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media economy multimedia photography

Media disruption (2): news consumption today

Given the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile – the topic of the first article in this series – how and where do people get their news? If you are looking for the audience, where are they?

The primacy of the screen means media companies necessarily operate within the same digital space. Whereas newspapers, magazines, radio and television used to be defined by their distinct modes of distribution, their largest audiences are now online, and they all deliver news and information through a combination of audio, text, photographs, video, and infographics to their audiences. As a result, despite the continuing importance of established organisations on the web, there is no such thing as traditional media anymore.

In this new environment we have witnessed a shift from news and information consumed in fixed places at fixed times, to mobile news consumed at moments selected by the users. What persists in this new environment is a strong public interest in news and information. This conclusion from Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds:

The audience for good journalism is large. We may think modern culture has become celebrity obsessed at the expense of news, but international survey data indicate a strong appetite for domestic and international news among all age groups, and that people still like to read.

This is reinforced by the Reuters 2014 Digital News Report, which offers a global perspective through its survey of people in ten different countries. As they found, not less than two-thirds of people expressed an interest in news:
Interest-in-news-by-country

This is supported by detailed research from OfCom on News Consumption in the UK. While recent Pew research says “millennials” – the much maligned, allegedly narcissistic 18-34 generation in the US – trail their elders in interest about government and politics, an American Press Institute study shows they nonetheless have a strong desire for news broadly defined:
How-millenials-get-news

With the organisations formerly known as ‘newspapers,’ ‘radio’ and ‘television’ operating in the same digital space, it is no surprise that people are increasingly satisfying their desire for news online. In the US, 50% say the internet is their main source of national and international news. This is below television but far above newspapers and radio. For those aged between 18 and 49, the number using the internet rises and equals or surpasses television. In the UK, the number of users going online rose from 32% to 41% in 2013-14, with the number of 16-34 year old users climbing to 60%. Reuters ten-country survey confirms that online has become at least the second most important way of accessing news.

However, saying people get news online only tells us which platform or they use. It doesn’t say anything about their main sources, which is now being shaped by their devices (a point well made by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute, in this talk).

With are witnessing the rise of mobile, although, as noted in the first article of the series, ‘mobile’ does not necessarily mean ‘on the move’ or ‘in transit’ given the preponderance of home and office use. One consequence is that media organisations now find most of their readers/viewers are using touchscreen devices to reach them. Pew’s State of the [American] Media report revealed that “at the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers.”

The rise of mobile changes the way news is packaged, distributed, discovered, and consumed. They have extended both the number of touch points throughout the day, and meant that news is accessed constantly rather than according to the classic consumption curve of morning, lunch and dinner. Time spent on news sites during each session is a short 3-5 minutes, but as there are multiple sessions a day, the level of news consumption rises. And the more devices people own, the more news they consume.

Frequency-of-access-by-device

Smartphones and tablets drive use of news apps rather than the mobile web through browsers. The speed and efficiency of apps have lowered the threshold to news consumption by offering a one-touch route to a recognised source. Smartphone users reportedly spend 88% of their time online in apps – although a lot of time within apps involves redirects to the mobile web, and that a lot of app time is accounted for by the dominance of Facebook.

The convenience of apps means touchscreen users access fewer news sources, with 37% relying on a single news app each week. This may mean apps limit the disaggregation of news providers fuelled by the use of search engines and social networks. The Reuters Institute survey found that “that audiences consume the majority of their online news from familiar and trusted brands, but we can also see that they are using increasingly varied ways to find that content.”

There is a lot commentary about how we are in a “golden age” of video online as more and more companies produce video, driven in large part by the advertising revenue it can generate. Forecast to make up nearly 80% of global IP traffic by 2018, we might assume video is a prominent means for delivering news stories. In the UK, the number of people downloading or watching short video clips each week has risen from 21% in 2007 to to 39% in 2014 (although the question gave music and comedy clips, rather than news, as the examples). When the Reuters Institute asked for the ways in which people in their ten-country survey had consumed news, only 10-30% named video, with headline summaries and text predominant.

Type-of-online-news-content-accessed-by-country

The important Tow Center study Video Now investigated the production and consumption of news video in ten American organisations, and found that while their was considerable investment in the area, profits were non-existent because views were very modest. While there were occasional viral succeed, on average a single video on a ‘newspaper’ site got 500-1,000 views each, with brands like Mashable hoping for a minimum of 20,000 views per video.

This may not offer a true picture of the status of video, however. Singling out video versus text for news consumption in digital space is a problem. As Video Now concluded:

People consume news by subject, not by medium. Audiences don’t say “I want to watch news video.” They come for information on specific topics: Syria, Ukraine, Obamacare, sports.

This led to an obvious and important recommendation:

Video should be embedded with other content, inside a blogpost, next to a graphic. Videos posted with other media get more plays. Those left in segregated “video” sections get ignored.

That, of course, is the very definition of ‘multimedia’ in digital space. Whereas watching video would have once required users to go to a broadcast platform, they can now find it alongside other forms of information on any digital network or site.

Touchscreen devices are changing the levels and patterns of news consumption. Building on the majority interest in news, they increase consumption by offering unlimited access to information, principally through apps, at a time and place of the user’s choosing.

They also change the practices of news consumption, and reveal that “consumption” is a complex phenomena.

The web has given us an unprecedented capacity to measure audience consumption. Previously, news consumption was measured by the circulation of print publications. This recorded the number of units purchased, but could not reveal which stories within newspapers or magazines received the most views or the longest read. On the web, all this and more can be determined, yet the focus to date on traffic numbers determined by clicks has perpetuated the superficial assessment of circulation data.

The limits of our current metrics are exposed in an important study of the available research by Irene Costera Meijer and Tim Groot Kormelink. They went beyond the medium people use, or when they use it, to look at the different ways people engaged with the news. They identified 16 different news consumption practices:

Reading
Watching
Viewing
Listening
Checking
Snacking
Scanning
Monitoring
Searching
Clicking
Linking
Sharing
Liking
Recommending
Commenting
Voting [as on Reddit]

Many of thse apply to both print and digital, and a number of them – especially checking, snacking and scanning – do not necessitate a click. And as Paul Bradshaw says, this shows that “focused reading is not confined to any one medium, and that distracted forms of consumption popularly associated with smartphone use are equally typical of how people use television, radio or print. It’s not about the medium: it’s about the user.”

Producers now have to understand the complexity of user behaviour as they hunt for their audience – or the “people formerly known as the audience,” given their capacity to produce and interact themselves. But they should be reassured the audience for news and documentary is there and growing, enabled in large part by the screens that connect them to others via the internet.

In the third article in this series, I look at the effect social media has on the production and consumption of news

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Media disruption (1): The primacy of the screen and mobile

What are the key features of the media economy in 2015? And how do those features effect the work of visual storytellers?

Two years on from the publication of Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, I want to update – in a series of articles – some of the central findings of that research. That report was the summation of the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project, which was designed to review issues around, and map the global emergence of, multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism.

The research examined the transformation of the media economy so we could better understand how information is being produced, published, consumed, and funded. This is something I have been writing about since my five-part series on the revolutions in the media economy posted in 2009, and three posts on the new media landscape in 2011.

I believe understanding the nature and scale of the on-going disruption in the media economy is essential for anyone involved in documentary, news and non-fiction narratives. While I would argue the analysis in Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds, some things are now even more significant.

First, the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile.

World_media_consumption
[Source: Screen Fiends]

This year, for the first time, individuals around the world will spend more time online than with any other media platform. There are regional variations, some of this activity will take place concurrently, and given the rise of internet streaming the boundary between online and television is blurred. We have to recognise that internet access is unequally distributed (note the absence of Africa, where only one-quarter of the population use the internet, from the above data). But what is indisputable is that the screen has become the primary access point globally for information and entertainment.

Mobile-phone-screen-evolution
[Source: This Isn’t Happiness]

The primacy of the screen is closely tied to the growth in mobile devices. The 2 billion iOS and Android devices currently in use will soon grow to 3 billion, easily surpassing the 1.6 billion PC’s in existence. Mobile phone ownership has grown dramatically in all the world’s regions.

The smartphone – a touchscreen device with internet access – is becoming supreme. Smartphone ownership in the US has grown from 35% of adults in 2011 to 64% in 2014, and nearly three-quarters of American teenagers have smartphones. In the UK it is up from 30% in 2010 to 66% in 2014, and the level of smartphone penetration is similar in Western Europe. Global smartphone penetration shows wide regional variations, although growth is universal.

Times-and-screens
[Source: Paul Adams, Why ‘mobile first’ may already be outdated, Inside Intercom]

Mobile devices are not really mobile, at least in the conventional view that they are mostly glanced at when on the move. Yes, touchscreen devices – tablets and smartphones – are handheld and used outside the home, but two-thirds of people use them in both the home and beyond. In fact, they have become the way most of us regularly access the internet, accounting for nearly 60% of the time spent online in the UK.

Rather than regarding mobile devices as just a scaled down version of the internet, we should appreciate that each device is an entire internet platform that exceeds the browser version of the web available on PC’s. The smartphone is itself a social platform where apps are networked through contacts, images and notifications. And we know it has eaten the stand-alone camera, with the number of iPhones and Android devices exceeding the total of Japanese cameras ever sold.

This means “mobile” is the wrong frame of reference – it is not about the status of small devices, but the way in which information is produced, published and consumed via the screen. Indeed, the size of device is secondary. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, regards televisions as “just glass-panelled displays connected to the internet” rather than unique devices.

It has become a cultural cliche that smartphones are “ruining our lives” by making us distracted, isolated and stupid (humorously presented in these 27 cartoons). The ever growing number of US users have a different view, however, with the vast majority seeing them as “freeing, connecting, helpful.” This is part of their overwhelmingly positive view of the internet’s impact on society and their lives, with at least three-quarters saying it has been a good thing that improves their ability to learn things and be better informed. Nor do they complain of “information overload” – a majority of internet users (72%) enjoy having so much information at their fingertips, while just 26% find it overwhelming.

All this has important implications for thinking about how information is structured and stories presented. The audience is engaged, and “mobile” can no longer be a subset of digital experience. While some offerings will be for those with little time while in transit, overall the mobile experience for readers and viewers needs to be comprehensive as it might be the only touchpoint between you and your audience. This is especially so given the willingness of users to access immersive, long-form stories via their small screens – as in the case of serious 6,000 word BuzzFeed report that had half its views on mobile with people reading for 12-25 minutes.

People are consuming more media, and doing it principally through screens of various sizes connected to the internet. Other platforms like print will persist, but in new and more limited ways. This is the media infrastructure producers need to know and work with.

Next in this series…how the audience consumes news in the digital space

Categories
Featured media economy photography

Abundant photography: the misleading metaphor of the image flood

Erik Kessels Flickr photographs flood

“We’re exposed to an overload of images nowadays.”

That was the impetus behind Erik Kessel’s 2011 “Photography in Abundance” installation, in which he printed off 1 million pictures to illustrate the number of daily uploads to Flickr.

Kessels argues we confront a glut images on social media:

Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed. By printing all the images uploaded in a 24-hour period, I visualise the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences.

The metaphor of a flood of images drowning us all has become commonplace in photographic commentary, another of the many conventional wisdoms that shape how we understand contemporary image making and its challenges. This week has seen two more iterations.

Michael Kamber was quoted in a New York Times review of the new Associated Press book on the Vietnam War:

Today’s war photographers produce work “every bit as good as anything out of Vietnam…But when you put more stuff on the Internet, it competes with more stuff on the Internet.” Back then, he said, “great photographs had tremendous staying power: you didn’t have access to billions of photos.”

In a review of Jerome Delay’s working showing at this years Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, James Estrin wrote on Lens that:

His task is to take photographs that will make the viewer stop and look at them in a world that is flooded with more than a billion pictures every day.

Estrin’s invocation of the image flood is an especially interesting example of how this metaphor persists. Writing twelve months previously – also about the Perpignan festival – Estrin observed:

The prizewinners are applauded by their colleagues in the crowd who seem oblivious to the tsunami of vernacular photographs about to wash away everything in its path.

What makes Estrin’s 2013 reiteration of his 2012 point noteworthy is that John Edwin Mason wrote a detailed and sympathetic critique of Estrin’s 2012 claim (in which Mason linked to my previous 2011 post on this issue). Mason gently unpacked Estrin’s argument and by highlighting photography’s historical context drove a stake through the heart of the argument. But unlike a vampire, the flood metaphor lives on. Why?

60 seconds on internet - photo uploads

On the face of it, the metaphor of a contemporary image flood has a lot of evidence to support it. We’ve all seen the astounding numbers (from graphics like this one on an internet minute) used to capture the contemporary proliferation of photography:

  • Facebook’s billion users upload 300 million photographs daily, rising to 1-2 billion on holidays, meaning Facebook receives seven petabytes of image content monthly, and stores more than 220 billion photographs in total
  • Instagram has 100 million users who upload 27,800 photos per minute, meaning the site is now home to 5 billion pictures

The numbers seem irrefutable. Those for Facebook and Instagram come from the sites themselves, so we can assume they are credible. We can raise questions about the global total of photographs though. Estrin’s 2012 post links to a Visual News graphic on cell phone photography, which in turn references Jonathan Good’s 2011 post “How many photos have ever been taken” on the 1000memories blog. A close reading of that post, interesting though it is, shows the global total is based on a series of suppositions:

Digital cameras are now ubiquitous – it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos.

‘Estimated’…’if’…’would be’…not unreasonable claims, but assumptions and projections nonetheless. Overall I don’t doubt these claims point towards the general scale of global image production, but they are not quite the objective data they seem to be. More importantly, though, does this number of global images actually produce a flood?

The trouble with the flood metaphor is threefold. The first is that it renders image consumers as passive victims of a force of nature – we drown in the tsunami which against our will sweeps everything away. But image consumption is not a natural process. It involves a series of conscious decisions – to open the book, read/view the news site, watch television, subscribe to the Instagram feed, click on our friends Facebook albums, and so on. Like Mason, contra Kessels, I don’t see us drowning in other people’s personal representations to the exclusion of news and documentary images. As Mason wrote:

…there is no evidence – none – that people think that photos of sunsets and photos of body parts are equally important.  Quite the contrary, people wielding camera phones – people like you and me – have demonstrated time and again that they understand the difference between amusing their friends and recording something of significance.

For that reason I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the likes of Jerome Delay are competing for attention with the vast majority of Facebook uploads.

Secondly, focusing on the macro level – aggregating the global numbers of image on social media sites – hides the much smaller number of images per person. As one assessment concluded, “Roughly broken down into individual Facebook users, the numbers translate to…one picture uploaded every 3 days per Facebooker.” Similarly, the 1000memories calculation quoted above assumes 150 snaps per person per year. Viewed this way, the situation hardly seems overwhelming.

Finally we have the most important point about why the mantra of the image flood is misleading. While there are billions of photographs online, we do NOT actually have access to all of them all of the time. You have to decide to follow people on Instagram and then you have to decide to look. And Facebook is the most closed site on the internet – it’s a walled garden that makes sharing outside its borders difficult, and you cannot get to someone’s personal album if they don’t give you prior access. In other words, either you or a friend has to turn the spigot on the reservoir before pictures come your way, and when they do it’s more like a controlled stream than an endless flood. Having never encountered anyone other than a photographer or photography critic who fretted about the flood, I’d suggest the population at large – the people producing the bulk of the picture uploads – are largely undisturbed by this stream.

So why is this metaphor of the flood endlessly repeated in the face of counter arguments? In many ways it is either an alibi or code for larger issues. It is part of the contemporary manifestation of historic concerns about information overload. It signifies the tension between “amateurs” and professionals in the image economy. It gives a possible explanation for why photographs don’t have the power to change many think they once had. And it offers a possible account of why photojournalism seems to be perpetually in crisis.

Each of those issues deserves close attention because each comes with questionable assumptions as baggage. But we cannot deal with each specifically if we continue to repeat misleading metaphors that deserve to die. It is hard to drive a stake into something as fluid as the mantra of the image flood, but we really have to avoid its easy repetition if we are going to move understanding forward.

Photo credit 1: Copyright Erik Kessels/Gijs Van Den Berg/Caters News

Photo credit 2: Foxcrawl, VIDEO: 60 seconds on internet

Categories
media economy

Copy culture: What people actually think about file sharing

The revolutions in the media economy and the new media landscape are producing new dynamics in the circulation of digital files. To appreciate how image makers might function best in this new ecology, we need to learn from other areas, and music is one domain where some work has been done.

The American Assembly, affiliated with Columbia University in New York, has produced a study on Copy Culture in the US and Germanywhich “explores what Americans and Germans do with digital media, what they want to do, and how they reconcile their attitudes and values with different policies and proposals to enforce copyright online.”

Many discussions of these issues proceed in terms of assumptions and generalisations that often have little evidence to back them up. The great virtue of Copy Culture is it provides some hard data on what is actually happening in the new media economy, and that data paints a picture at odds with the oft-heard claims about a rampant and destructive “culture of free” on the web – symbolised in the graphic at the top of this post.

In both the US and Germany people like to share music, most of it bought legally. There are not huge differences in national attitudes, and the vast majority think it is reasonable to share with family and friends. Only small numbers (less than 20%) want to put files on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks for others to download. There are generational differences, but the numbers are a very long way from painting an anarchic picture of moral depravity.

When the American Assembly study looked at the composition of people’s music collections they found two things. First, that “‘copying from friends/family’ is comparable in scale and prevalence to ‘downloading for free’.” And it is worth remembering that much of the material copied from friends and family is legally purchased in the first place – it is similar in many ways to passing a book around once you have finished reading it.

Secondly, they found something that matches the conclusions of numerous other studies that have put illegal file sharing in perspective: “The biggest music pirates are also the biggest spenders on recorded music.” 

And as the study observed, “if absolute spending is the metric, then P2P users value music more highly than their non-P2P using, digital-collecting peers, not less. They’re better digital consumers.” So just because people share for free doesn’t mean they don’t value what they share. Appreciating how enhanced sharing leads to greater purchases – how the virtues of the web can be leveraged – is one of the most important things for anyone producing creative content in the new media economy.

One study, even a good one like Copy Culture, won’t end the debate on sharing in the internet economy. But it certainly casts a more sober and hopeful light on what people are actually doing and thinking.

 

Image credits: top graphic from Mot/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. The report graphics are from the American Assembly web site, at http://piracy.americanassembly.org/file-sharing-is-it-wrong/ and http://piracy.americanassembly.org/where-do-music-collections-come-from/

Categories
media economy multimedia

Paying for multimedia: MediaStorm’s Pay Per Story scheme

Few things remain more challenging, and require more experimentation, than finding a way to fund new visual stories. It has never been easy to sustain documentary work, but now we have a new development that is worth watching. MediaStorm have built an enviable reputation as the leading multimedia production studio, and their launch of “Pay Per Story” with the release of “A Shadow Remains” by Philip Toledano and “Rite of Passage” by Maggie Steber, is an important moment for this issue.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Brian Storm since we taught together for a week in China in 2008, and I’ve continued to benefit from his advice on projects and insights on the industry. I’ve visited MediaStorm a number of times, most recently in April, when I got a behind the scenes look at the player that powers PPS. For this post I checked a number of factual details with Brian this week while writing this post.

Here are a few thoughts on what MediaStorm is doing. In particular, I want to call attention to the need to frame our discussion of this development in a particular way if this is going to be a productive step.

Pay Per Story means you pay $1.99 to access feature length stories and support material, and that access is on-going, so it’s not pay per view. As is standard for MediaStorm, revenue is being shared 50:50 with the photographers whose stories are being produced. PPS is also being applied only to the new editorial work MediaStorm does, so access to client projects and workshop stories is not being monetized through individual payment. The player for the stories is HTML5 meaning it can be viewed on phones and tablets as well as computers, though whether it can be viewed on a device different from the one it was purchased on is not clear to me, and something I would still like to check, because ease of access and use is one of the key conditions for success. (Update: MediaStorm confirm that once purchased you can log in on other devices to view, which is an important feature).

In the PDN report on PPS, Brian noted that the majority of the 30 plus stories they have produced since 2005 have had million or more views. Because they are “non-perishable” – that is, they are not time specific, with sell by dates – it is possible that revenue from new stories will be accrued over a long period of time.

