Publishing, it’s time to change

If you have an even fleeting awareness of the world around you, you’ll have noticed the internet. Social Media and self-publishing, both internet enabled means of expression (like this blog), are changing publishing. Paywalls have been used by publishers as a means of shoring up revenues. Yet the real costs are being borne by you and me, if we pay, and increasingly we’re not. Here’s why . . .

Clay Shirky, an observer and commentator on all things internet and publishing observes that publishing is no longer a job, it’s a button. He’s right.

The act of publishing is simple now. Does it really require or sustain an entire industry? This is a valid question.

How many times have you read a newspaper? How often does it contain exactly the same ‘news’ as the TV bulletins or other newspapers? Try it, just scan the headlines in a random selection of newspapers (The Daily Express exempted!) and the main TV news bulletins – they will all bear a startling similarity.

Most reported news is set by a ‘news agenda’ – an expression which betrays itself. That agenda is shaped by whatever sources of information are at hand. Following the news agenda is lazy and formulaic.

Most journalists reporting what a politician or sportsperson said or did use prepared statements from that person’s office. The rest are ‘lifestyle’ stories, how to entertain cheaply, how to save money by switching a utility supplier . . . and even there much of the real work is done by other people.

‘News’ is increasingly a reformatted aggregation of information supplied by others rather than something ‘new’. The etymology of the term ‘news’ tells us everything we need to know about what it should be – something new, information which is novel (i.e. new), or of recent origin.

So publishing operations need to add value and something ‘new’ to survive. And do they? Not really.

It could be argued that publishers provide the economies of scale to produce something a quality product. But you can spend millions paying for a glossy paper treatment of your product, or investing in a CMS and a web publishing platform or, frankly, get a wordpress install for a few (insert currency here) . . .

What is needed are loose collectives of editors and fact checkers, investigative reporters seeking out and breaking genuinely ‘new’ news, creatives to make it look good and technologists to help realise it across multiple platforms and keep an eye on the horizon for what is coming. Instead the publishing industry has opted for the proverbial ‘head in the sand’, paywalls. It’s a defensive measure which stands in the way of true and innovative content development . . . and therefore sustained revenues. It’s just not good enough to talk about iPad editions . . . so what? It’s the same old content as everywhere else, rehashed. That is all.

As the Coumbia Journalism Review notes, paywalls are fine if the content behind them is genuinely new, provocative and intelligent. Rehashed information doesn’t cut it anymore. As yet there is little evidence that there is any investment in enabling real journalism, and that is not just sad, it could spell the end of publishing, and worse; the end of the spotlight we all need to reveal the way our society works and to hold it to account.

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