if their paper dropped imported content like Dear Abby or the funny pages, they never really had to know just how few people were reading about the City Council or the water main break. Part of the appeal of paywalls, even in the face of their economic ineffectiveness, was preserving this sense that a coupon-clipper and a news junkie were both just customers, people whose motivations the paper could serve in general, without having to understand in particular.

The article threshold has often been discussed as if it was simply a new method of getting readers to pay, to which the reply has to be “Yes, except for most of them.” Calling article thresholds a “leaky” or “porous” paywall understates the enormity of the change; the metaphor of a leak suggests a mostly intact container that lets out a minority of its contents, but a paper that shares even two pages a month frees a majority of users from any fee at all. By the time the threshold is at 20 pages (a number fast becoming customary) a paper has given up on even trying  to charge between 85 percent and 95 percent of its readers, and it will only convince a minority of that minority to pay.

Newspapers have two principal sources of revenue, readers and advertisers, and they can operate at mass or niche scale for each of those groups. A metro-area daily paper is a mass product for customers (many readers buy the paper) and for advertisers (many readers see their ads.) Newsletters and small-circulation magazines, by contrast, serve niche readers, and therefore niche advertisers — Fire Chief, Mother Earth News. (Some newsletters get by with no advertising at all, as with Cooks’ Illustrated, where part of what the user pays for is freedom from ads, or rather freedom from a publisher beholden to advertisers.)

Paywalls were an attempt to preserve the old mass+mass model after a transition to digital distribution. With so few readers willing to pay, and therefore so few readers to advertise to, paywalls instead turned newspapers into a niche+niche business. What the article threshold creates is an odd hybrid — a mass market for advertising, but a niche market for users. This is the commercial equivalent of the National Public Radio model, where sponsors reach all listeners, but direct suport only comes from donors. (Lest NPR seem like small ball, it’s worth noting that the Times ‘ has convinced something like one out of every hundred of its online readers to pay, while NPR affiliates’ success rate is something like one in twelve. Newspapers with thresholds now aspire to NPR’s persuasiveness.)

Paywalls held out the possibility, however illusory, that if all readers could be treated as customers, the organization wouldn’t have to pay much attention to them, except in aggregate. Threshold charges blow that up; a single fee-paying user will generate hundreds of times the revenue of the median, ad-viewing reader. This subjects the logic of the print bundle — a bit of everything for everybody, slathered with ads — to two new questions: What do our most committed users want? And what will turn our most frequent readers into committed users? Here are some things that won’t: More ads. More gossip. More syndicated copy. This is new territory for mainstream papers, who have always had head count rather than engagement as their principal business metric.

Celebrities behaving badly always drive page-views through the roof, but those readers will be anything but committed. Meanwhile, the people who hit the threshold and then hand over money are, almost by definition, people who regard the paper not just as an occasional source of interesting articles, but as an essential institution, one whose continued existence is vital no matter what today’s offerings are.

In discussing why the most loyal subset of readers would pay for access to the Times, Felix Salmon described some of the motivations reported by users: “I like the product, understand the incentives involved, and want its production to continue” and “I feel that maintaining a quality NYT is immensely important to the country as a whole.” Now, and presumably from now on, the readers that matter most are disproportionately likely to score high on the God Forbid index (as in “God forbid the Sun-Times  not be around to keep an eye on the politicians!”)

The people who feel this way have always been a minority of the readership, a fact obscured by print bundles, but made painfully visible by paywalls. When a paper abandons the standard paywall strategy, it gives up on selling news as a simple transaction. Instead, it must also appeal to its readers’ non-financial and non-transactional motivations: loyalty, gratitude, dedication to the mission, a sense of identification with the paper, an urge to preserve it as an institution rather than a business.

Thresholds are now mostly being tried at big-city papers — New York, Chicago, Minneapolis. Most papers, however, are not the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Most papers are the Springfield Reporter, papers with a circulation 20,000 or less, and mostly made up of content bought from the Associated Press and United Media. These papers may not do well on the God Forbid index, because they produce so little original content, and they may not find thresholds financially viable, because the most engaged hundredth of their audience will number in the dozens, not the thousands.

On the other hand, local reporting is almost the only form of content for which the local paper is the sole source, so it’s also possible to imagine a virtuous circle for at least some small papers, where a civically-minded core of citizens step in to fund the paper in return for an increase in local coverage, both of politics and community matters. (It’s hard to overstate how vital community coverage is for small-town papers, which have typically been as much village well as town crier.)

