The future of context and the future of journalism

Matt Thompson has been doing deep thinking about the future of journalism, since he and Robin Sloan created the EPIC flash animations while at Poynter at the urging of Howard Finberg. Matt has been thinking about context and ways that journalism can transcend shortcomings that were a product of linear platforms. He explored it during a Reynolds Fellowship at the University of Missouri and at the blog Newsless. Yesterday, he explored the topic at a panel with Jay Rosen and Tristan Harris of Apture. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all three panelists in the past. This discussion did something I don’t see often in terms of future of journalism conversations, it actually moved things forward and has jump-started a very good discussion on specific action to take next.

I see a divide. Covering traditional media’s shift to digital media, I hear strategies for more content, strategies to optimise content and the production of content and ways to monetise content. Content. Content. Content. The content industries think that the recipe for digital success is to digitise and monetise content. It ignores the fact that more content is competing for a finite audience and a reduced advertising spend in the midst of a frail recovery. On the other side of the divide, you have digital companies that know the competition is not over content but attention. Who’s winning in the battle for attention? The average time spent reading news on local newspaper websites is 8-12 minutes a month. The average time spent on Facebook is seven hours a month.

Matt thinks the volume of “episodic” news, hundreds of headlines washing over us each day might be the problem. The media is drowning audiences in a flood of content of its own creating. Matt said:

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

Matt was quoted on Twitter as saying: “People don’t want more info; they want the minimum info they need to understand a topic.”

Being inundated with information isn’t making us more informed. In fact, as Matt points out, it’s leading to a numbness, a negative feedback loop that sees news as a problem that needs solving. What are we as journalists doing to solve the problem? Creating more duplicative content is only reinforcing the problem, causing audiences to shut off. I transit through Kings Cross every day, people handing out freesheets of all descriptions are ignored only slight less than chuggers (charity muggers). Good luck with a paid content strategy based on content that people wish there was less of anyway.

Matt suggests that instead of “episodic news” and topic pages of links to these snippets of news that we need to produce “systemic understanding”.

Journalists spend a ton of time trying to acquire the systemic knowledge we need to report an issue, yet we dribble it out in stingy bits between lots and lots of worthless, episodic updates.

Matt asks some key questions on the how, what we can do digitally that overcomes some of these problems of journalism, structurally and also in terms of re-constituting journalism as a self-sustaining business built on delivering value to audiences. These are the questions that I’m asking right now, and what Suw and I have been thinking about from 5-9 over the last 18 months. We’ve got some pretty clear ideas on the how. (Yes, I’m being a bit cryptic, and unfortunately, I’m going to have to leave it at that dear reader.)

The great thing about having such a digitally native panel is that you can dive deep into their statements and continue the conversation on a site they set up for the purpose. Matt’s opening statement is at Newless. Jay has posted his opening statement on PressThink, and Tristan has posted his statement on his blog. Steve Myers did a great bit of live blogging at Poynter from the panel, and Elise Hu has a great summary of the panel as well.

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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.

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