June 29, 2009
It’s now clear that the bane of my next year will be questions about the future of the newspaper industry from journalists. I don’t blame them—newspapers are indeed one of the industries most affected by Free (although that’s just one manifestation of their larger problem: having lost their monopoly on consumer attention). And neither I nor anybody else has any good answers, other than the newspaper business is probably going to shrink but not go away, and that the business model will have to change.
But since journalist Malcolm Gladwell has somewhat parochially decided to make the Future of Paid Journalism the focus of his review of Free (which is, ironically, free on the New Yorker’s website; perhaps this is something Gladwell should take up with David Remnick?), I’ll try to respond in a bit more detail.
Gladwell (who, by the way, I both like and admire, so let’s call this an intellectual debate between corporate cousins) writes:
“[Anderson argues that] newspapers need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth, and reinvent their business. “Out of the bloodbath will come a new role for professional journalists,” [Anderson] predicts, and he goes on:
“There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free—paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards—may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.”
Anderson is very good at paragraphs like this—with its reassuring arc from “bloodbath” to “salvation.” His advice is pithy, his tone uncompromising, and his subject matter perfectly timed for a moment when old-line content providers are desperate for answers. That said, it is not entirely clear what distinction is being marked between “paying people to get other people to write” and paying people to write. If you can afford to pay someone to get other people to write, why can’t you pay people to write? It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for “non-monetary rewards.””
Well, I wouldn’t propose this as the future of all newspapers, but my model comes from personal experience. About three years ago, I started a parenting blog called GeekDad, and invited a few friends to join in. We soon attracted a large enough audience that it became apparent that we couldn’t post enough to satisfy the demand, so I put out an open call for contributors. Out of the scores who replied, I picked a dozen and one of them was Ken Denmead (at right, with Penn of Penn & Teller).
Ken is, by day, a civil engineer working on the BART extension in the SF Bay Area. But by night he is an amazing community manager. His leadership skills impressed me so much that I turned GeekDad over to him entirely about a year ago. Since then he’s recruited a team of volunteers who have grown the traffic ten-fold, to a million page views a month.
So here’s the calculus:
- Wired.com makes good money selling ads on GeekDad (it’s very popular with advertisers)
- Ken gets a nominal retainer, but has also managed to parlay GeekDad into a book deal and a lifelong dream of being a writer
- The other contributors largely write for free, although if one of their posts becomes insanely popular they’ll get a few bucks. None of them are doing it for the money, but instead for the fun, audience and satisfaction of writing about something they love and getting read by a lot of people.
So that’s the difference between “paying people to write” and “paying people to get other people to write”. Somewhere down the chain, the incentives go from monetary to nonmonetary (attention, reputation, expression, etc).
It works great for all involved. Is it the model for the newspaper industry? Maybe not all of it, but it is the only way I can think of to scale the economics of media down to the hyperlocal level. And I can imagine far more subjects that are better handled by well-coordinated amateurs than those that can support professional journalists. My business card says “Editor in Chief”, but if one of my children follows in my footsteps, I suspect their business card will say “Community Manager.” Both can be good careers.
Malcolm, does this answer your question?
This article is part of a series called The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Free. You may read the entire articles by clicking here, or the other articles here:
The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Free: An Introduction
Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson
PRICED TO SELL: Is Free the Future? by Malcolm Gladwell