Given the vast investment MediaStorm makes in its stories, they would need to turn 10% of viewers into paying consumers to full cover the cost of production. That’s a very high proportion when you consider most media companies count it as a success if they turn 2-3% of their audience into payers.

This means we need a sense of perspective on this development. Pay Per Story is not a silver bullet strategy. It’s not a self-contained, all encompassing business model that’s going to right all that’s wrong with the editorial sector. And Brian seems sanguine about it being another source of revenue rather than immediately a replacement for the client work or training they undertake.

That said, in announcing the move, Brian was keen to highlight the wider implications of what they are doing:

…the reality is, no company or industry can sustain itself for long without producing a product for which people are willing to pay.

At MediaStorm we think it’s time for us, as content producers and publishers, to bring this conversation into the limelight. Frankly, our long-term survival as an industry depends on it.

We believe that our industry is in need of a sustainable business model that will allow us to continue to report and produce compelling stories. While Pay Per Story may not be the definitive answer, we believe that it can be a step to getting us there.

As one of the experiments that could really help, there is no doubt PPS is significant. But it’s more than a question of whether individuals will pay. I think Time overstated the case when they said the video player that makes PPS possible was a “game changer” – there are no single things that will by themselves change the game in my view – but licensing the rich functionality in the player, which effectively makes MediaStorm also a software company, is a major part of this development.

While many are wishing MediaStorm well, some of the immediate reaction to MediaStorm’s introduction of Pay Per Story has been quite silly. Many of the comments on PDN talked of the problems with paywalls. If we were talking about daily, general news – content that is dated within minutes if not seconds, and can be sourced from credible sources elsewhere – then the paywall analogy might be relevant. I’ve certainly been very sceptical of paywalls for organisations like The New York Times, even though I am a digital subscriber.

What MediaStorm is doing is not building a paywall. It’s offering unique stories, rich accounts with lasting value, to which people can purchase on-going access. From iTunes to Louis CK we have plenty of examples now to show that people are willing to pay for content they want and which can be accessed easily. Those instances are often dismissed by those who say they don’t scale easily for something like photojournalism and documentary, and that’s true in one sense.

However, it overlooks the lessons we can learn about how people value things in the digital world and are willing to pay and pay often. We are now witnessing photographers releasing book-like apps that cost much more than the MediaStorm stories, though I’m not aware of an analysis of their prospects. But if you want an example of an individual pay per story experiment that was quite successful, think about Nick Turpin’s 38 minute In-Sight film, which he sold via Distrify for two or three times the amount MediaStorm are charging, and which earnt him a not insignificant amount of money. What Nick had was a community who were interested in his work, and that is something, with an engaging social media strategy, MediaStorm have perfected too.

My one concern about the debate over PPS as it moves forward is we have to be careful about how it is framed, at least in so far as it allocates responsibility for success or failure. Maggie Steber wrote a tough response to some critics who obviously dismissed the idea of paying for her story. I can appreciate her frustration, but in the end if potential customers choose to behave in certain ways there is not much producers can do about it.

And the least productive thing is to turn any resistance into a moral rebuke. We might think people who readily pay three bucks for a coffee but bemoan $1.99 for a visual story are “mistaken and shortsighted.” In the end, however, it is the producers not the consumers who are responsible for getting people to part with their money. I think if the stories are engaging and easily accessed – as they are – then a paying clientele will be found. The issue will be the size of the paying community.

Finally, let’s not turn this into a debate over free versus paid, as though those two things are unrelated. MediaStorm is in part successful because they employed the idea of free to leverage the web over some years, building a great portfolio and an engaged community around their work. We have to work with the open dynamic of the web, not against it, and Pay Per Story is consistent with that logic by focusing on particular kinds of projects.

Let’s hope it succeeds within those terms, and whatever its course, MediaStorm keeps us posted about what it learns from the experience as it goes along.

 

Categories
media economy politics

Kony2012: networks, activism and community

In the short history of social media, Kony2012 is now the most viral video ever, having reached 100 million views inside six days. Its success has been quickly examined by media analysts and some of the early findings are fascinating for what they reveal about the spread of information in the new media economy.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project details (as I noted in my earlier post) how the spread of the video shows “that young adults and their elders at times have different news agendas and learn about news in different ways.”

SocialFlow undertook a data visualization (see above) of the first 5,000 Twitter users who posted the #Kony2012 hashtag. What the clustering of connections reveals is that the hashtag started trending on 1 March before the video was posted online, and the trend came from Birmingham, Alabama. SocialFlow reports:

This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios.

This fits with Elliot Ross’s assessment of Invisible Children as a missionary organisation coming out of the American Evangelical tradition.

This is the basis of SocialFlow’s analysis that a pre-existing network of activists was the driver for Kony2012’s success. Those activists were primed for the video’s release prior to its posting, and it was they who used their social media channels to bombard celebrities with mentions as a way of getting attention. This means that while celebrity retweets were important in fuelling the spread of Kony2012, the campaign did not begin with celebrity action.

The Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California has been studying Invisible Children’s campaign strategies for some time, revealing how they use transmedia storytelling to mobilise and train young activists. When the Kony video talks of an eight year campaign and shows young activists throughout, this is what it is referring to. All this leads Henry Jenkins of Civic Paths to write:

The Kony 2012 video did not “go viral”; rather, its circulation depended on the hundreds of thousands of young people who already felt connected to the organization and to this cause through their participation in school based clubs and grassroots campaigns over almost a decade. These young people were among the first to receive the video, pass it along through their social networks to their friends and classmates, and thus, start a process which ultimately got the attention of millions around the world.

The Kony video did not go viral in the sense of magically taking off just because it was placed on social media platforms or because it was championed by celebrities alone.

It went viral because there was a pre-existing network of activists, built up over years through Invisible Children’s media strategies, who used social media channels to spread it far and wide.

Above all else, it shows that in the many different contexts of the new media economy community is an essential concept for all. Far from simply being the poster child for a new generation of social media activism that overtakes and replaces more conventional campaign strategies, the Kony2012 campaign collapses boundary between new/old modes of activism.

Picture: [Data Viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention, 14 March 2012.

Categories
media economy photography politics

Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change

A week on from the “Kony 2012” video eruption, I want to take a step back and ask: what does this tells us about the media economy, what does it suggest about the state of activism, and how should we think about change in the face of global problems?

I’m not going to add much to the enormous volume of critical analysis on Invisible Children’s campaign. Whydev.org has a comprehensive readers digest of links, and posts from Unmuted, Michael Wilkerson and Alex de Waal detail what de Waal calls the “dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” I too see in the video. Ethan Zukerman has a great overview, Charlie Beckett offers a self-styled grumpy indictment, while the defence comes from Bridgette Bugay, Chris Blattmann and, of course, Invisible Children themselves. For me, the militarized vision of Invisible Children – both in terms of its red-shirted “army for peace” and its proposals for how to capture Joseph Kony – contains more than a whiff of the Machine Gun Preacher, and that’s not a recommendation.

That said, I want to move beyond the framework of ‘the video right or wrong’ and look at three important issues:

1. The media economy

The viral speed and spread of the Kony video has been incredible, and it underscores how “tastemakers, communities of participation and the unexpected” work together to promote a small number of videos on to the global cultural stage. Significantly, the length of any video is not a determinant of potential virality, meaning that the conventional wisdom about our allegedly shortened attention spans need to be seriously questioned.

The scale and quality of the critical response to the Kony video has also been momentous. If you spend time online you might take these things for granted, but the ease with which passionate and knowledgeable voices can now be heard is quite remarkable. In this case the access we now have to Ugandan journalists like Rosabell Kagumir is also a plus. While her video response has been viewed by ‘only’ 400,000 people, a fraction of tens of millions who have viewed the Kony video, that total nonetheless exceeds the daily circulation of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Our global media economy is now marked by networked relations of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media that make those categories meaningless, something manifested in the diverse range of sources curated by The Guardian’s Live Blog of the debate.

2: Contemporary activism

I’ve been irritated by how some critics dismiss the response of young people to the video:

In an otherwise powerful post, TMS Ruge let fly:

The click-activists, denied context and nuance, have spewed their ignorance all over the comments section in self-righteous indignation for all the world to see. They have whipped out their wallets and bought their very own Super Hero activist action kits. They have bombarded their friend’s Facebook wall with ignominious updates.

Ok, so the Borowitz tweet is a little bit funny. And of course it’s fine and correct to say that “Oprah and bracelets won’t solve the problem.” But let’s also think about what has happened and what these denunciations assume.

A personal account first. I was working at home last Monday. After I encountered the burst of attention about the Kony video in my social media stream, I went downstairs and found my teenage daughter, recently back from school, watching something on her smartphone. It was the Kony video, all 30 minutes of it. She found it because it was in her social media stream, it came to her via friends’ recommendations, and they were debating its content and meaning. In the end, scepticism meant they weren’t impressed by the action pack. It was a stunning moment where I observed at first hand the very phenomenon so many were beginning to comment on.

What those comments have too often missed is they way young viewers negotiated the meaning of what they were watching. They didn’t just swallow a party line. Their critical engagement was captured in this story of London teenagers’ reactions, as well as the comment from Jess on this post. The critics have complained the Kony video homogenizes and infantilizes the issue of the LRA. But some of those same critics have homogenized and infantilized viewers of the video. There is a sense the production is so slick there can be only one message received (except, of course, by urbane critics) and any response like passing it on is evidence of the victory of emotion over reason.

The viral success of the Kony video demonstrates you can get attention for distant stories, and that emotion and reason can work together. Getting attention is a complex business. Somebody has to be moved, and being moved means having compassion (so another nail in the coffin of ‘compassion fatigue’ as a collective socio-psychological syndrome). It involves making stories available in the social media stream (because in the new media economy that’s how many get their news), recipients accepting a recommendation, viewing some or all of the story, and making a decision to comment on it, or pass it on, or both.

We can obscure his complexity by repeating snide comments about “slacktivism,” but as Zeynap Tufekci writes this is

not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.

Isn’t that something that we want, people thinking and acting in ways they haven’t previously? Amazingly, some of the critical responses to the reception of the Kony video have derided the idea of “raising awareness” as “vapid” and “useless”. Of course I understand the limits of awareness when the video in question is flawed. But awareness is not simply the product of the video’s content; it is the end result of the video and the (unintended) debate it prompted. And even with a flawed video awareness can only be a problem in itself if you believe that people are just passive recipients rather than active viewers who contribute to and participate in the subsequent debate.

3. Change in the face of global problems

There is, without question, a big difference between the sort of activism generated by the Kony video and solving problems on the ground in distant locations. But I think this episode should prompt us to conduct a hard-headed analysis of a soul-searching question: what can we who are at a distance actually do in the face of global problems to change things?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to formulate a better understanding of what contribution, if any (dare I say it), photographers can make to global change. I’m a long way from knowing how to discuss this let alone having an answer, so I want to end with a few thoughts that demand more work. But we should begin by examining the conventional assumptions about how change is achieved.

The first observation is that if you have, like me, worked on campaigns and in practical politics, you quickly come to realise there is no place, no ground, where you can go to easily solve problems. There’s no magic room where some Wizard of Oz-like character is pulling the levers of power. If only it were that simple. Power exists in networks and relationships, and it’s not under anyone’s control. We are all, to differing degrees, at a distance from the problems, even if we suffer directly.

The second observation is that the standard approach to change assumes a set of linear, causal relations between information, knowledge and action. If someone provides information, you can know and action will result. That, of course, is the assumption at the heart of the Kony video, but significantly it’s also an assumption at the heart of critical responses to the Kony video. The critics think that if the information is wrong then poor action will result.

No one would argue against trying to seek the best information so as to make better understanding possible. But the linkage between that and desired outcomes is not clear. Social movements like those in the US promoting civil rights and women’s rights have seen decades of individual and collective action make imperfect progress, through a series of small, uneven steps that have culminated in unfinished advances. Nobody planned them at the beginning and at various points along the way few knew what the outcome would be. As they persevered there were competing strategies, violent and non-violent, people working within established social institutions as well as beyond them in cultural spaces, full time activists and (mostly) occasional participants. They deployed diverse tactics like writing, picturing, speaking, voting, protesting, and much more.

All this is to say when we think hard about pursuing change we should adopt a more humble approach to what we can do and how we can do it. We then have to insist upon the importance and urgency of doing something even when it seems limited and uncertain. In this context, symbolic action should not be underestimated. As Tufekci notes:

there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.

And the key word in that quote? May. There are no guarantees. Who knows what can come of something even if it seems insufficient?

So let’s understand that this episode shows the importance of social media in the structure of the news economy, as well as the supply of compassion that can drive attention amongst those who don’t use traditional media. And let’s not write off the actions or motives of those who made Kony2012 viral, even if we fervently wish it had been another video in another campaign.

Featured photo: Screenshot from Invisible Children page detailing their response to the critiques of Kony2012. The original photo is by Glenna Gordon, and she discusses the image and its use here and here

Categories
media economy

The struggle for the open web: putting ‘piracy’ in perspective

The struggle for the open web is going to be a big issue in 2012. Given the importance of the internet to creative producers, its something we should be paying a lot of attention to. And that means, first up, thinking about the implications of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently before the US Congress.

Commenting on issues surrounding creative content, copyright and piracy on the web is fraught with danger. All too often the battle lines are starkly drawn, issues are cast in black and white terms, and people fight their corner with passion. I’m always trying to question such simplistic frames, but my sympathies clearly lie with those favouring openness. If you’ve followed earlier posts (see them via the ‘media economy’ tag) you will appreciate that. At the same time, a fair reader of those writings over the last couple of years will know that I want creative producers to be paid for their work, and for that work to be protected by a system of copyright that works in the digital age. Which is hardly surprising, because as a writer and producer working largely freelance, I too need to pay the bills through my labour.

So what is SOPA? There is good background on the provisions on Wikipedia, in a Guardian explainer or CNET’s excellent FAQ. In many ways it recalls aspects of the UK’s 2010 Digital Economy Act, which I questioned at its inception. The essence of SOPA is that piracy is killing America’s creative industries, and foreign “rogue” web sites that allow or encourage illegal downloading would be targeted with a court order, which US internet service providers would have to enforce by preventing their US subscribers from accessing such sites. According to CNET, this “could require Internet providers to monitor customers’ traffic and block Web sites suspected of copyright infringement,” something that could involve deep packet inspection or DNS blocking. Given that these are the means authoritarian regimes use to censor the web, this has led to the provocative claim that SOPA will install the “Great American Firewall.” Whether or not that is fair, some consequences are deeply worrying. Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe has argued the act is unconstitutional because of its vague and sweeping provisions: “Conceivably, an entire website containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement.” If enacted, that provision would mean the blocking of Wikileaks and other currently legal sharing sites.

One of the things that troubles me about the drive for legislation like SOPA is the focus on piracy. I don’t doubt that unauthorised file sharing is a real issue and that we should find ways to limit it. What I doubt is that such downloading is “killing” the creative economy and that criminalising behaviour and restricting web access are the best means to combat it.

The language of the debate is part of the problem. In a fascinating doctoral study of legal metaphors and legacy mindsets, Stefan Lund has argued that even notions of “copy” and “theft” are ill-suited to the realities of the digital age. But if we don’t want to go that far, then consider the frame of a book such as Robert Levine’s Free Ride, which I’ve read over the holidays.[nbnote ]Robert Levine, Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back (London: The Bodley Head, 2011).[/nbnote] Levine writes of “the internet” as an agent that has “ransacked” traditional media. He believes the fight between creators and copyright infringers is one of the main reasons for the culture business’s problems. Indeed he claims that “the illegal availability of all kinds of content has undermined the legal market for it.”[nbnote ]These quotes are from the “About” and “Introduction” sections, but as I read the Kindle version of his book, there are no page numbers to reference. [/nbnote]

Really? The legal market for all creative content has been totally undermined? While illegal download charts show millions of copies of movies are being ‘pirated’, the most downloaded movies are often those doing best at the box office. And with box office revenues totalling $10 billion per year in America, there isn’t much evidence for the idea the legal market for films is gone for good. Add to that – to repeat a link provided in my previous post on leveraging the web – the TorrentFreak experiment that demonstrated the switch of all US BitTorrent users to Netflix would generate $60 million/year, far short of the billions said to be lost to piracy, and I think we need to put the apocalyptic claims about morally reprehensible individuals destroying the creative economy in perspective.

For a final thought, listen to the award-winning, best-selling author Neil Gaiman speak of how the open web benefited his sales, and turned him from a “grumpy” hater of ‘pirates’ to an advocate of sharing:

Gaiman asks his audiences how they found out about their favourite authors – the authors they now buy regularly – and 90% or more reveal it was through books being lent to them. In its logic, the sharing of books amongst friends and through book clubs is similar to the unauthorised downloading of digital files. But we never think of this long established form of off-line sharing as an activity that should be criminalised (imagine Congress proposing book club members face up to five years in prison for passing on a novel!). Far from being a reason for lost sales, Gaiman sees sharing as the precondition of increasing sales. “Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free,” he states.

I think Gaiman’s experience is worth more than Levine’s argument. Of course, someone will now pop up and try to limit the implications of Gaiman’s story by saying something like ‘it’s fine for an established author to say this, but what about emerging writers without his reputation?’ They might be right in so far as they are talking about scale – that Gaiman’s return from openness will be higher because of his prior reputation.

But they will be wrong in so far as they are talking about the logic. As Gaiman says, his experience revealed to him “what the web was doing.” That function applies to all of us regardless of previously established reputations, and can be used to help create that reputation. So, for me, the best approach is one that works with the inherent logic of the open web to achieve the desired outcome, rather than fighting against its feared consequences. Too often an over-reaching focus on ‘piracy’ makes the latter the priority, which means we don’t get on with the developing the former.

Featured photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr

Categories
media economy photography

Leveraging the web: how people are willing to pay for content

Will people pay for online content?

Here is a recent example, and a recent thought experiment, that gives us food for thought in the often fraught discussion of how people can leverage the benefits of the web (global access and ease of distribution at reduced cost) to generate income from creative content.

The example comes from the comedian Louis CK who asked:

If I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?

Louis CK has provided an admirably transparent account of his thinking and production process, revealing the costs, revenue and profit. His experiment has been analysed in detail by Mike Masnick of Techdirect in two interesting posts (here and here). In short, he broke even after just 12 hours, and is now in profit to the tune of $200,000 or more.

On the purchase, page Louis CK put a message directed at prospective purchasers:

I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without “corporate” restrictions.

So Louis CK’s experiment made it easy for ‘pirates’ to take his content for free, avoiding all payment. Perhaps some did, but more than 100,000 people paid. That’s a pretty decent demonstration of willingness.

Which brings me to the thought experiment. Piracy is regularly cited as a reason for declining revenue to creators, and some of the figures bandied around – in the tens of billions of dollars – are breathtaking. At TorrentFreak they speculated “what might happen if all US BitTorrent users made the switch to Netflix.”? In other words, if all US file sharers, who were paying producers nothing, suddenly stopped passing around films for free and became paid customers of the online video service Netflix, how much money would be raised?

The answer: $60 million. Not to be sneezed at for sure. But that’s small change when Hollywood takes in $10 billion in ticket revenue annually and a major star can personally command $20 million to appear in a major film. It’s some three hundred times less than the loss from piracy claimed by the industry’s lobby, the Motion Picture Association of America. And its equivalent to the MPPA’s annual budget.

Let’s be clear about one thing – making these points is NOT a defence of piracy. But we need to critically assess claims about the impact of piracy, not to mention factor in those findings that suggest ‘pirates’ actually spend far more on legally acquired content than the average consumer.

Is there a lesson from this for domains like photography and journalism? I think so. While people continue to tell pollsters they won’t pay for daily, general news online, clearly there are increasing examples of people being willing to pay online for quality content with lasting value, even if they can get a copy for free.

Leveraging the web to make such content available for purchase requires creative producers to shift their starting position. Too often I’ve heard people blame the plight of creative industries on the alleged moral failings of potential consumers or fans. It’s time to move beyond the claim that most people using the web are feckless thieves just waiting to steal content. If you make quality content available in affordable, easily accessed formats, and you make it easy for people to find you and pay for that content, then you can leverage the web to find those who will part with their hard-earned cash for your work. That responsibility lies with the producers not the consumers.

