Session Notes: Progressive online media - Let's talk

This session was organized talk-show style, with the ever-charismatic host Philip Smith, from Community Bandwidth. Philip welcomed the studio audience (it was being podcast) and introduced the panel: Michelle Hoar, from BC's political online publication, The Tyee; Dean Ericksen, from the environmental online daily, Grist; and Audrey Watson, from Yes!, a quarterly magazine dedicated to social justice issues.

Philip lobbed a number of broad questions, which panelists caught with aplomb, offering interesting commentary from their particular perspectives. Dean kept things lively by peppering the conversation with cheeky one-liners.

1. The importance and difficulty of starting up an online publication (or online counterpart to print publication) and pushing the independent media movement. How do we measure our success?

2. How can media activists ensure the sustainability of online media e.g. how can it be financially viable?

3. What is the future direction of citizen journalism?

Dean noted how Grist’s mission is not to preach to the choir, but rather to get the information out to the masses to enable people to make small changes in their lives that have big implications on a planetary scale. Grist’s strategy to earn and keep readers combines targeted surveys, focus groups, and giving away cool stuff, like eco-tour and hybrid cars.

On a short fiscal leash – like most indie publications, print or digital – The Tyee puts most of its resources into content creation to ensure high quality journalism. But Michelle acknowledged that this approach was of limited benefit and that the Tyee needs to shift ifs focus to growing the organization to be more sustainable, more strategic, and more creative.

The discussion turned to a major and well-known disadvantage of online publications, and the web in general: the extreme difficulty of turning a profit. While on the one hand, virtual publications have significant cost savings over their print counterparts (e.g. paper/printing) they are not able to operate in under the old publishing paradigm of selling ads to cover the majority of operating costs, and even make money(!) Revenue streams varied for the different publications, including donors, government, subscribers and fundraising. Panelists were hopeful that online advertising would become increasingly a more viable option.

This discussion of advertising segued into an interesting and somewhat contentious debate around the relationship between advertising and editorial. Some in the room advocated passionately for the strict separation between the two; any compromise on this would lead to advertiser meddling, a slippery, sleazy slope indeed. Others thought that this line could be crossed with no consequence. In fact, the line was called antiquated, outmoded and out of place in our tech savvy New World. Matchmaking between “tastemakers” and lifestyle purveyors was hailed as the coolest thing since Flickr. Still others suggested a completely different model based on taxation, which required policy change and legislation (and a fuck of an amount of political will). But if Canada can do it with television broadcasting, then why not for publications – be they print or virtual? There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

This debate led to musings around an obvious question: Will people ever pay for content online? Because of the context in which the Internet was developed (informally with that hacker ethic of collaboration, sharing, volunteerism, etc.) and because of the way the majority of Internet users were introduced to the medium (as an essentially free tool/service). Some said yes, people would pay for Internet content that is important to them, especially in times of need (or pain, as one traumatized American participant put it). Others pointed out that the history of the medium is so short, it’s not appropriate to draw confident conclusions about what is/is not possible for the Internet.

It was not all sobering news for the online news world. One significant advantage of virtual publications was highlighted: the ability to archive old content to make it available (arguably) in perpetuity. Not only does this provide an easily accessed historical record, it provides more opportunities for new readers to stumble across the publication through searches. And here the importance of tagging was also noted.