Newspaper as open-source focus group

Some intriguing comments on my column about the Guardian’s web-first move. Start with MrPikeBishop, aka Frank Fisher, proposing a means to augment the still-measly revenue of online news with online think tanks and reviewers:

It’s money though isn’t it? That’s the big fat fly in the ointment. . . . And that’s probably causing quivering sphincters at every paper in the developed world. Sure, the optimists will say expanded online advertising will take up the slack, and that punters may even spring for micropayments – they might, in the end. But in the interm…. wooooohooooh. . . .

Personally I don’t think the media have quite grasped that as well as presenting a different way of delivering the story, the web is also TWO WAY. You give to the punters, but the punters, as we see here, also give back. Don’t think that advertising, or pay for news, is the only revenue stream possible. I’ve already been conjuring with ideas of using intelligent web communities as on-demand think tanks, for project or idea review, or for brainstorming purposes, but there are more readily obvious opportunities to hand.

Take film, music – what’s the best way to get a new movie or album to break in a big way? What gets punters through the turnstiles faster than anything else? Word o’ mouth. Who’s reviews do people trust most? NME? Time Out? Or their buddy’s? A lot of people on this site [Comment is Free, that is] love film, a lot love music – Guardian, take that. Use it. Create an intelligent and articulate panel, and SELL that service. How do you know who you can trust on ebay? Feedback ratings. Millions now accept and use this rating system – why think it would only work for items on ebay? Why won’t it work for biscuits? Pensions? Coffee shops? Throw select readers a little bone, and sell their expertise and their valued opinion. Aggregate opinons, ratings, sell the service. Sure, the punters won’t do this for nothing, but if they get streamed new movies to review, or music, or vouchers for a new bar etc etc etc. The brightest underachievers in the world hang out at GU, that’s a resource.

There’s a lot lurking in that. It’s about capturing and giving value to the wisdom of your crowd. It’s about acting as a moderator for sharing their experience and opinions. It’s about networks of trust. It’s about beating the hell out of random focus groups with detailed and valuable research. It’s about sharing your stuff with the public and getting value in return. The discussion continues as gawain says:

I’ve never been called a bright underachiever before! Sounds good!…..sort of. Anyhow -good post MrPB -a tried and trusted central idea. It’s why reality TV is so popular now. But as far as creating intelligent and articulate panels, they can’t be set up like CiF right? I mean you’ve got the likes of me and the Stan-thing roaring and bellowing every few days. It got to be elitist to stay classy right?

MrPikeBishop responds with some gems (my emphases):

“It got to be elitist to stay classy right” Stan’s elite too y’know. C’mon, you can tell he’s a bright feller – dripping with intelligently crafted lunacy.

CiF looks like a lunatic asylum because that’s what people become online – that’s one reason why they’re so valuable: people open up. And the diversity here – nutters ‘n all – is of value too. You take the film industry; run by accountants who would rather remake the same film every 20 years because they can’t imagine what will grab people next. But the remakes are made, and then vanish – you look at films like 12 Monkeys, or Donnie Darko: those films are made by and for people who are outside the mainstream, and they are not just watched, but *loved*. They make a bit of money in the box office, and then they make film every day from that day on, in merchendise, tie-ins and DVDs – cult successes never die. Make a movie, and one day you’ll need to make another. Make a cult, and you can retire. . . . That’s one tiny aspect – what I’m talking about is utilising specialist knowledge and opinion to enhance business or service propositions – an open-source focus group, really. Wiki-reviews, kinda.

Everyman6 chimes in on the notion of open-source focus groups:

Utopian, but unlikely to save The Guardian. You can’t persuade punters to pay for other punters’ reviews, because they’re used to getting them for free. No added value. And online “focus groups” have to be vetted and weighted, because your random sampling of online nutcases isn’t representative of the wider public. Which gets you back to square one. How about a Farringdon Road Bring & Buy Sale, anyone? Georgina could bake a cake.

[Translation: How about a Guardian rummage sale? CiF editor Georgina Henry could bake a cake.]

He makes a good point but isn’t that potentially the real value of The Guardian in the end: vetting and weighing and making the internet not so random?

cktirumalai adds (making me jealous that my commenters here don’t quote James Joyce):

James Joyce, who had some personal experience of newspapers, wrote with ironic humour in “Ulysses”, “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof”. Apparently that should now be amended to “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper which has been shaped with the active assistance of bloggers”. And bloggers can indeed help, pouncing on factual and other errors and providing unusual perspectives. If newspapers chronicle today’s history–or yesterday’s– the journalist can indeed profit from the views of alert contemporaries. But I cannot somehow imagine a historian of the 1850s posting it on a website for interactive comment: he would want a more select audience. For myself, I turn to blogs as a supplement; the newspaper, on which I grew up, is my staple.

Once more: I think that networks of trust will form. Links lead to a meritocracy and your or the Guardian can chose their links carefully. This will matter in advertising and in information as well as discussion.

Back to the focus of my column — news stories going online first — Ulla adds an interesting question:

The good thing about the web is that you can update and change articles pretty easily afterwards and continously. So for most of the people publishing on the web as soon as possible is not a big deal. What I find quite interesting is that yet there does not seem to be any difference yet in “writing for web” and “writing for print publication”. This will hopefully change longterm – that the advantages and disadvantages of web and print will be used to best advantage for the issues and as a news outlet. At the moment it still feels like when tv first came along and the programmes and news were presented as if it was radio.

I think that’s right and it’s part of what I’ll be grappling with when I teach at CUNY’s j-school: We’ve spent too much time in online journalism talking about it as a new means of story-telling (read: lecuturing). The real question is how you present a constantly growing and changing story in a sane structure that lets you take advantage of constant contributions and updates and allows you to link to more details from those contributors without turning it all into a muddled mess that makes you wish for USA Today.

: See also Georgina Henry on the finish of the Big Blogger contest and a question about what’s next. An unnamed commenter — sounds like MrPikeBisho — suggests a refinement of what’s above:

One suggestion – and I don’t know how practical it is – but you have a great resource there: the punters. What an educated, articulate and, by definition, under-occupied bunch – that’s a hell of a thinktank sitting there, waiting to be tapped. I can imagine one thread a week that sets a task: come up with a slogan for this product, figure out why customers aren’t using a particular service, tell us what you really want from a gym, develop an effective youth crime policy…. Put the resource up for auction – “get the best brains in the world working on your business in their idle hours” – kind of a human equivalent of the SETI distributed processing project. You’ll end up with a new slogan from Heinz: “buy our fucking soup!”