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Monday, 29 April 2013

Thinking about the media at the edge of the earth

This is where I live; Silicon Beach, anyone? A regional centre populated by retirees - the men all dressed in their neat uniform of polo shirt, shorts, socks and athletic shoes - and a constant stream of cashed-up tourists who flock to restaurants and cafes dotted around the villages that form the area's commercial hubs. I'm a big-city would-be entrepreneur in a laid-back town, and I can't leave because I'm caring for my elderly mother. I stopped pitching stories to magazines mid-2012 because of those responsibilities and also because the financial return of freelancing was so restricted. But I don't stop thinking.

It's hard though to do what I call "building capacity": sharing ideas, generating interest, testing concepts with informed people, bringing people on-board to participate, and to contribute their skills, knowledge and time. A media business depends on ideas, which cannot be copyrighted. And people who might be able to participate via remote connection - email, Skype, plain old telephone - are usually loathe to enter into a non-disclosure agreement. So you sit on the emails and wait. There is an entrepreneur's centre just down the road near the university and you've sent in your application for membership - which comes with valuable perks such as mentoring, and possible access to people working or studying in various departments at the university - and wait for them to get back to you. They have to push the application through the board approval process.

Meanwhile, New York and Silicon Valley form the twin poles of the new-media universe but those places are so far away. People are doing things. Ideas come to fruition and websites appear. But your ideas remain suspended within the grey matter between your ears. You can't test them because there's noone around you to talk with about them. You can't talk about them because you worry that your ideas will be appropriated by someone else. Catch 22.

The big question for people who are looking at the future of the media is revenue, but I think that even more important issues are how to drive the public agenda and how to form trust in the media within the public, trust that has been eroded over time. For example, there's a privately-funded, non-profit website here that started out promising to deliver strong, longform journalism outside the 24-hour news cycle, but after a change of editor and a redesign the signs are that they now want to slot into the ongoing debate, and deliver stories that fit with what's happening elsewhere. The promise of strong longform journalism has fragmented as the website relies more and more on low-cost in-house writers, and fewer new ideas from freelancers appear on the home page. In short, they ran out of steam because of low pageviews, got scared, and decided to go for the short-term uptick rather than betting on establishing a unique brand proposition long-term. As a result they have lost their profile, and are just "chasing the dragon", as the Chinese say: steering with their eyes fixed on the road just in front of the vehicle, instead of fixed on a point further down the highway.

What is "elsewhere"? It's where the life is draining out of the business although that mainstream continues to set the pace and mark the boundaries of debate. One outlier, part of a private company that runs several media websites, runs strong stories but they're mainly informed commentary on stories happening in the mastheads of the Big Two: News Ltd and Fairfax. But it's the only viable alternative. For the Big Two, the tempo stays the same - there are just as many stories as ever - as they move toward raising revenue via paywalls, but overall the quantum of effort in the media environment is shifting to well-funded public relations at the expense of in-depth public-interest journalism. Public confidence in the media is eroded, but the Big Two can't slow down or else they'll lose clicks, so they just keep on doing what they've always done.

Paywalls are a danger to journalism because they can keep you out of the debate; the community shares what's free and available, and they do this enthusiastically and with passion. Proof of the relevance of social media is that News Ltd has decided to move away from a solid paywall to a metred model, for its flagship masthead, the Australian. Editors want revenues but they fear exclusion from the ongoing debate; Twitter matters. But despite a few forays into podcasts by News Ltd the primary product is still the flat news story; there is no experimentation occurring into new ways of engaging the audience through innovative use of software: you click on a story and you read it. You might comment, but that's it.

And there's only one option for payment: a monthly subscription. What about if there was a different structure for the content? You could envision a pyramid structure with part of the content for a story available free-of-charge - this can be shared online - and more in-depth items available for a fee. And you could move beyond the flat story, too. For example, you might offer a podcast video free at the top of the pyramid, with a story readable for a fee and then, lower down the pyramid, transcripts of the source material that can be read by people willing to pay more for more context. Interview transcripts can run to thousands of words and you might have three or four interviews for one 1000-word story. Would people be willing to pay for that? I'd like to find out.

In addition to a straight monthly subscription fee you could offer the option of a per-story charge: a micropayment. You could also give people the ability to maintain a digital wallet on your website, one that can be recharged periodically using a credit card or PayPal. Many people may not see value in a $15-per-month ongoing subscription - they don't like to see a debit on their account if they have not visited your website recently, and anyway it's a hassle to keep track of all those rolling charges - but could be willing to pay $2 for a story or $4 for the story plus access to the source material.

Driving the agenda and maintaining public trust are the big challenges for any media startup; see the success of tiny InsideClimate winning a Pulitzer. But there has to be a motivation to monetise the content that is made available; the community has to change its attitude to the media, and start paying for what it consumes. A website that positively encourages sharing and participation by the community, and that delivers strong, well-resourced material for a reasonable fee is the only kind of media model that can reach critical mass, adequately fund itself, and survive public scrutiny intact.

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