Today I’m starting to post chapter drafts of the Mediactive book. (Here’s everything I’ve posted so far.) Remember, this is a draft, not the final version, though my editor and I believe we’re fairly close. Feel free to chime in with ideas about what I’ve missed and especially what I have gotten wrong, or send email. The chapter begins after the jump.
I’m declaring victory. I’m moving on, into a new project to help persuade passive consumers of media to become active users.
And, once again, I hope you’ll help.
A few years ago I wrote a book called We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, suggesting that we were on the verge of an evolutionary leap. Amid the democratization of media tools and access, I said, the lecture mode of journalism was giving way to conversation; and that stemmed, in part, from the simple fact that the audience always knows more than the person telling the story.
This evolutionary shift is still in its relatively early days. We are in a period of immense disruption, especially notable in the demolition of the business model that has paid for most traditional journalism for the past half-century or so.
Like everyone else, journalists have always been publicly preoccupied with their own situation. Unlike almost everyone else, they’ve owned a higher podium and a louder megaphone.
So we’ve been bombarded with angst, recriminations and, lately, panic emanating from an industry in jeopardy — a business that can no longer rely on the monopoly and oligopoly profits that spun off some occasionally brilliant journalism during the industry’s fattest era.
But look around. The messy process of reinvention is well under way.
Not a week goes by without a new announcement of an experiment in journalism. Today’s news regards a project, featuring finance writer Jane Bryant Quinn and her husband, aimed at helping local news reporting find a business model. Good luck to them — and the thousands of other folks who are working on these problems.
Last week’s news was from an Aspen Institute conference where a high-powered group of folks publicly agonized about the future of journalism. From a distance, the highlight looked to me to be the New Business Models for News project from Jeff Jarvis and company at City University of New York.
More recently it was GrowthSpur, a consultancy created by digital media pioneer Mark Potts and some colleagues, and aiming to “provide tools, training, services and ad networks that will help local sites grow and become successful businesses.”
And True/Slant; Huffington Post; Journalism Online LLC; Spot.US; EveryBlock (sold to MSNBC); and countless others (including our terrific media-entrepreneurship students at Arizona State University) who are proving out Clay Shirky’s observation: “Nothing will work, but everything might. Now’s the time for lots and lots of experiments.”
So I’m declaring victory, albeit early, on the supply side of the equation. Democratized media are giving voice to everyone who has something to add to the emergent global conversation, and the same tools are enabling smart people to experiment with sustainability models for tomorrow’s news and information. We will have plenty of quality news and information — though sorting the good stuff from the sludge will be just one of the huge issues we’ll have to deal with as we move forward into this new era. And, of course, we’ll need to help people creating that supply do a better job at all levels.
But that doesn’t solve what may be a bigger issue: crappy demand.
We have raised several generations of passive consumers of news and information. That’s not good enough anymore.
The media of today and tomorrow require us to become active users. And that’s a prime focus of this new project, Mediactive, the title of this website and an upcoming book. (Here’s the early chapter outline.)
My publisher, as with We the Media, is O’Reilly Media, the only company of its kind that truly gets this stuff. We’re going to be experimenting, in part, with the very nature of what a book is in a Digital Age.
Indeed, this entire project is about experimentation. Some of what we try will not work. Some of it will. But in the end, I hope to have created a solid user’s guide to news and information, for people who realize that they have to take some responsibility for knowing what they’re talking about.
Being active users of media is not an “eat your spinach because it’s good for you” exercise. It’s definitely good for us, but it’s also interesting and/or fun — and in the end truly satisfying.
As with We the Media, I’m not working in a vacuum. Lots of other people are thinking about these questions and trying to come up with answers, too. As always, we’re in this together.
Tim O’Reilly discusses Reinventing the Book in the Age of the Web” — and the context is his (and Sarah Milstein’s) new book about Twitter.
Perhaps the biggest driver, though, was the need for speed. We couldn’t imagine writing a book about twitter that wouldn’t be immediately out of date, because there are so many new applications appearing daily, and the zeitgeist of twitter best practices is evolving equally quickly. So we needed a format that would be really easy to update. (Again, modular structure helps, since new pages can be inserted without any need to reflow the entire document.) We plan to update The Twitter Book with each new printing.
