Monday, June 23, 2014

An intriguing ‘publishing platform for readers’

An unprecedented collaboration between two leading newspapers and the non-profit Mozilla tech community aims to build a “publishing platform for readers” that could go a long way toward revolutionizing the way we get and give news.  

Inasmuch as the undertaking was announced only last week by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mozilla and the Knight Foundation, there’s no way of knowing how ambitious the project will be – or how well it will be executed.  

But the project offers the tantalizing prospect of perhaps the best system yet to combine the values, discipline and skills of professional journalism with the equally formidable energy, insights and skills of everyone else.  

As discussed in a moment, the project also could help the legacy media catch up to the native digital publishers that have siphoned readers and revenues away from newspapers and magazines. First, the background: 

Starting with little more than a general idea of the path they will travel together, the New York Times and Washington Post are joining with Mozilla, the non-profit global technology community that created the popular Firefox browser, to build a system to enable the creation, sharing and monitoring of comments, articles, media and other citizen-generated content.  The two-year effort is being funded with a $3.9 million grant from the Knight Foundation to a non-profit entity called Knight-Mozilla OpenNews

“With the platform, publishers will be able to easily include reader contributions in their content cycle, manage their communities and gather valuable user data,” said a press release from the NYT. “The platform will also use reputation scores, self-policing and other tools to make it easier for news organizations to monitor comments.”

The platform, which will be shared at no cost with participating publishers, “isn’t another commenting platform,” said Greg Barber of the Washington Post in the press release. “It is a publishing platform for readers.” 

If OpenNews lives up to its mission statement, we could be on the way to seeing a platform that expands the scope and scale of traditional journalism by enfranchising, encouraging and empowering the voice of anyone who wants to contribute to the public discourse. At the same time, the project could well advance the quantity, quality and credibility of content generated by non-professional contributors.   

Because it would be easier for citizens to contribute to media sites, the number and caliber of contributions would increase. Because multiple media sites would use the platform, citizen contributions would gain wider audiences at the same time the media sites were able to host fuller discussions than generally available today. With more opportunities for their contributions to be seen and heard, more citizens would take the time to post them. 

While boosting the interactivity of mainstream media sites undoubtedly will lead to unpleasant kerfuffles from time to time, the platform could well offer the cleanest and best-lit place yet for constructive and sustainable community journalism. 

But wait, there could be more: 

If the initial incarnation of the platform were successful, it could be the basis for solving some of the most pressing (pun slightly intended) problems facing the legacy media. 

Because most media companies lack the financial resources and technical chops to build state-of-the-art digital publishing systems, their sites and apps pale (and typically trail) in comparison to those powered by the superior engagement tools and analytics enjoyed by well-heeled digital natives like Vox Media, Bleacher Report, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and others.  (Fun fact: The more than 130 million monthly unique visitors at BuzzFeed are almost as great in number as the collective 161 million uniques visiting all the 1,300-plus newspaper websites in the land.) 

If the initial phase of OpenNews were successful, here’s how it could further help the technically-straggling legacy media:

:: Content management – Assuming OpenNews were architected to responsively display all manner of media across all known and likely platforms (and it's hard to imagine it won’t be), the system could be extended to not just manage comments but also to become a default content-management system for publishers great and small. As such, it would house all media assets in one place for ease in discovery, editing and publication across platforms ranging from smartphones to smart crockpots.

:: Content curation – Because the future of digital publishing requires nearly all comers to augment their own offerings with relevant content aggregated from elsewhere, the process of discovering and curating material could be made more efficient – and more effective – if the content from multiple publishers were archived in a single, readily searchable, cloud-based system.  

:: Content promotion – With publishers easily mixing and matching content with one another, each will help to vastly expand the audience for all their work.  This would provide broader content for publishers, a better experience for readers and more premium advertising opportunities.  

:: Content personalization – If the activities and interests of readers could be tracked across the many sites and apps that they visit, the user experience could be taken to the next level by customizing content to suit an individual’s particular needs. This feature would require privacy safeguards and, ideally, a provision requiring consumers to opt-in to such a service. Assuming safeguards are in place, think how slick it would be to click a button to personalize your Firefox browser by linking it to your contacts, calendar, stock portfolio and Amazon wish list.

