Saving local journalism with vision

Local journalism is struggling. It’s struggling to develop revenue streams that will replace the classified and print display ads that it has lost over the past two decade, and I know that we also have a challenge to engage our audiences in this media saturated environment. 

Tom Grubisich of Street Fight Mag gives a great overview of some of the deep thinking going on about local media in the US on his way to laying out his prescription. 

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

Amen, brother. As journalists, we have an almost religious belief in The Mission, but in local media, we must connect with our communities. This week, I’m having the third community forum for my four newsrooms. We’re going out to meet our communities, and this isn’t just a one-off. We’re going to be at farmers’ markets and other community events. We want to show our commitment to our communities and be visible, not just as individuals but as a team. 

Grubisich highlights how Steven Waldman has recommended in his “Report for America” that national and local philanthropic groups should support investigative reporters on two-year placements on short-staffed local news teams to do deep accountability journalism.

But Grubisich believes that “communities deserve more”, and he believes that they news organisations need vision. They need “an auspicious mission”, and he believes that to capture the imagination of Millennials and donors, this mission needs to be something like tracking the huge demographic shifts in the US. 

I think that this is one vision, and I believe that these large thematic stories are important. They help drive conversations in communities and build context for audiences that drive engagement. 

In our regional news group, Gannett Wisconsin Media, we did this with our State of Opportunity project. This project looked at the recruiting challenge companies have in our communities. We’ve getting hit with a double whammy. Our employers can’t fill the openings they have due to a number of factors – drugs, skills gap and the ’Silver Tsunami’. What’s the Silver Tsunami? I’ve spoken to major employers in our communities, and they say that up to 30 percent of their workers may retire in the next five years. That’s not only a huge hit in terms of numbers, but these are their most experienced workers. A lot of talent and skill will walk out the door. If we don’t find a way to meet this challenge in the coming years, our communities will get hit by a huge economic drag when some haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. The next five years are pivotal and will set the future course of these communities. Will they grow and thrive or enter decline? 

And that brings up one caveat that I have about vision. I like Tom Grubisich’s idea, but the vision you choose has to be rooted in your community. We can talk about grand visions and national trends, but these visions have to have local relevance. Otherwise, what’s the point of a local news outlet? That may sound obvious, but with consolidation and centralisation, a lot of these grand visions are driven from the centre to the periphery. What sounds good at larger cities or at HQ may not mean a jot to local audiences. That is a huge, but obvious danger with these macro-trends being the focus of the centralised editorial strategies. 

Content metrics aren’t bad, measuring the wrong things is bad

My friend George Brock has taken aim at Trinity Mirror‘s Newsroom 3.1 plan on The Conversation:

Quite apart from the limp, tired name of “Newsroom 3.1”, the idea of trying to improve performance with detailed numbers of “hit rates” or “impact ratings” has been tried and doesn’t work.

Later he adds:

One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued.

Ouch. I agree with George that volume numbers of alone – clicks and even unique users – aren’t going to help us grow our audiences.

Like Trinity Mirror, Gannett, where I work as an executive editor, has also been training our journalists on how to use metrics. It is part of a larger strategy to be more audience focused. But fortunately, the training goes beyond volume metrics to include engagement and loyalty metrics. The main question that we are trying to answer is how do we produce something that is so valuable to our communities that they will pay for it? Just this week, I pointed out to one of my staff that her story wasn’t just getting a lot of views or clicks, but that it also was having higher than average engagement. People were spending time with her story.

Suw and I often say in our training and consulting that metrics aren’t bad but be very careful about what you are measuring because you might end up optimising for the wrong thing. Suw says that we often fail to measure what is important because we focus on measuring what is easy.

Measuring impact and what what our audiences value is challenging, but we have to do it. And we have to get smarter in how we do it.

I’m hiring: Come work with me to create the future of local news

Update: I wrote this post in 2015. Seven months after I wrote this post, my position was eliminated. Don’t worry. I had a Plan B, C and D, and it all worked out better than I could ever imagined. I am building information companies for the 21st Century. 

