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April 24, 2017, 8:45 a.m.
Business Models

Jeff Israely: What comes next in the Uberization of the news business?

“Ours is a system that neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx — not even Travis Kalanick — can figure out for us.”

Editor’s note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is the cofounder of a news company called Worldcrunch in Paris. For the past seven (!) years, he’s been describing and commenting on the startup process here at Nieman Lab. Read all his past installments here.

Both Uber the company and Uber the concept are juicy subjects for those of us in the business of assigning and writing articles. The company changing the ways of commerce and transport seems to keep winding up in street clashes and courtrooms. Meanwhile, founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has become the perfect Silicon Valley villain, including (with a shot of irony) getting caught being a jerk by a dashcam video camera after having hailed an Uber ride of his own. Juicy fodder indeed.

But what matters far more than the fate of Kalkanik, or even of the company, is the concept — that monumental shift in the relationship between humans, technology, and work to which Uber has lent its name. Welcomed by some as a spur for innovation and an end run around established corporatism, lambasted by others as modern-day serfdom, “Uberization” is widely considered nothing less than a new industrial revolution — or at least a very nasty curveball for both Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Even more fodder for reporters and ranters alike.

But what about the news industry itself? How are we managing this shift in the way our own work is organized? As they try to employ new technologies to compensate for shrinking returns, should media companies take something from the Uber approach? And what about individual journalists, including both the laid-off and those never brought on in the first place? Well, yes, we’ve got some irony of our own to ponder: The next article you read about either the joys or evils of Uberization might well be brought to you by the news-business equivalent of an Uber driver. (This, of course, can only be topped by the articles about artificial intelligence written by robots.)

When we launched Worldcrunch in 2011, Uber the company was popping up in my Twitter feed, but I hadn’t yet figured out what the concept was. Back then, for those of us looking for new ways to cover the world, there were two widely touted innovations that were going to change everything: content farms and crowdsourcing. You remember? The former was the bottom-feeding mass production of SEO-scamming how-to articles and clickbait posts by poorly paid contract writers; the latter was a supposedly more noble formula whereby readers themselves would provide some of the free labor that might eventually make professional reporters and editors obsolete. The content farms would soon be undermined by Google wising up to the ruse and altering its search algorithms. The vision of the crowd supplanting the pros, meanwhile, was bound to fall far short, even if it proved to be on the vanguard of a broader trend whose name we’ve all come to know: the “sharing economy,” the most ingeniously disingenuous concept of them all.

Though Uber, Airbnb, and the others were originally pitched as “sharing” platforms, the founders knew better, and it didn’t take long for the rest of us to be reminded of the old wisdom about free lunches. Someone, somewhere, somehow has to pay — and someone else must get paid — if you want to be sure the job gets done.

That brings us up to the present — whether you call it Uberization, Mechanical Turkdom, or (for those who wants to believe they’re living the rock ‘n roll life) the gig economy. Technical elements of both content farms and crowdsourcing are now widely diffused throughout the news industry. The Washington Post has built a snazzy Talent Network platform to manage its contributors, while new standalone companies like Medium to Paydesk have provided a smooth path for individuals to spread their work and find paid jobs online.

In fact, it turns out, those of us in the business of assigning and writing articles have had the right name all along: freelancing. The “free” in this case is more about liberty than pricing, though that freedom too can be disingenuous. Still, the fact that the word is so closely associated with the publishing business says a lot.

When Worldcrunch launched in the midst of the crowdsourcing hysteria, we made a conscious decision to neither pursue free labor nor crank out crap copy. This choice was not some moral statement, but rather a calculation that the unique kind of work we wanted to do would be more efficiently produced with a restricted group of modestly (but always) paid freelancers. To maintain the required level of quality we were guaranteeing both our readers and partners, we didn’t have the resources to invest in the mechanisms, both technical and human, required to sift through whatever comes streaming in.

Still, we always suspected that we were in fact missing out on the “crowd.” Our readers, particularly for our model which includes flagging stories in different languages, could help us in various ways in the hunting and gathering of our journalism. Over time, as our business began to shift, we also realized we could connect our pool of translators to experts writing in different languages around the world, on topics that interested clients in our growing activity of providing content to brands and organizations. We could find more pros (some of whom already have a day job) in all fields by casting our net wider.

It wasn’t going to be easy — and we knew we’d have to build something to get them to come. Thanks to some Google help here in France (in what was the prelude to their Digital News Initiative fund to support the digitalization of the press), we were able to design a platform where we could both manage our new clients and where anyone interested in contributing could spontaneously sign up. We call it Worldcrunch iQ.

Though we needed a good digital toolset to make it work, it is a challenge of business development — and yes, an evolving labor market — more than a purely technical question. How would we use the platform to communicate with journalists, translators, and experts? How could we find people to match the needs of our paying clients and our own website?

The trickiest part will be balancing the way we communicate with the very different potential profiles: those looking strictly for paid work, those seeking professional visibility or promoting a political agenda, and even some who just want to join the proverbial “conversation” from the many places, subjects, and languages our readers know. The challenge — as we suspected way back when we launched — is in matching and filtering our needs with both their IQs and their expectations. Ours is a system that neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx — not even Travis Kalanick — can figure out for us.

Photo of an Uber driver by Noel Tock used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 24, 2017, 8:45 a.m.
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