Content vs. service
What now for news? — Part II
I have been working on an essay that explores new relationships, forms, and business models for news. It is my reply to the question, “Now that your internet has ruined news, what now?” I do not pretend to predict, only to explore opportunities. On Medium, I’ll share the first third of the essay on new relationships for news to get your reaction and help. Here is part 2; find the rest on on Whither News?
Is news really a content business? Should it be? Perhaps defining ourselves as content creators is a trap. That worldview convinces us that our value is embodied entirely in what we make rather than in the good people derive from it. The belief that our business is to manufacture content is what drives us to build paywalls around it — to argue that the public should pay for what we make because it costs us money to produce it and, besides, they’ve always paid for it. It motivates us to fight over protecting our content from what we view as theft — that is, using copyright — rather than recognizing the value content and the information in it can bring in informing relationships. As content creators, we separate ourselves from the public while we create our product until we are finished and make it public — because that is what our means of production and distribution long demanded — and only now are we learning to collaborate during the process. Our monopoly over those means of production also convinced us that we could own, control, and wield pricing power over this scarcity called content.
These circumstances left us ill-prepared for a technological era when copies cost nothing; when content and thus competition are abundant; when information becomes a commodity the instant it can be passed on with a link and click; and when the value of information — before it is spread and known — has a half-life now measured in milliseconds. Content, it turns out, is not a great business.
To suggest that we are not in the content business is to argue that journalists are not primarily storytellers: high heresy indeed. That idea pulls the rug out from under everything we assume and hold dear about our craft and trade: our job descriptions, our production processes, our legal status, our measures of success, and certainly our business models. Fear not: I will continue to argue that content has value. But I will argue that content’s value may be more as a tool than as an end in itself and certainly not as our only product.
Well, then, if we are not in the content business, what business are we in? Consider journalism as a service. Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. To be a service, news must be concerned with outcomes rather than products. What should journalism’s result be? That seems obvious: better informed individuals and a better-informed society. But who’s to define “informed” and who’s to measure success: journalists or citizens? Journalists believe informing the public is their job and that it is the role of editors to decide what the public ought to know. Let’s put aside that rather paternalistic attitude toward the public we serve, for if we do not believe in the will of the public to be informed, then we might as well give up on democracy, free markets, and the ideals of education, not to mention journalism. I am confident that there will continue to be a market demand for the information a society needs to function. That must be an article of faith if we are to hold out hope to sustain journalism.
Let’s also acknowledge that, in the oft-quoted and misquoted words of Dan Gillmor, our public knows more than we do. So it isn’t necessarily our job to inform them but instead to enable them to inform each other. That is to say, somebody knows what others need to know and in the past we had limited tools to spread that knowledge: a reporter finds the expert, witness, or official to answer a question and the news organization distributes what she finds out. Now we have more tools at hand that enable communities to communicate directly. So perhaps our first task in expanding journalism’s service should be to offer platforms that enable individuals and communities to seek, reveal, gather, share, organize, analyze, understand, and use their own information — or to use the platforms that already exist to enable that. The internet has proven to be good at helping communities inform themselves, sharing what’s happening via Twitter, what’s known via Wikipedia, and what matters to people through conversational tools — comments, blog posts, and tweets that, never mind their frequent banality and repetition and sometimes incivility, do nevertheless tap the cultural consciousness.
Of course, there is much that a community needs to know that is not in that exchange of information. That is where journalists can and should add value, by asking questions that are not already answered — that is, with reporting and investigation; by adding context and explanation; by finding and including expertise in the discussion; by weighing trust and authority; by checking facts and debunking assumptions and rumors; by making information accessible through narrative or visualization; and by packaging and presenting through editing, curation, and discovery. Most of those skills are old: what journalists have long done, only now made faster. Some skills are new, enabled by technology: presenting data for the public to interrogate; making tools; convening discussion; organizing activities. So, yes, there is a need for journalists. But simply distributing information is no longer our monopoly as gatekeepers and no longer a proper use of our scarce resources. Without that monopoly on information, we can no longer claim that it is up to us to decide what the public should know. Often, the public can find out without us. Indeed, the more we help them do that on their own, the better informed they can be, the more opportunities we have to add value, and the less this entire enterprise of news will cost us.
This idea of outcomes-oriented journalism requires that we respect the public and what it knows and needs and wants to know. It forces us to stop thinking that we know better than the public. It leads us to create systems to gather the public’s knowledge. Recall that this was the key insight that led Larry Page and Sergey Brin to invent Google’s search and business: They trusted the clicks of the users. They created a system to observe and learn from those clicks so they could organize the world’s knowledge and make it accessible and relevant to every user as an individual. Doesn’t that also sound like a restatement of journalism’s true mission?
