Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!

>>>The Daily Mail>>Guardian<<<, which broadcasts news https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/may/26/dmgt-print-ads-daily-mail-mail-online-metro of its rival’s money worries

The Daily Mail, the world’s 3rd most popular newspaper site, reports on
the staggering losses of the even more popular Guardian, which broadcasts news
of its rival’s money worries

statvoo ED $8.95 centre

Statvoo.com, a mysterious publisher of statistical estimates on the net, reckons the value of many blogs — like this one — at $8.95 (surely much too high)

Symphysis:

the process of growing together (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

syn– + phyein, to make grow, bring forth (American Heritage Dictionary)

Why are Facebook and Google sucking up most of the digital advertising revenue on the web – leaving newspapers far behind?

Shared control of ‘content’ makes visiting these sites compulsive and addictive. Their visitors are not a passive audience but ‘users’ with a big say in determining what they read and see — in effect, co-directors of content creation on their own behalf. On Google, they are looking at responses to search queries that they design themselves; searches as varied and frequent as they wish. The UK Press Gazette noted earlier this month that research by the Reuters Institute shows that ‘social media has overtaken print as a source of news in the UK and that Facebook is by far the most popular social network.’

How can newspapers steal some of Facebook’s thunder?

It is worth noting that The Guardian — in the first year or so after it launched its Comment-is-Free site about a decade ago — could have become far bigger and more powerful than Facebook is today if it had only stayed true to its original mission, in opening up its platform to readers.

What did the Guardian get right in its conception of Comment-is-Free?

It glimpsed the power and potential of symphysis. The newspaper’s leaders, notably Alan Rusbridger and the late Georgina Henry, invited readers commenting on its articles to create a community and virtual clubs with other commenters — by linking from Comment-is-Free to their own, personal blogs elsewhere on the web. This was symphysis put into practice. For example, someone passionate about cats could post links in a comment on a Guardian article about moggy ownership and mental health — to his Siamese cat blog, and perhaps his self-published coffee-table books of photographs on the subject. He could charm or challenge other Guardian site visitors, tempting them to click on his links with comments that amuse or annoy them — and, from their responses, gauge which segment of the paper’s readership, if any, contains his natural audience, and how large that audience might be. He would, in effect, be getting help from The Guardian with market research and publicity not easily to obtain in any other way. In return, cat-loving readers would boost the newspaper’s page views, magnetising new visitors and commenters who got wind of the discussion-in-progress.

Like the Siamese lover, serious professional writers, artists and scholars seeking to draw attention to their work and ideas could create and discover their own forms of symbiosis with the site.

What stopped Comment-is-Free from living up to its promise?

Making comment less and less free, through increasingly heavy-handed and intrusive comment ‘moderation’ by the Guardian — and even outright censorship — which drove away too many sharp, entertaining and irreverent commenters, who made many of us click on the site all day, hoping to read new contributions from them. Links to the blogs of commenters who disagreed with Guardian writers and appeared to be gaining the support of other readers were often broken by the moderators. There were two reasons for the rise of the moderators: a) The official one, ostensibly the only reason, was to reign in rude commenters — control combative rudeness, including incendiary personal remarks about authors of the articles being commented on, and ‘trolling’ by solitary or collaborating disruptors of conversations. b) The hidden and unacknowledged reason: Guardian journalists and writers resented not merely careful, well-reasoned challenging of their facts and opinions by readers, but their challengers’ ability to demonstrate their grasp of a topic comprehensively, on their blogs — to which they could lay trails of digital crumbs in the same way as the cat-lovers in the last paragraph. This point about resentment, rarely conceded by most traditional journalists, has been made over the years on post-Gutenberg, and other blogs. In a welcome surprise last weekend, Giles Wilkes, an editorial writer and contributor to the hugely influential Lex column of The Financial Times, actually underlined it:

[M]any of the faults blog are accused of apply as much to old media, where they play out in elephantine slow motion and with a tenured complacency symptomatic of a medium blessed with too much protection from competition. […] [W]hen the blogosphere is really on form, its interactions throw up insights of a depth and quality that the mainstream media simply cannot accommodate. [ See ‘How I learnt to love the economic blogosphere.’ The Financial Times Magazine (get a free trial subscription, if necessary, to get past the paper’s paywall) ]

In the blogosphere, Wilkes added, questionable or downright shoddy analysis that print journalists are used to getting away with is demolished with ‘ruthless and rude critique’.