Photo: Community Friend/Flickr

Categories
media economy photography

The new media landscape (3): community, transactions and value

 

The disruptive power of the internet has produced a new ecology of information. As outlined in the first post of this series, this is the inescapable big picture for anyone engaged in creative practice.

This new ecology of information incorporates some hard realities for those of us seeking to support creative practice. In the second post of this series, I argued that community is now an essential concept in the new media landscape.

Throughout I have drawn inferences from what is happening to large media organisations in this revolutionary environment so that independent photographers and visual journalists can understand the challenges they face.

In this third and last post of the series, I want to discuss how some media companies are pursuing different sources of revenue. While their strategies are not easily replicable, they show how the dynamics of the new media landscape are playing out when it comes to the nitty-gritty of business models.

The end of distribution supporting scarcity

The past profitability of many media companies was based on controlling the mode of distribution so that scarcity prices could be charged. What the disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation of the media economy exposes is that this control was unique to a particular historical moment, resulting in prices that were artificially high.

As Google argued in a submission to the US Federal Trade Commission, this certainly applied to newspapers:

The large profit margins newspapers enjoyed in the past were built on an artificial scarcity: Limited choice for advertisers as well as readers. With the Internet, that scarcity has been taken away and replaced by abundance. No policy proposal will be able to restore newspaper revenues to what they were before the emergence of online news. It is not a question of analog dollars versus digital dimes, but rather a realistic assessment of how to make money in a world of abundant competitors and consumer choice.

It also applies to television, movies and music, because “the very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution” – that is, control over broadcast networks, cinema chains and record companies. Once that content has been digitised and streamed, centralised control and high prices is much harder to maintain.

The hard reality, then, is that business models have to be decoupled from modes of distribution. In a context where publication and broadcasting have become easier and cheaper, running printing presses and managing TV networks are no longer licenses to print money. No business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution can succeed in the long-term.

Of course, existing media corporations can go on for some time. Legacy industries don’t grind to an instantaneous halt just because the central principles of their operating environment unravel. But if they fail to innovate, they tend to decline slowly before becoming unsustainable.

Diverse and indirect approaches

If a business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution cannot succeed in the long-term, another casualty will be the idea of the single business model behind visual journalism. The new approach will be a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly.

As John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News declared, news organisations do not make money from news; news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism.

There is nothing new in this. Advertising has been the main source of revenue for mainstream media, with a contingent and indirect relationship to the journalism we (mistakenly) assume is the raison d’etre of media companies.

While it seems shocking to say news is a ‘brand’, that is how it has functioned. Oliviero Toscani, who was behind the controversial Benetton campaigns of the 1990s once remarked that we should understand that in a capitalist media economy “editorial was always the advertising of advertising.”

Although advertising will remain important for media companies, and new ways of garnering subscriptions might offer small revenue streams, what are these indirect approaches going to comprise?

The community that pays

That is where the idea of community comes in. Those engaged and loyal people – readers, viewers, listeners, fans – who identify with and congregate around their chosen content streams are where revenue comes from.

It’s fashionable to say nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, and there a plenty of online comment threads that can be mined for anecdotal evidence to support this rather glib generalisation. But if we think about the hundreds of millions of TV episodes, 10 billion songs and 10 billion apps sold via iTunes, or the 23 million Netflix subscribers in North America, or Spotify’s 1 million subscribers in Europe, plenty of people reach into their pocket for quality content. If providers offer availability and ease of use, direct payment for something that is not fungible is forthcoming.

If we look at indirect revenue from communities, then transactions are key. Fairfax (publishers of the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the largest media company in Australasia) has seen digital grow into its second largest revenue stream. 60% of their digital revenue comes from transactions, with readers using companies that Fairfax purchased, including a dating service called RSVP and a holiday home rental service, Stayz.com.

Transactions are one way that social networks can be leveraged for revenue, with social recommendations leading to commissions. As one Deloitte analyst predicted,

the next phase of social commerce is about extracting commissions from products which are sold directly as a result of recommendations made…So rather than selling advertising, what you’re doing is taking a commission against a product sold.

A 2011 report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on the business of digital journalism pointed to a number of indirect transactions supporting editorial content, such as The Atlantic magazine’s events business with $6 million/year in revenue. In a similar vein the Washington Post is running online courses and The Guardian is organising weekend masterclasses.

None of these constitute the holy grail that will replace the unending decline in print advertising revenue. But they are good examples of creative approaches that don’t fight the disruption of the internet and work with the contours of the new media landscape.

Can an indirect approach work for photography? When I reviewed the New York Times paid content scheme at the end of March, I painted a different scenario using transactions rather than subscriptions:

The Lens blog is a high profile site with some 750,000 users visiting each month. Instead of raising money by hoping some of those subscribe on their 21st visit each month, consider the monthly visitors as a community of interest around photojournalism and offer goods and services to that community. There could be Lens-sponsored master classes, special events and workshops for both professionals and the general public; print sales; discounted equipment and photographic services via business affiliates; photo tours and themed travel; equipment, medical and travel insurance for practitioners; logistics and visa services for photographers having to travel at short notice…you name it, anything that interests a broad photographic community, amateur and professional, could be offered by negotiated deals where Lens’s earns a percentage on each transaction.

This strategy would leverage the Lens blog Twitter feeds and referrals providing unlimited free access. It would be based on growing the community that comes to the site, thereby underscoring the value of having quality photojournalism distributed globally and the benefit of having it accessible to as many as possible. It could raise more revenue than subscriptions could achieve, and the revenue could go directly to photojournalism.

This is the emerging logic for media companies. Might it work for independent documentary photographers and photojournalists? Even if the scale is different, why not? This logic comes from the dynamics in the new media landscape affecting everybody.

Paul Melcher claims “photographers, photo agencies and related have no experience in building value around their images.” That has to change. Value will be created indirectly more than directly. It begins with the six steps towards building your own community.

Photo credit: Enol/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

 

Categories
media economy photography

The new media landscape (2): the importance of community

 

The disruptive power of the internet has made ‘community’ an essential concept in the new media landscape. A community is a group of people who share the similar interests, concerns or pursuits. They form around common purposes or practices.

As argued in the first post of this series, the internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

These distributed networks and new social groups are the basis of any new community. This post will argue that for creative producers community is a precondition of successfully operating in the new ecology of information.

There is, however, one common assumption about community that need to be dispelled before I consider what is involved in the development of a community that can support an individual’s creative practice.

Does size matter?

The ease with which web content can reach a wide audience can lead us to think that success is defined by mass interest. YouTube videos with millions of views seem to be the benchmark we must aim for. However, some data from new organisations shows how scale is not necessarily synonymous with success.

Newspaper web sites hailing the tens of millions of unique users they attract monthly is a regular feature (see this example). However, Navigating News Online, a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, although flawed in many ways, offers a different take on these numbers.

NNO identified an important distinction between ‘casual’ and ‘power’ consumers of information. More than three-quarters of the traffic to the top 25 American news sites came from users who visited just once or twice a month. In most cases they will have arrived via a link or search, read once piece, and then moved on.

While there is an obvious social benefit in getting a media organisation’s content to as many as possible, these infrequent flyers will not offer much economic benefit even in terms of an audience for advertisers.

In contrast, the NNO report found that ‘power users’ – people who came to the same news site more than ten times each month, and spent more than hour each month on those visits – comprised on average only 7% of the total web readership.

This trend was known before the NNO report, and applies also to UK examples. Although the numbers are now larger, these 2009 metrics from the Daily Mail show the number of casual versus power consumers:

  • 28.7 million unique users/month globally
  • 8.9 million unique users/month from the UK
  • Of the UK users 611,588 came to the web site every day
  • Half of those UK daily users (c. 300,000) stayed for 20 minutes/month

So while the headline-grabbing tens of millions of unique users suggests a vast audience around the Daily Mail, their loyal British users numbered no more than 300,000 in 2009.

These dynamics are the reason pay walls attract a small number of subscribers in relation to the overall readership of a news site. Subscribers come from power users: pay walls exclude or limit casual users so depend on subscriptions from the most loyal.

Working with fans

The idea that it is the power users, the most loyal consumers, that are the basis of an economic strategy to fund creative content is common to the music industry, where such people are known as fans.

What the internet has done, however, is made to possible to directly access prospective fans and provide them with content. The consequence of that is that artists don’t have to pursue a ‘blockbuster’ strategy to succeed. Instead of waiting for the one thing that might offer stardom with all its rewards, artists can build a community of those who appreciate their work and might be willing to support it.

Kevin Kelly famously outlined this concept with his post on 1000 True Fans. Like so many things influenced by the web, Kelly identified how a power law curve, which is the basis of the long tail phenomenon, suggested new possibilities. While the number of 1000 was indicative only and varied according to the artist’s media, Kelly maintained that if you could move people from an encounter with your work to being ‘lesser fans’ and on to  ‘true fans’ regular support would be forthcoming.

Kelly later conducted interviews with artists to see if his argument played out in practice. The results supported the thrust of his original argument but tempered its enthusiasm. He concluded that:

there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. (my emphasis)

Mike Masnick’s review of musicians supports this conclusion, and importantly demonstrates that the logic applies to more than just the famous who already have a fan base.

How does an individual create a community?

So, if you wanted to pursue this strategy what would it involve? The first thing to note is the hard graft. Kevin Kelly’s interviews made clear “it takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.”

Assuming you are committed, here are six steps to create a community around your practice:

  1. Get yourself a web platform (site, blog etc) to make some work and your thinking available for viewing and linking, and keep updating this platform;
  2. Think of yourself as a publisher or broadcaster, find your angle or voice, and offer information beyond self-promotion on a regular basis;
  3. Participate in social networks and other on-line forums, offering comments, links, information;
  4. Understand that a community is more than the sum of your social media followers and friends. Social networks are a necessary but insufficient condition of community;
  5. A community’s members have varying degrees of commitment, from observers to occasional supporters to committed fans. Followers and friends are, until they demonstrate otherwise, not ‘true fans’. But they might become committed supporters if they are engaged with your work;
  6. Engagement means offering your community a sense of belonging and commitment to your practice and the thinking that informs it. This comes through conversation and dialogue around ideas and information rather than just appeals or material inducements;

In the debate about crowd funding photojournalism I have emphasized how having a community is a precondition of successful support. Those who have raised funds have either been already well-known (which means they have had a community of support) or they have in effect followed most of the steps above. As Bryan Formals wrote in his good post on crowd funding, “it all starts to tie together: transparency, authenticity, community building, collaboration, funding.”

Point 6 is probably the most difficult and most important in the process. It is the step where supporters feel they participate in the project, something Joerg Colberg identified as important, and which Tomas van Houtryve has put into practice creatively and effectively. But like all engagement, this participation is not a one-way street – as van Houtryve has found, creative practitioners can learn a lot from their supporters and their work can be better as a result. The benefits are not just financial.

Conclusion

As I shall argue in the third post of this series, the idea of community is important for big media players as much as individual artists, and it is behind some of the new economic strategies to support journalism. There are lessons to be learnt from those strategies for individuals too.

The principles that make community possible are the same in both cases even if the scale is different. The internet’s logics of disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation affect everyone. It’s harder for individuals to perform all the necessary tasks that make a successful community, but the rewards are potentially great.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (1)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: victoriapeckham/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy

The new media landscape (1): contours of change

Change in the media landscape is constant. Everyone involved in the production of creative content – photographers, journalists, writers, and musicians, as well as those who deal in those products – knows that nothing is as it was.

Too much of the current debate about how creative practitioners can cope with these upheavals proceeds without an understanding of the big picture and historical context. There are some hard realities that have to be properly understood before new strategies can be devised.

In this series of three posts, I want to lay down an understanding of what is happening, how some are responding, and what others can learn from them. Many of the elements I discuss are well known, and many of the examples I cite show that people are already positioning themselves to prosper from these changes. But for those who are still unsure about what is happening and what to do I think it is important to take this step back in order to plan where to go.

These posts are based on a presentation I gave at the CEPIC New Media Conference 2 in Istanbul on 21 May, and I would like to thank Marco Oonk of Fast Media Magazine for the invitation. For that event I knew I could not compete visually with speakers from the stock photography industry, so I selected key words that named the main themes.

In this first post, I will cover the concepts of disintermediation, disruption, ecology, disaggregation and free, including the importance of the relationship between scarcity, abundance and fungibility in the new media landscape. In part two I will unpack the concept of community and its importance, and in part three I will review how some are thinking about business models in this context. As one of my concerns is how documentary photographers and independent photojournalists can work better, I will outline some practical steps they can take to incorporate some of the lessons from this review.

So what are the contours of change in the new media landscape?

The internet has changed everything. That is obvious, but the question is how? ‘Disintermediation’ is one ugly word, but an important handle on the change wrought by the internet. Made popular by Dave Winer, the idea comes from economics and points to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain. It highlights the way you can cut out the “middle man” and deal directly with your audience or customer.

The internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

All of this means we live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has been expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions, distributors and gatekeepers.

None of this means the internet is the single cause of all change or that we have a perfectly open world. And we have to remember that for all its potential universality, the internet currently only reaches one-third of the world’s population. But it does mean the internet is an important enabler of change that challenges or routes around many of the barriers and gates in our world.


Through disintermediation the internet is disrupting many walks of life, especially information industries. When we consider that global internet traffic is predicted to increase fourfold by 2014 its easy to see how many areas are being affected by the internet.

The disruption that follows from disintermediation can be understood as resulting in what Richard Stacey describes as “the separation of information from its means of distribution.” This means that all those modes of information distribution we have taken to be natural – the newspaper, magazine, radio station, album-length CD, television broadcaster, cinema and the like – are being challenged by new means of producing and circulating content. As one analyst remarked recently:

The very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution…Films, TV, music are all produced and distributed in a tightly controlled way. The internet blows the doors off that concept because it’s an environment where everyone can distribute with maximum efficiency to everyone else.

Netflix is showing what this means in practice. It now accounts for one-quarter of North America’s aggregate internet traffic because streaming video is so much more efficient than mailing DVDs. It costs Netflix $1 to send out a DVD, but just 5 cents to stream the same movie. As a streaming service they will eliminate the $600 million they currently spend on labour for checking discs and the postal service, with obvious negative impacts for both those sectors.

The lesson from this is clear – in Richard Stacey’s words, “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”


The web, built on top of the internet, has created a new ecology of information, both literally and figuratively. ‘Ecology’ is the study of organisms in relationship to each other and their environment. As a new ecology of information, the web exists as much more than a competitor to existing infrastructures. It is not a new market side by side with traditional markets – it is reshaping both the infrastructures and the markets for everyone.

Yet many information industries treat the web as a competitor rather than an ecosystem. For example, a recent debate about the difficulty of linking from many newspapers stories to supporting information revealed the print-centric nature of media company workflows and CMS’s, and showed how far they were from a digital-first strategy.


In this new ecology – where disruption is powered by disintermediation – we are seeing a change in the structure and process of information.

It is changing what have been called the “atomic units” of established modes of information, and unbundling traditional modes of distribution. We are seeing the disaggregation of forms and formats we have taken to be natural:

  • the disaggregation of albums to individual downloads in music
  • the disaggregation of newspapers and magazines to stories that can be circulated or linked to individually
  • the disaggregation of broadcast stations and fixed schedules to personal streams that can be consumed anywhere and anytime

The idea of the ‘stream’ is significant here. It emphasizes process rather than product, because once disaggregated, things can be updated.

Even when thinks look like fixed commodities we should think in terms of streams. iTunes downloads and Kindle ebooks are sold as though they are fixed units, yet they are parts of a stream leased for use on particular devices. With ebooks your edition can be updated or removed by the organization that controls the stream.

Disaggregation does not mean things dissolve into a formless universe. They are re-aggregated, but that is increasingly done through social networks. For example, a study for CNN found that social media was used to share nearly half of all news.

Disaggregation, therefore, leads to the importance of information that is social, modular and mobile. As Mathew Ingram has observed,

the future of media consumption is going to look a lot more like a smorgasbord of sources and content, personalized and recommended by friends and our social graph, and a lot less like that megaphone traditional media outlets used to have and control.


Few words rile creative producers more than the idea of free. But it is a concept that has to be confronted. We have to move beyond the competing ‘theological assumptions’ that either content should be free or that people should pay. ‘Should’ cannot be the basis for a rational response to the hard realities of the new ecology of information.

There is no escaping the fact that free is part of the intrinsic architecture of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The problem is that the web’s essential characteristic makes earning revenue hard. As Frederic Filoux notes, “the social web’s economics are paradoxical: the more it blossoms, the more it destroys value.”

Filoux’s statement renders value only as price or revenue, thereby overlooking the cultural and social value that flow from free circulation and distribution. Nonetheless, the web’s architecture of free intersects with a basic economic formula.  As Chris Anderson argues in his book Free (p. 173), “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint.”

That does not mean that everything is given away for nothing. Despite claims to the contrary – for details see my review of his book – Anderson is very clear that (a) free is not a business model and (b) that it is always linked with paid.

The ability to leverage the web’s architecture for paid content depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. Most content producers have priced their work on the assumption that it is scarce, and inefficient modes of distribution have supported that. But because the web has made many things abundant, charging scarcity prices is not easily sustainable.

Here I want to introduce one more concept – fungibility.  Something is fungible if it can be substituted by something else. A breaking news story is fungible because there are a number of credible sources that can be substituted for each other. A music track or a specific photograph is not fungible because if you are a fan who wants only a track from a particular band, or an image by a particular artist, they cannot be replaced by music or images from others.

Scare items are not fungible. Abundant items are fungible. If you produce something that is unique and not found elsewhere, you can resist the inevitable free endpoint. If you produce something that is abundant and can be replaced by something else, then you will not be able to directly charge scarcity prices for it (although, as I will argue in the third post, there will be other ways of using that content to produce revenue to support its production).

Conclusion

These are the dynamics that I think drive the changes in the new media landscape. They are the hard realities creating the new ecology we all operate in, producing a landscape marked by disaggregation in which traditional forms and formats of distribution are being unbundled, and content is increasingly social, modular and mobile. Content producers and distributors have to face up to these dynamics, and try and work with these developments in order to achieve their goals. In the second post in this series, I will argue that the concept of community is an essential part of that process.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (2)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: laihui/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
Back Catalogue media economy photography

The Back Catalogue (2): Photojournalism in the new media economy

Welcome to the second in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covered work on representations of ‘Africa’, and the third deals with representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are analyses of documentary photography and photojournalism in the new media economy – specifically the challenges for creative practice and story-telling, challenges for the industry given the disruptive power of the Internet, and new ways of thinking about doing business and funding photographic projects.

Posts: challenges for creative practice

Posts: challenges for the industry

Posts: new ways of doing business and funding work

Posts: other sites

 

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo: drewm/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Paying for photojournalism: a review of the New York Times ‘pay wall’

Newspapers in the US and UK continue to struggle with growing debt, declining circulation and falling advertising revenue. In the search for additional sources of revenue, new schemes for paid content are being implemented. (For an excellent overview of the issues, listen to WNYC’s On the Media podcast from January 28). After nearly two years planning, the New York Times launched its “metered” system this week.

This development has been greeted positively in the photographic world, with Aric Mayer, Rob Haggart and Joerg Colberg endorsing the thrust of the scheme. While agreeing that news organisations need to find new ways to fund critical journalism, I don’t share this upbeat assessment of what the New York Times scheme means for photojournalism. Indeed, as I’ve been arguing for the last eighteen months (see here, here and here), I think it’s a mistake for photography to pin its hopes on a revival of the long-lost editorial paymaster.

Here I will review commentary on the NYT scheme and suggest an alternative way to think about revenue that would be more beneficial for photojournalism. This a complex issue that demands some key assumptions are questioned, so this is a very long post. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I hope you will take the time to read it in full and engage the debate.

The pay scheme that isn’t a wall

Although much of the discussion has proceeded in these terms, the NYT scheme is not a pay wall. As Steve Yelvington argues,

A paywall…is a dumb, blunt instrument that separates content from the general public, prevents sampling, inhibits linkage and sharing, and usually is the product of an unhealthy arrogance.

