Homework

I recommend that every American journalist and news executive listen to this speech on newspapers in the age of blogs by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who I think is a rare and likely singular visionary in the newspaper industry. He also is the editor I know who has the most courage to face and embrace the future. To those of you who read this space and various of the sites that link in and out of here, there’s not much unheard-of in his speech — except that you won’t hear any of it coming from the mouths of editors elsewhere.

Mike Butcher does a great job blogging the speech. You can listen to or download it here. I’ll un-live-blog quotable bits of it now, undigested and in order. But I will caution my fellow Americans that this lecture is delivered in the native British tongue: irony. So please resist literal-minded comments to wry lines. [Full disclosures: I write and consult for the Guardian, though this isn't an act of sucking up to them; they don't pay me that much. I consult for The New York Times Company, which Rusbridger talks about. Craig Newmark, whom he also talks about, invested in the news startup I'm working on. He talks about meeting the Digg guys; I introduced them. And I've posted on both Comment is Free and HuffingtonPost.]

Rusbridger begins speaking about the fundamental question of the future of newspapers. “Some people,” he says, “think it’s an even more fundamental question than that: whether newspapers have a future. And wrapped up in all that is whether newspapers deserve to have a future. And if they do have a future, as what?” This from the editor who dared wonder whether his company had just installed its last presses.


Rusbridger shows the audience a chart he showed me that describes the fate of newspapers in the Western world. This is my very crude rendition of his crude drawing: The line headed down, to the left, represents newspapers’ circulation and revenue, declining. The line on the right, moving up, is online news traffic and revenue, both rising. In the middle, in the the pincer between these two lines, is the green blob where newspapers are stuck, trying to figure out how to survive and how to leap onto the line that is moving up. The added challenge — this is me talking now, not Rusbridger — is that advertisers still value print, the line on the left, even though it is declining, while consumers — especially the young, which is to say, the future — clearly value the line to the right, online, and that is where the growth is. So newspapers must continue to produce the old, expensive product in print to get higher ad revenue even though the audience they want is already online. A stinky blob, that.

Rusbridger talks about how ownership affects one’s view of these lines. Publicly held companies are, of course, cutting back or selling off to get “out of this business of managing decline.” One British company tried recently to sell its regional papers but couldn’t find a buyer willing to pay the price. Some people, like Richard Desmond, he says, “don’t believe in the internet so they’re just going to pretend it doesn’t exist…. Probably at some point the Express titles are just going to fall off the edge of a cliff as the last reader dies.”

“I love newspapers,” Rusbridger says, still by way of introduction. “I’ve worked in newspapers for nearly 30 years. What I’m saying tonight is not advocacy and wishing the end of newspapers. I think it’s sometimes a bit like the world of second-hand books, because I love that feeling of going ’round second-hand book shops, and the people in musty old cardigans who work in second-hand bookshops, and that feeling of just looking down shelves for books that you didn’t know existed, that serendipity — it’s a very similar experience to reading a newspaper.” But he knows that searching the internet for a particular book is better than going to such a shop. He also acknowledges that his shopping online is “killing my local bookseller off even though I value and treasure my local bookseller. And that’s a kind of metaphor for what’s happening in the print industry today. And a lot of that comes down to this man….”

Cue picture of Craig Newmark. Russbridger explains Craigslist, its impact on the newspaper industry, and its “very unusual business model: It’s free to both sides…. Now that’s a difficult business model to beat.” He says that “the people who are really terrified of Craig Newmark are The New York Times.” He explains that job ads on Craigslist in three cities cost $20 — and that adds up to $10 million a year among 18 employees, he estimates. Then he demonstrates ordering a deluxe $958 ad on the NY Times site — he makes up a call for journalists to work in Guardian America, “and I told them to apply to C.P. Scott in Manchester” (the Guardian’s legendary editor of 57 years). The contrast continues: He shows pictures of Craig’s humble headquarters and the new Times headquarters — “and you see the nature of The New York Times’ problem.” Of course, falling advertising is the problem. Rusbridger reviews the history of newspapers. In Britain, in the beginning, newspapers were supported by their politicians until “advertisers gave newspapers a form of independence.” But now those advertisers are going elsewhere. “There are great, bleeding chunks going out of newspaper revenue at a time when sales are down…. Most journalists are finally getting this The penny is finally dropping….

