This chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts deals with a fundamental strategic question for the future of news: Why does the information business suck? Does it need to? Yes, it does. Here’s the start of the chapter. You can read the rest here.
In Adam Smith’s paradox of value, he wondered why, if water is vital to life and diamonds are not, diamonds are worth so much more than water. The pricing paradox of information presents a similar quandary: If information is so much more valuable to society than entertainment, why is it so hard to build a business — namely, journalism — around selling access to information? Journalism at its most useful is information-rich but information is quickly commodified. Entertainment, on the other hand, is unique and engaging and — for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — receives greater legal protection under copyright than information does. We have conflated journalism as an information business with entertainment as an engagement business in large part because both are are built on “stories.”
Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.
If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.
These ideas bring us to the edge of patronage, philanthropy, and crowdfunding — from the pledge to an NPR station to the pledge for a journalist’s project on Kickstarter: Some people will support the journalism they want to exist. Their reward is not necessarily access. Our motivations could be many: generosity, altruism, activism, justice, credit, social capital, or just warm fuzzies. Journalists — including many of my students before I’ve had the chance to corrupt them and turn them into capitalists — tend to love this model because it seems so easy and clean (no need to sell advertising, they think) and because it plays to their editorial ego: My work has worth and it deserves this support. But patronage has its issues. First, there simply isn’t enough generosity, whether from foundations or individuals, to pay for all the journalism the nation needs. Foundations will warn you that they will not support operations forever; they expect grantees to find other means of sustaining themselves. Second, there is no free lunch; charity often comes with strings. We have seen plenty of cases of fat cats wearing white knights’ armor “saving” newspapers only to try to use them as their personal and political bully pulpits. I have watched journalistic not-for-profits forced to deal with the demands of philanthropists and foundations. Before assuming that advertising is corrupting, we would do well to remember that it was advertising that freed newspapers from the ownership and control of political parties.
That said, direct contributions are a potential source of support for the creation of journalistic enterprises as well as their ongoing operation. When venture capitalist John Thornton founded The Texas Tribune, I begged him to use his considerable capitalistic skills to make it a for-profit business instead of a not-for-profit, but he insisted that if Texas could support a ballet company or two, it could support his Texas Tribune. The Knight Foundation leads other media funders in subsidizing the creation of important journalistic experiments and infrastructure (Knight is a funder of my work at CUNY). New platforms such as Patreon enable fans of a lone journalist’s work to pay for each piece of work delivered. And in New Jersey, we will experiment with campaigns to allow neighbors to contribute support to their local bloggers.
If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.
Sorry. Haven’t uploaded a new chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts in two weeks. Busy, you know. So here’s the latest, on paywalls. Uh-oh. The start of it:
There is no more emotion-laden topic, no fiercer battleground in the hunt for new business models for news than the discussion of paywalls. I have personally been taken to task in the once-august Columbia Journalism Review and by no less than The New York Times’ media critic, David Carr, to name only a few, for challenging the wisdom of the wall. The arguments in favor of paywalls are apparent: Readers used to pay for content when they bought newspapers and magazines and so they should still. It was an original sin for content ever to have been given away for free online. The people who use news sites the most value the content there and would be willing to pay for it, and so they should. News organizations should have multiple revenue streams so they are not so dependent on advertising alone (see: doomsday, above). And news — quality news — is expensive. Who should pay to maintain the newsroom and the Baghdad bureau? Besides, it’s working at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, why shouldn’t it work elsewhere?
My responses: I have never seen a business model built on the verb “should.” Customers pay for products and services based on the value to them in a competitive market. The arguments in favor of maintaining paywalls around content tend to ignore the new reality of a media ecosystem built on abundance, no longer on a scarcity controlled by media proprietors who have long since lost their pricing power. In such a market, someone will always be able to sell a product like yours cheaper than you. Some spoiler might even figure out a way to make that product free, and it’s impossible to compete with free. Nevermind that the competitor’s product may not be as good. In the market, what matters in the end is this: Is it good enough? In such an ecosystem of abundance, I say it was wise, not sinful, for news organizations to open up and build an audience — bigger online than ever in print — before it could be stolen away by more efficient new competitors: from CompuServe to Yahoo, from a million bloggers to Huffington Post, from Business Insider to BuzzFeed. I will argue in a moment that if we’re going to charge anyone, perhaps it should not be our most loyal, engaged, and valuable customers on whom we make money through advertising, but instead the occasional visitor and freeloader. As for the argument that news is expensive: Well, yes, it was, but we know it can be more efficient today. Besides, thanks to advertisers’ support and subsidies, the truth is that readers never truly paid for news, never fully supported the cost of the newsroom. And in a competitive market, one cannot price one’s offerings based on cost plus profit; that works only in a monopoly, which news organizations have now lost.