:: Content merchandising – If the platform were built to protect copyrighted content, it could serve as the basis for an intra-publisher payment system to allocate syndication fees among the originators of premium content wherever their work appears on the web. The system could enable not only paywalls but also newsletters, special reports, databases, multimedia packages and more.   

With the above functions capturing detailed data about individual users as they traffic participating sites, legacy publishers finally could become serious digital competitors at a time that marketers increasingly are using segmentation algorithms and exacting analytics to deliver individually crafted messages to precisely targeted consumers. (Another fun fact: Procter & Gamble aims to buy 70%-plus of its advertising this year through data-centric, real-time bidding systems.)   

Even though granular customer data unquestionably has become the Holy Grail of modern digital marketing and advertising, most legacy media are ill equipped to compete with the native digital publishing and advertising services that are pecking away at them. 

Unfortunately, publishers for the most part have a poor track record for collaborating in their own best interests. Because they absolutely must have a modern, nimble, holistic and multi-brand platform to compete successfully with the well-heeled masters of the digital universe, they really need to coalesce around OpenNews – or something awfully similar to it.  


Blogger BettyKaye said...

Sorry but I am so confused. Doesn't sound like this would in any way help maintain or restore what has been traditional journalism. Only the facts, ma'am. Most of the commentary I've read that follows Patch reports or actually any of the digital publishers i.e. Huffington Post, etc., most of it degenerates into nasty exchanges almost irrelevant to the original topic. Don't know what that could add to someone researching a topic or wanting a fuller news report on breaking or continuing stories. For what it's worth, I read the reference to "smart crockpots" as "smart crackpots", who are likely to be the major contributors to this new platform. Unfortunately.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Go down your checklist. What you're describing , at least from the 1,500m vantagepoint is Huffpo for newsies.

I agree that user generated content -UGC-is part of the solution to newspaper solvency and relevancy, or more correctly, perceived relevancy, because it brings stickiness in its wake, but the ugc and community examples which exist are anti-patterns of human interaction and motivation. This describes not just Huffpo but less mainstream 'successful, technical' franchises that Mozilla devs are likely to use as models like Slashdot or wrt community policing, Stackexchange and wrt to internal politics even Wikipedia itself.

The problem is that these forums become the obsessive focus of reputation seekers and power mongers and the point of the endeavor gets buried in the Suvivor-style dynamics which emerge. They set, through whatever means are inadvertently made available to them the implicit yet actual dynamics of the site whatdver the explicit goals of it may have been. This is quickly followed on by admin's /principle's acquiescence to whatver has emerged, since they quickly come to realize that its too costly to do QA upon.

Having OP do work for free sounds great until you see what it is they create. By then it's too late, too involved and detailed a process and far too alienating to get rid of the people with 100,000 reputation points or whatever.

The online, hands off or gently steered forums which exist are all bad, and bad in ways which are diametrically in opposition to good journalism and even good op ed pages. It's unlikely that the cash bomb they're setting off amongst seasoned SV devs is going to do anything other than produce more of the same type of dysfunction which already exists, just, you know, for news junkies and sans the celebrity gossip section. The devs think stackxchange is just fine and the money is outsourcing the decisions that matter to the devs, wile thinking about how history will talk about them , or something, you know how these things go.

We lack knowledge. Full stop. The future successful innovation will be one that comes from the unfunded trenches somewhere, as a result of huge amounts of trial and error and lots of false starts. It will look like something truly different. I doubt this is that.

12:00 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

I would hope that it might include a micro-payment scheme. I am willing to pay pennies for each newspaper article I read, but I am not willing to pay to subscribe to each newspaper's website.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Re micropayments- but r u willing to take the time to decide on how many pennies ur willing to part with , each and every time? Don't say 'sure' too quickly, since that would imply something very concrete about what, exactly, your time is worth.

