I recently had a talk with Bill Densmore, a
consulting fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, about a comprehensive
proposal for re-establishing news providers on an economically and
socially sustainable foundation. I was not entirely happy with the
vision he laid out, but I recognized right away that it would triumph
and become a global standard. This paper deserves a look from anyone
interested in publishing, social networking, or democratic discourse.
It’s not normal for me to be so insistent on a trend. Before you think
I’m over-dramatizing the situation, consider the following trends:
Moves by news organizations to charge for content. Although many sites
(including O’Reilly, through Safari Books Online) have
been offering subscriptions for some time, the recent retreat from
free content by the New York Times is sure to lead the rest of the
The increasing dependence most of us have on other people to choose
what news we view, whether through aggregation feeds or friends on
The trend (which I currently find to be a gimmick) in newspapers to
include excerpts from blogs by non-journalists.
Strains on the ability of advertising to generate revenue, and the
ever-intensifying determination of sites to gather more information
about viewers in order to target them more effectively.
Greater consolidation in traditional media, driven by the realization
that no site can go it alone.
The spread of federated single sign-on, mostly through OpenID, egged
on by the US government in its 2010 National Strategy
for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. (Alex Howard covered the proposal on Radar.)
Consider these, and compare Densmore’s proposal. He has found the way
for news institutions to capitalize on what’s already happening, and
the result is a formula they’re going to like. Of course, the final
formula may be somewhat different from his, and perhaps no media mogul
will ever stand up before a crowd of thousands and say, “We’re using
the RJI model for content aggregation.” But in its outlines, we see
here the future of news.
And that means we had better look at the possible negative effects of
the change and insist that the solution prevent them.
News the RJI way
Densmore’s paper is quite extended, because he needs to explain the
business end of his proposal to people who don’t understand the
economics of current publishing, and the architectural end to people
unfamiliar with the underlying technology. He resorts to invented
terms, which I’ll try to elude as I offer a summary that I hope will
be enough to push forward discussion.
The content aggregation and pricing layer
The change to the news will be driven by institutions that already
have a news brand and can draw a loyal following. Some may be new,
others may be familiar brands such as the New York Times, and some may
be local news outlets with specialized content that a small audience
values highly. These news institutions will create more enticing
landing places by licensing content from other news providers around
Those who have followed online publishing closely may remember the
stillborn Automated Content Access
Protocol (ACAP), which I
critiqued four years ago. I think ACAP is back, but not as a
hitchhiker on standard search techniques. The RJI proposal echoes its
basic strategy for finding and licensing content.
Incidentally, Densmore dislikes the term “micropayments” because it
seems to devalue content, whereas his proposal does the opposite. He
also dislikes the term “paywall” because it represents a critique of
subscription models that have worked fine since the beginning of
How the user experiences the news
The innovation in Densmore’s proposal is the use of federated single
sign-on to let readers leap from one site to another. The content is
not just republished and rebranded on the aggregator’s site, but is
linked to directly. That means the original site can promote its own
brand, add updates, and incorporate reader comments.
Currently, if you want to read articles on two different subscription
sites, you need to sign up and pay at each. Densmore calls this a
broken user interface. Busy people want the content fed to them, even
if it requires payment, and want to just pay a monthly fee and forget
about it. The federated identity model allows this. The source of each
article can charge a small amount, such as half a cent, for each view,
and the aggregator can worry about harmonizing the economics of
subscriptions and license fees.
Personalization will become the crucial advantage of news aggregators.
Netizens’ current strategies for spiking their news with variety
(adding sites to RSS feeds, scanning streams on Twitter or Google
Plus, and so forth) are ad hoc and produce inconsistent results. These
amateur and crowdsourced techniques will become professionalized. A
great deal of the value of a subscription, Densmore is betting, will
lie in the choices made by aggregators for the front page each of us
sees upon visiting their site each morning.
We will have many personas for news sites. I may use one persona for
doing technical research at work, another for checking on
international political events on the weekend, and a third for
following my favorite musicians.
