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

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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 (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 blogs 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

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Outside La Scala - photograph by MIL22 Outside Italy's La Scala before a concert of Western classical music conducted by Zubin Mehta -- a member of India's tiny Parsi religious community -- who is music-director-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. A striking example of 'embodiment' matching the spectacular reach and inclusiveness of the internet. - photograph by MIL22

Outside Italy’s La Scala before a concert of Western classical music conducted by Zubin Mehta — a member of India’s tiny Parsi religious community — who is music-director-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. A striking example of ’embodiment’ matching the spectacular reach and inclusiveness of the internet.
– photograph by MIL22

april 14 2015 Google 10 item window for pG

Indoors or out, no one relaxes
In March, that month of wind and taxes,
The wind will presently disappear,
The taxes last us all the year.

Ogden Nash, ‘Thar She Blows,’ Versus (1949)

How spring came to be blighted by reckoning is a mystery we must remind ourselves to investigate, some day. At post-Gutenberg — in the spirit of the season — we have been taking stock of what we have been doing in this space. Here is a capsule history, to be expanded over the next few days with links to posts in our archive:

In 2011, an unexpected development guaranteed an audience for proposals for new economic structures or ‘business models’ for media organisations – such as the scheme with which this blog began. The British prime minister ordered a judicially supervised public investigation of the practices and culture of the British press, in the wake of a scandal about the widespread, routine hacking by reporters at — chiefly tabloid — newspapers of private communications of targets who included celebrities and prominent public figures, extending all the way up to government ministers and heirs to the throne.

In the prelude to this Leveson Inquiry, supervised by Lord Justice (Sir Brian) Leveson — charged with making recommendations for press reform, if necessary — the Lord Chief Justice at the time, Lord (Igor) Judge, made a historic speech reminding his fellow-citizens that:

‘the liberty of the press is the birthright of every citizen, that is, the community as a whole. It is birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right.’

Because traditional media in Britain are unhappy about the competition from citizen journalists and feared that the Leveson Inquiry would lead to government regulation of the press — ending the historic independence of the Fourth Estate — this speech went virtually unreported.

But the LCJ’s theme perfectly fit the reasoning behind a proposal for an inclusive ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ scheme as a gentle transition towards, and possible replacement for, the traditional economic structure for media.

The Leveson hearings, commencing on 15 November 2011, were closely monitored by media round the world. In spite of this interest, for several weeks, the traditional British press virtually boycotted or (very) selectively reported on the Inquiry – as if blind to the unique parade of witnesses that included newspaper proprietors, chief editors, famous columnists, leading politicians and ex-prime ministers and their advisers. Post-Gutenberg.com and INFORRM (The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog) — a site administered from London by a prominent barrister, Hugh Tomlinson — and a scattering of other bloggers, ran analyses and long excerpts from the extraordinary testimony broadcast live and in full by the BBC.

The Inquiry helped to establish post-Gutenberg.com’s focus on:

+ what might be gained from harnessing the greater, international inclusiveness of the internet in various spheres – not just citizen journalism, but regular attention to the cultural traditions, achievements and conversations of large and increasingly important countries, such as China and India; challenging mutual biases against literary taste and conventions in English-speaking cultures on both sides of the Atlantic; contributing to the conversation about literature that can and cannot be translated from other languages successfully with detailed, specific examples.

supplying and proposing corrections for biased reporting and analysis by the traditional press – about, for instance, the Snowden leaks, and the subsequent debate about ‘mass surveillance’; and of distortions of the historical record, such as the mistaken assignment to Steve Jobs of credit for the user-friendly technological core of Apple’s well-loved products.

drawing attention to the weakening of democracy and cost to society of a proudly partisan press, parts of which feel under no obligation to present opposing views or information that undermines their positions.

highlighting examples of successful power-sharing in collaborative and consultative organisations, such as cooperatives – and, in more than one post-Gutenberg.com entry, the inspiration that Switzerland and Swiss institutions provide; as well as suggesting how digital technologies might be used to overcome traditional handicaps of democratic decision-making (slowness; difficulty sharing complex information; quarrelling between members of organisations and groups).

non-traditional media organisations and specialists leading and accelerating the pace of the post-Gutenberg revolution – responsible not just the explosive growth of indie e-book and self-publishing, but novel journalistic enterprises operating on schemes closely parallel to the sketch of a keiretsu-cooperative (De Correspondent in the Netherlands, for example.)

chatty, informal, often lighthearted commentary on effects and implications of the transition to a post-Gutenberg world – and nods to the spontaneity, intimacy and friendliness of social media, including entries to mark personal experiences of the seasons and religious holidays.

Pope Francis: a pontiff putting post-Gutenberg media slugabeds to shame

- caricature of a pompous, power-mad cleric, the kind Pope Francis is doing his best to eliminate -- by the supremely anti-clerical Martin Disteli (1802-1844)

Caricature of a pompous, power-mad cleric, the kind Pope Francis is doing his best to eliminate — by the supremely anti-clerical Martin Disteli (1802-1844)

The astonishing Argentinian Pope Francis, who is 78 and breathing with only one lung, does not expect to live long – hence is racing to do all he can, as fast as possible, to rid the Vatican of bureaucratic arteriosclerosis, closed minds, meaningless pomp and display, factionalism and infighting.

