Many news publishers have invested heavily in iPad apps during the last 12 months. Their strategy is to create a premium environment, removed from the chaos and clutter of the internet, where readers can settle down with their daily digital newspaper. In return, these readers will pay a small subscription fee that allows venerable mastheads to stay afloat, preserving quality journalism for the benefit of citizens and democracies everywhere.
But in the rush to find a business model that closely mirrors what existed before the disruptive explosion of online media, are these publishers missing a more fundamental change that demands an entirely different approach to news? Instead of creating apps to sell, should they be putting their content on Facebook for free?
Jeff Jarvis thinks so. I spent an hour with the prominent blogger and academic last week, discussing his new book Public Parts, which examines privacy, ‘publicness’ (his term) and the future of digital media. This post is focused on the parts of the interview that deal with journalism – I’ve written a second piece for the Nine News site that tackles privacy more generally.
Jarvis believes mainstream news organisations are too focused on making readers come to us. “It’s rather inconvenient and presumptuous of us,” he says. “We should go to them … and the Facebook model is where you go to them. I think we need to make our news like peanut butter – spreadable and embeddable. Why shouldn’t any one of your stories be embeddable on any blog or social site, but with business rules (that ensure) it goes attached with brands, ads and anything else?”
For Jarvis, the desire to set up behind a pay wall is antithetical to the nature of the social internet.
“I think it’s a natural human instinct to want to share. It’s how we connect with people. And that’s the insight that Mark Zuckerberg had. He does not think he’s changing human nature, he thinks he’s enabling human nature and I think he’s right, otherwise 750 million people wouldn’t be there sharing artefacts of their lives billions of times a day,” Jarvis says.
“From a practical perspective, from a news perspective, we want to be in a position to be shared. If we cut ourselves off behind walls we can’t be shared and that is clearly a problem.”
So what’s the alternative? Jarvis says it’s too early for anyone to say definitively what the future of news looks like – he compares the present with the period that directly followed the invention of the printing press, where the disruptive effects of a revolutionary technology were still being digested.
But he sees Facebook apps recently created by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and The Guardian as a step in the right direction. All three organisations now allow readers to view at least some of their news on Facebook – a type of home delivery for the digital age.
This gives Facebook an awful lot of power. All that data about your audience – what they love, what else they read, how old they are – belongs to Zuckerberg and his enormous, rapidly growing company. Sure, you can sell ads on the page and utilise that data, but Facebook can change the rules of the game any time it likes. If Facebook becomes THE platform for accessing information of all types, how will it use that power?
Jarvis says taking risks with the current business model are not only desirable but necessary.
“Our industry, with measurement filters and such, has aimed at getting as many people to us as possible. We sell gross, we sell mass. Well, that doesn’t work, so we’ve got to change the essential business model. But to do that, we might do things that hurt the present business model,” he says.
“For instance, with the Washington Post, Guardian and Wall Street Journal putting their news on Facebook – are they getting credit from the measurement companies for that? Somewhere along the way they needed to say, we’re not going to care, we’re going to do this. And Mark Zuckerberg is going to give you a chance to change how news is discovered. You don’t say no. You take that chance.”
Facebook aside, what other omens for news has Jarvis found while sifting through the entrails of social media? He points to the work of Andy Carvin at America’s National Public Radio, who used Twitter to find sources on the ground during the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Carvin’s tireless vetting of sources and information unearthed some of the most compelling images from these dramatic events. Carvin wasn’t on the ground himself but he was still acting as a journalist.
“When Egypt broke out, it wasn’t as though Andy Carvin and the NPR people said, ‘hey people, crowd-source your revolution, send us your photos’. No, [these people] were sharing what they were going through in their lives and they were doing so in public. The world didn’t need a journalist for that information to be shared.
“Andy added journalistic value to that. He vetted who was there, he debunked rumours, he got people to translate things. But he was not a gatekeeper. Neither did he write an article – his news came through a new flow … We can choose to view that as a threat, or we can see the opportunity in that. If you don’t need us to create every bit of information in the world and we can’t afford to do that anyway, we’re better off.”
It’s the idea of becoming a platform that seems to be at the centre of Jarvis’s thinking. How can news organisations move beyond being publishers and take on a form that mirrors the architecture of the internet itself? Rather than existing in one place, how can we exist in many places at once, while at the same time harnessing readers and involving them in creating news?
“Google is a platform, it lets you get in and out, but it also lets you put its stuff everywhere,” Jarvis says. “The number of people who use Google who don’t go to Google is huge. There’s a lesson there. Twitter is a platform and Facebook, to an extent, is a platform. So how could you be a platform for people to share their news wherever you are?”
Jarvis’s new book Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live was published on Thursday last week and is available from a variety of sources both physical and digital, most of which are listed on this page.
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