June 29, 2009
A Sunday Lost to Mental Meanderings on Media
There's no beating the feeling of waking to a lazy Sunday morning, especially one that demands no urgent work, phone calls, a quasi-mandatory dinner with the parents or anything else but my own private exploitation of the diminishing personal space I call my life. Yesterday was one of those mornings. Even Hypertext the Cat could sense I wanted to luxuriate like she does all day, an appreciation that stopped her from waking me by batting at my head as she does most mornings. Two interesting things happened in quick succession yesterday morning to dispel any luxury I might have felt at having a lazy day of quiet contemplation. The first was a special report on citizen journalism by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The second was an instant message from Chicago based web analytics management consultant, David Dalka relaying comments on "saving the media" from a former University of Chicago professor (now US federal-court judge) of his, Richard Posner. Both events happened within minutes of each other. Clearly the universe was conspiring against the concept of me taking a day off, even on a lazy Sunday. I listened to the CBC show over morning coffee while trolling the half-dozen or so online newspapers I frequently read. The show probed the value of online journalism vs. traditional journalism, falling heavily on the side of traditional news gathering organizations. It was a smart and well researched episode, one Canadian listeners have been conditioned to expect from our federally funded broadcaster. The CBC was one of the first major media outlets to take advantage of the Internet to widen and grow its international audience. The corporation continues to use the Internet to distribute its high quality of national and international news though in recent months it has suffered sever funding cutbacks, an ironic equalizer that brings the CBC's budgetary problems in line with those of commercial broadcasters and other news gathering organizations. There is simply not enough money coming in (whatever the source) to cover the enormous costs associated with professional news gathering and high quality reporting. During the CBC broadcast, David Dalka forwarded the URL of a blog post from a former University of Chicago professor of his who is now a federal court judge, Richard Posner. Posner writes on media, society and IT. Like many other public policy thinkers, Posner is deeply concerned with the sustenance of a professional media, considering it one of the bedrocks of a democratic society. A few years ago, Posner predicted the current financial state of the mainstream media. Yesterday's post postulates a solution, making webmasters receive permission to link to stories in the traditional news media, likely with payment attached. Before dismissing the idea as ludicrous, consider that others see this as a valid revenue model as well, most notably Barry Diller, head of IAC corporation and his arch-rival Rupert Murdoch, owner of NewsCorp. For experienced webmasters, the idea of paying for a link that brings no commercial benefit is so obviously silly it is easy enough to dismiss however, news aggrigators such as Google News and Yahoo! News do see commercial benefit from stories researched, written and published by traditional news gathering organizations such as television, radio and newspaper reporters. It isn’t the presence of paid-search advertising that attracts me to Google’s news aggregator though it is those pay-per-click links that monetize thus sustain the service. What attracts me are the stories, none of which have been researched, written or originally published by the news aggregators. One can fully understand the frustration of major publishers and broadcasters watching their bottom lines push them into positions that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It used to be said that publishing a newspaper was a license to print money. Local businesses and services had to advertise their wares somewhere and the daily paper was one of the places most adults in a community would look at least once per day. Similarly, local television and radio were advantageous mediums for advertisers, allowing the traditional media to charge whatever rates they felt necessary to sustain news gathering operations. In many cases, those operations spread across the globe bringing a diversity of well researched opinions on virtually any international issue or event. Today, foreign bureaus are long gone from most news rooms and even the biggest news organizations such as the NYTimes, CNN, the Globe and Mail and the Times of London are pulling back on their commitments to find, research and report stories about international affairs. I am old enough to remember a time when newspapers published multiple editions per day in order to keep the general public as well informed as possible. In my family, it was not unusual for two editions of the same newspaper to be brought into the house each day, one delivered early in the morning, the other coming home from school or work with myself or my father. While I recently moved to a city blessed with four major daily newspapers, most other communities I could have chosen to live in are not as fortunate. In the city I moved from, the single daily newspaper ceased publishing on Mondays to save money. In Denver, a city I visited less than two weeks ago, one of the