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Is free software the model for journalism’s future?

Over the Idea Lab blog, Christopher Csikszentmihályi of MIT’s Center for the Future of Civic Media submitted a posted earlier this month called “None of Your Business Model.” He wondered if rather than focusing on new business models, whether journalism should look to the free software and open source movements for ways to sustain reporting in the future:

“Whatever that new new thing may be, it is supposed to have a business model: a business model is what separates the well-meaning amateur from the sustainable enterprise. It is vital for securing loans or venture capital. You can’t be serious about sustaining a venture unless you have a plan for a business that will sustain that venture.
Except that maybe you can. I believe that in many cases, the urge to find a business model is orthogonal to one of the most important social changes today, one that is reformulating labor, technology, and product in unexpected ways.”

The posted elicited several responses in the comments section. Here is mine:

I have a lot of admiration for the free software/open source movements. I think this type of model has a place in the emerging ecosystem of new news organizations.

But even the groups you mention have some organization, and organizing principal behind them. Take Firefox, for example. It’s managed by the Mozilla Foundation, which funded in large part by Google. And the original code and concept, originated in Netscape and was championed by a few leaders who managed to spin it out in the company’s later years. Today, while thousands of people contribute, there are still some well-paid professionals who run Mozilla, oversee its governance, and handle the mundane tasks of making decisions about launches and promotions.

That said, there are also a number of examples that currently exist that track with this idea of “free software” model. I see this in a site like Daily Kos, which attracts legions of contributors who post for free, and help invistigate and evaluate claims.

Other examples: Bloggers who helped determine that Verizon was restricting somes types of Internet traffic. Or the anonymous folks who dug up online documents indicating that some of China’s gymnasts were underage. Or the folks who converge on Twitter to discuss and report various events.

The problem is that in many cases, these efforts are also spontaneous, driven by a particular passion, or limited in scope. It doesn’t scale to cover all the areas being abandoned by the ebb of newspapers.

So I think there is a need for a model. There needs to be some organizing principal that continues to identify gaps and recognizes and values the participation of people with various degrees of experience and expertise.

I’ve also begun to think that the term “business model” is too limiting. Because of course many of these new models are non-profit, open source, or community driven. I think perhaps the better word is “sustainability.”


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