But he continues: “They’re not necessarily quite up with the next bit, which is about the changing nature of editorial. And this is a thing which is more difficult to grasp and for journalists in a way much more threatening. And I think we’re only at the beginning of trying to figure what this one is all about.”

He calls papers like The New York Times “a tablet of stone, it is a paper of great authority. And if you ever go to a New York Times editorial meeting, it’s a bit like a religious ceremony.” He talks about the effort and resource that goes into the front page. “‘Believe us,’ is the message. If it goes onto the front page of The New York Times it’s there because it’s important…. ‘You may not want to read it but it’s our opinion.’ And this is a model that has existed again for a hundred years….

“This is journalism as revelation: ‘We are the figures of authority. All these important people at the top speak to us. You can’t speak to because you’re too little…. We are the conduit and we tell you what’s important. It’s like this. Believe us.’ And occasionally, the little people would write a letter…. And we’d print a few of these letters very graciously. But most of them we’d drop in the bin…. This was the paper I inherited in 1995, which had been printed since 1821….”

Then came technology that enabled the conversation, first in the form of email. “This was a big challenge to journalists because they didn’t know quite how to respond and some journalists got quite huffy about this and said, ‘Look, push off, I’m the figure of authority here… Our job is to tell you what’s what. We don’t want to hear from you because frankly we’re the experts around here.’” Others, he said, found it valuable to improve their journalism.

But often, the people were ignored, so: “What happened next is that these people started talking to each other. They didn’t ask our permission to do this at all… And they started forming little groups of people who began critiquing newspapers… They went behind our back to our sources because, increasingly, the information that we were using was available on the internet…. A bit cheeky of the readers to do that…” (Remember my warning about irony, folks.)

He says it got to the point where he would come into the office and if the paper had made “a mistake about anything, dozens of people around the world had already spotted this and were challenging this. This was a different kind of audience. The old audience… were willing to take on trust your view of a wide range of information that we were saying is important. And these people are, to a much greater degree, self-selecting…” That is, they follow the news that interests them. “Now they’re not wrong, these people, because the internet now does an awful of information on an awful lot of subjects that’s better than newspapers. I shouldn’t be saying this, live, to the world outside. I should be keeping this as a secret.”

He shows his audience a wide range of sites — across the arts and books and travel — with a great gobs of opinion from the public. “It’s infinitely deeper than the experience of simply reading one critic in a newspaper,” he says. “I’m not saying it should replace that. but it’s a very rich medium.” He says this is “the beginning of a complete inversion of the newspaper model. It’s not us telling you.”

He talks about Arianna Huffington — whom a colleague of his once described as “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus” — and how her HuffingtonPost is bigger the Philadelphia Inquirer and The New Republic online. He concedes that it is sometimes “a rather cloying snapshot of liberal America” but adds that unexpected voices pop up. And he compares Huffpost with TimesSelect — opinion in public for free vs. opinion in private at a cost — and goes through the numbers to estimate The Times makes $10 million dollars a year on the pay service (I’m quoting Rusbridger, remember.) But that is “not going to pay the gas bill” on The Times’ new headquarters, he says. So The Guardian follows Huffington’s lead and starts Comment is Free.

And he talks about Ricky Gervais and his record-setting podcast for The Guardian and how, 10 years ago, if he’d suggested to his bosses that they go into the comedy audio business, he wouldn’t have gotten the job. “Now, should a newspaper do that? Our readers seem to think so… But I don’t think it would have occurred to many journalists inside the building.” He talks about TV and newspapers both meeting in radio. It is convergence at last.

