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Tracing an interpretation of a public domain photo of a printing press found on WikiCommons. Drawing by Brady Dale, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

A trial separation for news and publications

Britain has decided to get serious about the decline of local newspapers — right on time, guys.

I heard about it listening to an interview with Dame Frances Cairncross, the woman the crown tasked with the investigation and who has submitted recommendations on what to do. Formerly chief of the Britain desk at The Economist, the Lady knows of what she speaks. Here's a summary of the same report written up by The Guardian.

But listening to the conversation, it made me wonder: Is the fact that we are holding onto this notion of a publication one of the problems that is delaying the restoration of the business of news?

The publication (whether it's the newspaper or the magazine or the broadcast or — these days, the website) is a distribution efficiency predicated on the fact that the atomic unit of news content is the "issue." Whether the issue is an episode of a news show or a single edition of a newspaper or magazine, once upon a time news consumers had to acquire news in collected form. Some of that they were interested in. Some of it they weren't. There just wasn't an efficient way to pick and choose. A part of the business of the packager was to effectively curate the news for its audience.

The internet changed all that. Now, at the very least, the atomic unit is the article or the video. The atomic unit might even be smaller than that. It might be the paragraph. It could even be the sentence.

Whatever it is, a concerned citizen can curate themselves. And they can network with people like them who will assist in that curation.

When you look out on the news landscape, it is very clear that readers want to bounce around the different news pieces that interest them without much interest in who published it. They have some interest, but not a ton.

Outlets do matter, but not in quite the same way to the end consumer as they once did. Really an outlet is just a URL now, and that URL is a key signal to the tech giants who take powerful defining roles in the self curation and social curation of atomic news units.

If an end user searches for a topic that seems to indicate a few stories out there, it's going to put one from the Wall Street Journal up higher than a report from some guy's blog. Even if they both reported on the same events.

Meanwhile, people just kind of want to click on things that interest them wherever they originated. Ask any website manager: front page traffic is down and down. People are going less and less often to publication's first to see what's up. They are searching or using social to see what's up, and picking and choosing publications from there.

Some sites, like Quartz, have done everything they can to minimize the notion of the front page in their strategy.

So what if that whole method of grouping atomic units together under an outmoded packaging scheme were eliminated? What if news were simply viewed as a series of curateable atomic units from the ground up?

In fact, this isn't so crazy. Once upon a time, it was, to some degree, how news worked. There used to be a lot of wire services, effectively news rooms without a printing press, that distributed their news to publications (first via telegraph, which is why they were called wire services). For whatever reason, with the rise of the internet, most wire services (with the exception of the largest ones, such as Reuters and the Associated Press) died while publications clung to life.

Maybe the wire services fundamentally had the right idea, they just needed to recalibrate how they thought about customers.

The protocol

A new architecture is getting built that might make this possible in a way it wasn't before, perhaps.

The decentralized web is a new idea that's meant to make it easier to bring the work of people who aren't associated with each other together in a way that benefits everyone. It's a next level collaboration idea, where people can do work that contributes to other work without any particular centralized planning.

On the decentralized web, in theory, work will add up together, creating surprising emergent properties. Who knows?

But if you aren't already swimming in whitepapers about the decentralized web the following might be hard to picture. It will probably be hard to picture even if you are. But I'd like to just sketch out, or really just make the shadow of a wireframe, a protocol for publishing news, one that divorces the gathering and assembling of news from its distribution while still definitely definitely getting it distributed.

Imagine if there were reporters, newsrooms even, that simply published their news, photos and videos onto an open decentralized protocol. Only, they wouldn't publish them in plain text. They would publish them encrypted.

Picture it like a giant bulletin board, except all the notes on the bulletin board were pinned face down and people who wanted to read the notes would need to get the writers' permission to flip it over. Actually, scratch that. Really, the people who wanted to show the notes to other people would need to get the writers' permission.

And then imagine that there would be different news models, applications, built on top of this protocol. Different entrepreneurs would come up with different ways to monetize the news content and the people making it would unlock the content if they accepted the deal.

Here's the most basic version of an app that could run on this protocol: it would just publish everything loaded onto the protocol as it came out, provided the news creator gave that app permission to publish the equivalent of a Twitter card about each story for free (headline, thumbnail photo and a short summary). To see more, their click would cost some small amount of money loaded into the app's virtual wallet.

In the end, it would be like RSS, except one such that communication could go both ways and content would only be unlocked if the consumer met certain conditions set by the creator. It would be able to report back to creators on the ways in which their content was used and also to third parties the creator contracted with to help them in rights management and distribution.

Another slightly more complex app might, for example, offer a flat fee to any piece of news chosen and it would monetize all that content with advertising. So the first app above is a very simple, reverse chronological self-curation, pay-to-read, a la carte app. The second app offers a different experience through skilled curation, one in which the user knowingly and willingly makes herself the product with ads and tracking.

In fact, we can imagine two kinds of curated apps: human curated and algorithmically curated. Crucially, though, their curatorial activities aren't limited only to the reporters whose paychecks are signed by the same people.

Advantageously, in both cases the news creator is truly firewalled from the business model, because they are a different company from the distributors.

Making money without publications

Curation has been the great bugbear of modern journalism.

Someone puts a ton of work into writing a great story. They dig and they find non-public or unnoticed information, they put it all together and they share it with the public. Waves are made!

Nearly as soon as they do so, however, every other outlet serving similar communities rewrites their news and steal attention from the original publisher. Sometimes they link back. Sometimes they don't. It doesn't much matter either way. For something like one percent as much work, the sites repackaging the news get a vastly disproportionate amount of attention.