If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.
This is a big opportunity for anyone who wants to take a beat — covering a town or part of a city or covering a topic or serving a community — and make that into a sustainable business (that is, one that will feed the journalist). At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we will be running tuition-free training and mentorship starting this summer for the 15 best applicants who come to us.
There are now lots of examples of beat businesses that are sustainable: hyperlocal services like Baristanet, West Seattle Blog, Red Bank Green, plus business-to-business sites like Skift, and no end of tech blogs, and many more. We know what that business needs to succeed, in content, in marketing, in sales, in technology.
I wrote in my book about beat businesses as the building blocks of new news ecosystems. I have been doing a lot of work in New York and especially in New Jersey — in partnership with the Dodge Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Montclair State, and others — to support the ecosystem there.
Now we must grow the ecosystem. That is what this training is about.
And now we must support journalists who want to continue serving communities even though they no longer work for newspapers or other news outlets.
At CUNY, we are hiring great trainers who have helped many of the existing businesses, Janet and Rusty Coats. They, in turn, are bringing on experienced mentors to give ongoing support. All the details of the training are here. You will come out of this program with a realistic, workable business and product plan, and access to a powerful network of fellow entrepreneurs and media experts.
All you need to do is have the energy and passion to serve a community. You tell us what community that is and why you think you’re right to do it. We will help you start.
And if you’re lucky enough to work in New Jersey or New York, you will get even more ongoing support with well-established networks in both places.
So apply. Or pass it on to a journalist or community member who wants to turn a beat into a living.
On Friday, I wrote a wishlist for what I’d like to see Facebook do for news, hoping it would allow publishers to embed content — with business model attached — on the service. Today, The New York Times reports that Facebook is talking with some publishers about serving their content directly.
I have one bit of advice: Don’t do it without the data, people.
It’s a damned fine idea to go to the readers rather than make them come to you — BuzzFeed does it; so does Vox; so does Reported.ly. It’s wonderful to get more audience and branding on Facebook. It’d be super peachy to get a share of revenue from Facebook at last. All that is great.
But keep in mind where the real value is: in the relationship, in knowing what people — individuals and communities, not a faceless, anonymous mass — need and want and know so you can give them relevance and value and so they will give you greater usage, engagement, attention, loyalty, and advertising value in return. This, I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts, is the essence of a new strategy for sustaining news — quality news.
Here’s some of what I wrote Friday:
Facebook could go to the next level — a quantum leap, in fact — because it has the environment in which users like to consume and share content and it has überdata about their interests, connections, and behavior. Facebook knows what we Like and what we like. Google just has Google+ (and I say that with kindness and respect as a member of that remote tribe).
Now why the hell would Facebook ever share any of the gold from its rainbow pot? Because it fears that these 98-pound weakling publishers will start bullying it as they have Google? Maybe, but that’s not the foundation of a lasting friendship. Should Facebook feel sorry for publishers? No, it’s publishers’ own damned fault that they continued their mass-media ways online and failed to use the new tools available to them to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve.
Instead, Facebook could — and I believe should — share data about users and content to benefit its users and itself. Enlightened self-interest is the basis of all good products and partnerships.
Imagine this simple scenario: On Facebook, I show an interest in a particular entity or topic — say, I keep giving Jim Brady and my son sympathy for their affection for the Jets or I roll my eyes at the drummed-up media hubbub over Hillary Clinton’s email. I also happen to like, follow, or frequently link to and discuss news outlets that cover these things. Now imagine that Facebook asks me a simple question: Jeff, we see you are interested in these subjects, would you like NJ.com to alert you to news — perhaps just the rare good news — about the Jets? Would you like the Guardian to recommend some intelligent conversation about Clinton?
If I say yes to that question, goodness abounds:
First, I get relevant relevant content from sources I like.
Second — and this is huge — by giving my consent to this transaction, I am cutting off any technopanic about privacy; I asked Facebook to share my information because I got something I valued in return.
