Alan Rusbridger: 21st Century publishing @ Olswang

April 28th, 2010

I went along last night to listen to Alan Rusbridger present at Olswangs Technology+ event. A packed room, listened attentively to what he had to say. The word he used for the future of the Guardian was mutalisation: whereby value is built over time through a two-way participatory approach with the wider world. The deconstruction if you will of the Berlin Wall of expert vs. amateur, or the organisation and the social environment it exists in. We were taken though online examples of mass niche communities of interest, that functioned as participatory communities in a variety of industries, including a favourite of mine ProPublica, (post on propublica). Alan also quoted Jeff Jarvis who advised the Guardian that they should do what they do best and link to the rest. Of course the linking is the capability to write a statement, or express a point of view based upon another source and hyperlink to that source hence creating a story or narrative web rather than a piece of writing that exists isolated, unfindable and undiscoverable – ergo has no value or limited value. Alan pointed out that we have gone from Monotype to Digg. Jarvis likes to say the value is in the links, what he means is that through linking one can become more findable, audiences build and the experience richer, the work becomes more contextually relevant to the information network that we have built.

I asked Alan the question as what he thought the deeper forces were that drive this quiet revolution towards mutuality. As in many ways, the presentation was a more mechanical description/observation on how this all worked. You can’t win – but I had to ask the question, as I believe that for many, the reasons we are in transition from one type of economy/society to another is central to understanding what comes next, and how to get there.

Which led onto other questions from the floor like, why would I buy your paper when I can get it for free online? and I feel uncomfortable that you are working with “non-expert journalists” surely this dissolves your authority and value? Or, I am canceling my Guardian subscription Rupert Murdoch has got to be right? Fascinating, because of the linear/industrial assumption of status conferred by title, authority assumed by some and taken away from others (all very hierarchical) – whereas Alan Rusbridger argued that the true skill of his journalists is in curation, aggregating and interpreting – and I think that is right. On the topic of co-evolved consumers as Kevin Kelly called them, I would prefer to think that citizen journalism in some ways relates to Richard Sennett’s idea about Craftsmanship. But I did get the sense that quite a few people in that room were at the early stages of the journey of understanding the full consequences of living and working in the network society. As Clay Shirkey wrote, Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. This open platform approach to journalism and newsbrands that relates to the Guardian one can (read more here). And there was a very relevant question raised about data, its uses and implications form an ethical and legal perspective.

In Currency of information: the future of newspapers, I quoted Alan who wrote The future of newspapers is a bit like climate change: there are now far fewer ‘old-media’ deniers. Indeed, as its only when companies start to hemorrhage cash quarterly, and when the FO has done all cutting, in some instance through the bone that they say, OK what is it I need to do? I truly admire the Guardian, as they have consistently worked at evolving what it means to be a valued newsbrand in the networked society, and I equally admire Alan Rusbridger as editor of that newspaper, as under his stewardship the Guardian has responded to the challenges that were apparent some time ago. He did point out the journey for the Guardian has not been all plain sailing (reading between the lines here) but through dialogue internally and engaging in the debate – progress has been made, and continues to do so.

The project for Excellence in Journalism report stated

If older media sectors focus on profit-taking and stock price, they may do so at the expense of building the new technologies that are vital to the future. There are signs that that may be occurring.

what do we take from the old to combine with the new?

The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility,” Phil Meyer said.

That dull phrase, “new model,” includes stuff that is not dull at all. Like a different kind of company to work for, a better sense of how journalists can create value on the Web, a new and deeper commitment to interactivity with users as a way to do more kick-ass reporting.

My view is this, its not that the decline of the mass media (here) businesses could be completely averted, however, these companies could have been in a far better position to face a market place defined by what I call networked economics. Instead, these boards have attempted to squeeze more efficiency from the thinning value of their current business models. Though it would be a brave CEO to stand up and say, we are fucked, lets rethink our business model, for the simple reason that she or he – the CEO must talk up his or her business to the media, shareholders and analysts, and harvest the cash-flow for the quarterly numbers. The whole-scale tragedy is eventually failure to act in a timely fashion means that the road crash at the end is that more; final and ugly – for everyone. Lost jobs, lost lives, and a big black-hole for institutional investors wondering how they will ever get their pension funds back. The research findings from Communities Dominate Brands published in 2005 lead us to conclude that it is about: Connectivity, Culture, Community and Commerce. You can’t separate these anymore, without failing commercially.

The key points are in my humble opinion that:

[1] We live in a Read & Write culture

[2] We live in a participatory culture

[3] We live in a search economy and a semantic universe and refined data transforms how brands and people can find each other in more meaningful ways

[4] We live in the networked society Which also encompasses the glittering allure of the mobile society

This transformation Yochai Benkler argued is structural – challenging how businesses and markets will co-evolve over the oncoming decades.

[5] The networked society and the Read & Write culture dramatically alter the power relationships between society the media, and organisations.

“In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomised  but connected ‘up’ to Big Media, but not, across to each other, and now that authority is eroding”, says Journalism Professor Jay Rosen

[6] That communication technology is political

Communication power, says Manuel Castells is at the heart of the structure and dynamics of society. By which he means, who has and who wields that power, can transform society. Communication technology is at the very heart of this current transformation of society – because we are seeking meaningful communication with each other, something that traditional media has failed to grasp, or crassly deployed it via Pop Idol and the X-Factor. The reality is that there there are consequences to this evolution.

[7] That interruptive, display, and image advertising is the junk mail of the 21st Century.

[8] There is no online and offline, there is no analogue vs. digital there is only blended reality – the crisis comes when there is no connectivity. Business models must reflect that fact. This also has implications for how organisations construct themselves.

[9] The language and therefore the literacy that defines this networked society is different to the straight line, siloed, industrial mass media, mass consumer language and literacy.

[10] Business value is defined by (a) being: life-enabling, life-simplifying and navigational (help me navigate through the complexity of my life), (b) business models are hybrid, (c) the 4C’s: commerce, culture, community, connectivity.

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