Journalism and Public Service

Josh Benton over at the Nieman Journalism Lab wrote a post today about Marco Arment (one of the founders of Tumblr) and his experiment with a subscription model for his excellent long-form reading app, Instapaper.

Instapaper has fundamentally changed the way I read, on and offline, for the better. It is in fact one of my primary ways of consuming journalism now. However, I hadn’t heard about this new subscription idea until Benton’s post. Basically, Arment, who has left Tumblr to work full time on Instapaper, is inviting people to become subscribers for a dollar a month. However, Arment himself is unsure what that dollar will buy you.

“Right now? Almost nothing, except knowing that you are supporting the Instapaper service’s operation and future feature development… Some future features may be Subscriber-only, but please don’t buy a Subscription solely because you expect these exclusive features to be mind-blowing. They might be, depending on how easily your mind is blown, but I’d feel better if you bought the Subscription because you wanted to support Instapaper.”

The response has been hugely positive and Benton’s post explores why a “soft sell” like this works for Arment and what it might suggest about charging for news online. His three points are:

  • The economic value of your work is determined by the market, not wishes and hopes.
  • Requiring payment isn’t always more fruitful than encouraging it.
  • Love and affection drives money.

I think his analysis here is spot on and encourage you to go read the full post where he dives much deeper into each of those three points. However, the one point I think is missing is the notion of “service.”

Instapaper is a service, and is of service. For many, like myself, it’s a central pat of my workflow, a vital part of the way I navigate the web. Over time Arment has listened to feedback from users, taken ideas and suggestions from the community of fans, and consistently improved the program. In the end, it feel as though he cares for the quality of the product and about those who use it.

I don’t think most news consumers would say the same thing about their local paper or nightly news broadcast. For a long time many of the people formerly known as the audience have been treated like little more than target demographics, eyeballs, or webpage impressions. When we treat our community of readers like that then it’s the advertisers we are serving first – and people can tell.

At its most basic it is about the issues that get covered and how they are reported on. People don’t feel served by horserace politics, sensationalism, or trumped up controversies. At its most extreme it is unabashed commercialism that puts the bottom line before the byline. For example, stunts like the Tribune wrapping full page ads around their front page, or local stations airing commercials disguised as news segments.

Journalism that is rooted in public service builds trust, builds affinity, builds support of many sorts – including financial. And we are seeing a new breed of local and hyperlocal journalism project – both commercial and nonprofit – put a renewed emphasis on this notion of service. This is born out in the recent RJI study that showed “Nearly two-thirds of respondents in our poll of users of new local news websites said they are more satisfied with that site than with their local mainstream media source.” As an example of the ways new journalism organizations are actively serving their communities see California Watch’s recent reporting on lead in jewelry, which they paired with screenings for local people to test their jewelry for lead.

Benton closes his post with this: “In the online world of free, people need a damned good reason to fork over their money. It had better solve a problem, bring consistent delight, or otherwise earn devotion. A small but devoted audience can be worth more than a big, uncommitted one. How many people love their local newspaper?”

Service can inspire love. Mother Theresa pointed this out, highlighting the intersection of information, affection, and public service: “Knowledge can only lead to love, and love to service.”

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