Just a little over a year ago, I started as executive editor over two Gannett newspapers, the Sheboygan Press and the Herald-Times-Reporter in Manitowoc Wisconsin. As of Monday, I’ve added two more titles to my stable, The Northwestern in Oshkosh and The Reporter in Fond du Lac. We are the newly formed Lakes group of newspapers.

I’ve put a lot of time and thought into how these newspapers will work together going forward, and if there is one thing that I have learned in my first year, our success is based on building strong relationships with our communities. We will have a laser light focus on high impact journalism and high engagement with our communities.

This focus is why we grew our audience last year in Sheboygan off the back of incredibly strong digital growth. That’s right, our audience grew, based on Scarborough data. That growth is supporting commercial success too. I’ve got just about the best commercial teams that anyone could ask for, and the Herald-Times had some of the best financial performance of any newspaper in all of Gannett’s Central Group last year. More than that, the HTR also just took top honours for the second year in a row in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards, sharing the award with our sister paper in Marshfield. That’s success no matter how you measure it.

No, my papers aren’t the New York Times or the BBC, but if you come and work with me, you’ll be working with someone who has been at the forefront of journalism innovation for decades. I was the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. I was The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and after striking out on my own, I built a global media consultancy with my wife, the British social media pioneer, Suw Charman-Anderson. I worked with Al Jazeera on their social media efforts during the Arab Spring, and Suw and I helped launch a ground-breaking digital news service, Firstpost.com, in India in 2011. Last year, I came home to the Midwest to help create the future of local journalism, one of the most interesting challenges there is in media.

Our newspapers may not be big, but I run them like start-ups. There is zero distance between idea and execution in my newsrooms. Sell me on the idea and why we need to prioritise it, and we’ll find a way to do it. We have constraints, but if you learn to innovate here, you can do it anywhere. Constraints just make success all that much sweeter. Give me a couple years of your career, and there will be no limit to where you’ll go.

That’s my elevator pitch for why you should come work for me, and now I’ll briefly detail the roles. I’m looking for three newsroom leaders who are autonomous, creative, energetic and have a passion for community engagement. In addition to duties across the group, you will be the top editor in each newsroom. You will have to travel around to the other sites to keep in touch with your staff, but you won’t have to be in constant motion – that’s my job.

I’m also looking for several experienced reporters. (Experience in this context could be a year or two if the experience is right, but it can be more.)

I also have one entry level reporting position.

If you have any questions, drop me an email kanderson2 at gannett dot com. These are great opportunities. If this challenge sounds right for you, apply at the links above. I’ve have a great first year, and I’m just getting started. Once we get the team in place, we’re going to make some noise. You will want to be a part of this.

Can comments withstand Google-scale communities?

Not long after I joined the Guardian as blogs editor in 2006, I was at an online publishers event in London. Forefront in my mind was how to build engagement at the scale that we would quickly find with Guardian blogs, a particularly important question given that this was several months after the launch of Comment is Free, which was already suffering from serious teething pains socially. I asked Tim O’Reilly how to scale community, and he said:

You have to stay small as you grow big.

Being at a conference, Tim didn’t elaborate on his Zen k?an, but I still ponder it today, especially as I read this: How Ta-Nehisi Coates built the best comment section on the internet—and why it can’t last.

Flipping back to 2006, I had recently done a lot of work in my previous job at the BBC regarding social media – blogging as social media was then – I wondered how well the social aspects of blogs would hold up when we threw the scale of audience at it that the BBC could generate. I foresaw some of the issues that BBC bloggers would have in terms of trying to deal with volume of comments that they would instantly face.

In traditional blogs, the core audience is a community of choice, a group of people that shared an interest in a particular topic. That community of commenters grew to have social connections, bonds that helped foster civility. At the BBC, our bloggers could quickly generate an audience, but that didn’t mean we could create anything like the thoughtful communities of choice that we saw with smaller blogs. Our commenters didn’t know each other and would often be drawn to hotly contested topics because of strong, often diametrically opposed opinions.