The Guardian and other newspapers make gestures towards the inclusiveness of digital publishing by featuring or spotlighting comments by some readers, or by publishing the occasional ‘above the line’ article that they invite them to write. These are typically bland, in perfect synch with the publication’s politics and other agendas, and sometimes apparently selected for their simple-mindedness. They are soon forgotten by everybody.

What do we lose from obstructing symphysis on sites visited by well-read and keen debaters?

The chance to show old media on which we place a high cultural value how to adapt their modus operandi for the digital age, or how to ‘update their business model’. The essence of what they need is the form of cooperation that technologists long ago dubbed ‘interactivity’ — with essentially two classes of operators. Publishers have to become co-purveyors of content with their audiences, on the one hand. On the other, they will ideally collaborate with other publishers, joining audiences or potential customers (markets) through shared publishing platforms or meta-sites. In the first variety of collaboration, for a newspaper, commenters and their blogs would certainly not replace trained journalists and editors, but simply operate alongside in a loose association, neither group interfering with or directing the creations of the other.

Six years ago, the main blogger on this post-Gutenberg site published, as part of an Oxford Internet Institute series, a draft proposal for such an evolutionary route for publishing. The paper suggested a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ as an economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club, made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims. For example, a newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers, with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs. Six years later, we see nothing wrong with that idea.

Ah, finance! Where are newspapers to find the funds to support any such collaboration, with social media like Facebook and Google set to devour all digital advertising revenue in the future?

Certainly not by following The Guardian’s lead, and forcing readers either to accept being targets for advertisers — or risk of being shut out of the site as punishment for using ad-blockers. Grown-up readers will not put up with being told to eat their spinach: that the newspaper is well aware of the growing popularity of software designed to defeat hidden persuaders only makes this new policy more incredible.

What is the more promising alternative? Switching from advertising revenue to reader subscriptions as a source of funds. Not traditional subscriptions, but a new kind, that would make a deep bow to symphysis. They would be subscriptions that are also tiny financial stakes in the new collaborative or interactive publishing — giving readers something, in a way that The Guardian’s plea earlier this summer for readers simply to become ‘members’ paying £5 a month does not. We have also gathered that the paper’s leaders are opposing the proposal by some senior staffers that these members be allowed to elect a special representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (See ‘Readers’ Knives’ in Private Eye, No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016) All this is a bit reminiscent of the protest and rallying cry of the early American colonies: ‘No taxation without representation!’

Even if the subscription-stakes are so small that they amount to mostly symbolic financial participation and ownership, this could actually give a newspaper an edge over Facebook. As we have argued before in this space, in a just world, Facebook would be a cooperative owned by its users. (‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind,’ 14 February 2012)

But how on earth can a newspaper be expected to handle hundreds and thousands — conceivably, millions — of individual subscriber/stakeholder accounts?

Anyone who has failed to notice that financial institutions have been doing this, by now, for ages, should read a piece that ran in the New York Times in April: ‘Billing by Millionths of Pennies, Cloud Computing Giants Take in Billions’. Of particular interest is this passage:

… This economics of tiny things demonstrates the global power of the few companies, including Microsoft and Google, that can make fortunes counting this small and often … As tech companies get better at measuring things, other businesses can pick up on the techniques, and the fine counting at the big clouds augurs for more precise measurements and pricing …

We have been talking about such micropayments for years, on this blog — but the new term is apparently ‘per-millionth pricing’. As the NYT author suggests, this is something newspapers hoping to stay alive should start doing immediately.

How are people going to get to the ‘truth’ without trained journalists to serve them their facts?

Newspapers still perform a crucial public service when they report methodically and doggedly on important and often unglamorous issues. But — especially as they feel free to be openly partisan in their reporting of politics, now — they cannot be relied on to give us information not distorted by special interests.

Intelligent readers recognise that other sources of information deserve to co-exist with traditional media — even if many conventional editors and journalists still refuse to concede this. With atypical honesty, on this score, the FT’s editorialist Giles Wilkes admits: ‘[I]n 10 years of trying to make sense of the economic blogosphere, I have found nothing as reliably good as the blogosphere. Some of its advantages are simply practical: free data, synopses of academic papers … But what is better is how its ungated to-and-fro lets a reader eavesdrop on schools of academic thought in furious argument, rather than just be subject to whatever lecture a professor wishes to deliver. ’.

