Journalists as Jedis

There was a small debate on Twitter on Tuesday about the future of publishing and in particular the future for established big-name journalism as it competes with ever more nimble online operations.

First, I think it’s no secret the traditional model is in decline.

Some technologist types were confident that new collaborative P2P-based ways of doing things could save established journalism. Also some were optimistic about the potential for crowd funding models.

I’m not sure I’ve yet come across a model that saves our bacon as an industry and preserves the high standards of independent journalism we’ve helped to established thus far.

The key issue is independence.

At the moment most top quality publications derive income from advertising, and avoid being corrupted by their pay lords thanks to their giant corporate structures, which allow Chinese walls to be enforced between sales and editorial. Not saying journalists are entirely free from corruption but there is, generally, a well defended and adhered to spirit of independence in most editorial departments, strengthened by the frequent repetition of mission statements and the required observation of company codes of conduct which provide an important value set in their own right.

In short there has always been something of a social and vocational mission driving journalists. You don’t tend to become a journalist for the money.

Nevertheless highly disciplined, structured and expansive networks of fact checkers and defenders of the truth are expensive to run.

So far, the challenge from less organized content providers has mostly been met by charging for content directly. Or by becoming more nimble, or dumbing down your content for advertising clicks.

But because news is a popularity-focused business there is something intrinsically jarring about having to apply artificial scarcity to content. Or for that matter to dumb it down.

It also rubs those journalists who became journalists for the noble mission outlined above the wrong way.

After all if you discover the watergate scandal you don’t want the details of it to be distributed to a small elite. You don’t want the story to be swallowed by the paywall and forgotten about, especially in an environment where the only true scarcity is attention span. Conversely, you want the news shouted from every corner. You want it to go viral.

Hence when I think about the distant future of publishing I see it ultimately evolving in four or five ways. In all visions corruption is the fundamental challenge that must be overcome.

1) We get a religious-like order of volunteer journalists, who forge a network based on the observation of strict hierarchies and codes of conduct. Free from corruption, because they are driven by a higher mission, like the Jedi, they defend the veracity, quality and truth of everything they publish. They can centralize in specific fields, locations or be fairly universal in nature and in so being draw on incredible economies of scale.
They serve not god, but truth, and are mainly self-funded or — just like the church — donation driven.

Crowd funding can play a role here, but it ultimately provides — just like with the church — the most likely route to corruption as powerful patrons emerge and try to influence the editorial board and so on.

This could be controlled for by limiting the size of individual donations, and by keeping them anonymous, but again you’d still be open to the frequency factor. And anonymity hasn’t really stopped donations to political parties being seen as a corruptive force.

Consequently the system will only be as strong as its vouching system for order members. Allow a few bad apples to slip in and it can end up being corrupted no matter how dedicated and sincere the intentions of the bulk of its members.

That said the greatest part about the model is that there is no restriction on “spreading the good news”. The model is purposefully universal and accessible to all.

2) This is what I would call the secret society model. Unlike the religious model, this is purposefully elitist and/or limited to a select group of people. The intention is not for your reporting to inform the world but to inform — or at least greatly advantage — those who are prepared to pay for it. It’s the model deployed by organizations like RIsk and Euromoney. You will never be a universal name, but you don’t want to be.

However, to be worthy of your price tag you have to offer something superior to that provided by the universal model. More insight, a greater truth. Better connections.

But since your model is based on a greater truth, you have to protect those truths from leaking to non subscribers.

The organization consequently ends up policing the distribution of all its stories pretty ruthlessly. A new trust circle is formed. If you can’t be trusted to preserve the content, you get booted out of the system. Any subscribers who pose a leak risk are threatened or intimidated. Given one last chance or else.

(BTW the same model applies to prestigious analyst reports. You don’t understand how often I am sent stuff on the conditionality that it didn’t come from so and so, and please no paper trail back to the person who leaked).

In this environment journalists live in fear of accidentally over sharing or distributing their work. Their work is for approved members only, those who are strictly monitored by the “powers that be” when it comes to subscription sharing.

I’m not saying it’s a model that doesn’t work. It does. But the fact that it has to be purposefully restrictive means that by definition it cannot be a replacement for high quality mass-market journalism. That said, it is the best model I can think of for defending independence and content quality.

3) The nationalization option. This speaks for itself and we have plenty of working examples. Some are more successful than others, i.e. compare the BBC to Pravda. But generally, in a functioning democracy, where editorial power can be controlled and limited through a fair and open appointment system, I don’t think this is a bad option. Public radio, news and TV can even be thematically arranged to suit all sorts of demand points. Independence is protected by a charter and a code of conduct.

4) The billionaire magnate news service. Definitely not ideal due to it being hugely prone to corruption. A sad path to go down. Unless, of course, you want to live in a world where all your news comes from organizations owned and operated as vanity projects by Russian oligarchs, and which derive income from entirely different sources and thus have a whole host of agendas and conflicts of interests when it comes to publishing “the truth”.

5) The news service that’s also something else. Which is basically the conventional model, but instead of being funded through advertising you are funded through other complementary business offerings such as conferencing, data or networking events. The question is… can conferencing, data and networking fully support you? Once you go down the path of extreme business diversification, you also potentially open yourself up to entirely new conflicts of interest and begin to resemble the no. 4 scenario. Also it’s not like conferencing, networking and data businesses aren’t facing a competition challenge of their own.

Either way, in my opinion, defending ‘capital J’ private journalism from populism (and thus pressure to dumb down), personal agenda or elitism will be increasingly difficult in the years to come.

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4 thoughts on “Journalists as Jedis

  1. Pingback: Somewhere else, part 114 | Freakonometrics

  2. Pingback: Links | Nation of Beancounters

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