Friday, November 20, 2009

Okay, So Where Were We? Ah Yes, the Inevitable Decline of Soccer Journalism

As the Henry business slowly and painfully dies away, I just want to cap off my soccer journalism post from Wednesday. I finished with offering one or two reasons why the traditional long-form journo model may in fact not be dead, and speculated on what the introduction of an across the board pay-wall for newspaper on-line editions would mean.

It's interesting that the discussion of paywalls among web heads closely resembles discussion of video replay with football supporters; there is a general waving of the wrist, or an "oh no, not that idea again" look, like what I imagine happens when Andrew Sullivan has to talk to Christopher Hitchens at official Atlantic Monthly get-togethers. Let's just say on paywalls, I'm an agnostic.

While the idea of paying for content seems ludicrous with the all-access free-for-all of the web, there are one or two scenarios I could see it maybe working. For one, it would obviously have to be across the board—no point in the Guardian throwing up a wall if the Times Online is waiting with arms outstretched for all the online traffic.

One model I've daydreamed about is a News Reader Only© browser. Consider it like iTunes for News. The browser allows you to either purchase access to on-line news content on a pay-per basis, or on a subscription set-up of the paper's choosing. You read the news in a format that prevents text copying, like a tweaked .pdf. You could save articles but you could only view them on the News Reader broswer. And the pages could feature ad banners with links that would open on a separate browser like Firefox or IE.

Now there are some gaping holes already with this scenario, but you get the idea. Readers are forced to pay for news content they read. Blogs and sites like the Huffington Post are suddenly up shit's creek, for better or for worse, because they are forced to pay for access to online news content that they can't copy and paste or link to. The internet content free-for-all is ended, but what do the papers care? They've used copy protected web technology to recreate the exclusivity of content the printing press once afforded them.

Could independent soccer journo bloggers fill in the gaps left by the departed online newspapers? Do the newspapers fail epically because readers can get news content for free from bloggers? Some might not mind reading filtered sports headlines on some soccer blogs, but others might want to take advantage of the first hand reporting offered by established dailies. So they go on iNews and subscribe, and read. And Mr. Writer gets paid.

And then world peace breaks out for some reason. Who knows. In the mean time, I'm going to keep plugging away here anyway in my pjs, being what the industry writers call a "thumbsucker," someone who waits for stories to appear to react to, rather than going out and finding them out. Most of us are thumbsuckers, even the best and brightest, because as I've said ad nauseam, blogging doesn't bring you accreditation, pay for flights to Mexico, or let you hang around Real Madrid training sessions in search of a money quote. Newspapers have the upper hand on that end for now. So either they let the resources the printing press gave them fritter away to nothing, or they get off their ass, stop sucking their thumbs and accept the fact the ground beneath has completely given way and the status quo is slowly bleeding them to death.

Meanwhile, I'll be here, waiting and watching, with the rest of you. But journalism was always about work and hustle, not talent or pretty prose. I think as bloggers, we would do better in the mean time by going local, trying to follow whatever unique stories we can cover in our spare time. We need to work to get that ignored content up online, we need to work harder. Because if this all does work out for us in the end, it will work out for those who forged a unique presence on the web, who spent their time in search of a story, or offered something new, bold unique, rather than a recycled opinion. More on that from me later...


Fake Sigi said...

I think a major problem with paywalls is that it doesn't prevent the information from getting out there and being freely discussed anyway. Look at the Sports Business Journal - they put big MLS news behind a paywall, one or two people pay for access and post about it, and everyone else links to those people. And hell, it's the same way with a newspaper - a single copy bought for 75 cents can wind up in a coffee shop and be read by 50 people.

In the meatspace, subscriptions were never the main revenue generator anyway. So I think that to replicate that in cyberspace, you're going to hurt your ad revenue, which is what you should be trying to maximize. If the papers do this, they're dead. Watch what happens if the Wall Street Journal ever tries to finally seal off it's (partial/leaky) paywall from google. That's the bellweather.

As for your News Reader Only browser, I think that's been tried and it will be tried again. With DRM schemes you have two concerns - one is user expectations, and two is the assumption that all users are criminals right off the bat. The vast majority of news is commoditized anyway, and there's a public interest for it to be that way. So in my opinion, you're going to have a real problem ascribing significant monetary value to something that people are used to trading back and forth amongst themselves (and their media) for free.

Even specialized sources of professional information like Lexis or Westlaw are having to deal with things like Casemaker coming in and making most of what they do dirt cheap. Now Casemaker will try to upsell you to better tools, but then that's different from charging an arm and a leg just to get access to the information.

What does have value is aggregating all that information, processing it, making sense of it, and reproducing it in a way that is helpful to others. At the moment I'm convinced in the value of "gatekeepers" because people rely on them to filter out the noise and tell them what's relevant. The "problem" if there is one, is that the new gatekeepers are no longer controlled by wealthy interest groups - they're breaking out on their own. And so these interest groups are furiously trying to figure out how they can get control back. Give them time, I'm sure they'll figure something out.

Finally, I think the term "thumbsuckers" is unnecessarily derogatory. If people didn't like to talk about and reprocess what was going on around them, there would be no media business to speak of. So fuck that. And quite honestly, "old media" has done a terrible job of going out and "finding" stories. For example, Grant Wahl probably got called up by MLS public relations, was told Garber would answer some quesions yesterday (maybe even preapproved), so he gets on a plane and sits down and proceeds to ask some of the stupidest shit this side of BigSoccer MLS Rivalries.

The lesson? The public is consistently failed by those who are supposed to be going out and "finding" stuff. Access doesn't mean shit if you can't ask intelligent questions or make sense out of it. "Thumbsuckers" are needed just as much as quote monkeys, and better yet if they add something to the discussion as opposed to just parroting some pre-concieved narrative.

Elliott said...

I think Fake Sigi has a good point about bloggers and the democratic filter sites (digg, 3nil) being gatekeepers, albeit thumbsucking gatekeepers in pajamas. In a world where the Guardian and Times publish 40-60 articles a day, why go cover-to-cover when a trusted gatekeeper will highlight the highlights?

As for the wall, Itunes originally tried to create song files which could not be reproduced in MP3's. What happened? In addition to anti-trust concerns, consumers went elsewhere.

I agree with you Richard that the "never ending horizon" of the web will eventually end - this is a 18th century landgrab and will get ugly once 80% of the world is online. DNS attacks will look like water balloons, but we're still a decade or two away from that kind of saturation and depletion of server resources.

I also think that, fundamentally, lots of global corporations have based business models on a top-down-same-thing for everyone business model - but the web gives us the power to find niche/quirky media content which is more suited to our unique preferences. In a way, that's a bad thing because maybe I'm shutting off myself to different perspectives. But its happening....