Monday, April 6, 2009
The Mores Of Content In The Digital Age
By Kendall Allen When it comes to content, there are media bytes and information headlines that provoke and test our long-standing beliefs on consumption, currency and the very meaning of free press. Last week was an interesting time for such provocation.
First up, there was Rupert Murdoch's quip, as reported in The Wall Street Journal: "'People are used to reading everything on the Net for free, and that's going to have to change." Murdoch also took aim at newspapers for allowing Google and other aggregators to distribute news for free. In the context of his news organization's plans to invest in a reader technology that would enable ultra-browseability -- and certainly, in the context of the ongoing conversation about whether consumers should or must pay for content in digital channels - these comments are hardly new. Come on! But, it was Rupert. So, passions flared everywhere - among friends, on Facebook pages, across the Tweighborhoods we share:
"No way! We should not pay for content in this information age when it's readily available for free." "That's crap. I can Google any bit of daily news or opinion and be served up reams of 'free' options."
And, some would invoke the free press, network neutrality and ramble off on evil empires. Plenty of fair points, taken in isolation. But Rupert's statement barely scratched the surface of all the interests involved in the real situation. Such narrow rants always sound really stuck in time to me -- no matter who the target.
Next up, The New York Times gave some attention to Google's plans to digitize millions of orphan books out of the bellies of the nation's libraries. This is a move apparently enabled by the expansive settlement of the suit brought against the company. The nuance of this imminent initiative, though, is its focus on orphaned books -- out of print, with untraceable copyrights, and so on. Google-haters refer to end-runs around legislative process; diplomats refer to an array of benefit equations and "good for everyone" platitudes. But, I don't know, I'd much rather see a concerted vast effort to revive and bring into new channels these lost works than see them burnt, Fahrenheit- 451 style.
Corporate-minded quotes by corporate provocateurs and these scenarios rife with conflict of interest bring out the dogma. But, if you spend time thinking deeply about either of these scenarios, you might acknowledge that our relationship with content, both consumer and corporate, is not so black and white. The information sphere is not as straightforward as it used to be. It's no longer just us and the singular news establishment. The sphere has gotten more complex in ways we could not have previously thought. And the exchange of information and pennies from our pockets is not the only one to consider.
One of my favorite reads on the matter is by Clay Shirky. Call him a digital fan-boy if you will, but "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" is important for the seeds it plants. Shirky writes:
The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: 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...
Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it's been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it's been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it's you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can't be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.
Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That's been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we're going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from "save newspapers" to "save society," the imperative changes from "preserve the current institutions" to "do whatever works." And what works today isn't the same as what used to work.
If we take an honest look at today's world, we see that models are synthesizing; spheres are coalescing; the citizen journalist is no longer just that guy in his robe (though he sometimes is); valuable local cooperative ventures are stirring. In a cross-channel, multimedia world, encompassing not just the news establishment but other sources -- there are new takes on content delivery and consumption, as well as progressive monetization models. The avid consumer of news, information and content-at-large rarely pulls from a single conduit, but through a vast matrix. The most active are subscribing, aggregating, feeding, sharing, digesting and ultimately perpetuating us all to a new world not yet reconciled. The lines blur.
On our way to wherever we are going, there are questions that seem important to ask:
The cords in my purist heart tug for beat reporting, investigative journalism, ethics and standards oversight -- but I recognize the landscape is totally different than even 10 years ago, let alone before the unleashing of the Internet. As a compulsive consumer of news, information, content across channels, I find the situation pretty enthralling. Given my habits and business vantage point, I absolutely would participate in and pay for certain aspects, quality thresholds, media treatments and outright increased access and portability of content. However, this no longer means the answer to just one trite question: Would I pay for my news? It's certainly not a moral question, though it's as complex as the best of them.
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Kendall Allen is headquartered in New York City. She consults for publishers and agencies on integrating digital -- most recently at MKTG, where she just completed a long-term assignment. Previously she was managing director of Incognito Digital, LLC, an independent digital media agency and creative studio. She also held top posts at iCrossing and Fathom Online.
Online Spin for Monday, April 6, 2009: