Scaling the Single

29/12/2011 § Leave a comment

The above was among several responses over the holidays to a spate of articles on journalists and self-publishing. The stories I saw were by Ewan Spence at Forbes, Jenn Webb at O’Reilly Radar, and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm. Each talked about my own Kindle Single, which is why I saw them. From the many, many tweets and such that resulted, I suspect there are more stories out there, and a larger discussion.

I’ll try to answer the question. My guess is the self-publishing model could support a lot of the reporters who were previously working as freelancers, stringers and — most notably — fixers. But it would have to be done internationally, and probably in groups.

Fixers are the people journalists hire to work as interpreters, translators and assistants. Often they are local journalists getting some side work. They usually work for $100 a day.

Rather than hire a fixer for $100 a day, it could make sense for a foreign reporter to team up with a local reporter and produce a story to market directly to readers. The team would produce a dual-bylined story, and sell it directly in a Single-like format, in both the foreign reporter’s country, and the local reporter’s.

Economically, the team would work pretty well. The foreign reporter offers the local one access to a new readership abroad. The local reporter offers the foreign reporter access to a story, and a savings on expenses. Translation, interpretation and local research assistance (read: help with legwork) are usually a large part of a reporting budget.

In the past, these foreign-local relationships between reporters were common, but tended to be sponsored by large news organizations. For example, when I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia a few years ago, the Washington Post’s fixer was a friend of mine. He found stories for the Post’s correspondents and made it possible for them to investigate. He translated, arranged transportation, and explained political and cultural facts to the reporters, who were from the US.

They in turn gave him a job, and in his case, training.

In his spare time, he and I worked on a few stories together for US magazines, and I helped him write a story in English for an American newspaper. We needed each other to do all these jobs. I needed his contacts in Jakarta and his Indonesian language skills. He needed my contacts in NY and my English language skills. We could have learned each other’s skills and not needed each other after awhile. He speaks some English and I speak some Indonesian. But it would have taken a long time to make each other redundant. Even if his English grew fluent, my American professional culture would have thwarted him for awhile, and his Indonesian social culture would have thwarted me.

What does this have to do with the question posed above? I suspect were I to go back to Indonesia now, I would not only work for magazines and newspapers. Not even principally. Rather I’d propose to a local journalist that we co-author a 12,000 word story and sell it via whatever ebook distributors are largest in Indonesia, the EU and the US. We’d split the money.

This would do two things, both positive. One, we’d produce a better story, faster, working as a full-fledged team rather than a reporter and an assistant. It’s a much more honest representation of what those relationships are really like — a partnership of equals. Only newspaper tradition keeps translators’ and assistants’ names at the bottom of the story, or invisible entirely.

Second, we’d reach a lot more readers. Indonesia, for example, is one of the most wired countries on Earth. Facebook penetration is high and mobile phone culture is overwhelming. People would likely read journalism on smartphones there. And the country has endless interesting stories. It’s a fascinating, gigantic, yet ignored place.

Two bucks? But that's only 18,000 Rupiah!

If, working together, a foreign journalist like me and a local journalist produced editions of a story in Indonesian and English, the team would have access to two enormous markets. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country and one of its fastest-growing economies. Because ebooks have almost zero marginal cost, we could sell the story for a price that was reasonable in both Indonesia’s economy and in the US or EU market. Even in Jakarta, $2-$3.00 is a good price for a small book.

We’d be more likely to produce a story that has universal appeal, too. We’d be writing for a global, rather than parochial, unilateral, monolingual audience.

If that model worked, it would be likely to repeat. Freelance journalists tend to be social types. Establishing useful partnerships would not be very hard.

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The answer to the question “how many could do this” comes down, for me, to the changing distribution models for news. If we think of a press corps as limited to the representatives of one nation’s media outlets, or to the group of correspondents present to cover a specific event (an election, a natural disaster, the Olympics) then the Single model probably supports only a narrow slice. You won’t read ten Singles on the same subject.

But if a press corps is thought of as a body of multilingual, international actors working in teams, across various national, economic, linguistic and publishing communities, then I suspect quite a few people and quite a few stories could fit under a Singles or self-publishing model.

Research on this sort of thing is slim. It would be useful to have numbers on digital media use in various regions. East and South Asia seem like compelling places to experiment with selling non-fiction Singles to people who would read them on a cell phone.

It would be even more useful to have good research on translation and journalism. I worked on a small project on that theme a couple of years ago. The project was a train wreck, but we learned a few things. The most important was that virtually no one is paying attention to translation’s role in journalism, and it’s massively important. The Single or self-publishing model, taken internationally, might be a way into that conversation.

It is possible I am just looking for an excuse to visit Indonesia again.

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