When television cameras panned across the room full of senators and representatives during the recent presidential address to a joint session of Congress, the audience at home caught a glimpse of several political leaders tweeting away on their BlackBerry phones.
At the national level, social media has been embraced by many politicians. Even the White House has a Twitter account and Flickr feed. But is the same true of local campaigns and politicians? How much are Facebook, MySpace and Twitter being integrated into the communication strategies of local political campaigns?
"We look at it as a way to get a message to our constituents and in a campaign to potential voters," said Mesa, Arizona mayor Scott Smith in a phone interview.
Smith, who was elected to office in May 2008, said his use of social media is a critical component in engaging his constituents. Mesa is a city of more than 463,000 people, yet this community, located roughly 20 miles from Phoenix, is without its own newspaper or local TV news outlet.
"It's not just the rise in social media, it's the change in more traditional sources [of information]," Smith said. "And for a city our size that shares newspapers with an adjoining city and doesn't have access to more formal and traditional forms of media, social networking has become essential because in many ways it's not only the best way of getting things out, it's the only way to get your message out."
The decline of local journalism
Smith's community isn't the only smaller city or town to find itself suffering form a lack of local press. While the New York City mayoral election attracts interest from the New York Times, elsewhere the media landscape has changed drastically, thanks to the shuttering of smaller newspapers that were traditionally the source of local political coverage. In some places, social media is being used to try and replace some of what has been lost in terms of professional reporting.
"As money becomes tighter as traditional media outlets become either non-existent or more and more restrictive to how much they cover and the scope of their coverage, I think social media is going to play an increasingly important role in local campaigns because they are all we have," Smith said.
For Boulder, Colo., city council candidate KC Becker, social media technologies like Facebook have become an essential part of her campaign. However, Becker does admit to having some trouble figuring out how to use Twitter.
"I didn't get on Twitter until I decided to run and honestly it has been the technology that still eludes me a little bit," Becker said in a phone interview. "It should be a good outlet for a political candidate, but I just find it a little bit overwhelming and a little bit harder to use."
Some mayors, like Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., have set the bar high with their use of Twitter. Booker has more than 757,000 followers and has engaged his followers by tweeting everything from local policy initiatives to old proverbs.
Lansing, Mich., mayor Virg Bernero, who is running for re-election in November, uses his tweets to promote appearances on Fox and CNN. Bernero campaign manager Patrick McAlvey says occasionally the tweets or videos have gone viral and have been reposted in a number of avenues outside of the Lansing constituency.
"To some extent some things have caught more attention or have been retweeted more often," McAlvey said in a phone interview. "Some of it has to do with the size of our market, but some videos have gone viral."
A Cultural Shift in the Media Landscape
The 2008 presidential campaign was a watershed moment for new media technology. West Hartford, Conn., mayor Scott Slifka says years ago during his previous mayoral campaigns, the only people using Facebook were almost exclusively in their 20s. But Slifka, who is in the heat of his own re-election bid, says there has been a quantum leap in the number of people of all ages logging in to social media. This has had an impact on how political messages spread.
"The thing that strikes me is how rapid new media technologies are," Slifka said. "In a smaller community like ours [about 61,000 people] where the government may not be one that is full-time...you are used to moving at a slightly slower pace. It was really the pace of the printed newspaper."
Slifka said that if there were three or four newspaper stories about local politics in one week, it was significant. Now, news and rumors spread instantly through the blogosphere and are shared on social networks. Local politicians are not just dealing with a new story in the paper -- they are dealing with the fallout from it around the clock.
"I think most local governments aren't really equipped for that kind of rapid response," Slifka said.
Perhaps most significant to the evolving shift in local political communication is the sense that social media is starting to fill the void left by downsized news staffs or the complete absence of journalists in smaller communities.
"A newspaper article gives you such a shallow understanding of the events that occurred at City Hall," said recently elected Tuscaloosa, Ala., mayor Walter Maddox. "A television story is 30 seconds if you are lucky. Through our website, through Facebook, through MySpace and Twitter, we can provide a more detailed and compelling message to the voters of why we are making a certain policy decision.
Maddox said it is important not to post "bureaucratic mumbo jumbo" online because it loses local interest. He said the potential communication capabilities of social media are causing his new government to revamp its online presence.
"It's literally a town hall opportunity to communicate with people," he said. "And they get an opportunity to communicate back with you. That's why it's important and that's why it's going to continue being important."
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven is a second year graduate student at Michigan State University in the School of Journalism. His research has covered news media bias and framing issues, censorship during war, urban revitalization, renewable energy and climate change.
This is one in an occasional series on MediaShift where I discuss issues in-depth with thought leaders in online media. If you have suggestions for future Q&As or want to participate yourself, drop me a line via the Feedback Form.
Hometown and Current Location: Gaithersburg, Md.; New York
What Makes Him a Thought Leader: Shardanand is the CEO and founder of Daylife, which provides paid services to online publishers to help them aggregate and filter their own content or licensed content (including photos, video, stories and more). He was involved in collaborative filtering while at MIT in the mid-'90s and co-founded Firefly Network, which was sold to Microsoft. While at Microsoft, he launched Microsoft Passport. He was a founding partner of The Accelerator Group venture capital firm, and was director of technology at Time Warner Corporate.
