In the Scottish referendum’s brilliant success, there was a crucial message for everyone designing the future of publishing

from The Canterbury Puzzles - Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems – Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

While everyone else ruminating about the Scottish referendum has been preoccupied (or horrified) by the inevitable demands for English devolution that followed it, post-Gutenberg has been transfixed by the 84 per cent turnout in Scotland last Thursday. This is stunning when you consider the rules for who was allowed to vote – amounting to an invitation to participate that could be unique in the history of national referendums:

everyone aged 16 or over, even though the age requirement is usually 18 years in general elections

 alongside Scots, British citizens and those from the European Union and Commonwealth countries who live permanently in Scotland

We call this radical inclusiveness. The only competition we can think of was in an experiment in Switzerland in 2011 (‘See ‘E-votes for all! Switzerland looks to the web to integrate immigrants,’ Prospect, 12 February 2011).

What Scotland’s voting eligibility spelt out for people there is: your opinion counts, and you really can make a difference. We remember sixteen as an extraordinarily impressionable age, and Scots teenagers who seized their first chance to use a ballot box might well be more actively engaged in political decision-making for the rest of their lives. As Jonathan Freedland said in his commentary on the referendum in a Guardian blog post, ‘If what started in Scotland this late summer is not to disappear by midwinter, it is its spirit that has to be nurtured and replenished. … [I]f you want people to come up with the biggest answers, you have to trust them with the biggest questions.’

How might this apply in publishing? If our regular readers will kindly excuse us repeating ourselves ad nauseam, we have set out

… an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. [It is] a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites …

With eye-popping Scottish inclusiveness on our minds, we stumbled on an observer most struck by extraordinary exclusion in the post-referendum debate. Tim Garton Ash hurled these thunderbolts:

The absence of references to Europe in the barrage of first reactions to the Scottish referendum result was gobsmacking. Ukip leader Nigel Farage told the BBC that the issue now is how we create “a fair, federal United Kingdom”, which he explained as “a fully devolved, federal UK”. So federalism, the dreaded F-word, trademark of all those nefarious Napoleonic designs of beastly Belgians, is now suddenly a good thing. […H]ow on earth can we talk about a federal settlement for Britain without discussing the powers that belong to Europe?

How indeed. The trouble is, citizens of EU countries do not seem to think of each other very much, from day to day. They know remarkably little about each other’s lives in terms of intimate – mundane – details. That requires frequent contact, which tends to deepen acquaintance and can inspire some degree of identification. Instead, there are language gaps that explain obliviousness and ignorance. Too often, national and cultural pride tend to encourage head-in-the-sand chauvinism.

…(ahem) Can the British man and woman in the street be expected to think of themselves as European when, for instance, knowing about the temperament of an ordinary species of farm animal a mere Channel-hop away still probably means you have to be a near genius like the mathematician Ernest Henry Dudeney, a hundred years ago – even after decades of virtual travel by television? See his last line, below, in his puzzle illustrated at the top of this post:

Catching the Hogs

In the illustration Hendrick and Katrün are seen engaged in the exhilarating sport of attempting the capture of a couple of hogs.

Why did they fail?

Strange as it may seem, a complete answer is afforded in the little puzzle game that I will now explain.

Copy the simple diagram on a conveniently large sheet of cardboard or paper, and use four marked counters to represent the Dutchman, his wife, and the two hogs.

At the beginning of the game these must be placed on the squares on which they are shown. One player represents Hendrick and Katrün, and the other the hogs. The first player moves the Dutchman and his wife one square each in any direction (but not diagonally), and then the second player moves both pigs one square each (not diagonally); and so on, in turns, until Hendrick catches one hog and Katrün the other.

This you will find would be absurdly easy if the hogs moved first, but this is just what Dutch pigs will not do.

The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems, Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

 

Can Alan Rusbridger do what he must to make a true mark on media’s future history?

- postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Behind scaffolding – postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

No media editor is being watched more closely by peers around the world than Alan Rusbridger, leading The Guardian into the future – and sounding as if a cooperative seems to him, too, the logical structure for media drifting towards ‘participatory journalism’. Never mind if he calls going co-op ‘mutualisation’ – as in this exchange in India with two editors at The Hindu, G. Ananthakrishnan and Mukund Padmanabhan:

You have been speaking about mutualisation of the newspaper, and you explained how it makes sense to involve readers, … But traditionally, were we not listening to readers … ? What has changed now?

I think it is going further. It is technology. Because the readers now have the ability to publish and link up. And I think in all this we have to make a judgment about whether essentially our role stays the stays the same. You are right to say that the best newspapers have listened to their readers and drawn upon their expertise. But the realm of newspapers is shrinking and all this energy is being created elsewhere and I think it is a real life or death position for newspapers as to whether they essentially ignore all that or whether you have to redefine the role of the newspapers to encourage it to come inside with what they are doing.

Very well said, but that conversation is now four years old. We cannot unfortunately peep behind the scaffolding and dust sheets to observe the latest stage in planning for The Guardian’s digital future. Does it make sense to hope that Rusbridger will walk his talk — unveil a plan for, at the very least, an experiment in mutualisation that involves giving reader-commenters the financial stakes that are of the essence of the cooperative idea?

