Apr 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Journalism too is becoming interactive, and maybe better
“WE CHANGED South Korean politics and the media market, but I'm too shy to say that,” says Oh Yeon Ho before he can catch his own irony. But Mr Oh, the founder and boss of Ohmy News, a sort of online newspaper, has earned the right to boast, because Ohmy is the world's most successful example to date of “citizen journalism” in action.
Ohmy's website currently gets an average of 700,000 visitors and 2m page views a day, which puts it in the same league as a large newspaper. But Ohmy has no reporters on its staff at all. Instead, it relies on amateurs—“citizens”, as Mr Oh prefers to call them—to contribute the articles, which are then edited by Mr Oh, a former magazine journalist, and a few colleagues. Mr Oh likes to think of Ohmy as a “playground” for South Korean hobbyists, where “adults” set certain rules and thus give the site credibility. The articles tend to be good, because “in South Korea we have good people power,” says Mr Oh. “They are highly educated and eager to change society.” Ohmy also has built-in feedback and rating systems so that the best articles rise to the top.
One of Ohmy's biggest innovations is economic. The site has a “tip-jar” system that invites readers to reward good work with small donations. All they have to do is click a little tip-jar button to have their mobile-phone or credit-card account debited. One particularly good article produced the equivalent of $30,000 in just five days. Ohmy's own economics also appear to be working well. Even though Mr Oh originally intended the company to be not-for-profit—“my aim was not to earn money but to create a new kind of journalism,” he says—he turned it into a for-profit firm in 2003. He will not divulge how much profit he makes, but the advertising and syndication revenues (from other internet sites that run Ohmy's articles) seem to keep him going nicely.
Ohmy's success has already had wide ramifications in South Korea's media industry. Although it has not killed off any South Korean newspapers or broadcasters, it has forced all of them to adjust by becoming more like Ohmy. Several newspaper sites, for instance, now have feedback and conversation panes at the bottom of online articles and are trying to interact more with readers. Mr Oh, who left his career in the mainstream media because he was sick of what he saw as their conservative bias, also reckons that Ohmy has helped to improve the balance. If the media scales used to be tilted 80% in favour of conservatives, he thinks, Ohmy has reduced that to 60%; he wants to make it 50%.
Does South Korea, a country of early adopters in many ways, foreshadow the future everywhere? “The reality is that you can't point to many successes; Ohmy News is the only one,” says Dan Gillmor, a journalist who quit his job at the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper widely read in Silicon Valley, in order to found Grassroots Media, an experiment in American citizen journalism. After a year or so of looking in vain for a good business model, Mr Gillmor has put the idea on ice.
But others are much more optimistic. Last year Al Gore, a former American vice-president, and Joel Hyatt, his friend and business partner, set up Current TV, a cable-television channel that encourages its viewers to contribute their own video stories. And they do. “Viewer-created content”—or “VC2”,as Current TV calls it—now accounts for 30% of the channel's airtime, and rising. Mr Hyatt, the chief executive, thinks it will eventually be half or more. To help people get started, Current TV has extensive online tutorials on storytelling techniques, camera equipment and so forth. And to organise the content that comes in, its website allows users to vote on the quality of each video clip. It is, in many ways, a pure meritocracy.
When Current TV was launched, the traditional cable channels “didn't get it” and sneered, Mr Hyatt recalls with glee. “What people didn't understand is that there are tens of thousands of people out there who can create something great for a few minutes.” For instance, a story by an American traveller who found himself in the Gaza Strip during Israel's pull-out was probably the best piece of video reporting on the subject that ran on television at the time. During Hurricane Katrina, some residents of New Orleans made excellent contributions by taking cameras onto their home-made boats and making videos of their own neighbourhoods.
Yahoo! provides an even bigger example of the cheerful mixing of professional and amateur content (as opposed to Ohmy's insistence on the purely amateur). For instance, a lot of the articles, photos, audio and video on Yahoo! News come from corporate partners such as Associated Press or CNN. A tiny bit comes from Yahoo! itself (specifically, from Kevin Sites, a one-man camera team who travels to exotic and dangerous war zones around the world). But more and more content comes from citizens—Yahoo!'s users—says Scott Moore, who runs Yahoo!'s news and finance pages. Indeed, Yahoo! explicitly allows users not only to contribute content but also to take part in its filtering and placement, he says. These new collaborative processes even have a name—“folksonomies”—to distinguish them from the top-down “taxonomies” that human editors traditionally create.