And, of course, he asks the question everyone asks:”Where’s the revenue? This is my favorite quote from the book about Google: ‘They had no revenue model until 2001′…. And it’s now worth, depending on the day of the week, between $40 and $80 billion.”

He tells his audience about a wide range of Web 2.0 companies and talks about having dinner with the Digg guys, who he says will “either be multibillionnaires in a few years time or just go on being geeks.” He does take some hope that the aggregators find newspaper content interesting; that’s what they’re aggregating. This is why he says it’s “mad to be sacking journalists,” because we need the content they produce, though he then adds, “we may need to sack some.”

Later, he is asked about aggregators and whether he objects to what they do and whether he can stop them. He replies that, yes, you can tell crawlers to “push off.” And he confesses to sitting with the Digg guys, seeing them make money while The Guardian loses money, and wondering about building a wall. “But actually, they are driving traffic back to the Guardian site. The more of a wall that you put around, whether it’s a wall of payment or a wall of registration, the more you’re repelling people rather than building an audience for the day when we hope that advertising will come in like the cavalry and rescue us. So I think at the moment, the smarter thing to do is to make your content available everywhere and to have it aggregated and linked to like mad by everybody in the world, because that way you will reach a gigantic audience. And that matters journalistically. If you’re in the business of journalism for influence, and because of the Guardian worldview that you believe in, it’s terrific to have an audience of 14 million instead of 400,000. That’s wonderful. So why would you want to turn them away?”

It’s still a controversial issue in some quarters of the news business. See questions from Simon Waldman, bizboss of Guardian Unlimited, here.
And see my Guardian column about the World Association of Newspapers kvetching about aggregation and my arguments with that here.

Rusbridger talks about the value of newspapers to an informed democracy. I won’t try to transcribe that bit, because you do hear this from American editors as well.

“In a way, it’s the most exciting time to be in newspapers. It’s the most revolutionary time since Gutenberg and Caxton [the first English printer]: Everything is being challenged. But it’s also frightening because many of the things we took for granted are also being challenged.”

My transcription is clumsy. Please do listen to the talk in full, with benefit of accent, irony, and intelligence.

  • Hafner

    So Craigslist will open a Baghdad bureau after it buries the Times?

  • Mickey D.

    That looks like the plan Hafner!
    It’s going to be a new, new future.

  • http://www.lifeinlasne.blogspot.com Silvana Delatte

    I have taken your suggestion and listened to the full lecture plus Q and A. What a treat!

    Thanks for the tip. And doing that have also discovered the possibility to listen to all the RSA lectures. Firt class information.

    Kind regards.

  • JW

    Fantastic observations! Obviously the newspaper industry is too entrenched in our culture to disappear tomorrow, but it seems they are purposely deciding to cast themselves into irrevelence!

    Who decides which writers are journalists? Thats easy- I do!! I’m the reader and I control which sources I visit and which authors I read. You want to block me out, NY Times Select? Fine- I’ll read the same news elsewhere! I won’t go to your websites and I wont click on your ads!

    I often imagine that today’s newspaper executives are the equivalent of milkmen in the 1950′s- they’ve been bringing me my milk for a long time and I trust them to do a good job. But now, all of a sudden, I can go buy it myself at the local grocery. I can decide if I want 2% or skim, a quarter or a gallon, brand A or brand B….. Milk is milk and there is more than one source! Due to advances in technology and distribution, my milkman is no longer the gatekeeper for my milk consumption.

    And now, we have newspapers ripping off original blog content? Check out this story from a Raw Story reporter- her work was stolen by the AP. From the AP Editors: “We do not credit blogs”.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larisa-alexandrovna/msm-plagiarism-strikes-ag_b_17873.html

  • http://www.joiningdots.net Sharon

    I wandered past a quote today that I think sums up the concerns newspapers ought to have: “When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight” – Jack Welch. Congrats to the Guardian for ‘getting’ the web. They may not be the most popular of newspapers in the UK, but their readership jumped thanks to their early commitment to web channels such as AvantGo.

