Steal this story vs. please pay here: The coming debate about public service media

The re-emergence of “paid content” in the past couple of years, most aggressively marketed by Rupert Murdoch, has dominated media coverage. But in the shadow of The Times’ new paywall and the apps for Apple craze another development has taken hold — an approach to news publishing that has the potential to reinvent the idea of public service media. This is the idea of promoting (almost) unrestricted re-use, re-publication of your material, in order to achieve the greatest possible impact of your journalism. ProPublica is one of the news organizations to embrace this principle in their invitation to steal their stories. Logically, they use the established Creative Commons licensing system, but they implement it in an innovative way. Instead of just the discreet Creative Commons logo attached to stories, there is a “Republish” button that produces the text with html tags, ready for pasting into a publishing tool — exactly the kind of extra service that has always been needed to unleash the potential in Creative Commons.

The US startup ambitious journalism projects that have sprung up recently, wholly or partly funded by foundations, in essence share the “steal this story” approach:

Instead of planning how to get the story published before word of it leaked, the excited editors started throwing out ideas for how they could share Johnson’s reporting with a large array of competitive news outlets across the state and around the country. No one would get a scoop; rather, every outlet would run the story at around the same time, customized to resonate with its audience, be they newspaper subscribers, Web readers, television viewers, or radio listeners.

The quote describes California Watch, who also have case-studied themselves.

The huge advantage that “steal this story” in its different versions has over “please pay here”, is that it helps to sustain and modernize a broad, inclusive networked public sphere just at the moment when (some) established media institutions are retreating from their old strong positions (newspapers, broadcasting) due to the technological shifts and from their web strongholds (from free, ad-based websites to subscriber-based services/apps).

In Europe, this trend will play out differently because of the still strong role of license-fee based public service broadcasting. “Steal this story” seems like the perfect chance for these giants to reinvent themselves and secure their legitimacy in the digital era. Their self-image has always been the guarantor of a public sphere based on high quality journalism, culture and entertainment. But it is far from certain that they will succeed. For one thing, they are deeply embedded in a pre-digital culture of copyright regulations. Huge resistance is to be expected to any radical move towards the two mentioned versions of “steal this story” — publish material under Creative Commons licenses and/or let “competing” media organizations re-publish. One symptom is the seemingly endless negotiations needed before historical broadcasting archives can be made available for re-use (or any use at all).

The challenges facing public service broadcasters will however open up possibilities for new initiatives. In a networked public sphere, there is no reason why public service content must be produced by one huge, centralized organization. In the current situation, even small-scale funding (such as the British 4iP) can have great impact. In Europe, this is an argument for redistributing some of the funding for public service broadcasters to new and innovative projects.