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September 07 2010

14:00

“A completely new model for us”: The Guardian gives outsiders the power to publish for the first time

Last week, the Guardian launched a network of science blogs with a goal that perfectly mixed science with blog: “We aim to entertain, enrage and inform.”

Now, on the paper’s website, you can find hosted content from four popular and well-respected blogs: “Life and Physics” by Jon Butterworth, a physics professor at University College of London who does work with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; “The Lay Scientist,” the pop-science-potpourri blog by researcher and science writer Martin Robbins; the science policy blog “Political science” by former MP Evan Harris; and “Punctuated Equilibrium,” by the evolutionary biologist known as Grrrl Scientist.

The idea is both to harness scientific expertise and, at the same time, to diffuse it. “This network of blogs is not just for other science bloggers to read; it’s not just for other scientists,” says Alok Jha, a science and environment correspondent who came up with the idea for the network and now — in addition to his reporting and writing duties — is overseeing its implementation. The network is intended to reach — and entertain/enrage/inform — as many people as possible. “We’re a mainstream newspaper,” he says, “so everything we do has to come about through that prism.” And it marks another small shift in the media ecosystem: the media behemoth and independent bloggers, collaborating for audiences rather than competing for them.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because the new network is a direct response to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s goal of journalistic “mutualization.” (Okay, okay: mutualiSation.) “It’s good to have criticism from scientists when we do things wrong,” Jha notes, “but it’s also good to have them understand how we write things — and give them a chance to do it.” Guardian reporters don’t spend days in the control room at CERN; someone who does, though, is Jon Butterworth. Having him and his fellow scientists as part of an extended network of Guardian writers benefits both the paper and its readers. “The science desk here will essentially become a channel for these guys to report from their worlds they’re all seeing,” Jha notes. The scientists “are going to lend a bit of their stardust to us”; in return, they’ll get exposure not just to a broader readership, but to a more diverse one, as well.

Exposure and payment

The Guardian network comes at time when science blog networks populated by writers with particular — and highly focused — areas of expertise are proliferating. Last week, the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher of open-access journals emphasizing the biological sciences, launched its own 11-blog network. PLoS Blogs joins Wired Science, Scientopia, and others. And, of course, science blogs have been in the news more than usual of late, with ScienceBlogs and the scandal that was PepsiGate. That scandal — in which PepsiCo tapped its own “experts” to contribute content to the otherwise proudly independent blog network — didn’t precipitate the Guardian’s own foray into science blog networking, which has been in the works since this spring. However, “it certainly accelerated everything,” Jha says. “I think there was soul-searching going on among the bloggers out there: ‘What do we do next? How do we do it?’ And that, in turn, gave the Guardian staff the sense that, okay, now is the time to do it.”

The general value proposition here is the most typical one: “more content” on the side of the media outlet, and “more exposure” on the side of the content providers. Many scientists are interested in writing, Jha points out; but there are far fewer who understand the mysterious alchemy required to successfully pitch stories to news organizations. The blog setup reframes the relationship between the expert and the outlet — with the Guardian itself, in this case, going from “gatekeeper” to “host.”

The upshot of all that, for the scientists, isn’t exposure in the Huffpostian sense, in which getting your name out there = money. The Guardian pays the bloggers for their work. Which is a matter of principle as much as economics: Even though some of the scientists were already writing their blogs without compensation, Jha notes, “we thought we can’t possibly just take a blog for free, because it would be exploitative.”

The solution: a 50/50 ad revenue split. The Guardian sells ads against the bloggers’ pages; the bloggers, in turn, get half the revenue from the exchange. But this being an experiment — and web ads being notoriously fickle, even on a high-traffic site like the Guardian’s — the arrangement also includes a kind of financial insurance policy for the bloggers: If ad revenues fall below target, they’ll revisit the deal.

“Independent of all interference”

Though the blogs’ flags vary, they feature, in their Guardian presentation, a uniform tagline: “HOSTED BY THE GUARDIAN.” Which is a way of clarifying — and reiterating — that, though the blogs’ content is on the Guardian’s site, it’s not fully of the Guardian’s site. “The idea is that this is not an internal reporters’ or editorial blog,” Jha says. “It’s these guys — it’s their thoughts, independent of all interference.”

And “independent” really means “independent.” The blogs aren’t edited — for content or for copy. Unlike some other newspaper/blog hosting arrangements (see, for example, Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight is licensed by The New York Times — and whose content is overseen, and edited, by Times staff), the Guardian’s science blogs are overseen by the bloggers themselves. For these first couple weeks, yes, a Guardian production editor will read the posts before hitting “publish.” But that’s a temporary state of affairs — a period meant to work out technical kinks and to foster trust on both sides. The goal, after this initial trial period, is to give the bloggers remote access to the Guardian’s web publishing tools — something, Jha notes, “that no one apart from internal staff had been able to do before.” The vision — a simple one, but one that’s nicely symbolic, as well — is that the bloggers will soon be able to publish directly to the Guardian site, with no intermediary. “It’s a completely new model for us,” Jha notes — because, at the moment, “nothing here is unedited.”

