ReachOut.com training camp

Over the weekend I led a session as part of a workshop camp training youth media advocates for ReachOut.com. ReachOut.com is an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness about issues relating to youth mental health and suicide, and is part of Inspire.org.au. I was very happy to donate my Saturday morning and the couple of days it took to put together my session. Like most people, I’ve had some personal experience with a loved one struggling to overcome the ‘black dog’. It has been good to see depression and mental health issues receive proper media attention over the last few years as struggles with mental health issues transcend social and cultural boundaries.

In my session I introduced the youth advocates to the concept of a ‘complex media environment’. It builds on well established concepts within media studies from key figures such as Marshall “The medium is the message” McLuhan (see this video of McLuhan in Australia from ABC Open) and Neil “Media Ecology” Postman. The key outcome from my session was to get the advocates to realise that as media advocates they are no longer simply ‘consumers’ of media content, but nor are they properly ‘producers’ within the media industry. Instead, they are somewhere in between, what I described as being ‘operators’.

ReachOut.com’s own media advocacy kit for the workshop was put together (EDIT: 13/12/11) under the direction of co-manager Nathalie Swainston by Phoebe Netto and it is a brilliant practical guide for working with journalists and other content producers within the media industry. For example, it presents the well known values of news worthiness (timeliness, proximity, impact, etc) in an inverted form so media advocates know how to position their message so as to be useful for journalists working on producing a story.

I built on the media advocacy kit by reaching out to the youth media advocates’ existing mode of engagement with the media — as mostly ‘crticial consumers’ — to point out ways this could be extended and intensified so as to spot and plan for ‘opportunities’ for their message. I focused on two methods for doing this. The first involves working within the constraints of the journalistic ‘news cycle’ and also tracking the rhythm of the media activities of other social institutions, such as governmental authorities or the NGO sector publishing relevant reports.

The second involves appreciating the strucutral dimensions of the media industry. The commercial media industry basically operates as an ‘apparatus of capture’: it produces content so as to ‘capturre’ an audience, and then sell this audience to advertisers (or others). The questions the media advocates need to work through are, what sort of audience can I help produce and who would want the traffic/metrics/listeners/viewers/readership that my message can help deliver? The session after mine was delivered by the lovely and talented Pheobe Netto (who also took the phone camera snap above during my presentation!) and it was about the practical skills of crafting one’s media message. The ‘complex’ bit of the ‘complex media environment’ comes from the structural changes that the Australian media industry has undergone over the last decade or so. There are increased opportunities for engagement for those with the necessary skills to turn out good copy for many media outlets.

One of the qualities of this complex media enviroment that I discussed in my session was the way media stories can cascade across multiple channels and platforms. Most people are familiar with the concept of an ‘echo chamber’, but a more general example of a similar phenomenon is the way various media outlets will pay attention to what other media outlets are reporting on. This doesn’t only happen amongst competitors (or ‘co-opetitors’) but also sub-jacently related channels, such as local radio stories picked up by larger ‘talkback’ radio, picked up by print journalist, picked up by TV journalists, etc.

I think it was a very good day and the feedback I’ve received from participants is that they found my session to be very productive.

On the Flip Side of Exposure

It is late when I am writing this, so hopefully I do not make too many gaffes. I may fix it up tomorrow.

Most professionals and amateurs working within the creative industries have recognised that there is a somewhat dubious payoff for keen amateurs and early career professionals for submitting free work that would otherwise demand payment and that is exposure. ‘It is a good way to gain exposure’ or ‘Make connections’ say many senior professionals to juniors and amateurs. What this produces is a hub-and-spoke type network arrangment where one senior professional gets to choose what work by certain juniors or amateurs gets further exposure and perhaps ultimately some kind of financial reward. The point of ‘making connections’ is that eventually you come to be seen as someone who is a hub and has the power to shine the quasi-transcendental beam of ‘exposure’ upon others.

There is a flip side to this logic of exposure. Jason Potts, Stuart Cunningham, John Hartley and Paul Ormerod co-authored a journal article published in 2008 on the concept of ‘social network markets’ as a general concept that should replace the ‘industrial’ era concept of the creative industries. Social network markets, as a concept, hasn’t really taken off, although I have not read everything in the field, so maybe it has.

They define the creative industries “in terms of the system of activities organized and coordinated about flows of value through the enterprise of novelty generation and consumption as a social process”.
Furthermore, the creative industries are “properly defined in terms of a class of economic choice theory in which the predominant fact is that, because of inherent novelty and uncertainty, decisions to both produce and consume are largely determined by the choice of others in a social network”. People choose to consume based on the choice of others. The weakest version of this was identified by Adorno who wrote (as I have recently noted) that in “Amercian conventional speech, having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in its turn has as its only content being present”.

