Posts about newsbook

It ain’t over

It wasn’t Craig’s fault. It was the internet’s. Almost $10 billion in annual newspaper classified revenue has disappeared (since its 2000 high, versus 2008) and it was essentially replaced by an estimated, unverified $100 million for craigslist with fewer than 30 employees.

But the bleeding ain’t over yet. The stone still has a few more corpuscles to squeeze out.

Look at the newly enhanced Google real-estate search. It’s awesome: useful, fast, informative, entertaining. Put in an address, browse all the homes for sale around. Who needs a newspaper? Who needs a real-estate agent? Speaking of whose death, see Michael Arrington reporting that disruptive, inexpensive real-estate service Redfin is turning profitable. Now see how classified aggregator Oodle is distributing classified ads on Twitter, which has also become the new distribution channel for news (challenging not just newspapers but also craigslist if you’re in the news biz and in the mood for a little schadenfreude).

Of course, this adds onto the the closing of thousands of advertising car dealers; the death of swaths of retail (e.g., Circuit City; and that is far from over, I think); the consolidation of more retail (and then the consolidator, Macy’s, cutting ad spending by half).

But that’s just advertising. I think that other arenas of newspapers’ competence could be targets for similarly disruptive attacks.

In content, I’m seeing that it’s possible for someone to come along with relatively little investment and a much smaller staff that operates more collaboratively to compete with the big, expensive traditional newsroom at low cost.

In distribution, it’s not hard to imagine someone – oh, say, News Corp., which already controls coupons in the U.S. – to take over distribution of other FSIs (free-standing inserts – that is, circulars) and undercut the hell out of newspapers and the postal service. Distributing those ads is the main reason papers want to keep printing at least a day a week, for now.

It’s bad in the industry now but it’s going to get worse as audience shrinks and advertising consolidates or migrates. There’s no quick fix: putting up pay or copyright laws or begging for favors from pols. The only solution is to rethink and rebuild the industry – and to do a better job of it than GM has.

Journalistic narcissism

At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, Andrew Sullivan said, “Journalism has become too much about journalists.”

True. It’s not just that newspapers are covering their own demise as thoroughly as Michael Jackson’s. This is about the mythology that news needs newspapers – that without them, it’s not news.

In an offhand reference about the economics of news, Dave Winer wrote, “When you think of news as a business, except in very unusual circumstances, the sources never got paid. So the news was always free, it was the reporting of it that cost…. The new world pays the source, indirectly, and obviates the middleman.” This raises two questions: both whether news needs newsmen and whether journalists and news organizations deserve to be paid.

I tweeted Winer’s line and Howard Weaver then started a discussion with this tweet: “Is it news if it’s not reported? I don’t think so.” I don’t think he’s saying that the reporting needs to be done by a professional, but he is saying that reporting is what makes news news. Does news need the middleman?

Steve Yelvington just tweeted that “The Washington Post ‘salon’ debacle is a clash between myth and reality on so many levels: ‘the select few who will actually get it done.'” Being needed.

The realization of that myth – the myth of necessity – hit me head-on when I read an unselfconsciously narcissistic feature in The New York Times this week about the room where the 4 p.m. news meeting is held. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has likened that meeting to a “religious ceremony.” The Times feature certainly acted as if it were taking us inside the Pope’s chapel: “The table was formidable: oval and elegant, with curves of gleaming wood. The editors no less so: 11 men and 7 women with the power to decide what was important in the world.”

Behold the hubris of that: They decide what is important. Because we can’t. That’s what it says. That’s what they believe.

I was trained to accept that myth: that journalists decide what’s important, that it’s a skill with which they are imbued: news judgment. I worked hard to gain and exercise that judgment. The myth further holds that no judgment of importance is more important than The Times’; that’s why, every night, it sends out to the rest of newspaperdom its choices. News isn’t news until it’s reported and it’s not important until The Times says so.

But why do we need anyone to tell us what’s important? We decide that. What’s important to you isn’t important to me. Why must we all share the same importance? Because we all shared the same newspaper. There is the wellspring of the myth: the press.

I am trying to cut through these many myths about newsso I can reexamine them. In something I’m writing now for another project, I say: “To start, it is critical that we understand and question every assumption that emerged from old realities – for example, that news should be a once-a-day, one-for-all, one-way experience just because that’s what the means of production and distribution of the newspaper and the TV broadcast necessitated.” And: “Owning the printing press or broadcast tower used to define advantage: I own and control the means of production and distribution and you and don’t, which enables me to decide what gets distributed and forces you to come to me if you want to reach the public through news or through advertising, whose price I alone set with little or no concern for competition.”

No more. The press has become journalism’s curse, not only because it now brings a crushing cost burden but also because it led to all these myths: that we journalists own the news, that we’re necessary to it, that we decide what’s reported and what’s important, that we can package the world for you every day in a box with a bow on it, that what we do is perfect (with rare, we think, exceptions), that the world should come to us to be informed, that we deserve to be paid for this service, that the world needs us.

