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Extract: Michel Bauwens Interviews Scoop's Alastair Thompson

Reimagining Journalism Book Extract – Michel Bauwens Interviews Scoop's Alastair Thompson

Book Extract – Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

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Peer Production Journalism – Alastair Thompson

Interview by Michel Bauwens

At the P2P Foundation we have been observing and analysing the multifarious effects of peer to peer networks on the way our society and its actors work, and in particular we talk about a new prototype ‘mode of production’ of value creation and distribution. The Harvard professor Yochai Benkler has called this ‘commons-based peer production’. From our findings, we can make the assumption that there will also be the emergence of a ‘peer production of journalism’.

What is fairly typical and common for peer production projects is that they work with open contributory systems that allow for permissionless contribution. In journalism, we have the old classic model, in which an editor in chief assigns projects to journalists. We also have the citizen journalism model, in which anyone can contribute, but there are then in the background all kinds of filtering and verification measures that filter the wheat from the chaff. The Huffington Post may be seen to be a representative example of this ‘mode of production’ of news, but it also suffers from particular issues, such as the exploitation of the free labour of the citizen journalists by the owners of the platforms. Within the dominant system, these platforms become hypercompetitive since they can eliminate competitors that have higher costs in terms of wages and infrastructure. In this context, it makes sense to think about platforms as the mutual property of its users, and that it is governed in a multi-stakeholder fashion.

So let’s assume that these are the two polarities. How would you situate Scoop within that polarity of a command-and-control journalism versus a totally open model?

Our bread and butter business is to publish the raw-material that lies behind the news – the press releases – and in doing so we create a space in which the views being expressed are not ours, but rather the collective voices of those contributing to the debate. With raw news publishing, the public has access to the material that is being presented to the news media – that is an opportunity to understand the origins of various facts and opinions that make their way into the news stream. The traditional gate-keeper role that most news publishers play is removed.

Interestingly, even though what we publish is by and large pure unadulterated spin (albeit these days written mostly by former professional journalists working in PR) – the fact that we do so with: very clear attribution; comprehensively; and in an accessible and searchable manner - means that our readers see us as a publisher who does not "spin" the news, in the sense that we do not spin it based around our prejudices. Other media players use us extensively as a source.

When it comes to the traditional "news judgment" decisions Scoop makes - which include placement of headlines as well as assignment of stories to reporters - an overriding consideration we have is to use our resources efficiently. This means we generally consider it better to leave the curation of most news events to traditional publishers.

Do the concepts of the media commons and public interest have a particular meaning for you?

For me the news media commons is made up of all publicly accessible, reliable searchable news content which can be used to inform news stories written by professional and citizen journalists. Practically speaking this means that body of reliable content, which is indexed by Google and is not behind a paywall.

I think that strong independent journalism is inherently a public good, one which is required for democracy to flourish, and one on which competent government, fair commercial regulation and effective observance of the rule of law is dependent. But the news media’s role of holding the powerful to account - its fourth estate function - can only work if the news media has mass reach. That is if the content of journalism is publicly accessible to all.

We also think it is in the 'public interest' for all voices to have an opportunity to be heard. It seems that the organisations who benefit the most from the existence of the news media – in terms of disseminating their news, informing them about what is going on so they can react, and sanctioning those who act unjustly against them - are institutions, not the public.

Another important polarity is that between, “information must be paid for” and therefore must be maintained as an artificially scarce good (through legal repression of the sharers or technological means), and on the other hand, the famous adage, “information must be free”. Now, many people mistakenly belief this must mean gratis, but it is not; it’s free as in free speech, not as in free beer. It means that knowledge is a common good that must be shareable freely. If that is the case, we cannot just sell news and information, since it can be so easily copied. In the open source software world, the solution is that to pay for labour, but not for the software as such, though all kinds of added-value services can be attached to the software, and this can then be sold as a package.

Now, in Scoop, you use an ethical paywall: what does it consist of, how does it answer the conundrum that knowledge is not naturally scarce and that it may be in fact unethical to maintain it artificially scarce?

The name "ethical paywall" is derived from theory behind "free and ethical trade" in goods and services, namely, to address disadvantages within the supply chain. In the case of journalism we think there are two groups that are disadvantaged:

  • the general public (both directly and collectively), who without such a mechanism will increasingly find themselves unable to access information that they need access to in order to participate actively in democracy;

  • the publishers and creators of news content, such as ourselves, who cannot otherwise cover the costs of the production and curation of news services.

Open access to data, information and news is important. We think that the ethical paywall is a way to maintain this while also responding to the digital disruption of the advertising business model, which threatens to prevent us from continuing to produce a news service. It consists simply of an advertised set of copyright terms and conditions which require professional users of Scoop - which we define as those who routinely use our content and data in the course of their professional work - to purchase a commercial use license and voluntarily comply. Our terms of use provide for all non-commercial users to be able to use and share Scoop content freely.

It is in our interests for people to share our content and use it as much as possible – that is how we will most effectively form relationships with the routine professional users who we are seeking to charge for access via the ethical paywall.

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How do you generate most of your income?

In 2014, prior to our decision to pivot to the ethical paywall business model, Scoop earned around 80 per cent of its revenue from advertising of various kinds. Over the eighteen months since that has fallen to around 20 per cent. Overall revenue has also fallen and we have had to significantly cut back on costs (i.e. staffing levels) in order to manage the transition. At present the Scoop Publishing Company's three major commercial revenue sources are our ethical paywall, subscription services (push news intelligence services and database licensing), and native advertising and advertising services. These made up approximately 75 per cent of our operational revenue over the past eighteen months. The balance of what we spent in this period was made up by crowdfunding for membership fees. This is likely to be lower in 2016. We are anticipating moving to a commercial revenue position sometime in the first half of 2017.