Third, I’m not only getting more content of interest to me but I am getting content that might be of interest to friends, which I’m likely to share, and that benefits Facebook: more usage, more connections, more data.
Finally — and this is the money shot — each publisher gets information about me as an individual with a name and can use that with my permission to serve me better not only on Facebook but on its own site and elsewhere on the web. It also has a mechanism to learn what users want.
What’s not to love?
This scheme will not work if Facebook keeps all the data and all the money and can pull the rug out from under the publishers at its whim. Or to put this more positively: This idea could work if readers benefit with more relevance and less noise and if publishers can share in revenue and what’s even more valuable — data — and if they can trust Facebook to act in mutual interest.
I would propose that both the containers for embeddable content and the means of consensual transfer of data about users and interests should be open standards so users can get these benefits of relevance and sharing wherever they want: on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Reddit, on blogs … yes, even on Google+ (and I crack that joke with love). May the best services win our hearts, minds, effort, and attention.
Indeed, what I’d really like to see is a scheme — an open-source data scheme, that is — that would allow users to control their own interest data, how it is shared, and with whom. (I have an idea about how blockchain contracts could enable that; more on that another day.) I could tell just certain sites that I want news about some obscure topic I care about — say, Chromebooks. I could even express an interest in buying one, but I would determine the conditions under which I share that fact. That is, I would tell stores to STFU about Chromebooks after I’ve bought one (unlike those damned retargeting ads that follow us everywhere on the net for weeks on end if we make the mistake of so much as glancing sideways at a laptop on Amazon). This is the essence of what Doc Searls has been advocating with his vision of vendor relationship management (VRM v. CRM), putting users and customers in control.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself seeking a moonshot when we don’t yet know how to climb the stairs. All I want to start is a demonstration of embeddable content and consensual data sharing from one service.
That’s one thing Facebook could do for news.
That Facebook’s head of product, Chris Cox, cares about news and is working on ways to work with publishers is great. I do not fear that the borg will eat us up. But I do fear that some of us will be bad negotiators. Now is the time to join together to become stronger negotiating as a group than alone. Now is the time to play Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat, et al off each other and get the best deal possible. Now is the time to get access to the data that will build more than today’s cash flow but will instead build tomorrow’s strategy.
A few folks on Twitter have asked for my reaction to the accidental sharing of an FTC staff report on Google, wondering whether it will cause me to eat Crow McNuggets given that I am known to defend Google against some of the frequent attacks against it.
It’s difficult to judge the entire FTC report based on the excerpts and reports written by The Wall Street Journal. I figured the best I could do would be to ask myself where I draw the line between evil and good, illegal and legal in the behaviors alleged against Google.
* * *
First, the coverage says that Google scraped content from Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other sometimes-competitors. Well, of course, Google scrapes content everywhere; that its Job 1. Scraping is no more illegal or evil than reading, just a helluvalot faster. Any site can stop scrapers at the door with robots.txt instructions. Once scraped or read, information itself cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing evil or illegal about consuming, using, and repeating that information.
It does not violate copyright law to reuse the information itself so long as the use does not infringe on its creator’s presentation of it. In other words, I can read on Yelp that a restaurant is open until 10 p.m. and repeat that in a restaurant listing on my newspaper site without fear; it’s information. (Whether I trust the source of that information and whether I link to it are separate questions that are also worthy of discussion in regards to journalism, where we read and repeat for a living.)
I see nothing wrong with Google and other search engines scraping and retaining content from a site in their unseen databases for the purpose of analyzing that content to decide how to present links to it in search. It is in sites’ enlightened self-interest for that to occur.
I also see nothing wrong with quoting from these services’ content for the purpose of linking to them. I would call that fair use. This is the behavior at the heart of the fight with publishers in Germany, where the word “snippet” is now a legal term, though — like “fair use” — it is not and should not be precisely defined. This is also the behavior that is now being taxed in Spain — that is, those quoting and linking to sites are now required to pay those sites, whether the quoted sites demand it or not. This is what led Google to shut down Google News there. With this law, Spain has attacked the heart of the web.
Now here is where the line would be crossed: If Google republished these services’ content in whole and without permission, then that is a violation of copyright law and Google would be in the wrong. Google and Yelp have tussled over just this in the past; Yelp’s reviews appeared on then disappeared from Google’s Places pages. The Journal’s report says:
When competitors asked Google to stop taking their content, it threatened to remove them from its search engine.