The journalistic narcissism that extrudes from the press extends to so much of the journalist’s relationship with her public. Jay Rosen just tweeted his headline for Plain Dealer Connie Schultz’ return of spitball (below): “A blogger was mean to me so that means I’m right.” John McQuaid tweeted that he feared I was “only abetting Connie Schultz’s effort to turn a real debate into a bloggers vs. MSM culture war.” He’s right. Schultz didn’t address the substantive objections to her hare-brained and dangerous scheme; she made it about her.

Oh, I know, this is all a big set-up for your punchline: A blogger is talking about narcissism? Heh. Isn’t blogging the ultimate narcissism? But who called it that, who made that judgment? Journalists, as far as I’ve seen. When they talk, it’s important. When we talk, it’s narcissism. What we say can’t be important – can it? – because we’re not paid and printed. But I don’t want to replay the blog culture war, which I keep hoping is over. I want to question assumptions, to find the cause and effect of myths.

And that’s what Winer is trying to do when he reminds us that the important people in news are the sources and witnesses, who can now publish and broadcast what they know. The question journalists must ask, again, is how they add value to that. Of course, journalists can add much: reporting, curating, vetting, correcting, illustrating, giving context, writing narrative. And, of course, I’m all in favor of having journalists; I’m teaching them. But what’s hard to face is that the news can go on without them. They’re the ones who need to figure out how to make themselves needed. They can and they will but they can no longer simply rest on the press and its myths.

: LATER: Good discussion in the comments already. I particularly like this from Craig Stoltz:

At the WaPo, where I used to work, the story conference room was decorated with (1) the metal frame with sticks of backwards type that was used to print the “Nixon Resigns” front page [it is said that that wall had to be reinforced to bear its weight–myth?]; (2) a framed Post advertisement from the early 70s reading “I got my job from the Washington Post,” which Gerald Ford was good-natured enough to sign; (3) two columnar shelves of important tomes written by Post staffers over the years; and, yes, (4) a polished wooden table whose craftsmanship and sheen suggested the Pedestal of Truth.

No coffee was allowed in the room.

Confession: Every time I was in that room I felt inspired, breathed in the myth, absorbed the history and mission that made the Post such an extraordinary institution [and which makes these week’s “salon” disaster so heartbreaking].

That room and the myth it conveyed may have made me a better journalist.

I suspect it made me a more arrogant, and therefore ultimately vulnerable one.

: In Twitter, Aaron Huslage asks: “How is curating journalism different from the NYT editorial meeting? isn’t it, at heart, picking ‘what’s important’?” And I responded: “Now it doesn’t have to be one-for-all. And it’s not necessary what’s ‘important’ (as the NYT says) but ‘relevant’ (Google’s goal).”

: Juan Antonio Giner takes apart the Times room: an analog space for a digital age.

: Tim Russo responded to Schultz, though she refused to respond to him.

: ANOTHER great comment, this one from David Weinberger:

May I add one more, related, myth to your collection, Jeff? Here goes: It’s possible to _cover_ the day’s events.

This is just a different way of putting your formulation “One man’s [sic] noise is another man’s news.” But I think it’s worth calling out since the promise of global sufficiency is a big part of traditional newspapers’ promise of value to us: “Read us once in the morning, and after going through our pages, you will know everything you need to know.” (Do radio stations still make the ridicule-worthy “Give us 8 minutes and we’ll give you the world?” claim.) Yeah, no newspaper would ever maintain that claim seriously if challenged — they know better than their readers (or at least they used to) what they’re leaving out — but it’s at the base of the idea that reading a paper is a civic duty. The paper doesn’t give us _everything_ but it gives us _enough_ that reading one every day makes us well-informed citizens.

The notion that newspapers give you your daily requirement of global news — which works to wondering, along with Howard, if there is such a thing as “news” — seems to me to be as vulnerable as the old idea of objectivity. Like objectivity: (1) It’s presented as one of the basic reasons to read a newspaper; (2) it hides the fact that it’s based on cultural values; and (3) it doesn’t scale well in the age of the Net.

Ultimately, this myth is enabled –as so many of the myths of news and knowledge are — by paper. Take away the paper and the newspaper doesn’t become a paperless newspaper. It becomes a network. That’s what’s happening now, IMO. From object to network … and networks are far far harder to “monetize” (giving myself a yech here) than objects….

: In the comments, Jay Rosen says narcissism is an even more apt metaphor than (he thinks) I know:

Jeff: You should improve your grasp of what narcissism is. The term is commonly used to mean self-absorption or excessive self-regard (“it’s about meeeee”) but that’s a subtle misunderstanding. True narcissists have a weak concept of self because they often don’t know they leave off and the world begins. In the clinical sense, key features of a narcissistic personality disorder are grandiosity and a lack of empathy.

