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September 23, 2009

Idea That Will Save Journalism: Required Reading

Every once in a while I get an Idea That Will Save The World. No, really. If people would only listen to me and do exactly as I say!

Anyway, like everyone else I've been wondering how to save journalists in an age when people are more likely to read/view ignorant fame whores who will do something funny or undignified for free online. The latter are everywhere and two will rise up to take the place of the one whose fifteen minutes is up.

Yet we all know that internet money is controlled by page views. So the real question is: how do we get page views for reading oatmeal when everyone just naturally clicks on reading/viewing froot loops?

My solution: "Required Reading," a membership website that sets standards for fields of expertise and publishes user-selected "required reading" lists of online content.

There will be required reading/viewing lists in all fields of knowledge, broken down by academic discipline and by professional field. These will be designed to be used specifically by schools, universities, and employers. Members will not be individuals, but rather institutions: schools, universities, and companies. Individuals within those institutions will get accounts under their institution's membership, but will not themselves be members.

To gain membership, an institution must be accredited or have some sort of formal recognition in their field. (Pilot members will determine what these are for each field.) Members can, of course, have more than one field. Members then will caucus annually online to select a single, but tiered or branched, "required reading list" for their field. It will not be done by voting alone; the process will include discussion and require a level of consensus. The list will be limited by number of sites (perhaps three maximum for each list branch), and will include a general list, lists for different levels of readers (middle-grade, high school, undergrad, graduate studies, and professional, for example), and sub-lists for sub disciplines.

The purpose of keeping the lists very short is that all members pledge to require their students/employees to read the list throughout the year, for as long as they are members. And yes, this will be enforced.

The process of selection will be short, and designed to enable the content producers who end up on the list, to use their list-status to leverage advertising money. They will stay on the list for a year, and the selection process will be set up so that, even if they fall off the list in the following year, they will appear on the following year's list as "previous year's list" so they'll still get a high hit count, and so that their income won't disappear completely if they happen to fall off a list for one year and return to it the next. Again, this is all designed so that the content producers can leverage the lists in a way that makes sense for their presumably freelance practices.

The sites will be aggregators, of course, so students/employees will be required to log into the sites to access their required reading. This is so that both the site and the schools/employers can check on frequency and length of reading to help enforce the requirement. It's up to each member, of course, to decide on what the requirement actually consists of (reading every day vs. reading once a week or once a month.) The site will, of course, keep stats on usage and offer field/industry/sector ratings to help content producers predict how much traffic a required site will actually get.

And Req Read will throw out users who don't get any or enough usage from their students/employees. Members have made a pledge after all. It's up to them to decide the level of their commitment, and how to enforce it. But if they fall significantly below their commitment, or are obviously not using the site the way it was intended, then the site don't need 'em.

Of course, the site will also offer a general aggregator that each user can use if they wish, to both entice them to use Req Read's aggregator everyday (the required lists will be big and bold at the top of the aggregator page), and to give Req Read access to stats on users' general reading habits. (A user leaving a member institution can export all their subscriptions to a free general aggregator ... but all subscriptions only, not pick and choose.)

And the site will also offer each member their own page and the option to create institution-specific sub-pages. Universities, for example, can offer each professor a Req Read page for a class, i.e for half a year only. Corporations can create a Req Read page for a department during a period of professional development. Institutions can also zero in on individuals; a manager being groomed for promotion can be given her own page of required reading.

Content producers will have free (or low fee) user accounts and can log in and see what lists they are on at any time. They can access extensive stats on the traffic and usage the lists they are on get.

Let's be clear, though, there will be a temptation to use this site as a bookmarks page for static information. The site must be set up to discourage this. The purpose of the site is to enable web journalists, not print writers whose work ends up on the web; and to enable access to and promote use of specialized online journalism in expert fields among people who should be, but aren't, using it.

If this site exists already somewhere, please tell me! If it doesn't and somebody with the know-how and money to get this off the ground is inspired by this idea -- take it! (Just mention me on the "about" page and throw me a free junket every now and then. ;) )

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