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What Price A Truly Social Media?

Currently we are privy to a large amount of speculation about the future of the newspaper industry. Some pundits (and editors) are suggesting the only way that print can survive in anything like its existing format is to start charging for online content. Advertising, they say, as a consistent form of revenue, is not enough. This perception would seem timely; News Corp just announced a 97 per cent slump in profits in its newspaper division.

Others feel that charging for what has, with one notable exception, always been free content would actually have the opposite effect for the industry, and likely expedite its demise. The Guardian is currently running a poll asking their readers if they would pay to read newspapers online (any newspapers – not just The Guardian). At the time of writing, a commanding 87.4% say they would not.

In September 2005, The New York Times premiered its TimesSelect subscription model for part of its online content. The service was priced at $7.95 per month, or $49.95 per annum (while being free to existing print subscribers and students), and was a resounding failure. People hated it. Others subscribed, took the content, and then made it freely available to all. So is the way of the internet. Two years later, the Times announced it would stop charging for access.

I have to admit, I side with the majority on this issue. Unless it is priced at an absolute pittance – and I mean literally pennies a day – paying for newspaper content as is is not something I can see myself doing. Others, it appears, would agree.

Earlier today on Twitter, I proposed another solution. People don’t like the idea of paying for online news, especially when alternative (and equally valid) sources will always be available. But would they pay to be part of that newspaper’s community?

Moreover, if their subscription to that community meant they played a part in shaping and creating the news, would they perhaps be willing to part with a little bit more?

What Is Social Media?

The definition continues to expand and blur as old media adapts to the new (begrudgingly so in many cases). But the key word remains social. Reading a newspaper is frustratingly one-way. Sure, they might have a comment system bolted on at the end, but it’s rare that the writer of that article will respond to any statements made by their readers. Indeed, half the time I wonder if they read them at all.

It’s a commonly-held adage of ‘the future’ that we will individually choose the news we wish to read, but that’s been a reality for decades. You read The Sun, or you read The Times. You read BBC online, or you read Fark. Or both, or all of these things, and more, but the essential concept is you are making that choice.

Blogs and online magazines such as the The Huffington Post and Slate are well-regarded and have played no small part in advancing, if not the death, then certainly the immediate crisis in print media. And it’s fair to say that The Guardian has perhaps embraced this new technology and mindset better than most (even if it means they have to publish at least one “I hate Twitter!” article per month, just to maintain journalistic balance).

What Is The Future Of Social Media?

But none of these entities are truly social. For the most part, they remain one-way; writer’s write, and reader’s read. And never the twain shall meet.

I say: the future lies somewhere in between. Moreover, I’m not sure a future exists for printed media at all without this unity.

Let the reader become the writer; let the writer become the reader. At once, and even from this great distance, I can feel you recoil. “But we have learned to build trust in our journalists,” you may well say, “who have earned this through their experience and honesty.”

And to this I reply: poppycock. Even if it were true in all cases, which it clearly is not, and never has been, there is enough fabrication, hypocrisy and good old-fashioned porkies in the history of the global press to make Jeffrey Archer look like a bastion of responsibility.

Not all, naturally. Not even most. There are many exceptional journalists, who strive to be both fair and accurate. But to suggest that the media is a cross-bearer of honesty and trusted judgement is folly at best; if I can be so bold as to make the analogy, Mother Teresa may be on her journey towards canonisation, but a Saint she will never be.

As technology increases in power, while also becoming more compact and affordable, we are all potential journalists. At any point in time any one of us can be ‘the man on the scene’. Newspapers know this; Twitter is counting on it. Who amongst us no longer owns a mobile phone, most of which can take a high-quality photograph that can then be uploaded to the internet in a matter of seconds?

Where’s the story? It’s in your pocket.

This is the future. In just a few years all media will be social media and the phrase will become redundant. So what of the newspaper as it is today?

Local and regional newspapers are, I suspect, a thing of the past. If I was being entirely forthcoming I would propose that this is no great loss; while there are jobs at stake and it is certainly true that not only journalists will be affected, I cannot remember a single occasion in my life where I felt that the local paper was an enjoyable read, let alone an essential one. That said, now that I no longer work in the square mile of London, I do miss reading the Evening Standard on my commute home from the City.

But the national press can rejoice, for it has an excellent future, assuming it not only fully adopts modern technology and thinking, but embraces it. If we are all capable of creating and breaking the news, why should we not all be part of the process? To accomplish this, I propose that newspapers do not charge anything for content – not a single penny. It’s free to all; free to own. It’s our news.

Instead, a community is built around that newspaper that is subscription-based. This subscription will be quite modest; just a few dollars per month, with the usual discount for an annual purchase. But instead of just receiving access to the one-way medium of reportage, each member will become part of the process that shapes and builds that content.

