To wit: Danzinger contends that the future of media is conversation, bringing up some very correct points about the value of curation, etc., along the way. In a related post, he makes the right observation about why mainstream mass media isn't equipped survive this transition from the old media economy to the new one. In a word: monopoly.
Danzinger makes some predictions, and since I'm crazy that way too, I'll join him. After the coming collapse of the "paywalls will save us!" suicide pact (which was supposed to take place this summmer -- a conclusion that has been delayed only by the industry's inherent slowness), the next big-media bandwagon will be "new" ideas about networked media. As in: Let's get other people to make content for free, and then we'll sell ads on it.
The problem with such ideas -- and my general critique of Danzinger's post -- is that they simply connect observations about the way people communicate now to observations about how news companies are failing in revenue and relevance and then postulates that adopting one will fix the other. Again, it seems reasonable. A relationship between the two exists, but is it causal, corrective... or merely symptomatic?
A relationship isn't in and of itself a profitable business, and let's be clear about the fact that the most immediately pressing problems facing the news industry in America are business problems (the fundamental problem is cultural). While mass media must embrace (or at least comprehend) the cultural lessons of Web 2.0 technologies, the hard truth is that a conversation isn't an asset that can belong to just one of its parties.
It's easy to see the growth in crowd-sourced media and the power of social networks and assume that this is a great model for future news media. But here are two points I want you to keep in mind:
- The companies that are making money off of these conversations aren't in the information business or the conversation business, they're in the platform business; and
- The last time I bothered to pay attention to such things, the value of a Facebook user was about 25 cents per month. There isn't a news media company on the planet that could build a business on margins that slim and still perform any function resembling original, useful journalism.
Neither is the business at the other end of the media spectrum particularly inviting. I looked into starting a hyperlocal news site in 2008-09, but it didn't take a lot of research to show me that building such a site isn't starting a business, it's giving yourself a stressful, low-paying job with no possibility of ever creating a salable asset.
So let's just stick with that word: Asset. What assets do journalists own?
Information? If the information in their stories was really a tangible asset, then why would the original sources of that information not expect payment? Do journalists own news? Nope. Even a reporter with a big scoop has only fleeting ownership of exclusive news before it passes into the realm of fair use, comment and analysis. Video and photographs are tangible assets, but beyond that, most journalistic material is ephemeral. The asset that mass media "owns" is the expectation that it can assemble enough of you into an audience to attract advertisers. Not exactly bedrock.
Brand? Newspaper marketing people tend to say that their brands are valuable. I don't think most regular people agree. Not after the cutbacks in staffing and quality over the past decade.
And so, again, what assets do newspapers own? Their archives? Well, now you're getting warmer. But because they're organized as libraries of text documents, the value of those archives is limited because of the cost involved in extracting the information they contain. It's like an energy company that owns a bunch of shale. Yes, there's oil in there, but there's no profit in drilling it. Yet.
The future value of journalism -- what I contend will be the next successful evolutionary step in media development -- will be in creating information products based on thoughtful structures. That doesn't mean the end of narrative, or the end of the live report from the field, but it does mean that journalists will have to learn to view "their story" as a subset of a larger file that stores information in ways that machines can search for interesting patterns.
I call this The Informatics Model, and I think it sounds a lot more complex than it really is. But once we've established it, everyone will come to understand that the asset that journalism creates and owns is the structure in which it assembles and stores freely available (but expensive to gather) information. No individual fact has an appreciable value. The structure in which each resides, complete with metadata that tells us its "aboutness," will be the resource that we sell not only to news consumers, but to researchers, businesses, networks and specialized clients.
Give away the stories. Sell the structures.
Not sure what I mean by information structures? Think about a baseball box score. It doesn't tell the whole story, but the set of box scores that comprises the history of Major League Baseball allows statisticians to find patterns of significance, enabling smart catchers to make informed decisions about when to call for the deuce. We are talking about creating box scores for events that don't take place in ballparks.
As my friend and occasional new-media inspiration Dave Slusher puts it, in the early days of the American petroleum industry, gasoline was a waste product created during the refining of kerosene. The American journalism industry is still years from spotting the parallels in that analogy, but that's OK, too. While those who lack the necessary vision scratch for scarce dollars in the barren fields of conventional wisdom, some of us are beginning to piece together the beginnings of an abundant new economy.