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    Jeff, the religious ritual of the NYT editorial meeting sounds like what Jay Rosen’s been saying over at Pressthink. The priesthood of journalists, and their religion.

    Does any American newspaper editor get it as well as this guy?

  • http://www.atamira.com MediaDavid

    the milkman analogy only goes so far.
    there grew in society another way to get all the varieties of milk and cheese you could want. the new large supermarket.

    as far as i can tell, the bloggers aren’t able to gather the same amount of news and process it as quickly as AP or Reuters or the Times or CNN.

    maybe someone out there thinks that will happen, but I don’t.

    the problem is, how do newspapers and tv for that matter, change the economic and delivery models so they can remain news gatherers in a dramtically changing world.

    newspapers still make enough money that they can spend some of it to change the way the do business.

    it seems, however, that they really fight the needed change.

    we may then end up with the worst of all worlds.

    a shrinking amount of usable valuable traditional news coverage
    replaced by more and more opinion…ill formed in many cases as non traditional journallists no longer have AP etc as source material.

    Has anyone seen Current TV?
    if that’s the core of future journalism, we’re all in trouble

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  • Mickey D.

    Has anyone seen Current TV?
    I haven’t, thank goodness.
    It could be the future of politics.
    We’re all in trouble, that’s for certain.
    Maybe NewFuture.TV is the next big thing.
    Any blogger can webcast with a webcam.
    There’s a new future. I’m sticking with the regular old future.
    Maybe Jeff will start webcasting what we should know live after he gets done changing the entire newspaper business and the presses all stop cold.

  • http://www.webomatica.com Mr. K.

    The biggest irony here is that the newspapers are supported by ad dollars. Most websites are similarly supported by ad dollars. The scary truth of the matter is that quality journalism is not something the American public is willing to pay a lot for… otherwise, why would a quality paper like the NY Times need advertising dollars to help keep it in business?

    The only answer I can see is for someone to attempt to put together a quality, internet only newspaper, supported by ad dollars. Salon doesn’t count as they are vying for subscription. Get a bunch of reporters and report the news well, and have every article open for comments, blog style. It’s the only way out of the hole of reporting yesterday’s news on a dead tree as today’s paper.

  • Frank

    I have turned from buying newspapers to reading web blogs because of the greater honesty and integrity of non journalists. Here in Australia we have a TV program called Media Watch which exposes journo’s willingness to do anything to stir up readership.
    Here is a link to the Media Watch site with an example http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1602078.htm

    The advantages journalists have; time to do research, access to resources, and i’m told they studied how to do the job, are not used at all in Australia. This is why they’re irrelevant and destined for the dump.

  • http://dylko.blogspot.com Ivan Dylko

    The coolest thing was when he says: “…And then, readers started talking to each other. And after that they went to our sources.” So true. Surprising that such ideas come from an experienced print media old-timer, who’s probably in his 50s or 60s…

    No wonder this newspaper is on the front lines of media transformation. Thanks a lot, Jeff, for pointing to this excellent lecture.

  • Levi Rizetnikof

    The joke going around is that newspapers should be published by non-profits — and pretty soon they will be. The Guardian, of course, is already published by a non-profit, the Scott Trust. As Rusbridger notes, “ownership affects one’s view.” What it doesn’t affect is the arc of history. The era of mass media is over, these are dead men walking.

  • rich

    Hafner Says:

    So Craigslist will open a Baghdad bureau after it buries the Times?

    —————————————————————————–

    The Buy / Sell ads will give us a large advance in what that particular part of IRAQ is really like …

    … than the Times and its bureau has ‘fixed up to print’.

    One would expect

    :)

  • Mickey D.

    Army opens center to research flexible computer displays

    February 8, 2005

    TEMPE, Ariz. (Army News Service, Feb. 8, 2005) – The Army officially opened a “Flexible Display Center” at Arizona State University Feb. 4 to develop thin computer screens that bend.