“It is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect,” the report said, “which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down.”
I can’t tell exactly what happened here. If Google did indeed threaten to stop listing Yelp in search if it stopped Google from wholesale republishing its content, then I would call that an improper use of its power: evil. But I am not sure that is what happened. Yelp disappeared from the Places pages (which since themselves disappeared) but Yelp stayed in search (that’s how I get to it all the time). So without more information, I can’t draw a verdict on this point.
* * *
The next question is whether Google favors its own services in search. I’ve long found this allegation odd. First, publishers routinely promote their own services and fail to promote competitors’. When European publishers attacked Google, they complained that when searching on “running shoes” one finds Google’s ads for its own shoe advertisers and partners atop the page. But I have pointed out that if you go to the “Schuhe” link on Bild.com — the largest newspaper in Europe, owned by one of Google’s betes noires — one finds no promotion of competitors’ offerings. On Google, one does indeed find ads from its shoe advertisers and retailers, clearly labeled, but then on the top screen one also finds links to their competitors in shoespace, Zappos and Nike.
And if one searches for “maps” one finds Google Maps first (they are the best) but then links to competitors Mapquest, Yahoo, and Bing. What publisher does that? Aren’t news organizations supposed to be impartial? Then under this doctrine shouldn’t People promote Us?
That’s an even odder expectation of Google: that it be impartial. I know of no law that decrees that search must be impartial. Hell, a U.S. district judge said that Chinese search engine Baidu had a First Amendment right to be partial and censor search results. I would find it even harder to define impartiality in search than I would in journalism. In fact, I want my search results to be partial, to favor quality, originality, authority, relevance (to my request and ultimately to me), and timeliness (when that is relevant). Impartial search would be noisy, spammed, useless search.
Also note that history’s first ads in search — on Bill Gross’ GoTo.com, which became Overture, which was acquired by Yahoo — featured paid placement in rather than merely alongside search. Indeed, Google had to pay Yahoo $300+ million in settlement for infringing on the patent for advertising in search from Overture. But along the way, it was Google itself that instilled in us the idea that ads should not appear in search and that one should not be able to pay for placement. So Google set that standard. Now it’s true that the FTC makes it living holding commercial entities to their own standards. But to be found guilty of such consumer fraud, Google must have made the promise to which it is now being held. Does it? In its principles, Google says ads should be relevant and labeled — and they are — but doesn’t say anything that I can find about impartiality.
Now if it’s true that Google purposefully and secretly downgrades competitors, I would find that to be a betrayal of the trust we hold in it: evil. I don’t know whether that’s proven here. If Google promotes its own sites without labeling that as promotion, I would find that hypocritical, but I also don’t know whether that is happening here.
* * *
The next allegation in The Journal’s report is that Google restricted advertisers from using data obtained while advertising on Google in campaigns placed on competitors’ services. I’m not sure precisely what this means but I will say that Google — a company that believes information should flow freely — should allow brands that have paid to advertise to use whatever intelligence they gain however and wherever they wish. More broadly, I have argued that point in posts about what both Google and Facebook could do for news, advocating a freer exchange of data about users and content. In any case, The Journal says Google revised its terms to “give advertisers more control over their own ad-campaign data.”
* * *
Finally, The Journal says (in an abbreviated graphic) that Google tried to restrict sites that did search deals from also doing deals with competitors, including Bing. I’d call that just stupid: a red cape for antitrust investigators. The Journal said one investigator cited a lack of evidence of this complaint.
* * *
Please keep in mind two things about this report. First, Journal owner Rupert Murdoch has what one might call in my impolite company a hard-on for Google. Second, a much more reasoned Washington Post report explains that the accidentally leaked report was from the FTC’s lawyers, who tend to itch for antitrust fights, while a separate report from the agency’s economists — who look for impact of companies’ behavior on consumers — argued against taking on Google.
Let’s also remember that it’s the market that made Google as big as it is. In Germany — the front line of the war against Google — the company has its second highest market penetration of anywhere in the world, 50 percent higher than in America. German consumers obviously use and apparently like Google and I must ask whether their media and government are in sync with them. Google argues — and I agree — that there are perfectly good alternatives for every consumer service it offers: Bing for search, Mapquest for Maps, Outlook for mail, and so on.