Why not let a rising tide of symphysis lift all newspapers and blogs and other sites of readers and commenters — to save Western civilisation? Yes, we are joking. But not entirely.

P.S. How can the problem of rude and unruly commenters on newspaper sites be solved without moderators often maddened by their power?

We have a solution in mind — one we have actually tried out, somewhere else. Newspapers interested enough to arrange a meeting on the subject are invited to get in touch with us at postgutenberg@gmail.com

Jottings from revisiting A Distant Mirror, which shows history repeating itself in inchoate populist rage fed by miraculous new channels for communicating

barbara tuchman RETRO 2 cover

 

In 1978, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book that had begun as an investigation into the question of how the Great Plague in medieval Europe had affected the course of history. Though she admits at the start that she never found a satisfactory answer, her book became a bestseller — partly a matter of luck; partly because of her brilliance as a writer; and mostly because of the impression of perfect timing she created through the parallels she drew between the particular era she chose for her focus, and contemporary travails in the world around her.

Four decades later, it is impossible to disagree that our own era would make an even better fit for A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. The subtitle is misleading: her history does not colour strictly between the lines of the 1400s. It is — more broadly — about the Dark Ages becoming the prologue to the glorious Renaissance. The internet had yet to be born in the 1970s, which had no technological equivalent of the Gutenberg printing press. Here is a partial list of the parallels for the second decade of our century that we have been scribbling at random, as we read — of transformative forces acting synergistically in what Tuchman called ‘a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant’. … But, do note the silver lining on the horizon at the end of the final extract:

  • Ÿmedia: the beginning of hugely expanded access to information
  • Ÿloss of faith in authority
  • Ÿthe trampled-on classes begin to rebel without really knowing how to improve their position – and are mocked and squashed
  • Ÿthe globe seems to grow, as people’s sphere of awareness begins to enlargen explosively
  • Ÿlanguage itself alters (switching to demotic forms, in literature)

Extracts from A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century:

Multiple copying of manuscripts was no longer the monopoly of lonely monks in their cells but the occupation of professional scribes who had their own guilds. Licensed by the University of Paris, supposedly to ensure accurate texts, the scribes were the agony of living authors, who complained bitterly of the copyists’ delays and errors …

The rise of a bourgeois audience in the 14th century, and the increased manufacture of paper created a reading public wider than the nobles who had known literature from recitation or reading aloud in their castle halls. The mercantile class, familiar by reason of its occupation with reading and writing, was ready to read books of all sorts: verse, history, romance, travel, bawdy tales, allegories, and religious works. Possession of books had become the mark of a cultivated man.

The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change …The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, they were inadequate, unready, and unequipped for the task … [E]very working-class insurrection was crushed.

Yet change, as always, was taking place. […] Seaborne enterprise, liberated by the compass, was reaching toward the voyages of discovery that were to burst the confines of Europe and find the New World. Literature from Dante to Chaucer was expressing itself in natural languages, ready for the great leap forward into print.

[…] Johan Gutenberg was born … The ills and disorders of the 14th century could not be without consequences. Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mould of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself rediscovered.

[I]n 1453-4 the first document printed from movable type was produced by Gutenberg at Mainz, followed in 1456 by the first printed book, the Vulgate Bible. ‘The Gothic sun,’ as Victor Hugo put it with fitting grandiloquence, ‘set behind the gigantic printing press of Mainz.’ The new means of disseminating knowledge and exchange of ideas spread with unmedieval rapidity. Printing presses appeared in Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples within the next decade, and in Paris, Lyons, Bruges and Valencia in the 1470s … The energies of Europe that had once found vent in the crusades were now to find it in voyages, discoveries, and settlements in the New World.