Let me apply these ideas to a practical example: When Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, where I live, and New York, where I work, in 2012, my information needs were clear: I wanted to know which streets were closed, where power was out, where power crews were working, what gas stations were open and stocked, what stores and restaurants were open (and had wi-fi), and what transit lines were operating. Most of that information — that data — is best presented in constantly updated lists. But news media mostly gave me articles, which only summarized that data and guaranteed its incompleteness as well as its staleness and thus its eventual inaccuracy. Narratives that told me a lot of trees had fallen and many homes were without power — salted with quotes from fellow residents — told me nothing I didn’t already know and nothing I needed. The shortcomings of the article are a necessary condition of our prior means of production and the business model that resulted. We needed to package information into the confines of pages or shows — thus, stories. We could afford only so many reporters and they had only so many ways to gather information directly, so our knowledge was necessarily incomplete. Those conditions no longer apply. We have new ways to gather more information from more sources and to make it available to individuals as they need it. And we have the means to find out what they need.
Imagine if a local news site had put up a simple map allowing residents in town to post pictures of their streets and neighborhoods with captions — metadata — telling us which streets were closed and where power crews were working with time as a factor in displaying relevance. The site needn’t have built that map. It could have employed functionality from Google Maps, SeeClickFix (a service that lets neighbors report problems around them), or Ushahidi (an open-source platform to collect and present information on maps). And then a local media organization could have used its power to convene the community’s attention and urge neighbors to share more information. Working in networks with local bloggers, they could have combined the knowledge of many audiences, many communities. The news site could have contributed more data, obtaining lists from the power company and the town of where they said their crews were working — and then asking residents to confirm the truth of authorities’ assertions (journalistic skepticism and follow-through that was sadly missing in my town’s coverage). Through providing the means for residents and officials to share data, the news organization can effectively and efficiently check off many of my information needs listed above.
Where there’s a checkmark missing, that is where reporting is needed. That is when the journalist challenges the utility over its inaccurate dispatches or calls the schools superintendent to ask what her requirements will be for reopening. The journalist can ask the people in town what else they need to know. If the platform that the news site provides is flexible enough, then the users will take it over to meet their own, unpredictable needs (such flexibility is a necessary criterion of a true platform). My neighbors with generators could have posted offers to let others charge their phones and neighbors without generators could have banded together to buy them before the next storm (allowing savvy electricians to see the discussion and bid for the business).
All this resets the essential relationship of the journalist to the public. It says the public knows more than the journalist. It makes it possible for the journalist to listen to the public’s needs. It not only creates a collaborative relationship between journalist and public, it also puts the journalist in the proper role as servant to the public, following its lead. This is more than crowdsourcing — that is, sharing work with the public, asking them to complete the jobs that journalists already do. This worldview allows the public to use tools as it sees fit to share the information it wants to share. That is a way of envisioning journalism as a service, not as content.
If we see content as a tool in the service of journalism and of our communities — rather than as an end and as the essence of our business — then we change more than our relationship with the public. We change our processes: We listen first and open channels to do so. We build systems that enable a community to share what it already knows — the more the better — and we monitor that to see where we are needed to anoint authority, eliminate repetition, correct errors, improve presentation, fill in blanks. We change our job descriptions: I’m not suggesting that journalists all become coders, the better to build platforms. But we should begin to see ourselves as enablers, sometimes educators, even organizers and, yes advocates. We change how we measure our success — not on unique users and their pageviews but on the number, depth, quality, and value of the relationships we build — and how well-informed people are as a result. Perhaps we reconsider even our defensiveness over copyright, if we are no longer the exclusive creators of all news content but also become redistributors of others’ information. And that, of course, depends on whether we manage to change our business models (which I will discuss in the third section of this essay), building value in relationships rather than in merely manufacturing a commodity: content. Once again, that is Google’s, Facebook’s, Amazon’s, and eBay’s bet: that knowing and then anticipating individuals’ needs will generate value, whether through fees or advertising or commerce.
I had lunch sometime ago with a former TV news executive who complained that Google and Facebook use media’s steel to make their cars — that is, that they commoditize content, using it to extract greater profit from their high end of the value chain. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not respect content.” I thought about that for a moment and disagreed. “No,” I said, “I think Zuckerberg respects content more than we do. We respect only the content we make. If content people don’t make it, it’s not content, it’s junk.” But Mark Zuckerberg finds value in that junk, as does Larry Page. They recognize that the content the public creates in its sharing and conversation online creates signals about both the information and the individuals: Who they are, where they are, where they’re going, where they’ve been, whom they know, what they know, what they want to know, what they want, what they like, what they buy. All those signals enable those companies to target content, services, sales, and advertising to users, giving them relevance and treating them as individuals and not merely as members of a demographic. I told this executive a story I’d written in What Would Google Do?, about seeing Zuckerberg questioned by a powerful media executive at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. “Mark,” he implored, “tell me how to make a community. We should be able to own communities. Tell me how.” Zuckerberg, a geek of few words, answered with two: “You can’t.” Full stop. After an uncomfortable pause, he told this room full of media executives that they were asking the wrong question. “You don’t make communities,” he said. “Communities already exist. They’re already doing what they want to do. The question you should be asking is how you can help them do what they want to do better.” His prescription for them was to bring communities “elegant organization.” That’s what young Mark did for Harvard and then the rest of us. That’s what journalism has long attempted to do and that is how I came to the definition of journalism I shared in the introduction: helping communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves. Now we have many more and some better ways to do that.
