Reuters recently published a report entitled: ‘What’s Happening to Our News: An investigation into the likely impact of the digital revolution on the economics of news publishing in the UK‘. In it author Andrew Currah provides an overview of the situation facing UK publishers, and 3 broad suggestions as to ways forward – namely, kitemarks, public support, and digital literacy education.
The kitemark idea seems to have stirred up the most fuss. In the first of a series of email exchanges I asked Currah how he saw this making any difference to consumption of newspapers, and how it could work in practice. This is his response:
Yes, the kitemark idea has triggered quite a response… Unfortunately, as the discussion online suggests, the term has implied to many a top-down, centralised system of certification which would lead to some form of
‘apartheid’ between bloggers and journalists.
That was certainly not our intended message. The report simply wanted to foreground the idea of digital labelling as a means of improving transparency in online news coverage.
All we meant by a kitemark was a symbol (expressed visually, and electronically as metadata) to convey to audiences, bloggers, journalists and others that a piece of news content had been intelligently labelled with relevant information and that it is open to derivative checking/use… similar in a sense to the Creative Commons ‘mark’ that travels with media content across the web.
Our report only touched upon this project of labelling, which the Media Standards Trust are busy working on. For a more detailed discussion, see the post by Martin Moore or read about the related efforts of http://www.newscredit.org
So, in summary, we are in favour of an open source, voluntary, bottom-up system of tagging NOT an archaic, top-down system of certification dividing amateurs and professionals. We did not envision participation in such an initiative as a precursor to public funding – though intelligent labelling and linking to external sites could, for example, be far more developed at the BBC.
In terms of value, by intelligently labelling the news all sorts of valuable derivative uses might be enabled (e.g. helping users to filter content by criteria or triangulate stories). It might also help to avoid the failures of purely algorithmic search approaches to news (e.g. the fiasco surrounding the publication of an outdated United Airlines story on Google News in August last year – triggered, in part, due to the lack of any embedded metadata about the story’s publication date):
Is this similar to the ideas that Tim Berners- Lee is working on in his Knight-funded project?
Yes – absolutely. This is something we only briefly touch in the report. We’re hoping to spend more time looking at this approach in follow-on research. I think the initiative being developed by Tim Berners-Lee and the Media Standards Trust has a great chance of improving transparency, especially when tagging and labelling technologies are seamlessly integrated into the workflow of the newsroom.
I can see how something around metadata could help users find original journalism, but how do you see this kitemark keeping journalism alive in a business sense?
Whether this would realistically boost the economics of news is difficult to answer. But on the basis of our research, it seems that a more transparent, systematic way of tagging the news could help publishers in a variety of ways…
For example, by developing a more comprehensive network of tags connecting stories, themes and content that might, in theory, keep people on a site for longer – in turn, strengthening ad revenues. It might also perpetuate the value and profile of a story long after it was published.
Metadata is also the key to techniques such as search engine optimisation, social media marketing, and the like, all of which are about attracting more attention around the content for longer. It would also provide a system for displaying stories in new formats, such as digital maps.
When or whether all of this will translate into enough ad revenues to keep publishers afloat is an open question; investing in the systems and training to make this archival linking possible is another hurdle.
An alternative approach might be to buck the trend towards free by introducing new forms of online paid subscription, to provide access to a premium, searchable and fully digitized archive of all back content. Metadata would also be a key step in that direction.
The discussion continues in the comments
NB: The Freeman’s Journal has an excellent critical overview of the report, with responses from Currah in the comments.