Paper Trust

Media | Familiarity

The New York Times, like other media publications, faces two major challenges today regarding the relationship with their readers. First, the newspaper needs to give its readers a reason to keep subscribing, as news can well be pulled from anywhere. Second, the readers need their newspaper to not magnify or manufacture reports of any alleged misdeeds.

Both challenges demand a trust between the newspaper and the readers. The trust should be more than mere rhetoric; it should be backed up by the website architecture/code. I'll call it paper trust, (“pay per trust”) and will articulate it in terms of revenue and responsibility.

(I will be generalizing terms here; one can substitute broadcast outlet for newspaper, viewer for reader, etc.)


Reviewing newspaper registration systems in Online Journalism Review in 2002, JD Lasica expressed skepticism about the hassle of registering, but was open to incentives: “How about rewarding people for their registration effort: a free newsletter, or a chance to interact with the newspaper's editors or reporters online?”

Lasica didn't consider that registration would entail a subscription. Let's suggest that it does, and let's further suggest some tangible incentives. While an “exclusive” has faded away in the electronic era, websites still can provide something of value to paying subscribers: convenience.

Consider the possibilities of convenience: a subscriber could be spared of all aspects of the online experience meant to get in the way of his reading. Online advertisers are increasingly using animated ads which move, cover, interject, or otherwise get in the way of the editorial content. The subscriber should be able to avoid these, not through some subversive technical means, but through paying a reasonable subscription fee. Second, the subscriber can enjoy direct access to the single-page version, rather than getting the multipage version (Slate has the awful habit of orphaning as little as a paragraph on the second page). Third, the publisher could well survey the paying subscribers to determine what other services they should provide.

Another tangible incentive is to enable a registered subscriber to participate in online forums without getting blocked by moderation queue which checks for spam or relevance. The New Republic, in fact, only allows paying subscribers to comment on its articles. Other articles may do something similar (the Times among them) but often have poor integration between the user registration and the comment.

Suppose also that a publication wanted to engage its community in helping build a wiki. It is certainly possible to repeat the Wikipedia experiment, only with authenticated names. The general interest in wiki construction within community journalism is still underwhelming. Christopher Grotke, founder of the iBrattleboro website for his Vermont town, explained to me in May that while the weblog has 1,500 posters/commenters, the Brattleboro Community Brain Trust wiki has attracted just under 30 contributors.


The greatest unchecked power that a newspaper or media institution has steamrolling over ordinary people (politicians and celebrities can always steamroll back).

One concept which has existed for some time in democratic societies is the “Right of Reply,” which guarantees that named parties in a news story have the right to have their reply published, even, in some cases, in conjunction with the original publication. While it is not statutory in the United States, and hasn't been since the Supreme Court struck down a Florida law in 1974, more media observers are seeing the practicality of it through the Internet.

Much of the current blogosphere ethos seems to endorse the principle. Susan Crawford of Cardozo Law School has said, in regards to harmful speech online, “rather than sue, you can just write back.” The catch is that many discussion forums were never adequately designed with the Right of Reply in mind. A popular article may bring hundreds of comments or trackbacks with no reserved space for the named parties.

Other newspaper experiments have brought in responsive blog posts via Technorati or Sphere. The catch is that Technorati, as a “vertical search” tool, is slowly yielding to Google's “universal search” and its sustained viability may be in jeopardy. It may well be more efficient for newspapers to solicit responses directly from subscribers (see LetterVox).

Here's how the publishing process could work: when an article is published, all primary sources should be immediately notified over email (under current norms, sources tend to beg reporters to learn when articles are published). Those primary sources who have accounts with the paper, can immediately publish a response without editor intervention. (This follows from the previous section: any subscriber can publish a letter directly; it's just that the named sources should have priority).

Consider also the case of Allen Kraus. A Google search on his name still returns a search page within the Times (despite, as I pointed out, a prior concession from a Google engineer explaining that the search service prefers not to return internal pages). It could be simple enough to allow readers to construct a simple personal page on the newspaper site which can serve as a general response to all the coverage or otherwise provide balance. The page can also leverage the newspaper's PageRank rating and link back to the person's desired website (see Search Engine Orientation).


How can this be promoted from theory to implementation?

Newspapers and magazines possess one of the most elusive public assets on the social Internet: verified user names, through the accounts of their subscriber bases, which includes phone numbers and addresses. Online communities of a public interest (which the public media is a part of) are often exposed to a greater risk of trust when words can't be easily traced back to their speaker.

A newspaper or magazine can well mint its existing subscribers as paper trust subscribers (in a way that broadcast media can't). The publication could set a significant discount for the electronic trust subscribers though, without gutting the paper subscription base (Jack Shafer wryly suggested that the Times's 2006 redesign was so good he was going to cancel his print subscription and simply opt for the $49.95 TimesSelect).

Still, the publication would have to market the electronic trust subscription to the ends of the Earth. In reality, of course, a small percentage of readers write letters; my estimates, from studying the online offerings of the Fort Myers News-Press, are that in a metropolitan area of 600,000, only 0.5% signed up for the online forums. There may be an equally small number of people mentioned in news stories who would have an interest in writing back.

Thus the concept of a “trust” may need to be marketed as an insurance policy. Or a protection racket. Or it can be presented as a natural extension of a news community. Such a community might resemble less the haphazard jumble of the blogosphere than the ordered structure of Facebook. Suppose a news organization wanted to do a quick survey of its readers. “Online voting” is sloppy and subject to gaming; engaging a polling firm incurs another expense. Polling the existing subscriber pool can be cheap and accurate– and encourage the spirit of participation. (I had first suggested this in 2004. Obviously, this wouldn't translate automatically to scientific results, but using quota sampling, would enable it.)

Lastly, newspapers and magazines will have to do this for this simple reason that Google already is. An increasing number of publishers and editors are fretting about the business that Google is skimming away from them. But Google also plainly understands the fundamentals of news theory without even letting on that it does. Google News makes no mention of the textured history of the Right of Reply, but here is their engineering team nonchalantly announcing it as a new feature last month: “We'll be trying out a mechanism for publishing comments from a special subset of readers: those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question.”

The Los Angeles Times responded by lifting its head out of the sand long enough to sneer at Google. That gesture was largely irrelevant, just some silly competitive posturing. The prized commodity of providers in the information business is not strictly information, but trust. The best way for newspapers and magazines to stay in business is to ensure that the readers know that they're paying for it.