If our role as journalists is to help communities better organize their knowledge and themselves, then it is apparent that we are in the service business and that we must draw on many tools, including content, and place value on the relationships we build with members of our communities, which will also take many forms. Thus we are in the relationship business. So let us begin to catalog the forms those relationships can take with the people we serve, with the ecosystems in which we exist, and with our business partners.
News as platform
Back to Hurricane Sandy. When news sites all-in-all failed to give me the information I needed or the means to get it, I turned directly to my neighbors using other tools. I went to Patch, the hyperlocal news service then owned by Aol. It was just one of the news services that gave me articles with stale summaries of too little information. But it also provided a blogging platform that allowed me to publish a brief screed complaining that our town had distributed a list of streets where the power company was supposedly working — including ones around me, where nary a truck was to be seen. I criticized the town for taking the utility at its unreliable word. In the comments under that post, other residents joined in, checked the list against their streets, and shared their observations and my frustration. It was through collaboration with my fellow townspeople — not a reporter’s reporting — that we could fact-check that the utility’s list. If only a local news organization had enabled just that function by providing a more organized platform, better than comments, to let us to share what we knew. For example, it could have posted the list in a wiki where we could add notations or to a map where we could add pictures and reports about where utility crews were seen working.
My neighbors and I got our chainsaws out to remove about three dozen trees from our streets and driveways just so we could get out and so emergency crews could get in. We were all without power. Once freed, some neighbors went to stay elsewhere — my family, luckily, in a hotel; others with relatives — and so the neighborhood Sandy diaspora wanted to stay in touch to stay informed. We resorted first to email but the chain became unwieldy. So I opened an account at a new service, Nextdoor, which promised a private network for neighbors with verified addresses: a platform! But I hit some snags: Nextdoor’s address database was missing many of my neighbors’ home addresses and wouldn’t let me correct it. The service insisted that I include a minimum of 75 homes in my neighborhood even though, in my semi-rural area, that meant including people I’d never met who lived more than two miles away. And it prescribed topics for discussion — crime and safety, primarily — instead of what we really wanted to talk about: getting power back on or later, buying generators. A true platform would have allowed its users to best define how to use it. So we reverted to inefficient email.
At the same time, the state suffered a gasoline shortage, as downed trees and flooding blocked deliveries and service stations lost power. When stations did open up, lines formed for miles, so police had to come and direct traffic. Thus it was apparent that the police knew when stations had power and gas and would open. They could have shared that information with the public, and media could have helped them do that. But they didn’t. So drivers sought any tool that could help while wasting precious gas driving around looking for more of it. Many resorted to another rather unwieldy platform: Twitter. There, we shared information around the hashtag #njgas. It was an imperfect system, for it meant reading alerts about open stations too many miles away and the information had a very short shelf life. Still, it was the best available and it was useful enough to tell me to head west, toward Pennsylvania, where I would find gas. In gratitude, I contributed my own updates about open stations.
What if a local news organization provided a platform that could have met our needs after Sandy — or on any day? What would that look like? I don’t mean that they should build another Twitter or Nextdoor. Note well that in the case of Twitter, the real platform wasn’t so much the technology but the social convention of the hashtag. The idea of the hashtag itself was first proposed by Chris Messina, not an employee of Twitter, who suggested in 2007 that it would be a way to find tweets around events or topics. NJ.com claimed credit for starting and promoting the specific #njgas hashtag after Sandy. Platforms need not be made via coding but can often be made via conventions and news organizations have the megaphone to help establish them.
There are many ways a news organization can become a platform. It can provide existing technology (wikis, forums, maps, data bases, surveys, and more I’ll examine in the next section of this essay on forms of news) and work through existing services its communities already use (culling relevant information and reports from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, Vine, Tout, et al) and explore new technologies (for example, sensors that report the environment around them, wearable cameras, video streaming from phones, data analysis of social conversation) to enable the sharing of information. It can also help independent bloggers and community correspondents succeed at covering their own towns — offering them content, promotion, technology, advertising networks, training, and the means to collaborate. For news organizations no longer operate alone, in monopolies or silos. They live surrounded by many competitors or collaborators — depends on your worldview — in a disorganized but growing ecosystem of news.