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

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.

A New York Times reporter uses the dreaded ‘c’ (for cooperative)-word and finds his enthusiasm premature, just like post-Gutenberg’s … in 2010-11

Screen shots from ‘Medieval Help Desk’: 4.6 million views on YouTube, so far — NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

The painful birth of the book: screen shots from ‘Medieval Help Desk’: 4.6 million views on YouTube, so far
NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 00.15.37

 

[ a curious WordPress software bug appears to be interfering with linking to some earlier post-Gutenberg entries. Follow the asterisks to the bottom of this post for those missing links ]

 

Well done, New York Times, at last … for letting one of your sharpest technology reporters advocate turning Reddit into a ‘user’-owned cooperative to end the fight about the news-aggregator site’s comment moderation policies. We had yet to come across Farhad Manjoo’s missionary zeal for this possibility when we made the same suggestion two posts ago: ‘The media ownership structure that dare not speak its name? Or is it the writing on the wall that new media, too, are deciphering too slowly?’. We could scarcely believe our eyes when we did.

Think of our last post in 2011, ‘Will 2012 be the year of a great leap forward into media’s future — even at The New York Times?’*. It contained this passage:

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 …

Still, that was a gracious and munificent response, certainly by comparison with The Guardian’s — which had banned a suggestion along the same lines, a few weeks earlier. We reprinted the censored comment in a 7 November 2011 post, ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’** Here is what the axed comment said, in part (see that archived blog entry for the complete version ):

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 29 September 2011 9:34PM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

29 September 2011 9:34PM

[…]

Addressing Whealie‘s point, what if the Guardian were to try out an experiment in which commenters become part-owners of a section of the online newspaper and helped to decide on policies, including moderation?

More details here: Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders.***

The lapse of four years has not made much of a difference. The cringing reaction to the idea of co-ownership today, of many ordinary people — not just of famous newspapers like the NYT and Guardian – was in the tweets replying to @fmanjoo’s advertisement of his piece on Twitter. A sample, not necessarily in the right chronological order – from tweeters who sound pessimistic even when they believe in the dream of democratised management and shareholding:

Jul 14

Michael Moeschler ‏@moesch

@fmanjoo baguettaboutit

Jul 14

Arlo Gilbert ‏@arlogilbert

@fmanjoo @nytimes the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

Jul 14

LornaGarey ‏@LornaGarey

@fmanjoo @nytimes Commie.

Jul 14

Jonathan Harrop ‏@harropj @fmanjoo Most redditors ALREADY think the site should bend to their whims and turn on a dime. This would be a terrible shit show.

Jul 15

Mark Devlin ‏@sparkzilla

@fmanjoo @nytimes But no mention of ethical issue of companies making millions/billions from the free work of contributors.

Jul 15

Mark Devlin ‏@sparkzilla

@fmanjoo @nytimes In the same vein: http://newslines.org/blog/reddit-and-wikipedia-share-the-same-disease/

All that will have been déja-vu for readers with excellent memories. The first post-Gutenberg.com entry, on 5 September 2011 — ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’*** — offered this anatomisation of objections to publishing enterprises co-owned with ‘reader-commenters’ (‘users’, for @fmanjoo).

In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. […] There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.

Ah, well … none of that would be in the least surprising to anyone who lived through the 15th-century transition from scrolls and illuminated hand-made manuscripts to the printed book. The scholar Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance is a richly detailed, gripping account of that revolution. Many fell by the wayside in the quest for a workable economic structure (‘business model’) by entrepreneurs keen to use Gutenberg’s press to replicate manuscripts by the hundred — for citizens just as eager to become readers and acquire libraries of their own:

The investment that a printer made in type, paper and wages was all directed towards a clear goal: the production of a finished artefact. But unless the edition was supported by a wealthy sponsor or patron, the costs could only be recouped once the books had been sold. For many printers this demanded skills for which experience in a workshop offered little help, and a network of commercial contacts they did not possess. The pool of potential purchasers was large, but often widely dispersed. The desire of many printers to publish eye-catching, luxurious or innovative publications accentuated this problem, since books like this were most difficult to sell to a clientele dispersed around Europe. Printers would often have to hold stock for a long time before the edition was sold out: this again, was a problem not anticipated by those familiar with the retail manuscript trade …

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/12/30/will-2012-be-the-year-of-a-great-leap-forward-into-medias-future-even-at-the-new-york-times/

**https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/07/why-is-the-guardian-censoring-discussion-of-press-restructuring-and-ignoring-the-top-judges-support-for-citizen-journalism/

***https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/wanted-a-brave-newspaper-for-an-experiment-in-which-readers-become-stakeholders/