Bill Densmore has drafted a 55-page white paper outlining some ideas for sustaining journalism in the free-mass-media age that should be of interest to anyone who worries about the future of trusted media.
We say "trust" because that is at the essence of Densmore's argument in "From Paper to Persona:" the vast profusion of online information has created a trust crisis that represents a business opportunity. People have no incentive to pay for information any more, but they may be willing to pay for information they can believe. The risk is that the collaborative effort needed to solve this problem may be so massive that no one will attempt to undertake it.
Densmore's "nut graph" is the following:
Free information is so devalued and so frequently untrustworthy that the public is now looking for alternatives that save time, promise reliability and are always available from multiple platforms.
Sound familiar? Have you recently sought medical advice online? The most common complaint we hear about the Web in general these days is that you can't trust anything you read. While Wikipedia, Snopes and IMDB are pretty accurate, they aren't going to tell you much about the possible negative effects of drug interactions or the real risks of radon in the average home.
Not to mention whether Osama bin Laden is alive or dead, a conspiracy theory topic that already shows signs of reaching Elvis Presleyan proportions. Not only has news become a commodity, it has also become so politically polarized that partisan echo chambers continually corrupt whatever the reliable channels of news may tell us.
Densmore proposes that this chaos may be quelled by consortia created - with or without public funding - that "uniformly exchange payments for the sharing of text, video, music, game plays, entertainment, advertising views, etc., across the Internet... Consumer users should have a choice of providers - agents - for accessing services, with one account and one ID providing simple access to multiple resources." Sort of like iTunes, except a lot broader in scope.
This is going to be a tough pill for many conventional media veterans to swallow, however. It requires that they migrate from "the most-trusted information source" to and "information valet," which Densmore describes as "a combination of curator, adviser, authenticator and retailer of personalized news, entertainment and service information from anywhere."
The proposal makes sense, but the problem is that news people aren't trained to be valets; they're educated in the school of hard knocks and worn shoe leather, where scoops were trophies and one would no more cooperate with a competitor than evict one's mother from her apartment. But as this blog has been arguing for three years - and Densmore argues much more eloquently - all that stuff has got to change.
Sustaining journalism requires rethinking the very notion of advertising, and of news as a service...Aggregate for advertisers and sponsors audience measurement and selected demographic data...track, aggregate, sort and share revenues, including payments to users for the use of their "persona." The user should be in control of the data use and flow concerning them.
In other words, trade the two assets consumers have to offer - money and personal information - for a service they increasingly crave: truth. The answer isn't all-or-nothing notions like paywalls; it's creating something with perceived value and flexible options for paying for it.
Can Densmore's vision work? It has to. The two billion people in the world who are now connected to the Internet have already moved beyond the notion that information is a scarce commodity, even if a lot of news publishers still haven't. The information-consuming public understands that today's problem is not lack of knowledge but lack of trust. News organizations are actually in a pretty good position to deliver on the trust equation, but they have to discard the notion of propriety and exclusivity.
In Densmore's words:
The Next Newsroom could be a service organization - like a law or accounting firm - and it will be paid accordingly. For now, it will be extremely difficult to convince people to pay for such a service. But as the years go by, it will be seen as an absolutely indispensible way to get through the day. People will become as reliant on their "newshare" as on their doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher or business colleague, or for 1their water, gas heating or phone service, all of which are services for which we pay on a project or metered basis.