They run through a series of descriptive postulates:

1) The set of agents and agencies in a market characterized by adoption of novel ideas within social networks for production and consumption
a) The CIs are not about the allocation of resources: they are about the creation of new resources. “The core business of the CIs is, after all, the representation and coordination of new ideas”, because “the origination, adoption and retention of novel ideas is the primary cause of economic growth and development”.
b) The CIs are not about mature technologies; they are about the evolution of new technologies. “In essence, design is the new engineering, but between physical and social technologies.”
c) The CIs are services; specifically, services to the growth of knowledge and economic evolution.

2) The creative industries are the set of economic activities that involve the creation and maintenance of social networks and the generation of value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices in these networks. “In turn, the new cultural industries, both historically and contextually conditional, are rightfully included as their production and consumption is heavily influenced by social networks for the simple reason that their value is uncertain.”

I think this work is fantastic and I am annoyed to have largely missed its development. What it certainly needs however is a bit of a Marxist and even a Foucaultian shunt.

If there is an upward pressure from these amateur and junior professional practioners regarding the production of new cultural commodities, then surely the hub-exposer senior professionals experiences this pressure as a threat to their position? No. Well, sometimes. What happens more often than not, the hub-exposer only selects ‘ideas’ that conform to the existing ‘correct ideas’, which may have originated from… the hub-exposer professional. This reproduces the heirachical distinction between hub and spoke, exposed/exposer and exposee. Hence, there are micro-power relations in effect visible in the discursive fabric of innovation (ie the ‘stuff’ creative industries/social network markets produce). This is the Foucaultian bit.

EDIT: There is something else going on here regarding the shaping of markets and the labour required to massage communicative action. Here is an example that just popped up in my Facebook stream today about Ferrari.

The Marxist shunt is a little bit more complex. It revolves around the recurring problem of ‘value’. Firstly, I don’t want to get into a stoush with quasi-classical economists about where value is located within a market or at what point is it realised. Having said that however, I argue that the creative industries turn enthusiasm into a resource. It is not ‘ideas’ that are a resource of value (just like it is not a commodity as the originator of value), but the labour required to produce them. Within the emergent social networks of the creative industries, the social network markets organise around enthusiasms. Crowd sourced valorisation is derived from a subjective appreciation of an impersonal and collective enthusiasm for various challenges that define a given cultural formation. For example, car enthusiasts are not into cars per se but the socio-technical challenges that the car represents. I have rendered this concept and process and explicit at the magazine publisher where I work when training new writers. They don’t write about the car as an object but the car as a project, the narrative of which is determined by the challenges faced by the enthusiast.

One last point. The authors write: “The standard (DCMS) definition of the CIs is based on an extension of the cultural industries, and so inherits a propensity to view CI policy in terms of market failure in the provision of public goods. […] The domain of policy is radically shifted from a top-down re-compensatory model to a bottom-up model of experimental facilitation and innovation.”

Indeed. What I find very exciting about all this research is that I very closely examined the last three decades of a single cultural industry and uncovered precisely this shift in the composition of the cultural formation itself and the function of the creative industries and role of government in them (ie. what Foucaultians call the dispositif or composition of power relations). I now have a very powerful way to frame my research.

Online Niche/Enthusiast Media: Business Models

Online business models. I hadn’t thought about ‘business’ at all except in a critical (but not always negative) sense until about a year ago. Here is an abstract to a paper I have in the works. However, I’ve been thinking about business models for the magazines since I’ve been involved in developing a new online presence for some of them. This post is the result of some of the thinking I have been doing on the subject and has been in the works for a while now (several weeks). I’ve been thinking about it constantly but have little time to actually work on it.

I work at Express Media Group, which publishes a number of niche-market enthusiast titles. EMG is currently developing its online presence and is working on ways to successfully integrate print and online publishing. As well as working as a Production Editor, I’ve been involved in developing some of the websites for the motoring titles. The first new website up is that for Zoom magazine.

We have a massive advertising campaign starting tomorrow that requires the other websites to be up and I am waiting on our overworked web team to finish them. I look forward to seeing the results.

I’ve been carrying out research in my own time to think about new business models that integrate print and online publishing. I have no official role in this at EMG (yet), rather I have been treating it as an extension of my PhD research on enthusiasm in modified-car culture where I looked at the relation between the enthusiast media and the scene over a 30 year period.

I used philosophical concepts to examine the composition of power relations in the organisation of the scene (dispositif) and how this has changed a number of times over the time period (an event-based conception of history). Now it seems my research is going to be the most relevant if it is developed in a simple set of critical tools for understanding legacy business models.

