Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on virtually equal terms - Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on nearly equal terms
– Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

It is the next stage in the rolling out of The Guardian’s new ‘paid membership’ scheme for readers and commenters that we want to see. This was the summary of the plan by The Financial Times last week — unaccompanied, as far as we know, by any comment or analysis, so far:

The Guardian has launched a paid membership scheme, as it seeks to narrow operating losses that reached £33.8m last year.

The newspaper, which has resisted charging for access to its online content, will offer readers access to events and a new purpose-built venue near London’s King’s Cross.

Top-level members, known as patrons, will be charged £60 per month and will also have access to tours of the Guardian’s newsroom and print site. Mid-tier “partners” will pay £15 per month, while non-paying “friends” will also be able to book tickets to events.

The Guardian has no pressing need for profitability, with £842.7m in cash as of March, after selling its stake in car magazine Auto Trader.

We hope that there is more to this idea than supplying forms of theatre – either professional entertainment, or the thrilling chance to watch genuine Guardian journalists and editors tapping at their computers. We resist cynicism, at post-Gutenberg. Yet the reminder that came instantly to mind was of the ancient ruses in Europe for diverting the populace from noticing social inequality – known as ‘bread and circuses’. This was an accusation also levelled at the splendid Medici family, at the pinnacle of its wealth and power in Florence during Italy’s Renaissance:

… The days of adventitious sharing in the noise and warmth within an open palace door and a hand-out of the leavings were over; the populace was firmly excluded from the pleasures of the rich.

A similar withdrawal took place with publicly organized occasions of holiday mood. Bread and circuses: Lorenzo de’ Medici was accused of soliciting in the 1470s and 1480s the support of those excluded from a voice in government by lavish public entertainments: tournaments, street pageants. … In a republic that had been subtly manipulated into a narrow oligarchy it was natural … for opponents of this tendency to remember with alarm how the emperors who subverted the republican constitution of ancient Rome had employed gladiatorial and wild beast combats to occupy simple minds. A century after Lorenzo, however, with the rising price of bread and popular insurgency that rose with it, the issue of diversion was seen in terms of practical contemporary politics. ‘Because the common people are unstable and long for novelty, wrote Giovanni Botero in 1589 in his Reason of State, ‘they will seek it out for themselves, changing even their government, and their rulers if their prince does not provide some kind of diversion for them.’

The Civilization of Europe at the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Bread-and-circuses is surely not what Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, has had in mind, in his speeches and interviews about the ‘mutualisation’ of journalism. This is what he said on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, in replying to a British commenter on a blog post about turning readers into paying members as an economic survival model for media organisations (part of their exchange):

Han Gough

It’s certainly interesting. And I’d be happy to support the Guardian. But I can’t for the life of me work out what benefits I would gain from membership. I live in a university town in the south west of England and there are no events scheduled in a 300 mile vicinity! And that building looks nice but I’m never going to get to use it. To be a Guardian “member” must one live in Islington???

I feel that the Guardian’s values, and it’s history as the Manchester Guardian, have been somewhat lost in translation. […]

alan rusbridger •

Han, this is a beta launch of something that will become more interesting in a few months and still more interesting once the Midlands Goods Shed is up and running. We haven’t forgotten the rest of the country (or the rest of the world) and will announce further and better plans. This is just the initial announcement…. a *very* soft launch. And thanks for kind words about the Guardian.

Han Gough •

Wow. Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t expecting that. I only posted here because there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to comment.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. And I can see how it would be really exciting if I lived in central London. But £15/month is quite a lot of money. […]. And even if you did put on an event at some point in Exeter (which is where I am), will you ever manage to put on £15-worth of events every month?

Also one of the reasons I like and read the Guardian is for its socially progressive values but this feels regressive at first sight. It’s providing opportunities for an already privileged segment of people: those who are cash-rich and live in London. That’s what I meant when I said it seemed out of step with the spirit of the Manchester Guardian. I can really understand why the Scots have had enough. It is this mentality that London and the south east of England gets the lion’s share and the rest of us roll over and pay for it. […] Thanks again for your reply.

The reason why Han Gough living in Exeter, in England, had to go to a site owned by an American university to react to the Guardian scheme is because that newspaper did not allow public comment on it. A box beneath the notice about it on The Guardian’s site invited readers to submit feedback on a form whisked invisibly into the paper’s mysterious innards. Ah so!

What would be better – much better – than what we have seen, so far, of The Guardian’s plan? Strangely enough, it was from the comments section of that Nieman site at Harvard that someone outstandingly practical contacted post-Gutenberg with the answer, three years ago. This is how our report about this most helpful encounter began:

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to 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. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral. …

[ continues here: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …‘ … ]

Also see:

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

 

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

Panda drummer: who can speak?

Blindly they saw themselves and deaf they heard —

But who can speak of this?

        –Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, 12th c.  A.D.

                 Persian trans. by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi, 1984

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to 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. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral.

