Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!
the process of growing together (Oxford Dictionaries Online)
syn– + phyein, to make grow, bring forth (Webster’s Collegiate 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 easy 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 firstname.lastname@example.org