On Change, Disruptive Innovation, and the Problem With Paywalls

At last week's Changing Media Summit in London, sponsored by the, there was a mix of anxiety and excitement in the air. A rapidly changing ecosystem will do that.
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Given the whirlwind of change I've been in the middle of over the past few months, including HuffPost's move into the AOL offices this week, it seemed appropriate that the first international conference I would attend would be all about change -- the Changing Media Summit in London, sponsored by the Guardian.

Now whether you view change as a negative or a positive depends on how comfortable you are with unpredictability and disruptive innovation. Some media companies are reacting to the changing landscape by digging in, others by building up. The conference illustrated both approaches. A look at some of the themes of the various panels reveals the mix of anxiety and excitement in the air:

  • Media is broken. How can we make it work for publishers and advertisers?
  • Finding, funding or being the future? Where's the next big idea coming from?
  • Navigating the creative, commercial and technological challenges ofthe post-digital age: What works, what doesn't and what's next?
  • In a world where the only limit is your imagination, how have digital technologies changed our understanding of creativity?

One of the fault lines at the conference was over paywalls, with the New York Times having just announced the outlines of their byzantine plan for digital subscriptions. As several of the panels showed, behind the paywall debate is actually a debate over how one defines certain terms, like "journalism," "content," and "value."

For instance, arguing in favor of paywalls was Paul Hayes, commercial director of Rupert Murdoch's News International, which put the Times of London behind a paywall last year. "The interesting thing is how you value your content," Hayes said. "We believe in the quality of our journalism to such an extent that it's worth paying for."

The implication being, of course, that those who don't put their content behind a paywall don't value their content. In fact, one could just as easily -- and more correctly, I think -- say, as we would at The Huffington Post Media Group, that we believe in the quality of our journalism so much that we want to make it as freely available as possible.

But Hayes' faulty assumptions didn't stop there. "People will pay for deep analysis and informed content, that is not the same as most bloggers in the blogosphere," he added. "That's the only way you can continue to have journalism."

The assertion that blogging is only for shallow, uninformed bloggers, and that online legacy journalism is the only domain for "deep analysis" feels about as old as the Tower of London.

As the conference demonstrated again and again, distinctions among platforms are blurring and are going to get even blurrier. And trying to wall off one platform from another will not be a recipe for success. Walls of all kinds are coming down -- between journalists and readers, between advertisers and consumers. And that's a good thing.

On the other side of the equation was Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who was quoted in the official Twitter stream: "We need to be more sophisticated in defining what journalism is." Indeed, it's getting increasingly hard to separate different elements of journalism into distinct silos. These days, as Rusbridger pointed out, journalism means "reporting, sifting, linking, aggregating, editing, collaborating and being part of this world of information that's sitting out there, which is free."

We definitely won't be erecting any paywalls at HuffPost. Yes, the media business is in a state of transition, and there are plenty of challenges, but this is why it's all the more important to take advantage of the incredible array of tools for innovation that are cropping up almost daily. The exact wrong response to this transition is to wall yourself off from new possibilities.

Another word buzzing around the conference was "immersion" -- as defined by Frank Rose in his fascinating new book, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. In it, he talks about how the Internet is changing the way we create and consume narrative. He notes that media innovations, such as radio or television, take a few decades before we learn how to best utilize them.

TV started out as live broadcasts and ended up creating a new form of narrative. The Internet started out as a digital repository for print journalism, but is now creating a new form of engagement. "We are ceasing to be consumers of mass media," says Rose, "we are becoming participants in social media -- a far more fluid environment in which we simultaneously act as producers, consumers, curators, and commentators, sharing our thoughts and perceptions with people we know and with people we don't."

The Internet, says Rose, "encourages immersiveness." Which makes the idea of paywalls and walled gardens all the more unproductive. They go against the fundamental nature of the medium -- and fundamental natures have a way of winning out.

Perhaps the best way to give a sense of the ideas swirling around the conference is to serve up some of the top tweets swirling around the event. Here are a few of my favorites of the thousands that were sent:

-@GuardianCMS2011: working collaboratively and pooling resources will become the norm #cms2011 @arusbridger

-@hoffmang: Test of whether a media co CEO gets it: would they press the big red "Poof, the Internet never happened" button? OH @ralphrivera #cms2011

-@hoffmang: Frank Rose, "I think the music industry did press the 'Internet off' button" #cms2011

-GuardianCMS2011: It's not war, it's different approaches - google vs apple / open vs closed. Madhav Chinnappa #cms2011

-ThinkingFox: If your paywall isn't working try looking at your pricing model before blaming users and the "free culture" #cms2011

-@eJournUK: we in media have learned that disruption does not equal doom says Rory C-J #cms2011 EdProd

-@eJournUK: look at FB.. a lot of people are getting into this story telling business - @ralphrivera #cms2011 #EdProd

-@lorimeakin: Interesting that brands want to turn consumers into audiences, as much as publishers want to 'turn audiences into consumers' #cms2011

Or as digital strategist Andrew Grill tweeted from the conference: "if you work in media and you don't think it's exciting then you need to get out."

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