Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Room to Move: Space, Digital Technology, and Industrial Changes in Journalism, with an Outline for a New Enterprise

“I can`t get the best unless I got room to move” John Mayall

I. The Problem

We tend to think of crises in terms of cramped spaces, pinched wallets, the walls closing in. Crises are defined by lack, by loss of liberty, by defeated expectations and dashed hopes.

It aint necessarily so.

Regardless of how one feels about President Obama’s measures to stimulate the economy, one thing about his perspective on the crisis is clear: he sees it as an opportunity to clean house, to institute sweeping changes that will reorient American enterprise and change the way we do business, to open things up rather than close them down. Many comparisons have been made between the current crisis and the depression, and while critics are correct in pointing out that the analogy is faulty, again one thing is clear: FDR also saw the crisis as an opportunity to grow, to expand, to create.

The end of newspapers is perhaps merely the end of doing business the old way, and if the captains of that industry had been sufficiently innovative, perceptive and diligent, they might not have had to scuttle their ships. The record of their attempts to shift to online production and figure out the future of journalism forms a truly pitiful tale of scant imagination and feeble will. The fact is, their interests were too deeply invested in the old way of conducting business, and management was not of the generation that enthusiastically seized upon and immediately understood the potential of web communication. When the geysers opened up a web page, all they saw was a screen version of the same page they had so long produced with ink and paper. Instead of reviewing their modus operandi, instead of reflecting upon first principles, they fatally sought to reproduce their practice in essentially the same form that had served them so well in the past.

This has all suddenly become grounds for lament, because although the crisis for newspapers arrived long before the current debacle, it was mishandled just long enough to allow the papers to survive until present circumstances tipped the balance. Papers that had limped along doing business as usual with only half hearted attempts to absorb the lessons of the new medium, have now been forced out of business.

And, interestingly, this lack of understanding revolved around an insufficient grasp of the parameters of the space that digital technology had opened up. Rather than cramping our style, digital production bears the means of freeing it up. Rather than costing the industry, it can cut down on costs. And rather than cutting back on reportage, it can proliferate it.



“All the News that is Fit to Print”

In one of the better discussions of these themes, “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers,” Paul Starr has argued that the newspapers developed a means of reporting news whose form was an inadvertent result of the market forces governing the enormous profits they reaped.

The key to the rise of independent and powerful newspapers in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was their role as market intermediaries--that is, in connecting large numbers of sellers (advertisers) and buyers in a local area. That role required changes in content, language, and design, so as to appeal to a wider public that included women, working-class, and immigrant readers. Instead of narrowly focusing on politics and business, newspapers now had an interest in presenting a wider range of stories. The result was a succession of editorial innovations in the coverage of sports, crime, entertainment, and community life, and the addition of such features as interviews, comics, and gossip columns. The coverage of politics and business changed, too, as newspapers increasingly presented more color, context, and analysis instead of reprinting long speeches by politicians or merely chronicling events--a shift that intensified once radio and later television took over much of the business of breaking news.


The fatter the paper the better. This principle, survival of the fattest, ruled the newspaper industry in its heyday, and it spawned a broad type of newsgathering that served community interests very well, even though the whole enterprise, in terms of its economic ends, had little to do with the high minded calling of its journalists. One subsidized the other. This breadth and eclecticism, this smorgasbord of intellectual content, benefitted the readership inadvertently because it guaranteed that they would receive if not necessarily digest a panoramic view of the world and thus avoid being locked into a hermetic semantic bubble in which one’s opinions are merely confirmed rather than challenged. As the internet replaces the newspaper, according to Starr, it could be that we will see less “incidental learning” and “greater disparities in knowledge between news dropouts and news junkies, as well as greater ideological polarization in both the news-attentive public and the news media” due to the fact that websites are generally more narrow in scope and ideologically motivated.

The issue for Starr and others is whether or not emerging models of digital journalism can guarantee the same breadth of coverage and community service. What form will online news take and where will we derive the revenues to support the enterprise?


The Potential for Advertising

The cause lies in the damage done to the economic underpinnings of print media. According to Starr, “the Internet has undermined the newspaper's role as market intermediary. Advertisers do not need to piggyback on the news to reach consumers, and consumers have other ways to find out about products and sales.” How did this come about? Why should not advertising continue to play a role on the internet and thus subsidize the journalistic enterprise that exists alongside the consumerist propaganda? Why should not the online paper continue to serve as a market intermediary? Advertisers still piggyback TV and radio news.

