Australian Online Publishers Network

For those interested in how and why I came to conceptualise the Australian Online Publishers Network as part of my journalism project at the University of Melbourne,  the impetus to explore the viability of establishing a network or industry peak body that would serve new media outlets in Australia arose out of my work at Meld Magazine, a not-for-profit hyperlocal news website serving the international student community in Victoria.

The website now attracts a steady stream of visitors, but despite the average 1000 a day visits, efforts to monetise have been painstakingly slow. I realised I was not alone. Tim Burrowes wryly observes in his review of What’s Next in Journalism, which invited new media entrepreneurs to tell their stories, it was a “somewhat depressing read because so few people seem to have answers. In common, just about all of them run their outlets as passion projects first, media models second.” I was guilty of that.

Prior to Meld, I was a print journalist in mainstream media. At the time, it was an exciting prospect that technology had lowered the barriers of entry to allow everyone and anyone with an internet connection to publish to the world. After about nine months of ideation, Meld was launched in August 2008, admittedly as a bit of a “social experiment”, to test what was possible. In the years that followed however, the need to turn this passion project into a viable business took on a new urgency as I witnessed first hand the impact the democratisation of news online was having on newspapers and their business model.

Printed circulation and readership were declining as readers migrated online, and coupled with external drivers including big cuts to advertising spend during the economic downturn (Fitzpatrick, N 2013, IBISWorld Industry Report J5411: Newspaper Publishing in Australia), jobs in big media were drying up. What was most worrying was that despite the influx of new players offering free content with revenue derived from advertising, few were able to profit from this business model (Shulman, C 2013. IBISWorld Industry Report J5700 Internet Publishing and Broadcasting in Australia). In response to this crisis in business models, I began searching for answers in earnest.

I came across the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism’s New Business Models for News Project. Led by Jeff Jarvis and a team of business analysts and journalists, the project put forward innovative solutions and fresh perspectives to understanding this changed economy in the new media landscape. The future of business, according to Jarvis, would lie in ecosystems, not conglomerates or industries, as the industrial age with its hierarchical and centralised structures for the organisation of production, distribution, and market economies made way for an increasingly networked, decentralised and open environment. He saw the new economy and its opportunities being built in three layers: platforms, entrepreneurial enterprises and networks. The latter in particular, was about the necessity to “gather the smalls together into bigs” – audiences brought together so advertisers can buy access to them more easily, purchasing brought together to get better prices. One of the business models to emerge as a result was the Ecosystem Framework – the opportunity to build an infrastructure that provides services to the new news ecosystem. Specifically, the team led by Jarvis envisioned the emergence of a company or companies that would bring together independent players to reach critical mass so they can recognise greater market value and greater efficiency through the creation of local ad alliances, aggregation/curation of sites, technology and training.

This Ecosystem Framework was foundational in the conceptualisation of the Australian Online Publishers Network as I shifted my focus from finding a business model that would work for Meld, to thinking at a network level, about the kind of infrastructure that could be built to support Australia’s fledgling new media industry. How these needs would be met has changed significantly since the first iteration of the business plan, but the original concept for the Australian Online Publishers Network (see figure below) was to create value for online publishers through the provision of training and consulting services, a suite of backend shared services, the creation of an ad network, media accreditation through membership, and representation and advocacy as an industry peak body. It was envisioned that the Network’s office could potentially also serve as a shared office or ‘hub’.

Karen Poh - Australian Online Publishers Network

One of the questions I have been repeatedly asked over the course of this project when I tested my ideas with stakeholders from a cross section of the media industry was: What criteria would membership be based on? Who will be considered as an online publisher?

I have sought to be as open-minded as possible when thinking about whom a peak body like the Australian Online Publisher Network could serve. In the business plan (you can view the executive summary via slideshare below), I have asserted that the industry will increasingly need to recognise the role of bloggers and citizen journalists in the future media mix.

I believe blogger-journalist J.D. Lasica was right when she wrote more than a decade ago, that blogs and journalism need each other:

“We need, then, to stop looking at this as a binary, either-or choice. We need to move beyond the increasingly stale debate of whether blogging is or isn’t journalism and celebrate Weblogs’ place in the media ecosystem. Instead of looking at blogging and traditional journalism as rivals for readers’ eyeballs, we should recognise that we’re entering an era in which they complement each other, intersect with each other, play off one another.”

The same thinking should be extended to social media users today. The emergence of social media platforms in the second half of the 2000s has further reduced barriers to entry, and where one was previously required to set up his/her own blog or website to publish content, all anyone needs now is a user registration on Facebook and Twitter to engage in news dissemination, curation and commentary – and for some, attract a significant following in doing so. In Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen’s view, “reporting duties” will only become more widely distributed than they are today:

“It is manifestly clear that media outlets will increasingly find themselves a step behind in the reporting of news worldwide. These organisations simply cannot move quickly enough in a connected age, no matter how talented their reporters and stringers are, and how many sources they have. Instead, the world’s breaking news will continually come from platforms like Twitter: open networks that facilitate information-sharing instantly, widely and in accessible packages. If everyone in the world has a data-enabled phone or access to one – a not-so-distant reality – then the ability to “break news” will be left to luck and chance…” (Schmidt, Eric and Cohen, Jared, ‘The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting’, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business)

In the same breath, Schmidt and Cohen acknowledge the downside to this is the resulting “massive swell of low-grade reporting and information in the system”10 – but perhaps that is to be expected after an industrial age where journalism has been left to the “professionals”.

With all of this in mind, the Australian Online Publishers Network that I have envisioned is one that seeks to represent a broad spectrum of online publishers. From social media users, bloggers or citizen journalists to established online news sites, I had sought to be inclusive and platform agnostic in my approach and provide opportunities for participants to be involved with the Australian Online Publishers Network on different levels.

Karen Poh - Australian Online Publishers Network role in the media landscape

In 2007, J-Lab – the Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University’s School of Communication – launched the Knight Community News Network, a self-help portal that guides both ordinary citizens and traditional journalists in launching and responsibly operating community news and information sites. Part of the Network’s work included the articulation of a set of Principles of Citizen Journalism. The Knight Community News Network’s website explains the principles were an effort to “flesh out the core values and tenets of quality journalism at the grassroots level” (accuracy, thoroughness, transparency, fairness, independence), with the ultimate goal to “help citizen reporters master the fundamentals of the craft in a networked age”. This is important, and was the intention of the Australian Online Publishers Network (see figure above). In this new ecology of journalism, to borrow Doc Searls’ words, “We need new institutions where these kinds of principles can be practiced. And new practices where these principles can be institutionalised.”

On a concluding note, the responses I have received from stakeholders over the course of this project’s development have been mixed. However, if you are interested in furthering my work, do get in touch with me via karen@karenpoh.com.