Posts about ditchley

Guardian column: Ditchley and the market demand for journalism

My Guardian column this week recounts the debate at Ditchley on whether there is a market demand – and market failure – for quality journalism and on the idea of government subsidy for newspapers. The column got squeezed by a larger-than-usual ad – a good cause – so I’ll paste the original here:

It was hard not to look for symbolism in the surroundings when publishers, editors, academics, and others gathered on the grounds of Ditchley Park a week ago for discussion about the destiny of journalism and democracy, sponsored by the BBC Trust and the foundation that owns the 1720s estate. Under opulent ceilings—and the cloak of the Chatham House Rule—the representatives of incumbent and beneficent power expressed grave and urgent concern about the fate of newspapers as they debated drastic measures for dire times—even state subsidy for local papers.

As an American, accustomed to being in the national majority in such meetings, I felt like the alien I was. I’m not used to breathing coal smoke and history. And I’m quite allergic to the notion of government support for and regulation of media, especially news. But I was surrounded by Britons—and fellow foreigners—who appreciate the value of public service broadcasting, even as they engage in the national sport of thwacking the BBC. I learned a lot about you, my cousins, at Ditchley.

The real question for the weekend turned out to be whether there is a market demand—and a looming market failure—for quality journalism. I was the optimist in the room (the library, to be exact) and set off an impromptu poll on pessimism. The optimists, surprising me, won.

But clouds rolled in when talk turned, inevitably, to the scarcity of business models for news in this post-scarcity media economy. I foresee many new models, though unproven, involving networks, platforms, collaboration, new efficiencies, and new players. Others, however, saw no promising models, and so some considered what is not without precedent in Britain: public funds to support journalism, except now for local papers, at least through their transition—they pray—to digital.

Many forms of subsidy were suggested: A slice of the BBC’s or ITV’s cake is the starting point (which Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger broached in these pages recently). What about a tax on Google? I argue Google is enabling more than exploiting digital media. Then why not a tax on broadband providers? But one might consider San Francisco’s wish to provide broadband for all—eliminating that revenue stream—as a better endowment for media and information. Instead of public service publishing, why not public service connectivity?

At the end of the weekend, talk turned to another form of subsidy, which I suggested—naively, I thought—here in 2006: If the BBC is a public trust, why not have it actively support quality journalism? The idea at the meeting was to rebuild newspapers on BBC technology. I’d go farther: The BBC should link to and promote the best of British journalism. It should open its content to remixing by other media (and the public). It could use its international ad sales force to sell quality British sites’ foreign inventory. It should become a lab for shared innovation: the BBC as an open-source platform.

As was pointed out at Ditchley, journalism already is subsidized: The Guardian has its Scott Trust, the Times its mogul, the Washington Post a profitable education company, the Telegraph its sales of wine, local papers their council ads, and everybody had—had—classified ads. So we return to the question: Is there a true market demand for quality journalism or is it already a charity or public utility?

Is the death of profitable journalism as it was the fault of its stewards, its audience, or market circumstances? Given the setting and the timing—just as Chicago’s Tribune Company readied bankruptcy—it was tempting to look for journalism’s murderer, as if in a game of Clue: the butler, in the parlor, with a knife—or local newspaper stewards, in their privileged and complacent monopolies, with a lack of strategic foresight and a surplus of debt. Or are the culprits citizens everywhere who don’t care enough? American populist and optimist that I am, I don’t think so.

Are papers merely victims of time and technology? I wondered whether newspapers’ masters, like Ditchley’s ennobled land barons, are now out of their age. I don’t believe they will be replaced by the workers in the stable—citizen journalists (who weren’t in the room). But I do think we’ll all end up working closer together, tilling smaller fields.

: LATER: Here‘s Adrian Monck on the conference, with the rapporteur’s report. And Charlie Beckett. And Richard Sambrook. I’ll write more later about this idea of government support for journalism and why I oppose it.

Change happens

Change is inevitable. Change is hard. Change is good. Change is rarely recognized in time. Change is life. That’s how we should be looking at what is happening to journalism today – not necessariliy as a plight, a conspiracy, a tragedy, a surprise but more as the inevitable change that was not recognized and exploited by some soon enough (for their own good).

That’s what Clay Shirky writes about in a wonderful post inspired by Tribune Company’s bankruptcy. It’s what Virginia Heffernan wrote about in her weekend Times Magazine column (which I had to read a few times to see the simplicity of her message about change). It’s also what I came away thinking about from a conference at near Oxford last week, where I wondered whether press barons, like the ennobled land barons who built Ditchley, are now out of their era. (I’ll post my Guardian column on the thought and the event Monday.)

* * *

Witnessing the biggest fall yet of a newspaper giant – in Tribune Company’s pathetic bankruptcy – Clay was inspired to look back at a post he wrote in 1995, a year after the birth of the commercial browser, called Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can’t Get Up. Thirteen years ago – plenty of time to remake the news industry – Clay saw the change coming.