It is not clear to me as yet that the damage is irredeemable or that it has even been adequately defined. The whole argument about advertising revenue, for example, is repeated uncritically. Take the classifieds, which has been cited as an instance of the loss of connection between advertisers and buyers insofar as the papers cannot compete with the likes of Craigslist or eBay. These new alternatives are thought to be better positioned as market intermediaries since they do not bear the cost of news production. This argument turns out to be specious on closer examination. The classifieds, in and of themselves, cannot be said to have borne the cost of news production either. The costs of news production are covered by excess profit, which stems from several sources, and the industry was committed to that subsidy, so the issue of news production does not enter in to the discussion at this level – what counts is whether or not a particular market offering generates revenue and serves as a means of drawing readers, and there is no reason to discount the possibility that a sufficiently retooled classifieds for the web would not have continued to perform these functions. The question remains: why couldn’t the newspaper magnates come up with a new means of funding the enterprise, just as eBay, Craigslist and other successful websites did?

What are the factors operating here? Well, one thing that the pundits rarely discuss is the form that the operation should take given the potential for change and improvement offered by the web. Again, the concept of space figures in. Newspaper owners didn’t consider the means whereby space is created and navigated on the web, so they lost ground to competitors like Craigslist, because those younger entrepreneurs were quick to seize upon certain innovative measures.

This is what the Journalism Iconoclast has to say about that:

Rather than make a searchable, easy-to-use classified system online, newspapers shoveled non-Web friendly newspaper classifieds onto the Web. These weren’t searchable, didn’t contain links and photos were an afterthought. . . . they even carried the same space restrictions over from print onto the Web. Space in print is limited. The whole print model was built around scarcity.

There is no scarcity on the Internet. There never will be.

So, when people started seeing ads on the Web advertising homes with a frpl, instead of fireplace, it’s not hard to see why when Craigslist hit, the gig was up. Craigslist is not a technological wonder, its UI isn’t very good and it feels quite dated.

But it at least didn’t have ridiculous print abbreviations. And it was searchable, it allowed for links, it had photos and it was easy to use.

Precisely. There was a total failure of imagination and it killed the whole endeavor. The key for success lay in recognizing that the web is a different medium with its own formal properties and if one is to capitalize on the medium, one must synchronize the content with the new forms. The simple act of clicking, which moves the whole mighty mountain of information that is the web, has not yet been sufficiently understood or exploited. It is not at all like turning a page. The people at Craigslist went far enough in their understanding to appreciate that a searchable database with links would significantly improve access to the classifieds, and they quickly attracted devoted users. They also recognized that the protocols governing print classifieds were no longer germane, so they discarded them.

One may object that Craigslist doesn’t charge for its service, whereas a paper does. A paper puts a price on each word used in a classified ad. But Craigslist does charge for certain services and does make money. According to its factsheet, it supports its operations “By charging below-market fees for job ads in 18 cities, and for brokered apartment listings in NYC.” The job ads cost “$25 in most cities, $75 in SF.” Given their reach, with “Local classifieds and forums for 570 cities in 50 countries worldwide,” this means of generating revenues apparently works quite well and allows for the majority of users to benefit freely. Part of the genius of the creators is that they grasped an essential principle governing the net: they thought locally and acted globally. There is no reason the newspapers couldn’t have concocted something like this.

Here in the South, a truly proactive classifieds could easily provide an online journal with significant funds as well as a means of connecting the journal with a broad variety of users. For example, if the interface were improved (something more innovative than Craigslist), if features of eBay and Paypal were introduced, and then if some means were created whereby customs and shipping could be facilitated (which is a serious problem among Latin American countries, given corruption and protectionist tariffs) – a shipping company that cultivates links with the various national customs offices so as to ensure speedy and cheap delivery of products – then a subsidiary and very lucrative business could be developed that in turn would contribute toward the cost of news production.

I will have more to say about advertising and the means of subsidizing news production below, but one other assumption needs to be mentioned here. One of the things about print advertisement is that space is at a premium. Because there is limited space, the advertiser is forced to pay higher prices to rent that real estate. Since space is not a premium on the web, since “scarcity” is not a factor, advertising rates are lower. This does not mean, however, that revenues from online advertising cannot contribute adequately to the cost of news production, if that mode of production is retooled and scaled down. New types of ads, too, can be thrown into the mix, thus making it more desirable for advertisers to rent space on the web.

As the Iconoclast points out, the newspaper companies have to become more than just newspapers – which in a sense they always were, given that the moneymaking and the newsgathering formed separate spheres and employed different personnel with little contact between them. Just as Apple Computers converted itself into Apple and began developing a host of subsidiary enterprises, so too digital journalism has to develop and sell products that are subsidiary to the central purpose of the enterprise. The Economist, for example, is part of a larger enterprise, the Economist Intelligence Unit, which employs political and economic analysts on a freelance basis around the world to file monthly reports on their countries, which in turn are sold to business leaders, politicians, libraries, think tanks, and so on at a decent profit.


Citizen Kane and Miss January: the Universality of Desire

Current wisdom holds that the web doesn’t make money (unless you happen to be a pornographer); but it does enhance the ability to do so. And as to the huge profits reaped by pornography on the web, why hasn’t anyone done a serious comparative study in order to determine whether that model would work for other industries? The fact is, examination of their methods reveals the same principles that underlie advertising.

