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The Reader Elite

March 16, 2010

One of the stupidest books I’ve ever read was The Media Elite. Knowing the premise, I never would have voluntarily read the thing, but I had to for a media and politics class in college. The central goal of the book was to use quantitative data to paint journalists as liberal, Godless, secular creatures. Rich, powerful and connected, media elite mostly hail from the northeast, the book explained, and they show tolerance towards homosexuals and minorities (I guess that’s supposed to be bad?). Though the book doesn’t say so overtly, we’re supposed to deduce this is why they use their journalistic work to pick on poor Republicans in office.

The authors of the book might be happy to know that the pretentious Old Media Elite is dying, but it has nothing to do with their politics and everything to do with their inability to make money on the Web. Their demise will give rise to the Reader Elite, a small group whose influence and effect on the future of content will be far more significant and long-lasting on media and democracy.  Because while the Web itself democratizes information by providing the ability to easily access, publish and share information, it’s also contributing to a disparity in the quality of content that will lead to a “have and have-not” gap, much like we see today with our education system and health care policy. As free ad-based models fail online, those who wish to consume information produced by people whose sole job it is to gather and compile content will be a select few. Those people willing to subsidize content creators will dictate the future of truly investigative journalism as we know it.

The move to a pay model will be the first step in giving rise to the Reader Elite. Pay-for-media sites will employ smaller staffs that will produce headier content to satisfy its needs. Paying up to hundreds of dollars a year for their content boutiques of choice, the Reader Elite will expect stories, videos and podcasts put together by onsite content creators across the world. While the Reader Elite will generally be progressive and see immense value from social technologies, they don’t see Twitter, Facebook and mom and pop blogs as full-blown replacements. They view the social interactions online with those tools as a complement to the quality content they pay a lot of money for, not a substitute or a social revolution that displaces it entirely.

But how many people will comprise the Reader Elite? It’s tough to tell. In this week’s Pew Study detailing people’s reading habits and propensity to pay for content, we learned that only a fraction of online news readers would pay for content, and we can assume it will even be even less than reported since some percentage of these righteous respondents might not put the money where their mouth is.

According to Pew:

Our survey, produced with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, finds that only about a third of Americans (35%) have a news destination online they would call a “favorite,” and even among these users only 19% said they would continue to visit if that site put up a pay-wall.

In the meantime, perhaps one concept identifies most clearly what is going on in journalism: Most news organizations — new or old — are becoming niche operations, more specific in focus, brand and appeal and narrower, necessarily, in ambition.

In reaction to the study, Jeff Jarvis rightly noted that online news sites need to work on engagement and loyalty, but I’m not sure it matters much at this point. Most of these sites will die in the face of planning a business for the many when they only have the loyalty of a few who actually see the societal need for what they provide. The organizations that survive, as well as the new ones that rise from the ashes, will be beholden to a small readership (the Reader Elite), and they will have intense demands that will weed out the talentless and the vanity seekers who still work inside these organizations right now.

With the Reader Elite, the readers become the niche, not the content itself. In fact, they demand content that’s broad in scope and takes a holistic view of the world, from international news to politics, to business, finance and technology. They will want stories full of depth, that employ the kind of research and reporting rigor that current big media organizations (with a couple exceptions) aren’t even practicing, and that independent mom and pop sites, while not beholden to legacy and big media ownership, unfortunately lack the resources to provide. The Economist, to date, is probably the best example of where the Reader Elite thrives (in a bipartisan way and in large numbers, which is quite remarkable).

The argument of a Reader Elite is, of course, elitist. It presumes new media and social technologies can’t plug the gap in what will be lost if we don’t have quality professional content creators. So let me just say it (and I’d get shrieks if I were in Austin this week): It’s true, these technologies aren’t a panacea. Try as we may with our use of transparent social tools and easy do-it-yourself publishing platforms, it will be no substitute for paying a really smart, ethical person to focus on it all day as their job (notice the adjectives there to describe such a person, because we know some people who are paid to do it right now do a lousy job. Luckily, the thinning out of the industry and the demands of the Reader Elite will eliminate these people pretty quickly).

But the Reader Elite, progressive as they are, should not be satisfied with this elitist model. They should be outraged, especially if they embrace social technologies and the democracy of the Web. Their progressive values should tell them that access to quality content by the fourth estate is a right, not a privilege. One thought (already being implemented in some places) is to dump their money into non-profits and an NPR-like model for providing quality content for people that need it (even if they don’t know they need it yet), and then retweet and share the hell out of it.

Despite the fast rate of Old Media decline, the emergence of the Reader Elite remains several years down the road. The proverbial shoe needs to drop even further before the general public realizes what’s being lost. The inability to finance quality content creators is something only Old Media people care about right now. The New Media Elite will care about it eventually, too, once their “I told you so” self-satisfaction abates, and they have less to link to and huge passages to excerpt from — and they’ll find themselves disrupted as well.

The erosion of media will be felt by the many when it hits close to home. The inflection point will happen when a community finally realizes that no one is going down to our local city halls, companies and institutions, everyday as a part of their job, to check on the powers that be and report back to people who have other things to worry about (like their own jobs) during the day. Yes, we all have publishing tools in our pocket to participate ourselves, but we can’t make time to do what they do. It sounds like a corny example, but this will start happening soon, if it hasn’t already.

Until then, the Reader Elite will be the guardians, and I can only hope those of us who are apart of that group will work to remedy this very profound problem.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 10:39 pm

    Thanks for this Chris.

    I think the post speaks to some interesting points about the “commoditization” of journalism.

    Despite rumblings from the “new media” elite most original reporting still comes from what we wld term “professional journalists.”

    Pew did an interesting study on this in Baltimore that you may have seen (and if you haven’t will prob enjoy) http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/how_news_happens

  2. Kim Feraday permalink
    March 18, 2010 1:25 am

    Some great thoughts here. I’ve been thinking alot about this lately. Why are we willing to pay $4-5 for a cup of coffee (which I just did btw) but we’re not willing to pay for quality content. I love social media and think there’s alot of value but I also think there’s a lot of hubris from many in social media that that quality can easily be delivered for free. I haven’t seen it.

    I’ve also been thinking that online games like Farmville might provide the basis of a model for traditional media to introduce payments — where payment is truly frictionless and transparent no one seems to mind.

  3. January 9, 2013 4:14 am

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  4. April 10, 2013 3:54 am

    I rarely leave comments, but i did a few searching and wound up here The Reader Elite | The Lynch Blog. And I actually do have a couple of questions for you if it’s allright. Is it simply me or does it give the impression like a few of these responses look as if they are written by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting on other social sites, I would like to follow everything new you have to post. Could you make a list of all of your shared sites like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

Trackbacks

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