We ourselves were pessimistic about this, a few weeks ago – in a post arguing that it is far more likely that younger media innovators will take that particular leap. But Rusbridger’s temperament and managerial style, more than his age, could rule him out as the most important pioneer in the next phase in media’s Darwinian shift.

That is certainly the likely conclusion of anyone reading the most thoughtful, complex and revelatory profile of any newspaper editor still in harness – Michael Wolff’s portrait of Rusbridger, published in the British edition of GQ last month. It is surprisingly even-handed – unstinting with praise for Rusbridger’s strengths – given that the Guardian eliminated Wolff’s perch on its web site earlier this year.

These sections of his essay, if true, are discouraging for anyone hoping to see real action, soon, in mutualisation that actually means something:

While the Guardian has a business staff with a CEO, and is overseen by trustees with ultimate responsibility, it has one real power centre, strategic thinker and moral compass: its editor, Alan Rusbridger. (A kind of preternatural consensus surrounds Rusbridger, but underneath him the Guardian is a fraught political cauldron, with underlings struggling to align with him, stay in his favour and undercut everyone else who is trying: “a nest of vipers”, in the description of an outside consultant brought in to work on one of the paper’s big redesign projects.)

[…]

His is an absolute, pre-modern sort of power, faith-based and exclusionary. You believe or you don’t. You are in or you are out.

Why bother to wonder about Rusbridger proving himself capable of, say, redesigning his role so that his position as editor-in-chief would have to be ratified by members of a mutualised Guardian voting in a referendum? Because, being optimistic, we hope that we and Wolff are mistaken – and that neither age nor personality will scupper his ambition to make a true mark on history.

… In our next entry, we will consider how much richer the cultural contribution of a mutualised Guardian would be.

Notes from the post-print transition, 1: the advertising moonshot of Google’s Larry Page and Private Eye’s meerkat phobia

Meerkat to the Eye: ‘You surely don't mean, me?’ - postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Meerkat to the Eye: ‘You surely don’t mean, me?’
– postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Anyone sensible who, for decades, has bought nothing expensive without consulting Britain’s Which? (owned by the Consumers’ Association) or Consumer Reports in the U.S. (owned by Consumers Union) can understand Larry Page’s apparent belief, over a decade ago, that conventional advertising would soon be obsolete.

Advertising equals lifeblood in the traditional economic model for newspapers and magazines – the scheme that will soon look pre-historic. In a splendid Business Insider profile, in a section about the early years of the company Page co-founded with Sergey Brin, a far-out idea – known as a moonshot, at the search engine colossus — is described:

… [A]fter Google had become the Internet’s most successful advertising business, Page decided the company should destroy the advertising agency industry. To his thinking, it was obviously a highly inefficient system that could be erased with the help of technology. Not only did the company opt not to take on this battle, but [other top Google executives] did their best to make sure none of Google’s many important ad-agency clients caught wind of Page’s ideas on the topic.

His seems like a straightforward, logical conclusion to anyone who believes – as we do at post-Gutenberg – that

… the perfect search engine would understand whatever your need is. It would understand everything in the world deeply [and] give you back kind of exactly what you need.

That is also a quotation of Page, in the same article.

Private Eye — writing more frankly than any other print publication about the hopelessness of trying to carry the advertising-dependent print model for economic survival into the digital future – has had riveting news in recent ‘Ad Nauseam’ columns, information we have seen nowhere else. … Essential reading, even if the last snippet seems proof of a bizarre phobia at the indispensable satirical magazine – or, possibly, a regrettable instance of inter-species prejudice:

– from Private Eye, No. 1367, 30 May – 12 June, 2014:

The latest digital advertising medium to have its efficacy questioned is video ads.

Recent research suggests that nearly 60 percent of them are never seen by a human being, which does rather post the question as to what media buyers are actually paid for.

– from Private Eye, No. 1369, 27 June -10 July 2014:

Facebook recently admitted what everyone in advertising had already twigged – that no one is reading anything brands put on Facebook any more.

The company posted a long explanation for this, protesting loudly against the idea that it could possibly have anything to do with selling more ads, suggesting instead that it was a problem of there simply being too much ‘branded content’ on the platform. This is all well and good, except a) that problem is entirely of Facebook’s making, given that it has spent seven years telling all brands they have to be on there (without adequately explaining why); and b) all its solutions for brands to get over this issue involve, er, buying more adverts.

– from Private Eye, No. 1367, 30 May – 12 June, 2014:

The latest terrifying vision of the future comes via Personal Neuro, a company which is working with Google Glass to produce wearable technology, which can monitor a wearer’s brainwaves, gauge their mood or state of mind – and feed adverts directly into their eyeballs based on that data!

Welcome to a future in which you will never be able to escape that bloody meerkat, however hard you try

If Personal Neuro is real, not just a vision that came swimming into editorial brains at the Eye after a lavish liquid lunch, why does a Google search turn up no information about this Canadian startup in any other well-known print organ?

