Interview with Tom Evslin

Posted on 05. Nov, 2008 by in Hyperlocal, Networks, What's Next?, Where Are They Now?

Looking over attendees for the New Business Models for News Summit you might be confused as to why Tom Evslin was there. Many of the names you would recognize as professional life-long journalists or entrepreneurs. Tom, however, is not and has never been a journalist. But his sharp understanding of networks and networked economies is incredibly illuminating. His blog Fractals of Change, is highly regarded for that very reason. My questions to him in bold below.

Tom – as someone who is an outsider to journalism, what were your thoughts on the day and the situation journalism faces.

Let me start with the day. As a technology person who has been around industries that have changed because of technology and the Internet it was heartening to see newspaper people recognize the magnitude of the change and not justify the head in the sand approach. There was general consensus that this is not an-incremental change and incremental solutions won’t work.

In Telecom and other industries – there is generally denial until the very end. But for most people who attended there was a real awareness that change isn’t necessarily bad. It is disruptive but it can lead to journalist being more effective at their mission, provided they can figure out little details along the way like … how to get paid for it.

The bigger subject is a fascinating one because it probably is true that journalists have never had tools that are as good as the tools that are avaliable now. The ability to selectively crowdsource a story if you need to, or build a story as Jeff described it, even if the story itself isn’t the focal point, where you start something and pieces of it get filled in around it through the link economy, video can be mixed in and the man on the street is everywhere, etc. So the tools for journalists to do their job are fantastic. And the physical impediments are smaller than they have ever been. But the business model hasn’t been figured out – and journalists have to eat like everyone else.

I think we got far enough in the day to figure out that’s where we are – but we didn’t get much further. There are a few possible models for journalist and a few hyper-local models but there is a distance to go in terms of figuring out how they can make a living in journalism. It’s not a question of what value journalism can add – there is general agreement that credibility, editing, facts, and quality reporting are things that journalists bring that is of value- but it is hard to see how revenue can come from it right now.

Are there any direct comparisons or analogies from when you worked in Telecom?

Any industry under threat tries to cut its way to greatness. Particularly industries that have had a controlling situation for a period of time. When indsturies were essentially monopolies or they have a franchise it’s very hard for the owners or stockholders to realize the value is evaporating. Their first reaction is that these are temporary times and cutting back is a solution.

Often this is a good first reaction – because they were monopolies these companies typically have a lot of fat. But there comes a point where you can’t cut anymore. There is nothing left to cut and if you keep cutting the product gets damaged and its a downward spiral. That is Telecom, newspapers, and perhaps the car industry.

What’s different though? Related to this I think is a comment you brought up about the economics of Craigslist. That growth of a network is more valuable than high revenues per network node? So that if you charge as little as possible – but the network grows in size, it becomes impossible for others to compete. Is there a way newspapers could leverage that?

It’s maximizing your network by drawing out as little cash as you can until you are in a sailable position.

I’m just guessing here – this is just speculation because the answer is probably different if you mean local, regional, national or global.

It’s probably easiest to see where local news organizations, hyper-local in web terms, analogous to a small-town newspaper could achieve this status. I think we will fairly quickly find the model and tools wher ethe local site becomes an indispensable part of people’s lives and advertisers are eager to support it – because it has a consistent readership with identifiable demographics.

By making readers contributors (which newspapers have always done to some extent with wedding annoucements, etc), using the ability to crowdosurce when trains are late, where crime is, etc – the local sites like Baristanet can become an even more apart of people’s lives than the small-town newspapers used to be.

At that point in time – they won’t need to charge a lot for advertising because they will have a lot of it – and they will be in the Cragislist spot where they can charge so little it will be tough for competition to sneak in. A rival local newspaper will have real competition. But competition would be good because it would mean together they would figure out the proper economics.

I think there would only be one winner – at least until the winner gets sloppy. Because if one builds a good network in terms of people then there is not much sense in being part of the inferior network. If it’s as simple as traffic reports where you have 1,000 readers sending in updates and you have lots of people texting in so that site has the best traffic reports and somebody else starts up another network their site is going to be useless because nobody is on it – and why would anybody join it? It’s useless.

I’m not sure what this looks like at the regional national or global level. It’s hard to have a community if everybody reads the NY Times – the Times is doing an experiment with TimesPeople – where if you join the community you know what your friends are reading, etc – they are trying to be the host of a lot of little communities -because that is more interesting than worldwide – everyone read this article. So being a larger group that hosts smaller groups with an excellence at national or international coverage. That could work for NY Times WaPo organizations – but not many of those. They could be advertising supported if people integrated it into their daily lives.

I don’t know what happens inbetween at the regional level. I think it’ll be important because from a governance point of view – we need the information.
Last thoughts?

I’m optimistic – I think something will evolve because we have such a need for the information. People are interested – maybe cause there is more information or maybe because they are scared – but a positive thing for journalists is that there is this hunger if there is a business model for supplying it.

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