That view sumps up the approach of the Times and Sunday Times in London, the experience of which demonstrates the limits of that approach. Although there are now 79,000 digital-only subscribers to the Times pay wall, there has been a massive reduction in the paper’s online readership (90% according to one initial estimate), advertisers have become nervous about the decimation of their online audience, and the journalists are cut off from the wider social media conversation because of the block on search engines and the inability to link freely. The small gains in monthly revenue will not make a significant dent in the tens of millions of pounds the Times loses annually, they may not offset the lost advertising revenue, and they come at the price of cultural presence and global engagement, which in turn most likely reduces advertising revenue that depends on reach.

To try and avert the falls in readership that result from demanding online payment, the NYT scheme permits some open access and encourages continued linking. Everybody can access 20 articles a month, after which you are asked to pay $15-$35 every four weeks depending on the device you want to use. If you are a print subscriber, you get access without additional cost, and if you come to a NYT article via a search engine or distributed link (via Facebook or Twitter), that does not count against the quota of twenty. To get it all up and running, NYT is offering, in an echo of iTunes, four weeks access for 99c.

Reactions and estimates

Reactions to the details of the NYT scheme have been many and varied (see eleven mixed responses garnered by the Nieman Journalism Lab here). Whatever one’s initial take, it is clear that the paper’s aim is to limit the number of readers who will encounter the request for payment. As Steve Buttry observed:

they have structured this to apply to a small segment of their online audience (people who read more than 20 pieces a month who don’t subscribe to the print edition and don’t find them through search or social media).

Buttry feels that the result will be “a trickle of revenue, not worth the time they spent developing the plan.”

Given that the NYT spent $40-50 million on planning and implementing its scheme, it needs to produce a significant amount of money just to cover development costs before there is any hope that new revenue will make its way into content creation – the journalism, and then photojournalism.

There is also the issue of lost opportunity cost. As Koi Vinh – a former NYT designer who was involved in the initial planning — asked what else could the NYT have developed with the enormous effort and resources the scheme consumed in the last two years?

I’m not qualified to judge detail of the economic projections, but it is clear from reading the commentary there is a great deal of uncertainty around the plans. From its global audience of 42 million unique users each month, the NYT is hoping to get 300,000 digital subscribers in the first year. That could mean it takes two years to repay the development costs, or it could mean increase in subscription revenue of 10% or more. However, even the latter, more optimistic calculation offers a boost that is marginal in comparison to advertising revenue. Ken Doctor notes that digital advertising makes up 26% of total advertising revenue for the paper, and that sector is growing:

If the Times could nab another half a percentage point in market share of that still-growing pie, that would amount to $140 million a year, dwarfing new digital circulation money.

Personal expense and premium content

The NYT scheme varies in cost depending on the number of access points, and is being sold somewhat disingenuously as a particular amount “every four weeks” which, although it sounds like a “per month” proposition, actually requires thirteen annual payments. At the top end, it is a very expensive deal when compared to others offering similar services. Michael deGusta has visualized the NYT and its competitors, and he concluded by asking:

Does The Times really think the mass audience is going to decide their $455/year is better spent on The Times rather than getting 20+ free articles/month from The Times plus The Wall Street Journal ($207/year) plus The Economist ($110/year) plus say The Daily ($39/year) for good measure, and still having ~$100 left over each year? (emphasis added)

What the NYT is requiring for its digital-only subscription has lead deGusta and others (such as Frédéric Filloux) to argue that the NYT scheme is a defensive strategy designed to stop existing customers from cancelling their print subscription revenue rather than a creative approach to generating new digital revenue.

Another part of the NYT scheme underscores its defensive nature. At first glance the scheme is a “freemium” approach in which a certain amount of free content is provided in order to build up demand for premium, paid-for access. Yet while the NYT is requiring payment from its most regular readers, it is not offering them anything new in return. The scheme requires payment for content they have accessed for free until now. As Dave Winer remarked, “they’re not offering anything to readers other than the Times’ survival, and they’re not even explicit about that.”

Still free for many

The NYT scheme is also not a pay wall because it is porous and easily avoided.

Part of that is intentional. To ensure it remains in the global social media conversation, the paper allows the front page of its blogs to be freely accessed, and has no limit on the number of articles that can be read by following a link on Facebook, Twitter and some search engines. Indeed, the paper has its own Twitter account @nytimes with more than 3 million followers, all of whom can follow as many links as they like each month. The Lens blog has discussed all this overtly in a special note.

In addition, NYT journalists and columnists with their own followers – such as the Lens blog’s James Estrin – will get more articles, posts and galleries for free. This is all before the computer literate pursue other ways to maintain free access, which involves little more than four lines of code to get around.

Can it emulate other successful pay schemes?

People who want to see good journalism well funded have been hoping that the NYT scheme might replicate the Financial Times success with digital subscriptions (although there is now a debate how successful the FT actually is). Nonetheless, the fortunes of the FT (or the Wall Street Journal) are not replicable for general news and daily journalism. The FT and WSJ provide time-sensitive market information that has direct value to subscribers, many of whom get it as a business benefit rather than through personal expense and are therefore not price sensitive.

Much as we may wish otherwise, even the investigative journalism of the NYT is not a scarce or fixed commodity like an FT market analysis or a music track from iTunes. With other credible news sources (e.g. the BBC, Guardian et al) pledged to remain globally free, and the news stream constantly updating, readers are resistant to paying for online content that has been and will remain freely available.

If that makes you wish for a chance to rewrite history – imagining that ‘if only’ newspapers had ganged together and set up universal walls at the beginning of the Internet age we would now be handing over money without complaint – then pause for a moment and reflect on this. The Internet is an intrinsically open system. If all the legacy media outlets had withdrawn into walled gardens, do you not think that sometime during the last fifteen a bright spark would have set up a free global news site attracting millions and funded via advertising or related sources? Something like, you know, that Harvard graduate and his little project called Facebook…

What is the purpose then?

The NYT scheme is expensive, complex, porous, and easily worked around. Even if it functions as desired it won’t generate anything like the revenue that would flow from the growth in online advertising. It is accompanied by risks, such as alienating the NYT’s most engaged and loyal users and reducing the reach of NYT stories. And it has potentially large lost opportunity costs – an on-going commitment to a print-based strategy that will run its course in the years ahead, and the lack of investment in creative alternatives during that continued decline.

It is possible that all the sceptics are wrong, and we shouldn’t knock the willingness to experiment in these revolutionary times. There is great uncertainty about the details of the economic projections, but even if the scheme succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams it is only going to provide a fraction of the needed revenue to fund critical journalism. Paid content schemes, no matter how flexible and nuanced, are subscription models, and subscriptions have historically only ever provided approximately 20% of a newspaper’s revenues with 80% from advertising (although papers like the WSJ have a 50/50 split). Given the availability and culture of freely available general news, who would bet on digital subscriptions reaching even that historical share?

So why have they done it?

I think the NYT scheme is less a business model and more a moral imperative.

It is based on the claim that people should pay for quality journalism. It is a scheme designed to defend the worth of the paper’s journalism. This has been explicit in a number of arguments in favour of such schemes that talk about a “value proposition.” It appears when an editor says

the act of placing a value on our journalism may be more important than any penny we ever collect

And it is to be found in Aric Mayer’s statement that

it [content creation] is a thing worth paying for, and requiring the audience to pay for it demonstrates its value.

Of course, quality journalism and photography costs, and it should be paid for (though I am not as misty eyed about the USP of the NYT as some). The question is how and by who is content paid for. Taking an historical perspective again, we have to note two important things.

First, news and investigative journalism has never made money by itself in order to pay for itself. We should not, therefore, be judging current plans by the flawed assumption that we are looking for a single business model that will do what has never previously been done.

Second, we as readers have always paid for modes of distribution but never directly for content. Viewing the NYT scheme as a device for readers to value content though direct payment is wishing for a historically unprecedented change of behaviour in the most unlikely of circumstances. As Steve Buttry caustically observed:

My friend and former boss Jim Brady says that you can’t build a business model based on what people should do (and newspaper people believe in their bones that people should pay for their content). You build a business model based on what people will do. This tortured maze of exceptions and trigger points is a laughable effort to collect because people should pay but to find a way not to lose the people who won’t pay.

The NYT scheme also comes up short as a value proposition because of it offers subscribers nothing new, there being no exclusive or premium content to go with the newly demanded payments. And quite how a company rationalises asking patrons at the front door to pay while the very same goods are being handed out the back door free (via its own Twitter feeds) remains a mystery.

But above all else we should recognise that value has different forms and manifestations. It is a mistake to see price or payment as the only index of value. Circulation, distribution, engagement and global presence have considerable value.

Fine, but where does the money come from?

In his welcoming assessment of the NYT scheme, Aric Mayer wrote:

Journalists and Photojournalists should be applauding this move. It signals an effort by the New York Times to uncouple content creation from direct dependence on online advertising. Without online subscription prices or online newsstand sales, there simply is no other way of generating a predictable online revenue stream.

There are, of course, problems with a dependence on advertising, although that has historically been the mainstay of the legacy media many continue to view fondly, and online advertising is growing and will soon overtake print advertising.

Diversifying revenue has to be a good strategy. But is it that case that without online subscription “there simply is no other way of generating a predictable online revenue stream”? I disagree with that claim.

There are many other ways of generating predictable revenue streams, and this is where the news business has to learn from other sectors like the music industry, which encountered digital disruption before journalism. Pursuing these routes could mitigate the risks of the paid content approach.

John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News, argued we have to appreciate that news organisations do not make money from news – news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism. Instead of a single business model for journalism emerging, we need to see a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly.

For music, the idea that content creation (the songs) is what provides significant revenue through fans paying directly is slipping away as album sales fall. For some of the mega acts, only a tiny fraction of their revenue comes from the music they write. The bulk comes from things that revolve around the content – concerts, merchandising, video games, advertising, and sponsorship. And some of these mega acts give their content, the music, away for free in order to enhance their revenue from the related but indirect sources.

This means that instead of just advertising and subscriptions, transactions are a major alternative revenue stream. Indeed, a Fairfax media executive has remarked that transactions rather than advertising or paid content were the best on-line revenue streams. Crucially, transactions require news organisations to build a community around their brand and product, and then take a percentage of the transactions (hotel bookings, financial advice etc.) those community members conduct through the associations, links, and relationships provided. The various ‘reader’s offers’ that papers have long provided are a pre-web version of this.

How might this work for the NYT in relation to photojournalism? Here is a proposal that is much more direct that the newly proposed scheme and the hope that some of its revenue trickles down to content creators. (BTW, has anyone reported a rise in photo fees or a spike in demand for photographers by News Corporation since the Times pay wall went up?). If someone takes up this proposal for a photography site, I might even coming calling for a consultancy fee, but for a limited time only I am offering it for free!

The Lens blog is a high profile site with some 750,000 users visiting each month. Instead of raising money by hoping some of those subscribe on their 21st visit each month, consider the monthly visitors as a community of interest around photojournalism and offer goods and services to that community. There could be Lens-sponsored master classes, special events and workshops for both professionals and the general public; print sales; discounted equipment and photographic services via business affiliates; photo tours and themed travel; equipment, medical and travel insurance for practitioners; logistics and visa services for photographers having to travel at short notice…you name it, anything that interests a broad photographic community, amateur and professional, could be offered by negotiated deals where Lens’s earns a percentage on each transaction.

This strategy would leverage the Lens blog Twitter feeds and referrals providing unlimited free access. It would be based on growing the community that comes to the site, thereby underscoring the value of having quality photojournalism distributed globally and the benefit of having it accessible to as many as possible. It could raise more revenue than subscriptions could achieve, and the revenue could go directly to photojournalism.

Funding critical journalism and photography has always been difficult and will remain difficult. Hoping for a paid content scheme to offer salvation strikes me as being like a cargo cult. Paying for premium content, or content with longevity – like the move to make magazine articles saleable as in-app downloads or Kindle singles – has a future, through the amounts may not be large. But there is little historical or contemporary evidence to suggest people will start paying for daily news in sufficient numbers, and remonstrating with individuals about what they should do is something best pursued by priests rather than corporations.

Equally, scepticism about paid content is not a theological position dependent on the virtues of free. I think an appreciation of how ‘free’ functions on the web is essential but that means seeing how it connects to paid. Like many I happily pay for multiple modes of news distribution. Having stumped up for a seven day print subscription to the Guardian and Observer, a digital replica subscription of the same papers and two versions of the Guardian iPhone app, while eagerly awaiting their iPad app, GMG has many of my hard earned pounds. They would get even more from me if they had a photography blog that offered equipment transactions, because purchasing that new tripod I need or shotgun mic I want could earn them affiliate revenue.

But if the Guardian was to go back on its commitment to free access to quality content through those modes of distribution, I would be heading elsewhere for my general news and comment. That is the nature of media ecology in the twenty first century, and only a realistic assessment of how people function in the world of social media will provide a sound basis for funding new content.

Featured photo: borman818/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

 

Categories
media economy photography

Learning from Larry, part two: what crowd funding looks like from the donor’s perspective

My postman brought an envelope from Larry Towell this week. Sent from Canada, it contained the 6×4 inch photograph (above) offered to those who pledged US$25 towards Larry’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project. Personally captioned “International Committee of the Red Cross, Kabul, Afghanistan 2010” it was also personally signed.

In my original post reviewing Larry’s Kickstarter-funded project on Afghanistan I said I would periodically report, from the contributor’s perspective, on how the project seemed to be progressing. This is my first follow-up to the original post.

At the outset I want to be clear on two points. First, this is not about harassing Larry! Given that its early days for crowd funding I think it’s worthwhile for photographers contemplating the approach to appreciate what the process looks like from the other side of the fence. Although I’m drawing my points from Larry’s project, I don’t want to personalize this. Perhaps I should refer to “Larry,” putting him in quotation marks to emphasize that this project is an example from which we might draw some lessons.

The second point is that this is a review about a particular form of crowd funding, namely how it looks via Kickstarter. In the original post I discussed crowd funding in theory and then in practice, and Kickstarter as a crowd funding platform is just one example of the practice. Nonetheless, I think there are general pointers that emerge from what I have seen so far.

When you contribute to a Kickstarter project, what happens? Well, nearly all communication is via automatically generated emails.  The first arrives after you make your pledge:

You are now a backer of Crisis in Afghanistan by Larry Towell.

If funded, Larry Towell will send you a message to request any info needed to deliver your reward (mailing address, etc.)

Please help Larry Towell spread the word!

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/ahKZP/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

While a project is seeking funding, the person behind it can offer updates on Kickstarter, and distinguish between updates available to all and those that can be accessed by backers only. The latter also come to your email inbox if you have made a contribution, and I received “Project Update #6 on the final day of the pitch:

Dear Everyone

The time is almost up and I have made more than my goal, thanks to your generosity. I have been in communication with my contacts in Afghanistan recently and am beginning to plan, looking at a departure date in March. I’ll be sending things off asap. For those receiving prints, I’ll be in touch personally about your selection. Thank you again for making this happen.

Larry

There haven’t been any further project updates for contributors. Once the deadline for pledges passes, and assuming the project is funded, another email arrives:

Congrats! Amazon will now charge your credit card and transfer the money directly to Larry Towell.

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/DRFaj/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

Shortly on its heels, the Amazon Payments system issues an email confirming it has taken your money and completed payment, in this case to the Magnum Foundation who handled Larry’s finances.

With the money paid, it was then a matter of waiting for the promised personal communication about the print selection. Only the communication wasn’t personal, and there wasn’t any selection involved. The Kickstarter platform sends an email asking you to complete an online “survey,” which means entering your name and address on their site so the print can be sent.

Larry Towell has created a survey to request info needed to deliver your reward:

“A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6” print postcard.”

Respond to this survey on Kickstarter:

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/uPMqE/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan/surveys/174274?at=b6f04baa8f8ebd36

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

Once that is done, the contributor then waits for the reward. Was it a “personal thank you”? Not really – it’s a photo I’m happy to have and the pencilled caption and autograph is fine. But is there anything that marks it out as a “thank you” for a project that is ongoing? No. Was there anything about where the project is currently at or what the next stage is? No.

What one gets as a contributor – at least at my minor level – is automated, impersonal and far from engaging. I don’t mean to sound petty or whiny about this; I’m just trying to judge the process in terms of what the Kickstarter system said was forthcoming. The discussion here is also no criticism of Kickstarter – it’s a very efficient fundraising process. It’s just not a platform for community engagement around a project (nor does it claim to be).

As a contributor interested in the substance of the project I was hoping for more. I’d love to know more about where the project planning is at, what is going well and what problems are being faced, not to mention some idea of where and when we might see the end product. To that end I did post a comment on Larry’s Facebook page but that didn’t elicit any response.

At the moment it seems my role as a minor contributor came to an end once my credit card was charged. To my mind crowd funding, if it is to fulfill its potential, has to do much more than that. It has to really engage the contributors. But let’s wait and see if Larry’s backers get more updates in the weeks ahead. I will let you know.

Categories
media economy photography politics

Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better

Larry Towell is one of the most accomplished contemporary photojournalists. Two weeks ago I became a backer of his “Crisis in Afghanistan” project, pledging $25 through Kickstarter. Today was the deadline for Larry to attract backers, and with 143 supporters contributing $14,007, the project exceeded its target and is up and running.

I became a backer because I want to see alternative visions of Afghanistan produced and Larry should be able to use his talents to produce something different. But I also pledged a small amount because I want to see how crowd funding via Kickstarter works from the perspective of a contributor. I’m going to follow Larry’s project through the various stages from now until completion and will periodically report on what, as a minor backer, I can see happening.

The proposal for “Crisis in Afghanistan” has been the subject of some controversy in the last month, with a series of posts on duckrabbit beginning here and here, some heated debate spilling over into the Kickstarter comments, some observations from A Photo Editor here and a critique of the concept of crowd funding from Daniel Cuthbert that involved an interesting exchange with Tomas van Houtryve, who offered his own take here. I’ll touch one some of the points raised in between the heat of these exchanges, but I want to stick to the big picture – what can we learn about crowd funding photojournalism from Larry’s pitch?

Understanding crowd funding in theory

Crowd funding is one manifestation of the new possibilities opened up by the disruptive power of the Internet. Because the barriers between producers and consumers have been breached, and because our capacity to create communities has been greatly enhanced, creators can now look in new places for supporters.

Of course, the need to look for new ways to fund projects has been necessitated by the same disruptive power of the Internet. While it is not the sole cause of the revolutions in the media economy, the Internet has hastened the decline of traditional modes of distribution. Instead of bemoaning the loss of long-past certainties, the challenge is how to leverage these new forces to finance new work. In an earlier post on making documentary possible, I outlined the various ways this was happening, and Kickstarter and Emphas.is were two of the examples discussed (see also Phil Coomes’ post on BBC Viewfinder).

Looking at the overall context, what drives the potential of these new approaches to funding is the way the web opens up possibilities to create communities around practices and projects, such that those communities then become sources of support including money. At the heart of this logic is the recognition that ‘free’ is now an essential part of getting paid (as I explain here, ‘free’ remains one of the most wilfully misunderstood concepts of the web 2.0 world, especially in photography circles).

Creating communities is an essential part of the concept of crowd funding. Communities come from engaging potential members, making them participants in the production and circulation of one’s project, rather than just viewing them as donors to call on from time to time. It can be understood as the search for “a thousand true fans” out of the many people who might like your work, and examples of how it works can be studied by reference to the music industry, as I’ve noted in my previous posts.

In this sense, I disagree with the way Daniel Cuthbert cast crowd funding per se as “a virtual begging bowl,” a fancy name for “handing out a cap to the world and begging for them to help you.” And I disagree with the anonymous ‘iamnotasuperstarphotographer’ – author of the duckrabbit posts that took aim at Larry Towell’s project – who repeats the related claim that crowd funding is in essence just “charity.”

Part of the debate around crowd funding comes from judging it as though crowd funding was a singular business model that could offer a sustainable means for financing the global practice of photojournalism. If anyone is claiming that they need to think again. The days of “a business model” that is universally applicable are long gone. Photographers wanting to work in the difficult area of story telling are going to have to – as so often in the past – put together a number of often in-direct revenue streams.