major dailies stopped publishing altogether a month ago. Are we any less informed than we were a generation ago? In some ways yes, in others not nearly. Perhaps the best example of this contradiction comes from the streets of Tehran where a sizable portion of the population risked violence, arrest and continued harassment to protest what they believe to be an election stolen by hardliners in their government. As the protests grew, the Iranian government moved to expel foreign journalists though a few were somehow able to remain and report. For most of us, news from Tehran was relayed straight from the streets via the social networking application Twitter and the burgeoning citizens' TV portal YouTube. While the veracity of such reports can rarely be confirmed, it is easy enough to argue we in the west would have known far less about the democracy movement in Iran without citizen journalists with access to web technologies. Another example is recalled from a few years ago when CBS news carried a story on the National Guard record of former President George W. Bush. The story was supported by papers said to have come from the Texas National Guard showing the former president had neglected to even show up for the weekends he was supposed to serve while avoiding fighting in Vietnam. The papers CBS relied on were forged, a falsification uncovered by bloggers. Dan Rather was forced to resign as anchor of the CBS News team over the incident. In this case, citizen journalism worked to vet a falsity which would otherwise have been reported as fact. At the same time, the quality of critical analysis of events in Tehran, Washington, London, Beijing, Ottawa or Timbuktu is eroding rapidly. While we can read broad strokes, we are left without the fine touches only a professionally edited writer with dozens of unimpeachable sources can offer. Because most citizen journalists are writing about topics they feel passion for, we lack the clarity of the dispassionate observer. This is good for issue identity groups but very bad for democracy as a whole. Sadly, it all comes down to money. While many will suggest if the newspapers don't want people or news aggregators to link to their stories, they should simply not publish on the web. That's a rather silly suggestion considering a growing percentage of the audience is increasingly using the Web exclusively to get information. The problem for Internet publishers is complexly simple. Ad revenues derived from Internet sites tend to be far lower than those drawn from traditional mediums. That's why the medium-market news organizations are unable to properly serve their markets any longer. Is the idea of paying to link to traditional news gatherers a good option? Probably not. The web doesn’t work that way, at least not today. While Posner's comments are less than useful and more than insulting to a University of Chicago grad worrying about the respect his or her degree might receive when their professors make foolish comments, at least someone is trying to brain their way through this mess. More of us should as well. We need good journalism as badly as we need a freely accessed Internet. As one commentator on the CBC said yesterday, "I doubt we’ll see any citizen journalists devote their time to civic agencies, boards and commissions. The next fifteen years will be a heyday for corrupt municipal politicians without a free media covering their actions and decisions." He may be right but I'm not thinking about corrupt local politicians skimming or swaying millions of dollars. I'm more concerned about major information corporations and the billions of dollars to be made off the distribution of knowledge to a global society. Those sorts of thoughts get me thinking about what we are trying to accomplish with WebmasterRadio.FM and how the experiment is working from a media for the masses perspective. We have an unwritten responsibility to provide honest, reliable and timely information which I think we're managing to exceed. There are no real rules governing what we're doing on-air beyond the common rules of nicety, respect and decency. WebmasterRadio.FM is a pioneer in the online space. Until WebmasterRadio.FM hit the scene five and a half years ago, there was no radio format content dedicated to the business and people of B2B marketing. We made a radio network devoted to webmasters and the business of doing business online. We're likely an example of the near future, the micro-focused media. Because we draw a surprisingly diverse but reasonably specific audience, WebmasterRadio.FM is able to exist serving a set of rather large niche communities. The number of people involved in the B2B (and now, B2C) markets we cater to is enormous and will continue to grow rapidly. You know how there seems to be a print magazine for literally every topic you can imagine? The ability to broadcast digitally created content via the web allowed us the ability to ape those magazines via podcast to the online B2B and B2C worlds. Our advertisers tend to like that sort of thing which stands to reason considering the groups that listen to us tend to be most likely to consider our advertisers' offerings. Niche marketing on a macro scale. Our show hosts are experts their fields, business leaders but not trained journalists. Our audience, for the most part, doesn't need us to provide a lot of journalistic content beyond the top-of-hour newscast. Our audience is looking