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.