To make that kind of conversation work, you need people with a very different skill set than your traditional columnist, who often come at issues with a ‘what do I want to be outraged about today’ type of mindset. What you need in order to make comments sections really work is exactly the kind of mindset that Coates’ brings to his work, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still face the challenge of staying small as you grow big.

The issue is that the internet rewards scale and some social strategies simply fall apart at Google-scale. Once The Golden Horde – the name given to Coates community of commenters – grows beyond a community of choice and starts to attract people wanting to vent about some of the most sensitive issues that we face today, the comments often become unmanageable.

Back when I was blogs editor at The Guardian, I was often asked how I measured success, and I said it was not by the number of comments. Any fool can generate comments. You simply pick the hot topic of the day, push people’s buttons until they bleed and then survey the wonderful wreckage of human outrage. That is why in 2015 the internet sometimes feel like one gigantic generator of human fury.

Outrage was the standard editorial strategy in the 20th Century, when the only return channel was analogue and scarcity of letters to the editor set a high enough bar to keep the Angry from Milton Keynes interplay to a manageable and highly controlled level. That editorial strategy does not work in the 21st Century with a completely open return channel for which the technical and social tools have not kept pace.

In this century, the big challenge is generating thoughtful conversation. I have tried it a number of times, to the point where commenters knew that I was building a digital media Skinner box: Rewarding productive contributions more than punishing transgressions and guiding the comments towards conversation rather than confrontation. It is hard work and it does not scale particularly well. I was blessed with the autonomy and time to do it, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

At the end of the of the day, maybe staying small as you grow big is like Google where you break up a team when it gets too large. Maybe the only way to make this work is to keep the communities and conversations small enough so that people actually develop the kind of social bonds that allow them to disagree with civility. But that runs counter to the gigantic scales that make a business sustainable on the internet.

So, what happens when the business imperative to scale comments runs counter to social strategies to manage them? Things fall apart. It’s that simple. They become unmanageable and eventually people burn out and the communities of choice leave, in search of some other space where things work on a more human scale. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Some people seem like serial early adopters, but what they are really doing is seeking a space in which they can find community.

As an editor, this raises all kinds of questions. But the one thing I would say is that while we all want the biggest audience possible, we have to accept that strong, highly-engaged community strategies operate on a different scale. Push them beyond their social bounds and they will simply fall apart.

Update: After thinking about, small communities of choice also tend to be rather homogenous. This begs the question on how we develop technologies and social techniques that allow for diversity of thought and civil dissent.

Local journalism: Business models that don’t rely on scale

Emily Bell hired me at The Guardian, and she has just delivered a speech in which she says what I already know.

The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

Later she elaborates what web scale means.

A viral story is the holy grail. And viral does not mean a couple of hundred thousand any more, it means millions. Sometimes tens of millions.

I know Emily is right that one successful digital business model is scale, but I don’t believe that is the only business model. It’s just one that works right now, in some contexts. Scale isn’t new – it has always been successful, long before the internet and mobile media came along.

But I’ll sketch out the challenge for local media. I am the editor of a number of local newspapers in the US, and I’ll take one, the Sheboygan Press as an example. The total population of Sheboygan County is 114,922. That’s not even a million, much less tens of millions. And, to make things worse, the internet has undermined many of the geographical advantages that local newspapers used to enjoy.

On this basis, I might as well throw in the towel, but I’m nowhere near ready to do that. The challenge for local news is to create a new range of products for audiences born digital and mobile. For too long we’ve been trying to find a market for the same products that we used to deliver in print, and that just won’t work. We can’t simply write that local council story the same way that we used to and hope that social media will be enough to market it. I’m really not sure that those incremental, process-based stories actually engage audiences. Instead, we need thematic stories and engagement opportunities that tackle big issues in sticky ways.