What He's Doing Now: Shardanand recently re-focused Daylife from being both a platform and a destination website. The current strategy is to put the platform first and let Daylife.com fall further into the background. Recently, Getty Images invested $4 million in Daylife and announced a partnership with the company. Getty will sell Daylife services, including the SmartGalleries tool for showcasing photos online, to its clients. Getty joins previous Daylife investors the New York Times Co., Craigslist's Craig Newmark and TechCrunch's Michael Arrington.
How has your vision for Daylife changed over the last two years since you've launched the site and service?
Upendra Shardanand: When we launched the business, the concept was to do a platform and a site that the platform powered. We launched in December '07 with a client using the platform, and in January '08 with the site, and pretty quickly our focus went to the platform. The concept is to help publishers easily and quickly curate, organize and aggregate media, whether it's from their own archives, from around the web, or from other third-party providers. A lot of our publishers are not traditionally deep into technology, so we're building the technology layer and editor tools so that the process is effortless and scales.
Our first big break came at the end of '07 when we signed with USA Today. They called us and said they have a travel section with one blogger blogging about cruise lines. They were trying to sell sponsorships to Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines but they didn't have enough traffic in this area. So they took Daylife and gave it to their editor and IT guys and built Daylife-powered pages with photo galleries and sections for every port of call and cruise operator. It went from being one editor and a skinny blog to being one editor plus Daylife, and it's much more of a news portal. Traffic jumped by seven times within three weeks.
Until that point, we had focused on 100 percent automated solutions, where everything is automated. But with USA Today, the blogger Gene Sloan wanted a console where he can tweak things and move things around. That put us on a path to be much more around building tools that help people curate themselves along with automated assistance.
What about the tools you are building for Getty Images, now that they've become an investor in Daylife?
Shardanand: The Getty relationship is focused around distributing tools to their client base that revolve around the workflow of an editor. So they can do what they do but more efficiently, and with a lot more intelligence, and make their job easier and faster. The first thing we're doing with Getty is called SmartGalleries [see demo, below]. The basic problem for any wire service is supplying assets to any publisher. With Getty, the assets are photos, and they just drop that at the publisher's doorstep, and the publisher has to figure out how to ingest it, put it in their CMS [content management system], figure out a workflow, maximize user engagement.
So we built this tool so that people can quickly go in, build a gallery by searching and dragging things around, and make a player. It also has automated assistance where an editor can say 'here's one photograph, fill in the rest for me, based on what I've already picked.' Once the gallery is published, the automation will keep it up to date, and can build related galleries. So if you have galleries around the U.S. Open, it will automatically generate galleries for Roger Federer or Serena Williams. An editor can launch a gallery, or an infinite web of galleries, which is great for the editor, because it's an easy way to publish very quickly.
As a result of that deal, do you feel like you're putting more of your time and effort into photography?
Shardanand: We are in the short term because this is the first product of several we'll be doing that [Getty] will be selling through their sales force. It uses a lot of the basic technology we already had with our platform, which can serve photography, video, text, Twitter, maps -- a variety of things.
So Getty will sell this to their clients as a photo organizer and aggregator?
Shardanand: Yes. We'll be selling it as well, but we have a sales force of two and they have 700, so hopefully they can sell more than we can. The cost varies depending on the size of the client. It could be anywhere from a couple thousand to several thousand dollars per month, depending on the scope of the content library.
And this is content that they own or have licensed? How does the intellectual property work?
Shardanand: If you have a license for Getty content, that will be part of the interface. If you have your own archives, that will also be part of the interface. And if you have a license for images from AP or Reuters, it will work with that as well, provided your license permits it. Today, our platform works with AP content, Reuters content, and Getty content, as long as you have a license for that, as well as your own content. So we will work with any photo provider as long as you have the rights to use the photography.
Tell me more about how you feature appropriate photos. I looked at the USA Today Cruise Log photo gallery, and there are cruise ship photos as well as cruise missiles and war shots that aren't in context. How do you deal with that?
Shardanand: We have knobs and dials so the publisher can choose what they want. For the example you are talking about, what they should do is add in to their search terms, "- missile" so those don't show up. It's based on how the publisher sets it up. It works a couple different ways, either on key words that you pick, or from the metadata the wire service sends out. To the extent that they are looking for related photography, we'll do our best to scan our page and find photographs that are related based on the text of the page. In those cases, the editor can tweak photographs, use it as a baseline or refine the filter further.
The thing with any automated solution is that it's always going to be 85 percent to 90 percent of the way there, and a real editor -- a human editor -- has to go in to tweak it for better quality. The purpose is to help get the editor started and take out the initial work, and the editor can do the high-value tweaking in the middle. It's about capturing what the editor's intent is as easily as possible.
Hear Shardanand explain what kinds of subjects work well with Daylife aggregation, and how the service can save time for editors:
What were the difficulties in starting a destination site? What lessons did you learn about that?
Shardanand: Well we never did a whole lot on the site. The main business was the platform and the site was minimally a showcase of the platform. We had to build something ourselves to understand how all these thing worked.