What, for example, is the fundamental structure of any given pornographic website? The “come on.” They flash a nude image, invite you to click on it to see more, and at some point they transfer you to a page where you are asked to pony up. Having excited you, they weaken your resistance, rivet your attention, and pit your reason against your desire. They exploit what Hegel called the Divided Self. This is precisely the MO behind advertising and consumerism. Walk the aisles of Macy’s and you will immediately grasp, if you are not totally dazzled by the ostentatious displays and the clerks spritzing perfume all over you, that the design of a department store is intended to produce the same effect as a porno site. It is all about the display of desirable objects. And instant gratification.

But you demur, news is serious business and there is nothing sexy about that. Well yes and no. We like to think that we are serious, and of course there is good reason to complain about the way news and entertainment have been mixed up, with the former becoming adulterated as a result. But desire is still an inevitable part of the mix, and in fact news does elicit desire. We speak about news junkies, and while the phrase is facetious, it does point to a motive force that we tend to overlook.

First of all, desire is not exclusively a matter of sexiness. Not only are there different types of pleasures – intellectual as well as sensual – which are equally exigent if not equally sensational or immediate – but there are also different types of desires or drives that can be exploited by those who wish to sell a product. We remember Freud for what he had to say about the sex drive, but we forget that he also wrote about the death drive and the fascination that death and violence exercise for us. It may be unpleasant to admit it, but one draw for the news is the ugliness of life, the tragedy. This is also why the soaps are so popular, or why movies fetishize guns as much as tits and ass. We talk about image fatigue and apathy, but I think there may be just as much cause to worry about an inordinate love of tragic or painful imagery. Horror has its attraction, otherwise we would not have books with titles like “My War Gone by, I Miss It So."

Am I suggesting that online papers adopt the coquetry of the porn sites and tease its readers with images of violated bodies? No, of course not, but I am asking people to be honest about what we produce and recognize that we too are eliciting desire and coming on to our readers, albeit in a different manner. Let us admit, as a first principle, that people do desire news. That simple fact is rarely mentioned, and its consequences are never examined.


Click Me Baby: Sex and Technology

One thing that pornographers grasped very early on was that the site itself, crudely laid out as it may, was sexy; that is, the mechanics of viewing also functioned somehow to incite or abet desire.

I was at a high level conference recently where all the political and business leaders of the country had convened to discuss the future of the country. Despite the gravity of the themes discussed, one thing I noticed was that everyone was always consulting their cell phones, fiddling with their Blackberries, checking their emails or messages and so on. Most of the activity was aimless, and in fact I suspect that the ostensible purpose of retrieving information of one sort or another was irrelevant to the actual motive force, which was pleasure. That is, people just love fiddling with gadgets, it gratifies desire in and of itself apart from the “serious” purpose of the activity that the gadget purportedly exists to facilitate. There is, in a sense, a disjunction between the form and the content, insofar as each function separately to gratify desire – but they also work in tandem and their separate dynamics can be exploited to reinforce one another.

Go to any internet center, and you will see all the people furtively engaged in clicking on links. Clicking is obsessive and compulsive. Clicking is full of promise, it is a wink and a nod, a beckoning finger. It is digital coquetry. Plot-wise, it is the embodiment of suspense, which is of course a major motive force in the construction of riveting narratives.

The upshot of this is that online newspapers have an unwitting ally in their quest to elicit desire and pull in readers. This is why a thorough examination of the form of the online paper needs to be carried out. Many pundits are arguing that survival of the papers as they switch to web production depends on their ability to invite more reader participation, to include viewers in the process of producing the news. This argument has not progressed much beyond rather lame suggestions about the pros and cons of citizen journalism and attempts to elicit participation through blogging. But no one has bothered to take this argument where it needs to go, into an examination of how the structures made available through digital coding satisfy the surfer’s craving for excitement and what sort of narratives can be created out of the mix. Instead of timidly reproducing what has gone before, we must break with the past and profoundly reshape future journalism.


II. A Solution

What are online news sites – are they in fact legitimate sites of production in their own right or are they mere adjuncts to enterprises that continue to function in their customary manner? CNN.com would appear to generate plenty of interest, but when one thinks of CNN of course one thinks of the television version. The same with the online papers. The sites are all afterthoughts rather than genuine independent enterprises with their own direction and vision. Herein lies the problem. Their structural dependency has consequences for their function and their form. They are thought of as extensions of an original, already established enterprise and they adopt the form and thinking of the parent company. It is high time that the new online journalism cut the umbilical cord.


