Saturday, September 18, 2010

Emerging entry barriers may deal a “hammer blow” to new media innovations

Dan Gillmor has worked for many newspapers, but he is not quite an ink-stained wretch. His passion is for digital media. Ever since he operated a blog for the San Jose Mercury News in the mid-1990s, Mr. Gillmor has found a studious obsession in the intersections of technology and journalism.

Nowadays, Mr. Gillmor directs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. He says he loves it when “risk is at the bottom of the pile” of an entrepreneur’s concerns. Risk-taking is important, but ownership, appreciating ambiguity, and moving quickly are essential.

“Smart companies don’t punish failed ideas even if they don’t give any incentives for failure,” Mr. Gillmor told a panel on business models at the AEJMC conference in Denver August 7. Media operations ought to encourage entrepreneurial processes internally and not punish failures when individuals took appropriate, smart risks. In this instant-messenger conversation with Nikhil Moro of UNT’s Mayborn School of Journalism, Mr. Gillmor offered an expansion of that panel presentation, and then some.

Moro: You have said, “Digital media have a nearly zero barrier to entry.” Is that changing, though? Would we do well to expect entry barriers over the next five years?

Gillmor: The barriers to creating things are dropping steadily and are nearly zero now. That trend will continue. But we could well see new barriers arise, and they'll be designed to a) protect the incumbents; b) assist law enforcement; and c) keep dissent in line. They'll revolve around net neutrality, intellectual property and public safety issues, which will be used to clamp down on what we can do online.

For example, if the telecom companies get what they want on net neutrality -- the right to determine which bits their customers can bring down to their devices, in what order and at what speed, if they are delivered at all -- that will be a hammer blow to innovative new media services. It’s not an exaggeration to say that free speech in the digital age depends on the choices residing in the hands of the customers, not the carriers.

On intellectual property, Hollywood and its allies are continuing to push for ever-stricter copyright laws and enforcement that moves us toward a pay-per-view world of media where we need permission to use anything anyone else has created in the creation of a new work. That’s contrary to our traditions, and it would hamper innovation and creativity. All culture and science stands on the shoulders of what came before; the copyright system threatens both. Licensing is a related issue. Most recently, the software industry won a truly terrible ruling in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that software licenses allow companies to restrict use of their products solely to the person who bought them, preventing the person from selling or even giving it to someone else. How would you like it if the book publisher said only you could read the book you just bought? Libraries see what this means and they are quite correctly terrified -- and we all should be.

Then you have the many people, especially in law enforcement, who’d clamp down on free speech in the name of public safety. The latest example is the shameful actions of a group of state attorneys general who basically forced craigslist to shut down its adult-services section. They had absolutely no legal basis for this; in fact, the law specifically shields Internet service providers from liability for what others post on their sites, provided they take down illegal material upon notification. In addition, craigslist had gone way further than others in this market to assist law enforcement in its investigations of prostitution, especially child prostitution. The rest of the Internet industry sat quiet while these posturing politicians whacked craigslist, and they’re going to regret it; there will be a push soon to repeal the law that shields providers from liability for what others post -- and that law is a principal reason we have a free and robust debate online today. (Note: Craig Newmark is a friend, and he has been a funder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, where I was a Fellow.)

Moro: You seem to take a libertarian approach to content regulation, frowning upon a search product with Google’s market dominance having a “nannyish approach.” Google Instant should not be “making decisions for us that it should let us be making,” you have said. Why does self-regulation work? If users chose to ignore libelous or fighting words, would such words disappear?

Gillmor: I'm a big believer that the answer to bad speech is better speech, but I'm not a defender of libel or language specifically designed to elicit a violent response. Even there, however, we don't want to get into prior restraint.

Moro: Are you referring to oligopolistic trends in America’s news industry when you say, "We are seeing a market failure"? When one search product or a few ISPs dominate, should we be concerned that the barriers to accessing news would actually increase?

Gillmor: The main market failure in journalism was the monopoly and oligopoly era, certainly from the point of view of the media's most important customers, the advertisers. They were squeezed unmercifully by publishers and broadcasters. The monopoly/oligopoly, compounded by corporate consolidation, led to a dearth of variety for readers, too. I'm always troubled when one company dominates anything. Competition is healthy for the market ecosystem, even if it's hard on the competitors.

Moro: You have said, “The slate is blank as far as the future of the news industry is concerned.” Please elaborate.

Gillmor: We're in the early days of the creative destruction phase, as Schumpeter would have put it, in media evolution. What's coming is going to be a much more diverse ecosystem, I hope and believe, that will include many different business models. Some will dominate, as tends to happen in all economic sectors, but it's not clear what they'll be yet. Meanwhile, new kinds of techniques for media and journalism and collaboration are coming along. The opportunities seem fairly limitless in that context. It'll be a hugely messy transition, with a lot of problems along the way, but I'm convinced it'll be a positive evolution overall.

Among the problems: We don’t know what we can trust and what we can’t trust when we see or hear something online. It was a lot easier when we had limited media sources. Now we have to do more work ourselves, as I’m writing in my new book. But the effort is well worth it.

Another issue is the reality that we’re losing, at least temporarily, some of the kinds of journalism we really need -- especially the journalism that holds powerful people accountable and lets them know that someone might be paying attention when they misbehave. It’s not clear how the market will serve that need, and we need a lot of creativity.

Moro: You have said entrepreneurship is social ownership, that is ownership of the process and outcome rather than of stock or money.