If you go shopping at Amazon, you are looking at a book, but then you see links to many other things, background information, go to another book by that author -- and the next thing you know, you're looking at a pair of pants. It's an infinite browsing experience with everything connected. The way news is published online is often the opposite and not at all "webby," with no connection to anything else. Which is why there's a problem with user engagement -- every article is a dead end.
So our concept was very simple. What if we created a facility to connect every piece of news content to everything else. So if there's a story about Obama and the Gaza Strip, someone can say in their subconscious mind, what happened on this two or three weeks ago? What did the op-eds say about this? Have there been any new developments? So you dive into one story and keep reading and browsing more. It's a deep browsing experience, but to do that requires an editor to make these connections themselves, or to have a technology that surfaces all the options.
The idea was that if we put the technology out there, people will build smart things around it. We do the hard work of collecting all the data and media and doing the analysis. Then we have clients who use it very simply, and others have been more inventive and done more novel UIs [user interfaces].
Can you give me an example of one of those?
Shardanand: One example is Doodle Buzz. A developer [Brendan Dawes] for an ad agency in the UK built this. So you do a search, and then doodle to see results. You then can doodle on the screen with your mouse, and it will show you all the articles. And then you can doodle one of those, and it will show you an abstract with more topics. We did all the back end of the data. So we let people use their imagination to build ways to see that data.
Most of our publishers stick to their bread and butter. One thing the Washington Post did that was kind of fun . . . this was live during the elections. It's called Issue Tracker. The data is a bit stale now, but it was built for the elections to track the candidates on various issues.
There's been a lot of debates about aggregators, with publishers complaining about aggregators stealing their content and business. Where do you come down in that debate, or do you just try to avoid it?
Shardanand: We try to avoid it because in some ways we're on both sides. We're actually trying to help publishers become aggregators themselves. So the publishers who are worried about being aggregated by Google News, we help them get content themselves in a more aggregated way. So we're at a point where the biggest brands are doing aggregation -- the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post. Once the biggest brands are doing it, the cat's out of the bag.
The issues will go away over time. The real issue isn't that people are linking to your pages. People want links. The real issue is that those links don't drive a whole lot of traffic, and when people arrive at your page, the pages-per-visit are very low. So [with] traffic from Google News, you'll probably see 1.1 pages viewed on average. I think as soon as publishers are better able to take those flat pages and make them a much deeper experience, then the problem goes away.
The fundamental problem is an issue of user experience, which is poor. And as a result, people don't follow the links, and when they do, the publisher doesn't get a whole lot out of it. So we're trying to crack the puzzle of figuring out how to make those pages perform better. I can't say we cracked it, but we've made progress toward it.
Why isn't the New York Times a client?
Shardanand: The New York Times has a couple hundred ideas of their own. Most of our clients are short-staffed on the engineering side and the user experience side, and so they need to outsource some of this work to people like us. But the New York Times very wisely invested money early on to develop things in-house. We do a lot of cross-pollination with them, but fundamentally they build things themselves.
Has the recession been a plus for you, a minus, or both?
Shardanand: Both. Recessions in general are never good. In our case, we're in the nascent space of content media services. It's not exactly a saturated market, and it's expanding. Even with the recession there's room to grow, which is good. The other thing with the recession is it put pressure on the publishers to think hard about how to do more with less, so they will use services like ours to get more engagement from pages. That's been good. That said, they do have less money. But we're still growing. Q1 was better than Q4 last year, Q2 is better than Q1, Q3 will be better than Q2. So it's hard to say whether it's been a net good or net bad for us.
How close are you to being profitable?
Shardanand: It should be in the next three months, but after the Getty investment our product mix will change a little bit. But it will be in the next year, certainly. We have a major distributor to support, so that will add into the capital investment in the short term.
Hear about the technology and journalism background of the staffers at Daylife:
What do you think about Daylife's services? Will they continue to sell even if the market picks back up and publishers can aggregate data on their own? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.
Late last month, an ad for a new job appeared on the Guardian's careers website. The position for "General Manager - Guardian Club" was notable because it signaled an important initiative at the paper in the form of a new entity, the Guardian Club.
"The club will make our most committed readers/users feel they are genuinely part of our organization and reward their loyalty," the ad read. "The General Manager has the unique opportunity to set the direction, create the club and then deliver on that ambition."
Just over a week earlier, the New York Times announced a club of its own, the New York Times Wine Club. It promised to provide "readers and other wine enthusiasts with distinctive wines from many top regions around the world." And by the end of August, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette unveiled a new membership offering in the form of PG+, a paid online service that promised to offer subscribers access to "interactive features and exclusive content" in addition to "access to special Post-Gazette events" and discounts.
These new memberships and clubs, which focus on offering services to readers that are largely different than a pay wall, are a byproduct of declining advertising revenues. As a result of that lost income, news organizations are looking at new ways of generating revenue from readers. The Washington Post has PostPoints, a reader rewards program that offers special benefits to subscribers and online readers.
The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper in Canada, recently organized a special luxury cruise that put readers in close contact with some of the paper's top talent, all while cruising the Mediterranean. The lowest priced fare was $8,619 in Canadian dollars, which included round-trip airfare, airport transfers and the cruise. The most expensive fare was close to $27,000. The 2008 Globe and Mail Cruise sold out all 500 slots [PDF file], and included celebrity chefs, travel sponsors and the newspaper's publisher, editor in chief, and key columnists on board.