Nuda Veritas: politicians in the UK and US, including the lying Brexit architects, fail to understand — or harness — internet culture’s radical transparency and reach

This story in the Washington Post the day after Brexit revealed the scale of media and governmental lapses in engagement and education

This story in the Washington Post the day after Brexit revealed the scale of media and governmental lapses in engagement and education

 

Cartoons as wish fulfilment? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wish_fulfillment {{{LINK TO SIGMUND}}} Drawing by Cluff in Private Eye, Issue No. 1421, 24 June-7 July 2016 {{{http://www.private-eye.co.uk/current-issue}}}}}}

Cartoons as wish fulfilment? Drawing by Cluff in Private Eye, Issue No. 1421, 24 June-7 July 2016

Who — other than diligent inspectors of comments on internet news-analysis sites — could have guessed that the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 Baby Boomers would one day trivialise their offspring’s opinions savagely enough to bring to mind kittens carted off to have their necks broken on the way to drowning? That older cannot automatically be equated with wiser was obvious from the meeting of minds between Britain’s overwhelmingly pro-Europe, anti-Brexit, younger people (under 50) and a huge spectrum of brainy Establishment figures in science and the arts at home and abroad, including Stephen Hawking, Amartya Sen, George Soros, Henry Kissinger, John le Carré, Joanne Rowling, Pedro Almodovar, Renzo Piano, Kristin Scott Thomas, Benedict Cumberbatch, Elfriede Jelinek, Alfred Brendel and Peter Higgs.

Yes, Britain’s oldies won the referendum, but the headline that made our blood run cold on the day after Brexit belonged to the Washington Post’s most-emailed story, a report that UK Google search trends showed that too many Leavers had no glimmer of the meaning or consequences of their vote.

Digital communication tools let anyone communicate information to multitudes virtually for free. Yet David Cameron’s government and the media failed to implant in people’s heads the fundamental facts they required to make a rational choice. A transmission failure in the reverse direction was partly to blame. The leaders apparently had no inkling of how little Britons knew about the EU; or any visceral grasp of the dimensions of the resentment — by millions of Brexiters — of what the Union signified to them, in their enraged incomprehension. Or, that some people at the top who led the Brexit campaign, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, did have the understanding Cameron lacked, and in the hope of using what they knew to replace him, spread lies about unattainable fantasies for a go-it-alone Britain. ( See ‘There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’ by the Guardian’s Nick Cohen. )

We tried to envisage what most upsets Brexiters, from their perspective. An image of an overcrowded people-carrier floated onto a mental screen. The hot, sweaty passengers are miserable about being jabbed by each other’s elbows and knees, yet the driver — who has made it clear that he cannot drive if he has to share his seat or lap — keeps stopping to invite pedestrians to hop aboard and squeeze in. His answer to the groans of protest is lectures about the importance of compassion for the less fortunate. He, of course, stands for Britain’s government, and the passengers for those Britons forced to depend on and compete for underfunded and underperforming public services, overwhelmed by the steady influx of newcomers from other EU countries and elsewhere. Only the mass-circulation papers like The Daily Mail — and Private Eye — have been regularly reporting on the struggles of the National Health Service, the country’s most beloved institution: the hair-raising details of ambulances arriving too late; lives lost because diagnostic test appointments could not be scheduled for months or even years; seemingly every known shortcoming in the care of people trapped in hospital beds — and desperately overstretched medical staff. Many of the horror stories about old-age care homes are unbearable to read.

All this — in addition to instinctive tribalism, primitive xenophobia and racism — makes it possible to see why, to many Brexiters, the EU stands for nothing but immigrants, more immigrants and overcrowding. Many of them are unwilling dependents on public services. They are unemployed — their manufacturing jobs lost to someone in, probably, China. They lack the education or re-education they need to compete for white-collar jobs. These voters overlap heavily with the rank-and-file in the populist movements on which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have ridden into view in the U.S., and Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage at their own opposing political poles in the U.K..

Only Sanders has had the charisma and intellectual muscle to engage that class of voters, as well as the U.S. equivalent of the younger people who voted to remain in the EU, yet also command the respect of leading thinkers — in spite of his many detractors in the Establishment. In a BBC interview, the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who won the 1998 Nobel prize in his field, praised Sanders’ ‘commendable effect on Democratic politics’ in broadening ‘the Democratic discussion’ about economic inequality and remedies for it — although he wished he would adopt a less divisive, super-rich-bashing tone.

No political candidate in the U.S. can match his following among millennials — who used the post-Gutenberg media in which they are so perfectly at home to magnetise other supporters. A superb analysis of his appeal to this group by one of them, Dasha Burns, on the CNN site, lacked only a recognition of how well he plays in digital media — his often wild, flyaway, dye-free hair and rumpled and unsmiling — crotchety — WYSIWYG appearance underlining the authenticity that is essential in this realm. Though seemingly a matter of mere exteriors, it is part of both his and Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to young voters.