There will not be a single source of revenue that will replace the fat revenues that we used to earn from print. But I have the insane, audacious belief that I can come up with another business model with multiple lines of new revenue: Digital marketing services, events and social strategies that deeply engage local audiences and make money. As Jim Brady once said to me, there is no silver bullet to save local media, just a lot of shiny shrapnel.

As I did when I was at The Guardian, I’m using third party services, the duck tape and spit of the internet, to bring the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible. I’m relentlessly measuring what I do, and I’m ruthless and unsentimental about failure. Learn from things that work and things that don’t work. Learn fast rather than fail fast. And, when we hit on something that works, we’re going to scale as much as we possibly can.

And we in journalism need to get over our aversion to selling. We’re being outsold at every turn, and in order to survive, we need to sell the value of the public service we provide, sell so hard that it will make P.T. Barnum blush. This is an existential battle for attention, and we need to sell a vision of local journalism rooted in service to our communities. And I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, we need to get over our aversion to making some coin.

No, I don’t think that every journalist needs to be out there selling subscriptions and ads, but every journalist needs to realise that the battle for attention that we’re fighting. Every journalist needs to understand the business we’re in and how it is changing.

I know that this is a daunting challenge, but I’ve never shirked from a challenge. Bring it on.

A fun way to earn revenue with newspaper archives

Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition
The cover of the Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition

The week before Christmas, the Sheboygan Press, one of the papers I edit, celebrated its 107th anniversary. Our business might be news, but our readers also love history. We run a weekly column from the head of the country historical society, and it’s really popular.

Seven years ago, for our centennial, we ran an anniversary edition and included a replica of our very first edition. For this edition, we decided to celebrate our birthday with a vintage styled newspaper with stories from throughout the decades.

As a new editor and a newcomer, it was a great way to learn about the history of the city and of the newspaper. I learned about Charles Broughton, who led the newspaper to become “one of the most influential, liberal papers in the state”. The graphic on the front page trumpeted many of his and the newspaper’s campaigns and accomplishments including the preservation of local wetlands.

Broughton was also a fierce anti-Prohibitionist, and on the front page of the commemorative edition, I included an editorial I assume he penned railing away against the Anti-Saloon League, which branded the Sheboygan Press a “bootleg newspaper”.

It was fascinating looking through our bound archives to see the features we had. Our paper used to have a society editor who chronicled just about everything when it came to the who’s who of Sheboygan. The society editor chronicled local teas, travel and social events. It’s odd that in this age of social media when we reveal just about everything to friends real and virtual that I find it a slightly creepy invasion of privacy to have this level of detail about the local goings on. Discuss.

In our first edition, the publishers ran an announcement of their intentions in launching the paper, and to be honest, there wasn’t much that I would change. They wrote:

IN PRESENTING this the first issue of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS, the publishers do so with a sense of deep responsibility mingled with feelings of pride that Sheboygan has now a daily morning paper and one that will represent the people and all classes of people.

…It is a hard matter to please everybody, and it would be foolish and futile for us to attempt to do that.

…Sensational stories and fake news will be given a wide berth. We realize that our city is a growing one and its interests will always receive our first thought. Anything that tends to advance Sheboygan and put it in the front rank will always have our cordial support. Of course there may be times when certain public affairs will demand attention and notice and when it may be difficult for us to take an impartial stand, but if such an emergency arises, as it surely will, the influence of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS will always be for what we consider the right.

When my news editor and I first came up with the idea, I felt like it was definitely one of the crazier things that we had come up with since I started. But I went to our ad director who let me know about the replica edition we had created for our centennial. The ad team embraced the idea. Actually, they didn’t just embrace it, they didn’t just run with it. They bloody well sprinted away with it. Initially, we were only going to run with four pages, but our advertisers loved the idea so much, they sold almost three pages of ads in a day. We added two more pages to the section. It’s a very nice thing to be adding pages to a mid-week edition because we have so much ad support.

We promoted the project on Facebook and even paid to ‘boost’ our posts to reach people beyond our normal audience. One post has 203 likes, which is pretty good going for a local newspaper.