Gillmor: Entrepreneurship isn’t solely about owning stock or making money -- though it may well include that and usually does. Paraphrasing my colleague CJ Cornell on this, it's also very much about owning the process and the outcome of your work. It means, in part, that you have to be committed and focused.

Moro: Do you have a favorite example of an emerging entrepreneur in the news industry?

Gillmor: Hope you’ll understand why I want to duck this one -- there are so many cool thing going on that I’d hate to only name one. But I'm watching a number of projects with great interest. Some are for-profit, others are more in the social-enterpreneurship category or outright nonprofits. If my South by Southwest talk

is accepted, though, I'm going to list somewhere between 20 and 100 (hope to go with the higher number) projects that make me glad to be in the field right now.

Moro: You have said, “I am not clear which business model is going to emerge.” So what are the options?

Gillmor: Everything is on the table for revenue, but I think that someone from NPR said that there are lots of revenue sources and we have to go after many of them in every kind of enterprise. It'll be a blend, then, from advertising, subscription, patronage, donations, services, ancillary products and more -- and people will find new ways to bring willing buyers to sellers. The business side of journalism needs more innovation right now than the doing-journalism side.

Moro: If the Web is about iteration – anything we do, we must fix on a continuous basis – can the Web ever provide a medium of record?

Gillmor: Sure it can. You archive everything you do and make sure it's available, as Wikipedia does. You can go back to see every change made in articles there. The thing we need to add (and I'm working on a blog posting about this) is a way to create a new page with a new permalink for changed versions, with attached metadata, so that when someone refers to something we know which version it was. This will be pretty complex to pull off, I suspect. I'm thinking a lot about this because of my new book, which I'm envisioning as a 1.0 version of a book that I'll rerelease as a 2.0 in a year, and possibly with a lot of in-between updates. Doing this raises the issue of citations; if we're not working from a common text how do we know what we're citing is the same stuff.

Moro: Speaking of your forthcoming book, don't you plan to self-publish it? In your 2004 book We the Media, you had invoked a history of self publishing: Paine’s Common Sense and Hamilton-Madison-Jay’s Federalist Papers were all self-published and, as it turned out, either inspired the anti-colonial revolution or shaped America’s constitution. In what circumstances do you see an acceptance of self-publishing in academic tenure? How do you measure quality, rigor or originality in a self-published work?

Gillmor: Yes. See this for background. I'll have a test of self-publishing acceptance with this book, because I'm very much hoping that educators will use it. There's a growing understanding that traditional publishers aren't serving the marketplace very well anymore, especially for authors. The quality, rigor and originally of self-published books ranges just as widely as in blogs; a lot of it is not so hot, but there's some extraordinary work being done.

Moro: Can you share a couple of examples of "extraordinary work" from self-published scholars (other than yourself) in journalism or mass communication?

Gillmor: Not offhand -- I haven't really looked around at this. But the blogging being done by academics is extraordinarily good in many cases, and I believe that counts.

Again, I hesitate to cite specifics because there are so many; I don’t want to suggest that these are the only bloggers worthy of attention. But take a look at Brad DeLong’s blog at Berkeley and Balkinization, a brilliant law group-blog, for starters.

Moro: Some 15 years ago, you had published one of the earliest blogs operated by any journalist for a news organization. How have blogs unfolded since then? And would you list, say, five ways in which they would evolve over the next five years?

Gillmor: Blogs have become an entirely mainstream activity, but they still range all over the map. For the first several years of my blog I was the only one doing it, as far as I knew, in the traditional media. Now everyone does it, and that's great; blogs are an absolutely natural extension of the print and broadcast brands. I'd be hard pressed to list five ways they'll evolve, because like almost everyone else I didn't anticipate micro-blogging (Twitter) or what people do inside Facebook and other social networks, which is a social blogging system of sorts (among other things). I'd expect people to keep stretching the boundaries, and I'd especially expect the blog platform providers to add valuable capabilities that make the most of the mobile computing we're all increasingly doing. The important thing to remember is that blogging is a tool, and blogs are websites. Beyond that you can do almost anything.

Moro: Have blogs, and other social media, become more social and less personal?

Gillmor: It depends on who's doing them. I don't have data, but I'd guess that this is the case.

Moro: You have said, “People often ask who, in the anyone-can-publish world, is a journalist? I tell them it’s the wrong question. The right one: What is journalism?” So what is journalism? Please list your top five principles of journalism.

Gillmor: The principles you've asked for are one of the key chapters in my new book. Four of them are the same ones that have applied to traditional journalism -- accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, independence -- plus one more that I consider essential for the future: transparency.

Moro: Transparency in what?

Gillmor: Transparency in telling the audience your biases and world view; explaining when it makes sense how and why you did what you did; and much more. Journalism has been a black box, and it’s way overdue that journalists open up a bit. I’m not asking people to post their tax returns online, but I do think they should tell us, for example, when they have a stake (ideological or financial) in the outcome. And the more audiences understand about the process of creating trustworthy information, the more likely they may be to give it some trust.

Moro: Thank you, Dan, for talking to me!

Gillmor: My pleasure, Nikhil.

Photograph courtesy of Joi Ito via Creative Commons

Also see:

Robert G. Picard: "News organizations will rely upon a greater variety of revenue streams..."

Jim O'Shea: "Newspapers have served the interests of investors at the expense of readers"

Leonard Witt: "I want conversation, I want collective intelligence, but I also want sound journalism"