Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Essay

Addendum April 15: Added to the "Role of the Technical Communicator" section today, concerning journalism education.

Addendum: Arrgh! Then there's stuff like this I keep finding. I must be on the front edge of something if I keep finding fresh material to read about it.

Blogger's Note: I'm floating this rough draft out here in the hopes that someone (anyone) will comment on it and let me know if I've gone to La-La Land here somewhere. I'm certainly no genius, I will confess to that.

Newspapers Desperately Need Technical Communicators who Know the ‘Shirky Test’

Brian Davidson
Utah State University 2009

Those who can help the American newspaper industry find a business model or models that work in the Internet Age will be hailed among the publishing geniuses of the 21st Century.

That sounds like hyperbole. I believe it is not.

Nor does Clay Shirky, Internet consultant, author and instructor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who in an essay entitled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” published at http://www.shirky.com/ on March 13, 2009, argues convincingly that the transition from print to Web is as revolutionary as the transition from hand-copied and woodcut texts to books, pamphlets and any other kind of printed matter mass produced by the printing press.

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention meant the Holy Bible could be mass produced, and in local languages, not just Latin, Shirky writes. At the same time, books and pamphlets of every stripe – from the erotic to the works of Copernicus and the Theses penned and subsequently printed by Martin Luther also spread, flooding Europe with printed matter and ideas unavailable to the common man before the presses started running.

“This is what real revolutions are like,” Shirky writes. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; bit changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

Shirky himself can’t predict what will happen. But he does offer in what he calls the “Unthinkable Scenario” a tool technical communicators and journalists may use to vet the models, tools, and ideas proposed as newspapers continue their transition to the Web. I’ll call it the “Shirky Test.”

The Unthinkable Scenario

Shirky’s “Unthinkable Scenario” goes like this, framed as a discussion that never happened:

The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

Those familiar with the Web have seen many of these “unthinkables” come to pass:

No one is getting the same rate for Internet advertising as they were for print advertising, even with the number of eyeballs looking at it increasing from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Walled gardens – think of the New York Times’ “Times Select” and that odd little era when CNN.com wanted Internet viewers to pay to watch their news videos – have fallen with the joyful noise of the Berlin Wall.

Despite the Recording Industry Association of America’s failure to stop file-sharing despite copious litigation, the Associated Press is now considering such litigation not only against news aggregators like Yahoo! and Digg.com, but against individual bloggers with the temerity to use AP content in a fashion that falls outside the current loosey-goosey Fair Use Doctrine.

The Role of Technical Communicators

Technical communicators will have the primary role in applying the Shirky Test to new online news business models.

That technical communicators need to be involved is clear, because old-school attitudes about the impacts of the Internet on journalism hold sway among most of those involved in journalism today.

For example, a poll published in The National Journal on April 11, 2009, shows that of 45 media insiders (including representatives of television, newspapers, magazines and radio) polled, 29 agreed with the statement that the Internet has hurt journalism more than it has helped.

“The benefits flowing from the tremendous new availability of information have yet to adequately offset the damage that the rise of this new business model has done to the expensive, risky, labor-intensive work of gathering, editing, packaging and delivering reliable information from places and people that are often hard to get to and unwilling to help,” writes one respondent – an echo of Shirky’s “Unthinkable Scenario.”

“I’ve always maintained that we benefit from the numbers and diversity of news sources in this country,” writes another. Then, in another echo of Shirky’s scenario, the respondent adds: “The Internet is shrinking both those things without providing an alternative which is as good, at least so far.”

The Journal, fortunately, takes this poll a step further, asking 32 politically-oriented bloggers the same question. The numbers are startlingly different. Of the 32, 25 said they believe the Internet has helped journalism more than hurt it. Even three of the seven who said the opposite take it purely from the perspective that it is the newspaper business model that has been hurt, not journalism itself.

Again, in the responses, we can hear echoes of Shirky’s scenario:

“Traditional outlets have been damaged,” writes one of the blogger respondents, “and I think that bloggers underestimate the contribution of those outlets; however, lots of new people are producing good work in spaces that weren’t available 10 years ago.”

“The old gatekeepers of the news have been overthrown,” writes another respondent. “It will certainly change as we know it, but with the advent of true citizen journalism in the micro sense, the information is much more readily available and, at times, more in-depth.”

