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Dave Winer: There’s no good place for a new Maginot Line for the news

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Today, it’s web pioneer Dave Winer, a man key to the evolution of many of the publishing technologies we use online today, currently a visiting scholar in journalism at NYU, and half the team behind the Rebooting the News podcast.

When people in the news business try to figure out how to make news pay after the Internet, it seems analogous to the French, after being invaded by Germany in World War II, trying to figure out where to put the new Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line would have been a perfect defense in World War I. It didn’t help much in the second war.

Analogously, there was a perfect paywall in the pre-Internet news business, the physical product of a newspaper. There is no equivalent in the new distribution system.

Howard Weaver’s latest post put this into focus for me. That, and the recent attention on Groupon, which it seems to me has usurped, again, one of the big roles that local news organizations could have played, obviating the need to find the new paywall.

It isn’t really a question if you’ve created something worth paying for. It might be very good, and expensive to create. What matters is if there’s a market for it.

The people in the business of creating fixed fortresses might have asked the same question after WWII. We could make a much better Maginot Line now, we know so much more and technology is so much more advanced. Wouldn’t matter, because France wasn’t in the market for a new Maginot Line.

That’s the question news people never seem to ask. How can we create something that has a market? If they asked that question instead, they would restructure their activity. Because there are things similar to news that have generated huge wealth. Not hidden, in plain sight.

The first usurpage was of course Craigslist. It wasn’t so obvious then that this was the natural domain of the press, because Craigslist made a small fraction of the money the news industry used to make from classifieds. It looked like CL was just undermining the press, not competing with it. But Groupon — this is the fastest-growing company of all time. The founder says what they do is find ways for people to get out and enjoy their city. And they make a boatload of money doing it.

Here’s one way of looking at what both Groupon and local news organizations do — they put smart hard-working people into the field to keep tabs on what people in the community are doing. Some of what they are doing is robbing and killing each other — that’s what news is interested in. Another part of what they’re doing is buying from and selling to each other. Groupon is making huge bucks on that.

It seems there’s still time for a philosophy change in the news business. Become more focused on the commerce of your communities, and the opportunities to make money will become more apparent. Seems like common sense to me.

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  • Alan Mairson

    Spot on, Mr. Winer.

    My only question: Do you think the Groupon model would work only for *local* news organizations?

    Since June 2009, I’ve been championing the idea that National Geographic magazine could organize an international Groupon-like buying club that would equip & empower an army of digital Davids — and give them a reason to join the National Geographic Society.

    That is, instead of selling 5 million pairs of eyeballs to Nikon for a magazine advertisement, National Geographic should say to Nikon: “We just polled our members, who are fully networked, and 2,500 of them want to buy a new Nikon D-40 this month. How much per unit if we buy in bulk?”

    Members would not only get a great deal. They’d be connected to other people learning to use the same gear AND they’d have a platform where they could contribute their work to the journal-ism of the organization.

    You think that could work? Please see:

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  • Ted

    It all comes down to that last graf. But it occurs to me more and more that as news organizations still think of themselves as content creators, we’re ill-equipped to execute the next idea, no matter how simple, when going up against startups that take the best ideas and run with them from Step 1.

    For example – the Groupon concept was out there before Groupon, and a lot of news organizations were offering half price discounts on any number of items – food, sporting goods, etc. They were on the cusp on executing exactly what Groupon has done.

    Except for two things – they were outsourcing almost all of the execution to third parties, and because they were focused on their own localities, usually, they never really pondered the offerings on a larger scale. (Why would they? They were already outsourcing the parts they’d need to execute on a larger scale.)

    Seems like we need to move from new business development to new business development. (Easy to say – hard to do.) And until we are more able to do that, we’ll continue to miss the opportunities that might be right in front of our noses.

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  • Tom Crowl

    RE “That’s the question news people never seem to ask. How can we create something that has a market? If they asked that question instead, they would restructure their activity. Because there are things similar to news that have generated huge wealth. Not hidden, in plain sight.”

    The Market IS THERE! The problem is that the mechanism hasn’t been there to address the transaction problem.

    This problem (which extends also into the political participation sphere especially) is directly linked to neglected scaling issues in this new landscape… and the capabilities required for Commons-oriented transactions in that space… and why that requires a viable, simple and secure MICRO-transaction.

    The Commons-dedicated Account Network:
    A self-supporting , Commons-owned neutral network of accounts for both political and charitable monetary contribution… which for fundamental reasons of scale must allow a viable micro-transaction (think x-box points for action in the Commons).

    (I note that journalism is often a for-profit enterprise and that this presents a complicating factor. I believe this is an addressable issue.)

    Re-Igniting the Enlightenment: On Building Landscapes for Decision


    At its root, a civilization (or any social organism) is a product of individual and group decisions (ideas+actions) operating within the confines of the physical environment and natural law. we then see culture as the expression of this “social energy”.

    Money was developed originally as a technology for the allocation of excess social energy where complexity (and loss of various forms of proximity) required conventions beyond the less formalized methods of a hunter-gatherer group.

    I believe this suggest some re-thinking about the nature of money and capital (and capital creation) but that’s another story…

    The point here is that the nature of this “social energy” in a scaled organism requires that the exchange of this energy NOT be bound by transaction costs or other complications IN AREAS RELATED TO COMMONS-DEDICATED FUNCTIONS ESPECIALLY…

    These particular areas of exchange actually pre-date the need for or existence of the commercial transaction and require special attention.

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