New Model Journalism

Tracking the media-funding revolution

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Narrative Science and the rise of the robot-writer

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

The prospect of machines taking over the world, either as our servants or our masters, has long fascinated, appearing in sci-fi novels and books for at least half a century. But while intelligent robots capable of household management may yet be some way off, a new breed of automated authors, revolutionising the world of journalism, has already arrived.

Its strongest representative comes in the form of Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company that develops software able to convert large quantities of numerical data into readable prose. The company, whose strapline boasts that it ‘transforms data into stories and insight’, tends to cater for niche markets in finance and sport. It numbers among its thirty clients the business information giant Forbes, for whom it has created a platform able to predict company earnings. Naturally, the customisation of the software requires considerable human input: the staff at Narrative Science input the range of stories and angles along with the preferred house style, but thereafter comes a reliable flow of mass-produced stories tailored to each client’s needs.

As astute commentators have pointed out, the implications of such a development for writers trying to earn a crust by hand and brain are double-edged. The obvious threat to traditional journalists that accompanies the attraction of cheap, plentiful copy for publishers, are cogently expressed by Evgeny Morozov:

‘First of all, it’s much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect,’ he writes in Slate. ‘As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science’s clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article—and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose. Not even Christopher Hitchens could beat that deadline.’

On the other hand, in an article published in the Atlantic earlier this month, Joe Fassler argues that in taking the drudgery out of writing, robot-writers could improve the journalist’s lot, freeing them up to concentrate on more creative, interesting projects. ‘In theory,’ he writes, ‘Narrative Science could change that, working like a team of cheap interns to scour the dross, find the gems, and deliver insight. With bales and bales of mind-numbing government and corporate documents to sort through, Narrative Science could eventually help writers find the needle in the haystack.’

Context, of course, is all: for this to happen, journalists would need to keep their jobs and, it’s important to note, lone freelance operators would not be able to afford the services of the likes of Narrative Science.

But it’s in the less obvious implications of automated authorship that the real threat to the human lies, both commentators suggest. As the trend towards personalisation continues, with information-providers more and more driven to tailor their products to the needs of the individual, the robot-writer will dig ever-deeper into the privacy of the reader, harnessing her tastes for its own, commercially-motivated ends:

‘The real threat comes from our refusal to investigate the social and political consequences of living in a world where reading anonymously becomes a near impossibility,’ writes Morozov. ‘It’s a world that advertisers—along with Google, Facebook, and Amazon—can’t wait to inhabit, but it’s also a world where critical, erudite and unconventional thinking may become harder to nurture and preserve.’

Meanwhile, Fassler, having interviewed the folk at Narrative Science, is a partial convert to automated writing, concludes that fears about the threat to the other end of the creative process – the writer’s – are unfounded:

‘Even our simplest moments are awash in data that machines will never quantify—the way it feels to take a breath, a step, the way the sun cuts through the trees. How, then, could any machine begin to understand the ways we love and hunger and hurt? The net contributions of science and art, history and philosophy, can’t parse the full complexity of a human instant, let alone a life. For as long as this is true, we’ll still have a role in writing.’

Written by Alex

April 30th, 2012 at 6:42 am

Brave New Digital World – review of Turing’s Cathedral

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Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

As other reviewers have pointed out, Turing’s Cathedral, the book which documents the fulfillment of Alan Turing’s vision of a ‘universal machine’ capable of thought, is a sprawling entity, full of detail and digression that frequently threaten its coherence.

Part history of the building of one of the first computers in Princeton in the 1940s, part biography of the key figures involved, the real interest of the book is perhaps the way it bridges the esoteric mathematical world which spawned digital life and the implications for humankind. In this respect, it presents an educational remedy for the fact that, despite their ubiquity, few lay people have a grasp of the principles underlying computers.

And while the initial sections contain paragraphs whose mathematical content gave your arts-graduate correspondent a strong urge to weep, in the third part of the book, this is done with admirable clarity. Recounting Turing’s attempts to put mathematical logic into the service of everyday tasks, Dyson writes: ‘After Turing, numbers began doing things.’ (p 250) He goes on to explain how an internet search unites deterministic replication with human choices to realise Turing’s conception of an ‘oracle machine’ capable of achieving more than was ever possible previously.