Technical communicators are among the professionals recognized as knowing how readers interact with the Internet and are becoming increasingly adept in explaining this interaction to others. Technical communicators can work with journalists to construct agile Web design protocols to quickly test reader cognition of new ideas that pass the Shirky Test to see if they’ll work with readers’ online habits.

More importantly, technical communicators represent an outside group of communication professionals who can evaluate the newsroom, the Internet, and journalism education to identify strengths in both the media and the education, and to identify areas where the media and education are insufficient.

First, technical communicators can help journalists identify what works in the old model. Much of that groundwork has already been laid by studies conducted by the likes of the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which have long recommended that newspapers focus on local reporting over everything else to attract and retain readers. Though newspapers have these reports, most have been chided for going too slowly to implement the changes outlined in them. Reader cognition experts with a cold, outside eye ought to be able to spur newspaper innovation along more quickly.

Second, technical communicators can help journalists identify what is not working as newspapers transition from print to web. A telling report published by the Readership Institute in July 2008 states that 62 percent of those polled had never visited their local paper’s Website, and that only 14 percent had visited their local paper’s Website within the last seven to 30 days. Technical communicators can outline tools and approaches online newspaper sites can take to increase not only their Web traffic but their daily relevance to current and potential readers. This could include asking readers what sites they find indispensible as they surf the Internet each day and then studying those sites to see what good practices newspapers could adopt.

Conversely, journalists can show technical communicators the best of journalism – from writing to commentary to ethics and credibility – as both work to integrate what makes journalism good into what makes the World Wide Web increasingly the place people want to find it.

Taking a critical look at journalism education will also identify likely gaps in how current journalism students are taught to use the Web in their chosen profession. Right now, it’s typical that a class might be offered in vague terms on “online media,” but the unfortunate truth is that, for most students, the assumption in journalism education is that they are already familiar enough with the Internet that no specific instruction on how to use it (or how not to use it) is offered.

Experimental Applications of the Shirky Test

As I'm in the alternative online news business with my work at Uncharted.net, a travel and adventure website where we seek to combine the worlds of journalism and social media, I like to observe and learn as other entrepreneurs try to figure out business models and sustainability plans for their online journalism projects. Our experiments are not perfect. Any opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of others will be a boon as we undertake our own reader cognition studies to make our Website – and our business – what we want it to be and what our readers think it ought to be.

Postmortems of many of our ideas show clearly how vetting them through the Shirky Test could have revealed flaws early on, saving us time as well as money.

Shirky brings up two salient points which make or break models for online journalism: First, the model where individuals pay for content, either through subscriptions or micropayments, is dead. Newspapers let that genie out of the bottle in the 1990s, and there's likely little that can be done to put it back in. Second, Shirky posits that a truly sustainable business plan can't result in a literal translation of the old business model of a newspaper being “a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion.” as Shirky says.

Applying the Shirky Test to the walled garden argument is simple, as many news outlets have already experimented with the model and given it up. Walled gardens are simply structures in which readers have to pay for all or a portion of an outlet’s online content, much as they have to pay for a printed edition (unless they borrow it from someone else). The New York Times, for example, in giving up its paid subscription model in 2007, stated the following:

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. [Vivian L.] Schiller [then senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com] said.

Technical communicators and savvy journalists ought to be able to jump in to explain to news outlets – including the Associated Press, which is currently considering walled gardens and micropayments as a business model – why what the New York Times discovered in 2007 still makes sense today.

Next, let us take another “unthinkable” from the Shirky Test: literal translation of the old business model into the digital world.

Spot.us is a San Francisco non-profit organization which hopes to collect payments from readers interested in seeing a certain story published, either in the mainstream media or online. The company asks news seekers to pay $15 to $20 apiece to fund, say, a report on why it takes so long for the City of Oakland to repair potholes. The work would be done by trained journalists working on a freelance basis. They’d be paid through the donations sent in by readers before the reporting and writing was done. If a completed story is published in a paying venue, then the money that comes from the sale is sent back to the individual readers, who are encouraged to “invest” the money in another story.

