A reply to Richard Stacy: the keiretsu-cooperative is at the opposite pole from a ‘walled garden’

A keiretsu-cooperative for Santas? Despite the mist, they were travelling too fast to ask

Since I posted this entry, Richard Stacy has written ‘A Futher Reply …’ well worth reading, and I have responded in his comments section, also explaining why post-gutenberg.com is unfortunately not open for commenting.


I have enjoyed thinking about your answer. It has been impossible to discard this idea for a keiretsu-cooperative because practical people – including, as I am about to explain, a young technologist working for Barack Obama  – keep telling me that it could just work.

First and quickly, some clarifications: the keiretsu-cooperative would let large conventional publishers collaborate to share the costs of setting up — or extending — a publishing and discussion site designed to attract the indie writers we call bloggers. To enlist the help of these bloggers and make the site a success, the large publishers would allow each of them to acquire a small financial stake. The stake could take the form of a subscription to the site. No one would be excluded from reading or looking at the site’s contents, so it would not be what you called, in the first, fast, version of your reply, ‘a walled garden.’ I mention this because it is a misconception that keeps cropping up elsewhere, but what I have in mind is at the other pole. Stakeholders would have just two important advantages over those who chose not to subscribe: (i) chances to participate in the management of the site and vote on decisions affecting it; (ii) a share of any future profits. You might not agree, but I do not see any of this as inconsistent with your vision of media being transformed from a collection of rigid and exclusive institutions to a process – since the keiretsu-cooperative would be flexible, mutable and inclusive, with porous boundaries.

Publishers could test co-ownership inexpensively by running an experiment in a comments section of an existing site.

It was never my ambition to be a designer of futuristic structures for publishing. This proposal for ways of injecting ‘plurality’ into the ownership of publishing simply grew out of observing for five years how much commenters contributing posts to a ‘liberal’ newspaper resented being censored — not for obscene or rude remarks, but for challenging in civil tones the paper’s vested interests, both the political and commercial varieties.

I wondered, when did we ever give newspapers the right to tell us what thoughts were acceptable? I found myself reading widely about the start of the social revolutions we know as the Renaissance, for which the newly-invented Gutenberg press acted as a fulcrum. My most startling discovery was that censorship was practically invented with printing. Of course that seemed obvious after a few moments’ reflection, but what it underlined, for me, was the extent to which control of the levers of mass communication – or what we call the media – can undermine democracy, even in societies proud of their tradition of licensing free speech.

Then I considered another question: what arrangement for running media could best accommodate a democracy’s need to give people the facts they must have to vote wisely?

I was pleased to find your paper for proof that someone in the business world has also been reflecting on today’s crisis in publishing with history for a lens. From a realm far removed from mine, you reached the identical conclusion: that today’s leaders in traditional media are failing to understand that ‘[P]ower and influence in the world that is now forming […] will have a tendency to exclude any forms of institutional interference, control or ownership.’

Another new media consultant, like you, surprised me by instantly grasping the logic of the keiretsu-cooperative. Anil Dash, a 36 year-old technocrat entrusted by the White House with leading Expert Labs – a non-commercial organisation helping Barack Obama to democratise governing by exploring ways of using digital tools to let citizens assist the government with their expertise – sent this reaction to the scheme:

This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, since I’ve worked at a newspaper and helped making new publishing platforms online.


I have had far too many years in the trenches with the cynics and the naysayers and the slowly-failing publishers. But what I *love* about the idea is that it’s new, and provocative, and not the same old proposals we hear bandied about all the time.

A lot of the dialogue is dominated by the legacy issues of older publishers, and that makes it hard to propose relatively radical new ideas.

I think you accurately capture the motivations of all the parties involved, and I share your optimism that various parties would want to pay for participation.

He did have one reservation:

[W]here I struggle a bit … is in seeing an iterative path that gets us to this eventual keiretsu. I am not sure if we can make incremental steps, or if we have to start with this radical new point all at once, but I do think the former is a lot easier to get funded than the latter.

I do hope you’ll pursue this, though.

In last week’s entry in this blog, I mentioned that I was waiting to hear from another correspondent, ‘A’. I wanted to know whether it was ever part of his collaborative publishing plan to offer readers (not just editorial staff, early investors and managers) the opportunity to become stakeholders in the thriving specialist magazine, The Journal of Light Construction (JLC), that he developed with a few partners – and which has at the heart of its online site a lively forum for exchanging technical information. His reply said, in part:

The “readers” (more on that in a moment) of JLC were going to be the primary people offered ownership of the company (remember my mention of a DPO [direct public offering]?). After all, the company was really little more than a pot into which all of them had tossed their experience, know-how and money. How could it not be theirs to own?