At this point, things get really interesting. ‘Are we searching the search engines, or are search engines searching us?’ asks Dyson. (p 264) He suggests that we are now on the brink of a computer-led future, which, depending on depending on your point of view, is either visionary or dystopic: ‘Sixty-some years ago, biochemical organisms began to assemble digital computers. Now digital computers are beginning to assemble biochemical organisms.Viewed from a distance, this looks like part of a life cycle. But which part? Are biochemical organisms the larval phase of digital computers? Or are digital computers the larval phase of biochemical organisms?’ (p 291)

In his subsequent commentary, Dyson argues that the prospect of computers taking over from humans the tasks we are manifestly so bad at – running countries, etc – could only be welcomed by any sensible person. A visit to the best example of digital utopia so far – Google’s headquarters in California, where everyone was ‘youthful, healthy, happy, and exceptionally well-fed’, impresses him hugely.

If that strikes you as eerily Brave New Worldish, it also occurs to Dyson that the age of computers may have a dark side. What, he asks, if the price of machines that think is people who don’t? Or, to put it in a way that he doesn’t, can computers really live our lives for us?

It’s all more complicated than the simple opposition of utopia/dystopia allows. Thanks to the developments detailed by Dyson, an era of unprecedented change may well be underway, but we’re only just beginning to understand it.

A later blog will examine developments that evoke the possibility of computers replacing the human writer.

Written by Alex

April 16th, 2012 at 4:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Journalists nail down new income stream

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

A growing number of journalists are bucking the downturn in the media by taking up work in the beauty sector, New Model Journalism has learnt.

A sample survey conducted by the site suggests that up to 7.8 per cent of journalists are tapping into the boom in the nail bars. Nail bars are increasingly dominating the high street, growing by 16.5 per cent in 2011, according to a survey by the Local Data Company.

Typically, a media worker will start by doing shifts in their local nail bar, gradually acquiring the full set of skills needed to become nail professionals.

‘Initially, I didn’t know one end of an emery board from another,’ said Andrew Hoffman, a former photographer. ‘But I quickly grasped the importance of filing from the outside in, and of following the right stages when giving a French manicure.’

Some entrepreneurially-minded hacks are going even further and establishing their own nail bars in prominent high street locations.

‘I couldn’t have done it without the help of the NUJ’s Diversification Organiser,’ said one, who wishes to remain anonymous until his re-branding is complete.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some journalists are developing specialisms in the way that, in former times, they would have specialised in areas such as social care or the aviation industry. Fish pedicure bars, which are opening faster than fishmongers, offer one potentially lucrative specialism.

And, with brow and lash bars becoming increasingly fashionable in the States, it looks as if there will be plenty of scope for media-weary hacks to carry on diversifying in future.

Written by Alex

April 1st, 2012 at 3:27 am

From newsroom to blogosphere – the sexism goes on

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Where are all the women? That was the question behind an NUJ fringe meeting at last week’s TUC women’s conference.

A wide range of women gathered from all sections of the media. Shadow media minister Helen Goodman, citing the coalition government’s plans to relieve Ofcom of the duty to promote equal opportunities in TV and radio, concluded: ‘Things are moving backwards. Things are getting worse’.

NUJ activist Jess Hurd gave some depressing examples of the naked sexism that still prevails in newsrooms and the photography business.

New Statesman journo Helen Lewis reported on the rise of online misogyny which leads to women writers getting violent threats and personal, sexualised abuse. A fuller account is here. She argued that such threats and intimidation need to be taken more seriously by employers and police if society is to convey the message that using the internet for such abuse is not acceptable.

Veteran activist Linda Bellos said she still gets responses to her articles whose ‘vitriol, [the] hatred reminds me of the reaction to the formation of the feminist movement.’

But there were reports of positive things being done.

Broadcast magazine editor Lisa Campbell and Lis Howell, head of broadcast journalism at City University, outlined the reasons for their joint Expert Women Campaign, based on research which highlights the gender imbalance in media experts. Radio 4’s Today programme has a ratio of six male experts to every female, for example.

