Curation, a publishing model for MennoMedia?

For about as long as I’ve worked in the publishing industry I’ve been involved in discussions about the right publishing “model” for paid content. Authors, editors and other content creators do work that is valuable to society, and if it’s good, should be paid for.

I worked for an academic publisher in the early 2000s when the industry was at the tail end of the effectiveness of the academic library model, the model where academic books and journals that broadened the boundaries of academic knowledge and were deemed publishable by academic peers, and by the publisher were packaged and sold to libraries all over the world. Library budgets began to shrink and the money previously available for academic monographs was shifted to academic journals. Academic journals printed in often slim volumes were a lucrative business for a while, but the electronic revolution was coming and subscription sales began to drop as knowledge moved online. Publishers who had relied on this model as their bread and butter began to look for alternatives and developed online platforms, or partnered with content aggregators to distribute the ever broadening academic knowledge available on the web.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and smart publishers had successfully made this transition from printed knowledge to knowledge that was packaged, accessed, and sold electronically. It’s a fascinating history for anyone who follows academia, or is interested in technological transitions and revolutions.

Textbooks, trade books, and non-academic titles didn’t really catch up to the technology until the late 2000s. Now, however, we are firmly ensconced within the digital revolution across all book and knowledge types. Journalism has gone through a heart-wrenching and harsh transition from print to an online environment where the default mode for content for many former subscribers is “free.” Just ask yourself: When was the last time you picked up a print newspaper that you actually paid for? Even if you have read a print newspaper recently, how has the online “free” environment changed your reading and purchasing patterns?

So what do you value? What kind of content would you pay for?

Recently a couple of previously unrelated strands began to come together for me as I thought through this question. In February I attended the Tools of Change Conference in New York City, a conference dedicated to those in the publishing industry who are wrestling with how to embrace both technological and social change to provide a valuable product for their customers.

I attended a session where one of the panelists was the founder of Twitter, about what he was working on next. He is currently working on a platform called Medium that, unlike Twitter which focuses on immediacy and currency, goes deeper into the web and into our thoughts, rather than shallower. If Twitter is a 140 character window into someone’s online soul, what the Twitter founder was working on next was something more like a panoramic painting or photograph, digging deep to find not just what was new and immediate, but what was most valued and important; not exactly timeless, but something close. He was talking about curation.

What I didn’t realize in February was that I had already known and appreciated the concept of curation for a long time, I just hadn’t applied it to my professional life.

When I lived in Southern California one of my favorite radio shows was by a guy named Jason Bentley called Metropolis. Bentley was a DJ for the public radio station KCRW. KCRW had long established itself as a cultural bellwether in Southern California and especially in the electronic and the Hollywood film music scene of the 2000s. Bentley was part DJ, part cultural savant, and most importantly a curator. When I look back to that time driving the LA freeways and listening to his show I realized that I listened to his show not so much because I knew what was going to play next, but because I wanted to hear what Bentley was hearing out there in the world he inhabited, and I knew it would be good. This is an example of curation.

What I value and am willing to pay for is a vision of how things can and should be, whether that is in music, religion, art, or any of the realms I inhabit.

MennoMedia as the publisher and producer of Anabaptist content for the Mennonite Church and for the world, can become a curator of a vision of how the world should be, for how a people can faithfully live out their calling as followers of Jesus.