crowd

We often bemoan the presence of trolls and fools in the Comments sections of online articles, and in many instances our complaints are well-founded. However, the merit of the Comments section remains undervalued, IMHO.

Media blurbs seem increasingly limited in their scope of value, restricted by brand relationships (read “sponsor” pressure), or other considerations. Whether limitations and omissions are the result of strategic relationship imperatives, journalistic myopia, or a publication’s limited knowledge of the sector about which it is prognosticating, the result is sometimes of VERY limited worth, such that a reader will often wonder why they just wasted 10 minutes reading said piece. This only serves to damage the brand value of a publication. Print publications have historically been able to get away with this practice, as they did not have to worry unduly about corrections or the humiliation of their readers knowing far more than they did. This leads one to a place of opportunity, rather than threat.

A media publication can only know as much as its writer and researchers are able to dredge up in the time window allowed before posting of article. This scenario can never compete with the knowledge of the crowd. Take, for example, this well-intentioned, well-written, but woefully inadequate article by WIRED​ on offline navigation apps. Market leaders such as HERE+, Maps Me, and City Mapper are conspicuously absent, and one wonders what the article is trying to accomplish. A growing stream of reader comments points out the omissions, putting the article itself in increasingly unfavorable light. Where the opportunity lies is in the fact that had the author of said article framed the piece as an exploratory introduction to the topic (in this case “offline navigation apps and their value to travelers worldwide”), and not a “know-it-all” guide, we would have been privy to the power of media as an aggregator of crowd thought leadership.

Imagine if a tech news site were to intelligently frame the landscape of wearable computing with an article exploring the history thereof, leading in to an overview of a few of the most visible brands in the space (fitbit, Microsoft band, Apple watch, et al), and concluding with a crystal clear invitation to readers to continue the exploration by contributing their opinions on the relative merits of these and other heretofore unmentioned offerings, past, present and future. The merit of the particular piece would now wrap itself around not only the originally published single-voice report, but the myriad opinions proffered by readers. If the publication integrated Quora​-like upvote mechanisms, the most useful reader contributions would rise to the forefront, enriching the coverage, and invigorating further discussion. The result would be a work far more comprehensive, and thereby useful, than anything the lone author could ever have accomplished, and their inclusive and collaborative style would only serve to elevate their and the publication’s brand value.

The value of news in the digital age runs in inverse proportion to the amount of time since its release.

If a news item is published at 1:00pm PCT, it has half as much value by 2:00pm, as it did when it was first posted, and only a quarter remaining value by 5:00pm. Obviously, a more accurate measurement of shelf life would take in to consideration the online network on which the news was published, the original posting time (early morning posts tend to get wider reach than early afternoon), and several other factors.

Some media companies, such as the New Yorker and Wired magazine, have recently determined that this is largely because they are giving their news away to 3rd-party providers for free, unreasonably diluting the brand value of their offering. Their solution is to terminate those relationships (as they did earlier this week by removing access to their content from such renowned platforms as Flipboard).

Other media companies are laying off reporters in droves, as they desperately try to save their way to prosperity, under the same “bricks, mortar, and paper” model as ever. talk about lunatics running the asylum…

I think there’s a much simpler solution and, as ever, it all comes down to content.

Consumers don’t place the highest valuation on a distribution channel, platform, or app, but rather upon the content itself. Flipboard may well fail if too many content providers remove access via that platform. The UX is unquestionably appealing, but who cares that the library is pretty, if there’s nothing to read therein? That said, if content providers restrict access to their content too zealously, minimizing consumer ability to share and spread the appeal of that content, they will effectively squander the “early release” value of their content, and vastly diminish its value, by extension.

Before I propose what I consider to be an enormously simple solution, let’s accept and agree upon some basic truths:

  • Good news comes from good reporters. Not (bless ‘em) good printers, nor good truck drivers. Journalists such as Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) and Lisa Napoli (@lisanapoli) are demonstrating that direct connection to their “readers” vastly increases the spread of their content.
  • The Paywall method of news delivery is a clumsy protectionist system that works only in the absence of better paradigms.
  • People will get their news, and entertainment, one way or another. If you stand in their way, they will work around you. If you develop a solution that is a win-win for everyone, they are more than likely going to work with you.

Taking in to account the aforementioned and obvious fact that news has highest value early in its lifecycle, and marrying this with the fact that netizens place high value on content that raises their network visibility, it stands to reason that those wishing to take on the mantle of “influencer” will be prepared to pay for “early access” to compelling media content. If it costs $4.95 to have a big headstart on the rest of the web, when it comes to news and other media, I know many who would gladly pay. The difference between this scenario and the current paywall system is that my solution does not exclude all other netizens from access to the content. After a sufficient time delay, content could be released to the wider public, free of charge. It’s an exercise in transparency and digital openness, with a nod to commercial necessity. If you want to access content in the first hour of its publication, you need to be a subscriber. If you want access within the first 2 hours, you must be either a subscriber, or have access to the link via a subscriber (further elevating the viral power of full subscribers, and cementing their loyalty to your media brand). If you are willing to wait until the end of the day, so be it. The model needs refinement, but the concept is sound.

Take for example Nicholas Kristof’s latest Op-Ed piece, entitled “My Iranian Road Trip”. As is usual with his work, the Twitterverse and Facebook ecosystem have exploded with activity, as this video goes viral, and spreads around the web. The New York Times has a paywall up on their site, so only subscribers can see the video. However, because this is the ONLY option offered, someone has kindly reposted (at least until the NYT reports it!) the video, free-of-charge, on YouTube:

The New York Times gets no love nor revenue out of this scenario. Nicholas Kristof gets his story out. The readership shares the YouTube link, and ignore the NYT site altogether. Were my solution in effect, nobody would likely be compelled to waste their time extracting the video content from the NYT site, and reposting it, knowing it would be freely available in a matter of hours. Instead, they would be focusing on positioning themselves as first line influencers, sharing the NYT site link and thereby their subscriber access with their own network. Subscriptions would rise, content “piracy” would be mitigated, brand value would be strengthened, and the value of viral media would be elevated in a manner consistent with both the ideals of an increasingly transparent society, and the realistic needs of any business. My scenario recognizes the need to shift from a “control” mentality to a “collaborate” one, recognizing that the core value is highest at point of publication and readership (journalist and consumer), and everything in between is either conduit or obstacle.

I’ve been invited to a private event at the Los Angeles Times building tonight, hosted by Muck Rack (@Muckrack) and the LA Times. It’s been labeled as “a casual cocktail event for a few select journalists, PRs and news junkies to talk about journalism in the age of social media”. I’m eager to see what this constituency makes of my “crazy idea”…

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