They’ve launched a petition asking for a modest 30% representation of women. (‘We’re not even asking for equality; we’re not that daft,’ said Howell.) Sign here now.

Meanwhile, frustration at not seeing women’s views represented adequately led Alison Clarke to found Women’s Views on the News, which covers under-reported stories such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s endorsement of the view that ‘men are fundamental, women are second-rate’.

Sadly, being entirely run by volunteers, the site suffers from the same absence of a business model that afflicts older feminist sites.

I banged the drum I started thumping on this site in November, and puzzled over the fact that, amid all the experiments currently being conducted in making journalism pay, few pioneers seem to be women. Did the internet, with its adrenal, long-hours culture, I asked, foster and reward a kind of ‘digital machismo’?

Members of the audience helpfully suggested other contributory factors: the techy nature of many of the new business models, and the enduring fact that women carry the larger burden of care in families, and so have less time and energy to be entrepreneurial.

Whatever the case, it seems that there’s plenty for the latest phase of feminism – I forget which wave we’re on – to address in both old and new media.

Written by Alex

March 19th, 2012 at 7:03 am

Self-published reporting: journalism’s next frontier

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Interview by Alex Klaushofer.

Marc Herman couldn’t have been more surprised by the success of his Kindle Single The Shores of Tripoli.

‘The interest in the topic completely shocks me,’ he says. ‘I went over there to talk about Libya, and ended up being seen as something of an expert in electronic publishing.’

Within weeks, the book was in the top 300 of Amazon’s rankings, and Herman was being sought after as a speaker – not about inside story of Libya – but about the nuts and bolts of writing a short, journalistic book and selling it direct to readers via Amazon.

The deal, which was arranged with by his agent, gets Herman a royalty of 70% on a publication priced at $1.99.

‘That’s a fair price,’ he says. ‘I don’t expect someone to spend more for one story than an entire magazine. You can sell 99c bagels or entrees at $30. My tendency is to sell bagels.’

The ‘bagel approach’, as we might now call it, has obvious attractions for a time-poor but world-curious reader with only a couple of hours to spend reading about a conflict in a far-off country.

For the journalist, Herman thinks he has discovered the makings of a model that – while not being able to fund an entire living – forms a viable element of a portfolio of projects covering foreign stories. Three months after publication, the book has earned out its research costs and, with new sales every day, is now paying its writer a retrospective wage.

At the same time, the simplicity of the new publishing model is refreshing after the rigours of traditional publishing: ‘We didn’t have to hack our way through New York or London,’ says Herman. ‘A lot of the appeal is that it’s an alternative publishing culture you can try.’

Yet, while journalists are desperately seeking new ways of funding their reporting, and the publishing world is conducting a lively conversation about the implications of going digital, Herman doesn’t see much dialogue between the two: ‘It feels a bit like the right and the left hand are not communicating with each other.’

So could his success herald a new breed of journalists working entirely independently, as growing numbers of authors are now doing?

Herman doesn’t see much future in a journalist going it entirely alone. ‘I’m not sure it’s necessarily going to produce good journalism, because you can’t do everything at the same time,’ he says. ‘I think it’s more likely that small groups get together to work in teams – that’s really exciting.’

From his base in Barcelona, he is already working with another two other journalists on a documentary project looking at the youth unemployment in Spain, which is now approaching 50%. In line with the trend towards ‘enhanced books’, the project will be multi-media, offering readers pictures and a video as part of the package.

He anticipates that, in time, the group will become a kind of coop along the lines of the small agencies formed by photographers when they realised they were better working together rather than (competitively) alone.

And, as the models of digital publishing get more established, creators will need to protect their interests in the face of giants such as Amazon, he adds.

In the meantime, it’s clear that these pioneering days carry all the excitements and disappointments of experiments in early air travel:

‘I feel like I’m in the films of all those people who were trying to invent aeroplanes before the Wright brothers, and struggled to get them off the ground. I’m one of those guys.’