Web Space, Grub Street, and the Reinvention of Journalism

Much of the writing I do is severely restricted, a thousand words here, no more than 1,500 there – all because a printed paper or magazine has limited space. But on the web there are no limitations on space, so why do the papers insist on maintaining these same strictures? The consequences for photography are even greater. Why should my multimedia pieces be only three minutes long? Chris Anderson’s sublime report on Lebanon ran for 15 minutes and viewers were riveted to the screen. There are various unexamined arguments regarding reading on the net: that no one reads large amounts of text on a computer screen and that surfers prefer to click around and have short attention spans. They don’t read; they browse. But reading habits are often dictated by the content as well as the form – if we don’t think this way, we are unwittingly discounting the power of our narratives to transform people. By doing so, we betray everything we stand for. And nowadays, as people use their computers at home more and more, they do in fact read larger segments of prose, simply because the material is available there on their screens. Whole books are downloadable now, and I doubt that many readers bother to print the file out on paper afterward.

No one has really tried providing alternate types of narrative, so there is no real way to tell. When Grub Street started up in earnest in the mid-eighteenth century, articles were in fact quite long and people read them avidly. This new cultural practice coincided with the rise of coffee shops. Today’s chains like Starbucks and Barnes and Noble are no different. You can see people sitting with their cappucinos and laptops. The whole environment is geared toward leisure and leisurely reading. Moreover, the range of subjects was just as great, if not greater than what we see today in papers – scientific articles of every type, fictional pieces, poetry, editorials, all jostling side by side in ample journals that approached the size of books. Advertising did not yet exist; subscriptions and the cover price paid for production, and the content did not suffer though the economy of this industry was obviously much smaller. The journal format eventually gave way to the tabloid, but there is no reason to believe that the tabloid, given further technological change and economic pressures, might not eventually give way to yet another form, or even return in some ways to the original amplitude of the journal, even with a reduced economic base.

Because, again, the thing about web production is that the resource has no limits – production need not be based on concepts of scarcity. Space is limitless. Yet the articles, instead of expanding, are more often truncated. The multimedia are nothing more than slideshows, with little or no attempt to exploit the kinetic energy or the soundtrack in imaginative ways. After a century of filmmaking, these productions remain stuck in the age of the kinetoscope – with the notable exception of companies like MediaStorm or Magnum in Motion, but how often does one see their multimedia outside of the factory walls? And why cannot the photograph itself now command more respect, more space and more control over what is being “said” in the pages of the new online journal? Why cannot the photo once again have free reign in a genuine photo essay as in the heyday of the magazine? The fact is, all the reasons for cutting back on photos no longer hold. The photograph can become a genuine motive force on the pages of the new journal. I will explain how below.

Meanwhile it is important to remember Fred Ritchin’s basic tenet regarding journalism on the web: “One cannot simply “repurpose” what has been previously accomplished onto the Web, as so many publications are doing, particularly the “brand-name” ones. There has to be an awareness that the old conventional strategies are not always applicable anymore, and that a new medium requires new thinking.



The Value of News and the Niche Market

What I am proposing takes advantage of what economists call niche marketing. In other words, in order to boost the value of a product, one must create a “niche” in the market so that the product receives its appropriate value. For example, markets in the North are flooded with the kidney shaped mangoes that Haiti and Mexico export; however, here in Santo Domingo we cultivate something like 10 different types of mango that look nothing like those and in fact are superior in taste and texture. Above all there is a small drop of gold called “banilejo” that is superb. They are also easier to pack and ship and can be picked slightly green without forfeiting the taste, since they ripen just enough afterwards. These mangoes are now being marketed abroad as a specialty item that commands a higher price and is slowly creating a devoted following. Depending on how one packages the news, a niche can be created to promote its unique qualities.

Now a porn site does not depend on advertising to make money; it sells the right to view the imagery. And we all know, or have been told, that a paper cannot follow suit; attempts to charge surfers for the right to view content have failed. Except, let it be said, in the case of specialized papers, such as the Wall Street Journal, because these focus on a particular community of readers who are willing to pay for specialized content that they cannot get elsewhere. Newspapers, on the other hand, are forced to compete with other free services such as Google, since general news items are accessible and unrestricted. Nonetheless, one doesn’t get solid analysis from general news posts, nor does Google or any other news feed offer features. Features, in fact, have become an increasingly popular product for news organizations, and are now competing with hard news for drawing readers. The New York Times reported back in October that in fact such features along with the new offerings such as podcasts and so on had indeed boosted readership of their website. The point to understand at this juncture is that news organizations do in fact sell desirable products – news interpretations in various forms (features, editorials, investigative reportage, etc). They may not be as sexy as this month’s bunny, but they do create demand. And some webzines such as Salon.com operate on a hybrid model that creates a scale of access – premium content is charged.

While surfers may not be dazzled sufficiently to pony up for the right to view most news material, many still do in fact seek out the news, they hit the New York Times site regularly. They do so because it is free. No! Just because something is free does not mean that it is desirable. They do so because they seek certain content, which happens to be freely accessible. In other words, there is an equation here, a relation between the two elements, which determines the market value of this product. What value? You cannot fix a price on a feature. No one will buy.

