"If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance, it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them." Alan Rusbridger
I've said many times that the real benefit of social for media and content owners is that it allows you to build a platform. There's some great examples of what I mean by this in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture delivered recently by Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian (entitled 'Does Jounalism Exist?' – and I recommend you read the whole thing). And some stark parallels, I believe, to the business of business, not just of media.
Alan's position on the paywall question is pretty clear – adopting a universal paywall means you are no longer open to the world, except at a cost. It might make sense from a business point of view, but it makes no sense from an editorial one. Editorially it is, he says, "about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world" because "it removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other", and would change the way in which you do journalism.
His point is that journalists are learning to tell stories in a multitude of different ways, often combining old skills with new, familiar ways with the less familiar, print with online. This leads to a richer form of journalism, complemented by the ability to reference, link, cite sources, encourage response, use new formats (some journalists, he says, use their blogs as the spine of what they do, and he references Emily Bell who says that online content must 'be of the web' not simply put 'on the web'). And it's better for readers, many of whom like to compare sources and follow conversations as they unfold. It is, he says, a "collaborative-as-well-as competitive approach which is usually likely to get to the truth of things faster."
And he cites a strong list of examples. Like the MP's expenses widget. The Telegraph were the ones with the scoop, but The Guardian were smart enough to involve their readers, 25,000 of them helping to sort through over 200,000 documents. And then there's crowdsourcing tax-avoidance with the internal Barclays documents. The truth behind Ian Tomlinson's death at the G20 protests came from a combination of good old-fashioned investigative reporting and the mass observation of those who were there. When The Guardian wanted to get to the bottom of Tony Blair's complex tax affairs, they turned again to their readers. And then there's twitter. The multiple streams, the 1.6m people who follow the Guardian Tech stream (which must be a massive source of referral), the enterprising reporters (like Jemima Kiss) who are learning how to use Twitter to research, and "as a customised, specialised, personalised wire service; to break news; to market and distribute content; to build communities and bring them into The Guardian". And the Guardian Environmental Network – a curated, distributed network of environmental websites and green bloggers. And Comment Is Free of-course. And Trafigura – the story that began with a piece of conventional reporting which, when gagged by the lawyers, saw twitter erupt, the story gain wide awareness, and forced the injunction to be dropped – a great example of one of the benefits of what Clay Shirky called 'Algorithmic Authority': "if all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal."
Rusbridger believes that we are emerging into a new world of mutualised interest where familiar values and skills (editing, reporting, access, a brand people trust, ethical professional standards, scale) combine with the rich diversity, specialist expertise, and on the ground reporting capability brought by a large community of readers. And many of the most interesting experiments are happening at this confluence of the old and the new. The point about all of this, I suppose, is that it is not about one thing replacing another. It's about entirely new combinations of old and new that change the game completely.