Asking readers to step up
In a memo to staff last week, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Times Company CEO Janet Robinson confirmed that the paper is looking to roll out more reader-oriented services and affinity programs.
"As our advertising revenues have declined, we have asked our readers to
bear more of the cost of our journalism, as many other newspapers have done
with their readers," they wrote. "They have demonstrated a willingness to do so."
Thomas Carley, the paper's senior vice president of strategic planning, expanded on this idea in a phone interview.
"Newspapers have a long tradition of paying for their journalism by taking advantage of the community they create," he said. "Classified ads were an example of that and today it's no longer the staple it once was. It behooves the industry and the New York Times to think of ways to replace some traditional revenue streams using that same thinking. What is our community and how can our newspaper pay for its journalism by enhancing that community? The wine club is an example of that."
The Times previously experimented with a paid content model in the form of TimesSelect, which offered access to work by the paper's top columnists, among other content. TimesSelect was canceled in 2007 after attracting over 200,000 subscribers. The Times Company recently launched a new program that once again uses some of its high-profile columnists to help drive revenue. Its Knowledge Network, which has been in place for two years, announced that columnists Nicholas Kristof and Gail Collins and wine critic Eric Asimov would be leading paid online courses. (Carley declined to share any specific revenue figures related to the wine club or courses.)
Overall, Carley said, the wine club and Knowledge Network courses are the beginnings of what the company hopes will be a wide array of new membership and affinity offerings. A hint of a potential major membership offering came in July when the paper surveyed readers to gauge their reaction to two proposed membership offerings that would include a range of discounts, access to special features and events, and other benefits.
For its part, The Guardian hasn't offered specific details about what the Guardian Club will offer. But the job description, which is no longer live, sends a clear message that the paper sees its club as part of a new revenue and community engagement model. It's about more than money.
"Increasingly we believe our future resides at the centre of a community of engaged readers and users, whose relationship with us will be much closer and more involved," read the ad. "The Guardian Club will be our transformational next step in bringing these customers to the centre of our business, rewarding loyalty while growing our reach and revenues. We want members of the club to feel that they are genuinely part of our organisation, and as close as it is possible to get to the editorial heart of our company."
Jeff Jarvis, the BuzzMachine blogger, Guardian new media columnist, and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's new Graduate School of Journalism, wrote on his blog that the use of membership models brings media companies into the realm of NPR.
"The New York Times and the Guardian, to name two, reportedly have visions of tote bags, mugs, and events in their heads," he wrote. "And I think that's a fine idea. No salvation. But a fine idea ... What the Times and Guardian seem to be considering is membership in the NPR mold - give us money and get a T-shirt to brag about it. That works at NPR because the network is a charity and supporting it is a political statement. The same might be true of the Guardian, which operates on a mission ("the world's leading liberal voice") and is owned by a trust. But the Times, as the product of a profit-making company with shareholders? I'm not sure. We'll see."
Lessons from public radio
One example of a successful membership model is in place at Minnesota Public Radio. This June, it surpassed the 100,000 mark for members, making it only the second public radio station to hit that milestone. (WNYC is the other.)
Valerie Arganbright, senior director of membership for MPR, said the membership model is "in our DNA" and that the station makes a concerted effort to connect with members and deliver the kind of programming they will support. As a result, membership revenue is the single largest source of income for MPR, accounting for roughly 20% of its operating budget.
"Without member support we simply would not be able to provide the kind of programming that we provide," Arganbright said. "It's how we started from the beginning 42 years ago."
She says the possibility of for-profit media organizations going after the same people for membership dollars isn't necessarily a threat to MPR.
"I don't know if it's competition or not," she said. "It's so particular to the audience. If a person listens to MPR and reads the New York Times, there's no reason why that person would stop supporting MPR in order to support the New York Times. It all gets down to loyalty: what is that person getting from that service, and do they want to put some money behind that?"
Anyone who gives any amount to MPR becomes a member and receives a discount card that can be used at a variety of local businesses. Those who give larger amounts are also given the option of receiving a gift (this is where the oft-cited tote bag comes in). Members also receive free or discounted access to MPR events, among other benefits. She said the average member contributes roughly $130 per year.
MPR also offers a range of very special benefits to those who give generously enough to become part of its Leadership Circle. Someone who commits to give $100 per month receives a personalized tour of the MPR studios, a mention in the annual report, a subscription to Minnesota Monthly magazine, and "a personal broadcast message on two dates of your choice," among other benefits. Someone who gives $10,000 per year, or $833 per month, receives an "invitation to an annual dinner with Minnesota Public Radio's president and an MPR luminary in a private home" and "lunch with a distinguished journalist or artist." (These benefits are reminiscent of the controversial "salons" idea that was floated and then canceled by the Washington Post.)
it's about more than the tote bag
Though it offers tote bags and studio tours to members, Arganbright emphasizes that these aren't the core benefits of membership.