Regarding the “readers” thing…this seems to be the biggest intellectual hurdle the old-media, Gutenberg folks have to overcome. Print, TV and most radio are a one-way, I’ll-give-you-what-I-want-to-give-you-when-I-want-to-give-it-to-you street, when the “customer’s” (more on that in a moment) need is to-have-what-I-want-when-I-want-it. From a business perspective you will note the potentially irresolvable dichotomy between media’s mission statement and that form of practice.


Regarding the “customers” thing, see the paragraph above…and note that the internet is a two-way street. The one-way signs no longer apply. Just as its advent revealed print in that realm is dead, so is “the customer.” There’s a community on that block, and they’re all in it together. So remember, look both ways before crossing.

No sooner had I digested that than an announcement from Amazon.com popped up in my email inbox. It was about Kindle Select, a new addition to its Kindle Direct Publishing enterprise for independent writers of e-books:

We’re excited to introduce KDP Select – a new option dedicated to KDP authors and publishers worldwide, featuring a fund of $500,000 in December 2011 and at least $6 million in total for 2012!  KDP Select gives you a new way to earn royalties, reach a broader audience, and use a new set of promotional tools.

Here’s how KDP Select works:

When you make any of your titles exclusive to the Kindle Store for at least 90 days, those with US rights will automatically be included in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and can earn a share of a monthly fund.  The monthly fund for December 2011 is $500,000 and will total at least $6 million in 2012.


How your share of the monthly fund is calculated:

Your share of the monthly fund is based on your enrolled titles’ share of the total number of borrows across all participating KDP titles in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

This is a very different proposition from the keiretsu-cooperative, but the schemes do overlap in giving writers a financial incentive – by way of micropayments – to participate in a type of collaborative publishing experiment. I am still making up my mind about the attractiveness of Select. Though I am on record as a fan of Kindle Direct Publishing, I do not like Amazon’s requirement that writers who join this new scheme give it exclusive rights, even for 90 days. I would be more attracted by a plan that gave writers some say in the running of Kindle Select. Amazon also tends to be stingy with information about how it manages its e-book publishing – refusing, for instance, to explain its system for ranking e-books in various categories.

I think you would agree, Richard, that plurality, transparency and accountability are the forces we want to see shaping publishing in the future.

But at least this news from the book retailing giant is proof of its continuing willingness to stick its neck out for a bold experiment. Google also experiments endlessly – promptly euthanising ideas that prove to be duds.

New media specialists like these do understand that adventurousness is the key to success. Old media institutions, as you point out, only feel safe making small, incremental changes. You and ‘A’ could easily be singing in two-part harmony on this point:

Alan Rusbridger at The Guardian has talked about involving “Our Readers” in producing “Our Product”.  The problem is that news is no longer Alan’s product – it belongs to the people (he likes to call) readers and it doesn’t really live in fixed places (websites, newspapers) anymore, it lives in digital spaces (Google search terms).

As the oldies are more inclined to trust leaders in tangible, bricks-and-mortar businesses, they could do worse than consider the innovative appliance king, James Dyson. He was told by every vacuum cleaner manufacturer under the sun that his ‘business model’ for selling a dirt sucker without a dirt-collecting bag was unworkable – even if such a product could ever be designed and made to work. He and his engineers discarded thousands of prototypes on their way to success …  of which I am now a sub-microscopic beneficiary. Last year, the 25 year-old Electrolux in my house was replaced by a yellow-and-purple Dyson with a look of R2D2 about it. It works like – yes, the dream with which James Dyson began.

I think it’s too soon to conclude, as you suggest, that ‘media may be becoming something that can’t actually be owned in a way which allows any form of monetary benefit’. If you mean, owned by a privileged few, or moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, I agree, but not if you mean, shared by a large, loosely affiliated group of citizens. How could you, or any of us, know? There simply have not been any experiments exactly like, or closely resembling, the keiretsu-cooperative – so far.

Here is a song I suggest that old media types might try singing together at their meetings about surviving the future (with apologies to Cole Porter):

Make it your motto day and night …

Experiment and you’ll see. 

P.S. I almost forgot to say — by my definition, you are a blogger, just as you are a writer, in a part of your life – since I think of a blogger as being anyone who publishes unmediated texts on the internet, including comments on newspaper and other sites. ‘A rose by any other name,’ etc..

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.