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Archive for March, 2008

power to the people

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

There was a great NY Tech Meetup last week that got me thinking about collective organizing. For the first time the NY Tech Meetup had a theme, “Power to the People: The Future of Organizing.” It’s exciting to see great new ideas promoting people power – and forums that uncover and celebrate their budding existence online.

MeetupIt was especially appropriate that Meetup identified this as a theme, being huge innovators in the world of local, do-it-yourself organizing. For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, Meetup is a website with an elegantly simple premise: let people post an idea for a community meeting about anything – whether it’s saving the earth, starting a business, or knitting – and allow interested people in the area to attend. In hosting this event, the NY Tech Meetup (run by Scott Heiferman, the co-founder and CEO of Meetup) aimed to bring kindred spirits in the online world of organizing together.

The seeming legendary Clay Shirky was there to chat about Here Comes Everybody, “a book about organizing without organizations.” He made an interesting presentation, mostly about how much easier group action has become – and how often it’s happening these days. The simple fact that people with something in common can now find one another is a huge step. Philosopher William James once said “thinking is for doing.” Clay says “publishing is for acting,” meaning that publishing is increasingly used to gather and coordinate people.

Check out this excerpt from Clay’s book about Meetup here. He makes the point that Meetup groups can’t be organized top-down – being self-organized is key: “Though it seems funny for a service business, Meetup actually does best not by trying to do things on behalf of its users, but by providing a platform for them to do things for one another.” The book is brand new and promises to be an inspiring read. Update: Check him out on the Colbert Report…

A bunch of interesting online innovators presented at last week’s Meetup, but I was most excited about ThePoint. The Point is a brilliant new website run by Andrew Mason in Chicago that’s based on a few basic principles: (1) People want to stand up for themselves and their beliefs (2) standing up for yourself is usually a waste of time, because you’re just one person and it’s hard to be heard, and (3) people don’t want to waste their time. So he figures that people are generally being pretty rational when they skip out on standing up for themselves.

Here’s how his site solves the problem. Say you love KFC, but you want them to treat their chickens a little better. You don’t want to boycott the place by yourself, which would certainly deprive you of that deep fried goodness without much chance of sending a strong message to KFC. So you head to ThePoint, sign in to the “Tough Love for KFC” campaign:

“KFC, your chicken is so tasty. Your biscuits are so buttery. Your colonel is so regal. You’re hard not to like. But maybe you could be just a little nicer to your animals?”

And you pledge to stop eating there if KFC doesn’t adopt the suggestions of their animal welfare board only if 1,000,000 join the movement.

Now you know you won’t be forgoing those tasty morsels for naught. You can assume your actions are sure to mean something when pooled with a million like-minded souls. So ThePoint allows you to be sure the conditions exist for your actions to be meaningful.

But this tool is not confined to social movements – you can use it to make anything happen that requires cooperation. For example, you can use it to organize your neighbors to build a new community garden, only if 1,000 of them pledge $10 each to pay for it. Pretty cool. PledgeBank, a UK-based site, provides a service that’s similar to ThePoint.

This whole people-powered online revolution thing seems to have caught on in the news this week as well. There’s an interesting article in the Guardian, “People power transforms the web in next online revolution.” Like Clay’s book, the article looks at how we are going to organize ourselves “without the trappings of traditional organizations.” It talks about flash mobs – when a group of people gathers somewhere to do something random together, like smile in October Square in Belarus. Flash mobs have affected elections in Spain, Philippines, and South Korea. In China, flash mobs are staging campaigns despite 54,000 cyber police, and it seems it will soon be impossible for even the most totalitarian governments to stop people from organizing. Update 4/16/08: Check out this story about a student twittering his way out of jail in Egypt! The article also discusses Wikipedia and other movements to make information openly accessible, including the Encyclopedia of Life (about all the Earth’s species) and the Public Library of Science, an open-access journal.NetSquared

At MixedInk, we certainly plan to play our part in helping folks self-organize and harness their collective power. We just came up with an exciting idea that could make our democracy a little more people powered, which we submitted to the NetSquared Mashup Contest. It’s called Government by the people. You can help us win by voting for us! Anyone can register as a NetSquared user, making them eligible to vote – the contest is being decided, appropriately, by the people.