"Fewer people take the stuff than those who do," she said. "Some people love that emblem of pride in the community, and that's great and we want to make that available. Other people ... want the satisfaction of knowing that they're doing their part."
That view echoes Jeff Jarvis' advice to any company considering a club or membership model.
"So, yes, news organizations, please think about membership," he wrote. "But don't think if it as merely a revenue opportunity. That is doomed. It is insulting ... No, instead use this opportunity to think about opening up as an enabler and member of a new network, a new club, and don't think of yourselves as the owners of this club but instead as just another member."
Media consultant and Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing recently looked at the membership concept in a blog post that examined Bill O'Reilly's membership club. (On a related note, Sean Hannity operates "Hannidate": http://web1.hannity.com/hannidate/ a branded dating website "where people of like conservative minds can come together to meet.") Outing said news organizations have to experiment with all kinds of new revenue models -- and expecting more from readers is a necessity.
"I get a sense most folks in the business understand it will take a lot of different revenue stream to support any kind of significant news organization," he said in an interview. "Membership is great but it's not going to totally float the boat."
Speaking of boats, Outing envisioned the Times "sending Thomas Friedman on a cruise and selling some tickets for that. You can probably find some journalists who will not like these ideas, but we're all floundering around trying to not let things fall apart too much more and also reverse the situation."
In Part 1 of the great micropayments debate, David Carr tried valiantly to defend the idea of charging for heavy-hitting journalism online, while Mike Masnick disagreed vehemently, saying micropayments would seal the doom of newspaper companies. Can the two debaters be brought together to find some common ground? Read on for Part 2.
Major Media Without Walls
Mike Masnick: We absolutely agree that doing nothing is a death sentence. Great. Where we disagree, entirely, is on what to do. You claim they're looking at customer-pays options for survival, but that only works if customers will pay. And, to date, there's no evidence that they can get enough customers to pay to survive. I'm not saying to keep the status quo. I'm saying that putting up pay solutions that aren't based on scarce value won't last.
You say there are "fewer and fewer players" to compete with and I think you're defining the market incorrectly. All I see is more players popping up each and every day. Sure, some of the legacy newspapers who took on too much debt and were unable to adapt are having problems. But, that's the business cycle. I think you may be too narrowly defining the group of publications and that you're looking at "newspapers." The problem is that the person looking for news doesn't care whether it's from a newspaper, a TV station, a radio station, an online-only publication or some guy down the block. If it provides what they want, they're going to be happy with it. And, yes, there are a ton of those willing and waiting to step in should "newspapers" take themselves out of the market.
NPR, now run by a former NYTsian, has said that it won't charge. In fact, it has beefed up its website, added more community features and is looking to leverage the fact that it has real feet on the ground in local communities all over the country. CNN is looking to expand its own online reporting, and has shown no sign of going behind a pay wall. Reuters has been beefing up its reporting, as well as its attempts to better connect with a community of readers. And then there are the startups. Many fail, but that's how the startup process works. Some are starting to break through and do really interesting reporting.
As for the market, you are again limiting yourself to "newspaper advertising." Yes, that's been a bad market lately, but not because of problems with advertising. It's [because of] the problems with newspapers. They've failed to build real community, so the community they used to "sell" to advertisers has gone elsewhere. Why aren't newspapers investing in real community tools? (And that means more than adding comments or tacking on a copycat social network.) It's about recognizing how people interact with news these days. They want to participate. They're not passive readers any more. They want to share the news. They want to comment on the news. They want to contribute to the news. They want to participate. A pay wall makes that almost impossible. It takes away from what people want to do, rather than enabling it.
So what should news organizations be doing? They should be enabling people to interact and participate in the news. They should be enabling their community and providing real value to the community. Not to toot our own horn, but we put together a system that pays our community to interact with companies that want their insight. We're not looking at our community as a cash register, but as an asset. And, yes, we do charge for some things -- but never for content. The model we structured was on providing scarce value...that helps enable the community, rather than limit them.
Finally, on the ability to sell the paid eyeballs -- yes, such people may be "more valuable," but it's a much smaller group, and newspapers will run into trouble if you squeeze them dry. People hate paying for something and then having to pay again with ads. Yes, they'll put up with it if there are no alternatives. But there are an increasing, not decreasing, number of alternatives.
I think that we agree that newspapers need to change. We just disagree on the right path for change. Putting up a pay wall or micropayments hastens the decline in my book. There are serious alternatives. They may not be as easy, but they're much more likely to be effective. To create a painfully strained analogy (sorry, sorry), your argument is that they're going over the cliff already, so why not try this. I just think that it's not a parachute you're opening, it's an anvil. I'm looking at ways that they should be deploying jetpacks to take them higher, rather than just looking to avoid crashing into the ground.
David Carr: Between all the talk of jetpacks, anvils and parachutes, I'd like to drop one more metaphor. The end of days. What newspapers have going is not sustainable and whether it is Steven Brill or Rupert Murdoch or the mad geniuses we have at the Times that crack the code on new, meaningful veins of revenue, I think something remarkable is at stake. And we can't wait for the web fairies to drop down and turn free into a business. Freemium, maybe, but you can't full-stop take paying digital consumers out of the equation. I think we should be clear about the fact that the current business model is not working and if we want to preserve newsgathering capacity, some things have to change. I agree that we are in agreement about that.
