Will 2012 be the year of a great leap forward into media’s future — even at The New York Times?

Back to the future 1: barn-raising

Back to the future 2: the work of quilting bees -- Steven Heller

My new year will begin not with a resolution but a hope.

It has been a bit lonely, trying to persuade other people intimately acquainted with mainstream media to discuss specific proposals for media reform. But three short essays published in the last month – to which I am about to post links – show that I am in good company in suspecting that co-owning media with readers and viewers could be the most realistic route into the future. It is no longer quixotic to hope that the most rigid opponents of reform will give alternatives to the status quo a friendlier reception.

With any luck, I will soon be able to drop the subject of media restructuring from this blog because powerful media people persistently refusing to discuss it have, at last, picked up the torch.

My personal high-water mark for the media establishment’s resistance to the new dates from the spring of 2010, when I emailed a question to an editor near the top of The New York Times.

The press has been critical to the success of democracy as a form of government; how is it responding to its own democratisation, and how far would it be prepared to go on that road — voluntarily? If you could recommend the right person at the paper for these questions, I’d be immensely grateful.

Zzzzzzzzzing! … the editor’s reply came fast enough to set heads spinning:

I don’t know that anyone would have a specific opinion on this, at least not one that represented the Times in general. You might look to see if an editorial has ever been written about it. If not, I suspect your question doesn’t have an answer.  [my ital.]

No search engine brings up any such NYT editorial. What that response was surely supposed to impress on me was that ‘our’ never having addressed the question meant that it was inherently unanswerable.

Which is patently untrue – but that was then, and I cannot believe that anyone with a senior role in running the newspaper would respond so loftily today. The subject of co-owned institutions is not apparently off-limits for the editors there, as it is for large numbers of their fellow-citizens. Nor do they automatically dismiss it as ‘socialism’, very nearly a term of abuse in much of the U. S. — a fact that has always struck me as a bit odd about a country that is not only the home of capitalism and Ayn Rand’s woolgathering about the ‘virtues of selfishness,’ but of cherished memories of communal barn-raising and quilting bees.

On 14 December, the NYT  gave Gar Alperovitz, the author of America Beyond Capitalism, the chance to tell us, in ‘Worker-Owners of America, Unite!’:

[M]ore and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.

Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions.

Out in the blogosphere, these posts were waiting to be discovered:

In a 9 December entry on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Tom Stites, the president and founder of the Banyan Project — which is building a model for web journalism as a reader-owned cooperative focusing on local news — asked: ‘Might the new web journalism model be neither for-profit nor nonprofit?’ He said, in part:

In this era of rampant deceptive business practices,[…] a significant source of co-ops’ strength is the trustworthiness inherent in their democratic and accountable structure.

This is also an era of rampant mistrust of journalism, so co-op news sites’ trustworthiness has the potential to add value to what they publish. Further, the co-op form allows, or rather demands, that news coverage decisions arise from the what a community’s people need rather than from today’s dominant approaches […] The web is inherently collaborative — just as co-ops are — and at the local level this creates the potential for civic synergy that could add still more value to co-op community journalism.

On 19 December, Jeff Jarvis, a new media expert, suggested that The New York Times should consider using a ‘reverse pay meter’.

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustrate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing—and perhaps turning away—the valuable users.

[…]

Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. […] But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.

»  You see ads, you get credit.

»  You click: more credit.

»  You come back often and read many pages: credit.

»  You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.

[ … and several other suggestions along these lines …]

He said in closing:

Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms…

Regular visitors to post-Gutenberg.com will have noticed a striking overlap between the essence of the Stites and Jarvis schemes and the proposal for a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ as the ideal structure for media of the future. (New readers will want to see: The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing.)

May this most welcome parallelism lead to actual change — soon.

In the meanwhile,  Happy New Year!

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