This came to me via the Media Giraffe project at UMass (and a very special h/t to Janine Warner, currently filming a video for Microsoft up in Seattle), and I was inspired to write a long comment in response to it.

Basically, Circulate is the creation of a team at the Donald Reynolds Journalism Institute that includes Martin Langeveld, who blogs for the Nieman Journalism Lab.  Langeveld made the announcement of its existence on the “News After Newspapers” blog, and I was initially somewhat blase about it, due to these early grafs:

Circulate is a holistic, user-centric solution aimed broadly at sustaining journalism in a digital world, with specific relevance to the ongoing exploration of paid-content models for newspaper Web sites. Circulate enables experimentation with subscription and per-item user charges, but as a user-centric content discovery tool, Circulate goes well beyond the announced features of other systems that have been proposed in that space.

Circulate will be rolled out in phases. Initially, it will be a browser add-on that you can have always handy as you move around the Web. Circulate will function on multiple platforms to allow full portability: a mobile application is planned, possibly first as an iPhone application, along with user start page and e-mail notification options.

Oh Christ, I thought. Not another scheme to try to gin up a variation on the paywall strategy that has been a disaster everywhere it’s been tried.  Well, let me qualify that – it’s been a disaster when erecting the paywall was thought to be the only measure needed to “solve” the “problem” of the internet. 

DIGRESSION ALERT: When the subject comes up, and the cranky content publishers insist that charging for content is the only way to survive, my response is that yes, you can and probably should charge for content. But you can’t charge online for the same old stuff you’ve been selling offline. The audience doesn’t want it, won’t pay for it, and can find the same ol’-same ‘ol in a lot of different places.  If you really want to change your news organization to charge people for content, that content has to be something that people perceive enough value in to be willing to type in the credit card numbers/click PayPal. 

And – here’s the real core – producing, marketing, updating & charging for that kind of information is going to require just as wrenching a philosophical change as any of the other so-called “pie in the sky” digital triumphalist schemes that invoke the “information wants to be free” mantra.  I’ve worked for publications – currently still do, as a matter of fact – that survive by charging for content, rather than via ad support.  It’s a different way of thinking – far more intense, in some ways, than what newspapers have become acclimated to accepting as their regular content strategy.


What made me see this as more than a rehash was these three grafs:

As a Circulate user, you’ll be able to have an account with a home-base publisher, like the local paper, and optionally profile yourself. Then the Circulate system will go to work and discover and present to you information that’s really relevant to your interests. You’ll be able to set alerts if you want, but you don’t have to. Circulate won’t start out carrying advertising, but eventually when it does, you’ll see advertising that matters to you, not blindly-aimed mass-market ads. And it sets up the possibility that you could optionally subscribe, through your home-base publisher, to valuable information at hundreds and eventually thousands of news and other websites, all at a low monthly blanket rate.

Circulate will feature social functionality, so that you can share and discuss content (but its content recommendations are not sourced through “collaborative filtering”). Over time, you will be able to select additional features on Circulate as they are developed.

Importantly, a core, fundamental value at CircLabs is user privacy. While Circulate will work best when the user shares information, that will happen with the user’s explicit permission, not by virtue of obscure language buried in user agreements no one reads.

Well, bravo.

Circulate is setting itself up as a “Find Engine” that actually does something for you that doesn’t already exist.  Something that you can’t replicate by opening up a new tab or typing in the search box in the upper right corner.

That’s the key: to successfully sell something, whatever that thing is, if it’s information, it has to be information that isn’t available anywhere else. If your audience is saying, “Aw, I heard/saw/know that already,” then you’re screwed.

The book “The Return of the Player” ends with the anti-hero making billions by making the concept of a “Find Engine” work; maybe I’ll excerpt a couple of grafs from the book to illustrate what the vision was of this as of 2004 or so.  At the time, reading it, I thought it might have something of a core of value, but that the online marketplace was not ready for it yet.  Maybe it is now.

Anyway – here’s what I wrote in response:

Interesting concept, guys – although I have to admit that reading through the first few graphs, my stomach sank when I read “charging for online content.” Way too many collective clock cycles are being devoted to coming up with arcane ways to try to extract some kind of revenue stream from online readers.  Most tend to be veneers over the failed strategy of erecting paywalls over existing content, without really given a thought to how the core product has to be radically different for the consumer to be willing to yank out the wallet.

Reading further, it became evident that what you’re doing is a variation on the “Find Engine” concept – that is, that the app/site/widget/whatever will take over for the Almighty Google, and serve you up the information that you need, when, where & how you need it. 

OK, that’s interesting.

You also addressed the core problem with a Find Engine – that is, if the app/whatever knows enough about you to be able to accurately (and if it isn’t accurate, what use would it be?) know what you want, then isn’t that a treasure trove of information about you that could be hacked/exploited/sold?  Well, yeah. We all start to feel a bit creepy about the thought that something in the machine knows us & is ratting us out.  Despite the fact that it happens all the time …

Well, to a certain extent, it does. Big online ad agencies get quiet & change the subject when people bring up the idea of a “Universal Cookie.” Which would be far easier to implement if Circulate takes off.

Anyway – one suggestion. You talk about mobile, and indicate that one of the first moves might be to develop an iPhone app.  While I applaud your willingness to engage with this new platform, you might want to check the numbers.  At a recent Online News Association event I helped organize, Nick Montes of Viva Vision laid out the numbers involved with selling content – I’m posting the video and a description in the next day or so.

Briefly: the iPhone has market penetration of 9M handsets in a US market of 250M+ handsets. Nice, but not staggering.

But the real eye-opener was that Verizon makes about $20 billion a year from selling/licensing/streaming content.  The much-touted iPhone App Store is likely to make Apple about $300 million.

Basically, you’d be pouring sweat equity into constructing something for a platform that comprises about 1.5% of the money on the table…

Anyway – I look forward to seeing what Circulate looks & feels like. At least you’re trying.

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