I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of the NY Times fight over the Pulse news aggregator for iPad. If you’re not familiar, the rough idea here is that the Times has made an attempt to have Apple remove a new RSS news application for violating the Times’s online terms of service. The problem, of course, is that the reader is one of several that simply collect the information that the Times publishes on its public RSS feeds, and allows readers to view it (as it is on the web) in a small browser. It’s not clear exactly what the Times Company’s objections truly are here, but they seem to be around the facts that users might not experience the Times as they mean to present it (presumably because of the fear of ad revenue losses, though the ads are actually rendered in Pulse’s browser), and the fact that Pulse is making money by selling an app that presents NY Times content.
There are parallels between the struggles of new media and new church. Both are diverse institutions that have previously thrived on “membership” as their primary driver of their work. To start with, I want to talk about the communications problem: the fear that modern aggregation of information is destroying the intended identity (and hence revenue stream) of our institutions.
Newspapers such as the Times depended on subscription models that they haven’t been able to translate to the web. The Times seems insistent that there is an animal called “A New York Times Reader.” This was previously true… and easily defined: a NYT reader was someone who found such value in the content (and in a subtextual way, the curation of content) that the paper provided, that they paid to have the paper delivered to them. At most, these readers likely only subscribed to a local paper besides the Times.
In objecting to the use of the Times’s content in other applications, the company suggests that they are sure that this class of people (“NYT Readers”) exists, and still wants to experience the whole of the paper as the company and nytimes.com curate and compile it. They have good reason to, in fact: that’s how they sell advertisements to people. They claim that they reach a special category of consumers who can only be reached through the New York Times. This is at the center of their complaint about anyone “repackaging” their content: you lose the curation that has defined the Times in the past.
The problem lies in the fact that users of the nytimes.com are now comfortable curating for themselves. No self-respecting person in our world today would be able to claim to be well-informed after only receiving their information from one website. Instead, they piece together a stream of information from multiple sources, of which, hopefully, the Times is one. The shift in thinking for the industry is realizing that there is no one category of “NYTimes Reader” anymore. There are instead: “The Technology/Bits blog subscribers”, “Maureen Dowd readers” , “Sports Section readers”, etc. Rather than one big ship, the majority of readers more accurately view the Times as a flotilla of tiny boats that are always — roughly — moving in the same direction. Interacting with these readers happens on a very granular level.
The same is true of churches in the modern-day. Millennials are curating their church lives by aggregating their experiences. They may do mission work with the local UU church. They may relish in the quiet of a high-church compline service. They may identify with the social justice stances of one denomination, but thrill at the liturgy of another. They may worship one place on a Sunday morning, and some place vastly different on a Wednesday evening. This often causes frustration on behalf of churches, because all of these sidestep the basic unit that has defined church life for the past several centuries: membership. Churches, much like media, have been certain that their role is to provide holistic spiritual homes for people… that there is a “1st Church of the Assumption, Plano – member” class of people. In this view smaller numbers of members means that either people are no longer interested in being part of that class (which they may call “secularism” or blame on stances the church has taken), or that the message just isn’t getting out.
All of this means that we have to start providing our content – both church and media – with the assumption that aggregation is the new membership. We cannot continue to operate as giant tanker ships, but rather, must work as well-coordinated fleets of tiny vessels. Churches in particular must fight our urges to drive membership by assuming that all people who participate in one program want to participate in them all. How can we be more comfortable with — and be a welcoming community to — the couple that wants to participate in missions to the homeless, but has no desire to join the crowd at Sunday worship? How can we share our “members” with multiple congregations: between different worship traditions, services, and activities in our daily lives? (Ecumenical work is no longer a “nice thing to do,” it is a requirement for those churches that wish to survive… but more on that later.) Perhaps the hardest question remains: how do we deal with the risk and flexibility required to support ourselves financially when we have a decentralized notion of what a “dues paying member is?”