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s what he wrote then. And now:

[A] dozen years ago, a kid who’d only just had his brains blown via TCP/IP nevertheless understood that the newspaper business was screwed, not because this was a sophisticated conclusion, but because it was obvious.

Google, eBay, craigslist, none of those things existed when I wrote that piece; I was extrapolating from Lycos and it was still apparent what was going to happen. It didn’t take much vision to figure out that unlimited perfect copyability, with global reach and at zero marginal cost, was slowly transforming the printing press into a latter-day steam engine.

And once that became obvious, we said so, over and over again, all the time. We said it in public, we said it in private. We said it when newspapers hired us as designers, we said it when we were brought in as consultants, we said it for free. We were some tiresome motherfuckers with all our talk about the end of news on paper. And you know what? The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.

So I’m calling bullshit on the Rosenbaum thesis, because no one has been “caught up in this great upheaval.”

[When anybody attacks me on the playground again, I'm going tell them that Clay's my (blog) brother and he's bigger, tougher, and smarter than them and their brothers.]

Clay sets blame:

By the turn of the century, anyone who didn’t understand that the business model for newspapers was a wasting asset was caught up in nothing other than willful ignorance, so secure in their faith in the permanence of their business that they assumed that those glaciers would politely swerve at the last minute, which minute is looking increasingly like now.

* * *

Virginia is hardly the tiresome motherfucker. In her piece, she genteelly surveys the change in media and then advises her mature, professional colleagues to imagine they are 19 again…

…spending a day on Twitter or following a recipe from a Mark Bittman video played on a refrigerator that automatically senses what ingredients are missing and texts an order to the grocery store (it will soon exist!). Then they should think about what content suits these new modes of distribution and could evolve in tandem with them. For old-media types, mental flexibility could be the No. 1 happiness secret we have been missing.

Change is happy.

* * *

Ditchley struck me as an all-too-apt metaphor for change. Here were editors and publishers – and both breeds turned academics – plus people in and out of government power worrying about democracy in the time of change in media and journalism. They were in an age-old estate that did not or could not keep up with the times but whose value is preserved today and put to good use. Is that what journalism will become: a relic, a museum, a memory? No, only journalism as it was. The journalism that changes will live on, carrying its values and eternal verities into the future.

Change is necessary.

* * *

Virginia is right to celebrate change. Clay is right to blame those who resisted it, because that informs the present and the future. If we act as if change just happens upon us – surprise! – in a sudden upheaval, then we miss its continuing flow and its lessons and the opportunity to keep up with it. That was what I was saying that led to the assassination attempt Clay references: All of us related to journalism must accept responsibility for and learn from the past if we have any hope of being part of the future (or others will see the opportunity, as they are). Then we learn Virginia’s lesson, which is just the lesson we try to teach now in journalism school.

The discussion at Ditchley turned around business models and the question of whether there is a market demand – and a looming market failure – for quality journalism. I believe there is a demand, but then I’m a cockeyed American optimist and obnoxious internet populist.

Market failure? Well, that depends on how one defines the market and its players. Did the public fail journalism? No. (Many would say it’s just the opposite but I’ll leave that to another day.) Is technology killing journalism, making it impossible to practice, what with craigslist and Google and Digg and the other characters in this game of Clue? No. Technology is enabling journalism to grow and improve in countless ways. What’s mortally wounded is old journalism and old models. There’s a market failure now in newspaper companies, not in journalism. They’re not the same thing.

Journalism isn’t dying. Yes, Virginia, it’s changing.

Ditchley

ditchleyfront2

I just spent three days at Ditchley, a mansion outside Oxford built in the 1720s, for a series of roundtables (Aspen with accents) about democracy and changing media. I’ll follow this with a series of posts about the discussion, which occurred under the Chatham House Rule (note the singular as there’s only one: I may recount the substance but without attribution). The group included media executives, academics, and government and NGO people. (Disclosure: I paid for my transportation personally; the Ditchley Foundation and the BBC World Service Trust as a sponsor were hosts for accommodation and meals in the mansion.)

lionditchley

winston2Ditchley is amazing. As an American with short-term cultural memory, I couldn’t help looking at it as if it were a Williamsburg recreation or Disneyworld attraction but, of course, it’s the real thing, handed down in one family until the last century, then bought by another, who donated it to the foundation so that these discussions could occur. It is filled with lush wood, ornate molded and painted ceilings, antlers from the previous house (dated 1608), paintings of lords and ladies, a buzzer board so the servants in the day could serve the score of bedrooms, and pictures of Winston Churchill visiting (he was born next door — which is to say the other mansion about 10 miles away).

Before you get too jealous, the bathroom was down the hall and the wi-fi was in the basement. But the wine was good and the discussion was great.

I’m posting this because Ditchley and what followed inspired a lot of thinking – it was a good meeting – and then I always come away from talking with my London media cousins with new ideas and perspectives. So rather than explaining what the hell a ditchley is each time, here’s that one post.