Crowd funding, even in its early Kickstarter forms, can be one of those revenue streams. It will never be the financial answer to a photographer’s every needs. But it is undeniably a source of money to enable new work. For it to be the most effective source, for both the creator and their backers, it needs to be founded on communities created through engagement with the project in question.

What about recent examples of crowd funding photojournalism?

Do the early examples of crowd funding follow the concept in theory? Not really. So although it is wrong to see crowd funding per se as nothing more than begging like a charity, Tomas van Houtryve is correct to say, after reviewing some recent proposals, that “photographers need to drop the ‘donate’ or ‘help save me’ vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee.” Refocusing on the issue of creating communities is the way to do that.

So what about Larry Towell’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project? Was it more about charity than creating a community?

Much of the projects success came from Larry’s status as a Magnum photographer making a bid backed by Magnum. Previous visits to Afghanistan have been funded by the Magnum Emergency Fund, money pledged from Kickstarter goes through the Magnum Foundation, and Magnum in Motion produced the supporting video appeal. Among the contributors are many famous photographic and media names, so ‘the community’ that rallied behind this project was one already in place and prepared to give. This was, then, more a case of donation than engagement.

Had the pitch for the “Crisis in Afghanistan” come from an unknown photographer I very much doubt if it would have succeeded. I know I certainly wouldn’t have contributed. Here’s why:

  • Support is requested for a fifth trip to Afghanistan since 2008, but there is little detail about the work done on the four previous trips. When were the trips undertaken? With whom and how? What topics were covered? How many images were produced? What is the size of the best edit from this work?
  • There is little detail about what remains to be done. According to the project statement “your support will enable me to finish shooting, and to interview landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.” Isn’t that a lot to do in “four to five weeks”? Are contacts in place or yet to be made? What is the narrative that these characters are part of?
  • There is no budget. All the statement says is “Afghanistan is a very expensive country in which to work, due to the need to hire professional fixers, interpreters, and drivers, and your support will help to cover these costs.” Why $12,000 then? How does that break down? What is the contingency if costs exceed this budget? What happens to the money raised over and above the original target?
  • There is little detail on the outcomes. Funding “will result in a book of photographs and text,” and the video flicks through a book dummy that looks pretty substantial. What is the text going to say? Who is the publisher? When will it be out? How will it be promoted so it’s part of the political debate?

If Larry didn’t have a great track record already would a proposal with these unanswered questions have garnered the funding? If a student came to me with a project proposal like Larry’s I would have sent them away to do much more work on both context and logistics. If you aren’t a famous photographer seeking support you need to prepare a much more professional pitch, and must, as David White argued, be more open and transparent about all the elements of their project. Daniel Cuthbert has outlined some of the elements of a professional pitch here.

The problem of narrative and politics in “Crisis in Afghanistan”

Above all else, the biggest problem with Larry’s project as presented is we don’t know what the story is, and what details there are about the political context are as unspecified or problematic as the logistics. I think that narrative is one of the key features of good photography, and its something lacking in Larry’s project proposal.

In the video Larry says he wants to offer an “alternative view of Afghanistan,” something “a little different.” Great. Different to what though? The specified list of Afghan victims has been much photographed so what is he going to offer that others haven’t? Being concerned with victims is a starting point, but is the project going to do more than put them on display? How is it going to avoid the romantic clichés that Stephen Mayes spoke about in his 2009 World Press Photo lecture (where he wryly observed that “I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House”). What is the narrative that takes us from the Soviets, to landmines, to heroin, to Obama’s dilemma – all points highlighted in the project video?

And then we come to the political framing of the project. The Kickstarter statement begins with the claim that “for 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.” As Asim Rafiqui pointed out, that is nonsense. “Civil war” presumes no outside intervention, which is obviously not true. In the project video Larry says “Afghan culture is about 5,000 years old and they have been fighting foreign interventions for most of that time.” While that recognises the interventions, the generalisation about thousands of years is equally nonsense, the sort of claim ‘we’ often make about foreign societies, flattening their history onto one miserable dimension. An alternative account of Afghanistan must go beyond that.

It is no longer acceptable for photojournalists to peddle unsupported observations about world issues they want to picture. If you want to produce a book that is part of the contemporary debate over Afghanistan, you have to have some political nouse. That depends on the hard graft of research and analysis, yet, as Ciara Leeming recently observed, too many photographers have forgotten the ‘journalism’ part of their story telling brief. I don’t know what research Larry has done or plans to do, and I can’t tell what his sources are, because the pitch didn’t specify these vital elements. Any professional bid for a reportage project must be based on good research and name the sources of its evidence.

The need to engage

Transparency, openness and engagement are among the essential ways of operating in the web 2.0 world. One controversy over Larry’s Afghanistan project kicked off when Larry’s brusque handling of a potential contributor’s important questions – similar to the ones I have asked above about narrative and politics – were highlighted for “for transparency lovers everywhere.” (I have to note the irony of someone who posts under an anonymous tag, and refuses to make any details about themselves public, calling out a publicly known figure for being opaque. I also have to disclose that I have disagreed regularly with this anonymous poster when he/she has submitted comments to my site).

Although the debate then went off the rails, Larry’s response was poor. David Allen Harvey defended Larry’s “awkwardness” with questions by claiming he “is totally averse to interviews, blogs, all of these things.” If that is the case, then he was a poor candidate for crowd funding, because using social media tools to communicate with supporters so they can participate in the project is essential to making this approach work. Sadly, as Tomas van Houtryve’s assessment of recent projects shows other photographers also fail to make engagement on on-going priority.

Crowd funding offers great potential as one amongst many sources of revenue for photojournalists, but it is not designed to be the solution for a sustainable income. It will be interesting to watch Emphas.is – which has a different structure – when it joins Kickstarter as a platform, along with others like the UK-based WeFund.

To succeed crowd funding needs to be meaningfully connected to communities around a photographer’s practice, and that means a new way of working for many. I will be putting a link to this post on Larry’s Facebook page in the hope of engaging him on some of these issues. I genuinely hope he can produce an effective new project with an alternative vision. In the meantime, I am looking forward to my post card from Larry thanking me for my financial contribution.

 

Want to know more? Webinar on Emphas.is and crowd funding:

UPDATE 13 APRIL 2010: Tomas van Hotryve participated in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa (the CEO of Emphas.is) and Paul Lowe (Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication), on Tuesday February 1, 2011. A recording of this OPEN-i session can be found on Vimeo.

Categories
media economy photography

Making documentary possible: How the Internet leads to new funding opportunities

Finding the money to enable new photographic work is one of the most pressing issues practitioners currently face. Editorial paymasters have been in decline for a very long time, forcing those who want to pursue challenging and time-consuming projects to seek other means of support. Now the Internet’s disruption of the media economy has quelled any forlorn hope that there will be a single, universal business model to replace the advertising revenue that enabled – some time ago, in a limited and indirect way – photojournalism and documentary work.

This challenge requires a radical rethinking of how creative practice can be supported. One step is to recognize that because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution by bring the cost effectively to near zero, it’s highly unlikely any business model can hitch itself to a single mode of distribution and succeed. Another step is to understand that leveraging the benefit of the Internet’s capacity for distribution in all these channels requires some content to circulate for free.

In our digital present, as soon as something (like a song or photo) becomes an easily replicable file of bytes, nobody can exercise perfect control over its distribution. And if one cannot exercise this control, then being rewarded for the creative process that arranged those bytes cannot be limited to the sale of those bytes.

Of course, few concepts raise more hackles in the creative world than the idea of ‘free’. At the base of this concern is the misplaced belief that free is itself the business model. Instead, free needs to be understood as an acceptance of the dynamics of digital distribution and the first stage in finding ways to gain rewards from that largely unfettered circulation.

What does this mean in practice? As examples from the music industry (as opposed to the recording business) demonstrate, many artists, both new and established, are already pursuing these strategies. They may or may not replicable in the photographic world, so we cannot say a ‘new business model’ has been discovered and will work for all concerned. Nonetheless, I’ve come across a few examples in recent times of new ways of working that are producing the financial means to foster new creative practice.

  • Stephen Gill publishes his work through his own imprint Nobody Books, and issues both regular versions and limited editions of 100 that sell for £200 or more. This is “versioning” and is driven by the fact that in a world of infinitely reproducible digital copies a sufficient number of people want the non-reproducible in material form and are prepared to pay handsomely for it.
  • Nick Turpin of Nick Turpin Publishing told the British Journal of Photography earlier this year:

“My business model is very specific, I have to make my publications quickly and efficiently, sell them directly to the public through the internet, thereby avoiding the loss of 45 percent of my cover price to distributors and bookshops, and market them using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and my own website. I build a community around the publications allowing, for example, street photographers to submit their work for inclusion in the next Publication magazine. More than 1000 have done so. I hesitated to show too much of my first magazine online, but I actually found that the more I displayed images from it, the more people wanted to buy and own it – the opposite of what I had expected” (emphasis added)

  • Ctien, a Los Angeles-based fine art photographer, has used his web presence to solicit regular sponsorship from his community of admirers. He offers people four contributor levels, asks for monthly subscriptions, and offers various cards and prints in return depending on the amount they pledge. From just 94 fans he has obtained $15,000 per year, which amounts to one third of his living expenses.
  • This approach also works for social documentary. Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have garnered a lot of attention for their Sochi Project, which is covering the issues in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, and makes some examples of the project public on the web while retaining others for subscribers. Like the previous case, through different supporter levels and their engagement with those who sign up, they have attracted €22,000 in the first year which enabled them to undertake the first stage of the work.

There are also collective funding platforms where the web’s reach enables people to pitch for public support to support their work:

  • Kickstarter is the most notable of these. It has seen 3,000 projects funded (a little less than half those that bid for support) and you currently needs a US bank account to start a project, but anyone with a credit card can give. Projects are only funded when they reach their goal, and most projects are asking for under $10,000 but some raise many times that. The most successful projects are over-subscribed, and the total amount of money raised is available for the proposer. As in the above cases, higher rate pledges are encouraged through versioning. While used for all sorts of proposals other than photography, documentary projects have done well too. A recent example is Amira Al Sharif’s proposal for “Unveiling Misconceptions: A Muslim Woman Documents Lives of American Women Project.” Currently with 208 backers it has raised $8017, and will likely double its goal by the November deadline. Amira was aided in her efforts by the support of Ed Kashi who effectively used Twitter to distribute her plans through various networks (mine amongst them).
  • Starting early next year, emphas.is will take the crowd-sourcing model of Kickstarter and partly apply it to photojournalism. An introduction to the project is online now, and is preceded by screens that declare “what if you were on Robert Capa’s email list in 1944?…what if Don McCullin was blogging live from Vietnam?…Now imagine if you had sent them there yourself.” Its invitation for supporters to engage with photographers directly is enticing, and given that 3,500 people have already registered their interest, substantial support seems likely. While the funding is open and crowd sourced, the projects on offer are limited and “carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.” Although emphas.is depends on the new thinking demanded by social media, and the supporting blog titled its first post “never mind the gatekeepers,” the project does unfortunately turn to some old ideas to introduce its purpose, not least when they claim to have “partly” found “the silver bullet that will cure all that ails the media industry.” Likewise, casting contributors as people “willing to pay a small fee for the privilege of being included” is to potentially rely on an outmoded idea of subscription and diminish the necessary community building aspect of crowd sourced funding. I hope they recast their thinking to more accurately reflect current realities as they go forward with this important initiative, and I hope the gatekeepers on their board of reviewers would be open to a project like Amira Al Sharifs.

These examples pursue a variety of different approaches, but all use the power of the web to connect with supporters and offer them both engagement and reward for their support, often for projects that are yet to be undertaken. Even when material products like books are being produced, all these examples depend on having a web presence and being active in social networks to build a community of supporters. In all of these cases free does not mean giving everything away for nothing; it means creatively using the new media economy for new works.

None of these examples lead to a single, replicable, one-size fits-all business model. Each has its own business model. It’s never been easy funding the good work in photojournalism and documentary. It will continue to be as difficult as it’s ever been. But if we think beyond the confines of the past its possible to see a wider range of tools that can both create and access a larger community to make it possible.

This post is drawn from a lecture I gave at the International Orange Festival, Changsha, China on 23 October 2010.

Photo credit: iskanderbenamor/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

 

Categories
media economy

The ongoing revolution in the media economy

The revolutions transforming the media economy continue apace. In the year since I published my five part series on these changes (beginning here and ending here) we have seen more evidence of the overall direction of change. Reviewing my notes from 2010 here are some of the standout developments to date:

1. Things remain grim for traditional newspapers

Global newspaper circulation continued its downward trend, declining by 0.8% in 2009. A survey covering 223 countries by the World Association of Newspapers and Newspaper Publishers showed that newspaper circulation significantly declined in Europe and North America, although it increased marginally in Asia.

2. Advertising revenue continues to plummet

Advertising revenue is the core of the traditional newspapers business model, and it is falling globally too. Ad spend declined in most of the regions – North America (25 per cent), Western Europe (13.7 per cent), Central and East Europe (18.7 per cent), Asia (9.6 per cent) and South America (2.9 per cent), but remained fairly stable in the Middle East and Africa. In the United States, newspaper advertising revenues are likely to dive to a 25-year low of approximately $26.5 billion, or 47% of the record $49.4 billon in sales achieved by the industry as recently as 2005.

Online advertising is becoming much more important, with the web poised to overtake newspapers as the second largest US advertising medium by revenue behind television. While there is some absolute growth – and the Guardian has reportedly seen a 100% annual increase in digital revenue – this change in relative status is also a function of the collapse of print advertising.

3. Paid content strategies show few signs of success

At the beginning of this year a US survey showed that amongst the handful of domestic newspapers that had erected paywalls, only a tiny proportion (2.4%) of print subscribers were willing to hand over money for access. In the UK, the decision of The Times to go behind a paywall has led to the loss of 90% of the site’s users and scared off advertisers – meaning that any additional revenue from the small number who sign up will easily be offset by lost advertising. The experience of the Belfast-based Irish Times, which attracted only 1,215 paid subscriptions from its 45,000 circulation, suggests the limits of paywalls are apparent in a variety of markets.

4. The disruptive power of the Internet continues to grow

The decline of legacy media has been underway for a very long time and predates the Internet and the web. However, the expansion of a technology that collapses the cost of distribution means industries predicated on the control of distribution are losing their base.

In June this year Cisco forecast that global Internet traffic would increase more than fourfold by 2014. This amount is the equivalent of 10 times all the traffic traversing Internet Protocol networks in 2008. Driving the growth is the expansion of online video, which will make up 91 percent of global consumer IP traffic by 2014.

For an example of what this means in practice, consider the recent observations from the online video rental firm Netflix. Founder Reed Hastings revealed the economics of digital distribution: “It costs us about a dollar, round-trip, to send DVDs by mail. It costs us less than a nickel to deliver by streaming.” That means a switch to video streaming – which is coming – would reduce distribution costs by 95%. Given that Netflix spends $600 million a year on the postal service and pays for hourly labor checking DVD quality, that is a considerable saving (except for those working in the postal service or checking the DVDs). This means, as Ken Doctor explained, that “in the new world the costs evaporate — and quality and timeliness improve. For news publishers, the switch to digital media offers huge savings, at least 60% and probably more.”

However, it’s vital to remember that the Internet is not a universal facility. The number of global users has expanded dramatically in the last decade to 2 billion, but global penetration covers only 29% of the world’s population.

5. The end of print is now conceivable

Publishers and editors of major newspapers are now speaking about a time when their publications will no longer be printed. Last month Arthur Sulzberger told a seminar that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” Both the Guardian and Times editors think their current printing facilities will be their last, and that the life-span of these is “telescoping quite dramatically,” while the Financial Times is already reducing some print output.

6. There are no game changers leading to a shiny new business model

Many responses to the revolutions in the media economy have been framed by the desire to find the ‘game changer’ that will ‘save journalism,’ with the iPad being the device that in 2010 has most often borne these hopes. As a proud new owner of said device, I can see the appeal of some the better apps. I think it opens up new possibilities for the creative presentation and distribution of information, and I’m looking forward to more and better efforts to produce compelling multimedia for this format. But a number of available studies suggest that even if the revenue from magazine apps on the iPad exceeds a billion dollars, that will not resuscitate an entire industry given that is what Time Inc. (of which Time magazine is just a small part) made in a little over one quarter.

More importantly, though, we have to see devices like the iPad as another mode of distribution among the many channels for information now available. And we need to understand how the ecology of the iPad is one of a closed economy, cut off from the open web where things are easily linked and always searchable. There is little doubt the app economy is significant, and Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff (not to mention Jeff Jarvis) are right to call attention to the way it differs from the browser-accessible web, though it is just a bit early to proclaim the death of the open web.

Those who want to place the future of their entire industry in the iPad’s basket are surely heading for a fall. To get a better return from publisher’s apps, a group of twenty US-based photo agencies recently formed an alliance to press for higher fees based on additional usage. That’s not an unreasonable notion in principle, but the logic behind their position was stunning for its ignorance of the dynamics of the contemporary media economy. One of the agency bosses behind this alliance told Press Gazette:

We all strongly believe that this platform as a walled garden could be the saviour of declining legacy print publications. A lot of the publishers think so too…we see this as a way to work with the publishers to work on a business model that works for both parties.

In a nutshell you have an example of the thinking that has perpetuated a large part of the contemporary crisis – defend declining outlets, have faith in a walled garden that limits accessibility, and think about business models is in terms of a single business model tied to an established mode of distribution. But – the disruptive power of the Internet continues to grow because of the way it has solved the problem of distribution, so no business model predicated on control over a mode of distribution can succeed.

7. The future is bright

Despite the downturn and the persistence of legacy thinking, the future for the production and distribution of compelling stories and important information is bright. The creative possibilities enabled by digital technologies, the open web and the app economy – in association with those legacy publications now looking to a future beyond print – are being continually enlarged. If we pursue multiple modes of distribution and make them serve the modes of information, then, in conjunction with new ways of thinking about business models, we are in for an exciting if bumpy ride.

Featured photo: Bsivad/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism

Photography has always been associated with death. The French painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead” after he saw his first daguerreotype. Whatever the provenance of that quote, miniature portrait painting was replaced by new photographic technologies, even though their long exposure times meant, as Geoffrey Batchen has written, “if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.” And with the rise of digital technologies in the 1980s and 1990s the discourse of photography’s death gained new life, as various commentators declared that the ease of image manipulation meant that photography’s documentary status had come to a terminal end.

As a specific practice within the broad field of photography, photojournalism has had its death proclaimed on numerous occasions too. In the 1950s the influential curator and critic John Szarkowski declared that photojournalism’s heyday had lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. For those who didn’t accept this early cessation, the closure of Life magazine in 1972 was taken to be the moment of morbidity. Continuing signs of vitality have often been met with other declarations of death, as in The Digital Journalists’ January 2000 editorial (which was revisited in recent articles here and here). In the run-up to the 2009 Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan The New York Times weighed in with a “lament for a dying field.” Then in August this year, Neil Burgess – who has managed a number of prominent agencies and is an agent for Sebastiao Salgado and others – finally decided to call it: “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.”

How can we understand these repeated death certificates? What drives these declarations when there is abundant evidence of the continuing production of new photographic stories? I want to examine these questions by thinking through the definition of photojournalism and some important moments in its history. I then want to suggest that if we appreciate the difference between a mode of information and a mode of distribution, we can understand much better exactly what is supposed to have been killed.

What is photojournalism and when did it live?

‘Photojournalism’ is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and many – like Christopher Anderson and Martin Parr – are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice in which someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary photography, editorial photography, and the like, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

The history of photojournalism is well told in Mary Panzer’s introduction to Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955, a book published by Chris Boot for the 50th anniversary of World Press Photo. Beginning with the Illustrated London News in 1842 and the first mechanically reproduced photograph in The New York Daily Graphic in 1880, it is clear that photojournalism has been profoundly influenced by new technologies and the modes of story telling they make possible. The arrival of small 35mm cameras in the 1920s, combined with the emergence of picture magazines in Germany, France and the United States in the 1930s, meant photo stories were more easily produced and published.