Jha is well aware of the potential for legal headaches that accompanies that freedom — a potential that’s particularly menacing in the U.K., whose legal system plays so (in)famously fast-and-loose with libel. “As a news organization, we’ve been very careful to be on the right side of the law,” Jha says; then again, though, “we’d never try and censor.” Balancing freedom-of-expression concerns with their organizational imperative to protect themselves from liability is something Jha and his colleagues have spent a lot of time discussing in the run-up to the network’s launch. Ultimately, though, the vision won out over the caution. “We always err on the side of ‘let’s publish’ rather than not,” he notes; and, as far as the site’s new bloggers go, the goal is less top-down authority, not more. “Eventually, we do want them to have complete control,” Jha says. “That is the ambition.”

June 01 2010

14:00

Parsing Panera: Could a name-your-own-price model work for news?

The former CEO of Panera Bread recently announced an intriguing experiment: The chain’s store in Clayton, Missouri is doing away with prices. The Clayton franchise, now run as a nonprofit restaurant and renamed the “Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe,” offers the same products as typical Panera stores, the same baked goods and soups and salads. Instead of assigning a monetary value to the products, though, the store leaves it to customers to decide what they’ll pay. “Take what you need, leave your fair share,” reads a sign above the store’s counter.

Name-your-own-price schemes like this aren’t new; often, they don’t work. (“If you use a PWYW scheme too liberally, you are courting financial disaster,” the economist Stephen Dubner points out. “Just imagine if Tiffany & Co. held a PWYW day on all diamond jewelry.”) But sometimes — under the right circumstances — the approach can be quite effective. At One World Everybody Eats, a community kitchen in Salt Lake City, Denise Cerreta runs an analog service to the Panera experiment: Instead of pricing the meals One World serves, she asks customers to pay what they can — and, she told me, “to pay it forward when they can.” She’s doing something right, it seems: One World’s been in business for seven years.

Which brings me to the question you’ve seen coming, but one I’ll come out and ask anyway, as a thought experiment if nothing more: Could the Panera payment model work for news?

Request, not demand

First of all, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it couldn’t. Carta, the German public-affairs publication, is currently the highest-grossing participant on the donation-facilitator site Kachingle. Carta’s current yield from Kachingler donations is $198.27 — from a total of 65 people. Oof. Membership drives both journalistic and otherwise tend to suggest specific notation amounts for a reason: We like prices. Or, more specifically, we’re conditioned to expect them.

But what if our expectations changed? What if news outlets built into their online interfaces a more structured, and systematic, request for content compensation? Take, again, One World. One of the reasons Cerreta’s effort works is that, at the cafe, consumer behavior is monitored: The kitchen has built into its physical layout what Cerreta calls a “point of accountability” — a point at which, moving through the consumption-to-satisfaction continuum, consumers know that this is the moment they’re expected to compensate the kitchen for what they’ve (literally) consumed. In One World’s case, the accountability point is a simple donation box. One that is situated — explicitly, purposely, unavoidably — in public.

And that makes a big — and perhaps all the — difference. (Recall the “Big Brother Eyes” experiment from a few years ago.) Which means that, when the accountability is negotiated in private — when there is only, as in the case of online news, the glare of the computer screen to cast light on our shoulders’ angels and devils — our willingness to drop dollars in the donation box certainly becomes a more open question. But, then, what if we took a looser approach to publicness — what if we translated Cerreta’s physical accountability point to the ephemeral interactions of the web? Even if we citizens need a little push to behave in private with as much civic sensibility as we would in public, there’s nothing to say that news outlets can’t provide — or, at least, experiment with providing — that push. It would simply be a matter of building the push into the structure, and patterns, of consumption. Of creating, to modify Cass Sunstein’s phrase, an architecture of accountability.

Step one would be re-framing the terms of the transaction when it comes to compensating news providers for the content they provide: from fee (obligatory, and therefore purely economic) to donation (optional, and therefore suggestive of social good). It’s a semantic shift, certainly; but it could be a psychological one, as well.

Take the work of Edward Deci. In a series of experiments in the 1970s, the social psychologist examined the behavior of two groups of subjects: One was asked to solve a puzzle; the other was told it would be paid for solving the same puzzle. Those who worked for what Deci called the “intrinsic” reward of solving the puzzle — the simple satisfaction of a job well done — were, he found, more successful in finding solutions than those who were paid. Payment functioned, ironically, as a disincentive.

Deci was studying the motivation to work, rather than the motivation to pay; still, his overall finding (officially, that “contingent monetary rewards actually reduced intrinsic task motivation”) is illustrative. Introducing the concreteness of payment into an otherwise more ephemeral exchange can sometimes discourage action, rather than encouraging it; assigning monetary value to goods and experiences has a way of confining — and even negating — their broader value. Pricing is practical, of course, and, for the most part, entirely necessary. Still, we prefer to think of ourselves as motivated by something other than — something more than — rote obligation. And price tags, general necessity notwithstanding, tend to rob us of our altruism.