It’s too early to know what behaviors the newly core users will reward or demand from their papers. They may start asking to see fewer or less intrusive ads than non-paying readers do. They may reward papers that make their comments section more conversational (as the Times  has just done.) The most dramatic change, though, is that the paying users are almost certain to be more political, and more partisan, than the median reader.

There has never been a mass market for good journalism in this country. What there used to be was a mass market for print ads, coupled with a mass market for a physical bundle of entertainment, opinion, and information; these were tied to an institutional agreement to subsidize a modicum of real journalism. In that mass market, the opinions of the politically engaged readers didn’t matter much, outnumbered as they were by people checking their horoscopes. This suited advertisers fine; they have always preferred a centrist and distanced political outlook, the better not to alienate potential customers. When the politically engaged readers are also the only paying readers, however, their opinion will come matter more, and in ways that will sometimes contradict the advertisers’ desires for anodyne coverage.

It will take time for the economic weight of those users to affect the organizational form of the paper, but slowly slowly, form follows funding. For the moment at least, the most promising experiment in user support means forgoing mass in favor of passion; this may be the year where we see how papers figure out how to reward the people most committed to their long-term survival.

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of internet technologies. He has a joint appointment at New York University (NYU) as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and Assistant Arts Professor in the New Media focused graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). His courses address the interrelated effects of the topology of social networks and technological networks, how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. You can follow him on Twitter @cshirky and on his blog.


What will 2011 bring for journalism? Clay Shirky predicts widespread disruptions for syndication

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we at the Lab decided to ask some of the smartest people we know what they thought 2011 would bring for journalism. We’re very pleased that so many of them agreed to share their predictions with us.

Over the next few days, you’ll hear from Steve Brill, Vivian Schiller, Michael Schudson, Markos Moulitsas, Kevin Kelly, Geneva Overholser, Adrian Holovaty, Jakob Nielsen, Evan Smith, Megan McCarthy, David Fanning, Matt Thompson, Bob Garfield, Matt Haughey, and more.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

To start off our package of predictions, here’s Clay Shirky. Happy holidays.

The old news business model has had a series of shocks in the 15 or so years we’ve had a broadly adopted public web. The first was the loss of geographic limits to competition (every outlet could reach any reader, listener or viewer). Next was the loss of progressive layers of advertising revenue (the rise of Monster and craigslist et alia, as well as the “analog dollars to digital dimes” problem). Then there is the inability to charge readers easily without eviscerating the advertising rate-base (the failure of micropayments and paywalls as general-purpose solutions).

Next up for widespread disruption, I think, is syndication, a key part of the economic structure of the news business since the founding of Havas in the early 19th century. As with so many parts of a news system based on industrial economics, that model is now under pressure.

As Jonathan Stray pointed out in “The Google/China Hacking Case” and Nick Carr pointed out in “Google in the Middle,” the numerator of organizations producing original news is tiny — absolutely tiny — compared to the denominator of those re-publishing that news. Stray notes that only 7 of the 121 outlets running the China story were based mainly on original reporting, while the vast majority was just wire service copy. Carr similarly pointed out that Google news showed 11,264 separate outlets for the Somali pirate story in 2009, almost all of them re-running the same couple of stories. (I was similarly surprised, last year, to discover that syndicated content outweighed locally created content in my old hometown paper by a 2:1 margin.)

The idea that syndication should be different in a digital era has been around for a while now. Jeff Jarvis’s formulation — “Do what you do best and link to the rest” — dates from 2007, and the AP started talking about about holding back some stories from subscribers in order to drive their PageRank up last year. What could make 2011 the year of general restructuring is Google’s attempt to give credit where credit is due, in the words of their blog post, by offering tags that identify original and preferred sources for syndicated stories.

This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

Giving credit where credit is due will reward original work, whether scoops, hot news, or unique analysis or perspective. This will be great for readers. It may not, however, be so great for newspapers, or at least not for their revenues, because most of what shows up in a newspaper isn’t original or unique. It’s the first four grafs of something ripped off the wire and lightly re-written, a process repeated countless times a day with no new value being added to the story.

Taken to its logical conclusion, giving credit where credit is due will mean things like 11,260 or so outlets getting out of the business or re-running the same three versions of the Somali pirate story. If Reuters has the best version, why shouldn’t people just read it from Reuters?

Like other forces brought to bear by the web, there’s no getting around this one — rewards for originality are what we want, not just as consumers but as citizens — but creating an environment that generates those rewards will also mean dismantling the syndication model we’ve had since Havas first set up shop.