It did not take long, however, for the commercial constraints of these media outlets to grate with photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith’s resignation from Life magazine in 1955 after an editorial dispute came at a time, Panzer notes, when “most of the leading photojournalists were already freelance.” In the 1960s, wanting to exercise their editorial freedom photographers who started out working for magazines took advantage of reduced printing costs and started to bypass periodicals by publishing books. This was a significant development, as Panzer notes:

In retrospect, the point when photojournalists chose to publish their work in their own books coincides with the moment when the form began to outgrow its origins. A creation of the press, the photojournalist was beginning to claim a role beyond it.

Combined with the creation of galleries specifically for photography and increased interest from museums in the practice, visual story-tellers now had multiple avenues along which their work could travel. Indeed, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, a show currently at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, makes the case that socially conscious photojournalism has flourished independently of the print media for decades.

Modes of information and modes of distribution

Central to understanding the current status and potential futures of photojournalism and documentary photography we need to always keep in mind the distinction between modes of information and modes of distribution.

Social media consultant Richard Stacy has provided what I think is the most succinct way to understand the defining characteristic of the evolving media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.

This is because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution and collapsed the cost of printing, as I discussed in my series of posts last year on the revolutions in the media economy. The web – the hyperlinked network of sites accessed via the Internet – offers a historically unparalleled opportunity to have a mode of distribution with global reach at virtually no cost (at least assuming access to computers and broadband, something that does have a price and is yet to be universal).

This repositions any debate about the ‘death of journalism’ and the ‘death of photojournalism’. We need to understand that journalism is the information and newspapers are the means of distribution. Equally, photojournalism is the information, and newspapers, magazines, books, and galleries are the means of distribution. There are profound changes underway in the modes of distribution, but this does not translate into the end for the modes of information.

So let’s come back to Neil Burgess’s recent declaration of photojournalism’s death. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, Neil was talking about the ‘death’ of a mode of distribution:

Today I look at the world of magazine and newspaper publishing and I see no photojournalism being produced. There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.

You can see how Neil ties photojournalism directly to magazine and newspaper publishing. He recognizes that visual stories are being produced, but because they are being enabled by sources other than magazines and newspapers, for him they do not count as photojournalism. He then underlines this by declaring:

We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether…there is no journalism organisation funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so called news organisations.

Even in its own terms, Neil recognizes (as he told the Foto8 Story is Born seminar in London on 1 October) that this is too bold a statement, as there is still the occasional piece commissioned by a news organization.

But even if news organisation offered no current support, Neil was wrong to suggest that as a mode of information photojournalism was no more. Photojournalism – or documentary photography, or whatever name we want to give visual story telling about the world – is not defined by its paymaster and mode of distribution. As David Walter Banks of Luceo recently observed, “It is absolutely ridiculous to say that photojournalism is dead…it’s definitely changing, but I think that’s exciting. The modes of delivery and consumption are changing, but there’s a lot of great work being done.”

If photojournalism had been left to the magazines and newspapers over the last fifty years it might very well have died. Richard Stacey knows why  – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”

That fact that as a practice, as a mode of information, photojournalism and documentary photography is very much alive is because over the last fifty years it has not tied its entire future to modes of distribution that are now undergoing revolutionary changes. That future has many challenges, but it is a future that has already moved well beyond the fortunes of newspapers and magazines.

References:

  • Geoffrey Batchen, “Ectoplasm,” Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (London: Chris Boot Ltd, in association with World Press Photo, 2005).

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Revolutions in the media economy (5): the pay wall folly for photographers

This has been a momentous year for media. In my previous four posts on the revolutions in the media economy, I have used the present uncertainty to take a fresh look at the past many now view nostalgically. This critical view demonstrated that newspapers have always been commercial enterprises rather than altruistic associations, they were in decline many years before the Internet restructured the conditions of publishing, and that the practice of investigative journalism is something we need to create as much as we need to protect. In this context, photographers who believe that their practice is defined by an editorial paymaster committed to documentary work are going to have a very hard time. During a recent panel discussion in London on “the new ecology of photojournalism,” Ed Kashi remarked that despite all the gloom and doom we should realize that this is now a potential golden age for photojournalism. He didn’t underestimate the problems but he urged people to think about the prospects for new forms of visual journalism across multiple platforms to diverse communities. I think Ed is spot on with his reasoned optimism, but to appreciate where this might lead us, we have to drive a stake through the heart of a prehistoric argument that has dominated the last few weeks of the year.

‘Parasites, thieves, and promiscuous behaviour’

Rupert Murdoch and his trusty lieutenants (Les Hinton of Dow Jones, James Harding of The Times and Robert Thompson of The Wall Street Journal) have launched a vicious rhetorical war against the free circulation of content on the internet, singling out Google and others for making aggregation and distribution possible. This is part of a News Corporation effort to garner allies for their strategy to charge for news content. Plans to put their papers behind pay walls have been much trailed by Murdoch executives. The time it is taking to implement these proposals, combined with their unwillingness to follow through on their threats to block their content from Google’s view, demonstrates the purpose of these manoeuvres is to try and reshape the public debate, get as many other legacy media companies as possible to join them in similar strategies, and wring some business concessions from the successful new media companies in the process. Murdoch’s protestations – which have been effectively countered by Eric Schmidt – have given some comfort to those in the photographic world who hope that the sight of a pay wall going up might mean the return a benevolent editorial paymaster. It’s time to put that dream to bed once and for all and face up to the challenges and potentials of the new era.

The problem with pay walls

What Murdoch and others are missing is the new ecology of the web and how that has changed things for good, in both senses. For those who want critical journalism in all its forms, the debate on pay walls is at best anachronistic and at worst counter-productive. We can see this in three different ways:

(i) Little money:

Building on the points in my first post of this series, we need to appreciate that even the most successful pay wall strategy will never fund investigative journalism. Pay walls are a form of subscription. But subscriptions have only ever generated about 20% of a newspaper company’s revenue. This means the most successful pay wall will never compensate for the collapse in advertising revenue. Nonetheless, the idea that people paying for content is the holy grail of lost revenue is increasingly promoted by media organisations who are now more willing than ever to explore this option. It has become an almost theological commitment that users should pay. But this overlooks one very significant historical point – consumers have not previously paid for content. As Paul Graham argued, we have paid for the mode of distribution rather than the information being distributed:

Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.

This has been the case with newspapers too. Rupert Murdoch, now demanding customers stump up for his articles, had no qualms about selling at a loss by reducing the price of The Times to 10 pence a copy (or giving it away as a free item in bulks) during the British newspaper price wars of the 1990s. Having never priced his products in terms of the cost of content, now is an odd time for him to start. It is possible that for highly specialized content consumers will be willing to pay something for access (see the conclusion to this debate). While recent surveys offer contradictory data on how much or how often people will pay, even the highest of these numbers offers no hope as a general solution to the economic crisis of distributing journalism (while the lowest condemns it as a flawed strategy). Corporate media debts are too vast to be eased by revenue from premium content, so we should not cling to the false hope that new money will fund the documentary stories that have long been under-resourced.

(ii) Who they block:

The second problem with the supposed pay wall solution emerges when we have a more nuanced understanding of web traffic to news sites. Companies like to make a big deal about the number of “unique users” visiting their URLs, and this summation of global clicks is an important indicator of reach. But most visitors come quickly for something specific and leave equally as quickly. They aren’t reading “the paper” on-line, but searching for a specific piece of information, consuming it, and moving on. Indeed, although some surveys have reported higher numbers, the average time spent on a US news site in November 2009 ranged from just four minutes up to a high of 23 minutes.

If a news organization wants to extract commercial value from its online users, it needs to find a way to first attract large numbers and keep a proportion of these visitors on site for longer so that over time they become loyal. This means the target audience for such an economic strategy is much smaller. To illustrate this, consider the following metrics from the Daily Mail in the UK:

  • 28.7 million unique users/month globally
  • 8.9 million unique users/month from the UK
  • Of the UK users 611,588 came to the web site every day
  • Half of those UK daily users (c. 300,000) stayed for 20 minutes

So while the headline-grabbing number of 28 million unique users suggests a vast community of potential value around the Daily Mail, in fact their loyal on-line users number just 300,000, which is just 7% of their daily print readership.  (The Times editor recently confirmed a similar pattern on his site by contrasting 20 million uniques with the 500,000 who had developed a ‘genuine digital habit’. If one were thinking about a pay wall to control access to content on a paper with these user numbers, where would it be built? Around all content so that each and every visitor had to pay to pass? Around content viewed a certain number of times so the daily visitors were forced to open their wallets? Or directed at those who stayed on site the longest? Two recent posts by Steve Yelvington and Damon Kiesow brilliantly illustrated the counterproductive nature of this dilemma from their experience with local American papers. Kiesow_graph As this graph from Kiesow’s Nahsua Telegraph in New Hampshire makes clear, if your advertising depends on reach, you don’t want to cut off the huge number of uniques on the left, some of whom might be transformed into loyal users if they have open access.  And the number of daily/loyal visitors on the right is too small to build a viable subscription model on. All this shows a general pay wall for news content will slash the number of visitors and fail to generate even modest revenue for investigative journalism. This is not the counter-theological proposition that “all information should be free” (a view Jay Rosen recently found to be often proclaimed but little referenced by those in favour of pay walls). It is recognition of the harsh economic realities of the web’s ecology for news that too many traditional companies are failing to appreciate. Some, though, are realizing that this disparity between the millions of casual users and the thousands of loyal readers points the way to a new strategy. A Fairfax executive in Australia recently remarked that transactions rather than advertising or content were the best on-line revenue streams. Crucially, transactions require news organisations to build a community around their brand and product, and then take a percentage of the transactions (hotel bookings, financial advice etc.) those community members conduct through the associations, links and relationships provided. Building a community based on the smaller, loyal audience is something a Daily Mirror executive outlined, while Slate has been shifting from the pursuit of a mass audience (7 million uniques) to a smaller, more engaged audience (target 500,000) because “one curious reader is worth 50 times the value of the drive-by reader.”

(iii) How they limit public good:

Proponents of pay walls say consumers must contribute to the cost of journalism because it is a public good. We should debate the assumption that journalism per se is automatically a public good given “the media’s” patchy record for accountability in recent times. But even if we rather rashly accept that the majority of the fourth estate is critical of conventional wisdom and questioning of those in power, pay wall advocates have this argument upside down. The public good of journalism in the age of the Internet comes from the vastly expanded possibilities of circulation and distribution. Clay Shirkey has argued this recently (see video here) by calling attention to how a 2002 Boston Globe investigation of child abuse by Catholic priests in the city travelled globally from its Massachusetts origins to the global community of Catholics, mobilising social groups along the way, and ending with the Church having to take action internationally (such as in the recent Irish government report on abuses in the Dublin Archdiocese). Shirkey’s argument is that it was the forwarding of the original article, rather than just its publication, which enabled people to mobilise and force authorities to act. Circulation was what gave the story value as a public good. So while Murdoch and others see public re-use as a crime against civilization, both Shirkey (and Jay Rosen in his interview with Shirkey here, starting at 9:30) demonstrate that in the new ecology of the web this forwarding (or “super-distribution”) of information and its public re-use is the condition of possibility for the very democratic ethos and public virtue media proprietors say they are desperate to defend. If information gets forwarded to journalists to cross-check and challenge their stories it can make them better, and the journalists’ stories get forwarded to people who are the most relevant thereby enabling social action. For Shirkey, this is the public good of publishing on the web. Murdoch might regard it as ‘promiscuous’, but pay walls would prevent the expansive sharing that is at the base of this public good.

Towards the new futures of photojournalism

Here is my point for photographers – forget all the fuss around the Murdoch-inspired debate about paying for content that has dominated the last few weeks of this year. Perhaps News Corporation will make pay walls work for some of its titles, but they won’t be the economic saviour of any media company. Nobody should pin their career hopes on them enabling a rosy future that will replicate a lost and largely mythic past. A new subscription-funded editorial paymaster looking for photographers to assign is not going to emerge, and holding out for media conglomerates to deliver this will only stymie creative development.

However, Murdoch is not really trying to create a new revenue stream (let alone one for documentary work). He is trying to change the terms of the public debate on the web in order to “call time on free distribution.” But that is an even more impossible task, because free distribution is both the intrinsic architecture and great virtue of the web. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The successful visual journalist in the new media economy is therefore going to be someone who embraces the logic of the web’s ecology, using the ease of publication, distribution and circulation to construct and connect with a community of interest around their projects and their practice. Like the media players beginning to understand that developing and engaging a loyal community is more valuable than chasing a mass audience (while being open so those passers-by can become associates), photographers need to do the same. If people now understand they are publishers as well as producers this puts them in a new and potentially powerful position. It won’t be easy (but when was photojournalism or documentary photography easy?), but the successful visual journalist will be someone who uses social media (in combination with the more traditional tools of books, exhibitions and portfolios) to activate partnerships with other interested parties to fund their stories, host their stories, circulate their stories, and engage with their stories.

The social value of this is obvious, and this social value will be the basis for drawing economic value so the work can continue. A good number of people (like Ed Kashi) are working this way now. Jonathan Worth has been pursuing a fascinating project based on his portraits of Cory Doctorow (read an interview with him here discussing this), and VII is promoting discussions around these themes. In the last couple of weeks we have seen new digital magazine formats unveiled, and if developed these will be exciting platforms for visual work. What all these moves have in common is an embrace of the virtues of digital technology in an open web. Google has been one of the icons of the last decade, and while as a company it is far from perfect, its success marks the path for the future so long as we understand what is novel about the web.

Featured photo credit: Karl Randay/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
education media economy

The future of academic publishing in the digital age

Over the past few months I have been part of an ad hoc working group with colleagues from Newcastle University that has been exploring the future of academic publishing. Two problematics framed our analysis: how are changes initiated by the digital economy affecting academic journals and how might the editorial team of a top flight journal in the social sciences respond to these challenges? As previously posted — here and here — our initial conclusions have been that current models of academic journal publishing that rely on limiting access to research are no longer sustainable.

Kyle Grayson has written a detailed and masterful post that summarises our research and details its conclusions. Along with Martin Coward, we are using our blogs to make the arguments available so that people can consider them in full, and Kyle’s post warrants sustained attention. A précis of our work underscores the points I made in my series on ‘revolutions in the media economy’ — we concluded that current modes of publishing and distributing academic research are hampered in their desire for impact by pay walls, an insufficient web presence, and a reluctance to embrace social media. We recommend open access publishing aided and abetted by social media technologies as a way of ensuring the widest distribution and greatest potential impact of the good work done in the academy.

The fundamental challenge is this: are those university managers in a position to effect change open to the transformations that flow from the trends we identified? We don’t have all the answers, but the questions are now unavoidable.

Categories
education media economy

Revolutions in the media economy (4): disturbing the university

The social media revolution I have been exploring in this series of posts has disrupted journalism and challenged photojournalism. That is because – as Clay Shirkey makes clear in Here Comes Everybody – the web has not simply introduced a new competitor into the old media ecosystem; it has created a fundamentally different ecosystem.

At the heart of these changes is the fact (which I will continue to repeat endlessly) that the link between information and its distribution has now been broken. The web has collapsed the cost of publishing, removed obstacles to creating new social groups and eliminated barriers to the formation of distributed networks. This means, as Shirkey argues, while social tools don’t create collective action, they have overcome the majority of obstacles to such action. We therefore live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions.

No sector of society will escape these revolutions. The question is how they will react to them and develop with them. Now it is time to turn the focus to the institution I am formally associated with – the university, and the associated issue of academic publishing.

As sites central to the production and dissemination of knowledge, the modern university finds itself in the new media economy occupying a position with many parallels to the established newspaper or photo agency. This post will explore how these institutions are largely failing to grasp the opportunities arising from these revolutions. This is because university managers are wedded to some very traditional modes of distributing information – with ‘distribution’ incorporating both aspects of teaching and the bulk of academic publishing – that need to be challenged.

Of course, given the diversity in higher education, such generalisations always have exceptions. But drawing on my experience in Australia and the US, but coloured most obviously by the last decade working in the UK, I will argue that if we are to progress as these revolutions shake down, universities are going to have to grasp what flows from breaking the link between information and distribution.

What happens when we move from mass production to the link economy?

The forces of mass production have shaped universities. Knowledge is divided into disciplines, experts variously distribute content to audiences (often in lectures that resemble monks delivering sermons), and auditors judge their enterprise through measurements of supposed utility.

It is hardly surprising, then, having detailed how the new ecosystem of the link economy transforms the creation of value, Jeff Jarvis asked: “Who needs a university when we have Google?” (What Would Google Do, 210).

That is designed to take a professor’s breath away. In claiming that course work involves memorizing facts available through search, Jarvis ignores the many educators who have always been concerned with process rather than product in learning. But his question is a great one if we want to address how our institutions are going to adapt. For Jarvis the link economy makes five demands:

  • Produce unique content with clear value
  • Open up so you can be found; if you aren’t searchable you won’t be located;
  • When you get links and audience, find ways to benefit from them;
  • Use links to find new efficiencies; do what you do best and link to the rest;
  • Find opportunities to create value atop this link layer

If you asked your average university administrator what this meant for them they would probably suggest nothing more than a web site redesign. Now, while I am one of the last people who would suggest universities should swallow whole the lessons from business studies (because wrong-headed attempts to do so are the cause of much anti-intellectualism in UK higher education at the moment), many of Jarvis’s principles should prompt us to think hard about what it means for universities in the 21st century.

There have been some practical reflections on the implications of Jarvis’s arguments for universities, and we are starting to see assessments of how the internet will disturb education and make a virtual college possible, and even radical demands for the end of the university as we know it.

I think Jarvis’s challenges demand more than even that. Thinking of research and scholarship in terms of ‘producing unique content with clear value’ makes sense so long as value includes cultural and social value and is not simply economic, and the idea of ‘creating value atop this link layer’ opens up creative possibilities for developing the idea of ‘curation’ (discussed in the second post of this series) in relation to how educators will use their expertise to enhance the process through which students engage with information.

What does it mean to go from broadcasting to engagement?

Opening up in the link economy also means altering the ethos of teaching, moving it away from the broadcast structure of the lecture to new modes of student engagement. Professors will cease to be people who ‘profess’ and become people who curate flows of information, establishing the conditions of possibility for critical collaboration.

Earlier this year Don Tapscott argued this move away from distributing knowledge through the broadcast lecture would lead to the demise of the university because there was an inevitable clash between such lectures and “the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.” The claim that ‘growing up digital’ leads to a ‘net generation’ with some new, naturalised approach to learning is dubious, not least because schools and families share much in common with the traditional approach of universities.

Tapscott’s claims drew some hostile responses from academics, students and parents who were invested in various elements of the broadcast model. A provost from Georgetown typified the complacency of some by responding to the desire for universities to be “places to learn, not to teach” with the claim; “Always have been. Still are. Hanging in there.” The ‘death of newspapers’ would suggest such confidence in things continuing as before can be fatally misplaced in the new media economy.

Of course not all university teaching proceeds by broadcast, and of course there are many who strive for engagement now. Nonetheless MIT’s recent move to small group teaching for its physics courses shows how persistent and popular the lecture as a mode of distribution has been.

The important work of Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropology professor, demonstrates how the new structures of digital information can address common student complaints about the broadcast model (See further debate on this here). Wesch agrees that there are many educators who hope to subvert the system, but a combination of the physical learning spaces and the social structures of evaluation, promotion and tenure mean that too many efforts at engagement are constrained by the limits of the traditional institutions. Some proof of this is evident at my university, where the new “learning centre” is dominated by two huge “fixed tiered seat lecture theatres” holding hundreds at a time.

The new ecology of the web and its impact on the structure of information requires a fundamental rethink of pedagogy. However, this rethink does not mean that education inevitably migrates on-line. Students are often initially against change because they feel it is a step towards a virtual process with no personal contact.  What is needed, as Wesch argues, are ways to leverage the social media environment for a pedagogical process that is open, collaborative, linked, distributed, and above all else, engaging.

Why does academic publishing subscribe to pay walls?

