In theory, Press Freedom and the commercial markets should be fantastic partners on the Internet. These two forces are better because of each other than either one is alone.
It’s not always a healthy marriage, though.
The mutually beneficial dynamic that many collectivist and individualist forces have worked out together on the Internet today works more like a mutually exclusive dynamic between Press Freedom and commercial interests.
They often operate independently of each other when they could both benefit from investing in the partnership.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Traditionally, financial control of a newspaper in the hands of a wealthy individual, family or shareholders has supported newspapers very effectively and for a long time. This model has existed since the beginning of the business of journalism, and it has also allowed newcomers to enter the market and either support older businesses (Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post) or create new businesses (Pierre Omidyar’s New Look Media).
Yet the Internet is particularly good at distributing influence and democratizing voices in a very egalitarian way. The same can’t always be said about the platforms that operate on the Internet which sometimes have more hierarchical models, but the technology and user behaviors are capable of supporting independent media if the support model was applied well.
While a patriarch may protect Press Freedom, it comes with strings attached. There are better options.
Best friends forever
Of course, advertising is a working model. There’s a massive and very mature marketplace operating today, and both sides of the equation understand each other well.
Journalism and advertising are BFF’s on the Internet.
In fact, the traditional news outlets are getting smarter about making the advertising vehicles they offer mutually beneficial for the advertiser, the media owner, and the end-user alike. One of the best examples of that model playing out is GuardianWitness, a user contribution platform where the sponsor was a collaborator in the creation of the product.
However, advertisers are finding their customers through other channels, too. Everyone is a publisher on the Internet, including advertisers. And the wider selection of options across the media landscape means news organizations need to work a lot harder to retain those relationships.
While functionally serviceable, the Press Freedom and advertising relationship is mostly platonic. The Internet is capable of delivering much more value at scale than what’s happening today.
Taking back control
While the dotcom giants of Silicon Valley created new power structures and operating rules over the last several years, the incumbent media forces held their ground, watched and waited to see how big the opportunity would get. By moving slowly they eventually learned how to benefit from not playing by the rules.
Hiding your web site behind a paywall, for example, where Google can’t find you and also focusing the attention of your readers on a direct and explicit transactional relationship instead of syphoning them off Facebook is an interesting way to protect your revenues from going elsewhere. Afterall, the argument goes, readers should be paying for the quality journalism they are reading. It’s simple logic.
Simple answers aren’t going to solve the problem, though. As FT columnist John Grapper tweeted, “I find the argument that people ‘should’ pay for news as flawed as the claim that it ‘should’ be free”
Mathew Ingram is a journalist covering the media business at GigaOm. He suggests the paywall is too blunt and fails to respect the relationship the reader wants to have with the media. “The paywall is undifferentiated. It gets applied across everything the newspaper produces and forces people to pay whether they want to or not. On the other hand, with a subscription model like Andrew Sullivan’s [The Daily Dish] you know exactly what you’re getting. It comes down to the question, ‘Do your interests align with the creator?’ In that sense Andrew Sullivan’s is a very personalized paywall.”
The paywall business model may in fact define the value of the business to its readers, but it doesn’t value the impact of the story in the world. It protects the existence of the business first and foremost, a choice many newspapers have decided justifies the costs of being less accessible to the world’s media distribution channels.
Rather than joined up in a healthy and supportive partnership, one side is always subservient to the other side in these relationships, an unhealthy long term agreement regardless of which side thinks it is in control.
An open relationship
Newspapers can learn a lot from open publishing platforms which fuel mutually beneficial relationships between the producer, the host, advertisers and the consumer.
WordPress, for example, is host to over 75M blogs in the world today. It not only hosts web sites for free for anyone to use, but they actually license their software openly, too, the source code itself. Customers can make money using the tool however they want, and WordPress makes money by selling premium services around it. Everyone wins.
Similarly, Google developed a mutually beneficial model for serving users looking for things and things looking for users. Everyone benefits from the system they created in one way or another.
David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, an influential book from the Internet’s formative years about how it turns markets into conversations.
While he appreciates the role WordPress and Google play as enabling forces for free speech Weinberger doesn’t see a relationship at all between their enabling functions and the commercial models at those companies. “Google has an economic incentive to keep us happy and coming back, but their business model isn’t really related to Press Freedom.”
Instead, he believes that authoritative filters are required to achieve the effects of Press Freedom that we want in the world. “Filters inherently prefer some content over others. If filters direct us to what’s in the commercial interests of the businesses doing the filtering, we won’t get the benefits of freedom of the press even if we have freedom of the press.””
