In his column complaining about Huffington Post and the new economics of content competition, I think David Carr makes two understandable but fundamentally fallacious assumptions about news and media: that the value in journalism is in content and that making content must be work. Because that’s the way it used to be.
In their op-ed the next day in The New York Times complaining about copyright losing its hardness, Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro extend the error to entertainment, assuming that content is entertainment and content is what content makers make.
Pull back to view the true value of these things: information, knowledge, enlightenment, amusement, experience, engagement. Content can be and has been a vessel to deliver their worth. But it is not the only one. That is the lesson of the internet — indeed, of Huffington Post itself. I have argued that The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, and other media should have but never would have started the Huffington Post because they, like the gentlemen above, still see content as value in itself and further believe that content is their own franchise (granted by their control of the means of production and distribution). So the benefits of content cannot come from others — bloggers, commenters, citizens, amateurs — as new wine in new casks. They instead want to put their old wine in the new skins (witness The Daily).
That is why old media people are missing new opportunities. It’s not about the content (stupid). It’s about the value.
We can be informed now by many means: by our neighbors telling us what they know, enabled to do so by the net, at a marginal cost of zero, doing so not because it is work (and work must be paid) but because this is what neighbors do for each other. We can be entertained by many means: by clever people making songs and shows and telling stories because they love doing so and because they are compensated in attention rather than royalties (and that attention may well lead to money when they can finally detour around the gauntlet of old media’s closed ways to find audiences on their own).
Why do people write on Huffington Post? Because they can. Because they give a shit. Because they like the attention and conversation. Because they couldn’t before. Why do they sing their songs on YouTube? Same reasons.
Is there still a role for the journalist, the professional, the artist in this? Perhaps. I think so. That’s why I am teaching journalism school. But I’m not necessarily teaching them to make content. That is now only one of many, many ways to meet the goals of adding value to information, time, and society. Some of my entrepreneurial journalism students are, for example, creating businesses that will use data to impart information; they will add value by gathering and analyzing it and making it possible for you to find the intersecting points that matter to you. Other of my students are creating platforms for you to get more value out of your own data. Others are creating platforms for people to connect around interests and make and find their own value. Others are finding new ways to sustain reporting and the making of content. They are all valid if they bring value.
If you concentrate on the value, not the form — content — then the possibilities explode.
Turow et al shut down the idea that opening up information can yield greater value that protecting it. Sharers are…
… abetted by a handful of law professors and other experts who have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress. Their theory is that if we severely weaken copyright protections, innovation will truly flourish. It’s a seductive thought, but it ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.
No, I’d say rather that there are more ways to open up value. If Wikipedia were copyrighted by a publisher, it never would have become Wikipedia because it would be owned, not shared. We now have a new means to collect value rather than merely to own content.
I remember at the DLD conference a few years ago when Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales defended himself from a ninja-knife-wielding Jason Calacanis over paying people to contribute to online resources. Calacanis, like Carr, called it work. Wales instead likened it to a pickup game of basketball. Viewed from a distance, basketball certainly looks like work; they sweat enough. So why don’t we demand that they be paid? Why aren’t we lamenting the loss of a marketplace for their value? Because that’s not where the value is. It’s in the fun.
Granted, what’s done with that fun — how it is exploited — is relevant. If I start charging admission to watch you play basketball — it is great content, after all — or if I put sponsors’ banners on the court — you did draw an audience — you might want a cut. If you can get it — if you can show that there aren’t a million competitors for court time in an open marketplace — great! But what if the gate or the ads merely support my ability to provide free court time to you or free uniforms to your town-team kids? The economics are not necessarily sweat = work = product = pay. Neither is it any longer true that owning the expensive means of production and distribution assures a return on that investment. There are other expressions of value.
The truth is that Huffington Post recognizes the value of professionalism. I’ve lately recalled Arianna Huffington talking with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger in London a few years ago when he — with native irony, in front of his reporters — asked why the hell she was hiring reporters, who are a pain in the ass to manage and expensive to boot. Because their stories get more traffic, she said. They add value. That’s why she has editors and curators. They add value. That’s why she has technologists who make the Huffington Post such a social experience. They enable value.
That’s what I’m teaching my entrepreneurial students: add value. And be efficient: take advantage of the free exchange that is already happening — the free and open platforms and the information that now easily passes on them. Then put your precious resources where you most add value. Do that before you even think of extracting value. There are the new economics of what we used to think of as content.