Written by Alex

March 5th, 2012 at 7:29 am

Posted in E-books,News,Niche

From frontline to publication – the rise of news e-books

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

It’s comforting, if you’re in the words business, to remember that ‘crisis’ denotes ‘turning point’, a phase of breakdown prior to resolution, as well as the more common meaning of a bad time. And now, with the line between book publishing and journalism becoming increasingly blurred, comes evidence that new opportunties for journalists are opening up in the expanding world of e-books.

This month brings the latest development in this emerging trend, in the form of a new initiative launched by non-profit news outlet ProPublica and digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media. In the partnership, ProPublica is releasing another tranche of its investigative work in e-book form, including its Presidential Pardons series, material that was originally published in The Washington Post.

The organisation joins a growing number of US publishers who are exploiting the relative cheapness and ease of digital publication to bring in-depth, long-form journalism to a wider audience.

Last October US publishers Politico opened an online bookstore in partnership with publishers Random House, allowing titles to be sold through retailers such as Amazon. The titles, says editor-in-chief John Harris, offer readers a combination of ‘great minds and writers in political journalism and publishing’.

A similar venture is being developed by Random House and Collca in the Brain Shots series, covered previously on this site.

Publishing journalism as e-books allows publishers to venture into territory such as last summer’s riots that were hitherto off-limits because the long lead-in times of traditional publishing meant that, by the time the more newsy books came out, the moment had passed.

Yet, while the attractions of the new model are obvious, it does present challenges, not least the question of how to legitimise charging for material that has already been published. One obvious selling point is the convenience of having material brought together and edited into a single format, in the way that newspapers and authors have often served up anthologies of particularly successful columns in book form.

But the e-book, lacking the tangible virtue of a physical object, has to do more. So the new publishers are seeking out extra content like videos, maps and interviews with journalists, to add value to the product. One such ‘enhanced book’ is Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo follows the child-residents of Bombay slums as they scrape a living by sorting and selling rubbish. The e-book package includes video footage, shot by the children themselves, over three years of reporting.

Yet, as the new model gets more established, journalists may increasingly ask themselves whether they wouldn’t be better off by cutting out the middle man. Just as more and more authors are concluding they are now able to do for themselves what only a traditional publisher used to do – and with less cost and delay – the next phase may see journalists going it alone.

One example to watch is Marc Herman, a freelance journalist whose self-published book on Libya has been hitting the top few per cent of sales in Kindle Singles. In this interview about the nuts and bolts of the experiment, Herman reveals himself to be a model of the new entrepreneurial hack, prepared not just to go out and get the story, but to bring it to market too.

The next frontier in long-form journalism may be a lonely, but exciting one.

Written by Alex

February 20th, 2012 at 4:03 am

Posted in E-books,News,US

Public interest journalism takes a kangaroo leap forward

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Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Today brings the launch of Australian news websiteThe Global Mail, one of the best-funded public journalism initiatives the digital age has seen to date.

With a mission to provide independent, quality journalism – strapline ‘our audience is our only agenda’ – and generously bankrolled by Australian web-preneur Graeme Wood, the site’s approach is determinedly uncommercial.

The idea for the project came when Wood and former ABC journalist Monica Attard came to a common conclusion about the state of foreign affairs reporting; ‘I think that the quality of public interest journalism is at the lowest ebb that I’m aware of,’ Wood told the website Crikey. “That’s a result of financial difficulties that media organisations are suffering, so as the quality goes down … there’s demand there that’s not being met.”

Attard, a former ABC journalist, was concerned that foreign affairs reporting was suffering from the crisis hitting the industry just as international affairs, with the Arab Spring, were getting particularly interesting.

The resulting Sydney-based site – which went live Down Under on what was yesterday in Greenwich Mean Time – may become for Australia what ProPublica is to America and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to Britain.

My first visit to the home page brought me a triptych of three very different images – an arresting, if slightly confusing, introduction. The three stories they illustrate are clearly carefully chosen for their range: an investigation highlighting the failings of Australia’s register of health workers and the implications for patient safety, an analysis piece on Obama’s re-election prospects by veteran commentator Michael Maher, and a report by Middle East correspondent Jess Hill examining the opposing worldviews of Egypt’s Salafis and Sufis.

