[ 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:
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:
Michael Moeschler @moesch
Arlo Gilbert @arlogilbert
@fmanjoo @nytimes the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.
@fmanjoo @nytimes Commie.
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.
Mark Devlin @sparkzilla
@fmanjoo @nytimes But no mention of ethical issue of companies making millions/billions from the free work of contributors.
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 …