You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car – hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any [derogatory term] be a father.
Sagely reflects the teenager Tod, a character played by Keanu Reeves in the 1989 movie Parenthood.
It’s a quote that springs to mind when we think of the similar lack of requisites for starting a blog, opening a Twitter account, or launching a tumblr, despite the consequences of such actions being enormously different.
With the freedom to publicise at a low cost at will, what place is there for the subset of writers and editors doing this for a living? Andrew Betts, director at FT Labs, opined in a recent TEDx talk that if media organisations are to weather the changing habits of consumers of news and analysis, technological innovations must occur.
(Disclaimer: It’s obviously difficult for us to retain objectivity on this topic. But hey, we’re all grown-ups.)
Writing for FT Alphaville, one is constantly aware not just of the rubbish the web can produce, but also of how much incredibly high quality reporting and analysis is supplied by people who have gainful employment that doesn’t feature their writing.
Between that sort of high quality content, the personalised newswire that Twitter can be moulded into, and the curation offered by everything from a Facebook timeline to Reddit, one is left with the question: what value do newspapers have?
As Betts outlines, part of the value proposition is being a reliable source — having a solid reputation for high quality reporting and keeping it. He cites the FT’s editor Lionel Barber on journalism as a being a distinct craft:
…you test, with multiple sources, and accounts of events. You try to have a degree of objectivity. You revise for accuracy. That’s journalism. That is something completely different from the Twitterati.
The stable also has, of course, room for comment, as well as investigative reporting and analysis. Plus sarcasm, annotated graphs, robots, comprehensive evaluation of pivotal court cases, headlines about Excel written in lolcat, and tax analysis, as the case may be.
In Betts’ view, when it comes to the technological innovations that seek to support this craft, it must be that they are easy to use. If Twitter, Reddit, or interfaces like Taptu are easier, than that’s where people will gravitate instead.
To illustrate this preference for ease, he gives this example:
As Betts explains:
This is a password book which a member of my family put on their Christmas list. To someone like me, writing your passwords down, in a book, with “password book” written on it, doesn’t seem like a very good idea. But it also seems ridiculous that someone else would consider mass producing a product for that express purpose.
But maybe it isn’t that surprising. This is by far and away the easiest way to manage the information you need to prove your identity. So you chose the easy way instead of the more secure one.
There are plenty of other examples to consider. In the arena of transport, Betts gives the example of the London Oystercard system that allows for automatic top-ups. There is also the victory of VHS over Betamax. Betamax may have had better picture quality, but one could record a two-hour movie on a VHS tape, while Betamax could only recording a single hour — not easy enough.
How do content producers, like newspapers, make their product attractive, and easy, to use?
I think there’s an app for that
Ever think about how an app forces you to enter the way it wants you to? This single point of entry, Betts points out, puts curation back into the hands of editors. They can lay out all the stories for readers in the same way that they’d think about how to arrange the newspaper, or indeed how to arrange the homepage of their website.
There’s another big advantage of apps when it comes to the sustainability of the business model supporting journalism — readers who consume news in this way appear more willing to pay for it. Betts points to a Reuters Institute report, that contains these tables:
The likelihood that someone would actually pay for news online is kinda low overall, but there’s also this:
…and become optimistic about sustainability of the paid-for reporting model.
The overall implication is that there will be a growing population of readers willing to pay for content. A population that editors can curate for, thanks to how they prefer to consume content — on tablets and smartphones that can run apps.
However, concerning the particular dataset in this report, the percentages concerning those who express a willingness to pay to consume digital news is biased upwards.The authors of the report are very frank about this, putting the survey methodology towards the front (as well as relevant notes on the sample underneath the graphs):
This is an online survey — and as such the results will under-represent older people’s consumption habits, namely use of newspapers, radio and TV.
Going forward these issues will become less of a factor as online penetration grows but it should be stressed that the core purpose of this survey is to track the activities and changes within the digital space — as well as gaining understanding about how offline media and online media are used together.
They did think of that, you know
Next interesting tidbit — did you know about this about the underlying architecture of the web?
Betts points this out to note that the above error —
42 402 — could be used one day to have a global standard for automating requests for payment on the web. Whether that’s for full-up subscriptions, or smaller payments. This isn’t just about news consumption, but about all web-based consumption, which is why the original architects of the web thought to put that error code 402 “Payment required” in.
Betts also has suggestions around adaptability — to fit the user’s preferences, allowing them to curate more themselves, and to fit whatever device the reader wants to use. But we’ve probably stolen enough of his thunder. The full TEDx talk is below:
In case you’re wondering, the first time he cracks a smile is around five minutes in Serious chaps, our developers.
Andrew Betts’ TEDx talk – YouTube
Why journalism matters: Lionel Barber’s speech in full – Press Gazette
Reuters Institute Digital Report 2012 – Reuters Institute
Media leaders on future of journalism and news – BBC Newsnight