Journalism’s salvation is hiding in a mountain of data

Matthew Ingram writes at GigaOm that the newest defense of pay­walls for news­pa­per web­sites is to com­pare them to subscription-based ser­vices that have found great suc­cess, such as HBO or Sirius satel­lite radio.

The par­tic­u­lar exam­ple Ingram notes comes from vet­eran tele­vi­sion host Peter Funt, writ­ing in the Wall Street Journal. Funt con­tends that peo­ple com­plain­ing that no one will pay for news online overlook

“the fact that vir­tu­ally all trend lines in recent com­mu­ni­ca­tions his­tory have moved, with suc­cess, from free dis­tri­b­u­tion to some form of pay model.”

People, he says, are will­ing to pay as long as they see value in what they are pay­ing for.

He ends on this note (before demo­niz­ing sum­ma­riz­ers and aggregators):

“But if free TV could become pay TV, and if free radio could become pay radio, then it would seem to be eas­ier for pay printed news­pa­pers to become pay online newspapers.”

Ingram rightly notes that Funt is over­look­ing some facts too, namely that news is not the same sort of crea­ture as tele­vi­sion and radio. HBO and satel­lite radio providers suc­ceed because they offer con­tent unlike any­thing avail­able for free.

“The real­ity,” Ingram writes, “is that most of what news­pa­pers offer is a com­mod­ity prod­uct, some­thing that has a rel­a­tively short shelf life and there­fore is dif­fi­cult to sell as unique or different.”

In other words, facts are facts. You can’t copy­right them, even if the FTC wants to call them “pro­pri­etary facts” in its rein­ven­tion of jour­nal­ism draft paper. And facts are only news for a few min­utes, or mil­lisec­onds. After that, the scoop is gone and your fact is com­mon knowledge.

So if you’re not going to make any money on facts and if ads aren’t even worth as much as the elec­trons they’re printed on, what can a news orga­ni­za­tion do online to make money?

Data.

One of the biggest strengths of jour­nal­ism through­out its mod­ern his­tory has been its abil­ity to shed light on dark cor­ners of gov­ern­ment. Right now, most of those dark cor­ners are filled with moun­tains of unsorted data that can, by its sheer vol­ume, hide cor­rup­tion and secrets.

Because of the Web and gov­ern­ment trans­parency laws, almost any­one can go out and down­load an entire data­base of gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments or tax records or GIS data, but who can make sense of it? How many peo­ple can design a method to dis­play that data in a way that users can inter­act with?

If news orga­ni­za­tions and jour­nal­ists want to do some­thing truly valu­able to democ­racy, they will focus not on find­ing ways to charge for dig­i­tal ver­sions the same para­graphs they print on dead trees daily but rather on giv­ing read­ers a way to under­stand this flood of incom­pre­hen­si­ble data.

Journalists these days are always shout­ing for ways to make their exper­tise use­ful. Newspapers are search­ing vainly for ways to cre­ate unique prod­ucts that peo­ple want to pay for.

There you go.