And yet there is value. Ask yourself, why were advertisers compelled to pay such high rates for space in a paper? They did so because their hefty investment returned heftier profits in the form of increased sales. But why use a newspaper to get the ad across, why not stick with television or radio or billboards, all of which are more modern media and probably more effective? Some might argue that the newspaper allowed advertisers to target the local community efficiently and comparatively cheaply. While a chain like Walmart might prefer the broader coverage afforded by a TV spot, and be able to pay for repeated announcements, a local business would not sensibly invest such sums if it could achieve broad enough coverage within the community it serves, since the paper would succeed in reaching the desired target and “repetition” would be achieved by the natural if unpredictable passing of the paper from hand to hand.

But that still doesn’t quite explain the advertiser’s decision. They also did it because the ad would appear alongside serious content whose proximity lent integrity and respectability to the advertiser. It functioned like an imprimatur. An ad in the pages of the Times has a certain cachet. This is why advertisers often worried about the placement of their ads and whether or not the accompanying story or photos detracted from the presentation of the ad. Newspaper content does indeed have value – like the web it can be said to enhance sales, even if in itself it does not sell, or sell well enough to cover the costs of its production adequately.

Of course it is still about the numbers, but numbers don’t suffice. TV spots are charged according to the popularity of a show, billboard rates are based on the daily circulation of traffic. Just as advertisers would pay more to air an ad alongside a hit show, they would pay to advertise in the Times with its high circulation. So why doesn’t the web version, with its even higher circulation, exact the same tariffs?

First of all there is the issue of space – online ads don’t command the same tariffs because space is not at a premium. This argument has been repeated often without being carefully examined. Online ads do in fact bring in revenue; according to TNS Media Intelligence, as cited by the Times, “Overall online advertising, however, is strong. Display advertising, the graphics-rich ads that newspaper sites carry, grew 7.6 percent in the second quarter [of 2008].” Yet revenues fell during that same quarter by 2.4% compared to the same period for the year before. Moreover, the various new elements included on newspaper websites, such as blogs, multimedia and podcasts, have managed to draw in more readers: “Unique readers in August were 17 percent higher than a year earlier, at 69.3 million, according to a Nielsen Online analysis of newspaper sites for the newspaper association.”

Part of the problem with the switch to online production and complaints about reduced revenues is that these newspaper giants are saddled with the cost of the older mode of production which in turn was justified by the excessive profits of the older mode of advertising. This whole model needs to be discarded and a streamlined economy put in its place. Then the revenues from online advertising will not seem so inadequate. Moreover, the ad space itself could be entirely rethought – linking and other formal aspects of the web could turn advertising into a whole new ballgame and excite both advertisers and consumers in new ways. An ad, for example, could be turned into a short computer game. If journalism is to become more interactive, why shouldn’t the advertising? The online journal could retain web designers who would act in the place of ad agencies to create ad campaigns that exploit the potential of the web. Here is another subsidiary business that could create considerable revenues for the company.

Then there is the peculiar nature of news as a commodity, and this is where the need for thinking in terms of niche marketing enters in.

One of the things that distinguishes news content is that it is an unusual type of commodity. It is a form of intellectual content that commands a special kind of value. Starr points out that news is a “public good”:

News distributed to the public is a public good in two respects. First, from a political standpoint, news contributes to a well-functioning society inasmuch as it enables the public to hold government and other institutions accountable for their performance. Second, news is a public good in the sense economists use that concept. When someone consumes a box of chocolates, no one else can have them, but that is not true of news. The news itself is never really "consumed" at all, which is why anyone can pass on news to those who have not paid for it – and in the digital environment, information is so easily and instantly passed on that news is, in a sense, even more of a public good than it has ever been.

Markets under-produce public goods because private incentives are insufficient to generate as much production of those goods as there would be if all those who derived a benefit from them had to pay. Still, for a long time, thanks largely to their role as market intermediaries, newspapers have been able to produce this particular public good – newsworthy information, necessary to hold government accountable – on a commercial basis. And that way of getting around the problem of financing news for the general public is now coming to an end.

To grasp this problem fully we must have recourse to one other time tested economic concept, which is Marx’s distinction between use value and market value. A commodity, which can be any object at all that enters on to the market, enjoys two different types of value. Coffee, for example, has a use value that describes its purpose as a comestible product. But once it enters the market it also has an added value in terms of the price people are willing to pay for that product if they do not themselves produce it. This value is contingent on many factors that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the intrinsic value of the product. Low grade coffee could achieve high prices on the market if there is a scarcity of coffee due to bad weather or blight. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee fetches higher prices on the market than the equally good or even superior coffee grown here in Santo Domingo due to advertising and adept marketing strategies.

