Social journalism and open platforms are the new normal — now we have to make them work

What happens when everyone has the ability to publish? One thing that happens is the traditional media industry loses much of its power, over both the content that people read and the advertising that helps support it — but the other thing that happens is a profusion of content of all kinds, from “citizen journalists” to brands and advocacy groups and everything in between. How can media entities take advantage of this phenomenon without losing their way in the process?
In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma that Ed Sussman tackles in a recent post on Pando. Sussman, CEO of a site called Buzzr, is a former president of who helped turn the website into an early hybrid of publisher and platform — or what Jonathan Glick of Sulia has referred to as a “platisher” (a horrible-sounding term that I sincerely hope will never catch on).
As Sussman notes, one of the most commonly criticized models of what he calls “social journalism” is the Forbes magazine website, which chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin has turned into a giant platform for bloggers of every stripe, from marketers to entrepreneurs. In total, the site has over a thousand writers, many of whom write for free — or in return for compensation that is based in part on the traffic and engagement they are able to generate.

Open platforms are the new normal

paidContent Live 2013 Lewis D'Vorkin Forbes Media

Lewis D’Vorkin, Chief Product Officer, Forbes Media paidContent Live 2013 Albert Chau /

While Forbes gets a significant amount of flak for this approach — especially when writers get involved in situations like the one Sussman refers to in his post, in which writers were allegedly paid as part of a “pump and dump” stock scheme — D’Vorkin pointed out in a recent site update that the Forbes model is arguably working better than many other media experiments, at least in the sense of actually compensating writers:

“Individually, 60 made as much or more in 2013 than the $45,250 a year the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the nationwide average for a professional reporter or correspondent. Five or so have built big enough loyal audiences to top $100,000. We probably pay more writers than most news startups combined.”

For me, and I think for Sussman as well, the kind of model that Forbes is trying to build (or arguably has already built) isn’t some bizarre new internet invention — it’s the new normal for the media world, whether we like it or not. It may have become obvious when the Huffington Post came along, but it started with blogs and social media, which gave anyone the ability to create their own custom magazine or newspaper made up of whatever sources they wanted to hear from. This is what Om has referred to as the “democratization of distribution.”
What we’ve seen more recently are variations on that idea, whether it’s Medium’s editorial/platform mix or Gawker’s commenter-as-blogger Kinja model, or even Facebook’s (s fb) attempt to create a newspaper-style app with Paper. The bottom line is that we can’t go back to the “good old days” when a single outlet like the New York Times was considered the pinnacle of media and all that was necessary. It just doesn’t work that way any more.

All that matters is how you manage them

Hands typing on classic typewriterSo how do we manage this new environment? Medium founder Evan Williams has admitted that his model means “people are going to publish crap,” but that readers will ultimately sort it out. For his part, D’Vorkin points out that Forbes does a lot of due diligence before it offers someone a blog on the site, and that advertisers who make use of the platform are identified as such — in the same way that BuzzFeed identifies users who post content as “contributors.” In his post, Sussman provides a few examples of ways in which publisher/platforms can manage user-generated content and outside contributors — given that they will likely be unable to monitor every submission — including:
Guidelines: “Establish clear guidelines on conflicts-of-interest that anyone posting content needs to read through and electronically agree to before they post.”
Labels: “Label contributors prominently. E.g. Staff Writer. Staff Columnist. Staff Curator. Expert Contributor, Expert Curator, Guest contributor. Reader Contribution.”
Tools: “Consider Wikipedia-like reader tools for suggested changes, ranging from grammar to fact checking (subject to the approval of the writer, curator or editor.) Quora does this well.”
Algorithms: “Algorithmically determine the best content by tracking time per page, social shares and user ratings/votes, etc. Either automatically promote it as part of recommended content or have it queued up for a curator to evaluate for promotion. BuzzFeed does this well.”
Deletion: “If content has been rejected by curators, or not socially shared, or has poor engagement time and few up votes, screen it for deletion. Provide feedback to contributors facing deletion.”
As Sussman notes, social journalism “is not a replacement for professional journalism — it’s an addition.” Although many traditional journalists and media outlets see these new kinds of platforms as competition, they should be seeing them as an opportunity, a potential new model that could not only support existing forms of journalism but broaden the pool of potential talent (something Gawker has been using to its advantage for some time).
Are there flaws in these new models? Of course there are. But then, what we see now as traditional journalism was horribly flawed for years — even decades — after it first became commonplace, and we seem to have survived that fairly well. Everything worth doing is flawed at some point.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Digital Vision, as well as Albert Chau and Shutterstock / artjazz