to hear voices they can relate to from their business, marketing, PR or technological standpoints. That's what we deliver and that's why our audience numbers are growing so quickly. Such is the nature of popular niches. This brings us back to the topic of the mainstream media and the importance of settling the money trap the mainstream media model has become. Conflicting problems are inherent in the mediums used to publish content. For traditional broadcasters and print publishers, getting information to consumers is expensive and labor intensive. Advertising rates were priced to cover the costs associated with each medium used to communicate with the public. TV and radio relied on local, regional and national advertisers to sustain their operations while newspapers could rely on local businesses and voluminous classified ad sections. For generations, the ad-driven model worked as a tightly regulated and difficult to access business that ostensibly served the public good. The Internet has obiviously destroyed the foundation supporting the traditional media business model. The Web has eliminated many of the labor, material, and distribution costs of getting information to the people. It has also (almost) eliminated the concept of information boundaries. There is a lot of content to place ads around online and virtually no limitations to entry for new content publishers. In a classic example of the laws of supply and demand, advertising rates online are far too low to sustain large news gathering operations. WebmasterRadio.FM feels the pinch doing our form of news gathering. We feel it is our responsibility to cover large marketing conferences, events and conventions because those are the places where virtual-world news makers and industry leaders meet in person. It's expensive to gather news in person but even in a virtual world, that's the best way to get the job done. So what to do about citizen journalism, the failing foundation of an out modded model, and the inability to figure out how to pay for professionals? Who the hell knows... WebmasterRadio.FM does a great job of webcasting and making podcast content available for download to a definable set of diverse niche communities. We're experts, and we make what sounds to me like good talk radio for our audience, we're not journalists in any real sense of the word. Aside from the content, what makes us interesting from a media perspective is that we're one of the few online radio stations who are actually making a successful go of the advertiser business model. That's why I suggested earlier that the WebmasterRadio.FM network is actually a pioneering venture in the web space. We're demonstrating a working ad-revenue model as webcasters and podcasters. We're a likely example of how to make media work in the new-world web environment. That doesn't put food in the bellies of traditional journalists and that's what these meanderings were all about to begin with. Sundays rock eh? Restraining content is an option but it is an odious one. The web is about getting and distributing information for free. Free is good but free often means no pay. Creating better copyright rules and giving content creators means to exercise their rights sounds like a good idea but even the brilliant compromise of the Creative Commons licensing experiment doesn't put food in the bellies of most content creators. Writers used to find refuge in newspapers. Not so much anymore and blogs don't pay the bills. I find prolonged attempts to think how newspaper publishers solve a problem like Craigslist can make one's head feel funny after a while so let's not even go there. In a world where quantity defines the part of problem, quality becomes part of the solution. The other part of the problem is the perceptual divide between the virtual and the real sides of the world we live and work in. Quality content can attract good online advertising revenues if distributed to the right communities. It's all about targeting. That's a lesson the mainstream media will have to learn but one it takes at steep peril because the mainstream can not be directly targeted online. Whatever the Internet mainstream is, it is too big and too factionalized into micro-interest communities to be truly definable, a major strike against traditional news gathering operations operating online. The people need to stay reasonably sharp if our thousand year old experiment in western democracy and personal liberty is to survive and prosper. We all need to be well informed on general news items as well as on our personal interests and professional specialties. The job of keeping us well informed has traditionally fallen to the free media which, as any publisher or broadcaster will tell you, is far more expensive than it is free. To keep itself honest, reputable media has developed a well honed system of checks and balances including editing and the right to respond for readers and news subjects. That model is broken and the issue has come to a head. I wish I had words of deep wisdom beyond noting how WebmasterRadio.FM's ability to fill the needs of several niches is wonderful and cool and probably an example of the model we'll see more of in the future. I love what we're doing and think it is good for the web marketing industry but I'm going to miss being as generally well informed as I am and I worry about who, if anyone, is going to attend the next civic planning meeting on my behalf.