I had a lot of fun putting the edition together, and I think that showed through with the edition. Our readers loved it and responded to it, and our advertisers really loved it too. What more could I ask for? We need to surprise, amuse and engage our readers more like this. It ended the year on a high note, and I am looking to carry that momentum into the new year. Happy 2015!

Strengthening communities and strengthening journalism

When I started as the executive editor of two Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I said that my strategy was about building a community platform, and I think that Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, a mobile, Millennially-focused news site in Philadelphia, has explained why he and I are bullish on this kind of strategy. The former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media and former executive editor of washingtonpost.com explained the thinking behind Billy Penn in an interview with StreetFight:

From our conversations with younger news consumers, it’s clear to me that there’s a hearty appetite for a news operation that uses traditional reporting as a springboard to strengthen communities. Not one that necessarily promotes a particular agenda, but one that connects people who are interested in similar topics or issues and tries to drive solutions to those problems rather than just stopping at reporting.

My experience has been that it is not just Millennials who are hungry for engagement, community and solutions. Yes, our communities want traditional reporting, but they want us to go beyond simply pointing out problems. They are also looking for us to help them identify and evaluate solutions. It is not a paternalistic strategy that aims to tell our communities what to do, but works to engage them in a process to help bring more people together to address issues.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. At one of my papers, we recently tackled the growing local drug problem with a solutions-oriented series. A story about a local nurse who ended up abusing drugs has been shared on Facebook 476 times, which is huge for us. The series had such an impact that we had people emailing us, asking to be put in touch with the community groups taking part in our series so they could ask to help. A local radio station owner is collaborating with us to address the problem. We touched a nerve, and the community responded. And they want more from us than simple reporting. As Jim says, our readers want us to help provide a springboard for solutions.

Another issue that we are facing in the communities that we cover in northeastern Wisconsin is the so-called skills gap. Our employers have more job openings than qualified workers. In Sheboygan County Wisconsin, we have 4.0 percent unemployment (September 2014), which is within spitting distance of the 3.6 percent it was in October 2006 before the recession. The local economic development corporation recently had a campaign to try to lure young people visiting home for Thanksgiving back to the area, complete with a list of entry-level positions with starting salaries above $30,000. Our employers are concerned about the coming demographic cliff as Baby Boomers retire. One local employer told me that over the next five years, they could lose up to 35 percent of their workforce to retirement. So employers are supporting internships and apprenticeships as well as training for their workers to get the workers they need.

Traditionally, we would have written a few stories, possibly a week-long series, to address this issue. But this is a huge problem, so we’ve dedicated nine months to a major campaign. And we’re looking to do non-traditional things such as crowd-fund scholarships and hold jobs fairs. Our local businesses, including major multi-national companies headquartered here, have embraced our months-long workforce development campaign called State of Opportunity. We’re working to let people in our communities know about incredible job opportunities, and we’re thinking about ways to reach beyond the state.

As Jim says, we don’t have a political agenda, we simply want to help our communities help themselves. This is exciting stuff. It’s not your father’s local newspaper, but rather something new, exciting and vital.

Mobile kills the 24-hour-linear TV news channel

Last night, I was where I have been on so many election nights in the last two decades, I was in the newsroom working with my staff to deliver real-time election results to our audiences on desktop, social and mobile. We fired off mobile alerts to our subscribers as soon as we were confident of the result, and I realised that we’re at the beginning of the end for linear, 24-hour news channels. Mobile eats linear TV for breakfast. 

TV remains powerful, and I know the power of being able to go ‘LIVE’. I worked for the BBC, but I have long thought that the 24-hour news channel was a technological kludge, a sticking plaster before internet access was ubiquitous and video on demand became a much more elegant solution for getting news to readers and viewers when there was real news to break. Last night, that sticking plaster seemed to come off.