News is a commodity too, but its use value is such that it would appear to be a hard sell. It does not enjoy rarity; it is not in scarce supply; it is easily “pirated,” copied, and handed around freely; it is not an immediate need in the sense that foodstuffs are, which satisfy an urgent inescapable demand; it is not a sensual but an intellectual commodity and thus requires a sophisticated appetite to appreciate it. Nonetheless, its use value is recognized by all as a public good, a valuable intellectual tool, a rigorous mode of information with a system of checks and balances to ensure its accuracy. As a social institution, it is important enough to be considered the Fourth Estate. It thus enjoys a unique prestige (as well as opprobrium), and as a result it serves as an excellent vehicle for advertising or subsidiary enterprises that stand to gain from the inherent ability of news to lend out its prestige as well as guarantee connection to a host of consumers – because news does in fact reach a broad audience. The New York Times site registers something like 20 million viewers.


Outline for a New Enterprise

One thing that Starr mentions in his article is the fact that if we were to switch to an endowment model to finance the news, the sums needed would have to be enormous – to pay a journalist his or her salary of, say, a hundred thousand a year, the endowment would have to be at least a million dollars, since the salary would be paid by the interest generated from the principle sum invested. While the fat cats may require such a salary, I do not believe that good journalism depends on their existence. Woodward and Bernstein certainly were not earning such sums when they investigated Watergate. Moreover, salaries are not the biggest problem of news production; it is the mode of production itself that is prohibitively costly. The truth is, the cost of production can be drastically cut by virtue of going online. A severely reduced staff, much smaller office space, no print shop, etc. Reporters don’t necessarily need an office, since they can work online and deliver reports from the field. If anyone enters the offices of a newspaper one is immediately made aware of the vast sprawling machinery of production, so much of which is no longer needed. If reduced revenues are a problem, they are offset to some extent by the reduced costs. Online production doesn’t require as much money.

Clave Digital, Santo Domingo’s leading digital news organ, and really quite a stellar operation, is run out of a small building that is perhaps a quarter or less of the size of the building that houses Listín Diario, the leading traditional paper here. Clave employs a small team of reporters and photographers to gather the news, and another handful of editors to run the show. Regular columns are provided by freelancers, and when big national events such as elections occur, the paper employs freelancers to amplify coverage. It is a streamlined and efficient operation that manages very well to provide the community service that Starr discusses.

The new journal I am contemplating would embody the principles of web 2.0 and adapt the form of the traditional photo agency. It would be decentralized and would not require a large central headquarters. Most likely the technological infrastructure (the servers etc) and the financial infrastructure would be located in one building, to be determined largely on the basis of affordable real estate, tax considerations, cheap electricity, and reliable internet connection, while the rest could be connected via VOIP and other web technologies.

There would be four basic elements:
1. Editorial: a core of editors overseeing the content and thematic direction of the journal.

2. Media Team: this would be a subsidiary company set up on its own entrepreneurial terms and initiative, so as to ensure an incentive to do their best work. It would not, however, play a subsidiary role in the construction or production of the news. It would work closely with content providers to create narratives and scenarios – unique platforms – that would give in depth stories their best means of being viewed, while they would also develop new forms of advertising unique to web technology. The company would be free to farm out its services to other enterprises.

3. Business: Accounting, Sales, etc. This aspect of the enterprise would be responsible for developing disparate businesses intended to create excess profits needed to subsidize news production. Several initiatives have been mentioned: a web-friendly classifieds; a web-oriented advertising “agency” (in tandem with the media team); creation and promotion of a “think-tank” or investigatory body that produces political and economic analyses for sale to specialty customers; resale of stock imagery; a book publishing venture that retails documentary and other long-term studies that arise out of the process of reporting the news.

4. Reportage, depending on field teams hired on a freelance basis and making equal use of photography, text and sound. New kinds of reportage would be explored, exploiting all available technologies; therefore, a more intimate working relation would be cultivated between digital designers and content providers. Photo essays would reclaim their past glory. Some articles could even be driven by the photos rather than the text. The photos themselves could be put to new uses, as narrative maps, as jumping off points to other narrative tracks, etc. The articles would break new ground formally and thematically – narratives would not necessarily be linear but would instead operate within a “field” that would in turn offer options to readers as to how to navigate through the story. We would be publishing new types of articles that break with the old categories and seek the fluidity of cross disciplinary studies. We would create bridges between traditional practices so that a truly broad perspective on any given issue could be created via linkage to other sources, much like a bibliography. We would concentrate on developing features, investigative reportage and commentary, while spot and breaking news could be included in the mix in the form of RSS feeds or some such thing, thus providing a daily compendium of leading stories, much as Salon.com already does. Longer documentary essays, previously the exclusive territory of magazines, would be returned to the fold. Other types of articles on art, science and such could be provided by outside specialists in these fields. Thus critics, social scientists, artists and writers could all contribute.

