25 November 2011

The Origin of Information Species #nlpoli

The Globe and Mail has decided to launch a new website that will give subscribers financial news and opinion and analysis pieces that aren’t available to other readers.

The Globe isn’t alone in heading down this road:

Publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have had success with putting financial news behind a pay wall. The move toward digital subscriptions goes beyond niche content as well: in March, The New York Times Co. launched a metered website for its flagship paper. That system allows readers a certain number of free articles per month before readers are prompted to buy a digital subscription. In October, the company instituted a metered system for another paper it owns, the Boston Globe.

The Globe’s management hasn’t figured out how they will operate the paying part of the service.

This isn’t the first time the Globe and other media outlets have tried to lure readers to pay for content over and above the free material or the stuff they get with a subscription.

The rationale for the move is familiar because it’s the same one that has been at the heart of these sorts of efforts by conventional media outlets in the past:

The media industry has been looking for ways to maintain readership, as well as revenues from both subscribers and advertisers, as more readers access their content beyond the traditional newspaper and on websites and mobile devices.

The challenge facing conventional media – the big information aggregators like television networks/channels and newspapers – is that their usual audience is looking all over the place for information. People don’t rely on the big exclusively on the Big Ones any more to find out things they want to know.  They look in lots of places and increasingly those places are online.

You can get a sense of what that looks like in the introduction to Making it in the Political Blogosphere:  The World’s Top Political Bloggers Share the Secrets to Success, a new book on political bloggers by Tanni Haas.

There are about 1.3 million political blogs out there, as Haas notes in the introduction.  The people who write them run the gamut of types and interests. They write original news stories, comment on stuff other people have written, advocate for their causes and do all the other things you’d expect of political blogs.

And they are not just talking to themselves:

The incredible growth in political blog writing is mirrored in the number of people who read them. While an impressive 44% of all Americans have read political blogs,
tens of millions do so daily. Studies show that political
blog readers spend more time reading blogs than do readers of any other kind of blog (five blogs a day, up to 10 hours a week) with many political blog enthusiasts spending several hours daily in the blogosphere.  [From the introduction;  footnote numbers removed]

All that blogging – for one type of online information type -  hasn’t replaced the conventional media entirely.  They have fragmented the audience, as it were, spreading the same eyeballs over many more sources.

Political blogging though, has had a particularly significant impact, at least according to Haas.  “Studies have found that political blog readers consider such blogs more trustworthy sources of information than they do any other mainstream news media, including online and online newspapers, television, and radio.”

While some of the bloggers that Haas interviews are making a considerable amount of money from their online publishing, the majority of those 1.3 million bloggers aren’t making much – if anything – for their work. 

But they are having an impact.

They are having a substantial impact.

And yes, very much as advertised, putting the ability to publish in the hands of those with something to say has made a truly profound difference in the universe. 

Telegram editor Russell Wangersky tries to claim the opposite in a recent column.  He talks about the demise of a single website that’s been around for 13 years. Then Russell notes the number of blog writers who stopped writing. Then he pulls out this comment:

Here’s a sample of five active blogs from a daily media site, listing the last times they were updated: Nov. 15, 2011, Oct. 27, 2011, June 29, 2011, Feb. 18, 2011 and Nov. 28, 2010.

He could easily look at the blogs on the Telegram and see a spotty publishing record.

But so what?

Just look at Newfoundland and Labrador and you’ll see a blog world that is thriving.  For every one that bites the dust after a spotty publishing record measured in weeks or months, there’s another one that has sprung up about writing or parenting.

That’s the same thing you see across the globe.  If only a fraction of the number of blogs that start every day are still publishing one, five or 10 months after they started, there are plenty of people around who start new ones. It’s a bit like fish spawning:  billions of eggs at the start, but even with predation, disease and just plain bad luck there are millions that survive.

While Russell is often right about a lot of things, on the impact of the Internet and self-publishing, he’s just wrong.  Haas’ book  - complete with the statistical evidence he cites – is one source of evidence.  The other is the Globe and Mail’s, Boston Globe’s and New York Times’ persistent efforts to publish more material in more places and offer all sorts of premiums and advantages. 

These bastions of the old media wouldn’t be constantly changing, as they’ve been doing for the past decade, if it wasn’t for the competition.  A significant chunk of that competition is coming from the online information sources that Haas is writing about or even the quirky ones like the website Wangersky starts off with.

Think about it this way.  That website – The Obscure Store and Reading Room – lasted 13 years.  Considering the Internet is not even a couple of decades old, that’s an amazing accomplishment.  There are newspapers in this province that have barely lasted 13 weeks or 13 months from the time they started, let alone 13 years.

The Obscure Store grew out of a small  - a niche – print publication that likely struggled to stay afloat.  The Internet gave that obscure publication access to an audience it could never have reached otherwise. The Internet offered free distribution and the Internet offered a format that was infinitely flexible.  Its author didn’t have to worry about cutting down to 750 words once a week or bulking together  a bunch of small items to pad out the same space.

And in the political blog world, the authors – like opinion columnists in a conventional media outlet – don’t have to also meet the constraints of the newspaper’s editorial board.  Sure some have proven to be quite brave, but in a world of stiff competition and tight profit margins, people who have money and who don’t like a columnist or a story can successfully squeeze a conventional media outlet where it hurts most – in the ad revenue department.

The more significant result, though, is that many of those online information sources – especially the blogs Haas is writing about -  have taken not just readers from the Big Ones. They’ve also taken eaten into something far more significant:  influence. News junkies probably don’t even notice any more the number of stories that wind up in the conventional media after they started life online. 

But that happens.

A lot.

And then think about the number of stories that the online information sites take and develop with considerably more depth and detail than the conventionals could.  They can offer analysis, for example.

It’s no accident that the Globe’s premium site will hold out analysis as one of its main drawing cards.

The Internet and the ease with which people can distribute information and opinions profoundly changed the world.  It changed who controlled access to information and ideas. 

And while some people find it easier to share family photos on their facebook page now instead of their blog, there are a whole mess of other people for whom blogging is the way they can make their ideas available to people who – quite obviously – value them and who wouldn’t get them otherwise.

You can tell those online writers have an impact. 

You can tell because all those conventional news media outlets with their editors who know what they are looking for and what skills they’d like to see brought to a job keep trying to find what it takes to compete with all those websites that supposedly aren’t living up to expectations.

You can read all about that in the Globe and Mail.

- srbp -