I’m not foolish enough to propose that we would all be writing the lead stories and fighting over column inches – the newspaper itself would be edited and written by the pros. But the community, behind the scenes but very much a part of it, would feed the content.

Vast, in-depth discussions and heated debate would be had by all subscribers about the important events of that day, and the editors and journalists could shape this discourse into viable content. They would always have people at the scene – potentially, scores of them – all around the world, as well as their own seasoned hacks. Those not present would have the opportunity to anchor the story with their own insights and experiences. Think Question Time, with more guests, and less David Dimbleby.

Of course, one of the major benefits of any subscription-based model is you eliminate trolls, spammers and other ne’er do wells almost entirely. Only a demented minority pay to endlessly complain and cast unfounded aspersions on others. They would not be welcome at this table, nor would they make a reservation.

The Small Print

That said, this would not work with, nor am I proposing, an army of ‘yes men’. The debate is critical to the success of such an endeavour. Consider if you will the age-old argument that asks whether the media shapes the people, or the people shape the media? Up until very recently the former has been a lot closer to reality than the latter. Perhaps it is time to turn history on its head, and reshape our expectations and norms.

Again, the key word is social. People will not pay to read a newspaper online. They must have a voice, and a powerful one at that. Journalists can no longer adopt a mantra of ‘this is the truth’ and expect it to only be questioned by their colleagues and respected rivals.

I suspect some are curious, or perhaps concerned, that I am proposing a kind of journalistic communism, where everybody has an equal say. Not at all. I am simply suggesting that everybody be given the opportunity to have an equal say. Our very best journalists need not live in fear. The exceptional will always shine.

And the best part? Because the main content, the news itself, is free to all, you can continue to partly-subsidise this with advertisements. Indeed, as the technology behind online ads increase in complexity and more accurately pinpoints the observer’s desires, most of us probably won’t even mind as chances are we’ll have at worst a casual interest in the item being pitched. Think Minority Report, preferably sans Mr. Yukkamoto.

Just because our saturated minds have become so accustomed to banner advertisements and Google adblocks that we turn a blind eye to them, it doesn’t mean this will always be the case. If history has taught us anything, it’s that commerce will find a way.

Twitter Is The Delivery Boy, Not The News Itself

Twitter perhaps best epitomises contemporary ideals about the real-time nature of news delivery, as well as the medium in which it can be delivered. The service has many advantages over old media or even blogs in that, because submitted content is limited to 140 characters, it is by definition a swift process. Newspaper articles need to be written, re-written, sub-edited, fact-checked, re-written and then edited; blog posts need to be written. It all takes time. It is of course true that the information contained within a tweet is minimal, but if the right content is submitted by the right person it is a powerful form of communication that can move a significant number of eyes.

But Twitter, also because of the limitations of the size of the tweet, will only ever be the carrier of news. It is the delivery boy, if you will. While it is true that it can break and give weight to a story, it is difficult to offer more than a sound bite or headline, even with (or because of) an accompanying link.

Where Twitter excels is in the analysis of trends. Again, it is a feature that is not without its faults, and one only has to glance at the Trending Topics on any given day on Twitter.com to see why. Too much repetition and inanity, not enough precision. Trends these may well be, but they are, by and large, a redundant source of information to most of us. But if Twitter’s increasingly vast data pool could be tweaked and configured to our desire, and re-analysed by network, location, age, gender and all other demographics, it would be a powerful tool indeed, and as the platform continues to expand, increasingly so.

It is not without some irony that I refer you to Muckrack, a website that tracks journalists on Twitter, and their own trending feature, as an example of how this can, and should, be done. As Twitter announces that it will begin to crawl and index the links shared on its network, this moves a step closer to fruition.

Change

So what is the first step? This will not be an easy process, nor will it be a swift one. Many newspapers will perish. Some will be rescued by those without their best interests at heart, and become parodies of their former selves. A few will merge, and others will break into little pieces. Those that survive and ultimately triumph will, I predict, become far more accessible and forthcoming to their audience to a point where the distinction between journalist and source will diminish.

It is important to understand that journalism itself, and the reporting of news, will always be with us, much like music wasn’t cast aside when vinyl records were discarded for cassettes, compact discs and MP3s. The electronic book reader is not the death of literature; it is the liberator of it. The greatest change comes with the medium, not the content. A good story is a good story, and while the most talented can add that little bit of magic that makes an above-average story a great one, the roots of the tale – the bare bones, if you will – remain the same.

There is a decision to be made. The newspapers, editors and journalists that wish to do more than simply function, but to prosper and flourish, will need to embrace and nurture this essential period of change. Those that do not will shout loudly and passionately at any who will listen, first from a person of authority, and then from the sidelines, as the inevitable passes them by.

Social media is dead; long live a social media.

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