If lectures are teaching’s mode of distribution, then journal articles and books are the primary way academic research is circulated. But if the link between information and distribution is being broken, we have to ask whether the article and the book are the best means to achieve the desired end.

As the author of many articles and a number of books, I am far from being opposed to them as delivery vehicles. The book, however, has long been under pressure (see the 2002 report by the Modern Language Association on “The Future of Scholarly Publishing”). Universities that once subsidised their own presses have cut back, libraries who are the principal purchasers have slashed budgets, meaning that the vast majority of research monographs containing original work will sell a few hundred copies at best. (I once heard a photographer bemoan the fact his expensive book had sold “only” 7,000 copies – if only the bulk of academics could complain about such numbers!). The result is that getting research published via the book route has become more difficult.

Digital publishing might be one way to address this dilemma, but the question of reputations and how they are judged then looms large. The monograph remains important for how academics are judged by their peers for promotion. Having a book released by a university press is regarded as prestigious and a path to success, so opting to go with blurb or Lulu is thought of as a form of vanity publishing and not (yet) professionally possible. The social structures would need to change, but there is no reason why digital publication cannot also be edited and peer reviewed just like traditional presses.

While books are favoured in some fields, in the social sciences journal articles are increasingly the preferred mode of delivery. (In geography in the UK, more than 85% of assessed research outputs were journal articles). But with these articles a perverse business model is at work. Academics do the research and write the article. They then submit it to a journal that is edited by other academics, which sends the paper to fellow academics for review. Neither of those roles is paid directly; the tasks are regarded as part of one’s professional commitments. If the reviews are good and the article is published, it appears in a volume that is then purchased by an academic who is an individual subscriber or a university library that is an institutional subscriber, or it might come as part of membership to a professional association that has subsidised its publication. If a company owns the journal title published in this way, the profits are predominantly theirs.

If newspapers had operated this way there would be no crisis in journalism – if media companies could get content for free and then sell it back to the people who produced it in the first place the return to investment ratio would have been phenomenal. With individual subscriptions of £25-50/year, and institutional subscriptions often ten times that, journals have become lucrative enterprises for many commercial publishers, hence the proliferation of more and more specialised titles.

In the terms of the current debate about the ‘death of the newspaper’ – where this series of posts began – this means that academic publishing operates a system of comprehensive and very high pay walls, behind which nearly all original research is corralled.

If the desire is for that research to have an impact on the wider community, these pay walls are an intrusive barrier. If someone outside academia wanted an individual article that was found via search, the payment demanded would be anything but ‘micro’ – I’ve just Googled one of my articles on war photography, and I see the university press publisher of the journal would charge £20/$30 for this single item! (It’s good, but there are limits…and I wouldn’t see any of that money anyway.)

The doubly perverse nature of this stems from the fact that university managers are requiring academics to publish in these pay wall-protected journals in the name of ‘impact’, at the same time as demanding that the research in those articles has a wider reach beyond the bounds of the academic community.

The particular understanding of impact here is the ‘impact factor’, which measures the number of citations to articles published by a given journal over two years. Taking the total number of references to articles in one journal made by articles in other journals, divided by the number of articles published in the first journal, gives a number that is ‘the factor’. For example, the highest impact factor in a human geography journal in 2008 was 3.967. That journal published 60 articles in 2006-07, and those articles were cited elsewhere 238 times.

What is immediately obvious are the very small numbers we are dealing with – 60 articles being referenced 238 times over two years. Citation is a subset of readership, so this does not report the total number of people who read an article without citing it. But even if the readership is substantially higher, that comes from a limited community – those who have access to the journals behind the pay wall. Numbers detailing online usage of academic journals are hard to come by, but the one statistic I have seen (from another major human geography journal) revealed that in a year this publication had 80,000 global users – which in terms of web traffic is pretty small, but hardly surprising given the way this content is blocked-off from a wider audience.

The emphasis placed on journal impact factor as a measure of a journal’s importance has been regularly criticized, even by research scientists who are sometimes seen as favouring quantitative measures (see here and here). These objections note how the statistics can be manipulated, but most importantly they reveal that although the impact factor has become an indirect scale of quality, playing a big part in career evaluations, it does not square with the judgements of quality that peer review panels make.

Journal impact factor is not the only quantitative measure of how academic research circulates. The delightfully named “Publish or Perish,” which is free software from Harzing.com, uses Google Scholar to provide data. But whatever measure or package is used none can get around the fact they are only measuring some form of significance within a tightly restricted community.

How can we really have an impact?

To drive academic research into journals behind pay walls contradicts the growing emphasis, especially in the UK, on such research having significance beyond the university. There is much that is disturbing about this government-inspired effort (which, as one newspaper headline put it recently, is designed to weed out “pointless” studies). It depends either on a remarkably narrow understanding of “impact” that makes economic value primary, or it depends on a extremely vague sense of impact (e.g. contributions to “quality of life”) that will be impossible to specify in the quantitative terms so badly desired by the auditors.

The problem with this bean-counting approach is also that it relies on a ‘broadcast model’ not dissimilar to the relationship between the student and the lecture. Researchers are supposed to, prior to their work, complete an “Impact Summary and Impact Plan” detailing who will benefit and how. This implies the one-way transmission of known findings to a passive audience, something that is underpinned by an extensive university bureaucracy tasked with enabling “knowledge transfer” and “public engagement” (usually understood as involving the mainstream media). This bureaucracy is designed to extract academic research from the subscription silo to which the demand for journal publication has condemned it. When you factor in the enormous amount of time it takes to satisfy such bureaucratic demands, combined with the long-lead times of academic publication (1-2 years), then everything is stacked against the stated goal of impact in the broadest sense being achieved.

So what should be done?

The first thing to say is that thinking through the issue of impact in its broadest sense must not involve questioning the legitimacy of research or scholarship on what at first glance might appear to be an obscure topic. It’s common for non-academics to have a swipe at people in “ivory towers” pursuing things not popularly understood. But who is to say, prior to its circulation, development and reception, what will become significant, how it will become significant and when it will be significant?

That said, we can guarantee obscurity for academic research by cutting it off from the collaborations and engagements taking place in the distributed, global conversation that the new information ecology of the web makes possible. It’s counter-productive for university managers to insist, especially in the name of impact as assumed quality, on research being published by restricted outlets.

None of this leads to the conclusion that we abolish book publishing or end academic journals. It is not an either/or choice. What it means, though, is we have to modify those modes of distribution so they can take advantage of what the web had done for publishing, and then connect them with other networks of communication, dissemination and engagement.

Some of this is already happening, as detailed by Michael Nielsen’s interesting account of the disruptions in scientific publication. Specialist blogs, video channels, web journals of visualised research, and new ways of managing and searching papers are all emerging as researchers explore the new distribution possibilities enabled by the web.

Some time ago academics moved against the restrictions of commercial journals by promoting “open access” alternatives. While successful in some areas, these initiatives failed to defeat the traditional system because they could not offer, as new start-ups, the same reputational economy of the established outlets. But a journal is just a means of distribution, with its research value coming from its editors and the peer review system. When those individuals and their practices are prepared to jump the pay wall and publish content free on the internet, then we will have the makings of true open access and the widest possible impact, without the need for any bureaucracy to make it so. And making research available in this way will feedback into changing the practice of teaching away from the broadcast model and towards an ethos of engagement.

Featured photo: treuster/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Revolutions in the media economy (3): photojournalism’s futures

How do the revolutions in the media economy (detailed in the first and second post of this series) affect photojournalism? Given both the crisis in the distribution of information and the new opportunities for the structure of information, what futures are there for photojournalism?

This assumes ‘photojournalism’ is an accepted category of photographic practice.  It is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and may are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice where someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary or editorial photography, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

Of all the journalistic forms said to have died, none have had their demise declared more often than photojournalism. The recent Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan was previewed with articles lamenting a “dying field” because of the revolutions in the media economy, but such warnings have been frequent throughout the recent history of photojournalism (as in a 1999 editorial in The Digital Journalist, which was revisited in recent articles here and here).

Many of the concerns about the health of photojournalism have been well placed. The financial fragility of agencies like Eyedea and the liquidation of Grazia Neri show traditional business models are faltering badly.

This is the beginning of the end of a long decline. The traditional model of print distribution and direct editorial funding has been unravelling from the 1970s onwards, ever since weekly pictorial magazines like Life folded. This demonstrates photojournalism that required an editorial paymaster was in trouble long before the Internet was an issue or the global recession added to its woes.

How do photojournalists view the contemporary media revolutions?

As a community of practice photojournalism does not have a single voice with a consensus view. There are photographers attuned to the new media economy and working in new ways. But there have recently been a number of notable comments that indicate the world of photojournalism is paying minimal attention to contemporary debates about the revolutions in the media economy, or resorting to some commonly circulated but ill-founded views on how to proceed:

  • The photographic press is yet to explore in any detail the impact of the media revolutions on its constituency. For example, Photo District News had a blog post in June 2009 that devoted a mere two hundred words to wondering (without discussing, let alone answering) “if the journalism business fails, who pays for photojournalism?” but it and similar organs are yet to offer more detailed accounts.
  • One outlet that has offered a view is The Digital Journalist, which published two remarkable editorials in August and September 2009 – remarkable, that is, for containing some of the least considered commentary available. The August editorial held the Internet largely responsible for the current problems, made the mistake of conflating newspapers and journalism, and plumped for pay walls around news sites as the answer. In manner that would have befitted the East German regime in its dying days, it cried out – “Let us build that wall before it is too late.” It is very odd to see a major player parroting the same flawed arguments of the traditional media outlets that have done photographers no favours in recent years.
  • The September editorial of The Digital Journalist then demanded that foundations hand over large sums of money to multimedia publications (including itself), who would then distribute those funds to individual photographers with “projects that deserve coverage.” I’m a fan of the named companies who are a big part of the future (or, more accurately, the present) of photojournalism, but are the foundations really likely to part with large wads of up-front cash? Importantly, why would we want a system of new gatekeepers, and what about the fact that many of those digital producers are already partnering with photographers and getting foundation funding for specific projects? These arguments and proposals seem fundamentally out of touch with what is or likely to happen.
  • In an interview with John Temple, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Cheryl Diaz Myer endorsed paying for on-line content (“I’m a fan of micropayments for the web”). In a demonstration of how unfounded examples gain an aura of truth simply by being repeated, Diaz argued that if the news media followed the iTunes model or the Financial Times subscription system then things would be better – ignoring the arguments cited in my first post of this series that demonstrate Apple’s model cannot be copied because music is a different commodity to news, and that the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are atypical news outlets that distribute economically valuable information.
  • Leo Hsu’s foto8 post on “The End of Newspapers” takes a novel tack on the debate by asking, “Without newspapers, without the received standards of print publications, what expectations will we have of photographs and their ability to speak “truth”? In the wake of renewed concerns about photographic manipulation (which I have discussed here) Hsu is worried about how norms that contest fabrication will be governed. It is an interesting argument with respect to the veracity of images, but its assumptions about newspapers repeat the common mistake of seeing information and its mode of distribution as the same thing. It is the community of practice around photojournalism that establishes and governs standards, and that is independent of any particular mode of distribution, as the on-line debates about manipulation this year clearly demonstrate. Most importantly, contra Hsu, it is the practice of journalism and not the institution of newspapers that have, in some moments, sustained democracy. We must not confuse the two and their different roles.

There have been some good analyses of the new media economies from within photojournalism – Aric Mayer’s review of the publishing crisis and the crisis in editorial photography come to mind – but overall there needs to be a better recognition in the field of what is going on and what it means.

What inspiration can photojournalism take from the media revolutions?

Many of the recent debates within photojournalism have concerned the coverage of issues and the aesthetics of that coverage. In the wake of the last two World Press Photo competitions there have been insightful and provocative comments on how photojournalism pictures the world by Stephen Mayes and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, which prompted some heated feedback (see here for the comments on Mayes lecture and here for a response to Broomberg and Chanarin). Mayes observation that his years as secretary of the World Press Photo jury led him to regard the submissions to the contest as primarily “romantic” – that is, “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” – chimed with other critiques, such as Jörg Colberg’s thoughts on the visual language of photojournalism, which prompted an extensive discussion on the Magnum blog.

These are vital debates even if there is no single resolution. My concern here, however, is with how the revolutions in the new media economy provide photojournalism with new opportunities for the future. These opportunities are made clear by thinking about what the changing structure of information does for photojournalism, and this changing structure of information will undoubtedly assist photojournalism in responding to the concerns about aesthetics and coverage of issues. Inspired by the themes of my previous post, we can say at the outset:

  • The web is where it is at. Photographers must not ignore the full range of outlets (print media, books, exhibitions etc) but the Internet is the only platform with a growing audience for news stories
  • To be on the web means producing multimedia stories. ‘Multimedia’ can mean many things, from simple photo galleries through to stand alone topic sites with stills, audio, video and text together, but it is the combination of sound and image which offers the basis for the most compelling form for storytelling

To say as much is to state the blindingly obvious. Photographers have been using the Internet for years, but what is at stake here is something more than having a shop window on the web. It involves seeing oneself as a publisher of content and a participant in a distributed story, the form of which helps reshape the content of the story. Rather than just producing a single image or small series of images to be sold into another person’s story, multimedia on the web has numerous advantages for visual storytellers:

  • It allows photographers to focus on a story, and produce more content with greater control over how those pictures are presented
  • While the meaning of visual stories can’t be controlled, they can be directed through the construction of a narrative that draws on sound and text as well as photographs and video
  • It potentially overcomes restrictions on getting longer and more complex stories published for a global audience, especially younger generations who do not consume traditional media
  • It is an effective response to the conceptual challenge of how to provide context for a photograph
  • It can overcomes photojournalism’s objectification of people by giving subjects their own voice

This gels with the changing nature of the atomic unit of the news media discussed in the previous post. Running parallel to a shift from ‘article’ to ‘topic’ will be the move from ‘single picture’ or ‘photo essay’ to ‘visual story’ as part of the multi-dimensional narratives that make up a ‘topic’. Moreover, the visual story will be set in context, linked, updated and distributed across the web.

There are increasing numbers of photographers beginning to work in this way, as sites like Interactive Narratives or KobreGuide demonstrate. However, what I am trying to highlight here is more than a shift from taking stills to producing videos. It is about rethinking the capacity to tell stories in line with what Fred Ritchin calls a “new visual journalism,” which he outlined in greater detail here.

Ritchin has long been a leading proponent on these changes. Back in the early days of the web (1996) he produced what is still one of the most innovative multimedia stories, “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” which was organized around Gilles Peress’ photography and published by the New York Times. Ritchin analysed this production in a significant essay called “Witnessing and the Web: An Argument for a New Photojournalism” and has recently developed these ideas in his important book After Photography where he outlines, conceptually and practically, a new practice called “hyperphotography.”

Hyperphotography is a “paradigm shift into another medium, or more precisely into an interactive, networked multimedia, which distances itself from conventional photography” (p. 70). For Ritchin this means “an entire photograph can…serve as a node, a hyperphotograph, an ambiguous, visual, uncaptioned, tantalizing segment of a developing conversation leading, if the reader is willing, to other photographs, other media, other ideas (p. 71). Far from being abstract, Ritchin’s concept has practical pointers on how information can be embedded in images, offering viewers the option of deciding which links they follow in a non-linear fashion.

This move from ‘photojournalism’ to ‘visual journalism,’ from ‘photography’ to ‘hyperphotography’ does not involve either giving up on the still image or abandoning the documentary function of photography. It might employ a variety of new media formats, such as those used by FLYP magazine or the In a City flipbook curated by DJ Clark for the British Council. Whatever its exact form, it uses the power of photography to help structure a multi-dimensional story that through its links, context and openness can be a strong form of evidence for the story it wishes to tell.

How are photojournalists going to get paid in these changing times?

We have to constantly revisit this conundrum, but each time we get back to this point we have to remember something very important.

We can’t approach this issue via some misplaced nostalgia for a golden age that if it did actually exist certainly no longer survives. Photographic stories or documentary have always been difficult to fund directly. If there was a time when the majority of photojournalists simply waited for well-paid commissions to produce important work, that time is no more. We have to doubt though whether the past was like that, because in reality few if any photographers have been able to sustain a career entirely through editorial projects they chose to do. Even Sebastião Salgado had to do corporate and advertising work to cross-subsidise work on the social issues he wanted to explore, and Simon Norfolk sells his prints to a wealthy clientèle through a fine art gallery in order to support his visual critique of the US military.

That means, as mentioned in the previous posts, funding is increasingly going to be indirect. This was confirmed by Stephen Mayes of VII in a an interview headlined “Inventing Twenty-First Century Photojournalism.” Mayes began by stating “as long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble.” Instead he proposed this shift:

[The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.

Mayes’ thoughts were reasonably conventional in so far as magazines and newspapers were his primary distributors. Nonetheless, they attracted some outraged comments, with two people alleging that journalism dies the moment one enters into a partnership with the subject. To which Mayes replied, “it amazes me how this question comes up only when discussing non-publishing partners as though the integrity of the news industry is somehow unquestionable. Like fish in water we often fail to recognize the constraints of our existing media…”

I couldn’t agree more. If some of the great photojournalists had adhered to this absolutism we would have been deprived of great pictures – think, for example of how a Larry Burrows needed the US military to get around Vietnam, or a Tom Stoddart required assistance from MSF to travel in Sudan. Of course partnerships vary and anyone concerned about integrity will have to work hard to maintain independence, but that applies in all situations. Aside from the fact the old editorial paymaster model is all but gone, the idea that taking money from corporate media funded by advertising, so that one can create content which will attract more viewers for that advertising, is free from all moral issues is…well, rather daft.

Nobody works in an ethically pure zone. VII has to face those issues with its sponsorship by Canon, anyone working with an NGO or foundation needs to confront them too, and in accepting a commission from a newspaper or on-line site the same applies. Negotiating those issues requires transparency and reflexivity. Operating in the networked world of social media is one way to achieve that openness and integrity.

In the end, creating unique, quality content in a myriad of multimedia formats is the best way to produce value. We know great imagery on the web can drive traffic to sites and around particular stories, and where there is traffic there will be networks, relationships and the opportunity to find ways to fund that content. This does not mean multimedia, visual journalism or hyperphotography will kill off books, exhibitions and the printed image. But those forms of distribution will comprise only a part of a successful photographers portfolio of activity in the new media economy.

Next…what the new media economy might mean for universities and academic publishing…

Photo credit: Today is a good day/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy

Revolutions in the media economy (2): the changing structure of information

Is there actually a crisis in news and journalism? We must not ignore the historical perspective that locates the current problems in the media economy, as my previous post detailed, but Jeff Jarvis is right – if we start from the assumption that there is a crisis for all concerned we will ask the wrong questions, miss the great opportunities, and head off in the wrong direction.

It’s worth repeating what I think should be the guiding light for any discussion the new media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.”

Following this means understanding journalism as information and newspapers as the means of distribution. As such, the death of the latter does not equate to the death of the former. Richard Stacey put it more bluntly – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”

If we are focused on the nature of the information there are opportunities. If like many of the traditional media companies we are preoccupied with the means of distribution, then there is most certainly a crisis. How, then, can we think about the opportunities and what they mean for the structure of information in the new media economy?

The web changes everything

The revolution in the media economy has few certainties, but one thing is crystal clear when it comes to news coverage – the Internet is the only platform with an audience growing over time.

This growth comes from the new ways people consume information. While traditional sources such as newspapers, analogue TV and radio have declining audiences, the amount of time people spend reading, watching and listening is increasing.  This is driven by the way – as American data shows – “people are relying more heavily…on platforms that can deliver news when audiences want it rather than at appointed times, a sign of a growing ‘on demand’ news culture. People increasingly want the news they want when they want it.” And satisfying that desire can only be achieved digitally.

The revolution, though, involves much more than making information available in a variety of accessible digital formats, as a recent German manifesto on the challenge of the web made clear. (Interestingly, this manifesto was a direct response to the Hamburg Declaration in which traditional news organisation sought to tame the internet through new intellectual property rights to restrict fair use, make people pay for quotes and withhold the ability to link to content).

The web revolution changes the structure of the information that is being provided, and it changes the relationship between the producer and the consumer of that information. As an article in the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, “the Internet is a medium in the word’s truest sense. It is something that exists in the between. It is connective tissue.” And far from undermining the institutions of democracy, these transformations could be the basis for a more democratic culture.