    Claude Bolton, assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, joined Arizona state and university officials for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new center. Bolton said flexible, lightweight displays will have an endless array of military and commercial uses.

    “Military applications include computer screens that could be integrated as part of a Soldier’s uniform or rolled up and carried in the Soldier’s pocket, and vehicle displays that are thinner, lighter, more rugged and consume less power,” Bolton said.

    The Flexible Display Center is the result of a $43.7-million cooperative agreement between the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Arizona State University. The agreement, signed in February 2004, has a performance period of five years with an option for an additional $50 million over an added five-year period.

    Although the Army provides core funding for the center, the center’s focus is on commercial applications. The Army is leading the effort because there is strong overlap between military needs and potential civilian markets.

    The displays are essentially extremely thin computer screens, that will be “integrated with computation, communications and global positioning subsystems,” said Army Research Laboratory Director John Miller, “to significantly enhance the Soldier’s situational awareness, survivability and effectiveness.”

    Bolton called the development of the FDC a milestone.

    “The Army’s flexible display center, a unique collaboration of large and small businesses, the university and the Army, will provide our Soldiers and our nation with revolutionary information technology capabilities,” Bolton said.

    Bolton said he remembered the primitive displays used in cockpits when he served as an Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam, saying he flew with computer displays that consisted of a flat glass panel.

    “All that is about to change,” Bolton said, adding that maybe next year he’ll be watching the Superbowl on an FD screen.

    Michael Crow, ASU president, said the new technology could improve situational awareness in the future for Soldiers like former NFL star and ASU alumnus Spc. Pat Tillman, who died last year while serving with an Army Ranger unit in Afghanistan.

    “The FDC brings together academia, industry and government to develop what, in essence, will be revolutionary information portals – devices that are small, lightweight, rugged and consume very little power, but they will be very powerful in that they will hold the key to successful military operations – real-time information,” Crow said.

    J.D. Hayworth, representative from Arizona’s fifth congressional district said the development of the FDC was about immediacy.

    “This center is about bringing the technology to the warfighter – now!” he said. “Whatever the war’s duration, our mission is to ensure that we provide technology now to ensure freedom for the future.”

    Brig. Gen. Roger Nadeau of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, said his goal is to use technology to take care of Soldiers.

    “I need to provide them the best that money and technology can procure,” he said. “Flexible displays are the next revolution in information technology that will enable lighter weight, lower power, more rugged systems for portable and vehicle applications.”

    Nadeau said flexible display technology will enable new applications for the Soldier and Army platforms that cannot be realized with current glass-based displays.

    The new applications will include body-worn displays that conform to the uniform, displays that can be rolled-up and put in a pocket when not in use and unrolled for large-area, high information content, as well as many other applications that Army engineers and scientists are now considering.

    Dr. Gregory Raupp, the FDC’s director, said the technology will ultimately be developed to the commercial level.

    “There are multiple technological challenges to making these devices fully flexible, lightweight and extremely low power, but we have the right university, industry and government team in place and we are confident we can meet those challenges,” he said.

    “The outstanding capabilities of our facility and its manufacturing R&D infrastructure will enable us to work side-by-side with our partners to intensively develop new breakthrough technologies,” he said.

    (Editor’s note: Maj. Desiree Wineland, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)

    Traditional newspapers on the cutting edge will be early adopters of FCD’s. This technology is where to invest for the long haul. Paper has at least another decade, so don’t get ahead of your time. Even after news is all on FCD, paper will persist.

