Dec 302017

I’ve been thinking about just what it would take to create the type of media operation I described in “The future of journalism won’t look anything like today’s journalism” – specifically what pieces are still needed to get this type of operation off the ground, what pieces already exist, etc. As I think more on it, the more it seems that most of the individual components, with the exception of delivering content in a format other than the article, already exist. The biggest impediment to adopting these tools is likely attitude, namely organizations being so used and attached to how they’ve been doing things that they’re not thinking about approaching this from a completely blank slate.

1 of my main theses was that I think the future of journalism needs a tool for non-journalists to do some of the basic “reporting.” This can cover the day-to-day stuff like processing arrest data (the local police department should have a tool for uploading that for public reference anyways), local sports scores (there’s dozens or more people in the stands with smartphones – they can upload the scores, coaches can forward on high-level stats), etc. Generally speaking, while this information can be useful, it’s not what we think of when we think of the value of journalism. Even if a media institution decides to continue owning this aspect of reporting, it’s best to outsource as much of the legwork as possible, as that frees the journalists to focus on more time-consuming investigative reporting.

The biggest tools that I discussed for displaying information that are community powered and that outputs said information in the most intuitive manner would actually be a lot of tools, some of which exist already (video editors, word processors, etc.), some of which need to be built (map-based tools for road closures and outages), most of which involve custom work for each locality to feed data back to the organizations responsible and to pull updates on their progress. Those tools may take the most work, but they could also be some of the most valuable sources of information and updates on pressing issues available. They’d need to be mobile-friendly and ubiquitous, so a responsive web page would likely be the best format. After all, people are only going to need these in situations like the power or Internet has gone out, so at that point a phone is really going to be their only tool for getting online to report these things.

Another thing that I think is needed for journalistic enterprises to succeed going forward is a good community feedback mechanism. I’m with Jeff Jarvis in that comment sections at the bottom of articles aren’t good enough. While we’re at it, the inline-style comments you see on sites like Medium aren’t going to do the trick either. Comment sections are for people to add their 2-cents, and no more. The little box at the end (or side) of a big wall of text encourages quick, simple, one-line responses to things that are generally much more involved and have too many trade-offs to be done justice by pithy little responses. Discussion forums are a better way of encouraging longer-form responses. In fact, some blogs have already moved their comments sections into discussion forums, the original post is the first post in a topic, and all responses happen in the forum.  The bigger box encourages longer responses (ideally more thought-out responses too, but that’s largely the job of the community and its moderators to enforce). Public response articles and blog posts are good too, but they suffer from the full exchange not being in one place, so if you’re not actively following all participants in an exchange you’re really losing out.

There’s more to community engagement than just responding to existing content though. People need to be able to reach out to journalists to tip them off to issues worth investigating, or to provide valuable information for a story currently under investigation. This is where the current “social” app craze really comes into play – but instead of posting things like a link to their Facebook profile or Twitter feed (great for self-promotion, but not really ideal for communication or having sensitive conversations), it’d be best if they published something like a Signalt (or any other end-to-end encrypted chat app) handle so that people can discreetly talk to journalists about pressing issues that need digging into or being brought into the public consciousness.

Another tool that journalism will need to adopt going forward will be a payment model where a small subset of people can fund journalism without limiting the output to just paying subscribers. For journalistic enterprises to have maximum impact in the areas it’s trying they’re trying to serve, then they can’t limit the potential beneficiaries of their efforts. Focusing exclusively on investigative journalism (because that’s where the value lies and because that’s where I think journalism enterprises should focus their efforts as opposed to “day-to-day” reporting), the economics of this can work given that producing journalistic content is a one-time, up-front cost. In other words whatever the cost of producing your output, you’re paying it once, during initial production, and you’re doing it before you actually release it. That cost isn’t going to go up (significantly) if more people see it (bandwidth is cheap, and services like Cloudflare or Fastly are likely to be part of your recurring monthly expenses if you’re regularly seeing heavy traffic anyways).

Paypal’s donation button and Patreon are good resources for that goal. Because both of these funding sources solicit optional contributions, they don’t involve locking content behind a paywall. The flip side to these funding models is that to make money, journalism institutions need to focus on the things that their readership finds valuable, as opposed to just running up the page view count. There’s an argument to be made that this is good for journalism quality anyways, but it flies in the face of the advertising-based business models that a lot of free-content sites are using right now, so this is going to involve a much bigger shift in how these businesses operate than I really think people give it credit for on the surface. This is part of what makes the feedback mechanisms I discussed above so important – journalism businesses need to known and understand what’s important to their target audience in addition to making their work as accessible to them as possible.

Journalism enterprises also need to pay attention to the actual contribution statistics too – what people say is valuable to them and that they’d be willing to pay for may not match what they actually pay for. That makes metrics packages important too. Whatever tools these businesses use for funding needs to be sure to include useful metrics about the monetary stats. That includes demographics on who is paying, how they’re interacting with the content that led to donations (how long they spent reading them), where the funders came from (did they click a link posted on Facebook or Twitter, did they find the article from a published RSS feed, or maybe they just came to your website), and what made this valuable enough that they paid money for it.

I don’t know what the reporting capabilities for PayPal’s donation button or Patreon are like, but companies like Pendo can probably help at least with understanding how users are interacting with your website. This also underscores the importance of not only having a way of acquiring community feedback, but also actively going into those channels to solicit it.

There are a lot of tools out there right now that a 21st-century media enterprise can take advantage of in order to embrace the general trends of where journalism is heading. In fact, a lot of the tools out there help cover the issues of community engagement and funding, as well as gathering metrics about people funding journalism. The biggest thing missing are ways of getting the community at large to help contribute a lot of the basic data so journalistic institutions can focus on more investigative and in-depth pursuits. There’s a lot of unanswered design questions that go into these tools, but I believe the more the community can get involved in simple acts of journalism, the more likely they are to be involved enough to help support the bigger, more in-depth acts of journalism.

 Posted by at 12:00 PM