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Although they have since become a crucial element of modern society, in many ways newspapers were just the best packaging and delivery mechanism for information we had available at a certain point: a way of aggregating everything from local election coverage to foreign reporting. Now, of course, we have an almost unlimited ability to create, package and distribute our own content — and that means journalists and even those involved in news events can reach an audience directly. What if more media companies thought of themselves as platforms for helping that to occur?
That’s one of the ideas contained in a new book from Nicco Mele, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who acted as operations director for Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential race. In the book, entitled “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath,” the author looks at how the social web and digital technology in general have altered the balance of power between the individual and the organization. And in a recent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Mele argues the same thing is happening to the media:
“Some news personalities now play a strong role on Twitter and Facebook, but they often get little institutional support for this, and such participation and engagement remain merely part of a narrow web traffic strategy. But what if news outlets decided to flip their model, so that the editorial staff was not subservient to the brand, but the ‘brand’ became a platform for talent?”
Embrace the trend or be disrupted by it
Although Mele doesn’t explicitly say so in his Nieman piece, the flipping of this model is already occurring, whether media outlets want it to or not — as I tried to point out in a recent post about the shifting balance of power. Where platforms like the New York Times and Newsweek used to hold all the cards, and individual writers were forced to cut deals in order to find an audience, bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo have shown there is an alternate route (one we’ll be discussing with Sullivan and others at the paidContent Live conference on April 17).
While Sullivan’s experiment as a standalone media entity is far from complete, he has raised over $600,000 to fund his team, which means he is well on his way to being self-sustaining, instead of just being a part of the content at The Daily Beast and subject to their broad paywall. And a big part of what Sullivan (and pioneers in other fields, such as musician Amanda Palmer) see as the benefit of this approach isn’t just the money, but the personal connection with an audience.
As Mele suggests in his piece at the Nieman Lab, many traditional media organizations not only don’t help their journalists make use of social tools to connect with their readers, they actively discourage it with restrictive social-media policies. But what if they tried to enhance that connection and build on it — and perhaps even tried to share in the monetization of it? They could even experiment with allowing readers to subscribe to individual writers. Says Mele:
“On Election Day 2012, more than 20 percent of NYTimes.com traffic visited Nate Silver’s blog. At the same time, his book had just been released. The Times had little role in Silver’s book. But imagine it had a big one; imagine the way it would open revenue possibilities, taking advantage of the giant platform the Times provided Silver. Publishing books, hosting events, and public speaking are just the beginning.”
Why not a personal paywall for writers?
This is the essence of the “personal paywall” that I tried to describe in a recent post: the idea that individual writers are what increasing numbers of readers are connecting with and seeking out — not impersonal media brands or institutions. Why not provide Nate Silver or Nick Kristof with as many tools and resources as possible to make that easier? The New York Times is clearly thinking along those lines, according to new executive editor Jill Abramson, but it would be nice to see that idea expand and accelerate beyond just a chosen few at one newspaper.
Instead of thinking of the newspaper as the pre-eminent brand, why not think of it more like a talent agency or a record label: an entity that gets its value from helping to develop and promote a variety of voices — in whatever way it can, across whatever platforms. Newspapers have always promoted their star writers, but any value captured has gone solely to the larger brand, the assumption being that those journalists should consider themselves lucky to have been chosen. But as Mele notes:
“Talented people — their voices, personalities, tastes and ultimately news skills and judgement — are the filters that digital era consumers want, not archaic, anonymous news brand names. With the decline of trust and loyalty in large institutions, it is increasingly hard to imagine people in the coming decades subscribing because of loyalty to an institutional Big Media entity. Yet it’s easy to imagine them wanting to fund several people whom they trust to bring them information they care about.”