For example, during the terrorist attacks on London's Underground last year, quite a few people in the wrecked trains took haunting photos with their mobile phones. They then wirelessly uploaded these to Flickr, a photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo! Other users then “tagged” these photos by attaching labels such as “London Underground” or “bombings” to them so that they could be easily found. The same or other users then spontaneously rated the pictures. This in turn brought the best pictures to the attention of Yahoo!'s human editors, who displayed them prominently alongside “professional” content across Yahoo!'s news sites. All of this happened within minutes.
The citizen journalism brought out by events such as the London bombings, Katrina, Asia's tsunami and other recent events has sent a new joke into the blogosphere: that Andy Warhol's proverbial “15 minutes of fame” have now become “15 megs” (megabytes) of fame for everybody on earth. That may be true. But the area of citizen journalism that is currently growing fastest, according to Mr Moore, is the least glamorous end: the so-called “hyper-local” coverage of, say, high-school sports or petty neighbourhood crime, which is usually too small even for local newspapers. This is one reason, says Mr Moore, why “in almost every market in the US we're already the number two provider of local news, after the leading local newspaper, and that's without even putting a lot of focus into it.”
For society as a whole, all this new talent—from bloggers, who are “journal-ists” in the classic sense, to citizen journalists—should amount to something overwhelmingly positive. “The more journalism the better; I don't care who does it,” says Dan Gillmor. That is not, however, how professional journalists, ostensibly speaking on behalf of the public, usually choose to see it. Their mood is gloomy.
“Among our newspapers as they now stand, little more can be said in their favour than that they do not require batteries to operate, you can swat flies with them, and they can still be used to wrap fish.” Thus Joseph Epstein, a serial author, writing in the monthly magazine Commentary. Another author, Philip Meyer, makes his point in the title of his 2004 book, “The Vanishing Newspaper”. The last reader will recycle the last newspaper in April 2040, Mr Meyer estimates. If so, one of the most visible products of Gutenberg's movable type would expire eight years short of the printing press's 600th anniversary.
By common consent, the newspaper industry is in a perfect storm. In America, circulation has been gradually but steadily falling since 1990, according to Editor & Publisher, a trade journal. The trend in other countries is much the same. Most young people nowadays do not read a daily newspaper at all. To make matters worse (and to devalue the argument that society must preserve newspapers as “trusted” sources of news), the industry has been through a string of scandals, the most ignominious being the New York Times's fiasco with Jayson Blair, one of its reporters who simply made up his stories. According to The State of the News Media, an annual American research project, the industry has laid off more than 3,500 newsroom professionals since 2000, about 7% of the total. In hard-hit Philadelphia, for instance, the number of reporters covering the metropolitan area is down to 220, half the 1980 figure.
Trends in advertising—and particularly classifieds, an inherently user-generated medium—are even bleaker. Whenever Craigslist.org, a do-it-yourself online bulletin board, enters a new city, local papers hear that proverbial sucking sound. EBay, the world's biggest auction site (which also owns a stake in Craigslist), already works like a global trading place. Last November, Google launched “Google Base”, a free service that allows users to upload anything—including classifieds—free of charge. These are consummate trading and advertising machines “for which journalism would be a ridiculous distraction”, says Mr Gillmor, who now works as an industry researcher. “That's hard to compete with if your main cost centre is journalism.”
Two bitter ironies serve to deepen the gloom. The first is that advertisers have been even slower to adjust than the newspapers themselves. After an admittedly delayed start, the papers are now getting better at helping their readers to move to their online offerings, so their customers as a whole are not actually defecting. But advertisers do not value the two media in the same way. Lauren Rich Fine, a financial analyst of newspapers, estimates that for every advertising dollar that a newspaper gets for a print reader, it receives only 20-30 cents for his online equivalent. Even though online advertising is growing by 30% or more a year, this is from a tiny base. Pip Coburn, an investment strategist, estimates that even newspapers such as the New York Times, which are widely read online, get only 5-10% of their revenues from the web.
The second irony—a common one for sunset industries—is that decline, financially speaking, is very pleasant. Printing presses, the main capital outlay for newspapers, last for decades and are depreciating peacefully with little need for new cash. As newspapers get rid of the more atavistic elements in their print editions—such as the pages of (inherently out-of-date) share prices—they also save on ink and paper. Thus, despite all the frightening circulation numbers, Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, estimates that the average profit margin for America's 12 biggest newspaper publishers in 2004 was 21%, more than double the average of the Fortune 500 companies. Some people are still making money, in other words, and are willing to invest. Last month McClatchy, a big American publisher, bought Knight Ridder, the country's second-biggest stable of newspapers, for $4.5 billion.