All the pieces are beautifully written and replete with the kind of colour and detail that has become increasingly rare in foreign affairs reporting in recent years. They are also, in terms of both pace and choice of subject, noticeably less news-driven than their British counterparts. With galleries of pictures following the copy, it’s clear that high values have been placed on images, so much so that at points it almost feels as if you’ve stumbled into a photography or graphics-led site.

Yet the site, while undeniably elegant, is not easy to navigate, with pieces arranged in a multi-column magazine format that involves repeated clicking to keep up the flow of reading. This makes a refreshing contrast to the busy, at-a-glance appearance of so many info-heavy news sites, and arguably helps to foster the kind of thoughtful approach to news consumption that the site aims to serve. Nonetheless, it remains an open question how easily it will win readers away from other international news sites in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace.

All of which points up the issue which will determine the long-term success of The Global Mail. It will doubtless take time for the website to establish its particular approach to foreign reporting, and for the country-based correspondents – Hill is one of five – to break exclusive stories on their patch. And the challenge facing all foreign news providers of finding an editorial balance in terms of geographical coverage is heightened by its status as a website potentially potentially appealing to a global audience.

Meanwhile, the website’s shakers and movers seem enviably unconcerned with revenue-generation, and have no plans to either get advertising or charge readers. In a pre-launch interview with long-established Australian newspaper The Age, Attard bristles at questions about The Global Mail’s financial viability: ”What’s the hurry? We’ve got a solid five years’ funding, during which time I reckon a bunch of hugely intelligent people will come up with a way to make money, with an operation as small as this, with no legacy to carry on our back.’

Written by Alex

February 6th, 2012 at 8:02 am

From cooperation to crowd-funding: The case of Port Talbot

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Its bleak industrial landscape was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its population of diverse life-forms evolving new ways of being in the struggle for survival. And now, Port Talbot’s bleak media landscape is … You get the idea. While on the one hand, Port Talbot is the perfect illustration of the crisis in local journalism, on the other, it’s the scene of an experiment which combines the cooperative model with crowd-funding.

The origins of Port Talbot MagNet go back to January 2010 when a group of local journalists, having lost their jobs to the crisis hitting the industry, decided to do something about the news vacuum in the area. The local paper, the Port Talbot Guardian, had closed down, leaving the town without any local news provider, and has since been followed by the council newspaper and the community radio station.

The group of local journalists formed a coop and were initially optimistic about the prospects of funding it through both grants and commercial activity. But a year of funding-seeking generated nothing, while plans to set up a news agency ran aground as the recession bit into budgets for local stories. The team decided to go ahead anyway and launched last June, having entered into a partnership with the National Theatre Wales to cover the Passion, an interactive theatre production set in the streets of Port Talbot.

In the event, the project did secure a form of funding when founding member Rachel Howells won an award to do a PhD examining the effects of the lack of news on the area run by the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. The award, which provides £50K for a three-year case study of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Port Talbot, effectively means that Howells is paid to work on the site.

‘It works very well, because the project feeds into the PhD, and the PhD research feeds into the project,’ she says.

The research, which will result in one of the first in-depth studies of the effects of the disappearance of traditional local news providers, will compare an historical analysis of the town’s local news sources with the ways in which the local population now get their information about what is going on.

‘My suspicion is that a lot of people are finding out about news by rumour and word-of-mouth,’ says Howells. ‘Really, what are the people of Port Talbot getting? National news, a bit of regional news, and not much else.’

Taking weekly turns as editors, the eight-strong team also draws on help from volunteers to write and source stories, and recently launched a crowd-funding initiave based on Spot.us adapted for the local community. The Pitch-in! scheme has so far brought them a free office in Port Talbot, plus some cash donations to to revive the traditional reporting of magistrates’ courts and council meetings. ‘You can’t have volunteers doing that; you must have a professional journalist,’ says Howells.

