My Big Idea for TEDxAMS: Newspapers = iTunes for Changing the World
Wednesday, October 28th, 2009
I’m trying to speak at TEDx Amsterdam.. it would be a dream come true to speak at the most amazing conference in the world! Please watch my YouTube short presentation (it’s awful to have to squeeze such a big point into the requisite 3 minutes.. and I didn’t, in fact, quite manage it) because 3 presentations will be picked from the most watched videos.
Below you’ll find the longer version, it’s still written as a presentation, not as an article.. I might mess around with it some more, but I need to get this online NOW.
So, enjoy! And please share! And comment? Thanks!
I’d like to talk to you today about the crisis in the newspaper industry and how to solve it. I aim to present a compelling case that the very same forces which are threatening the traditional newspaper industry could, in fact make this same industry incredibly rich, succesful and powerful whilst at the same time changing our society and saving the planet. It’s a bold claim I know, but this TED challenge is about big ideas and I believe I’ve got one.
I’d like to start with a quote, often used but in my view not really properly understood in light of the current situation, and I’ll explain why later. It’s a quote by Thomas Jefferson, the third and arguably most important president of the United States. He wrote in January 1787 on the freedom of the press: ‘The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And 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.’
Now, we’ll get back to that quote, first of all I’d like to talk a little bit about the history of the newspaper. The earliest newspapers in the late 1400s were a couple of printed sheets of paper which listed some main events and with some sensationalised stories. For example one of these early tabloids told of the atrocities committed against Germans in Transylvania by a sadistic veovod named Vlad Tsepes Drakul. And this of course later became the basis for the tale of Count Dracula.
Early newspapers were weekly publications and the interesting thing was that they almost never reported news about the countries they were printed in, because if they wrote something the government didn’t like they could easily be shut down. Only in Holland were things a little more flexible and newspapers could write about what was going on here. Often foreign papers and books were also printed in the liberal Holland. This is back when we were still liberal!
In the US interestingly, the first newspaper was introduced quite late, in 1690, and it was immediately banned because of some gossip about the French king. And it would be another 14 years before another newspaper was printed in the US.
In this same US though, the press for the first time took on a revolutionary role. From the mid 1700s on most American newspapers were committed to overthrowing the rule of the kolonial masters. After the revolution the partisan press evolved in the US: one side of the political spectrum against the other.
In the early 1800s came the introduction of the ‘penny press’ – you could now print and sell a paper for only 1 penny. They were basically the first tabloids. They were small and cheap. In England the penny press was extremely radical politically. What’s interesting about the penny press is that is was the introduction of the paper to the working class and this made their voice more important in politics.
Around the same time news gathering and being the first to break a story became important. In the US editors would race out in fast boats to meet foreign ships coming in to be the first to print the news these ships brought. In England, reporters were in the late eighteenth century for the first time allowed to sit at the gallery in Parliament, although there were not allowed to take notes!
Before the middle of the nineteenth century newspapers were not objective, but in America during and after the civil war objectivity and respect for the facts became the holy grail for newspapers. Of course sensationalism never went away…
In the first half of the 20th century the number of newspapers decreased dramatically and the remaining newspapers were increasingly controlled by large corporations, which led to the criticism that newspapers were beginning to become monopolistic and monocular. In the 60s a number of new smaller newspapers tried to buck that trend and create a new independent press.
From the second half of the 20th century, newspapers have began to feel the competiton from television and readership fell. However newspaper have continued to play an important part.
So now we’ve arrived at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and all of a sudden the newspaper is in big trouble. So what’s happened? Well, the internet happened. It actually took everyone a little while to get used to the internet, which is why some of the major players like Rupert Murdoch have basically ignored the writing on the wall for the last 10 years but here we are, and very few people read newspapers any more. Clay Shirky called it the ‘unthinkable’ scenario for the newspapers and described it like this: ‘The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And [...] suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off’
So, what now? There are people who have argued that we don’t really need newspapers anymore. That’s clearly nonsense. Now newspapers do a lot of things that others can do just as well or better online, like write about sports, horoscopes, recipes or fashion. Writing about these kind of specialised interests with a distribution cost of near zero also means you can comfortably make a living from advertising if you do it right, like many professional bloggers do. And if you can’t, bully for you, us news consumers get more, not less quality content around these subjects. BUT Newspapers do one extremely important thing which no one else does which is investigative reporting. Corporations, politicians, lobbyists, conglomerates, generals and individuals do stuff secretly or not so secretly that needs to be exposed, turned inside out, investigated and held to account. We, as individuals don’t have the time to do that, just as we don’t have the time to bake bread or learn how to fix our car engines. We need journalists like we need bakers and mechanics. For the good of our civilisation we need them and we need them to be able to do their job full time and without compromise.
Most people actually agree on this. So we’ve seen various suggestions to save the newspapers. Rupert Murdoch wants to start charging us for news. By suggesting this he’s not only ignoring all sorts of insights about how the internet works, but he’s even ignoring the fact that since the penny press even the newspaper world doesn’t work like this. Newspapers don’t charge for content, they just charge for paper. Advertisers pay for the content.
In his book ‘Free, The Future Of A Radical Price’, Chris Anderson showed that micro payments as an alternative to free don’t work because of how people’s brains are wired. Paying even a little bit requires us to evaluate the value of what we’re paying for. And if we perceive this value to be relatively low (relative to the free version, that is) then the process of evaluation itself is – well, just not worth it.
Others like Steve Coll, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist, thinks the solution is non profit newspapers, where newspapers become protected and publicly or philanthropically subsidised. But this creates a greater independence and also a great distance from the reading public. If you look at the penny press, the US civil war press and the 60s free press you can see that it is exactly when newspapers are closest to the ordinary public that they become most relevant and have the greatest impact on society.