But increasingly, newspaper barons, not content to preside over slow decline, want to embrace the revolution. One of them is Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, one of the largest newspaper publishers in the English-speaking world. Last year he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that “as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably, complacent”. Young readers, Mr Murdoch said, “don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don't want news presented as gospel.” So what do newspapers need to do online to adjust? Their websites, Mr Murdoch said, “have to become the place for conversation. The digital native doesn't send a letter to the editor any more. She goes online and starts a blog. We need to be the destination for those bloggers.” Soon after this speech, Mr Murdoch bought MySpace, an online blogging and social-networking site wildly popular with young people.
Rhetorically, Mr Murdoch hit all the right notes. Implementing this soaring vision, however, is difficult in practice. Exactly how does an august publication turn itself into a “place for conversation”, especially given that all sorts of lively conversations are already in progress in the blogosphere? Last year, the Los Angeles Times gave it a go. Michael Kinsley, its opinions-page editor at the time (as well as a former co-host of CNN's “Crossfire” show and a founder of Slate, an online magazine) turned his page into a “wikitorial” in which readers could edit articles (more on wikis in the next article). This did not work at all. Vandals converged on the wiki and wrecked it, until the newspaper shut it down and parted with Mr Kinsley. The Washington Post, too, experimented with a blog open to outsiders, and also shut it down after a spate of vandalism.
The worst conclusion that newspaper owners could draw from such setbacks is that interactivity does not work and should be avoided. “It's like saying, ‘I hear there are assholes in New York, so I'm not going there'; yes, there are assholes, but you should still go there because we can figure out who the assholes are,” says Jeff Jarvis, a former journalist and newspaper consultant who blogs at Buzzmachine.com. He suggests joining the online conversation in ways that are appropriately circumspect.
The first step, says Mr Jarvis, is to tear down any walls around the website. Nowadays “it's not content until it's linked,” he says, and bloggers will not link to articles that require logins and subscriptions to be viewed. This has immediately obvious effects (see chart 2). The sites that bloggers link to most are the online New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, Yahoo! News, USA Today and the BBC. These are free or mostly free sites and thus, in effect, part of “the” conversation, because they are already part of a great many conversations.
By the same logic, news sites should avoid the still surprisingly common internet sin called “link-rot”. This refers to websites that publish an article under one web address (or URL, for “uniform resource locator”), but then change the URL when archiving the article. “If you break your links, you break your inventory,” says Jerry Michalski, the media consultant, “and nobody links to rotting links.”
Free access and permanent links are two specific examples of a new “story-centric” approach that Jupiter Research, an internet consultancy, advises newspaper companies to adopt for their web editions. Instead of assuming that readers will start on the front page, editors should expect them to enter at any point, probably having started out from Google's search page or a blog or an e-mail from a friend with a link. This makes a big difference. It means that every single page needs navigation aids to help readers along in their journey. For publishers, says Jupiter, it requires “deconstructing their websites—treating individual stories (and not the website) as their most important product.”
The next step is to allow—indeed, encourage—reader participation on individual pages. This could start with a simple star-rating system of each article. Deeper engagement would include comment panes at the bottom of stories (like those below blog posts), or blog discussions between the journalists and invited guests. As with some group blogs today, contributors could be required to log in, either under their real name or a pseudonym. This leaves reputation trails and discourages vandalism. “Just as more blogs will look like newspapers, more newspapers will have blog-like aspects,” says Paul Saffo at the Institute for the Future.
Admittedly, this kind of advice can sound like woolly new-age claptrap to newspaper publishers. They want to know whether there will still be a long-term business model for things like investigative reporting and fact-checking. Ironically, they are finding support among their internet rivals, who tend to be idealists. Craig Newmark, of Craigslist, says that “journalism needs to become a community service rather than a profit centre,” and is working on making this happen. As The State of the News Media puts it, “the worry is not the wondrous addition of citizen media, but the decline of full-time, professional monitoring of powerful institutions.” That, after all, is what a free press in democracies is supposed to be for.
Next article in the survey: The Wiki Principle: Are many minds better than a few?