February 2, 2013

Journalism has to get one thing right for a social world

The Week has folded. The Global Mail doesn’t seem far behind, though it’s still publishing good stories. New Matilda is hanging on with crowdsourced micro-dollars.

Everyone assumes there’s a next thing for journalism, me included. Because if there isn’t, what then? What kind of democracy would we have without the fourth estate?

But while the bastions of media in this country fight to stay afloat, their upstart competitors aren’t exactly blowing up.

So how do you make a media company for a world where content is increasingly distributed through sharing and social media instead of the old print and broadcast channels? That’s the question asked by BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti in an email republished on Chris Dixon’s blog.

It’s a great, optimistic email – and I’d be interested to know how much Peretti’s vision matches up with the reality at BuzzFeed.

It’s not like the challenge is finding readers. Across the board, there are more readers than ever, or maybe more reading than ever. The challenge is sustainable business models for journalism, since the coincidence that wound up with advertisers cross-subsidising journalism seems finished.

Last year, I read a terrific manifesto of a piece from Craig Mod

On ‘Subcompact Publishing,’ it see-sawed between a very designerly aesthetic and the kind of pared back simplicity of message that I think most writers would aspire to. It stuck with me.

Referring to Clayton Christensen’s idea of the innovator’s dilemna – that “the perception of the incoming disruptors is that they’re low quality, and therefore not really worth paying attention to” – Craig talks about Honda’s N360, a light or sub-compact car. He imagines the car’s engineers looking at the sum total of cars created to that date, and asking:

What’s the simplest thing we can build with this?

In the software industry, they call it the “minimum viable product” – or MVP.

As Craig explains, newspapers or magazines are simple, generally intuitive objects. They’re easy to read. Most media apps and sites aren’t.

His ‘subcompact publishing’ manifesto is:

Subcompact Publishing tools are first and foremost straightforward.

They require few to no instructions.

They are easily understood on first blush.

The editorial and design decisions around them react to digital as a distribution and consumption space.

They are the result of dumping our publishing related technology on a table and asking ourselves — what are the core tools we can build with all this stuff?

They are, as it were, little N360s.

I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:

  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
  • Small file sizes
  • Digital-aware subscription prices
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (don’t paginate)
  • Clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • Touching the open web

It’s prescriptive, and great creative projects are going to make their own rules. But dumping our publishing knowledge on a table and asking what can we build with it is a good place to start.

I had a very modern moment yesterday while searching for Craig Mod’s piece

I read Craig’s piece last year, but for the past couple of months, try as I might, I couldn’t find the right combination of search terms to find it again.

So I asked my Twitter community – I had, after all, tweeted it at the time. The first time I asked, it went nowhere.

Yesterday, I asked again:

So frustrated! Super inspired by manifesto for a new mobile/online news site that popped up a few months ago. Now can’t find it! @bronwen?

This time I tagged Bronwen Clune, who tweets about media innovation and runs the excellent email list Newsgraf, and she came back asking for more clues – “Australian? US?” I replied:

@bronwen think US, seemed more conceptual than case study. Led by a tech/startup person, not a media person. Very lean. Seemed v practical.

Great links and suggestions started coming in from great people like Amy Denmeade, Gavin Heaton, Paul Wallbank and Bronwen.

I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for and Bronwen captured the frustration of the fruitless search:

@matt_levinson Gah, now I’m searching for one I loved and can’t find.

But Amy Denmeade’s mention of Marco Armente’s site had given me the clue I needed. See the first half of this post ;)

We don’t have the US’s huge media ecosystem, or the catalytic funding of organisations like the Knight Foundation and their terrific News Challenges, and our startup scene is much more focussed on data-driven projects (a rich vein to tap).

But there is a huge gene pool of creative media makers coming out of community radio, zine making, blogging and subcultural writing, as well as the mainstream of journalism schools, and there are stacks of senior, seriously experienced journalists out looking for work.

Our strongest digital media projects so far: Crikey, Mumbrella, the Spectator group (recently sold to News Limited), Mamamia, Andrew Jaspan’s The Conversation, sustainability website The Fifth Estate, News and the ABC’s opinion sites (The Punch, The Drum), CNET, ZDNet, maybe even The Monthly’s latest thing Politicoz – they’ve all started with a fine focus, and in some cases expanded.

In contrast, the sites and publications suffering… most are generalist, generally unfocussed – maybe that’s the point.

  • http://twitter.com/paulwallbank Paul Wallbank

    Thanks for the shout-out Matt, I think the key is what value are these publications adding.

    What concerns me with a number of them, specifically some of the Crikey titles, Mamma-Mia and The Punch is their reliance on unpaid contributors.

    This has three effects; on quality, on the supply of writers and on the sustainability of their business models.

    On the latter point, I attended an event in Sydney where three publishers were discussing how they thought it high quality content was important to their success but they couldn’t afford to pay for it.

    In my mind that raises the question of the sustainability of those publications, if you can’t afford to pay for raw material, then it seems to me that the business model isn’t viable.

    The effect on writers is more pernicious; quite clearly if they aren’t going to be paid then most will have to find jobs driving buses or working in corporate comms. In fact what we’re seeing on many of these unpaid content sites is just regurgitating media releases and self serving promotional articles – business sites are particularly bad for this.

    Having sites that just regurgitate media releases means a low quality publication and these ventures are adding no value to visitors.

    This last point is probably the most pertinent at the stage we’re currently at where sites like Buzzfeed, Business Insider, The Daily Mail and Huff Post mainly do quick rewrites of stuff they’ve seen elsewhere.

    I think your point is spot on about focus – it may well be we’re in a transition period where advertisers and subscribers are still coming to terms with the web, so it may be some of these sites do have a real minimal viable model that involves adding real value.

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  • matt_levinson

    Hi Paul, couldn’t agree more. When I edited the print music mag Cyclic Defrost with a fairly big, voluntary team of writers, subs, designers, illustrators, etc, I could have stepped it up by chasing advertising – but that was only going to happen by bringing in ad sales people, which would have created two classes working on the magazine. We got Australia Council funding and kept it going.

    I think there’s something counter-intuitive and powerful about the minimum viable product concept though – we write these things off when they seem to be doing something cheap and nasty, but they own that space and gradually expand.

    The issue as I see it, is that if you’re operating on next to nothing and can cut costs, it sets a template for later. I was a city editor on dance music site inthemix.com.au at uni and soon after – the writers and editors were community-sourced, in stark contrast with the ad sales team. The writing wasn’t going to set the world on fire, and they’ve since built a strong web business – it’s crazy that I didn’t include their various sites above – but it’s on effectively free content.

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