The role of advertising
Few news sites will be able to break even through subscriptions alone.
Ads, as you may have guessed by now, will grab an accelerated ride on
the jetstream of personalization as well. Like it or not, we
will be known by our news providers, and hence indirectly by
those who want to sell us goods and services.
In fact, there’s little about Densmore’s proposal that is unique to
the news or publishing industries. It provides a general platform for
servers to learn about visitors and capitalize on that knowledge.
Publishers may need the platform more urgently than other industries
because what we offer is under more pressure from free and
crowdsourced alternatives, but the principles will appeal to anyone
who wants a deeper relationship with a visitor than a one-time click.
Densmore is learning from Google here. The techniques he advises news
sites to use are stepped-up versions of those that made Google a
200-billion-dollar company. He adds what he calls “advisor-tising,”
which involves some opt-in from visitors. If Densmore prevails, people
who visit a search engine by default to look up the news will instead
go to a news site of their choice.
Heading off dangers
The RJI model may appeal to consumers because it could help them get
more high-quality news with less effort. But what consumers think is
ultimately irrelevant. The model’s main appeal is to news sites and
advertisers: it will save news sites from their long steady decline,
and serve up a better class of customer to advertisers. There will
probably always remain sites that can serve adequate advertising with
requiring subscriptions, as well as sites that sponsor content as a
public service or to drive an agenda. But the news mainstream, I’m
convinced, will be delivered to known personas.
This will drive tremendous information sharing about each of us by
news organizations and advertisers, but Densmore says, “The cat is
already out of the bag.” Abuses will have to be dampened by laws,
regulations, and industry standards.
One detail I’d like to incorporate into the new system is the ability
to walk away from a persona. It would be nearly impossible to do that
now, because you’ll need a credit card to sign up with a new persona
and it can then be instantly linked to the old one. I would like
regulations requiring companies to discard what they know about you,
upon your request. In exchange, they can charge higher subscription
rates for new personas, under the presumption that advertising is less
lucrative. (However, the personalized news choices they deliver will
also be less relevant, which makes charging more money for new
personas a dilemma.)
Any major change in a marketplaces calls for a look at possibilities
of market consolidation. In this case, one site could garner a
preponderance of the readership, giving it untoward control over the
news we see. I don’t worry much about this because I expect news
stories to continue breaking out through social networking, and
because some Fox News or Al Jazeera will be able to emerge to break
hidebound monopolies. Densmore wards off bias through a neutral
The Information Trust Association (ITA) would create protocols and
business rules that enable appropriate network collaboration and
exchange — a level playing field. The ITA would be guided by
publishers, broadcasters, telecom and technology companies, account
managers, trade groups and the public.
Even without a monopoly, there’s a danger of us becoming passive
consumers Once each of us has his own front page. Densmore issues a
call, along with journalistic visionary Dan Gillmor, for readers to become
informed information consumers. This is particularly important because
we don’t want to receive just updates on topics we’ve already
expressed interest in. We want to know important new topics.
The history of privacy breaches has also shown that, in the absence of
strong EU-style privacy laws, agreements by publishers to respect
reader privacy cannot be trusted. There will be loopholes and too many
temptations to bend the rules. The current Supreme Court believes that
advertisers have a nearly inviolable right to send people ads, as their ruling on the recent
Vermont drug marketing law shows.
I’ll end by saying that the role of citizen journalists hasn’t been
clearly integrated into the proposed regime. A hefty section of the
paper is devote to them, but it’s not clear to me whether blogs just
another set of feeds into the personalized channel, or whether user
recommendations will be factored in to the choices offered by news
sites. This is an interesting topic to watch as RJI seeks partners
and tries to implement the system.
As Densmore told me on the phone, numerous social barriers to his
proposal have to be overcome. News sites have to be persuaded to try
his form of deep-delving aggregation. Readers have to be persuaded
that the news is once again worth paying for and that they can benefit
by sharing their preferences with news providers. It will be quite
some time before we can determine where the proposal is going.