Races to the Bottom in Doomed Digital Media and University Research

“Clicks don’t pay the bills.”

 

That’s the brutal assessment of New Republic features director Theodore Ross about doomed digital media in 2016. Amongst the downsizing and casualties: The Guardian, Univision, the Huffington Post, Mashable, the International Business Times, Al Jazeera America, Medium, and Gawker. The disturbing trend for Ross? Google and Facebook capture of 85% of the digital advertising market. Pivoting to viral video seemed promising. “Companies have already begun to question whether video clicks really are the best clicks,” Ross notes. In a tweet on 14th December 2016 announcing his New Republic article, Ross mourned, “I will never be able to retire.”

 

I learned this the hard way in April 2000.

 

Five months earlier, I had joined The Disinformation Company Ltd (TDC) to edit and write for their Disinformation website. Publisher Gary Baddeley and Creative Director Richard Metzger agreed to sponsor me to work in the United States. I had to finish my overdue Bachelor of Arts degree first. We had great contributors. TDC’s parent company Razorfish was worth $US1 billion. The future looked very bright.

 

Then in late March 2000 the dotcom crash began to happen. On 14th April 2000, I wrote about the unfolding crash for Disinformation in real-time. “The new e-poor,” I commented. Razorfish’s stock price soon imploded. The US move fell through. I continued to work for TDC as an overseas independent contractor. They later pivoted to television, book, DVD, and Video on Demand production. I finished my Bachelors degree, started a Masters, and then worked in university research for the Smart Internet Technology CRC based at Swinburne University.

 

In 2006, I met a Fairfax Media online editor at a telecommunications conference. He talked passionately about the algorithms that ranked stories for readers. Age and Sydney Morning Herald readers preferred celebrity and sports coverage. The algorithms drove Fairfax Media’s publishing platform. I privately reflected that watered down op-ed columns had replaced a strong editorial vision.

 

You have to follow Jim Collins’ advice and confront the brutal facts. The Disinformation experience taught me that web content is a loss leader that builds you an audience. You then offer other content and services such as ebooks, documentaries, or web-based training to earn revenues. You cut costs. You have something to offer more than digital advertising. You cross-promote other sites and authors. You use Facebook, Twitter, Google Scholar and other free tools as outreach. Your authors need to be accessible to their audience (whilst also still protecting sources if needed).

 

Fairfax Media and the rest of Ross’s doomed digital media did not follow these lessons. They initially funded journalism with high overhead costs like traditional print media. They focused on digital advertising and not other revenue sources. They published content that was noise: it was not distinctive and did not have a unique, compelling voice. They let marketing algorithms take-over editorial policy. They diversified into too many other areas.

 

I discovered similar mistakes in the university research world. In the past, universities invested in early career researchers to fund conference travel, projects, publishing, and skills development. University research institutes built a large infrastructure to promote their programs and teams. This all involved a lot of money, a lot of administration time, and a lot of negotiation. In other words, high transaction costs. Universities did this in part because they used to take a long-term view of career and talent development.

 

But in today’s austerity world these high transaction costs are no longer feasible. They are regarded as inefficiencies or overheads. Universities have cut funding for early career researchers (known as ECRs) who compete for precariat, short-term contracts. An ECR’s average career path is between three to eight years before burnout if there is no ‘up or out’ promotion to the professoriate. University research institutes have had to embrace contracts, donor philanthropy, and strategic partnerships. They have had to diversify their funding sources as grants become more competitive.

 

A race to the bottom drives both digital media and university research. The average academic journal article has between 800 and 1100 unique views. The average book by a university publisher has a 300 copy print run. Authors often assign their copyright and other intellectual property rights to publishers — and so don’t earn licensing or residual fees. These facts and norms are little known outside academia and they highlight the high cost and waste of much research. The Conversation website illustrates some of these trends: it curates academic research to a broader audience but it also doesn’t pay its academic contributors.

 

I told the Fairfax Media online editor in 2006 that he needed to take a more proactive approach to publishing content. The model I was grasping towards is an event-driven, stream-based approach like the Bloomberg financial news network or complex event processing. The publishing platform helps you to anticipate, respond to, and shape coverage. What is also needed is to build a portfolio of branded intellectual property that discovers and engages with a passionate audience. It’s less like traditional news or university research, and more like Creative Artists Agency (James Andrew Miller’s Powerhouse), perpetual deal-making (Robert Teitelman’s Bloodsport), or even life-hacking (Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans).

 

You will probably still need another job. And, multiple income sources.

2nd October 2012: HERDC Categories

Every year, university research offices compile annual data on research publications for the Australian Government. The Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) exercise includes Australian Government categories for peer reviewed books, book chapters, journal articles, and edited conference papers. There are also recognised non-categories for items like original creative works, expert commentary, and patents.  Universities receive research funding from the Australian Government which may be used to fund internal, competitive grant schemes and discretionary funds for individual research accounts. There is usually one to two year’s delay from HERDC data collection to Australian Government funds allocation.

 

I looked through the HERDC categories whilst beginning to compile my 2012 research publications. One aspect stood out: HERDC appears to have no category — apart from O for Other Publications Category — for internet or online publications. Academics’ work for The Conversation appears to best fit category N for Expert Commentary. HERDC thus focuses on traditional definitions of research publications; it ignores how contemporary scholars actually work; and it overlooks or minimises the internet’s original design goal to share (scholarly) information.

16th February 2012: Academic Blogging

fred and academic blogging

 

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen contends that Australian academics would benefit from blogging their research (in response to The Australian‘s Stephen Matchett on public policy academics).

