Fiddling with the true record of newspapers’ post-print struggles robs our first drafts of history of crucial lessons for media

Three editors: Lionel Barber of The Financial Times interviews http://video.ft.com/5113031401001/Lionel-Barber-discusses-future-of-media/Life-And-Arts Alan Rusbridger, who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes{{{CK SP}}}} of The Economist. The dark shape racing towards them looks like the chiefly Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

Lionel Barber (left) of The Financial Times interviews Alan Rusbridger (right), who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes (centre) of The Economist. The sinister dark mass behind them could be the Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

In the outline of his unfinished manuscript about the difficulties of constructing accurate history — partly scratched out as a prisoner of Germany in 1940-4 — the French historian and Résistance operative Marc Bloch wrote [ the italics are his, in all cases ] :

VI. EXPLANATION IN HISTORY

By way of introduction: the generation of skeptics (and scientists)

1. The idea of cause. The destruction of cause and of motive (the unconscious) [ … ]

2. The idea of chance.

3. The problem of the individual and his differential value. [ … ]

4. The problem of ‘determinant’ acts or facts.

Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, 1949 [ a posthumous work published in English in 1954 as The Historian’s Craft ]

All three versions of his manuscript ended with these words: ‘In history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for …’. If he were extending those notes today, we would propose:

5. The problem of the sound byte and tiny attention spans.

Explanations shrunk to sound bytes can wreak havoc with historical truth. That would account for the hair-raising contrast between our analysis — two posts ago — of why The Guardian’s economic model of giving everyone free access to its website is unsustainable, and the answer to virtually the same question by the architect of its strategy, Alan Rusbridger. That prospective revolution failed because it was halted halfway, as if lacking the courage of the convictions that got it rolling — including the editor’s enthusiasm for the advent of ‘participatory journalism’. But he and his managerial colleagues did not go far enough. For old media in transition, free access can only make economic sense — some day — in combination with building in some version of the audience participation or collaboration that defines social media. Recently, the post-Rusbridger Guardian made a stunning turn in the wrong direction. As we noted on this blog last month, relying on the accuracy of a report by Private Eye, the paper’s present leaders decided — unbelievably — against allowing its new class of readers paying £5 a month for ‘membership’ privileges to elect a representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (‘Readers’ Knives,’ Private Eye No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016)

You would glean none of that from Rusbridger’s reply in an interview with the editor of The Financial Times — at this newspaper’s first ‘live’ festival in London earlier this month — to a question about the explosion in readership after the launch of his content-is-free business model:

Lionel Barber: Under your editorship The Guardian became incredibly successful in terms of developing a global audience. You went from 300,000 in the UK to literally millions. Can you make money out of that audience?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the answer to that changes from year to year. At the time I left, we were just about managing sustainability and then everything changed — not through anybody’s fault. Except that Facebook came along and this behemoth started taking 85 cents out of every dollar in terms of the advertising revenues that came in. And that’s a completely changed environment. There’s no point whingeing about it, it’s a brilliant company. Google’s a brilliant company. But it does mean you have to adapt your business model not only in light of things that may change from year to year but from month to month.

The facts called for giving the FT editor a different sound byte altogether. But that would have put the former Guardian chief, who stepped down last year, in the awkward position of criticising his change-resistant former colleagues for their inability to understand, as he did, digital technology’s inversion of the pyramid they were used to — with journalists at the top and their audience members squeezed together, powerlessly, at its base. He could have given a colourful, entertaining account of, for instance, the shattered egos of senior journalists and columnists subjected for the first time to criticism by readers in comments sections — and to competition from blogs. Instead, he expressed himself eloquently on the perceptions that made him a Moses who lost most of his followers, because they lacked any glimmer about the Promised Land to which he was trying to lead them:

I felt that my job was to try and understand the technology, not because it was technology but because it signified a completely different social shift. It was the biggest thing since Gutenberg — not the technology of printing but the democratisation of reading and of thought. And we’re moving from a vertical world in which the people with the knowledge used to drip it down to something in which it’s much more widely dispersed. And as editors, you can’t afford to ignore that.

In their joint interview, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the practical editor of The Economist, described a survival strategy pegged to pushing for the replacement of advertising revenue by expanded circulation and subscriptions. This could succeed, for the special reason why publications focused on finance and economics are virtually the only big names in journalism that are doing well behind the paywall or subscription barrier. Her plan represents a different recognition that success will entail some kind of financial reward for the reader-participants in publishing’s future. The economic model that we have advocated on this blog would give readers small monetary stakes in media organisations. That would be just right for the communal-minded, left-leaning progressives said to dominate The Guardian’s audience. By contrast, readers are willing to pay for old-fashioned subscriptions to The Economist — or The Wall Street Journal or FT — in the hope of learning what they can to protect their piggy banks from disaster. (See ‘The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co’.)