Driven primarily by a desire to provide the local area with news, the Port Talbot MagNet approach is certainly not a well-worked out, sharply-defined commercial model. Pragmatic and experimental, the model is likely to end up hybrid, involving a mixture of advertising, grant funding and commercially-generated revenue. But Howells is clear about one thing: ‘We would love it to be profitable. We think of ourselves as a social enterprise,’ she says. ‘People talk about not-for-profit, but you’ve still got to make an operating profit to pay the journalists and the running costs.’

She adds sagely: ‘Although we know that the traditional print model is showing signs of wear and tear, we have to be careful we don’t throw away all the things that have made businesses, particularly media businesses, work in the past.’

And although she doesn’t say so, it also seems likely that the success of the project will depend as much on the hard work and tenacity of one individual as the collective efforts of the cooperative.

Written by Alex

January 18th, 2012 at 9:51 am

Profit is dead. Long live Public Interest: Journalism in 2012 and beyond

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Photo by Joe Athialy (Flickr)

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

With the first week of the New Year bringing only warnings from politicians and economists, it seems that wise men have realised it would be foolish to feign optimism for 2012. But while things remain bleak on the economic front, there is at last a glimmer of hope for those rooting for quality journalism.

As Ian Burrell documents in this Independent article, philanthropically-funded journalism has been burgeoning in the States for some time. Over the last decade, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism, while its leading light, the non-profit news body ProPublica, which was only founded in 2008, is thriving, and now has some 1,300 donors.

Meanwhile, Down Under, a major new initiative is to launch next month. Funded by Australian entrepreneur Graeme Wood to the tune of almost £10 million, The Global Mail aims to provide independent international journalism in the public interest.

A similar trend finally seems to be taking root in Britain. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been very productive since launching some twenty months ago, while The Journalism Foundation, a new charitable foundation funding journalism which serves the public good, was born in December.

Meanwhile, in regional journalism, York-based news website One&Other is to launch a print edition funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There are also plans for the social enterprise, which started with backing from the charity UnLimited, to launch seven similar projects in cities around the UK over the next three years.

The significance of these developments lies not in their pioneering of the new, longed-for business model that will save quality journalism; as one editor points out, the ProPublica model is hardly a commercial one that can be replicated by media businesses.

The tide that is turning is more about socio-economic attitude; the rise of grant-funded journalism indicates a growing recognition that journalism is a good-in-itself rather than just another means to profitability, and profits are seen as the means to this end. In other words, what matters is people – or in this case, readers – an attitude that can comfortably be shared by both grant-funded models and commercial bodies with realistic profit aspirations.

Historically, it was this more reasonable attitude towards profit that was held by the proprietors of local papers back in the day – yes, they wanted their organ to wash its own face, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. But their expectations of the revenues that could be generated by a inherently labour-intensive craft were modest, attenuated by the recognition that the point of the paper was to serve the local community.

Contrast this, then, with the profit margins expected by some regional publishers a century or so later, with news groups such as Johnston Press achieving profits of up to 29%.

Yet, with journalism hitting exceptionally hard times, it seems that a kick-back has begun as people cast around not just for different ways of achieving the same financial outcomes, but for different attitudes to those outcomes.

The pioneers of this not-for-excessive-profit attitude include Nigel Lowther, founder-editor of the Cleethorpes Chronicle, who says he would be content with profits of around five per cent, and David Ainsworth, who has argued on this site that the charitable model could save local papers.

Meanwhile, founder-editor of the New Camden Journal Eric Gordon has called for a government-backed ‘media bank’ to ensure the survival of the local press, while others are promoting the cooperative model.

Of course, it’s doubtful that all these ideas will translate into concrete reality. But what’s valuable here is the way they change the terms in which the debate about the media economy is framed, just as in the wider economy the failings of unchecked capitalism have led to a questioning of the desirability of endless growth.

So here’s, in 2012, to the spread of a more realistic, nuanced approach to media profitability which remembers that journalism is – and arguably always has been – about serving the public interest.

Wishing you all a very sustainable 2012.

Written by Alex

January 9th, 2012 at 5:09 am

Come the revolution, Sister – if we can afford it

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

My last blog reported on the curious absence of women among the pioneers of digital journalism – a regressive trend seen by some as symptomatic as an emerging form of e-patriarchy.

