Digital news publishers — especially at the community level — are in a fight for survival. Most news sites get crumbs in ad revenue compared to big commercial sites like Yahoo and Autotrader. Legacy publishers of daily newspapers do have paywalls for their digital platforms, but overall only low, single-digit percentages of visitors choose to pay the average $10 monthly cost for subscriptions.
Bill Densmore, a consulting fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, thinks there’s a solution with an “Information Trust Exchange,” of which he is the chief creator. Densmore’s twofold aim is both high minded (to make news central in advancing participatory democracy), and bottom-lined (to monetize news for those who provide it). The Trust has been evolving slowly over several years, but it appears to be gathering momentum.
Last week, the RJI convened a one-day “leaders workshop” in Chicago that drew 29 representatives from different segments of the news industry. I put these post-workshop questions to Densmore:
How could a digital Information Trust Exchange save the news industry in ways that advertising can’t?
Advertising won’t play any role at all in saving the news industry — unless the industry adopts a shared-user approach allowing news organizations to know more about their user’s interests than anyone else. Advertising is now a network game and a targeting game. In order to be attractive to an advertiser you either have to know a great deal about your users, making those users attractive to targeted messages, or you need to be able to “contribute” your users to a much larger pool of users managed by someone else.
That’s the Hobson’s Choice news organizations are now facing with Facebook. If they put their content on Facebook, they are going to hand over knowledge of their user’s interests to Facebook. The customers become Facebook’s customers. The advertisers then follow the users to Facebook and news organizations’ revenues become wholly dependent on the good graces of Facebook. By coming up with standard business rules and technical specifications for sharing user demographics, interests and content access, news organizations become part of a network not controlled by a platform that competes with them for advertisers (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc.) But a byproduct is the ability to offer networked subscription services — bundling or a-la-carte access to premium content with one-bill, one-ID simplicity for the user.
Did the workshop identify leaders from the news industry who can be counted on to help carry the ball for the Exchange?
Change makes it difficult to assume a common understanding of the term “news industry.” What’s left of legacy news publishers is less and less an industry — rapidly shedding and contracting out the physical manifestations of industry like presses, trucks and buildings — and more and more a service — producing news that matters to someone. And it includes independent media, digital-only media and corporate communications going direct-to-consumer — because they can. I think we can identify leaders within each of those segments who will help carry the ball. A few of them were at the Chicago workshop, a few others wanted to be, and RJI actively seeks to involve still others.
So much of local news is, as you acknowledge, just “commodity.” What needs to happen for the news industry to produce content that has added value and can be priced down to the cost of one article?
First, news has value if it adds value to a user’s personal, daily experience. The two challenges are:
- How do you make it incredibly simple and non-repetitive to pay, without multiple accounts?
- How do you differentiate service when breaking news — especially national and international — is available all over the place for free?
The first question is technical and easily solved, according to the technologists who attended the workshop. The second question suggests a cultural shift. News organizations have to stop thinking of news as a product and think if instead as an ingredient in an overall service. That service includes helping users to (a) discover and describe — or “signal” — their interests and then (b) resenting the information they need and want in a delightful format.
The format should represent a “community” to the user so they feel like they belong — they are members. This implies a significant commitment to enagement with users. By creating and curating communities of interest that match the personal information needs of their users, news organizations can fairly expect to be rewarded — directly through subscriptions, donations or per-item payments, and indirectly through a renewed ability to offer a competitive service to advertisers. I call that business “advisotising.”
Not that many big legacy and other news publishers were at the Chicago meeting. Have they told you where they stand?
No. But we made sure they are aware of the initiative and will keep them informed. We also advised the government’s privacy watchdogs at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and in Congress. We are optimistic that legacy news organizations are going to figure this out, and if they can do it on their own without the help of RI or other elements of the open-technology and philanthropy communities, that’s great!
One newspaper-based digital leader at the workshop was Greg Swanson, general manager/strategy and development, for 10/13 Communications, which publishes mostly weekly print and digital versions of papers in the Phoenix, Tucson, Dallas and Houston markets and which absorbed the Swanson-founded ITZ Publishing Group, a strategic partner with online media companies, in 2013. I asked Swanson — who is also co chair of the Digital Committee of the Inland Press Association, whose members include more than a thousand daily and weekly newspapers in North America — how he assessed what the workshop produced:
“In Chicago, there was an ardent spokesperson for nearly every clause of the protean mission statement: sustaining journalism, increasing public engagement with the news; underwriting the creation of news; keeping in touch with readers; creating a new, public-benefit platform for the trustworthy sharing of valuable news and information; and helping the public manage privacy and identity.
“I saw rough consensus emerging around four points.
- The platform developed by Public Media Platform is an example of the kind of content sharing platform that people helping to develop the Information Trust Exchange concept are seeking, presuming it will be outfitted with the proper privacy and security features, including single sign on, appropriate application of data-driven content discovery, and robust personalization, sharing and commenting tools for the user.
- The various efforts of the Respect Network on single sign on, working with Open ID/UMA/XDI and semantic data interchange, should be included in the final platform, and that means the Respect Network folks need to be early participants in the design of that platform.
- Every step taken, and platform feature developed, should have an emphasis on delighting the reader, as opposed to serving the publisher. Video is presumed to be a significant percentage of the content.
- Users may pay for the use of this platform with many different forms of currency, time, data, referrals, content, and more.
“There were no significant technology challenges raised by anyone. The real issues are:
- Who will own the platform and whether we are talking about a centralized, decentralized or distributed system.
- Trust issues regarding disintermediation of the participants by the system.
- The role of legacy media.
- The role of emerging media.
“As the search engines increase their emphasis on delivering authoritative results, the problem of content discovery increases. There are 5,000 food bloggers in Phoenix, but you would never know it by searching Google. Local community content creators need better discovery tools, and so do local media companies.”
I asked Randy Picht, executive director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, to assess the results of the leaders workshop, whose participants included only a small handful of legacy and other major news publishers:
“I think the leadership workshop gave us a great summary of the hot-button issues being dissected in the world of journalism right now. Those kind of insights from folks thinking about privacy, advertising, technology, news gathering, etc., will help us figure out what the next, best step should be for RJI. We had some great conversations about the importance of standards and where privacy fits into any new idea. We thought those might be essential to our effort and it was terrific to learn more and get some validation.
“It’s crucial to have the largest news organizations on board, and sooner rather than later. But in order to do that we need to figure out what the boat looks like and where it’s headed. The Chicago workshop was a great step in that direction.”
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history of Charleston, S.C.