 

I see this debate from several perspectives. In a former life I edited the US-based alternative news site Disinformation (see the 1998-2002 archives). I also work at Victoria University as a research administrator. I’ve blogged in various forums since 2003 (such as an old LiveJournal blog). In contrast, my PhD committee in Monash’s School of Political and Social Inquiry are more likely to talk about book projects, journal articles, and media interviews.

 

As Roggeveen notes, a major uptake barrier is the structure of institutional research incentives. The Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) initiative emphasises blind peer reviewed journal articles over other forms. Online blogging is not included as an assessable category of research outputs although it might fit under ‘original creative works’. Nor is blogging included in a university’s annual Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) outputs. University incentives for research closely follow ERA and HERDC guidelines. The ARC’s approach is conservative (in my view) and focuses on bibliometrics.

 

I know very few academics who blog. Many academics are not ‘intrinsic’ writers and are unused to dealing with developmental editors and journals. University websites often do not have blog publishing systems and I’ve seen several failed attempts to do so. Younger academics who might blog or who do use social media are often on casual or short-term contracts. The ones who do blog like Ben Eltham have a journalism background, are policy-focused, and are self-branded academic entrepreneurs.

 

Roggeveen is correct that blogging can potentially benefit academics — if approached in a mindful way. I met people like Richard Metzger and Howard Bloom during my publishing stint. I am regularly confused with QUT social media maven Axel Bruns — and we can now easily clarify potential queries. Blogging has helped me to keep abreast of sub-field developments; to build networks; to draft ideas for potential journal articles and my PhD on strategic culture; and has influenced the academic citations of my work and downloads from institutional repositories.

 

Problem is, HERDC or ERA have no scope for soft measures or ‘tacit’ knowledge creation — so blogging won’t count to many universities.

 

That Roggeveen needs to make this point at all highlights how much the internet has shifted from its original purpose to become an online marketing environment. Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal HyperText and CERN (1989) envisioned the nascent internet as a space for collaborative academic research. The internet I first encountered in 1993-94 had Gopher and .alt newsgroups, and later, web-pages by individual academics. Regularly visited example for PhD research: University of Notre Dame’s political scientist Michael C. Desch and his collection of easily accessible publications.  It’s a long way from that free environment to today’s “unlocking academic expertise” with The Conversation.

 

Photo: davidsilver/Flickr.

16th January 2012: Australia’s Car Industry & Lost Lean Opportunities

New Matilda’s Ben Eltham writes about Australia’s car industry:

 

All this sounds like a hymn to the efficiency of the open market, and to some extent it is. There is an unavoidably difficult truth to face when we discuss local manufacturing, which is that the high Australian dollar and the small size of our local market makes many aspects of Australian manufacturing uncompetitive. Fairfax’s Ian Verrender outlined the uncomfortable verities last week when he pointed out the obvious: making cars in Australia was never particularly sustainable, and has only been so in the long-term with massive government subsidies. “While we’re at it,” Verrender continued, “let’s be brutally honest. There is no such thing as an Australian car industry. It is an American and Japanese car industry with a couple of plants here.”

 

In the early, 1990s, the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reached a similar conclusion on Australia’s car industry and the trade-offs of the ‘make or buy’ decision. In their book The Machine That Changed The World: The Story of Lean Production (New York: HarperPerenniel, 1991), authors James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos examined Australia’s car industry (pp. 270-272): the role of foreign producers, the $US/$A currency cross-rates, attempts to follow South Korea’s manufacturing model, and an export focus on North America and Europe.

 

Womack, Jones and Roos suggested that Australia’s car industry follow a different strategy:

 

The logical path for Australia would be to reorient its industry toward the Oceanic regional market including Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Each country within this region might balance its motor-vehicle trade, but, collectively, by permitting cross-shipment of finished units and parts, they could gain the scale needed to reduce costs and let lean production flourish. Australia, as the most advanced country in the region, presumably could concentrate its own production on complex luxury vehicles, while Indonesia at the other extreme, would make cheap, entry-level products. (p. 271).

 

Womack, Jones and Roos observed that this realignment was unlikely for Australia due to two reasons: (1) its focus on northern hemisphere export markets; and (2) cultural and foreign policy barriers to greater involvement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

 

Eltham notes that Australia’s tariffs policy has played a detrimental role in preventing the transition to a lean industry:

 

You need not be a rabid libertarian to note the negative economic impacts associated with car industry assistance. Tariffs are a device to transfer wealth from consumers, who pay more, to producers, who receive direct and indirect subsidies. Those subsidies support local jobs in the manufacturing industry, but at a price. The Productivity Commission estimates the total subsidy is something like $23,500 per worker. Yes, you can take issue with modelling and the econometrics and quibble with the numbers and so on. But there’s no doubt that, in the end, we all pay for the pleasure of sustaining a local car industry.

 

University of Wollongong’s Henry Ergas observes in The Conversation:

 

This is an industry that was born from very high levels of protection and has depended throughout its existence on the continuation of high levels of assistance. None of that makes me hopeful for the long-term prospects of the industry.

 

What lean manufacturing opportunities have Australian policymakers missed? For several decades the GM/Toyota joint collaboration New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc (NUMMI) was highlighted as a success story of United States-led lean manufacturing. But NUMMI closed in 2010. Tesla Motors reopened the former NUMMI factory in 2011 as the Tesla Factory to manufacture the Tesla S sedan car. Meanwhile, Honda plans to increase its United States production. Once again, Australia’s policies on car industry assistance appear to leave it behind global innovation and lean manufacturing.