How The Web Made Journalism A Sinner
The piece revisited the long woeful conversation about opportunities lost by legacy journalism in its poor handling of content monetization, in a different light. It presented mobile as the promise -- as the light.
This was in Columbia Journalism Review's "A Second Chance: How mobile devices can absolve journalism of its original sin: giving away online content," by Curtis Brainard. The piece points to the redemption that mobile seems to make possible. Personally, I believe absolution is a ridiculously tall order. Secondly, none among us should be so quick to talk about sin without talking about how the sin went down. So, I read with a furrowed brow.
You Are Your Industry
When we look at the history of content, vehicles and monetization, we're not just talking about individual "industries" that got things wrong or right. We are talking about distinct periods spurred by business decisions made by people, entities and any number of the forces that be. It's easy enough to vilify and celebrate whole industries, but we all know that the dynamics of change involve stages of technology advance; pioneering and deciding; responding to market tensions; knowing consumption habits and preferences; and attending to consumer experience. We're all a part of this.
Technology as Hero
In the vein of calling out a single hero, Brainard talks about mobile reading devices such as the iPad or Kindle, and Hollywood's early hinting at their power in the movie "Minority Report," in which a glossy rendition of one device plays a pivotal role in relaying headline news about Tom Cruise at just the right time.
Hollywood as bellwether? The author talks a lot about the hype around e-readers saving journalism in the real world, clearly rising since the release of the iPad. But some of his specific points about what mobile enables from a business standpoint I found most useful in understanding opportunities, lost and regained. My brow unfurrowed.
One idea is that we could view mobile as a return to curated computing -- where, yes, the reading experience might be more limited, but a well-developed user experience can be amazing. Consumers have already shown a penchant for paying for content on mobile. And if now-emerging standards for user experience are upheld, consumers likely will continue to do so. Plus, mobile makes the mechanics of financial transaction so much easier. There is incredible business opportunity in that.
But, Brainard so rightly asserts, before any of this can flourish, media companies must embrace what many would dub direct responsibility for taking back control of vehicles -- "the kind of control they had when the printing press was still at the center of our information universe."
Further: "If publishers developed, or subcontracted the development of, their own content management system for mobile devices, and opened their own digital stores to sell that content, then in theory they could charge for subscriptions and effectively cut out the middleman. They could then use this paying, engaged audience -- and the demographic information that comes with it -- to attract advertisers. There are signs, nascent and tentative, that this is beginning to happen."
Re-connecting Content and Access
Back in the days of AOL -- and paid subscription models -- content was explicitly tied to access. You paid, you got -- complete with bells and whistles. In the earliest days, the models were even more flexible (for example, per hour), allowing incredible revenue optimization through tuning of consumer engagement, for people doing business or partnering with AOL on content. I personally had some experience with this heyday within an AOL/Time Inc. joint venture.
Then came broadband. Upon its entry, content and access were, as Brainard says, disaggregated -- and the content environment exploded from a monetization standpoint. Content was here, there and everywhere -- often free. "That is how the Web effectively tricked the journalism industry into believing that people won't pay for a well-curated news experience, even if you make it effortless to do so. Mobile readers, some believe, are reconnecting access and content."
Just as we talk about video killing the radio star, or the Web as some kind of devil -- we talk about mobile finally absolving journalism. It's easiest to depersonalize and overdramatize to summarize our story. But the detailed history of actions, decisions and our relative roles are very, very important.
With this incredible promise of mobile before us, in this converged environment, we have a responsibility as individuals and entities to take hold of what needs to be done. Assuming we have finally stopped our sobbing about the sins of journalism, those participating in the story will rightly acknowledge the vehicles of today; learn to tell stories across screens; repurpose their content for platforms; and come to know how to play to a curated environment. Despite the business implications here, I would argue this is a very personal level of commitment to one's role in the media economy.