But many folks, including you, want to take any charging for content off the table. Really? Does that mean the FT's metered model has no value, or that Rupert Murdoch's announcement that the Wall Street Journal will charge small money for a Blackberry app is a bad idea?
Certain content is far more expensive to produce and has a broader civic value. The community that you speak of is very powerful and can do amazing things, but it can't produce Walter Pincus' deconstruction of a new four-year national security plan in the Washington Post, or easily replicate David Leonhardt's relentless coverage of the meltdown and the aftermath at my shop. To refuse to innovate around the traditional business models that have sustained that kind of reporting is inviting a future of lesser ambitions and reduced accountability.
And although I am the MSM dad in the basement at the digital party in this argument, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed kicking the ball back and forth. A pleasure to be talking about the future instead of moaning about the past.
Finding Some Agreement
Mike Masnick: I'm quite enjoying this as well...
Yes, we absolutely agree that the current model is unsustainable, but I think you're building up a strawman and projecting it on me. I don't want to take charging for content off the table. If you want to do it, go do it. I've said it before: go for it. My point, however, is that it's a bad idea and it will not do what you think it will do. It will not save newspapers. It won't even help them. It will hurt them. It will hasten their demise. Telling you something is a bad idea doesn't mean I'm taking it off the table or somehow trying to shut you down. It just means that I think it's a terrible idea, and there's an awful lot of economic history that supports that idea.
I think where we run into trouble is you seem to think that there are three options:
Continue down the current path
Wait for the web fairies (or perhaps that's in combination with number one)
We agree that number one makes no sense. We disagree on whether or not number two makes sense. And, most importantly, we totally disagree on number three. There are things that can be done today: It's called adding more value to your community, bringing in more users and providing them more direct value. But that's not what's being suggested. What we're hearing is that you'll just toss up a pay wall and the people will magically start paying. But they won't. At least not enough of them to matter, and certainly not enough to cover the loss in ad revenue.
We agree that today's model isn't sustainable. Done and done. But I fail to see how putting up a tollbooth and denying readers what they want is any better. I see it as significantly worse. You're shrinking your market and taking away value at the same time. I can't fathom how that is any better.
The other point you make, which is not what I said, is that I'm taking paying consumers out of the equation. I'm not. But I am saying they won't pay for content in significant enough numbers to make it worthwhile. They may pay for other things. We just ran an experiment and got our readers to give us quite a nice chunk of money -- but it wasn't from selling our content. It was selling scarce goods -- things that can't be "copied" online, but that were made valuable thanks to our content. Those are things that can't be copied, and for which there is no real competition. Things that don't block what the consumer wants to do, but enables something else that they couldn't get or do elsewhere.
As for the FT and the WSJ model, I think both are long-term mistakes, and will eventually be looked upon as such. But, first, both are unique situations, where they're providing direct economic value to many readers who are willing to pay for it, because to them, having that information sooner can be directly translated into money. I think it highly unlikely most others will do well following their model.
That said, I believe that the fact that both lock up their content provides an excellent opportunity for newer players in the space to step in and offer similar content for free, and monetize it elsewhere. There are players who are beginning to enter that market who will cause both the WSJ and the FT a lot of trouble in the future.
Finally, I never said that "the community" would do all of the reporting. I was quite clear in stating that, while there is a role for participatory journalism in helping with the process, I am very much talking about professional journalists. I recognize that others in the space may talk of the community replacing journalists. I am not one of those people.
But here's the thing, if you put up a pay wall, and very few people pay and it kills off whatever ad revenue you had left, then who's going to pay Walter Pincus? That's my question all along. You keep saying that the reporters need to get paid, and we agree. But putting up a pay wall doesn't do that. It does the opposite.
Mediator: This has been a great discussion. One thing I'd like to point out is that you both bring up valid points on each side of the argument, but you both also fall into the trap of making each other into caricatures. David says Mike is depending on "web fairies" for a new business model and says Mike is opposed to pay content; and Mike is saying David wants pay walls around all content.
Isn't it possible that our future content distribution models online will be as they've always been from the start: some paid content, some free content? Why does everything have to be all-pay or free? A hybrid business model seems like the real future for onilne content, including revenues from ads, from running online community sites, from running business directories, from doing web marketing for small businesses, plus specialized paid content or access to top-tier information (whether that's WSJ.com or ESPN Insider or The Packer Insider that's been sold for years by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper).
Can you guys break out of the old paradigm in this debate and find a center that includes free and paid content (and maybe even micropayments)?
Mike Masnick: Fair point -- though I really did not mean to imply that David supported putting pay walls around all content. I think he was quite clear of that at the beginning, and my apologies if I suggested that in my responses.
Now, in an attempt to find that middle ground, I will note a few things. I actually very much like the idea that the New York Times was apparently considering recently of offering value-added tiers that focused on scarce access, rather than content.
So, I think some of the debate comes down to a bit of semantics, but I think they're important. I'm not opposed to giving people a reason to buy things -- in fact, that's become something of a mantra on Techdirt. We highlight case study after case study of those embracing the digital era, while still giving people a reason to buy. The problem is in thinking that the content alone is a reason to buy. History has shown that it's just not a very compelling reason on its own to buy, and not very sustainable. That's because all it does is open up an opportunity for others to come in and provide similar content for free.