Accountability and urgency

What Deci’s findings suggest for news is that, paradoxically, “It’d be nice if you paid” could actually be more incentivizing for consumers than the more blunt, and more transactional, “You have to pay.” Paywalls are one thing; pay doors, if you will — come on in! have a bite! pay what you think is fair! — are another. Permeability suggests trust; expectations of good behavior have a way of encouraging good behavior. Broken windows, in reverse.

Again, though, publicness (read: public accountability) is key; roughly the same number of people who want to be good citizens want to be recognized for being good citizens. Every year, I receive a series of emails from my college (usually featuring a slick little slideshow: “Campus in the Fall,” “Campus in the Spring,” “Campus in the Summer, with Children and Puppies and Rainbows”) asking for contributions to its Annual Giving drive. And it usually takes several of those emails before I actually make my donation. It’s not that I don’t want, or for that matter intend, to give back; it’s just that the give-back ask lacks urgency. The payment isn’t a demand; it’s a request. It doesn’t have to be paid now; it can be paid whenever. And that decelerates the dynamic of the transaction.

One of the most recent emails I received, though, tapped into something other than nostalgia: It featured a long list of donors from my class — ostensibly, as a way of thanking them for their contributions by way of public acknowledgment…but also, of course, as a way of highlighting those who hadn’t yet contributed. The loud, empty space between ‘Ganson’ and ‘Geannette,’ I have to say, made for an excellent disincentive against future dallying. Suddenly, the urgency was implicit.

The Alumni Giving staff, in other words, built into their donation request a point of accountability. Not a virtual cash register, a “pay now, or you won’t get the goods you want” approach — an impossibility for donation-seekers who sell not goods but potential good — but a more subtle (and, yet, just as impactful) message: “pay now, or everyone will know you haven’t paid.” Social capital is an economic good as much as a civic one; the AG donation-seekers wove that fact into their email so implicitly that their request suddenly bore the semblance of demand. By highlighting the social, rather than the monetary, aspect of their appeal, they conveyed the fact that they meant business. Literally.

Leveraging the social economy

When it comes to the problem of monetization, we sometimes to fall into the trap of equating “pay model” with “pay wall.” We assume that news is a straight commodity, and that the cash register model is therefore the only viable option for monetizing it. (“We’re not NPR, after all.”) But the commodity-focused approach ignores the social aspects of media economics. Particularly online, with the web’s built-in mechanisms of mutuality, news is a social good as much as (and perhaps even more than) a product to be bought and sold. It is also an experience good — something that needs to be consumed before its value can be accurately determined. A tip-based model — which combines reward for a job well done with the social prestige of being generous enough to leave a tip in the first place — actually makes more sense than a paywall, which is necessarily predictive in nature.

Cerreta’s name-your-own-price experiment, and my Alumni Giving’s public-accountability approach — not to mention the experience of, yes, many a public media membership drive — suggest the raw potential of a request-oriented, rather than a demand-oriented, approach to the pay-for-news problem. They hint at what might happen when we bring a little humanity to paid content’s practical, yet wholly impersonal, business proposition. Most of us, after all, are much happier to make donations than to pay bills. Even if the checks we write are for the same amount.

That’s not to say that reframing the terms of transaction is a broad answer to the seeping problem of content monetization; “no silver bullets” has become a common refrain for a good reason. (Plus, as Laura Walker, president and CEO of WNYC, told me in a conversation about PWYW’s scalability, “I think there is a much stronger pull toward supporting an organization that is not supported by advertising — that is not there to deliver an audience to advertisers — but is there because of a mission. I think that’s why people value us.”) It is to say, though, that it may be worth widening the scope of consideration when it comes to how we think about payment structures in the first place. The many experiments we’re seeing with social media right now — HuffPo’s implementation of recognition for committed community members, Gawker’s star commenter system, Spot.us’s and Kickstarter’s public donor lists, Foursquare’s merit-badge framework — leverage users’ cultural connection to the news — and their desire to be recognized for, essentially, good citizenship within the cultures news systems create.

What would happen if those same motivations were employed in the service of monetizing online news? What would happen if we shift our focus from transactions to exchanges? Kachingle may not have revolutionized online payment structures; then again, its digital tip jar is a rare presence on websites. But what if The New York Times — or The Washington Post, or The Huffington Post — had its own kind of Kachingle? What if it also had a badge-like way of praising, publicly, the people who had financially supported its services? What if, instead of erecting a paywall, it built its site on an architecture of altruism?

It’d be an experiment, certainly. An experiment that well might fail. Still, though: I’d love to see what would happen if we broaden our notion of what a viable pay model could be.

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