The idea, unfortunately, fails to pass the Shirky Test, on at least two fronts. First, the idea of micropayments – of which the “investment” model is derivative. Secondly, spot.us’s model mirrors the current freelance journalism model – an attempt to translate the old business model into the digital world. Other evidence that this model violates the Shirky Test will be presented later.

What’s most interesting about applying the Shirky Test is to see that there are some in the Internet industry who don’t understand its implications. For example, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, according to TIME Magazine, told the Newspaper Association of America in early April 2009 to use the cable television model as its new revenue model: in other words, pay-as-you-go online news. Another walled garden. Another failed Shirky Test.

Others have proposed that newspapers work with Internet service providers to get a portion of the monthly fee Internet users pay for broadband access. Another walled garden – and a payment ISPs aren’t likely to shoulder themselves. Another failed Shirky Test.

To survive, those looking for the revolutionary ideas -- and I believe it will be a conglomeration of ideas, not one easy to summarize silver bullet -- will have to ensure their ideas pass the Shirky Test. This revolution will include things old -- notably niche publications that can focus, for example, on hobbies, travel, and entertainment -- to things new. But each will have to be brought to Shirky to see if the ideas pass muster."No one experiment," Shirky adds, (and spot.us’ founders are realistic enough to say this as well) “is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.” Technical communicators and journalists can use the Shirky Test to determine if ideas to be tested are different enough from the current business model to be worth a try.

Monetizing Will Be Critical

At the same time the Internet has liberated would-be publishers from the expense of the printing press, it has made it increasingly difficult for publishers to turn a profit.

“With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for an industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data,” Shirky writes. “It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves – the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public – has stopped being a problem.”

In other words – making the move from print to digital is fine, but the model that moves has got to be one that makes money. That a model makes money is an important addition to the Shirky Test.

For example, spot.us – realistic souls that they are – admit that the money their model is able to raise to fund a story “probably undervalue[s]” the time and talent of the writers involved, as David Cohn told ReadWriteWeb in an interview about the project in March 2009.

Additionally, Cohn told ReadWriteWeb that to sustain spot.us even as a non-profit, the company would be dependent on voluntary contributions from readers already funding stories. Growth would also be inhibited. Cohn said his idea is for spot.us to spread to other cities than San Francisco – but at the company’s expense. Its code and platform are open source, meaning anyone interested in starting a business that acts and look exactly like spot.us in any city on the planet can be done without those individuals paying a cent to its originators. This suggestion may pass the Shirky test in banning literal translations of the old business model to the digital environment, but it is hardly a way to make a living.

Monetizing isn’t a problem that’s limited to old media on the Web. New media is also struggling with a broken business model. Examples include Twitter, the popular micro-blogging site that has yet to make a penny for is developers, to sites like YouTube, which will lose its owner, Google, $470 million this year alone as the company struggles to pay for the Internet’s version of the expensive printing press: bandwidth. A report at Slate.com says Credit Suisse, a financial services company studying the Internet, says Google will spend $360 million this year alone to provide the necessary bandwidth for YouTube viewers to view their videos, while the company sells advertising on only 10 percent of its videos.

Some insist more radical approaches to finding revenue are needed. “We are in the middle of a crisis in advertising, not journalism,” writes Kirk Cheyfitz, a former journalist and CEO of Story Worldwide, a company that aims to turn traditional advertisements into a text that doesn’t interrupt what people want to watch or read, but is part of it.

“The heart of the problem,” Cheyfitz writes, is the narrow definition of what can constitute ‘advertising.”

This assumption automatically flies in the face of the print business model, which always calls for a wall between editorial and advertising – a recent example of that wall being breached occurred in early April 2009 when the LA Times ran a “story as advertisement” touting a new NBC television show on the front page of the newspaper.

That may be. But the concept passes the Shirky Test.


Using Delphi studies and reader cognition, technical communicators can outline tools and approaches online newspaper sites can take to increase not only their Web traffic but their daily relevance to current and potential readers. This could include asking readers what sites they find indispensible as they surf the Internet each day and then studying those sites to see what good practices newspapers could adopt.

Technical communicators and journalists who can successfully apply the Shirky Test to new ideas as a digital model of print journalism is built will be the heroes of the publishing world in the 21st century.

No comments: