A sure-fire way to think up a great idea for the future of the news is think about the fundamentals. “What’s news?” That’s a good place to start. Dave Winer gets at the fundamentals really well.
Let’s ignore most of the fundamental components of the news and focus on a couple: users and creators. Very roughly, those map to readers and writers. But “users” and “creators” emphasize that readers are active and don’t simply passively consume the news. Users want to re-purpose the news, get more out of it. We also don’t want to forget that creators aren’t just writers; they’re also photographers and editors.
One pretty important fact is that users and creators are all people. And people can trust one another. Obvious? One would think so, but there’s been a big corporate wall between them for decades now. The publication has overshadowed the writer. We viewed newspapers as the creators. Writers and photographers were faceless bylines most people ignored.
For example, we once trusted the New York Times to give us all the news that’s fit to print. It’s an awesome slogan, containing a slant rhyme and some serious alliteration, sure, but it now works much less well as a promise. I doubt its author ever intended it to be strictly accurate, but now it’s no where near artfully true anymore. Only the internet can make that promise now. It is the great disintermediator.
And so creators of news are re-emerging as real people to their users, who are also real people. That relationship, however attenuated, is a better place to locate trust. Let me put it another way: there’s greater potential trust in user-creator relationships than in reader-newspaper relationships. Humans are built to trust other humans, personally.
Now, we certainly also have relationships with groups. I’m no anthropologist, but it would certainly seem that, as humans, the concept of group identity runs deep. We can trust a person because he’s part of a club or a tribe. It’s a good thing, then, that appreciating user-creator bonds doesn’t demand that we deny the existence of reader-newspaper bonds. The internet may erode—but it doesn’t destroy—the concept of a traditional brand, anchored in a group of people who share a common purpose. The internet supplements, or unlocks, the concept of a personal brand.
Why all the fuss about brands and user-creator relationships and, ultimately, trust? Simply put, trust is an economic good. It’s worth something. It makes markets work more efficiently. As a trader might say, trust is positively accretive to value. This is not just about peace, love, and harmony. Trust creates value. Value gets monetized. Money pays journalists. Journalists save the world.
So if there’s trust to be created, there’s money to be earned. Trust is the foundation for a value proposition. All else equal, it stands to reason that users will pay more for the news in which they have more trust. If so, then it follows that users will pay more for the news they use based on a relationship with creators, in whom they can place more trust than they can in newspapers as brands.
Whew, so all that was wildly theoretical, blurry stuff. Before moving on to something more concrete, let’s sum it up. Shifting the news relationship from reader-newspaper to user-creator increases potential trust, an economic good, and unlocks value, which people may pay for. But even the strongest value proposition does not a business model equal.
So let’s move to the concrete: the business model. How do we monetize this theoretical value tucked away in user-creator relationships?
You do it with an idea I’ve been flogging the past couple weeks. You do it with Mitch Ratcliffe’s idea, in which users pay creators for “added convenience or increased interaction.” Note the elegant fit: increased interaction between one person and another is what fosters relationships and trust. Giving paying users otherwise exclusive twitter access to the creator could work. SMS updates could work, as could a permission only room on friendfeed. Even something as simple as a gold star on paying users’ comments—a symbol that they support the creator financially—would provide incentive for the creator to reply. Tiers of stars—bronze, silver, gold—are possible too.
There’s a social network lurking not too far below the surface. Because we’re in the business of fostering trust, transparency is paramount. So this social network would do best to require real identities. Users would have to be clear about whom they support, and creators would have to be clear about who supports them. Both users and creators would have personal pages of their own, identifying whom they support and who supports them and what dollar levels are being exchanged for what levels of interaction. This way, creators would have the ability to avoid potentially conflicted supporters. (Of course, a person could be both a user of some news and a creator of other news, paying for some and receiving too.)
Paying users of different authors would eventually form their own communities, if creators nurtured them well in the context of a supportive information architecture within the social network. Done right, membership in a community, which could suggest and debate tips for the creator, would represent its own value proposition for which users would be willing to pay up. Creators could have multiple communities, populated by groups of users characterized by different interests, areas or expertise, or even locations.
Creators would set their own prices, reaching their own equilibria between cost and numbers of paying users. Users would tend to pay less to a creator who offered less-value-added interaction by ignoring more questions and comments. But there would tend to be more users willing to pay a smaller amount than a larger amount. Users and creators would have to think about their elasticities of supply and demand. Over time, individual users and creators will find a balance that strikes her fancy. On the one hand, some creators might prefer a smaller set of users who pay more money and enjoy more interaction. Other creators, concerned about possible undue influence, might prefer a larger set of users who pay less money for a thinner relationship. And on the other hand, some users might prefer to be among a small community with better access or thicker relationships to the creator, while other users might prefer spreading themselves around and having thinner relationships with more creators. I don’t see any obvious reasons why a basically unfettered market wouldn’t work in this case.
Note that this represents an end-run around the problem that news is an experience good—you don’t know the value of an article till you read it. (New is not like buying a pair of pants.) This solves the problem that news itself is often nearly worthless the day after its published—yesterday’s news is today’s fishwrap. (It’s not like buying a song from iTunes. Also, ed. note: please, please, please follow that link to Doc Searls. The VRM parallels are clear and profound.) Finally, this also solves the problem that any given news article has myriad relevant substitutes—articles about the very same topic, event, or person and articles about equally interesting topics, events, or persons. (News is not like the Inverted Jenny. Yay philately!)
As with Kachingle, recently blogged by Steve Outing, this kind of freemium news doesn’t have to be the entire solution. It’s certainly compatible with advertising, though another feature might be a lack of it, just as it’s compatible with charity.
The point is that this idea and the business model on top of it are inspired by deeply human phenomona. Personal interaction and trust are constitutive of what it means to be human. They’re a large part of what makes the world go around generally, and we should look to them to save the news too. The right tools and insights can help right this airship called journalism.