editor: towards decentralised publishing?

The Guardian’s Simon Waldman has been spotted thinking aloud about a decentralised publishing model:

What we need is a swift, easy and unpunitive licensing structure to allow content creators to distribute content; and for aggregators to aggregate – with value to each fairly represented.

Unworkable? Well, actually, this model has been cracked before. It’s how record labels deal with radio stations – through a centralised rights agency. If we start to think of our stories as songs, our feeds as albums, and the new wave of aggregators as radio stations, you can sort of see how it makes sense. And, yes, it all started out in exactly the same ‘we need you more than you need us’ kind of way – and has matured. Yes, people will still jockey for position, but the underlying commercial relationship is taken care of elsewhere.

Anyone who reads this blog frequently will know that I have been thinking quite a lot recently about how mainstream media might be able to better engage with audience content producers without having to micro manage and provide dedicated platforms for that content. (I’m currently doing some research in this area.) I’ve also pointed out the emergence of middle-men, photo and blog content brokers, who are trying to carve out a niche for themselves.

Whilst I agree with Waldman that mainstream media should move, where appropriate, towards becoming a dentralised “aggregator” of audience content, I’m not sure I agree with his assertion that some sort of centralised licensing agency makes sense. Surely different content producers want different things. For example, I’d gladly contribute content, for free, to the Guardian, BBC or another busy website in exchange for a link – that link would introduce my blog to a new audience which, for me, would make any effort I put into producing that content worthwhile. Other people might want to get paid for content. Some people might want nothing at all. The second you set up a centralised licensing agency you immediately exclude the ability of individuals to negotiate on a piece by piece, contribution by contribution basis.

That said, one place I CAN see a lot of sense in having middlemen is at the stage of filtering. A lot of people at the big media company I work at are becoming concerned that we simply can’t cope with the flood of stuff being sent to us. We don’t have the editorial or technical systems to collect, manage, store, and re-use all those contributions already. This is, I suppose, where the middleman does add value. But then one starts to ask, if the middle man is more efficient at collecting and managing user contributions, and is better at spotting the really great stuff, then why should mainstream media bother trying to do that ourselves.

I’ve got myself in a bit of a muddle here, I know – part of me thinks there is no need for the middleman, part of me can see that they may very well be part of the solution to the flood of audience contributions now overwhelming many news and media organisations. Either way, if we are to act as aggregators and distributors of content, we’ve got to figure out a way to do so without it completely draining our existing resources, harming our credibility, or giving audiences a substandard level of service in our dealings with them.

I still reckon a single licensing agency is a bad idea though, and that’s what I set off to write today in response to Waldman’s post…

(see my citizenjournalism tag for more related content)