As is often the case, things tend to come at me in ironic pairs. This week it was a video of Jeff Jarvis' introduction to the New Business Models for News conference at CUNY, followed a few hours later by a link to a December 2007 TED Talk by Kevin Kelly about the next 5,000 days (give or take 700) of the Web. And as is so typically the case, I found myself angling away from what appears to be the most reasonable and likely future.
For those of you not inclined to watch such videos, here's my short synopsis:
Jarvis: The Knight Foundation funded this exploration of what might happen if a major metropolitan newspaper vacated its monopoly and was replaced by a new media ecosystem (an eventuality I've discussed here and here). The study found evidence for a lively and profitable ecosystem including a healthy local-news blogosphere and a new-style news organization. In the spirit of this new enterprise, they've provided a freely downloadable spreadsheet for anyone who wants to tweak the numbers.
Kelly: Two years ago, when the Web was about 5,000 days old, Kelly wondered what the next 5,000 days would look like in retrospect (one of my favorite ways of exploring futurism, btw). 5,700 days ago, most futurists thought the Web was going to be "like TV, only better." He suggests that no one then would have taken seriously the development of the Web-based culture we enjoy today, with free and/or low-cost tools that would have seemed like foolish Utopianism had anyone suggested them in the early 1990s. As for the future, he sees a unifying trend toward a cloud-based "one machine," plus a number of developments that will be familiar to people steeped in quality science fiction.
Even shorter? Jarvis is pointing toward a new media economy that looks an awful lot like a steady-state extension of the old media economy, only better. Kelly is suggesting that we need to get better at imagining things that seem impossible.
Kelly is right, of course. We can't see what we can't imagine, and right now the greatest failure of the mainstream media economy is its inability to witness the forces that are reshaping it. As Clay Shirky put it, today's media "radicals" are the people who are describing what's actually occurring, in real time.
So it should come as no surprise that a Knight-funded exploration of a new-media economic ecosystem would come with certain rational biases, such as an emphasis on existing competitors to what we used to think of as mainstream media. If I were an institutionally funded guy, I'd probably do the same. It's smart, it's prudent, it's rational. And if history teaches us anything about prediction, it's also doomed.
But before we move on to talk about those types of flaws, let's talk about the most obvious (and so far as I've seen, not yet discussed) hole in the NBMFN projections: scale.
Without going into the figures too deeply (the researchers reasonably point out that the projections are just a "stake in the ground,"), the study assumes a bunch of start-up news blogs, each primarily funded by advertising, each supporting a small (six employees or fewer) payroll and making double-digit profits.
The business problem? No matter how much money you invest in one of these hypothetical news sites (and, to a lesser extent, the hypothetical new news organization), you will never create a salable asset. Even if you cover your hyperlocal community efficiently and profitably, you will never capture the economy of scale that turned metro papers (and television stations, with federally regulated competition) into cash cows. So what if your company makes 16 percent margins? If the raw numbers come out to $24,000 a year, pre-tax, who is going to spend the money to buy you out? Your business is your time and attention, and those things can't be duplicated or expanded. The hyperlocal market you can effectively serve isn't large enough to warrant anyone's investment.
Restated? The news blogs postulated by the study are essentially self-employed journalists. And if you look at them this way, you can imagine there could be quite a few of them, and that some could stick around for several years. Ad networks and shared resources (sales and development services, for example) will make that possible.
But that isn't a business. It's a job without benefits, sick days or vacation, and it's not likely to be sustainable for many people in most markets. That's what I found when I investigated the subject, and I knew just enough about entrepreneurial thinking to recognize a dead end and avoid it. If you don't create an asset, you don't have an exit strategy. If you don't have an exit strategy, you don't have a business. You have a job.
The big flaw, besides scale? Subsidy. These businesses are all founded on the idea of traditional advertising. And while smart people are starting to speak explicitly about the idea that the journalism we suppose to be a civic good requires a subsidy, very few of the possible sources are either sustainable, independent or potentially abundant.
In point of fact, only one potential subsidy aligns with the larger points of the developing Web, and that's journalism that creates structured and semi-structured data as part of its process.
How will such journalism create independent value? In a variety of ways, and each is connected to trends that actually have a future.
So why aren't these ideas discussed explicitly and more frequently? Well, most obviously because they're just too new for most people, which is why I now consider it my responsibility to talk about such things over and over. I once considered that the sign of a boring writer. Now I know it's the necessary act of manifesting a new idea in the physical world. Repetition is a required part of teaching, marketing and learning, and while these ideas will seem strange and improbable the first time you hear them, I'm betting that once you hear them enough to make actively imagining them worth your while, you'll wonder why you didn't think of it yourself. Neither are these ideas originally mine. They are just part of a movement that will not be visible in the mainstream culture for some time to come.
What will it take to make these ideas apparent? The continuing failure of the existing media economy, for starters. Beyond that, it will take tools that make a particular kind of writing and information structure efficient, plus the processes and practices required to turn data into products that visitors and clients will pay to own or use.
In the short term, foundation money is likely to continue producing studies based on business models that reflect conventional wisdom about media. But there are more people writing about these ideas this year than there were last year, and so it will continue, until we look back 4,300 days from now and say, "why didn't we see it then?"
And the answer will be, "Because we were only beginning to imagine."