But hang on, isn’t the beauty of the digital age the new opportunities it opens up, the way it affords everyone, including those historically with the least access to the means of (print) production, to have a voice? In theory, the digital revolution should bring us a new era of protest and debate, in which old hierarchies can be challenged and more powerful, inclusive forms of campaigning created. At the very least, you get a few good feminist websites.

Let’s head over, virtually speaking, to one such. Run by a team of volunteers, The f-word started as a forum for reviews in 2001, becoming a collective blog several years later. Yet ten years on, the team is only just starting to think about a business model, and are finally putting together a funding committee to look at ways of bringing in revenue.

With the only revenue raised so far having come via an appeal on a blog for donations to cover the costs of a re-design, attempts at income generation have been ‘slow-going’, admits music review editor Holly Combe.

But looking back, she goes on, it would have been almost inimical to the spirit of the project to think in cold commercial terms.

‘A lot of women have come together to do something that’s almost anti-organisation, and anti-business model,’ she says. ‘Gradually they do more and more, and then they start to wonder how they’re going continue to do it, and earn a living.’

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a stellar example of a website run by and for women. With revenue of £3 million this year, Mumsnet can hardly be accused of not being business-like. And, with 1.7 million unique users a month, it uses its considerable influence to campaign on behalf of women, raising everything from the over-sexualisation of girls to the impact of night car parking charges on women.

Yet the path to success was hardly a clear, or even a thought-out one. For the first few years, according to co-founder Justine Roberts, the aim was simply to provide a forum for parents to exchange ideas and support each other. The site’s campaigning voice first emerged when an advert about Madeleine McCann advert caused an outcry among Mumsnet members. As time went on, politicans started to take notice of this vocal constituency, but it wasn’t until the ‘Mumsnet election’ of 2009 that the company finally decided to invest in some dedicated campaigning staff.

‘We didn’t start off with the intention that we would be a campaigning website,’ says Roberts. ‘We became large enough and attracted the interest of politicians. We thought it would be remiss of us not to use that access.’

Even more compellingly, she admits that the first business model she drew up in 1999, based on e-commerce, ‘wasn’t worth the paper it was written on’. But while its contemporaries over-invested in costly infrastructure, Mumsnet survived, thanks to a low-cost, slow-grow approach which enabled it to gradually build large numbers of engaged visitors. Running the site was effectively a voluntary job for years, with its founders relying on the family income earned by their partners. (Roberts is married to Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.)

Yet – and here comes the paradox at the heart of the Mumsnet model – Roberts acknowledges that the site’s success depends on, well, its success. ‘Having a voice that people will listen to means that you have to have scale,’ she says. ‘The only way your voice will be effective is to have scale. You have to have a business model that works. It’s chicken and egg.’

The Mumsnet secret, it seems, boils down to a blend of hard graft, patience and something that its more idealistic counterparts lack – a canny willingness to identify and act on commercial opportunities. The site is now entirely sustained by advertising, to the point where even media folk wanting to access its membership are sent to a Worldpay page charging £30.

In July this year, the site launched the Bloggers Network, a scheme allowing contributers to take a share of revenue based on the number of page views their work generates. ‘It doesn’t feel right to take people’s work and publish it without sharing the potential revenue,’ says Roberts. ‘The Huffington Post model didn’t feel right for Mumsnet.’

But, the almost serendipitous success of Mumsnet aside, the problem of how to sustain campaigning websites remains. Courtney Martin, editor of
Feministing, a US blog started in 2004 and run entirely by women in other full time jobs, puts it starkly:

‘So I’m sitting here, mindful of my own legacy and very struck that what one might reasonable argue is the most robust, powerful medium for feminism today is being created in a truly unsustainable way,’ she writes in a post earlier this year. ‘I start to daydream about all of the amazing things we might be able to do if we actually had the funding, space, and time to do more than keep our heads above water.

‘I just can’t shake the feeling that one of the biggest mistakes my own generation is making is accepting the status quo of an unsupported blogosphere and losing the opportunity to make an even larger impact,’ she adds.

Written by Alex

December 12th, 2011 at 5:33 am