How is the structure of news information being transformed?

Traditional media deal with news as an information relay. On a daily cycle reporters gather information, construct a story (as an article or an item) before a fixed deadline, then transmit this to readers/viewers/listeners who some time later passively consume the information.

Of course, modern newspapers and television stations compress this cycle with their web versions, electronic comment facilities or rolling news networks, but the overall idea of a story as a discrete thing produced by a deadline remains. As the CJR declared:

News organizations have had trouble adapting to the digital world because they operate under a broadcast sensibility. They produce discrete bits of content—finished products meant for passive consumption.

On-line media changes all that. Some have argued that the “atomic unit” of news media is changing. Marissa Mayer of Google told a US Senate inquiry on the future of journalism “the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article.” This shift mirrored that in music when consumers moved from albums of music to individual downloads, and is driven by the fact that 80% of on-line users find their articles via search engines rather than through the home pages of particular sites.

The web’s challenge to traditional information structures might be more radical than a move from newspaper to article. The atomic unit might be no longer fixed in space as the article, the item, the page or the publication – it could be something that evolves over time via the post, the tweet, the link as a flow or wave of iterations that together produce a story that – like the world it is reporting on – is never finalised.

The changing nature of temporality means that a plural and inherently more democratic approach to news information is now possible. As Charlie Beckett argues, “with the death of the deadline comes multi-dimensional narratives.” Rather than the tired old formula of “he said, she said” journalism we can have competing perspective at the heart of every story.

This means journalism becomes a process rather than a product, and the developing topic rather than the finished story is the new fundament of reporting. As Jeff Jarvis argues, this requires much more than having a list of links to other people’s stuff at the bottom of an on-line article:

Instead, I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something… It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.

There are some small but important practicalities that can achieve this – such as media organizations treating stories as topics under a permanent URL, which Google’s Mayer recommended as a way of constructing a “living story.” With the recent introduction of Fast Flip, a new user interface (UI) for news that aggregates individual articles and web pages via subjects, Google is leading innovation in this area. As Scott Karp argues, this demonstrates once again how traditional media companies are failing to address challenges – new formats for presenting news – that should clearly by their concern:

Most publishers are focused on how to charge for news. But there’s very little talk about how to innovate the packaging of news, much less a new UI for news. There’s very little talk about how people consume news on the web, about the value of aggregating articles from multiple sources, about solving consumers’ problems rather than publishers’ problems.

Most importantly, rethinking the ‘atomic unit’ of information goes beyond any technological issue and changes the nature of reporting.

What does this mean for journalists and editors?

One of the fears flowing from the ‘death of newspapers’ and shift to on-line news platforms is that our capacity to sift important information from unsourced trivia will be lost. In typical fashion, commentators see the end of one thing (stories by authoritative reporters) leading inexorably to its polar opposite (rumours by amateur gossips). It’s dreadfully easy to come up with examples of trash on the Internet and argue that it is therefore an unreliable medium. But, apart from the fact that the traditional news outlets produce more than their fair share of rubbish, there is nothing automatic or inevitable about digital media dumbing down standards of inquiry or reporting. As Taylor Owens and David Eaves make clear in their excellent review of the relationship between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media (Missing The Link), the rise of blogging is a boon for good journalism, in part because of the way it makes fact-checking an open source phenomenon that draws on the wisdom of the crowd.

The new structures of distribution affect the structures of information, but they do so by changing rather than eliminating the role of the journalist and editor. This is because the number of people who can write and publish without being filtered out by the mainstream media (as in this blog) is increasing all the time. But even for full-time journalists and editors in established news organisations a change is coming, and understanding their role as being a “curator” is what marks this change.

Instead of thinking as journalists and editors as the privileged insiders revealing secrets in a one-way relationship to their audience, they become those whose experience and knowledge allows them to give context and order to an ever-developing topic. Mindy McAdams has listed seven different practices that might make up this process of curation. In addition to these will be commitment to real openness, in terms of encouraging a real-time dialogue with feedback from the audience, ensuring transparency about sources (without compromising confidents), and tapping into the power and wisdom of readers through “crowd sourcing” exercises (such as The Guardian’s encouragement of its readers to sort through the raw data of politician’s expense claims).

The role of transparency in this new structure of information is vital. Showing how you get the story, and linking to others who have different but relevant aspects of the topic, is the best way to establish credibility and legitimacy for this mode of reporting. Indeed, David Weinberger has gone as far to claim “transparency is the new objectivity.” In the past, media accuracy was achieved by a handful of editors and fact-checkers who verified data, but with thousands of interactive readers function as open source reviewers, this accuracy can only be enhanced through thoughtful curation.

What might a new media organisation look like?

These ideas can guide the structure of a new media organisation, and if we summarise the points above and blend in the thoughts of Emily Bell and Chris Brogan, with a dash of Jeff Jarvis, we get the following pointers:

  • The future of journalism is networked not silo’d, it has to be distributed not static, everything is modular, linkable and fluid
  • Everything must be portable and mobile-ready, and it has to be appropriate for the platform, using any means available which, in the days of Audioboo, flip videos and social networking sties, is pretty much every way
  • Stories are points in time, and won’t end at first publication, but become a flow of edits, links, updates, and extensions that together make a topic
  • Journalists and editors work as curators, and creators aren’t necessarily on staff. Contributors come in many shapes: paid staff, partner, guest, and conversational
  • Media cannot stick to one form. Text, photos, video, music, audio, animation, etc are a flow
  • Everything must have collaborative opportunities, and journalists and editors need the help of communities to build and engage audiences and to break stories
  • To be effective and trusted information has to be transparent and open to engagement
  • Advertising cannot be the primary method of revenue. Value-add services are another source of funding
  • Paper isn’t dead: it’s on demand
  • Above all else, produce unique content with clear value – that is, clear social as well as economic value

A final thought about how to fund it

Funding new media organisations remains, so to speak, the million-dollar question. But think about this slide from the Daily Telegraph’s digital editor Edward Roussel, presented at a CUNY conference last November:

Edward_Roussel_slide

It underlines the point from my previous post that if we think about funding in terms of paying for editorial content rather than the entirety of traditional media organisations, where the bulk of the cost goes on printing and distribution, we start with a much smaller need. If an existing news organisation like the New York Times was to be reshaped for a purely digital future, there would still be a major shake-up and much heartbreak, but it wouldn’t be the much-prophesied ‘end of journalism’. Because we are in a revolutionary moment no one knows how the media economy will shake down, but the outcome can be positive for the process of journalism.

Next – what all this might mean for photojournalism…

Photo credit: Carol Mitchell/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy

Revolutions in the media economy (1): the context of crisis

The way news and information is reported and delivered to citizens is undergoing profound transformations, especially in the United States and Europe. In the last twelve months commentary has been rife with claims about “the death of newspapers,” the end of journalism, and the impact this crisis will allegedly have on democratic politics.

In a series of four posts, I want to consider the revolution that is reshaping the media economy through which we come to know about the wider world. This first post deals with the reasons for this upheaval and how it is changing the economics of news. Because of the ground to be covered in providing the context of these changes, this will be quite a lengthy discussion.

The second post will look at how the structure of information is changing in this new economy and what it means for the practice of journalism; the third post will ask what these transformation mean for photojournalism; and the fourth post will consider some of the implications for academic publishing. [Update: in December 2009 I added a fifth post on “the pay wall folly for photographers”].

What crisis?

In the US the transformation of the media economy has been mapped on Paper Cuts, which records company closures and job losses in journalism. With high profile newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post Intelligencer giving up print and moving on-line, and the Rocky Mountain News shutting for good after 150 years, the decline of traditional news outlets has been hard to miss. In the UK, the local and regional press has been equally hard hit, with half of that sector facing closure in the next few years. These changes may not be repeated globally, but it is clear the established outlets of the print media economy are vulnerable.

Structural changes or cyclical problems?

Because the upheaval in the print media has coincided with the international financial crisis of September 2008 onwards, we have to ask whether the global recession is to blame, or whether there are larger structural problems in the media economy that are now coming to the fore?

Newspapers have been in decline for a long time. In America, overall circulation (when adjusted for population growth) is “about half of what it was in 1946 and is declining rapidly”. That decline has been constant since the 1960s, when other media, especially television, overtook papers as the primary source of news. The decline in readership by age has been constant for all groups, but given younger generations have always used papers less, there is no prospect of this trend being arrested in the future.

The way papers have been in competition with other forms of media such as television shows that the impact of the Internet on newspapers is not a qualitatively new phenomenon, even though it might be an especially important development. These changes were obvious after the 2008 US presidential election:

For the first time, more Americans are getting their news online than from traditional ink and paper, although the popularity of television still eclipses all other forms of media. In an apparently sharp shift in habits…the number of consumers using the web as a main news source surged from 24% to 40% in a year, overtaking the 35% who rely on newspapers. Television slipped from 74% to 70%.

These structural changes in audience behaviour intersected with changes in media ownership beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. City and regional papers in America were purchased by corporations trading on the stock market, which meant shareholders rather than readers became the primary concern of management. Balancing the books to ensure profit meant that journalism was cut, which in turn accelerated the decline in readership as people went elsewhere for news. In recent times, these corporate strategies have produced a further decline in journalism because servicing the massive debts undertaken to finance new acquisitions has required cost cutting on a grand scale.

The collapse of print advertising revenues during the current recession is regularly cited as a reason for the death of the newspaper. But as Nichols and McChesney have written, this revenue stream has been in long decline too:

Print advertising, which still accounts for the lion’s share of newspaper revenue, declined gently as a percentage of all ad spending from 1950 to ’90, as television grew in importance. Starting in 1990, well before the rise of the web as a competitor for ad dollars, newspaper ad revenues went into a sharp decline, from 26 percent of all media advertising that year to what will likely be around 10 percent this year [2008].

Long-term declines in audience and advertising, constant challenges from other media such as television, all hastened by debt-financed corporate strategies that put profit ahead of journalism, show that changes in the media economy will not be reversed even if the current global recession is followed by a period of renewed economic growth. They also show that the constant sniping at Google and craigslist for ‘killing journalism’ are way wide of the mark, even if both organizations have added to the current pressure on traditional news organizations.

Save newspapers or save journalism?

The current crisis in newspapers has led people to speculate at every opportunity about what strategy, product, technology or unknown revenue stream will “save journalism.” There are two things going on here that need unpacking, because how we approach this question conditions the sort of response we can imagine.

First, there is the assumption that journalism, as routinely practiced in traditional news organisations, is a public good essential to democracy because of its history of challenging authority. To put it mildly, this is viewing things through rose-tinted lenses. It’s easy to think that each and every news organisation is run by people who see Bernstein and Woodward’s pursuit of the Watergate scandal as a template for daily reporting. But recent history suggests that much reporting promotes the interests of those in power (think about The New York Times cozy coverage of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, which subsequently prompted an apology of sorts from the paper) or recycles PR material (see Nick Davies critique of “churnalism” in the UK, and the “10 ugly truths about modern journalism.”). For sure, we need critical journalism more than ever, and there are some good existing examples, but overall it is something to create as much as it is something to protect. With survey’s showing Americans barely trust what they read or see, journalism’s belief in its inherent social value is ill-founded and needs to be re-established.

It is important to note there that this faith in the assumed relationship between journalism and democracy comes in part from what Daniel Hallin calls the “high modernist” understanding of journalism as “objective” and “socially responsible.” This journalism ran from the end of World War II until the 1980s, when more partisan and ideological coverage emerged, yet it is now being resurrected as the essential ethos of journalism rather than a historically specific form of the practice. Equally, we should not forget that the idea of objectivity as the defining characteristic of journalism was also central to corporate strategies in the post-war period – the best way to maximise audiences for advertisers was to draw readers in via a promise of non-partisan reporting, because the advertisers’ clients did not want to be associated with controversy.  All of which underscores Hallin’s argument (revisited recently by Jay Rosen) that journalism in recent times has been less about fearless objectivity than producing the “sphere of consensus” for political debate.

Second, there is the assumption that newspapers and journalism are the same thing. While we certainly want to save the good, critical, contextualising bits of journalism, we need to understand the difference between the practice of journalism and the particular modes of its delivery. Saving journalism is not the same as saving newspapers. As Robert Picard has argued:

Many…misunderstand the nature of journalism. It is not a business model; it is not a job; it is not a company; it is not an industry; it is not a form of media; it is not a distribution platform. Instead, journalism is an activity. It is a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed, and conveyed. The practices are influenced by the form of media and distribution platform, of course, as well as by financial arrangements that support the journalism. But one should not equate the two.

Journalism was synonymous with newspapers so long as there were no competing media. The advent of radio news in the 1920s and television news in the 1950s broke that link, but the current debate proceeds as though journalism cannot exist without traditional print media organisations. Yet the financial analysts Moody’s have called newspapers a business suffering “structural disconnect” given that only 14% of their operating costs are dedicated to content creation (i.e. journalism) while 70% of costs are consumed by printing, distribution and corporate functions. There is no doubt that legacy organisations like The Guardian or The Washington Post carry important cultural baggage when it comes to producing credible reporting, but their journalism can be delivered to audiences much more cheaply and effectively through a variety of media, as is now the case with web sites, podcasts and the like.

This highlights what is most significant about new technologies in the evolving media economy. As Richard Stacey has observed, “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.” Journalism is the information and newspapers are the means of distribution. The death of the latter does not equate to the death of the former.

How do we fund the good stuff?

The Internet has solved the problem of distribution and collapsed the cost of printing (assuming widespread access to broadband, which is not something that can always be assumed), making almost everyone a potential media outlet. Plenty of people are making money from the web (especially pornographers), but how can this new technology of distribution be used to fund the public information we need? While good journalism has been under financial pressure for the past thirty years, how can the social media future be leveraged to support investigative work?

The first thing that is necessary in answering this is to resist the temptation (again) to look back on an allegedly golden age that has been lost. We have to recognise that news and probing journalism has never made money by itself in order to pay for itself. We should not, therefore, be judging the social media future for reporting via the flawed assumption that we are looking for a business model that will do what has never previously been done.

We have to recognise that the media in the twentieth century has always been corporate, and that journalism has always been funded indirectly. Oliviero Toscani once noted that editorial was “the advertising of advertising,” the content which drew in the readership to view the material the advertisers paid for, thereby indirectly subsidising that information. The idea of a newspaper as a publication containing everything from comics to sport scores to political analysis to clothing advertisements was simply a function of those ads requiring a large print format that was expensive. Clay Shirkey has put it succinctly by noting:

The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.

The search for new business models for news is occupying the minds of people much more knowledgeable than me. However, from reading recent debates it is pretty clear that the new model will in fact be a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly. As John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News has declared, news organisations do not make money from news; news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism.

When it comes to the question of how to ‘monetise’ journalism on the web, everyone is talking about “pay walls” – especially now that Rupert Murdoch has flagged his intention to introduce them on all his publications in the next year. However, a large number of commentators and publishers believe they are not the answer. Why are pay walls not the future solution to funding journalism?

This has been a raging debate in the last year – see this huge selection of recent articles and posts from a short time – but there are few if any examples of enterprises successfully restricting the openness of the web. This is because the Internet, and the link in particular, has fundamentally changed the structure of the information economy, enabling a distributed and collaborative conversation happening in different places at different times (think about the composition of this post and the links it employs, for example). If people using the web by following links come up against a pay wall – part of a site that demands a small payment or subscription for access to a piece of information – nine times out of ten they will go somewhere else where information is free and accessible. The result is that the information behind the pay wall is cut off from the audience and the developing conversation, and the author of that restricted information has had their public impact curtailed.

How do we know comprehensive pay walls don’t work for most news journalism? Take the web site that emerged in the wake of the Rocky Mountain News closing. InDenverTimes needed 50,000 subscribers paying only $5/month to support their operation. The RMN had 210,000 subscribers before it closed so this seemed reasonable – yet only 3,000 of those individuals were willing to go on-line and pay for the new site’s content. In contrast, think of how The New York Times ended its TimesSelect subscription in October 2007 and saw its web traffic increase by 40% as a result (thereby making its columnist’s views part of the public conversation and boosting advertising revenue through a larger audience).

Even if we leave aside the larger questions of participation in the new link economy, a rough analysis of a pay wall for Murdoch’s paper The Times suggests the economics don’t make sense. A common assumption for any business offering free versus paid versions is that only about 10% of the customer basis will migrate from the free to the paid. If 10% of Times readers were willing to pay, it is estimated they would generate between £4-8 million/year (excluding the administrative cost of running the on-line payment system). Given that the paper probably earns about £45 million in digital advertising, and that this amount would decline sharply with the lost audience who refuse to cross the paywall, thereby wiping out the revenue generated by the subscription if not much more, the value of the exercise seems dubious. And for a media company that has £445 million in revenue and £51 million in losses, the gain of £4 million+ seems hardly worth the effort even if there were no associated losses. On a different scale, a recent review of small-town American papers that have instituted some form of on-line charging, usually to protect print editions, shows mixed results, with declines in on-line audiences. It is therefore no wonder that most publishers “fear they could lose 75% or more of their traffic and banner revenue if they started to charge for content.”

Comprehensive pay walls might work if every single credible news organisation erected one at the same time, but that isn’t going to happen. In the UK The Guardian declared it will not follow Murdoch down the subscription route (partly because they recall the American audience they created while TimesSelect was in place), the BBC will always have news free for global users (albeit paid for by the indirect subscription of the license fee in Britain), and National Public Radio will continue to offer its 26 million listeners quality programming without direct payment (NPR’s executive director recently called the desire for pay walls a “mass delusion” of the media industry).

The desire to make pay walls a key strategy in the new media economy is historically odd given that news organisations have never relied on subscriptions for the majority of their revenues. As a rule only 20% of newspaper revenues have come from subscriptions with 80% from advertising. That means even if pay walls were somehow successful it would only ever be a very small success on the road to funding journalism. And as the only beneficial pay walls are likely to be small and partial – as part of a “freemium” strategy that leaves general news open to all while restricting access to premium content – the revenue they produce is likely to be even smaller.

A common response to this argument is to highlight the small number of successful instances of subscription, such as the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal or a consumer publication like Which in the UK. However, what these outlets have in common is that they offer subscribers sensitive information with financial benefits (often paid for by corporate expense accounts) or, in the case of Which, they provide impartiality through advertisement-free reports. And if someone argues that micropayments for individual news stories might be a better approach than a comprehensive pay wall then — aside from questioning the idea there can be an ‘iTunes for news’ — we should ask if this is a good scenario: would journalists like their proprietors to judge the quality of their work by the number of consumers who had purchased their writing? Would serious investigative journalism compete well in an environment where pageview bonuses (like those at Gawker) were in operation?

That leaves funding journalism back in the troubled world of advertising, which as noted above, has been declining in print media for a long time. In the early days of the on-line revolution, it was hoped the vast amount of web traffic (“unique users”) going to sites would provide the basis for a new advertising model for the Internet. In part this has occurred, and on-line advertising remains a growth area in percentage terms even during the current recession. The trouble is that the values of this advertising is small, perhaps one-tenth of the print sector it is replacing. Except for Google and its distributed mode of advertising, “print dollars are replaced by mere online dimes” [Jarvis, What Would Google Do, p.125].

So neither pay walls nor advertising are the answer; what then? As noted above, instead of a single business model for journalism emerging, we are going to see a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly (see the example of one profitable blog, Techdirt, here). And that will bring journalism into line with other digital industries. Take music for example – it is rumoured that only 10% of U2’s revenue comes from its songs/albums. The bulk comes from concerts, merchandising, video games, advertising, sponsorship and any number of other sources. It’s going to take some creative accounting, but funding good investigative journalism will only be as difficult as it has always been, and largely achieved indirectly.

Next…what all this means for the structure of information and the practice of journalistic inquiry in the new media economy…

(These thoughts stem in large part from my presentations on ‘the political economy of multimedia’ made to the MA Photography programme at the Dalian College of Image Art, China, in June 2008 and July 2009. I am indebted to Dave Clark for making those presentations possible, and for our on-going conversation on these issues.)

Photo credit: William Couch/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.