I’ve passed back and forth between broadcast and print through my career, but last night I was in a local newspaper newsroom for the first time since the mid-90s. We had CNN on in the background and I had my iPhone next to me. We groaned every time Wolf Blitzer said that they had a “major projection” as every projection became major, especially after it became abundantly clear that the Republicans would take control of the Senate. If we would have had a drinking game for every time Wolf had a “major projection”, we would have been plastered by half eight. What really grated was when the on-air banter went on-and-on while the “major projection” had come into my mobile phone 10, 15 or even 20 minutes before Wolf projected, the music played and the graphics on the telly showed me what I already knew.

The cable-beating alerts came from USA Today or NPR. (Disclaimer: I’m an executive editor over two Gannett newspapers, and USA Today is our flagship national newspaper.) But there you have had it. Real-time, rolling TV was beaten by print sending out mobile alerts. Now, CNN might have been beating their on-air projections with their own mobile alerts; I don’t have CNN’s app installed on my iPhone. 

The important thing is that mobile told me what I wanted to know earlier and more efficiently than cable news. The days of the technological kludge of 24-hour, rolling news channels are numbered. 

Gamergate, journalism and the dark future of politics

The extremely violent hate posse attacking women in conjunction with Gamergate is horrific. Whatever other issues are involved, the fact that women have been threatened and intimidated so graphically and violently that they have been driven from their homes pushes the weak accusations of compromised gaming journalism to the background. However, it shines a spotlight on some troubling trends that we’re going to have to grapple as digital technologies reshape our societies.

Gamergate isn’t just a group of criminally violent griefers intent on making women’s lives miserable as a form of sport. As Kyle Wagner of Deadspin points out, there are also groups using it to engage in “grievance politics”:

In many ways, Gamergate is an almost perfect closed-bottle ecosystem of bad internet tics and shoddy debating tactics. Bringing together the grievances of video game fans, self-appointed specialists in journalism ethics, and dedicated misogynists, it’s captured an especially broad phylum of trolls and built the sort of structure you’d expect to see if, say, you’d asked the old Fires of Heaven message boards to swing a Senate seat. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online.

These groups are very effectively exploiting weaknesses in mainstream journalism. As Wagner says, “Even when not presupposing that all truth lies at a fixed point exactly equidistant between two competing positions, the American press works under the assumption that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith.” Journalism is really poor at dealing with bad actors, tending to treat them as if they are acting in good faith and thus giving them a legitimacy that they do not deserve.

As journalists, we’ve got to stop allowing ourselves to be played like chumps, especially when it comes to politics. We all know the game. We’re being spun, but at some point, we have to be brave enough to call bullshit. As the editor of two local newspapers, trust me, I get a lot of pressure from readers to toe their political line. However, it is a fundamental part of our job to help our readers separate spin from reality, not to parrot talking points and definitely not to cave to political bullies.

We’re going to have to up our game quickly. Wagner’s article reminded instantly of Neal Stephenson’s dystopian political thriller, Interface, which he wrote with his uncle, J. Frederick George. I’ll agree with our friend Cory Doctorow, that the book is an “under-appreciated masterpiece”. I read the book in 2008, and the parallels with that year’s presidential election were eerie. The book, written in 1994, looks at the politics in a United States laid low by a housing crisis. An Illinois governor (rather than a Senator) is running for president and his campaign uses data to segment the electorate, something which is common place now that it has led to a technological arms race between campaigns to have the best data crunchers.

In Interface, the bad actor was a terrifying mash-up between Karl Rove (or most likely in 1994, his mentor Lee Atwater) and Hannibal Lechter. You don’t need a political bogey man to see where this leads. Combine ruthless political ambition, the unlimited cash of Citizens United era and a technological arsenal that only Neal Stephenson could dream of, and you can easily chart the terrifying trajectory of politics in the real world.