Update 4/16/08: Check out Seth Godin’s interesting article on the power of organizing.

The Transformation of the Newspaper Industry (Part II)

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

In my last post, I described the vertical disaggregation process occurring within the news industry, wondering aloud (as is fashionable these days) what business model will support the news in the new media environment.

Actually, this question needs to be more precise. A better one is: Which business models will support which types of news generation processes – regardless of whether they happen in a newsroom or not? I believe that, in addition to vertical disaggregation, there will be a simultaneous process of horizontal disaggregation. That is, various types of news that have historically been created within a single company will end up within distinct entities, which are in turn supported by different revenue streams and cost structures.

The gurus of news 2.0 believe geographical scope will be a (if not the) major fault line along which content creation and aggregation are broken down, though hyperlocal journalism has had limited success so far. The national and regional news sites that already exist will be complemented by hyperlocal sites that tell you what’s going on in your neighborhood, on your block, or even in your apartment building. As it would be hard for a single neighborhood to generate enough advertising revenue to support paid reporters and editors, this type of hyperlocal site will only become possible through partial reliance on user-generated content, which the site obtains practically for free. A number of startups are already targeting this market.

But geographical breadth is just one of a number of social and technological fault lines along which horizontal disaggregation can occur. Any social or technological variation in the news content creation process could necessitate a different business model, and thus, be housed within a distinct entity.

Jeff Jarvis (CUNY professor of journalism and well known blogger) proposes separating the functions of newsgathering, editing, and analysis:

So maybe we need to disaggregate the newsroom yet further into its distinct and, we hope, marketable skills. Reporting and news-gathering (words, images, sound, video, data, investigation) may well be something that freelancers (professionals and amateurs) do. And editing — curating, vetting, enabling, educating, to cut up the task yet further — may find new value. Analysis may happen more and more in the commentsphere that the community has become.

This makes sense. But why stop there? Why not further divide the news generation process into its component steps? Conversely, will it make sense in some cases for news production processes remain unchanged? (Indeed, some magazines are thriving even as other print media declines.)

It will all depend on what type of news is being produced. Let’s consider five types of journalism. These are by no means exhaustive, or completely distinct from one another:

- Investigative journalism involving in–depth interviews, breaking news from private sources, or a high degree of technical expertise
- Crafting narratives from widely available, understood, and agreed-upon facts (e.g. sporting events, political events, market information, etc.)
- Opinion and analysis
- Hyperlocal news
- Collection and dissemination of raw data

These vary in the extent to which they can be crowdsourced, in citizens’ desire to participate in their production, in their need to be fact-checked, and in the degree of subjectivity involved in crafting narratives.

If we were to do an analysis of how much it costs to produce each category of journalistic text, either in per-article or per-word terms, I suspect we’d find huge variation, perhaps even an order of magnitude or more. We’d also find huge differences in revenue per unit, as some news is more viral, and some news inherently leads users to spend more money (which generates higher demand for advertising). In other words, it makes perfect sense that they would need separate business models!

These days, somewhat counterintuitively, news crowdsourcing experiments often create more work for the journalists who organize them – not less. Someone must generate internal support for the project, set up one or more technology platforms, encourage the community to participate, and/or monitor large numbers of contributions (the quality of which varies significantly). But eventually, as the technology improves, and as news sites institute permanent, flexible processes and deploy them with greater frequency and scale, these costs will shrink on a per-unit basis. Technology will selectively afford opportunities to crowdsource expensive components of the news creation process, thereby eliminating those costs from newsrooms. In this way, technology will magnify the differences in cost and revenue per unit between different types of news.