A new prime minister with a look that suits the zeitgeiest: no dyed hair or Botox. The glint of humour in her eye, and her colours and clothes, hint that there will be more to Theresa May than Thatcherite steeliness

A new prime minister with a look that suits the zeitgeist: no dyed hair or Botox. The glint of humour in her eye, and her colours and clothes, hint that there will be more to Theresa May than Thatcherite steeliness

Although the young are mocked by their elders for their love of selfies, those critics forget that the rage for self-portraiture has also spawned a fashion for publishing deliberately unflattering photographs of themselves, and no-makeup selfies, and actresses who compete to appear apparently cosmetics-free on tabloid sites, ideally with fetching dark circles under their eyes. Perhaps this demographic segment is tired of delusional Boomer parents whose most expert hair-colouring, surgical re-shaping, and fanatical dieting only yields a creepy simulacrum of their own gleaming, taut-skinned, vital bodies, and such depressing conversational staples as, ‘Have you noticed that she’s got duck lips, now?’ Among successful women politicians, only Theresa May seems to have grasped this shift in the zeitgeist. Unlike Sanders, she always looks tidy, but does nothing to appear any younger; it seems as if the only sense of style she consults is her own, which is impressively apt; vibrant but natural.

The new digital tools do not merely allow radical transparency — the ability to let us see exactly what is going on upstairs, and how critical decisions are made. They demand it of authorities — in politics and government; medicine; law and the courts; academia and scholarship … even the secret services. James Comey, the head of the FBI, read this trend perfectly in the way he chose to announce the conclusion of his agency’s investigation into the Hillary Clinton email scandal. He was lambasted for delineating her transgressions and publicly upbraiding her for them — going beyond the convention of a simple announcement that there would be no criminal charges brought against her or her staff for their carelessness with classified emails, and her lies about their handling. But the mood and special needs of these times were encapsulated by one commentator quoted by Politico, referring to the disgusted reactions to Bill Clinton’s unscheduled meeting last week with the attorney-general, Loretta Lynch, with every appearance of seeking to charm her on his wife’s behalf:

“Given the public outcry over the events of the last week, transparency was clearly needed,” said Kathleen Rice, a former assistant general counsel at the FBI …”… especially given the FBI’s interest in being seen as an objective and apolitical law enforcement and intelligence agency.”

The FBI announcement finally emboldened the unimpeachable Maureen Dowd — seemingly the only New York Times columnist refusing to fall in line with her newspaper’s alarmingly biased coverage of this presidential election until a few weeks ago — to speak her mind about the Clinton candidacy.

In Britain, the brand new prime minister was just as responsive as Comey to the internet-mediated reversal of top-down politics-and-government-as usual. Some excerpts from the Daily Mail‘s report of the unbelievable speech, for a Conservative leader, that she delivered an hour before the news that she would be replacing David Cameron on Wednesday – an address anyone would have sworn was written by Bernie Sanders:

Theresa May pledges to block fat cat pay and bonuses and force multinational firms to pay more tax in crackdown on ‘corporate irresponsibility’

Theresa May pledged new laws to block fat cat pay and bonuses as she promised to stand up for ordinary workers in an passionate speech just an hour before her leadership rival pulled out of the contest.

The new Tory leader, 59, will also give consumers and staff a seat on company boards in a bid to crack down on ‘corporate irresponsibility’.

The changes are intended to show Mrs May can ‘completely, absolutely, unequivocally’ reach out to the blue-collar workers who were the bedrock of Mrs Thatcher’s electoral success.

In a speech in Birmingham on Monday morning … Mrs May also pledged to build a Britain ‘that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’.

[…]

‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions, think about the long-term and defend the interests of shareholders.

‘In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.

… Outlining her commitment to getting tough on ‘corporate irresponsibility’, she added: ‘We’re the Conservative Party, and yes we’re the party of enterprise, but that does not mean we should be prepared to accept that “anything goes”.

‘I want to make shareholder votes on corporate pay not just advisory but binding.’

Should she fail to keep these promises — as we hope she will not — painful reminders of them will be written large on websites all over the world. For as long as she lives, and at least as long as the net lasts.