Monthly Archives: July 2009

Build a wall, or is it a dam?

There is a fatal flaw in David Simon’s understanding of today’s news reader that allows him to make this assertion in his call for subscription-only news:

For example, if The Baltimore Sun’s product isn’t available in any other fashion than through subscription—online or off—and if there is no profit to be had in delivering the paper product to homes at existing rates, then by all means, jack up those rates—raise hard-copy prices and drive as many readers as possible online, where you charge less, but at a distinct profit.

That flaw is the assumption that if readers encountered an internet devoid of free “big house produced” news, they would all flock to subscribe to those few reliable news sources.  Today’s news reader isn’t simply a surfer looking for quick, free info. Today’s news reader has savvy reading habits far beyond that, to a point where they compare stories, add their own expertise and often their own media.

Up to the 4th page of Simon’s article–which I read online, for free, after the link was shared with me on Twitter–I wanted to believe in his pay-for-content model. But I can’t swallow the comparison of online news consumers with cable television consumers. Yes, many pay a subscription for more, often better tv content. But in an age of on-demand, on DVD and available-for-download programs, the act of watching cable television is becoming old-fashioned, too. If we presume the public will continue to sit and consume content on a producer’s time schedule with a limited set of tools (a remote and a screen), we miss entirely the attitude of today’s news consumer.

As I read on about Simon’s models for his subscriber plan, I puzzled at his limited notion of what a news story really is, or what purpose it should serve, other than to generate an income for the reporter.

Here is a back-of-the-envelope plan. In a metro region the size of Baltimore, where 300,000 once subscribed to a healthy newspaper, imagine an initial market penetration of a tenth of that—30,000 paid subscribers (in a metro region of more than 2.5 million), who are willing to pay $10 per month. This is less than half their previous Sun home-delivery rate for the only product in town that covers local politics, local culture, local sports, and financial news—using paid reporters and paid editors to produce a consistent, professional product.

Where has Simon been while bloggers and startup news organizations become worthy competitors with established news organizations, even gaining press cred at the White House? Does he think they’ll just go away, or decide they had better charge a subscription rate too? It’s laughable to think the Baltimore Sun is the only entity covering local politics, culture, etc., that matters. A brief Google search turns up dozens of pages of information, from reviews to aggregated stories by block, to crime mapping.

Oh, what’s this: www.afro.com ? News coverage in Baltimore specifically targeted towards a community with special interests? The third hit on Google’s list is a window into the African-American community in Baltimore, full of stories about politicians, music, food and neighbors. Why should this content have to compete to get into the Sun when it can be viewed, moderated and shared online for free? Is it less of an authority on the news in that community? Forget vetting stories for sites like this. They live and die on their reputation the same as any news source and they answer to their community. It’s time to get over these notions of “front page” and “above the fold”.  Lots of people are providing good content and sometimes they cover new or underserved areas.

Articles like Simon’s remind me of the story of the formation of the American Medical Association as a response by doctors to the shannanigans of  the numerous snake oil salesman. They saw a need to establish medical authority for the sake of the consumer and thus created an exclusive organization that led to the accrediting process MD’s have to follow now.  Perhaps that was the right thing to do for health care, but I don’t see how creating this notion of authority to separate journalists from the fray (let’s call Simon’s proposal what it really is), does any service for transparency, civic dialog or the distribution of important information.  One-way, authoritative journalism made a few people rich, but it also limited the flow of information.

Now an exponential number of people are out there reporting. It’s up to those of us who care about getting the facts out  for the public to act upon, to employ our skills and our devotion to journalism.  It’s time to teach the man to fish. He’s already in the flood.

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The new way is two-way in Journalism

In Brian Lehrer’s conversation with Chris Anderson, author of FREE: The Future of a Radical Price, Lehrer questions Anderson’s notion that today’s journalists will evolve to be editors/coaches of unpaid, amateur content producers. It may sound like older journalists grasping at the straws of job security, but that’s where we are headed, and their experience is sorely needed.

With the great capacity we now have to disseminate information online, anyone who gathers facts on a story and posts it can be a reporter.  NYU’s Jay Rosen calls this new reporting citizen journalism, “when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.”  Rosen says this combination of bloggers, readers and the internet has the potential to be strong. It also has the power to empower, if more people of varied experience, age, race and interests are able to express more diverse viewpoints.

What is needed for this immense gathering of voices is strong leadership from editors willing to hold the bar high. Reporters must continue to produce the very best stories, videos and broadcasts. With so much noise online, news consumers are developing strong filters and losing patience. Those who want to be heard will have to be reliable, ring clearer and have a brighter tone, and that takes collaborating with a good editor.

Smart editor/coaches are already emerging. The former political organizer-turned-Propublica editor Amanda Michel is taking a serious bite out of the stimulus bill with her thousand-plus citizen recruits.  She tries to make it clear what the editor-writer relationship will be right from the start. Michel told Poynter.com in a recent interview:

There is no ‘litmus test’ for who can be a citizen journalist. I don’t operate with a Platonic ideal in mind. However, the Web enables self-selection. Many get involved because they want to improve media and they’re particularly interested in, say, the environment. When I promote projects I try to clearly communicate what skills people should have and how much time is required of them. This is a self-selecting process, and I can recruit a better network by acknowledging this.

The internet has changed the one-way flow of information forever, allowing reporters and sources to become collaborators. They are more powerful together, shining bright lights in more dark corners. Journalism by its very nature compels the older, more seasoned practitioners, who say they are passionate about speaking truth to power, to give up their position as the only sources of verifiable news, a specialty they use to be able to charge for, and move over. Journalists who resist the new, two-way flow, rather than define their role and lend their skills, will eventually be overwhelmed by a new era of journalism where the storytellers and their audiences search for the Truth together.

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