‘I tried an experiment along the lines of the one you are proposing,’ my correspondent continued. ‘It was a tremendous success … as far as it went.’

I shall call this correspondent ‘A’, as he does not want more recognition for what he did than his fellow-experimenters. The link to wallets and handbags for their plan was so clear that it had venture capitalists salivating. The idea was to monetise a publication and online forum on building for professionals and amateurs – an offshoot of the Journal of Light Construction (JLC), a magazine now 24 years old that is also the marquee name for a popular trade show. You can tell that it is thoroughly up-to-the-minute from the table of contents, where the offerings can range from ‘Pouring Complicated Slab Foundations’ to ‘Promoting Yourself With YouTube’.

The Journal of Light Construction

The forum on the magazine’s website is divided by specialisations. Each section has its own moderator – and in an innovation I have seen nowhere else, the specialist’s name is posted prominently beside the category. When the combined on- and off-line components of JLC were on their way to becoming a publicly traded company roughly ten years ago, ‘A’ and his confederates introduced the possibility of making JLC’s contributors and employees co-owners. I do not yet know whether readers would also have been invited to become stakeholders. If ‘A’ sheds any light on that question after he reads this, I will include what he says here with any other details of the adventure and corrections of this account.

For the moment, it is enough to say that the idea of co-ownership so appalled the lead investment banker working on the public offering that the whole plan was scuppered. The points ‘A’ most wanted to impress on me were these:

Ownership can be transferred at any time. The trick is to have something worth transferring first. … There could be NGO funding possibilities from which a larger community trust with cooperative member ownership could emerge…

And that, strangely enough, is very close to the proposal for a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’.  A publishing enterprise with a thriving community of reader-commenters could easily progress to sharing ownership of the commenting sites where readers already supply most of what there is to read or watch.

It would ask that many newspapers make just one more leap forward after this change announced by the New York Times last week, but already in place for some time on other digital news sites:

We have started using an improved comment section. It will put readers’ responses on the same page as the article, provide threading of comments so readers can respond directly to one another, and allow them to share their comments and those of others, to Twitter and Facebook.

To understand why readers want more than that, I recommend an excellent paper, ‘Gutenberg and the social media revolution,’ by a new media consultant, Richard Stacy**, which puts all these developments in their historical context, then offers a clear-sighted vision of the way ahead. Serendipity led me to it last week, when it came up with some Google links to my own site. His conclusion:

It is unlikely that power and influence in the world that is now forming will lie in the control of channel.  Instead it will be vested in forms of community, which will have a tendency to exclude any forms of institutional interference, control or ownership.

He also said,

It is not that people are going to reject institutionalised trust, but the task of sustaining institutionalised trust is going to become much harder in the world of transparency brought about by social media.

I would welcome anything that reversed my own fast-diminishing trust in mainstream, 21st-century journalism’s ability to live up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate – of which the highest are impartiality and rigorous self-scrutiny. To my dismay, most of  the British media – not just the tabloids – have failed to report every important criticism of the media made in the hearings for the Leveson Inquiry, except for the sensational details of the phone hacking scandal.

Giving evidence last week, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s political adviser and communications director – that is, chief ‘spin doctor’ – did draw attention to some problems of the very greatest importance:

The. principle of the freedom of the press is always worth fighting for. The quality of that freedom however is questionable when the quality of so much journalism is so low, and when so few people — just a handful of men until now seemingly unaccountable to anyone but themselves and to anything but their own commercial and political interests – have so much say over the tone and nature of public discourse, and so much responsibility for the decline in standards. It is also worth fighting therefore – politicians, journalists and public alike – to change the press we have.

What he said before that at considerable length – about the collapse in standards – was not addressed in any press report of the Inquiry I have seen.  A former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, said in his 2002 memoir about his career that it is the job of a political press officer ‘to act as a purveyor of half-truths to the nation’s journalists, but it is the business of the journalists to seek out the missing 50%.’

At least half of what Alastair Campbell said is true and his critique deserves intense scrutiny and wide discussion by the press – in public. It dovetailed perfectly with the testimony in the same week by Nick Davies, the freelance writer for The Guardian who broke the phone hacking story and pursued it with ferocious determination. He said unequivocally that the press can no longer be trusted to regulate itself.

Is a thorough airing of such opinions possible with today’s media ownership structure? Is it possible when the authority to disseminate the information people need in a democracy — to make decisions for the common good — is concentrated in so few hands?

Surely we need a new ‘business model’ – of which the keirestu-cooperative could be a very rough first draft – not just to accommodate readers in their wish to share the stage, but to protect our form of government?

______________________________________________________

** who has already posted a magnificent response to this piece on his own site. I shall be replying in next week’s blog entry – underlining some of his points and clarifying aspects of the keiretsu-cooperative that have been imperfectly transmitted (mea culpa). I will put that up sooner than next Tuesday if I can interrupt what I am writing off-line.