  • Jim Dermitt

    A team of researchers at Bell Labs produced the first fully “printed” transistor.
    http://www.bell-labs.com/org/physicalsciences/projects/plastic/plastic.html

    The news will continue to be produced. The computer of the future will be printed. The computer will become more like the news in terms of production. The news, for better or worse, will be printed. The methods may change, but it will all rely on printing technology. The Times are changing, so are the computers. The number of reporters using the technology doesn’t matter. They will use what is being deployed. Everyone doesn’t want to be a reporter. It’s lots of work for little pay. If you do it right it is difficult work and often dangerous too. That’s why there are so few really good reporters. You have people shooting, threats, stuff blowing up, crazies and all sorts of occupational dangers for 50K a year. Then the new wavers and bloggies all say screw you, stick your paper up yours. A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into that paper for you. It’s a thankless job.
    END OF REPORT

  • Jim Dermitt

    This is where the Wright brothers operated their own printing business and, later, a bicycle shop.
    http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/111wrightoh/111WrightOH.htm

    They continued the printing business in conjunction with their bicycle and aviation interests until 1899 when the printing business was sold.

    Two newspaper printers and bicycle mechanics were responsible for one of the most profound and extraordinary inventions in human history: the airplane. They got a whole lot of press over the years.

    END OF HOMEWORK.

  • http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/111wrightoh/111images/111img2cl.jpg Wright Print Shop Picture

    Old new technology. Inside of the Wright brothers’ print shop at the Hoover block as it looked at the time when the Wrights worked there.

  • MIke K

    Michael Yon has shown that the Times’ Baghdad bureau is not the only source of news from that place. The big newspapers and other media moguls have resisted embedding reporters with military units because they found that embedded reporters in the initial invasion developed too much empathy with the troops and their coverage was deemed too positive by editors. Better to cover the insurgency from hotel balconies lest the story get too positive. Bill Roggio and a number of other milbloggers have also been over there with troops. Laura Ingraham showed that it isn’t just the boys who can get the details from the sources and not from Sunni Iraqi stringers who have their own agenda. I wouldn’t be too positive that big newspapers can rely on their news sources to compete with the new media.

  • http://www.atamira.com MediaDavid

    Mike, you have summed up the situation.

    my reading between the lines says you already agree with laura Ingraham’s opinion and so, you were disposed to like her blog (which followed , what 72 hours on the ground?

    do you think Laura and other bloggers are willing and able to cover news around the globe in a “fair, newsy” way 24/7?

    doubt it.

    my guess is that you and many others have just chosen to believe the traditional press corps is no longer capable of delivering fair news and so you are happy with your opinions being reflected back to you?

    I agree there is plenty of reason to distrust and question the MSM, but there are equal and obvious reasons to treat bloggers with the same skepticism.

    and I, like many others, worry that if we don’t have journalists doing traditional journalists jobs, the public simply will not be well informed.

    look at the pew study for a hint to the future….despite all the zillions of internet and blogger sites, we actually have more folks chasing FEWER stories.

    that’s because everyone (including the Times and the bloggers) are seeking eyeballs and follow the herd more than they did before. it’s an amazing irony.

    i hope journalists see the future and embrace it before its too late.

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  • http://madison.com/wsj Ellen Foley

    The most affirming message from the Guardian editor was his honesty that he really doesn’t know the answer about the future. As the editor of a medium-sized paper in a highly educated community, our short term future looks good. Madison.com, our portal, is strong as is our inkonpaper vehicle, The Wisconsin State Journal. The question before us is where is the tipping point when the business model shifts to the web? As one of the people who hopes to guide journalism through that juncture without losing credible information produced by Madison journalists who get paid a living wage, I’d love to hear from someone smarter than me about the timeline at efoley@madison.com.

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  • Robert

    Not exactly central to this excellent piece, but independent booksellers ought to pool their resources, and create a bookselling network that offers bargain prices for many books not available off the shelves, with the catch that consumers must pay a visit to the store (and perhaps use a self-service terminal) in order to place an order.

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  • http://mbites.com Mike Butcher

    Many thanks for linking to my write-up of Rusbridger’s speech. It was interesting to hear him defend the practise of charging for advertising to fund journalism, as against the simple use of cheap hard drive storage to serve free ads and run a business which employs a handful of people and creates no journalism (Craigslist).

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  • http://www.urchickencoop.com Chicken Coop

    great post(why i keep getting an error when i try to subscribe to your feed)?thanks

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