This is very much my strategy with this book/website, though the things that change rapidly will change mostly here on the site, not in the printed version.
Evan Schnittman: Why Ebooks Must Fail
How do ebooks cover the huge advances needed to buy books if we cannot generate the cash, especially at their extremely low, discounted prices, cover the advances that an entire industry has come to require? The answer is that ebooks, alone, cannot.
What this means is that unless a very different model evolves, ebooks can never become the dominant version of content sold by book publishers. It means that ebooks will always be priced to sell, but sold as an afterthought, not as the primary version of a work. It means that the need for blended e plus p models will evolve, in order to take advantage of all the great qualities of ebooks, while providing the financial support and structure that print offers. It means that consumer ebooks, as a stand-alone version of an intellectual property, must fail.
This is a valuable lesson in book economics — 20th Century book economics, that is.
The key words in Schnittman’s piece (or at least the short portion I’ve quoted) are “huge advanced needed to buy books” — an assumption that we may need to challenge as the financial ecosystem of books, not just the distribution chain, evolves over time.
The huge advances themselves seem unsustainable. That’s a good thing, because they warp the marketplace.
Moreover, it’s unclear why publishers alone are expected to cover authors’ costs given that, at least in the case of much non-fiction, authors make money in ways other than selling books — namely consulting and speeches, among other things. Why shouldn’t the various parties in this ecosystem (a word I use deliberately) collaborate to sell books and other services and share revenues? Complex, sure, but worth it in the end.
(Note: Some of this is adapted from a 2006 talk I gave at Columbia University School of Journalism.)
If Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood folks can create directors’ cuts of their movies, why can’t journalists do the same — and more? Why can’t they keep updating and improving some of their own works?
They can, if they get past the publication or broadcast metaphors from the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape was the end of the process.
This is not just about newspapers or broadcasts. It’s about books, too — about any of the media forms that are making the transition into the Digital Age. This project, in particular, will be my own attempt to put this notion and others into practice.
We accrete knowledge in real life. We learn a little more about something. We factor that new information into a new understanding of the larger topic.
This maps to the way the Web works. On the Web, the best explainers accrete audiences and authority, as they attract more and more readers and inbound links.
Because of the manufacturing model, traditional journalism has done things a different way. The process has been to create a new story each time there’s a bit more information about a person, topic or issue, and either a) expecting audiences to have enough background to understand why this turn of the screw matters; or b) add some background information that attempts to bring the reader/viewer/etc up to speed.
This is inefficient — for the journalists and for the audience. But in an online world, we can easily do better.
We can do it by creating ownership of articles, and beyond that, of topics — and then adding (and subtracting) from the original as new information comes to light. (Jeff Jarvis put it well in his piece last year when he wrote: “The building block of journalism is no longer the article.”)
Some models are already available. Consider Wikipedia, where every version of the article — and I mean everything, down to the version where someone added a comma and hit the save button — is available to anyone who wants to see it. You can even compare adjacently edited versions side by side.
In the real world, how might this work?
Let’s say I’m just starting to understand the role of financial tools called “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) in the current financial meltdown. And suppose that the New York Times had done a detailed explainer of CDOs. (I can’t find one, but perhaps they did.) Now comes the important part: Let’s further suppose that the Times has been updating that article on the Web to reflect new events — in addition to writing current news stories (and archiving them next to the original) and creating a huge link directory. The newer stories have lots of new details, only the most central of which make it back into the updated original story.
What you won’t find is what I’d like to see as well: the original uber-explainer — call it the baseline copy — and then the current, updated version one to see what’s changed. Or maybe I want to see them mashed together, with the changes highlighted using colors for additions and strike-throughs for deletions.
The average reader would probably go to updated Big Topic story, starting and ending there for the moment. Then, when new journalism appeared about CDOs, he or she woulkd more likely background to understand the nuance.
The idea isn’t new, really. The Associated Press and other wire services have used what’s called the “write-through” forever — adding new information to breaking news and telling editors what’s new in the story.
As noted above, I raise this point because it’s the approach I’m taking to this project. I’ll be adding material from blog posts into publicly viewable chapter drafts.
The chapters will keep changing even after a book is published, though it’s way too early to know how often, if at all, a new version of a book will be printed. Given the rapid progress in the publish-to-order world, it may be mroe often than I’d imagined.