Generosity and post-scarcity economic media models: Why I love participatory culture

One of the stumbling blocks for media companies looking to create sustainable digital business models is that the economic models differ in fundamental ways from the predominant models of the 20th Century.

Look at the media models of the 20th Century, and they are all based to some extent on scarcity and monopoly. Printing presses are expensive and create an economic limit to the number of newspapers that any given market will support. Satellites are incredibly expensive. Cable television infrastructure is expensive. Scarcity leads to the development of stable, de facto monopolies. Sky dominates satellite television in the UK. Cable television providers are usually granted monopolies in all but the largest of cities. Again, in all but the largest markets, newspapers have come to enjoy a monopoly position. (It is why I find it a bit rich that media monopolies are railing against Google. Monopolists trying to use the law and courts to defend their position against a rising monopolist should be the plot for a farce. Why don’t we create a web television series?)

The internet is different because media companies don’t have monopoly control over the means of distribution. News International and Gannett don’t own the presses that power the internet. BSkyB doesn’t own the satellites. Comcast owns the last mile of copper, but much of the internet is beyond its control.

The cost of media production has also dramatically decreased allowing people to create media with motivations that are not economic, which seems insane and alien to people who make a living creating media. However, creating media and sharing it with others is key to many communities online. Note, I’m talking about people sharing the media that they create, not sharing media created by people whose motivations are economic. Why the distinction? Sharing is a loaded term to the ‘creative industries’ which they want to redefine as theft. I’m not talking about sharing their content.

For those who don’t understand the “culture of generosity” on the internet, please read Caterina Fake’s moving defence of participatory culture. Caterina was one of the co-founders of photo sharing site Flickr and launched “a collective intelligence decision making system” called Hunch last year. Drawing on examples from her own experience going back to 1994, she explains why:

people do things for reasons other than bolstering their egos and making money

That’s about as foreign as one can think to mass media culture. Not doing something for ego or money? Why bother?

I can tell you why I bother. A global culture of participation has been, for me, key in meeting one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Belonging. Originally participatory culture was something I did in my spare time because their was no place for it in my professional work, but co-creation in journalism has been one of the most richly rewarding aspects of my career.

This is a mental bookmark for a much longer post looking at the economics of post-scarcity media, something I’ve been thinking about after meeting Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma. I first met Matt when I chaired a discussion about his book at the RSA, and I interviewed him for the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast about piracy, copyright and remix culture. Matt said that we need more study of “post-scarcity economics”, something¬† not seen in real-world goods but definitely in the virtual world of digital content.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

BeebCamp: Eric Ulken: Building the data desk at the LATimes

A fun example of structured data from the LATimes, which showed the popularity of dog names in LA County by postcode.

A fun example of structured data from the LATimes, which showed the popularity of dog names in LA County by postcode.

This is from one of the sessions at BeebCamp2, a BarCamp like event for BBC staff with some external folks like Suw, me, Charlie Beckett and others. Charlie has a great post on a discussion he led about user-generated content and what it adds to news, video games and also Twitter and Radio 4.

Eric Ulken, was the editor of interactive technology at the LATimes. He was one of the bridges between technology and the editorial

News organisations:

  • We collect a lot of data but don’t use it (We always thought that was a shame. We had a computer-assisted reporting team at the LATimes, wouldn’t it be nice if we used that.)
  • What online readers want from us is bigger than ‘news’ in the traditional sense
  • We need to be an information soure.

They did a homicide map, which mapped all of the murders in LA in a year on a map and which illustrated a blog that reported all of the murders in LA County in a year.

The project was well received, and they decided to develop a data desk. It brought together the computer-assisted reporting unit, investigative reporters, the interactive technology team and the graphics team to bring together the data desk. They all sat together in the newsroom. A lot of synergies were created. The Times had 10 to 15 investigative reporters on different desks from different disciplines.

Ten bits of advice:

  1. Find the believers.
  2. Get buy-in from above
  3. Set some priorities
  4. Go off the reservation (We had a real problem with our IT department. They had their priorities and we had ours. We invested in a server system using Django.)
  5. Templatize. Never do anything once. Do things you can reuse.
  6. Do breaking news. There is data in breaking news. They did a database of the victims. They added information to the database as it became available. The database was up in 24 hours after the crash. They had built most of the pieces for previous applications. (There was a question about accuracy. Eric said the information was being gathered, but it wasn’t structured. The information was edited by a line manager.)
  7. Develop new skills. They sent people out to workshops. They had hired a Django develop who was also a journalist. He taught Django to others in the office.
  8. Cohabitate (marriage is optional). The investigative reporters and computer-assisted reporters still reported to the pre-existing managers, but by being together, they saw possibilities for collaboration without reworking the organisation.
  9. Integrate.
  10. Give back. They worked to give back to the newspaper.

They used Javascript to add this to other parts of the site. They created these two datasets from the train crash and the homicides, but they also have used publicly available data in their projects. He showed their California schools guide. Apart from the standard data analysis available from state and national educational agencies, they also created a diversity rank that showed the relative diversity of the schools. They did do some reporting on the data. In analysing the schools data, they found discrepancies in reporting about the performance of the schools.

In a slightly more humourous example, he showed dog names and breeds by postcodes.

UPDATE: Eric has added some more details in comments below, and you can follow Eric’s work and follow his thoughts on his site.