My prediction is that we’ll end up with multiple, distinct business models, each associated with different processes for gathering first- and second-hand information, crafting narratives, editing copy, fact-checking, etc. These processes may happen within a single company or within separate firms – I imagine there will be some examples of each. The point is that different types of news will become sustainable in different ways.

Intensive investigative journalism will probably always require a high level of professional journalism. The others, theoretically at least, could some day be largely crowdsourced, though the processes for crowdsourcing would likely vary significantly. A lot of data is already being collected by readers (polls, photos, comments, videos, etc.), though one might argue we have a long way to go in finding a structure that approaches traditional journalistic standards and fully exploits the value of this content.

Eventually, I think it will be possible to crowdsource a much larger share of journalism than we currently anticipate. MixedInk will be a socially and technologically different way to produce some types of news. It will enable motivated crowds of readers to assume responsibility for certain phases of the news generation process. Along with other technologies that facilitate crowdsourcing of content creation, it will help to cushion the fall of traditional media while producing a more democratic public sphere.

It’s important to acknowledge up front, though, that there won’t be a single solution to the news ‘crisis,’ but many distinct solutions. Journalism may be transformed almost beyond recognition, but I, for one, do not worry about its future. The demand for news is clearly not going anywhere. If anything, by providing pressure for change, the crisis is helping to avoid stagnation in our public discourse. It will result in a stronger news product that better engages and reflects the priorities of readers.

The Transformation of the Newspaper Industry (Part I)

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Much has been written on the subject of the internet-induced transformation currently underway within the news industry. (Those who’ve already had their fill of this topic should feel free to wait for Part 2.)

The basic idea is that the economics of distributing information online are radically different from print, so the business models that evolved within the physical world of newspapers no longer apply. The gradually declining fortunes of today’s newspapers mark the end of the previous era.

In meatspace, it made sense to keep the entire value chain – ad sales, news and editorial content, printing, and distribution – under a single roof. Given the economies of scale and high coordination costs from one end of the chain to the other, companies consolidated into local monopolies and national oligopolies in order to minimize costs and maximize profits.

The internet is changing things. Distribution costs are now much lower due to the ease of online publishing; new communication tools facilitate coordination among the different activities; and buying and selling advertising inventory is much simpler through automated web-based ad networks.

With the reduction in coordination costs, suddenly there’s much less pressure towards vertical integration. The value chain is more efficient when divided between multiple entities, each focusing solely on a single stage of the chain rather than doing everything (newsgathering, printing, distribution, etc.) in-house. Separate companies can develop their core competencies and engage with complementary firms within a competitive marketplace that stimulates innovation at each step in the chain.

So, the consensus among many internet gurus is that the news media is being reorganized. Within the new value chain, distinct companies are performing different functions – selling advertising (e.g. Google Ads, Tacoda), creating content (e.g. AP, NYTimes.com), and aggregating content (e.g. Digg, Google News), and other more narrow ones. They integrate almost seamlessly to deliver a product that was previously provided by a single company. Communications infrastructure firms, like Comcast, are also part of this new chain – they’re today’s delivery boys. But they’re simultaneously a part of many other web-based value chains, and they’re paid by end users, so their fortunes are much less dependent on the news industry.

This is not to suggest that the disaggregation process described so far is complete. Far from it. As more and more consumers get their news online instead of in hard copy, print advertising sales dry up. Online ad revenue, while growing, will probably never make up the difference – a major reason for this is that classified advertising, once a major source of newspaper revenue, has moved elsewhere. (Anyone heard of a site called Craigslist?) Newspapers of all shapes and sizes are being forced to cut back on editorial staff.

So the big question on everyone’s mind as the media ecosystem transforms is: As newsrooms cease to be able to support themselves as vertically integrated newspaper monopolies, how will they continue to do their jobs – if at all? It isn’t only journalists and news companies with a natural self-interest in protecting their livelihoods who ask this, but also foundations, academics, media watchdogs, and others who seek to safeguard a robust fourth estate out of a conviction that the health of our democracy depends on it.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on what’s in store in an upcoming post. The short version: Different types of news will sustain themselves through different business models.