When I was covering the 2000 US presidential election, there was a couple of rich Texans who set up a shell political group, Republicans for Clean Air, attacking John McCain’s environmental record to support George W. Bush. Texas entrepreneur Sam Wyly headed up the group and had donated thousands to Bush’s campaign. His brother Charles, was a Bush “Pioneer”, a supporter who had helped raise more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign. The issues ads allowed the Wyleys to spend even more to support the Bush campaign. McCain cried foul, called Republicans for Clean Air a “sham group”, and said that the Bush campaign had to have been coordinating with the group, something which then and now would have been illegal. However, the McCain campaign was never able to prove coordination. More than a decade ago, we already saw the kind of campaigning that the Citizens United case would unleash.

Of course, that is low-tech, linear TV’s child play compared to what we are seeing with Gamergate. When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, such as creating sockpuppet social media accounts and using feminist critiques as a weapon against Brianna Wu (to demonstrate that her games were “anti-feminist”), you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion. The newest import from China will be the 50 Cent Party of paid political commenters. Gaming the system will take on an entirely different meaning.

With unlimited money flowing into politics thanks to Citizens United, a lot of cash could be poured into automating the process. Who needs robo-callers push-polling voters when you’ve got an army of AI-driven Twitter and Facebook accounts all spewing your line and endlessly quoted by cable TV show hosts who don’t care if the accounts are real, only if they reinforce their own talking points? They’ll be found out eventually, but it will be too late. A cynical electorate will be even more confused and all but the hardest of partisans will simply roll up into a foetal position to shut out the cacophony of spin. Moderates will be further marginalised as the bases retreat to the comfort of their sock puppet spun reality. Heaven help us.

Facebook and co-opetition: I don’t fear reality but I want my reporters to eat

If Facebook and journalism had a relationship, it would be: It’s complicated. David Higgerson urged “journalism … to get over its fear of Facebook“. He wrote:

Facebook is huge, and needs to remain huge. To do that, it needs to remain relevant to users. It needs to ensure it doesn’t alienate people. That, in turn, is good news for journalists and news organisations. We want our content to be read. Facebook is telling us it has a huge audience and it wants to get stuff they will like to those people.

Facebook is a market reality. I don’t fear Zuck and his crew. And of course we want our content to be read, and there is absolutely no doubt that Facebook drives a lot of traffic to our content. However, as News Corps’ Senior Vice President of Strategy said on Twitter:

Yeah, we want people to read our content, to pay attention to our journalism. Facebook has a huge audience and can help us meet that goal.

But using Facebook to grow audience is only part of winning in the attention economy. The other challenge we must face is how to monetise that attention. The readers of my two papers see our Facebook Page as the freesheet of the digital age. Hell, they say as much. How do I help those readers help me pay for the journalism we’re doing? That’s a really important question.

The angst about Facebook with respect to journalism is about that value exchange, making sure that we get as much out of sharing our content on Facebook as Zuck gets out of it in terms of good old dollars and cents, pounds and pence. To quote my good friend and university classmate Theo Francis who works at the Wall Street Journal, we know we are creating value as journalists, but how do we capture it.

No serious journalistic leader that I know of is saying ignore or be afraid of Facebook, and of course, we need to make sure our content is where our readers are. We’ve moved on from that discussion, and it’s time to acknowledge that on the digital side so we can focus on the hard work of figuring out how to capture the value in the attention we earn. We cooperate with Facebook in gaining attention. We compete with Facebook in monetising that attention. That is the reality we need to face. So, yeah, as a relationship it’s complicated.

But it’s time to get real. At this moment of great flux in the attention economy, we know that any ole fool can publish, but it’s a bitch getting paid. Attention is great, but it only goes so far when it comes to paying the rent or paying staff. I can’t pay my hard working reporters in Likes. I know what Zuck gets out of my papers having Facebook pages, and I know Facebook helps me win in the battle for attention in my communities. I’m working hard to figure out how to turn those Likes into subscribers, opportunities for advertisers and cold hard cash to pay my staff.

That’s not hating on Facebook. It just is what it is, and although I could do a lot of things, I have chosen to fight the fight on the front lines of local journalism. It’s a fight I aim to win.