The components of the next media ‘business model’ are ready: dewy-eyed newcomers, not media’s Old Guard, will do the essential assembly and testing

august 2013 lolling nymphs circular balcony DSCF1026

The old classic forms for media are broken: their replacements are coming from young explorers open to the magic of possibility and experimentation - photographs of the Villa Borromeo: MIL22

The old classic forms for media are broken: their replacements are coming from young explorers open to the magic of possibility and experimentation
– photographs of the Villa Borromeo: MIL22

Though Larry Page, the Google co-founder, has a thatch of grey hair, we know he is still only forty-one. His baby face reminds us that he was twenty-five in 1998, when he hatched a search engine with Sergey Brin. We also know that Jimmy Wales was thirty-five when he launched the Wikipedia in 2001, and Jeff Bezos a mere thirty at the founding of Amazon.com in 1994.

So, why are we looking to today’s old media leaders to reshape the way we get news and commentary through them? Google, Wikipedia and Amazon — three inventions that have made done more than any others to re-shape the habits of those of us who used to be called bookworms — should have made it pointless for anyone to expect the big names in print media, whose chiefs are nearly all middle-aged or old, to build the bridge to future economic survival for their enterprises.

Three identifiers of the most promising scheme for publishing – called a ‘business model’ – look more practical and likely than ever:

Some form of collective ownership and management – which, for some new publishing groups, would mean replacing the old idea of ‘reader subscriptions’ with small ownership stakes for audience members who want a say in drafting rules and setting policy.

Consultative decision-making on strategic and policy matters helped by free, ‘sharable’ software tools designed to streamline collaboration — the kind being developed by New Zealand’s Loomio cooperative (the most sophisticated of which might include software tailored to deal with particular kinds of conflict).

Vast aggregations of micropayments making up the financial lifeblood of media collectives – from selling access to certain kinds of information or entertainment (though most of this would be free); or in-payments for the privilege of stakeholding, and outpayments when there are profits to be distributed.

Most of the worker-bees driving the creativity at Loomio and the micropayments innovator Flattr are decades younger than the old media leaders in continental Europe interviewed last week by The Guardian about their struggle to adapt for digitisation. The limit of bold and adventurous thinking by these appears to be a subscription club – similar to the plan described by Mario Calabresi, editor-in-chief of Italy’s La Stampa , in which most of its offerings would continue to be free …

… while holding back some premium content in order to be able to offer more in-depth information to those who want it. Around this premium content we are building a club-like structure, which brings together our keenest readers and offers them exclusive tools with which to understand the world.

Club, yes; but stake, no – and that is surely a mistake. Giving readers the chance to own a financial stake, even a small one, in drawing more traffic to a media site would encourage more of them to linger to chat with other readers – regularly log on to comments sections, treating them like virtual pubs or coffee-shops for relaxing sessions of teasing, information-sharing, debating and flirting anonymously and pseudonymously as well as in the prosaic guise of being, as on Facebook, simply themselves. One commenter on the Guardian survey of European papers had the media enterprise of the future exactly right:

ringodingo

13 June 2014 11:03am

… Newspapers, tv etc have to accept that media is now two-way.

So Guardian etc should become more like a social media site?

To an extent they already involve the readers with the comment threads.

Or, as the 2010 paper that this post-Gutenberg blog extends said, if we may be forgiven for the unpardonable sin of quoting ourselves:

New communication technologies have created a karaoke world. … Practically no one is content any more to be just a spectator, reader, passive listener or viewer. Audience participation as well as the right to talk back – which includes non-expert reviewing of works or performances by trained and seasoned professionals — have become absolutely essential.

That La Stampa understands this is clear. Calabresi said:

We are drawing on user-generated content, seeking to unite and integrate it with our quality journalism. On social networks we are working to increase reader engagement in order to make them key players in the debate on our content.

He sounds remarkably like The Guardian’s own editor, Alan Rusbridger, telling an American interviewer that

We are putting our commentators in the same space as all our readers and letting them fight it out. … [R]eally, in this community of Guardian readers, there are a lot of intelligent, well-versed people actually traveling. So let’s open it up to them.

But those are just words, mere sentiments, at present. Until they are offered a financial stake and the possibility, some day, of sharing in any profits, those readers contributing comments and reporting to ‘opened up’ papers are simply supplying unpaid labour. Not, in our view, an operating scheme with much of a future.

When will some newspaper like La Stampa or The Guardian test the idea of sharing ownership and decision-making on a strictly experimental section of its site – as this blog has suggested before, more than once? They might take a cue from the adventurous ‘skunk works’ at the Harvard Business School testing online education.

One European interviewed by the London newspaper about the digital future, Stefan Niggemeier – an ex-Spiegel staffer who has worked both as an editor and publishing innovator — is part of a group of twenty-five German investigative journalists playing with financial schemes that do not rely on advertising: ‘We want to see if there’s a way of establishing a non-advertising-based model. Whether it will work, I don’t know, but I know it’s right to try it, even if it fails.’

Rusbridger is sixty. Niggemeier and Calabresi are both in their mid-forties. Even they might not be young enough to translate proposals and hypotheses into media’s clicking and whirring fully operational future.