Newspapers weeklies and mags are inherently bundlers of 'microtransactions' and for good reason. It's the model that isn't insulting to their readers, provides room for serendipity and doesn't turn repotage into a series of mini popularity contests.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have the conceit that wrt community ugc and stickiness, I have a good answer; one that leverages community contributions and bypasses the usual antisocial vortices that consume sites or drive policing costs through the roof. It also creates enormous stickiness and encourages the best contributions without anyone needing to do anything, entirely avoiding the Lord of the Flies syndrome that crowd sourced moderation inevitably becomes.

I would love to share it but it won't fit into this margin... seriously though I do make this claim; the approach is widely applicable to any kind of publishing. On paper it is highly disruptive but in an antisocial, airbnb kind of way, and that I see as a problem, not a feature.

The fact is we live with some delicate systems that nevertheless make life tolerable. These arrangements have been worked out over decades and centuries and blowing them up to make a killing on their destruction is not in anyone's best interests, even the ones making the money. No matter how little Newmark cops to the avalanche he unwittingly triggered, it is what it is, and demonstrates the point.

I'll say this- the natural power of the web has not at all been leveraged to good effect, not the way it could be. For all its current panty-sniffing creepiness, Google is the closest we've come to harnessing the power implicit in the web. The interesting New Yorker article aside, Clayton Christianson is still far righter than he is wrong. The only thing I'd add is we all allow ourselves to take on the role of 'entrenched incumbents' by becoming joiners and eager participants of whatever 21 y/o s vomit out, permitting it to channel our thinking into near- GM levels of staidness and , uh, capitulatory complacency.

At any rate, it's easy to destroy things; one can do quite a lot entirely accidentally. It's much harder to go against entropy, and even harder yet to sustain other structures while also building on them.

8:11 PM  
Blogger policywonk said...

Yada, yada, yada. Without a sound business model that pays for the hard thing nobody likes to admit we still need -- competent reporting, which users are unable to provide for themselves -- this may just be more pie in the sky. Why does anyone think that people who get their news from Twitter will pay for solid reporting? You think users can cover the Supreme Court, the federal budget, a city council's contracting deals or corporate corruption? Will they be covering the police beat or arson investigations? Perhaps they'll cover tax law changes or report on the commodities exchanges, money markets, foreign trade balance? Doubt it.

I'm reminded of a disappointing analogy: everyone who has a word processing program or a videocam and Final Cut Pro suddenly thinks he or she can be a screenwriter or filmmaker, when the truth is that only a small handful of people of skilled, talented people will ever succeed at making anything really worth seeing (it's just a fun hobby for the rest, and it won't pay the bills).

Unless you're in a war zone or at the state high school championships, user generated content is rarely real news. So who still gets to report real news -- and who will pay for it? For that matter, does the public still want real news, or does it prefer to be lost in infotainment instead? I don't hear answers to those questions. I applaud the NYT and the Post for seeking them, but so far I don't see anything to get excited about. I just see more unemployment for competent mid-career journalists, no matter what new software or tech skills they learn.

Go ahead: tell me what I'm missing here. I'm waiting. It's only my profession, after all, and every day it seems to collapse in on itself more and more. Seems I have to find more useful work, like maybe working at a dry cleaning shop; people still pay for that.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Crowhill said...

This could be an incredibly exciting thing, especially if it had an API that allowed publishers to include subscription content.

Right now, small publishers are faced with an array of bad decisions, including (1) hoping in vain that digital ad pennies will make up for subscription dollars, (2) publishing on Apple or Amazon, which essentially allows those companies to steal their customers, (3) building an app (which is beyond their capability, puts them in the software business, and ... nobody wants a hundred apps anyway), or (4) limiting themselves to branded web platforms.

What the world needs is a comprehensive reader platform (like Evernote, but better) that has an area for subscription content.

The platform should allow publishers to move subscription-only content into this platform, and should allow readers to log in to the digital content they have paid for.

This is the crying need of the publishing industry today, but nobody's doing it. Please, please, Mozilla et al., do this right.

10:57 AM  

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