The business end of things would also be run along the same principles running the aesthetics, or content, of the enterprise. Take Ritchin’s concept of synergy: just as a photograph “becomes, like other media, a gateway to other ideas and other media,” so too the various aspects of the business could also create links between different enterprises and thus create opportunities for everyone. For example, Magnum in Motion already has an innovative media team in place, but instead of just selling the product, they could also sell their service to other enterprises like the one I am proposing; and of course further links could be developed, such as a regular feed of Magnum images (as they already do with Slate.com). This allows Magnum to diversify and thus amplify its market offerings, while it also provides the journal with an expert team that is already focused on the same goals, journalism-wise, that the journal espouses. Other aspects could follow suit: participation from readers could be facilitated by making use of Utube, which already has a huge following and thus allows the easiest means of acquiring the equivalent of “iReports” and such from the citizen journalists out there. Editors could single out superior contributions for further development and perhaps offer a monetary incentive, but otherwise the whole enterprise would cost the company nothing.

The result would be not a newspaper, because it is composed neither of news in the old sense nor of paper; it would not be a magazine or a webzine, because it would absorb these into an even larger and more fluid entity; and it would not be a pale version of television. It would be an online journal, a record of our times produced according to the terms set by our times.


Part of the key to this enterprise would be its focus. In order for it to work, it needs to have a clear identity just like any other brand name on the market. The few successful webzines that exist, such as Salon and Slate, have identifiable thematic and ideological concerns that attract readers. They function much like older magazines such as The Nation. Since the new journal aspires less to ideological unity and more toward broad coverage of issues, the focus would be provided by concentrating on a geographical region. This enterprise would cover Latin America. It would aspire to be a leading authority on the issues facing this region, and it would be bilingual, so that readers in both North and South America could enjoy access. The concept of community is being radically altered in the wake of new media that bring disparate corners of the globe together and essentially annihilate time and space. Hence, while a news organ needs to be linked to a community, the nature of that community needs to be reconsidered. This does not mean, however, that a local newspaper could not adopt some of these measures and still maintain an intimate connection to the local community in which it operates. The virtue, again, of Web 2.0 thinking is that it manages to join the local and the global in meaningful and beneficial ways.



Sources of Revenue and New Content

The endowment model is already up and running, and has always been a part of journalism. Much of the best journalism is the product of organizations working outside the purview of the established media; grantors like the Guggenheim foundation, NGOs such as the Open Society, and even governmental organs such as the old Farm Security Administration, have all contributed to fostering excellent journalistic work, from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to After the Last Sky. (It is worth noting at this point that the form of these memorable works is really quite different from generic journalism.) And what sort of work is likely to be remembered years down the line, the many newspaper articles published in the dailies, or books like Herr’s Dispatches and Griffith Jones' Vietnam Inc, which were enabled by the fact that the authors were working for the papers. One thing that the new online journal could do is foster the creation of just such works with the express intention that they should be developed with these long term goals in mind.

Closer affiliation with major educational institutions would allow for greater synergy and the opportunity to develop focused investigatory and documentary endeavors. For example, instead of reaching out, say, to Columbia University’s prestigious School of Journalism, an online journal of the sort I am proposing could link up directly with that same university’s School of Foreign Affairs and develop programs in tandem with them that would seek to fortify democratic values in Latin America and so on. With the combined resources of the social scientists and the journalists, all sorts of sociological research could be executed in new ways that achieve greater comprehensiveness and marry on-the-ground local expertise and journalistic rigor with the conceptual breadth and depth of academic thought.

Affiliation with certain types of corporations would also be feasible. Microsoft, Apple and other digital technology companies are essentially in the business of communication, just as we are. A marriage between the two would not necessarily impinge on journalistic freedom, since these types of companies are merely interested in providing the vehicle for content, and the content itself is less of a problem politically for them. A company like Apple promotes itself in terms of innovation – well what could be more innovative than sponsoring a new kind of online news service that takes full advantage of the new technologies to revolutionize reportage? By lending its support a company like Apple would simply be putting its money where its mouth is.

There are in fact already examples of working online newspapers: John Vink’s Ka Set, which covers Cambodia, operates on a shoe string and does a marvelous job of providing insightful reporting. The potential for these operations to grow and redefine journalism for the 21st century is indisputable.


Narrative form, Participatory Journalism, and the Spieltrieb.

A few desultory comments remain to be added here about how we can encourage reader participation in ways that cultivate an informed, well educated readership able to handle responsibly the demands of an open society. I have written about the relation between pedagogy and journalism elsewhere; here I wish only to point out that current arguments about the need for reader participation are somewhat superficial, since they do not grasp, yet again, the formal potential of the web or the fact that the redefinition of space allows for an entirely new relationship between the reader and the author.