What a lot of people, especially the industry itself is doing is taking the old business model and trying to translate that to a digital version of it when what we need is a business model that conforms to the new rules set by the internet.
So what is are the most important aspects of the internet – what are the parameters within which the new business models must operate? Tim Berners Lee (the inventor of the web) at the recent Web 2.0 Summit said that the internet was always meant as a read/write space, and after the first 10 years of having a publishing internet we are now finally moving towards that read/write internet with blogs, twitter, photo sites, wikis and all the other services which allow people to create and share content, collectively described as web 2.0.
Another important aspect of the internet is that while it’s possible to make a lot of money on it you cannot usually do so by simply charging people, especially if your content can easily be reproduced. Generally, you have to use either advertising to support free content or you use some version of the freemium model where you basically give everything away for free and only charge for specific extras
A third aspect of the internet is that people use it to connect with things they care about. Through social networks they connect with their friends, through groups they connect with people who have the same hobbys or passions and through comments they connect with the people or subjects of blogs. And people spend an extraordinary amount of time doing this. This is one of the main features of the internet, and arguably the most important change from traditional media, is that the internet is a two way street. People consume online, but they also contribute. And increasingly they demand to be able to contribute. Sharing, which is often seen as stealing, is in fact a form of contributing. Someone likes something so much that they want to share it with others who might enjoy it too. Likewise they want things to be shared back. This goes into all sorts of fascinating ancient gift economy practices which are intrinsic to human interaction which I don’t have time to go into now. But, the important thing is this: people on the internet do more than just consume, they share and they create. They want to make an impact.
So how does this translate to the a new business model for the newspaper industry? Actually I think it translates to something very simple and basic and stupid which has been sitting there throughout this whole fevered debate about walled gardens and micropayments and sharing and it is this: newspapers should allow their readers to DO something.
Throughout the evolution of the newspaper industry we have moved from simple messages to storytelling to social relevance to investigative reporting to objective reporting and now we have reached the point where newspapers can become tools for direct social and political change. What does this mean? Well the short answer is that time will tell exactly how this is going to work and different models will have to be tried by the newspapers. But some examples I can think of are for instance when a politician gives his opinion on a subject you can respond whether or not you agree with this, and all these responses are aggregated by the newspaper and fed back to the politician, which means people are able to give feedback on politics almost real time.
It could mean that in addition to reporting on atrocities committed somewhere newspapers will also start reporting on local people helping the victims and when you read this report you can actually make a small donation to help those people. This system already works with the PayPal donate buttons on various sites, only right now that button is not at the same place where the public is confronted with the news. It would be relatively simple for newspapers to connect the report to the action to do something about it. And this would mean that Google News from being the enemy suddenly becomes the friend of the newspaper because it helps share the story, which is the free bit, but then directs traffic back to the paper’s website if people feel passionate enough about the subject to want to help make a change. And the paper can take a tiny percentage of all these charitable payments in exchange for the actual service they provide, which is a financial service.
And in this way the paper can help people take control of their own destiny, by voicing their opinions immediately to the decision makers, who would be pretty stupid top ignore these opinions. It’s democracy 2.0!
And whilst I am not sure I want to make a micropayment to read a story about African child soldiers I am definately sure I want to make a micropayment to help African child soldiers. Right now there are so many injustices around us that it can become almost paralysing. You feel you just don’t know where to start. Donate to a charity, first I have to find out which one, then set up a payment by logging in to my bank account or send in a form with my autograph on it. So we’ll only do this for one or two major charities which we feel strongly about. And for all these other things we read about in the newspapers, which make us feel angry and powerless and frustrated – we can’t do anything about them. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Newspapers should follow the natural flow of the internet and help people do something instead of just reading about it. Newspapers can become the iTunes of – not of music but of changing the world.
objections & counterarguments
So what about the impartiality of the press, what about accountability. Will I donate my micropayment if I can’t be sure how and if it is used over there in Africa. Would not all sorts of corporate lobbyists try to change and skew the reporting so we are tricked into donating to the wrong thing or responding to a decoy political opinion. Will newspapers not get bogged down in trying to keep track of all the organisations and individuals they’ve set up payments for. And most important of all, will we all trust the newspapers enough to let them fulfill this role.
Well these are all legitimate and important questions, and they all need to be addressed. I think that in accepting this new basis for a business model of not only reporting on events but allowing people to have an influence on the issues that are being reported on, the newspapers will have a whole new set of challenges to address. In order to be trusted, they’ll have to become more open. In order to be accountable, they’ll have to extend their creed of checks and balances from reporting the event to what happens afterwards. In order to be effective they’ll have to work together and I think that major players will emerge and others will fall by the wayside. In order to stay independent, they’ll have to be able to survive close scrutiny.
But in many ways these challenges are unavoidable whatever way the newspapers try to evolve. They’re also not new, these same questions surround governmental organisations and other sources of power. But in this case the accountability will have to be directly to the public instead of through all sorts of governmental organisations which in turn means that the public itself will be entrusted with more responsibility.
And this will backfire in some instances. Abuses will happen, things will go wrong. But at least we’ll be working towards a system of real public accountability and real personal responsibility. At a personal level, we’ll all be able to make a difference, instead of leaving that up to the politicians or the major corporations.
So – I want to go back now to the quote by Thomas Jefferson I started with. ‘The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And 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.’ In an age where people feel increasingly as if politics is no longer based on their opinions, it’s starting to feel as if Thomas Jefferson made an unbelievably insightful prediction back in 1787.
The time has perhaps come when the newspapers might be able to take over from the politicians, by putting the ability to change the world directly into the hands of the people. The question is if the newspapers are up to that challenge. To start with, they’ll have to look beyond their current business models and embrace the amazing opportunities the internet can give them.