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How software made free and open sustainable: an open culture-based business model for journalism.

See a version of these notes on which you can comment, and more notes about business models for journalism at: The JTM Experiment collaborative blog

I (Brian Glanz) hosted a session with this title today at JTM PNW. We could call it “considering an Open Journalism business model.” We defined a context comprised of open culture, free and open source software, and the successful “freemium” business model favored by Internet start-ups, Web 2.0 companies, .coms, call them what you will.

We noted the failure of The New York Times to make work the model of charging for access to their content. We also noted the futility, considering NYT, of journalists still wondering how to make their content compelling enough that people will pay to get it, online.

So what does work? One answer is freemium. At flickr.com for one example, viewing photos shared by others, the content, is free. You can also share a number of your own photos for free (200). For most flickr users, what is free is enough.

A minority of users, on average across sites of the like it’s 5%, will pay for access to premium or professional quality features, such as being able to upload more photos or videos on flickr. That’s freemium. It has been enough for flickr and many other ventures and I submit that with the right mix of features this model could sustain a news site.

We discuss hiring more people from software into journalism, a ready option in the Seattle area and something well underway at some levels, as with MSNBC.com in Redmond. In other circles though, too many journalists seem stalled blaming and avoiding technology. “If you can’t beat ‘em, kvetch” is just not as catchy, so I’d say join ‘em.

My professional background: I’ve worked on web sites since the 90s heyday and in software, primarily also for the web. If it’s features that sell on the web, not content, then what features might sell on a news site?

I shared a few examples of features which are not unreasonably expensive for a news site to develop or purchase, or with enough expertise, borrow from existing free and open source software. We brainstormed further and some popular ideas included:

  • seattlepi.com offers Reader Blogs, i.e. blogs written by readers and published at the web site alongside pro journalists’ work. It’s my understanding these blogs are free to create and publish. They could instead be free but limited in some ways, beyond which contributors would need to purchase features or services. As with the flickr example, some readers might pay to have a photo or video heavy blog hosted because they wanted to exceed the server space allotted to a free blog. (I do not know the actual terms of publishing a P-I Reader Blog. This was meant as a general example and might not be relevant to their own business model, for example if they too much limit the number of reader blogs.)

More potentially freemium news site features:

  • the right to have your stories featured, to some degree in a dedicated space on the home page
  • early access to stories, like getting to read everything 30 minutes earlier than non-subscribers
  • editorial input on stories, maybe the right to comment within the first hour a story has been public or with some privileged consideration
  • editorial input above stories, helping to decide what gets covered, getting a vote in some form
  • personalization of one’s own version of a site or home page, such as styling parts of it differently, using the color or font or size of font you prefer, or rearranging the sections — put sports at the top of the page, hide sports completely and forever, show me soccer and not basketball
  • paying “to load everything at one time,” like to reduce the pagination of stories and the site, being allowed to change how the site acts
  • paying to turn off ads

Chris Norred raised the examples of Demand Media and David Beers’ “The Tyee” from Vancouver, B.C. A general note: I’m writing these notes largely after the fact, so my apologies in not attaching everyone’s name to their contributions.

Technology-based business models for journalism challenge some of traditional journalism’s culture but do not necessarily compromise its integrity. We discussed that much of this is common to Open Journalism and Open Science. I described my work with the Open Science Foundation and the guidance of our sponsor, the science media and journalism company REALscience. Science and journalism both have their authority and publishing business models seemingly under siege from free and open source technology and culture. The response of sustained angst over integrity is a red herring; one underlying issue is that still too many in science and journalism fear what they don’t understand, and know too little about what the emergent open culture has made possible in technology and in business. Both stand to gain greatly by embracing, not fighting it. Think judo, perhaps or “Trust the Force, Luke. Use the Force, Luke.”

One problem in science (and opening science) is that of “dark data” or “negative data” (and it’s called other things in various fields), essentially that failures are not published. Most qualified estimates are that this is effectively 90% of all scientific data. I might frame that as 90% of all science has learned not being shared, including what did not work and what is not the answer, which leads other scientists to repeat mistakes and waste resources. Some recent, Open Science efforts against the grain range from the specific and formal, such as the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine and the general, such as Open Notebook Science.

A journalism-relevant correlation was not apparent until we considered opening journalists’ notebooks. In Open Notebook Science, the record of science research is shared publicly and as it is being recorded, generally with a blog or site. Journalists might share their notebooks, whether with everyone or in a freemium model. Those who are interested enough to read a journalist’s notebook might be more likely to pay for that, too. Similarly, many photos or other information not used in a given story are never shared, but would be valued by some with specific interests. Upon reflection we thought there are dark data in journalism, too if it’s less of a problem per se.

We also discussed market intelligence as a source of revenue, Chris Norred again shared several examples. One half baked idea of mine was that a hyperlocal blog could loft test balloons for businesses interested in their market. Say Starbucks considers opening a cafe in Ballard, and pays My Ballard to post potential locations for reader consideration, even feedback. We discussed balancing the like with journalistic ethics: would a designated, sponsored content section be required? or is enough of a service being performed that readers would more appreciate participating? Perception is critical. We talked also about the value in data that news sites can collect and in aggregate, sell. It’s well understood that this affects advertising revenue potential on a site but the general point here was that those data and a site’s audience have other value, too.

Many pre-JTM PNW events have had conversations stall at “How do we get people to pay for our content?” and even at JTM, some have expressed that “Nobody is talking about business models” i.e. because nobody has one for online journalism and/or investigative journalism. In this session, we identified features we had not yet seen tried in a freemium news site, if we’d seen some elsewhere or in the news but without the business model. Couching these issues in the language of more established areas of open culture — software, education, government policy — at least gets the conversation percolating for science and journalism, and may be what puts those questions to bed.