But there are things that the content itself makes much more valuable -- scarce things, such as access, events, convenience, tangible goods -- that can be offered. But to do that right, you want to make sure that the content itself works to make those things more valuable, and I believe you do that by freeing up the content itself, providing tools to build out the community, and then connecting that community to those scarce goods. That provided them with real reasons to pay. I thought the early New York Times proposal needed some work around the edges, but was a big step in the right direction.
But any proposal that focuses on blocking what users want to do, and making the content itself less valuable seems like a non-starter to me. Perhaps it works for a little while, but it only invites significant competition.
So, it's not that I think people won't pay for stuff. It's just that I think they won't pay (at least enough to matter) for content. And I think focusing on getting people to pay for content actually makes all those other business models more difficult.
David Carr: I love tiers of service, especially because it preserves a free product that is SEO-ed on the web and always allows a point of entry for new or casual readers. And sorry about the web fairies crack, which I didn't mean to aim at you, Mike. What I was trying to get at is while there is what one of my bosses Jon Landman has referred to as a spiritual or religious belief on the part of journalists that people are just dying to give us lots of yummy money for our work, they are not. There is also a kind of magical realism that infects always-free folks that suggests if we just continue to build audience, a business model will find us. It's a little like the nascent dot-com that is always going to go into the black "next year." Next year never comes.
I think much of what divides us is words rather than values, as Mark points out. Journalism is going to have a blended, hybrid future where the consumer assembles the content they need and then decides what is worth their hard-earned lucre, regardless of platform. My only hope is that the informational market they shop at is a robust and thriving one.
Thus ends the Great Debate on Micropayments and Paid Content. If Masnick and Carr can agree that paid tiers might have a future, that some paid content can work (if scarce and unique enough) but other content should remain free, then maybe dogs and cats can lie down together, and the world will live as one. Or not. How do you see the future of content online? What content do you pay for, and what content would you not pay for? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.
The ability of anyone to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and sharing news and information is seen as one of the big shifts in journalism over the past 10 years.
But a growing body of research suggests that the advent of participatory journalism, or user-generated content (UGC), has done little to change the way the media works.
At the recent Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University, academics presented a series of studies that further illustrated how the mainstream media is trying to tame the phenomenon.
The research paints a global picture of how journalists are seeking to maintain their position of authority and power, rather than create a more open, transparent and accountable journalistic process that seeks to work with readers.
One of the studies looked at the BBC, which is considered a pioneer in the field of user-generated content. The BBC has 23 people working in its UGC hub, up from just three in 2005, and receives thousands of comments and emails every day along with hundreds of photos and videos.
The researchers concluded that UGC has become institutionalized at the BBC as a form of newsgathering, consolidating the existing relationship between journalists and the audience. They did find some examples of BBC journalists that view it as a way to collaborate on stories, or as a shift towards networked journalism. But these views existed at the edges.
This institutional approach towards UGC was reflected in the BBC course on the topic, entitled "Have They Got News for Us." This session at the conference focused on how to scour comments, pictures and video from the public in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than on how to collaborate with the audience on stories.
No News in Comments
Finding newsworthy material in contributions from the public is a challenge. In his study about Dutch newspapers and UGC presented at the conference, Piet Bakker found that there was little news contained in comments on stories.
From the point of view of the traditional journalist, the amount of news in comments was minimal. Instead, comments were seen as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, but these benefits were counterbalanced by problems with abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation.
This ties in to another conference paper that looked at the attitudes of journalists in the U.K. when it comes to user-generated content. In interviews with local journalists working for the Johnston Press, Jane Singer found that most see the public as complementing, rather than replacing, the work of professionals. The journalists saw themselves as UGC gatekeepers, citing concerns about the quality of contributions and legal liabilities.
This approach is understandable at a time when the local press in the U.K. is in trouble. Journalists may feel under even more pressure to justify why amateurs cannot replace them, or offer meaningful contributions.
Singer found that local journalists saw a theoretical value in participatory journalism in that it's a way to promote democratic discourse. But another paper presented by Marina Vujnovic on behalf of an international group of researchers that included myself found that this ideal did not figure highly in the minds of the online editors of newspaper websites. They instead look to UGC to drive traffic, increase loyalty, and provide free content for their sites.
The Audience as Audience
These were just a few of the more than 100 papers presented in Cardiff. But they illustrate how the mainstream media is attempting to limit and control how much the public can contribute to its journalism. These studies suggest that as far as journalists and editors are concerned, the people formerly known as the audience is still known as the audience.
The space for the audience to participate in journalism is, by and large, clearly delineated. The public can send in their news tips, photos and videos, but the journalist retains a traditional gatekeeper role, deciding what is newsworthy and what isn't. There is little room for the public to be involved in the actual making of the news -- in deciding whom to interview, how to frame the story and how to produce it. Once the story is complete and published, the audience can freely comment on the final product.
