Newspapers: Effects of Closing their Content Ecosystem?

whoownsknowledgeI rely on other people to produce content for me to consume, and I reciprocate by providing my own content (via this blog, government submissions, submissions to alternative news sites, interviews on radio, etc.) to the public. I see this as a reciprocal relationship, insofar as anyone can come here and use my content so long as they abide by my creative commons license. Unfortunately, most advocates for newspapers would see what I do (i.e. blog, think publicly) as unequal to their own work. I’m just an amateur, and they’re the professionals.

One of my colleagues recently linked me to a statement that David Simon presented to Congress about the life or death of newspapers. His argument is (roughly) that bloggers and other ‘amateurs’ cannot be expected or trusted to perform the high quality journalism that these ‘amateurs’ then talk about online (Note from Chris: clear case in point, the critical analysis by journalists of the Bush administration and Iraq compared to bloggers. Oh…wait…). You need dedicated professionals who are professionally trained to generate consistently high quality and accurate content. At the same time, the for-profit model of newspapers has led them to cannibalize their operations for profit. Newspapers will perish if capitalism and the market are seen as ‘solutions’ to the demise of newspapers, just as amateur culture and their appropriation of media will destroy content producers. Something must be done.

The thing is: I don’t think that ‘newsmen’ (as Simon uses the term), actually have a clue what they mean by ‘high quality’ news. At the very least they don’t have a regular definition of the term. There are some examples of what would constitute ‘high quality’ reporting,  but many tech journalism (just as an example)  amounts to no more than an advertisement. It’s pretty rare that you actually see the ‘indepth reporting’ that Simon is referring to, in part because good critical reporting might risk advertisers. Maybe regular ‘high quality’ reporting existed before the 90s, when I started reading the paper on an occasional basis, but I have my doubts.

I also don’t think that newspapers can put a genie back in the lamp. There is a lot of talk that papers need to lock up their content and charge online visitors (this is Simon’s suggestion). Rupert Murdoch is on record saying that his organizations will start locking up information within the next twelve months – “The current days of the internet will soon be over” (Source). I have my doubts that this is true (that the ‘net as we know it will change), or that his stratagem will be successful. I actively avoid sites that requires me to register, let alone pay, to read news. Don’t offer it at a fair (i.e. free) rate, then I don’t read. Papers have long survived on advertising, and the current ‘predicament’ facing most papers seems to be one of monetizing their content while at the same time their back-end costs should be plumetting. You don’t monetize content by hiding it away from the public, you do it by finding interesting revenue streams that surround and reinforce your content model. Why not work with an ereader company to sell a piece of hardware to subscribers that automatically downloads your paper plus related content on a daily basis, and then mine that data for better advertising to the individual?! Get rid of pulp costs, and replace it with digital hardware!

Search engines live and die by their ability to both index information and deliver it within an advertising laden search space. Search companies are, really, advertising companies. The ‘newsman’ stance that search means that individuals don’t read a whole paper, and thus lower the value of newspaper advertising is only true to a point. Are you selling a paper or are you selling stories. While your paper might be made more valuable as a result of publishing a host of very good stories, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) should be integrated into the very writing of the stories themselves. Aim for high SEO ratings, effective contextual advertising, and individual stories become more profitable given that they rise to the top of searches. Produce enough good stories and make it easy to subscribe using RSS, and you can rope in a customer for some time. This is what profitable blogs do – why, exactly, can’t newspapers do it too?

Oh, right. Because newspapers only hire ‘professionals’. Whenever I hear this phrase I’m thrown back to a president’s dialogue that the University of Guelph hosted a few years ago (link, though looks like video isn’t hosted anymore). In it, a regular theme between it and the subsequent dialogue was that good journalists are nosy, analytically bright, and liberally educated individuals. Pamela Wallin, now the Chancellor of the University of Guelph, actually commented that journalists emerging from journalism programs are rarely the Pulitzer winning journalists newspapers love to have. (At the same time, if journalists are taught to love search, learn SEO like no one’s business, they might become the lifeblood that gets enough attention to your paper that your Pulitzer pieces get seen by the public before they win the prize…)

Nosy. Analytically sharp. Liberally educated. Toss in a bit of ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’ and you’ve got the recipe that motivates many of the top-tier bloggers, and these individuals have made their media ecosystems work. Look at Ars Technica (I’m a techy – they’re a regular point of reference), Life Hacker, or Gizmodo. While each cover different facets of issues (and arguably Ars is the closest thing to a ‘real’ newspaper) the reason that they thrive is because they do a very narrow range of things very, very well. Gizmodo doesn’t often cover anything that doesn’t relate to gadgets or could produce a nerdgasm. Life Hacker doesn’t run political stories. These sites sit right between ‘mass media’ (i.e. needing to independently cover everything everywhere) and ‘the long tail’. It’s interesting to note that, very often, they will link out to sites (even competitors!) when those sites have produced particularly good work – they are actually better referenced than most ‘professional’ journalism’ pieces. I can only imagine what would happen if journalists had to link to their sources – I imagine that their ‘professionalism’ in many cases would melt away.

We live in a world where there is really no need to have 150 journalists tracking the same bloody story. One or three? Sure, I guess. But with the rising costs of travel combined with the decreases in revenue streams it is incredibly important to recognize that a strong newspaper depends not just on content but also on its community. By locking up information you are effectively throwing out a copyright gauntlet – ‘amateurs’ can’t use content without paying, and if they do use it without paying they’re likely to face DMCA and copyright infringement charges. This approach was tested by Big Media conglomerates in Hollywood, and has effectively alienated their consumers (who like the RIAA and MPAA, and by extension the companies who are associated with them?). I expect that similarly locking content away will sour people’s attitudes towards papers. Where will people turn when they feel slighted by ‘the professionals’?

Yeah, they’ll go to the amateurs. And you know what? This isn’t new. Jump back a century, and there were a lot of very cheap, very ‘amateur’ papers that would thrive for a short while and then vanish. Bloggers and sites like the Huffington Post will love the locking up of ‘professional content’ because it will drive people away from ‘professional site’ to ‘amateur sites’. About the only case where this won’t be the case is where you actually have real journalism being evidenced in almost every story (Economist, I’m looking at you). Most papers are not the Economist, or even approach its standards and caliber.

I do have to admit that I’m curious to know just how many ‘professional journalists’ these ‘amateur’ sites will pick up as they grow in the face of a content lockup, and whether these journalists will subsequently lose their ‘professional’ status and become mere ‘amateurs’.  It is, after all, where you work, as opposed to the caliber of your work, that indicates ‘professional’ or ‘amateur’ status, right?

Update/note: Nate Anderson has a great piece on the AP’s threat to sue those who simply ‘reproduce’ the news – note the distinction between facts and copyright in the dissenting views of the 1918 ruling.