The blind rent collectors: The future of journalism should not be confused with the future of newspapers ..

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The title of this blog ‘The blind rent collectors’ is a play on the title of a book called The blind watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. (The picture shows an old English rent collector).

It comes from a discussion I had with a colleague when I said that: If you are in the business model of ‘rent collecting’ you are blind to the wider threats around you until it is too late.

For instance – IBM was a monopoly and in doing became focused with the idea of collecting a steady income (rent) from mainframes. It played lip service to innovation and saw innovation only in terms of its existing monopoly. It became blinded to a threat from the PC world which it could never recognize since it was not compatible with its own view of the world. It was only in the 1990s that this was corrected when IBM re-emerged as a powerful force. We see Microsoft going through the same process of transformation now. Even Google had its own moment of blindness when it failed to see that Twitter was a threat to its search business.

But most of all – today we see the newspapers as the new blind rent collectors.

From the Wall street journal to the Guardian to the Associated press – there seems to be a spontaneously co-ordinated effort from the newspaper industry making an attempt to justify their existence.. Like the investment bankers, the newspapers were also the old masters of the universe and much like the investment bankers – newspapers are also finding that the world has dramatically shifted.

While it is easy to frame the discussion in context of one company (Google), the more basic observation is that: ‘That’s how the Web works’ and Google simply mirrors the ethos of the Web most accurately.

Note that the discussion on the future of the newspaper industry is framed in the context of a dichotomy of Pay vs. Not Pay. Whereas the real question is: How MUCH to pay and to WHOM should we pay. Nor is it a case of illegal file sharing – it is simply a case of indexing (web crawling) and web crawling is a process anyone can implement. If you don’t want your content to be crawled – simply ‘password protect’ it, as a vast amount of content is anyway i.e. a vast amount of content is not visible to the search engine because it is password protected. The problem for newspapers is: they want their content to be visible but they also want to define the business model for the Web.

Nor do they confine it to Google. It also presumably extends to social networks such as Bebo

My view of the ‘news’ today is from the lens of the RSS reader. And I intentionally follow a diverse range of news sources since I never trust one specific source. Even the ones who claim to be the most trusted and unbiased. That’s why is laughable that the Guardian quotes Thomas Jefferson: and says that “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

Instead, I recommend that we should read books like Flat earth news and Jeff Chester’s excellent book Digital destiny which talk of the cross ownership of media and the resultant bias that it creates. In other words, the ‘Old media’ was never exactly sweaky clean and for a long time refused to talk of it

Like everyone else in the new flat world, newspapers can no longer hope to automatically get attention. In a flat world they have to work for it – and compete with everyone (who could be a publisher through a blog).

Which brings us to the question of ‘Who is a good blogger’ .. When I spoke at the University of St Gallen in SwitzerlandI said to some students that a good blogger is platform agnostic – the web is all about content and not the medium. A good blogger should be able to stand at the speakers’s corner on Hyde park and get an audience based on his talk. If she can get an audience speaking at speakers corner – then she can get an audience online on a blog

I believe that the future of journalists is not the same as the future of the newspapers(same applies to artists as well)

Let’s take a step back and explore this problem in greater detail.

The impact of disintermediation on content

We are facing an issue of content dis-intermediation.

By ‘disintermediation’ we mean that there is a new player who faces the customer (we can call them Web aggregators) and thus dis-intermediates the existing provider. Disintermediation is affecting content distributors. However, disintermediation benefits both the customer and the content creator (artist).

Note that I also consider a Journalist to be an artist.

Content disintermediators include Google, Yahoo and others but more importantly social networks like MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and others. Web aggregators are directly facing the customer. The entertainment industry thus faces the problem of disintermediation because it no longer faces the customer.

However, disintermediation is an opportunity to the content creator (artist).

In doing so, the motivations of the content creators are not the same as the content distributors. In fact, the content creators are on the same side as the customers – with the distributors left disintermediated.

Further, new media is talking about old media and this helps the artist.

For instance, a YouTube video of the singer Joss Stone has received 2,254,268 views as at April 5 2009. No PR agency would have given that kind of coverage. The distributor would argue that the artist did not receive royalties for these views. However, the artist would not have received those views in the first place had it not been for YouTube. The distributor could also argue that these views prevent sales of the album. However, since YouTube is not the richest copy of the album – it is likely that these viewers would have bought the music from traditional sources (like a CD).