But — and this is a huge but — there is no easy alternative for advertisers. That is where I have long argued that Google is vulnerable to accusations of abuse of power. When it comes to which advertisers are deemed to be bad actors, Google wields the power of God. Some shopping comparison sites are pure spam and Google is right to ban them. But should we always trust Google to make that decision? I’ve suggested that Google should have a jury of commercial peers help with that judgment.
My bottom line: If Google secretly disadvantages quality — not spammy — competitors, that would be wrong. If Google presented others’ *complete* content without permission and ejected sites that resisted such wholesale copying from search, that would be wrong. But in the Journal report, I don’t see sufficient evidence of either act to definitively declare guilt. More to the point in the discussion of antitrust at the FTC and in Europe, I don’t see cause to break up the company.
The other day, I spoke at length with a European journalist who disagrees with me about Google, Silicon Valley, Eurotechnopanic, and regulation. She reflexively leapt to regulation as a necessary reaction to any company that grows “too big.” I asked her, as I ask many with whom I have this conversation, to show me the statutory definition of “too big.” The issue is not how big a company is but what it does with that size. The issue is not what a company could do with that power but what it does with that power. I also asked her to show me why I should trust government to do a better job managing these processes than the market. The market took care of Microsoft’s excesses, not the EU. And governments in Europe are doing much to damage the net, from the Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht to Spain’s link tax to the EU court’s right to be forgotten. I acknowledge that I sound like a libertarian when I say this but I will point out that I am a Hillary Clinton Democrat. But I do not favor regulation for regulation’s sake.
I sometimes wish Google would fuck up more so I could criticize it more often. I have criticized Google. But I have defended it because I generally find it to be a good company and because it is often the whipping boy for those who would attack not just Google but the net and its disruption as well as American technology companies. If on the basis of the Journal report you want to see me repudiate Google and call for its dismembering, sorry.
The crow flies. It doesn’t fry tonight.
I am editorially feral.
I got email yesterday from an editor at The Washington Post asking whether I wanted to write an opinion piece picking and debunking five myths about Google. Well, I love The Post, so sure. I was honored. I sent them five myths and left work to start work on it. Then the editor responded wanting to change my myths before I’d written anything. Change my opinion? No thanks. I said that I no longer live in the civilization of editors. I’m a blogger. I can write my opinion anywhere: here, on Medium, on Huffington Post, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, on Tumblr. The editor said: “We are the Washington Post, we believe in strong editing.” This was not going to work.
Of course, I can always stand editing. You know that if you read me here. My editor for What Would Google Do? and Public Parts did wonders for me. I sought editing from many colleagues for Geeks Bearing Gifts.
But for a simple little opinion piece about Google? Why ask for my opinion if you don’t want it? Anyway, my little opinion hardly seems worth the effort. Indeed, in a time of dwindling, precious journalistic resources, I’m not sure we can afford the effort to edit — let alone write — such as that. And besides, who determined that the world needs five myths about Google made up and debunked? Who in the public asked for it?
This kind of thing comes from our content mentality: We have a section to fill. We will come up with the ideas to do that. We will find somebody to write it. We will edit it. A day’s work. Tomorrow’s another day to fill.
A service mentality in journalism would dictate a different job: We observe and listen to what the public needs. We determine what will answer that need. We will measure our success by whether that need is met.
I’m just not made for the former anymore. Neither am I made for the idea that we are primarily storytellers whose job is to engage–nay, entertain–the public. I’m not criticizing The Post or the editor who contacted me. They are doing exactly what good editors do: edit. Instead, I’m starting to try to figure out new organizations, structures, tasks, roles, outcomes, and metrics for what we used to call newspapers and newsrooms.
When I talk with places like Vox or Facebook, I see entirely new–and still forming–job descriptions built around small teams made up of product developers, project managers, designers, and developers who build services and products. They don’t edit, not so much.
Am I killing all the editors? Of course, not. I am envisioning completely new roles for them. In my social-journalism and entrepreneurial-journalism worldview, editors and journalists become links to, advocates for, and servants of the public. They see and translate needs into products and services. They support platforms, systems, and networks that bring coverage from many sources in many forms: stories, yes, but so much more because now we can do so much more.
So I don’t fit in the civilization of editors. And they don’t know what to do with a mangy beast such as me.
:LATER: I’ve heard from folks at the Post who took insult at what I said here. I just want to emphasize that was not my intent. I wanted to jump off this moment to reflect on changes in our trade — its goals, roles, and organizations — and in my relationship to it. I’m the odd one here.