There are some who believe that if major media outlets can reinstate a paid model for online content, there will be a reversal in the market for skilled journalists—in essence, returning to a subscription or subsidized model for news will provide revenue to publishers, who will hire quality writers and editors once again, and pay them.
But that seems unlkely. In 2009, Gary Kamiya contemplated this exact problem in Salon:
If reporting vanishes, the world will get darker and uglier. Subsidizing newspapers may be the only answer . . .
But the story is more complicated than that. At the same time that newspapers are dying, blogging and “unofficial” types of journalism continue to expand, grow more sophisticated and take over some (but not all) of the reportorial functions once performed by newspapers. New technologies provide an infinitely more robust feed of raw data to the public, along with the accompanying range of filtering, interpreting and commenting mechanisms that the Internet excels in generating.
Journalists and newspapers have never lacked for opportunities to embrace new media technologies. So, what happened to their model? As early as 1999, Scott Rosenberg, also writing for Salon, prophesized in a piece entitled “Fear of Links“:
While professional journalists turn up their noses, weblog pioneers invent a new, personal way to organize the Web’s chaos.
Were the newspapers not listening? Or were they sufficiently blinded by their own traditions and cultures that they could not take the best emerging technologies and ineffectively struggled to retrofit innovation into traditional containers?
Are we suffering from the same myopia?
Publishing institutions face challenges — trying to overcome infrastructure obstacles and established thought patterns to embrace new ways of thinking about content creation and scholarship. Even a progressive publishing house will find re-tooling to be expensive, painful, and slow.
Companies that don’t have traditional models and structures have the benefit of having less infrastructure drag and can be agile enough to create niche businesses to zero in on market problems—sometimes solving them by irreverent means. They have the added “advantage” of not embracing romanticized traditions or struggling with crises of conscience when contemplating radical change.
If you’ve watched the progress of Demand Media, you’re aware that Demand has set their sights on building relationships with major media outlets to supplement the content that the newspapers—under extreme financial strain—are commissioning less and less themselves.
Demand’s process for creating and vetting content and for compensating writers is nightmarish for those who have made their livings as journalists, editors, and contributors. This month’s feature in Vanity Fair notes:
Demand pays roughly $15 for an original, well-written and researched 500-word article. That’s three cents per word, about one-tenth of what a writer would get from a frugal magazine or newspaper. Nevertheless, media professionals are signing up in droves . . .
According to an October 2009 article in Wired entitled, “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model,” the process driving content creation is almost entirely technologically based:
Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.
Are there radically innovative start-ups already moving in our industry? Take a look at SEED Media Group. SEED’s Research Blogging is an aggregated blog platform that provides free access and cross-searching of posts authored exclusively by scientists and scholars — who are also scholarly journal contributors. In an open-access environment, making pre-publication research discussion freely available is not necessarily problematic, provided that we can deal with the fact that it the material presented has not been peer-reviewed. What we lose in the review process, we make up for in terms of speed, availability, and our ability to customize results to our own interests.
The concept that free blogging by academics—not intermediated by a society or publisher—is suitable for our readership is a new one. And, it’s potentially disruptive. If embraced, will this content be additive or will it supplant the demand for something else?
If we allow that we are already seeing new models and new technologies from start-up companies in our own industry, is there room for a company like Demand Media to move in?
I think there is potential for commercial or non-profit companies with models like Demand Media’s in academic publishing. There are aggregated academic content platforms being developed (Google Scholar and others) that will, in future, be able to leverage enough student usage data to interpret content demand on the basis of clicks. From there, building a meta-community of academic authors and contributors is not a stretch, and assigning work dynamically on the basis of clicks is also within reach.
Is this a bad omen for our industry? Not necessarily. There are positive ways that scholarly publishers, libraries, and vendors can collaborate to leverage these sorts of opportunities. This may be a signal to us to watch closely, disencumber, and stake out new directions — from within our community.