This difference is where Press Freedom and its more raw sibling, freedom of expression, begin to diverge.
Open platforms like WordPress and Google may in fact enable the practice of journalism and do so very effectively, but in the eyes of the law they are not the same as journalism organizations which are held to different standards. Until just this year there was a sizable market for “libel tourism“ in the UK where lawsuits could be filed by non-UK claimants against non-UK publishers for defamatory statements. And there are challenges in the US to protections for publishers via the Communications Decency Act which reduces liability for content posted by users.
Newspapers face additional costs as a result of the hands-on role they take in paying for, crafting and selecting individual articles. They have civic responsibilities to respect certain institutions, industry codes of conduct such as commitments to accuracy and privacy standards, political influences including prior restraint laws and regulatory bodies, and cultural expectations which vary from country to country.
The open content host or open distribution model can be too risky for the stable and nurturing relationship that Press Freedom seeks sometimes, but there are some interesting examples that begin to blend these two worlds and create mutually beneficial relationships that are worth watching closely, including Daily Kos, the New Jersey News Commons, and Global Voices, to name a few.
What’s mine is yours
There may yet be an answer in generative platforms, a more purely and intrinsically Internet-native model that leverages the natural give-and-take relationship the Internet fosters so effectively.
The ideal system would fuel growth by building value collectively as a result of serving the needs of the individual.
There are precedents in the form of multi-sided platforms (MSPs). The telcos, credit card companies and video game console makers were brilliant pioneers of this idea. Some of the early success stories on the Internet like eBay and more recently startups like AirBnb have developed very efficient Internet-native MSPs.
The idea is to create a place where many vendors provide services resulting in lots buyers in the market which in turn inspires more vendors to join up drawing in even more buyers. When it works it can snowball and develop into what is known on the Internet as Network Effects. These platforms generate value as more participants join and become active across the system.
A generative business model fueling the operational requirements of investigative journalism would be a powerful innovation indeed. With democratic commissioning on one side and self-serve licensing and open distribution on the other, the journalist could sit in the middle and manage their own relationship to multiple funding channels.
Notwithstanding Contributoria’s mission to support journalism in precisely this way, to date, a two-sided platform for journalism has yet to be applied at scale.
It’s not you, it’s me
The problem remains elusive today and has no single answer.
On one hand, some believe Press Freedom is sleepwalking into an arranged marriage on the Internet.
Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch suggests free speech on the Internet is on a collision course with history and will soon find the points of control on the digital media map will look a lot like their film, radio, broadcast and cable predecessors which are owned and controlled by a small number of very large and powerful corporations reinforced by legislation of their own design.
“History shows a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system. It is a progression so common as to seem inevitable, though it would hardly have seemed so at the dawn of any of the past century’s transformative technologies.”
Even with those very real challenges Wu is ultimately optimistic about the prospects for the Internet as a public space.
Ingram argues that we’re still in very early stages of the digital migration and that there is actually no problem here at all. “If you look back at early days of TV and radio, it was a trainwreck. Any journalism that did occur and have an impact was almost by accident rather than the rule. But now it has the potential to get even better than it already is because there are more possible models.”
News organizations are successfully finding financial support in many different forms from wealthy owners to special interests wanting to buy access to its readers to the readers themselves, often combinations of these and many other support mechanisms, too.
Is Press Freedom simultaneously losing its influence and increasing its financial options? Is that causal? When is that bad and when is that good?
Weinberger asks which attributes we care about protecting and what to do about them individually.
“Is it news that’s curated in order to enlighten us without terrible biases? News that includes items that will not merely reinforce our existing views, but that will disturb us? News that enough of us read that it can serve as a basis for discussion? News that encourages us to participate in the discussion itself (engaged not merely as readers)?”
While each attribute of Press Freedom may require a different kind of commercial partner, there is a commonly understood Internet-native way to address them.
Til death do us part
Of the many revolutionary developments the Internet has inspired the most important might be the recalibration of social good and self-interest as congruous forces.
Perhaps this union comes from way down at the deepest layers of the Internet’s protocols where give-and-take goes in both directions in a very literal sense. Perhaps it’s the limitless nature of the space we’re creating and a natural human desire to work together to shape it.
Whatever the reason we’ve become incredibly effective at using the Internet to barter, to share resources, and to collaborate on the creation of things. The result of this approach is that communities are benefiting as a whole as a direct result of fulfilling the needs of the individual.
The details of the relationship may be difficult to work through and require more compromise and sometimes even sacrifice than either side may prefer, but the right relationship is always worth fighting for even when times get tough.
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” - Friedrich Nietsche
Photo by InSapphoWeTrust