Instead of focusing on the mere expression of opinion, let us first recognize some basic principles about human thought: above all, the fact that individuals require means whereby their creativity can be tapped and expressed. Creative activity of whatever sort is a basic constituent of human happiness. I remember reading Edith Hamilton’s The Greeks when I was young and being impressed with what she claimed was the Greek definition of happiness. I have never forgotten the words: “the exercise of vital powers in a life affording them scope.” Vital powers, in the sense of those forces within us that perpetuate life and vitality – the exercise of our imagination, for example, of our ability to shape our environment and create order. But the second part of the clause is equally important: we need an environment in which there is scope for the free exercise of these powers. An open society guaranteeing our individual freedoms. Or a web space in which there is ample room for narrative and conceptual exploration.

This principle is fundamental to human culture. What is the story of Genesis but another version of the same moral? Adam is placed in the garden to cultivate it, render order, exercise his imagination and create a beneficial space along the lines of the original creation. Or take the field of psychology. Friedrich Schiller wrote of the “spieltrieb,” the child’s exigent drive to play, through which it creates an ordered imaginary world that helps them to learn and master the real world. We are all perpetual children. As Nietzsche once wrote, “a man's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”

Thus the whole argument about the need for readers to participate actively in the “creation” of the news must take into account that this need is motivated by profoundly instinctual forces. And that the impulse has less to do with the expression of opinion per se and more with the creation of narrative form. Who could have predicted the remarkable success of the Wikipedia? Who could have predicted that people would wish to collaborate in the construction of an online encyclopedia, a word that is practically synonymous with boredom, with dowdy dryasdust pedantry and claustrophobic library cubicles. Homework! But no, the Wikipedia people understood that their enterprise gave contributors the chance to play.

An examination of the Wikipedia would surely result in new ideas about how to renovate online journalism and cultivate similar practices intended to foster a community of communicants. Just off the top of my head, I could conceive of a similar kind of forum adapted to the communicational goals of journalism, whereby, given any enduring news story (Iraq, for example), contributors could be channeled through a wikipedia-like blog in which various aspects of the story would be developed and explored – Iraq’s history, culture, and so on – so as to round out the news and provide context. The rules for the blog would be similar to those guiding the Wikipedia. Thus we could avoid the rather tedious and querulous blogging that characterizes most of the online forums.

Another means whereby reader participation can be cultivated is through creating new platforms for the stories – insufficient attention has been paid to the radical experiment carried out by Fred Ritchin and Gilles Peress, Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace, which presented an entirely new narrative concept intended to convert the reader into an active creator of the story. This bold experiment takes advantage of the necessary pleasure we all take in putting things together, in rendering order, according to our tastes. And instead of treating the narrative in a linear fashion, this experiment made the bold move of organizing the story geometrically, within a field.

Such an approach to narrative is so far-reaching that I think people have not as yet begun to understand its extent. In the words of Fred Ritchin, “The solution I have in mind involves a simultaneous elevation of the photographer to author and his or her downgrading from authority to discussant; an overt embrace of certain aspects of media malleability, including its potentials for synergy; an active solicitation of divergent points of view as well as layers of context; and the empowerment of reader and, whenever possible, the subject.” No one, so far as I know, has acted on these principles or tried to put them into practice in a comprehensive manner that embraces not just the presentation of photojournalism (which was the focus for the original experiment) but the industry of journalism as a whole.

I am not proposing that the online news service dispense entirely with established forms of story telling or that it indulge in unnecessarily lengthy and complex articles that are perhaps best reserved for other disciplines. Greater synergy, for example, between academic and journalistic institutions does not mean that the latter should usurp the functions of the former, but it does mean that a journal of record can expand its coverage through linkage to academic websites where readers could be directed to find all sorts of information, thus cultivating “divergent points of view as well as layers of context.” I have already done this on the website I created to cover issues regarding the sugar plantations. It is a bit like creating a bibliography, but it can function much more dynamically and of course much more effectively since the material is just a click away. Brevity is certainly a virtue, so long as it does not result in cursory reportage, paragraphs composed of no more than one or two sentences, ideas dwindled to mere bytes and bits – I am not interested in telegraphing the news, which is already handled aptly by the news feed or electric ticker tape. I am arguing for more, for room to move, for an intelligent and more liberal use of the space that the web has opened up for us.

We are faced with the exigent need to make sweeping changes in our practice and our thought. I refuse to lament the situation; I prefer to embrace it and perhaps dare to shape it to some extent. It may be that it is harder to adopt such an attitude for those who live in developed nations and have enjoyed the benefits of the old way doing business; but for those of us who live in developing nations and are accustomed to a different rhythm of life, in which one lurches from crisis to crisis and becomes inured to the shocks that flesh is heir to, this is more easily viewed as an opportunity to take up the reins that others have loosed.

No comments:

Post a Comment