Online journalism is still in its infancy and it will take time for journalistic attitudes to change. But there are very few signs that news organizations are reinventing their relationship with the audience and tapping into the participatory potential of the web to reimagine journalism.
Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.
Since May 2009, Tamer Mabrouk has held one of the saddest records regarding human rights abuses in Egypt. He is the first blogger to receive a fine after a company sued him for having criticized its activities in Lake Manzala, which is connected to the Suez Canal. Mabrouk was fined $8,700, lost his job, and was forced to move out of Port Said where he had been leaving for years.
Mabrouk's offense was that he blogged about the pollution the Trust Chemicals Company was dumping into Manzala Lake. Perhaps because they were afraid -- or corrupt -- the local authorities did not investigate the issue after Mabrouk brought it to light. So, with a few clicks, he decided to publish pictures proving the detrimental effect of the Trust Chemicals Company. In June 2008, the company sued him for defamation.
"I tried to sue the company myself to ask for its closure," Mabrouk said in a video posted on YouTube. "But the local court argued it did not have the jurisdiction to decide on that matter. Meanwhile, the Trust Chemicals Company was offering me money in return for my silence. I turned it down. Now, they want me to publish a denial."
Mabrouk is by no means the only person to suffer for reporting about environmental disasters. Reporters in different parts of the world deal with fines, jail and threats as a result of their work.
In China, for example, environmental activists often face repression after they gain the attention of international media. In July 2009, the anti-nuclear activist Sun Xiaodi and his daughter were sentenced to two years in a labor camp for "divulging state secrets abroad" and "publishing rumors." Their crime? Publishing information online about the contamination of inhabitants of Gansu Province, which was caused by a Uranium 792 mine. Sun Xiaodi also published articles on corrupt officials of the Diebu district. For more than 20 years, Sun Xiaodi, a former worker in the Uranium 792 mine, has been fighting to raise awareness about the contamination.
Another environmental activist, Wu Lihong, received a three-year prison sentence for warning Chinese and international media about pollution in Lake Taihu, which is the third largest lake in China.
Aside from punishing those who speak out, the government also attempts to restrict the flow of critical health information. In 2005, the Chinese Propaganda Department, the government body that is also in charge of censorship, waited 10 days before authorizing the press to report about the benzene pollution threatening the Songhua river in Northeast China, completely disregarding the millions of people who live there.
Threats and obstacles
The environment is one of the biggest issues of our time. In order to preserve nature, we must be able to evaluate the resources we have left, and examine how they are being used. This kind of data helps inform society and influence political leaders to create new standards. It's essential that specialists and environmental reporters are able to provide accurate information about the world around us. Unfortunately, journalists and bloggers are facing more and more obstacles and threats as they go about their work.
Sometimes, a single visit by a journalist at a sensitive location is enough to spark a crisis. As an example, Cambodia has lost half of its forests over the last 15 years. After the organization Global Witness released reports on the situation, three journalists investigated the issue and subsequently received death threats. Their reporting revealed unflattering details about the involvement of relatives of the head of the government, Hun Sen. His brother, Hun Neng, said if anyone from Global Witness came to Cambodia, he would "beat his head up until it breaks."
Lem Piseth, a journalist from Radio Free Asia, also received death threats as a result of his work. "About the story of the forest; I want you to know that you won't find enough land there to bury you," he was told. Piseth was forced to flee the country.
In undemocratic countries, bloggers and reporters are often left to fend for themselves, which is why it's so important that their work is recognized and publicized.
Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.
With Examiner.com recently buying out citizen media site NowPublic for a reported $25 million, the attention turned to similar independent sites such as Allvoices. Would it now become buyout fodder for a mainstream media company, or would it suffer the fate of so many citizen journalism sites that came before it, shutting down before finding a successful business model?
To find out more, I went with videographer Charlotte Buchen to visit the Allvoices headquarters in downtown San Francisco yesterday. The office space alone mirrors the heights (and lows) that shadow the startup. Up on the 15th floor of the tony One Sansome building, Allvoices has about 10 people stuffed into a conference room, with the CEO Amra Tareen having her own office across a cubicle farm that sits largely empty due to failed startups having vacated the premises.
Allvoices received $4.5 million in funding in 2007, launched the site in 2008, and is now looking for another round of funding in a challenging climate. The site allows people around the world to submit stories, photos and video on what's happening around them, and then uses computer algorithms and the community to filter that content and surround it with relevant stories aggregated from mainstream news sources. So a story about the recent hijacking of an Aeromexico flight includes links to a San Jose Mercury News story, other posts on Allvoices, related tweets on Twitter, and comments from the community.
The site's traffic took off in early 2009, now averaging about 3 million unique visitors per month, according to Allvoices, with reports coming in from 167 countries (though 40% of visitors are from the U.S.). The site has an incentive program to pay contributors depending on their page views and fan loyalty, as well as a new syndication program that will compensate contributors for images or videos that are sold to media outlets.
Can the site survive and thrive in a tough economic climate for online advertising? Or will it become an adjunct for a mainstream media company? I met the Allvoices team, including charismatic CEO Amra Tareen, and the following is my video report from that meetup.
What do you think about the chances for Allvoices being profitable or bought out? Can standalone citizen media sites survive? How? Share your thoughts in the comments below.