Sometimes they get more attention. If some random 3D printing blog realizes that there's something crazy in Makerbot's software and Gizmodo picks up the story, it's very likely that Gizmodo will get more attention for their rewrite than the 3D printing blog ever could have.

But I submit that the impetus to curate is one borne of this idea of "publications." The need then is to get everyone interested in one topic to visit your URL. So if another publication finds something interesting to your base of readers, your site needs to regurgitate it. In a world where every piece of news is available to every distribution channel, there would be almost no pressure on reporters to copy each other's work.

However the protocol might make it easier to share revenue when curation does make sense, because it shifts formats.

Let's say that a monetization format might be TV news or radio. Users of the protocol could write rights such that their news couldn't be cited on a broadcast if the media outlet didn't pay a certain amount of money to use it.

You ask: well how could anyone enforce that? Easy, that would be another application on the platform. An attorney could set up a contract that says media makers pay him some annual fee and if they do so he will scour media for use of their news that didn't honor its rights. If one does, he will sue. If there's winnings, he will keep some percentage and give the rest to the outlet.

But that attorney will always sue. The threat of which can help enforce not stealing the news without contributing (maybe this isn't enforceable? who cares!)

And actually now that I read this on my third pass through, it occurs to me that publications could stick around and use this protocol as a way of just sharing out their story. Did the 3D printing blog score a scoop you want to cover? Just buy the story from them on the open market at a rate that makes it cheaper for you then paying a salaried writer to write it but also gets them some revenue for originating the story. Pay slightly more and get rewrite rights. Maybe we just don't make sharing stories easy enough?

And some other curation approaches could be even more mutually beneficial.

Publications have styles. Those styles are geared around certain assumptions about their audience, assumptions that are probably broadly right, but what if repackaging the same news in other styles could allow it to reach readers that aren't the publication's target?

For example, a writer could come along and offer to simplify stories for other writers. So the original reporters would write the most complex version of a story and this next layer writer would pay them for the right to summarize their news and then republish it on any distribution channel that wanted that simplified version.

People do that right now for free, and it's awful, as we described above. Under this system, the original reporters would benefit both by getting paid something for the repackaging but the public that wants the quick version would also benefit by getting that version fairly. The protocol would make it easy to trace the chain of sourcing, improving both the original reporters reputation as a gather and the second writers skill as a summarizer.

Other examples could come along too. For example, there could be someone who actually makes long stories. They would buy writes to several stories that were part of a huge story (like a war or a scandal) and rewrite them together in a way that helped people who have fallen behind catch up.

Dat cheddah

This section is so unimportant you should probably really just skip to the last section.

How would the protocol itself make money so that it could pay developers to keep developing it? Software is, after all, never done.

It's just something I was thinking about. What would be a unique scheme for monetizing the protocol that would align its incentives with all users?

The best thing would be for the protocol to somehow be financed with debt, probably by a well capitalized person who wants to see news fixed but also doesn't want to be a complete philanthropist.

Then here's what I thought in terms of a bare bones monetization scheme. Call the whole protocol the Thousandth. Make identity a key part of it. Not identity like: your driver's license, but just identity like you the person generating news or your newsroom generating news. Or you the developer who made a clever app for reading the news. All those things.

Let that identity accrue reputation giving users an incentive to start an identity and stick with it and for folks to join atomically, rather than in cadres.

People using the protocol would pay in different kinds of cryptocurrency. Maybe not all of the alt coins under the sun, but lots of them. It would plug into any of the platforms that's trying to make it easy to move back and forth between fiat and crypto. Users would load up some money and do whatever they wanted.

No, it would not have its own token. I can't imagine a reason it would need one. Maybe later we'd decide to do a staking thing to participate but if we do that we'll just stake some set amount of some existing crypto. Whatever.

As users of the platform earned money, the protocol would log a running total of money earned in dollars for each identity, and it would take every thousandth dollar in a month.

Not 0.1 percent. Every literal thousandth dollar.

So if you earned $998 in a month, you'd pay the protocol nothing. If you earned $1003, you'd net $1002. If you earned $999.76, you'd net $999.

And also, if you earned a million dollars or more, the protocol would stop taking money entirely after harvesting that thousandth thousandth dollar.

Or something else. And someday it would become a nonprofit foundation probably. I don't know.

Anyway, whatever the pay period, at the end of each one it would scrubs it's logs, too.

No logs, no masters, bro.

Encryption is crazy

But let's talk about rights management (brr!).

How would managing all those rights work?

I'm going to be honest here: I definitely can't explain. I'm just pretty sure from my own reporting that there are engineers out there who could make it work. Let's not go too deep into it, but encryption can do some wild things. It's possible to encrypt something in such a way that it can be reenccrypted so that more (or fewer!) people can see the work later.

There's a company that has already productized this basic idea called NuCypher. There's probably others. The protocol above could tap into one of these. It wouldn't be child's play but this isn't a piece of the puzzle the news protocol needs to solve. It's solved.

The harder part would be to come up with different rights schemes for reporters or independent newsrooms to sign on to, and for those newsrooms to figure out which ones work for them.

At first it would be cumbersome for newsrooms to decide what deals to accept, but over time apps would come along to help them decide more easily. If the protocol grew, they'd basically be able to set it and forget it.

As long as they kept finding quality news, different apps would keep accepting their terms to publish that news.

In one way, it's a completely different vision for how news would work than how it works now.

Except... it is how it works now, it's just that by resisting what's already happening, we're leaving a lot of inefficiencies in the market.

Sound good?

Great, somebody should definitely build this. I can't imagine it would be me.

—Brady Dale
February 17, 2019

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