Surely a sound byte encapsulating some of that would have been a more useful guide for editors coping with the digital transition than implying that the Guardian‘s huge economic losses are simply the fault of Facebook, which came along and devoured old media’s future.

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 (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 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Private Eye’s almost unbearably brilliant Libor for Dummies business model for the future of book publishing

Cover of the autumn 2015 Bulletin of the American Authors Guild: ‘Should Writers Be Performers?’ -- Cover artist: Kevin Sanchez Walsh, kswradiographic@gmail.com

Cover of the autumn 2015 Bulletin of the American Authors Guild: ‘Should Writers Be Performers?’
— Cover artist: Kevin Sanchez Walsh, kswradiographic [at] gmail.com

For months — as much as a year, perhaps — we have seen no new ideas for economic structures for post-Gutenberg publishing, the turn-of-the-decade preoccupation of many an anxious scribe, and the topic that launched this blog. Then we read the dire news of a ‘business model’ that a well-known large publisher has begun to offer authors. Fittingly, this was in a masterpiece of sardonic rage in the Books and Bookmen column of a satirical magazine, Private Eye (No: 1412; 19, February 2016). We will spare our readers the chore of looking up the Latin derivations of ‘libor’ – from libare or ‘sacrifice,’ or liborius, ‘free’, according to the Wikipedia. (But do scroll down this blog entry** to note the most interesting overlap with one Latin word for book — not codex, of course.)

BOOKS and BOOKMEN

With the vast majority of published authors earning below the minimum wage, one major publisher has found a way to give them even less — and indeed land them with a five-figure bill, in a scheme that owes more to vanity publishing than to the normal commercial author/publisher relationship.

Publisher John Wiley, which issues the popular ‘… For Dummies’ series, is telling writers its ‘business model has changed over recent months’. Out goes the advance on royalties. In comes an author commitment, ‘at the outset’, to buy ‘a minimum quantity of approximately 1,500-2,000 copies over the course of a three-year period’. For 2,000 books, even with an author discount, this adds up to nearly £13,600.

And out goes the writer looking to the publisher to help promote the title. In comes ‘author commitment in terms of promotion of the book at speaking engagements and training events’. This means the writers selling their own books, or as Wiley puts it, ‘purchasing discounted copies for events/business use/training courses to make our products viable’. An author selling 2,000 copies would make £19,200 — less costs involved in the ‘events’.

No mention of the cost of researching and writing the book, or the fact that some authors aren’t physically able to be travelling sales reps. These requirements will mean that most authors can only afford to write if an employer sponsors them with time, event organisation and the cost of buying their own books.

Take the (imaginary) Libor for Dummies. It would be hard to find an independent author with the ability or money to follow Wiley’s new business model. But there are plenty of bankers who could write this title from their employer’s point of view, and promote it with the bank picking up all the tabs. Which would make the book financially viable — and simultaneously worthless.

At last someone with a powerful megaphone has spoken out about the absurdity of trying to turn all scribblers into salespeople, on social media or anywhere else. Roxana Robinson, the president of the Authors Guild in New York — and author of a sensitive and perceptive biography of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, for which we were long ago proud to make room on our shelves — is pointing out what we did in an early entry in this blog, when practically no one was publicly challenging the near-universal conviction that writers have no alternative to morphing into performing fleas. It has been one of our most popular posts — without having any discernible effect, so far:

How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?

This is part of what the Authors Guild leader said on virtually the identical subject a few months ago:

Promotion is the opposite of writing. It’s depleting. And this kind of ‘creative’ promotion, is an act of desperation.

You can’t be a writer while you are onstage, answering questions. The only place where you can be a writer is alone with your mind, answering the questions that come from yourself, the ones you can reconsider, shift and re-phrase, until you find yourself heading out alone into the ranges you want to explore. Most writers are not performance artists. When we’re in public, we’re not writing. When we’re writing, we’re not in public.

Moreover, if you’re not well-known, none of these strategies of self-promotion is useful. No one will pay money to see an unknown writer.

… It might be better if the publishing houses let writers do what they’re good at, which is writing, and if they did what they’re good at, which is editing and producing and promoting, the books they have bought, believe in and support.

That’s called division of labor, and in the world of economics, it’s quite highly thought of.

If only writers could go on strike …

** From a lively discussion on Reddit:

Liber with a short i (pronounced like: li – ber) means “a book” and declines liber, libri, libro, librum, libro. Liber with a long i (pronounced like: lee – ber) as a noun means “a free person; children of a family” and declines liber, liberi, libero, liberum, libero.