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Media innovation, down the tubes

Has the flush toilet done more for society than the digital revolution? According to some journalists, yes.

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"Will we ever invent anything this useful again?" wonders the cover of a recent Economist, and the query is illustrated by Rodin's Thinker sitting on a flush toilet.

Most 21st-century inhabitants would respond at once: "What about the computer?" The Economist, which is examining the so-called dwindling pace of innovation, addresses the question. "If computers and the internet mattered to the economy—rather than merely as rich resources for intellectual and cultural exchange  . . . —their effect would be seen in the figures. And it hasn't been," the magazine reports. It cites "growth theorist" Robert Solow, who commented back in 1987 that "you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics," and tells us those statistics are no better now.

The Economist's choice of both antecedents and yardsticks can be questioned. The article is supplemented with a chart that tracks GDP per person in Britain and the U.S. over the centuries and sets it against technological change. But we see no great surge of productivity following the introduction of indoor plumbing in the late 1800s. The flush toilet mattered for other reasons. Nevertheless, the Economist, observing that the computer—and the Internet—"sprang out of science, where there was no immediate commercial aim," is skeptical of their importance because they haven't transformed our economies. The magazine does hold out hope that this day could still come.

But why must GDP be the measure of innovation? I'm reminded of the best response I ever heard to the age-old rebuke "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" The response: "If you're smart, you don't have to be rich. If you're stupid, you don't get anything in life you don't pay for, so you'd better have a shitload of money." Perhaps digitization, in making us smarter, has served society by dulling the ancient ache for untold wealth. It's not the cure for our unending economic malaise, but it's the palliative.

Unfortunately, arguing in my head with the Economist doesn't make me any less gloomy. No wonder journalists can't figure out how to monetize the rising digital tide—the economy can't, either! It's not lifting our boats because it's not lifting anybody's.

The thought of a rapacious Internet horrified Aaron Swartz. He liberated millions and millions of pages of university journals and court documents that the public was accustomed to paying dearly for and made them free on the Internet. But the law came after him, and he was facing a trial and up to 35 years in prison when he hanged himself on January 11. He was 26. Concluded the Economist's compassionate eulogy, written in a very different temperament from the cover story mentioned above: "In 2002 he posted instructions for after his death (though I'm not dead yet! he added). To be in a grave would be all right, as long as he had access to oxygen and no dirt on top of him; and as long as all the contents of his hard drives were made publicly available, nothing deleted, nothing withheld, nothing secret, nothing charged for; all information out in the light of day, as everything should be."

The Economist was actually more generous to Swartz than the Tribune's liberal columnist Clarence Page. Page also mourned, but he allowed: "Still, rules are written for a reason. I say this as a newspaper journalist who has watched my industry, as well as the CD industry, bookstores and many others, thoroughly shaken up by the mixed blessings of the Internet age. Alas, in this debate I find myself on the opposite side of my son, who is a few years younger than Swartz, and his friends. They're so accustomed to the bounty of free stuff on the Web that they sound downright offended that any person would want to charge good money for his or her creations."

If Swartz tried to shape the Internet by subduing money, most journalists who work the digital frontier are still looking for it. Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, noted in her column Sunday that the Times reached a milestone last year: subscription revenue overtook ad revenue, thus turning traditional newspaper economics on their head. But if this was partly the result of a new pay wall and digital subscriptions, it was mostly the result of the continued "downward spiral" of print advertising. "Nothing in the digital world—neither advertising nor subscriptions—was coming close to making up the difference," Sullivan allowed. To survive, the Times will need "agility, the ability to innovate and the willingness to take risks."

Mike Fourcher, a local digital media pioneer, has tried to apply Sullivan's virtues in Chicago and wound up confounded time and time again. He recently posted online a glum report from the front, "21 Things I Learned Running Hyperlocal News Sites." Fourcher's present sites—centersquarejournal.com and roscoeviewjournal.com—cover a considerable patch of the affluent northwest side. But they've defeated Fourcher's efforts to wring a profit from them, and now he's ready to move on.

The 21 things Fourcher learned are all discouraging. In 2004, when he was involved in the launch of Chicagoist, "I was stunned at how I could write a post at 8:00 a.m. and by noon thousands of people had read it." That was then. Today there's so much competition that "launching a new brand and gaining mind share is getting logarithmically more difficult to do."

But that's not the really bad news. If you're in the business Fourcher is in, he tells us, building an audience for your site is easier than selling the ads that will keep your site going. The competition for the ad dollars of local merchants is overwhelming; but confounding all the ad sellers is the spreading perception among merchants that they don't need to be spending ad dollars at all. As long as they have on staff or on call someone adept in social media, they can promote themselves for a relative song.

Fourcher has given me a lot to write about over the past few years, because he keeps trying to make inroads in digital journalism and his forays keep turning out badly. Last July I reported that he'd resigned as production manager and head of editorial at Journatic, the outfit the Tribune had hired to provide content for its TribLocal sites, after This American Life revealed that some of that content was "written in the Philippines under phony bylines." Fourcher, who'd been with Journatic only a couple of months, said then that he still believed in Journatic's "core premise" of processing raw, basic data outside the newsroom, but felt Journatic went wrong by attempting "to treat community news reporting the same way as data reporting."

In October of 2010 Fourcher brought together the Chicago News Cooperative and Aldertrack, a data-rich political website run by Jimm Dispensa, a data cruncher for the Chicago Public Schools. The CNC put Dispensa's news nuggets behind a pay wall it called Early and Often, and Fourcher stayed around as Dispensa's business manager. The alliance held through the city's 2011 elections, and according to Fourcher turned a profit. But CNC could never get past needing massive grants to survive, and early last year it went out of business.

In September of 2011 Fourcher helped launch the Chicago Independent Advertising Network and became its business manager. The Nieman Journalism Lab reported enthusiastically that the ad network would bring the "benefits of scale" to an alliance of 15 sites in the "rich ecosystem" of community news sites in Chicago. I remember thinking that it was such an obviously good idea for these sites to sell ads in tandem that the mystery was why it hadn't been tried years earlier. But the ad network lasted only seven months. Even collectively, these sites couldn't offer merchants enough of an audience, and the merchants, in any event, were already moving away from traditional advertising.

At least Fourcher's not going away quietly. He's scheduled a community meeting for the evening of January 31 at the DANK Haus in Lincoln Square, in order to ask for help. Announcing the meeting online, he explained that the "economics just aren't there for a set of stand-alone neighborhood news sites in Chicago. They need a sponsor and a different kind of community support." What kind of support? "I believe that if the community wants to keep the sites going, they will have many more ideas than I will," Fourcher tells me. "I think a good number of people will be there. But I'm not holding my breath."

He's making it clear his neighborhood news operation's future is on the line. "If the community isn't interested—or if nobody shows up to the meeting—no problem," he said in his announcement. "I'll just fold it up and move on to my next gig."

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