More and more voices argue, in the context of a biospheric emergency (climate change and the like) and a social emergency (increasing inequality between and within nations), that the economy must become generative and ‘add value in between’. Majorie Kelly’s book, The Emerging Ownership Revolution’, describes many examples of new practices, and I would consider that, in New Zealand, the Enspiral coalition exhibits such generative practices. To what degree would you consider what Scoop does as a generative endeavour and to what degree are you succeeding in becoming journalistic entredonneurs?

Our new approach runs directly contrary to the well-established notion that news businesses are in the business of "selling eyeballs" to advertisers, a proposition that we think misses the core value proposition of news media as the fourth estate, and one which doesn’t appear to be viable in the current context.

By effectively publishing the chief editor’s inbox in real time, we thought we would create a very useful service, which would be extensively used by participants within the political process – we would create value, and in doing so we would create a business. This model provides a service to thousands of organisations (many of which are government agencies) in NZ that rely on being able to discover in real time what is happening in the community and markets around them.

We set what we consider to be a fair price for organisations to pay to use our services and we have also aim to invest any surplus we make in improving the quality of the journalism and news services provision, which our readership understands as demonstrated by their willingness to sign on to our licence agreements. If the Scoop Publishing Company is able to achieve a high level of compliance with the ethical paywall, we should have revenue to invest into investigative journalism – though we do not expect this to be the case before 2018. In the meantime we have begun funding investigative journalism via the Scoop Foundation, and have committed one third of this year’s membership drive proceeds to be dispersed as grants.

Do you favour and expect public subsidies for journalism?

That's a curly question. Print journalism in the Anglosphere has always been rather allergic to the notion of public subsidies. Print publishers very strongly believe that the idea of government money without interference is oxymoronic.

Within the same jurisdictions, broadcast journalism in the UK, Australia and NZ was established, funded and regulated very tightly in its early years by government, which did so by virtue of claiming ownership over the broadcast frequencies that media used. In all three jurisdictions broadcast news services continue to receive substantial levels of state support. In other parts of the world, particularly in continental Europe, print journalism also receives substantial state support.

But I am not a great fan of the word subsidy as it assumes that there is a difference between state support and regulatory constructs, which provide for the sustainability of certain business sectors. Often the regulators and politicians who make these decisions appear to be incapable of understanding the distinction, and in many cases there is none.

So I would not say that "I expect or favour subsidies", and certainly not for my journalism in particular. However I think that the Scoop model provides another means for the state to support journalism – paying, as a professional user, to use services. Therefore the ethical paywall requires the acceptance of a new interpretation of long standing and settled legal rights which protect the rights of the creators of content/services/software to set the terms and conditions of use of their content/services/software.

Critically, because this solution is broad based, arms-length and founded on existing and well-understood law and, any organisation relying on the ethical paywall solution fully retains financial and editorial independence, the two things that the news media are most anxious to protect.

How do you see the future of journalism?

The deepening news crisis in NZ and elsewhere is opening up numerous "content" opportunities for news publishers. Important and obvious stories which society needs to be told, aren't.

Unfortunately this crisis is also financially destroying the organisations who have traditionally been responsible for telling these stories. The Fairfax/NZME merger will result in the largest loss of journalist headcount in the history of NZ news media. On the flip side of this equation the laying off of thousands of experienced journalists means that there is a growing supply of talented journalists looking for a place to publish their work and to earn a living, should we be able to make it commercially viable.

I think that during this current period of extreme disruption to the viability of public interest journalism in particular policy makers and news media companies both need to start considering a means to achieve a just transition to a new normal. In New Zealand this has already manifested itself in the migration of some funds from NZ On Air to the converged digital content space - including to news services such as Radio New Zealand.

In a recent Enspiral Tale talking the closing address to the 2016 Ouishare Fest in Paris entitled Making Sense of the Emerging Economy with Yochai Benkler, Loomio's Richard Bartlett wrote:

"Yochai Benkler closed out with some unequivocal remarks directed at the founders in the room, flipping each of the three tensions into design criteria for social ventures:

  • Centre your venture in social relations: find people to work with you, not for you.

  • Design the commons into your business model: orient your venture to the common good.

  • Build your venture to be ethically coherent from the start: don’t delay your ethical commitments."

I think that this model’s time has come. In terms of Scoop in the future, we will begin to open source its technology and business processes. And in the event that the ethical paywall becomes the breakthrough we hope it to be, then there will be a strong business case to sit behind a Scoop Open Source Systems consultancy and technology company. My vision is that this company, or platform cooperative, could support journalism cooperatives in other parts of the world to replicate the Scoop model. After all there are thousands of democratic jurisdictions of similar scale to New Zealand with professional news users in them who would value a comprehensive timely source of political and business news intelligence - especially when their local newspaper finally closes and decides to dedicate its online resources to cat videos and stories about the Kardashians.

But first we need to somehow break the spell of that appears to have the news industry, as well as most of the world's news readers, in its grip.

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This interview was first published I nAugust 2016 in "Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism In Aotearoa New Zealand". Edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso & Sarah Illingworth. Publisher: Free Range Press. Availability: Worldwide. Pages: 368.

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