I’m not trying to correct you; I’m saying that if you look closer at what pathological narcissism is, beyond its pop culture meaning, this might allow you to strengthen your critique. For example, equating newspapers with democracy is grandiose in the extreme, right? The prize culture could be connected to the “need for admiration,” and so on. It may be a better metaphor than you have let on here– and worth developing. Cheers.

A map to where?

The UK’s Independent has attempted to map the discussion about the future of newspapers. I’m not sure I get the benefit of the form, but give it a whirl:

The King of Twitter

Reporters have been calling today looking into the importance of Twitter and social media in the two big stories of the month: Iran and Michael Jackson. Have we come to a next step stage in social media’s impact on news? Maybe.

Certainly the Jackson news spread quickly via Twitter. TMZ.com got the news first and it spread from tweet to retweet and then it spread beyond the web as each of those Twitterers acted as a node in a real-life network. An AP reporter told me she was riding on a bus when someone came on and announced the news to all the passengers – that person was a node, the bus the network – and then everyone on the bus, she said, took out their smart phones and spread the news farther. The live, ubquitous, mobile web is an incredible distribution channel for news.

I also spoke with Tampa Bay’s Eric Deggans and we wondered together about the arc of the Jackson story in big media versus our media. I’ll just bet that the story will die off on Twitter trends, Technorati, YouTube, and Facebook sooner than it finally exhausts its welcome – and our patience – on cable news. Back in 2005, I said that TV news was paying more attention to Jackson’s trial than the audience was, as evidenced by discussion on blogs, which lost interest in the story long before TV did; indeed, they never obsessed on Jackson as TV did and TV believed we wanted to.

I think this also means that we are less captive to cable news. Since its birth, cable was the only way to stay constantly connected to a story as it happened, or allegedly so. But in the Jackson story, there really is no news. He’s still dead. All that follows is discussion and wouldn’t we really rather discuss it with our friends than Al Sharpton? Once the supernova of news explodes – taking down Twitter search and YouTube and jamming GoogleNews search – we probably to seek out TV, but it quickly says all it has to say and the rest is just repetition. If the Iraq War was the birth of CNN could Iran and Jackson mark the start of their decline in influence? Too soon to say.

Journalists end up playing new roles in the news ecosystem. Again, I followed the Iran story in the live blogs of The New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and Andrew Sullivan and they performed new functions: curating, vetting, adding context, adding comment, seeking information, filling out the story, correcting misinformation. They worked with social media, quoting and distributing and reporting using it. I watched the filling out of the Neda video story as the Guardian called the man who uploaded it to YouTube and Paulo Coelho blogged about his friend in the video, the doctor who tried to save Neda. Piece by piece, the story came together before our eyes, in public. The journalists added considerable value. But this wasn’t product journalism: polishing a story once a day from inside the black box. This was process journalism and that ensured it was also collaborative journalism – social journalism, if you like.

The unfortuante truth about the confluence of these two stories – Jackson and Iran – is that the former pushes the latter off the front page, the constant cable attantion. But will it push Iran out of our consciousness and discussion? Again, we’ll see. I was in the car when I spoke with Eric but he told me that on Twitter, the trends were all but filled with Jackson – except for the Iran election, which was still there, in the middle. That renews my faith in us.

: LATER: Here‘s the AP story.

Here‘s Eric’s piece. And here‘s the San Francisco Chronicle’s piece (curses to the editor to cut out reference to WWGD?).

: Interesting take from a lawyer who sees Jackson as a victim of the innovator’s dilemma.

Posner’s dangerous thinking

Mike Masnick on techdirt points us to some dangerous and incomplete thinking from Judge Richard Posner on his blog. At the bottom, Posner writes:

Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers from so impairing the incentive to create costly news-gathering operations that news services like Reuters and the Associated Press would become the only professional, nongovernmental sources of news and opinion.

Good God. Posner is not just trying to mold the new world to old laws – which is issue enough – but is trying to change the law to protect the old world and its incumbents from the new world and its innovators. He is willing to throw out fair comment and free speech for them. That is dangerous.

Posner’s thinking is incomplete in a few ways. First, he is ignorant of the imperatives of the link economy. The links and discussion he wants to outlaw is precisely how content is distributed and value is added to it in the new media economy.

Second, as Masnick points out, Posner assumes that jouranlism as it was done is journalism as it should be done: that the goal is to protect newsrooms, unchanged. But there are tremendous savings to be had thanks to the link economy: do what you do best, link to the rest.

Note how The New York Times and The Guardian – not to mention the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan – covered the Iran crisis. They linked. Links made their journalism complete. So did readers. The Times has three editors for every writer but in the blog, there was no need – no opening – for them. There was no need for production or design. The new news organization can and will operate at a different scale from the old one, because it can and because it must. So what is Posner protecting besides the old budget and payroll. He’s not protecting journalism – or rather, he’s protecting it only from progress.

No, sir, the news industry – and the law – must be updated for this new world and so must your thinking.

: LATER: Here‘s Matt Welch at Reason.