The general character of these legacy business models is mostly well understood. The current public workshops being hosted by the FTC are working on the issues and problems of “how the Internet has affected journalism”. The FTC has posted a Staff Discussion Draft paper that explores some of the points raised over the course of several months worth of hearings. In the first few pages of the paper (2-3) the FTC outlines the general problem with legacy business models faced by all print-based publishers. I have extracted the three main points below:

1. Newspapers’ revenues from advertising have fallen approximately 45% since 2000. For example, classified advertising accounted for $19.6 billion in revenue for newspapers in 2000, $10.2 billion in 2008, and is estimated to be only $6.0 billion in 2009.
2. With the advent of the Internet, advertisers have many more ways in which to reach consumers, including, for example, through a marketer’s own website or through topical websites that relate to the products that an advertiser wants to sell (e.g., a soccer blog for soccer equipment). Search engines also provide sites for advertising related to particular search queries.
3. Although some types of online advertising (e.g., advertising targeted to a consumer’s known interests) can generate greater revenue than other types (e.g., banner ads), the vast supply of online sites for advertising reduces the amount that an online news site can charge for advertising at its site. This means that online advertising typically generates much less revenue than print advertising (often described as “digital dimes” as compared to the dollars generated by print ads). It appears unlikely that online advertising revenues will ever be sufficient to replace the print advertising revenues that newspapers previously received.

First year journalism students are taught about the ‘news hole’ well in the actual publishing business there is often an ‘advertising hole’ as well. As more advertisers have moved online to directly target the niche market enthusiast communities that the advertiser services, there are less advertisers looking at print-based advertising. Of course, this is a generalisation as there are many enthusiast communities, of mostly older enthusiasts, that have not gone online.

All is not lost, however. There are other ways to sell advertising beyond simple ‘display’-type advertising. Dan Blank has a good post up from over a year ago on different sources of revenue for online media publishers.

The main goal here is for editorial teams to be pursuing fewer standalone articles that rely solely on CPM ads, and look to more integrated packages that build many products from a single effort.

For the last six years or so I have long looked at this from the flip side. Media events assembled from a series of inter-related texts. Often these texts are assembled around a non-media product, so a product is doubled as its media-based simulacra. It was the basis of my work I carried out on exchange to Sweden during my PhD looking at media events not as the media coverage of an event, but the event produced through the media.

In social media circles posting the same material across a number of channels is called ‘content leverage’. So a Facebook post about a blog post describing a Youtube video is Tweeted. At EMG I have been working on producing media content from single opportunities that can be distributed across a number of media channels. So far the best example of this was an ECU guide in Zoom issue 147 that is currently on the stands. I have several hours of video that I shot and I am currently editing to be posted to our Youtube channel and posted to our blog. Here is an example:

The real problem with thinking about new business models for niche/enthusiast media that integrate online and print elements is that most of the current discussion about the state of print media has been about ‘hard news’. Niche/enthusiast media and ‘hard news’ work following different journalistic models of content production. For example, Blank writes:

An underlying theme in many of these is to create evergreen content whose shelf life is longer than a news article – with multiple segments that extend the ways you can market it and sell it. Focusing on business needs beyond the cycle of “breaking news” may diminish the reliance on the single revenue model of advertising.

We already do this to a certain extent, but we are going to be doing much more of this style of content production and it is going to be a real challenge for editorial teams working under increasingly tight deadlines (we make a magazine per week on average!). To make this possible Blank has two suggestions:

1) Editorial teams mapping out a product roadmap, not just an editorial calendar.
2) Editorial teams working more closely with their sales teams to come up with these ideas, and ensure that the sales dept has this information with enough time to test the market, and ideally, sell these products.

Working closer to advertising sales teams is not a problem, the other challenge, beyond deadlines, is getting a sense of what is happening in the scene. There is so much activity nowadays that to track it all, even just all the online activity, for the scene in Australia is a full-time role.

So where to go from here? I am currently rewriting some of my PhD research for a draft paper about legacy media business models for niche/enthusiast media.

There is a meeting

New thoughts are rare to me now. Thoughts that are worth dancing with in my mind. Thoughts I want to buy a drink, that I want to ask home, that I want to seduce and be seduced by me. That I want to be brave for. Thoughts that scare me.

There is a meeting. Between someone with power and someone who has power exerted over them. I read somewhere once that power is the capacity to get someone to carry out one’s will. It isn’t. Power is the capacity to get someone to share your expectations. The transference of action, the extension of one’s capacity to act, is a dumb force. It is muted. You can’t have a conversation with it. You can manipulate it like a lever. This has to happen, therefore I can make this happen. It can be reversed. It is a weak power.

For someone to share you expectations means there is a temporal feedback loop. It is inescapable. A future event guides your actions. You have an expectation of what should happen and it isn’t your own. It is inevitable. This is far more profound that getting someone to act. One is a question of ideology, a question that can be answered with action. The other serves as the basis for reality itself. There is no question, because all questions assume it.

Within this meeting the person with power acts with a ruthlessness. They are ruthless which means they don’t care about the other person’s expectations. There is no ethical dialogue of a common goal, of shared equitable expectations. To be ruthless means imposing one’s expectations on another.

It also means acting without shame. You need to be shameless to be ruthless. Most decent human beings feel shame when they impose their will by forcing someone to share their expectations.

The profit motive of capital is how we describe its ruthlessness. Capital has no shame.

In the meeting the person without power is in a room full of his bosses, his managers. They all share expectations. They want him to share their expectations. For that he shall be rewarded. He needs to learn how to become shameless.

Or figure out how to make them feel ashamed.