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Friday, January 01, 2010


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'...the creation of lasting value instead of the renting of ephemeral attention.'

I hope so.


Me too. And I went to bed wondering if 10 years is enough time to assemble such a system -- because it's not really so much a technical question as it is a shift in thinking. Technologies change constantly. Paradigms? A bit less often.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how these ideas play out, whether they flop or succeed wildly.


There's a contradiction here, because if it's lasting value, it belongs in a history book, not a news page; ephemeral is the very definition of news. And one of the over riding lessons of the digital age is that the ephemeral is of far more value to the audience than the lasting.

And the nature of ephemeral value is only accelerating. We've gone from the blog world where a good post might have a day or two to be discovered before vanishing into digital oblivion to the Twitter/Facebook status world where a great, witty insight can be lost to the cosmos in nanoseconds if not immediately and repeatedly responded to and retweeted.

And it such a world, the ability to cleverly match consumer and company through some form of advertising becomes an ever more valuable skill.

Dan, you dismiss the importance of advertising as a mechanism to pay for news with far too cavalier wave of the hand. The needs of marketers to reach consumers, the needs of consumers to find out about products, is not going to change; rather, the modes and understandings of how its done will constantly evolve. And to do it well might even become an increasingly value able service for the media companies that figure it out.


I'm still waiting to hear someone say just what this brave new world of profitable, non-advertising supported news content will look like. You don't seem to be offering a clue as to where that road starts, just more of the same about how the old road is ended.

OK, I see that. But as producers of news and consumers of news - where will the news come from when there is no advertising to pay for it? People have been long conditioned to see news as free to them. TV news was free, newspapers were long subsidized by ads, news on the internet is free. It will take a long time, too long I think to condition people to pay for news.

I think that someone will pay. Maybe charitable organizations, foundations, political parties, interest groups, etc. The down side to this is that the news will be even more slanted than it is today. But we survived the 19th Century in America where many, if not most newspapers were heavily partisan. They still reported the basics fairly accurately like sports scores and obituaries.

I agree with Howard, that there is not much of value that is lasting, especially in the news business. And in this "race to the bottom" most consumers really don't care about the production quality of the news. They just want the info. Look at how fast breaking news is infecting Twitter. 140 characters, that's enough for many people.

Howard Weaver

Howard Owens: real debate is about value vs not-value. Commodity, evanescent news, as you suggest, is ubiquitous. Unfiltered and uncurated, its value, as determined by capitalist marketplace, approaches zero. Advertising will continue, with diminishing efficiency, for a while yet, but it will never again be the commercial engine it was. The "need of consumers to find out about products" may not go away, but the need for us to aggregate audiences and sell ads to meet that need sure will. Search engines do a better job in most cases when the need is simply connecting a consumer to a product.


Howard, I can't even imagine a future of journalism that doesn't include various forms of advertising. But I think what we've been witnessing in the past couple of years gives us clues about the future. It's not just that newspaper circulation has declined, it's that the increases in web traffic ("total reach") haven't come close to making up in the difference in revenue, in part because CPM rates have eroded.

Some of this is a matter of supply and demand. There's just a lot of advertising inventory on the Web, and rather than reducing that inventory, the standard approach is to bundle surplus inventory as a commodity and sell it via national brokers for pennies. Maybe not the best long-term strategy, but these are desperate times.

So while I can imagine extracting more profits out of advertising by smarter strategies, I don't really see the logic by which any of those approaches overcomes the larger trend toward cheaper rates. This is why I went looking for alternatives to advertising as the primary subsidy for journalism.

There are a lot of people with greater expertise than me trying to crack the code that would do what you describe, Howard. I suspect we'll hone this down to some economies of scale that will sustain certain types of content creation. But the winners of that race will look an awful lot like organizations such as Demand Media, and the journalism we'll get from margins that slim is not going to satisfy you.

The biggest area of concern for me is local coverage, which creates the opportunity for higher CPM rates, but which also requires unit costs that are just devilishly hard to bring down. There are some compromises we can make and some creative agreements we could craft, but its hard to imagine a bountiful future for local news based on web advertising and paid content schemes.

So when I say that we need to build a journalism that's based on creating lasting value, I'm talking about building a business in which whatever advertising and subscription revenues are of secondary importance.

Today's primary subsidy for journalism is advertising. I'm proposing that news-media companies can begin making profits by collecting and structuring relevant information in non-narrative ways. I'm not suggesting that databases will replace stories any more than you're suggesting that ads have replaced stories. I am saying that as subsidies for journalism go, a business based on marketing structured information looks a lot more interesting than one that continues to rely on advertising.

Robert, you can find a pretty good list of my writing on these topics (and others) here. But to be more specific:

The foundational piece ("The Lack of Vision Thing: Here's a Positive Vision For You" is an overlong essay about an informatics model of journalism, which I referenced in passing last March. Since then I've come to believe that the dataset produced by traditional journalism is too small to be valuable, but I've also gotten some input on how we might be able to include commercial information via cooperative partnerships.

I've tried to expand on those ideas in a couple of virtual interviews and in response to the new business models for news project last month.

I also explored some of my concerns with the idea in a post called "Free Wants to Be Big." I went into the relationship between semantic information and narrative structure in "Narrative is Dead! Long Live Narrative!" and did an experiment in how web-based writing might function if we had some of the right tools in a post called "A New Form of Writing."

So I would disagree that all I've offered is more of the same. I've made an effort to try to imagine something different. I would hope that as a certified journalism educator you would be interested in at least examining an idea that might pay for quality journalism while providing public access to information to quality data, information and pattern-seeking tools. So take a look and fire away.

Ken Hawkins

My sense is that display advertising and companion messaging still holds a lot of promise for niche content producers. The audience is narrow and beyond message, readers know that the site they use is supported by that business and are grateful.

In this case it's not about just delivering the message, it's sponsorship.

But as for newspapers. They're data companies and need to stop selling just one product. Just think of all the data and metadata gathered in a day about politics, crime, business, fun and so on.

Buying a home? How much would you pay for crime and traffic history within X miles of the location?

Have a commute? Want an sms alert whenever there's an accident on your route?

An alert about any business fillings in your markets?

Stop dumping all the data that doesn't make into stories, standardize the inputs, use a robust flexible database and you've got lots of really useful information to sell.

Oh, and just use the free part web for information updates, load up the print product with analysis and charge for it like the niche premium product it is.

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