Finally, when micropayments become common – it is likely that musicians would claim that the micropayments would go to them (rather than the intermediaries like PRS.

Today, no matter how you look at it .. You cannot ignore the Web aggregators. With 50 million MySpace unique visitors, MySpace is comparable to the number of American households that tune to Super bowl. With 100 million YouTube videos every day, YouTube is comparable to Top 15 primetime shows in England (100 million viewers) or Top 4 American shows(source: Navigating the media divide: IBM institute for business value ).

Artists have always pursued audiences.

That will never change. The Web can be seen to empower the artist. So, we should not be surprised when what started with a few isolated artists like Prince giving their latest album for free in a Sunday newspaper , and with Radiohead allowing their album to be downloaded for free has led to other artists like Nine inch nails are now doing the same thing – potentially creating a wave of established artists taking this route.

Journalists as artists and beneficiaries of the micropayment systems

Newspapers are facing the same problem because the future of journalists is not the same as the future of newspapers.

A newspaper has three functions: Capture of news, analysis of news and the distribution of news.

The web makes the distribution of news free. The capture of news is now increasingly done by a range of sources including bloggers and citizens journalists. The analysis of news is also freely done by many in the social media space i.e. blogosphere.

Consequently, the death of a medium (newspapers) may not imply the death of paid content or indeed the death of the artist(a journalist being a type of artist). Similar to a star chef in a restaurant, greater value will be attached to the skills of the journalist than to the overhead of the newspaper. It is relatively easy for top journalists worldwide to create a micropayment system (for example a ‘subscribe only’ club). Thus, the future of the newspapers may not be the same as the future of the journalist (which may be brighter than the future of the newspaper).

In both cases, the issue is not about whether to pay – but rather about how much to pay and to whom should the payment go(i.e. fans of music and journalism would like to ensure that their payments go to the artists rather than to the middlemen). Newspapers will become a platform and will create APIs like the Guardian newspaper in the UK does and that content could be sourced from freelance journalists with a majority of the (micro)payment going to the journalist

What about investigative journalism and unique content?

The above argument does not strictly apply to two special cases: Investigative journalism and Unique content (for example wildlife documentaries) both of which are expensive to create and produce.

We can any divide content into two categories:

a) Original content which is hard to create(breaking news, wild life documentaries, investigative journalism etc)

b) Editorial and analysis

Original content will always have a value and that value being assigned by the rarity and difficulty of reproduction. For example – we can get breaking news from a number of sources.

Not necessarily from newspapers. For instance, the plane crash on the Hudson river was widely reported by Twitter as a breaking news . So depending on the value created, some content will always be paid for on specific channels (such as Cable).

So, I see that some content (like wildlife documentaries and investigative journalism) will always be paid for and not accessible on the Web. It will be funded from a variety of sources – including perhaps journalists creating their own companies with venture funding?. And thus, the future of journalism needs to be separated from the future of the newspaper

What about cases when citizens will create content which is valuable?

There are some instances when citizens will create content which is valuable. The best example is the battle of Kruger video (38 million views and 41 thousand comments as of November 2008!!!).

However, this video was subsequently created into a National Geographic documentary i.e. became paid content. Thus, YouTube helps in the discovery of good user generated content. YouTube also helps find new stars like the Eighty year old Geriatric 1927. Of course, There may be some advertising deals between popular UGC content and Web based video sites.

Journalism 2.0

So, if we consider the journalist as an artist – then Journalists should set up blogs use social media etc. They should leverage the existing power of the ‘brand’ should will get a number of followers. These will be ‘their’ followers though and not the followers of the ‘newspaper’. If a certain proportion become fans and they are prepared to pay for their views – then all you now need is a micropayment system which when it comes – will be oriented towards paying the journalist money.

But first journalists, like artists, need to start building their own brands and their own communities and in doing so – they will compete with everyone else.

They cannot depend on newspapers to do so .. else it will be too late

Image: http://www.mumfordbooks.co.uk/savefullpicshere/Y815pw13X_.jpg

UPDATE

Techcrunch/Brian Solis has a brilliant article on this subject which echoes the views above. Dont miss it!

Can the Statusphere Save Journalism?