All this we have learnt from the outstanding profile that emerges from assessments of three new biographies by Eamon Duffy, writing in The New York Review of Books.

We tend to think of the young as the most obvious campaigners for radical change; as its natural leaders. But if you stop to think about it, old radicals are far more impressive. They have a lifetime’s experience of discouragement of challengers of the status quo — often, by the extremely nasty and powerful. They have heard all the very best reasons for leaving things as they are — ad nauseam.

For those of us frustrated by the pace of media’s post-Gutenberg revolution, the Duffy essay – certainly no hagiography, with its extended passages about the pontiff’s flaws and failures – was a bracing and encouraging read. Not least, about life’s capacity to surprise us. Think of the size of the institution the Vatican manages. In 2011, the Catholic Church had 1.2 billion members, tended to by 413,418 priests. Think of its age. It is two thousand years old. Age and size are typically justifications for intertia – or no change at all.

Extracts from ‘Who Is the Pope?’ The New York Review of Books, 19 February 2015 (with highlights for unrepentant skimmers):

…[A]bove all, Francis is the first pope to embrace wholeheartedly the Second Vatican Council’s aspiration for a church in which authority is shared among the whole episcopate, rather than monolithically focused in the papacy. At the end of the council in 1965, Pope Paul VI had established a permanent Synod of Bishops as a forum for continued collaboration between pope and bishops. Many saw the synod as the major expression of “collegiality” that would devolve much of the decision-making of the Roman Curia to the bishops in synod and through them to the local churches.

Such hopes proved illusory: the Roman authorities saw to it that the synod remained a powerless talking shop with no independence or initiating power. Bergoglio shared the general episcopal dissatisfaction with this situation, and as pope, in one of the most striking passages of Evangelii Gaudium, he has called for “a conversion of the papacy” on such matters. John Paul II, he reminded his readers, had invited suggestions for a renewal of the papal office to make it more visibly an office of service, but “we have made little progress in this regard.” The papacy and the central structures of the Church must heed the call to “pastoral conversion,” because “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” In particular, Francis insisted, there had been a failure to realize a truly collegial spirit within the church, and episcopal conferences needed to be given “genuine doctrinal authority.”

He has proved as good as his word. Opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014 that, among much else, dealt with the fraught issues of sexuality, contraception, divorce, and remarriage, Francis encouraged the bishops to express their views frankly. No one should be silent or conceal his true opinions, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” To do so would be a failure in “synodality, because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.” These were not empty platitudes: under John Paul II and Benedict XVI open questioning of official positions was routinely branded as “dissent,” and bishops who deviated even mildly from the official line were subject to reprimand or removal. For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.

… On the one hand there was the temptation to “hostile inflexibility,” of “wanting to close oneself,…not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises,” clinging to “the certitude of what we know.” This was the special temptation of the zealous, and the so-called “traditionalists.” On the other hand he warned against “a destructive tendency to do-goodism” (buonismo in Italian) that “in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This, [he said], was the special temptation of the “do-gooders,” and of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” …

Though always meticulously respectful of his immediate predecessors, the differences between Francis and them are wide, deep, and, as his handling of the synod makes clear, momentous for the church. His distrust of religious leaders who “play Tarzan,” secure in their own certitudes, does not sit well with admirers of John Paul II or his style of leadership. Though he has commended the “prudence” of Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of the old Latin liturgy, he is suspicious of the reactionary ideological freight that the Latin liturgy often carries with it, and he despises ceremonial pomp.

… he has abolished honorific titles and dress for the younger clergy working in the Curia, since for him priesthood is essentially about service to the poor and vulnerable, rather than a symbolic status or the exercise of sacramental power.

Perhaps most momentously, Francis has pointed the church away from culture wars with secular society that were such a feature of Benedict’s papacy, toward a less confrontational approach to the social circumstances in which the faithful have to live, and a more fruitful reengagement with the church’s mission to the poor and underprivileged, in whom he sees both the natural and the most receptive hearers of the Gospel. Where Benedict was inclined to blame the increasing marginalization of Christianity in Western society on a collective apostasy rooted in the shallow materialism of secular modern society, Francis is inclined to attribute the corresponding decline in Latin America to the church’s own shortcomings:

Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs…perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.

… Francis himself is unlikely to have a long pontificate: he is an old man, with only one functioning lung. Both in Rome and in the dioceses of the world he has been quietly putting in place men who share his vision. But the announcement in January 2015 of his second consistory for the creation of new cardinals was anything but quiet, because the pope’s startling list of the twenty cardinals-designate, fifteen of them under eighty and therefore eligible to vote in the next papal conclave, represented a positive fanfare for Francis’s alternative vision of the Catholic Church.