Posts about newspapers

The orthodoxy of the article, part II

Frédéric Filoux willfully misrepresents me so that he may uphold the orthodoxy of the article. He will be disappointed to learn that we agree more than he wishes. Here is what I am really saying about the article.

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No. Go through your paper in the morning and tell me how much real value is added and how much ink is spilled to tell you what you already know (whether that is facts you learned through Twitter, the web, TV, radio, et al or background that is reheated more often than a stale slice in a bad New York pizzeria).

How many articles are rewritten from others’ work just so a paper and a reporter can have a byline? How many predict the obvious (every story about an upcoming storm, holiday, press conference, or horse race election)? How often do you see a local TV story with any real reporting and value instead of just someone standing where the news happened 12 hours ago telling you what you and he both read online already? Too many articles passing themselves off as professional journalism are crap and I say we can’t afford to do that anymore. I say we should treat articles with veneration as a luxury.

Second, I am also promoting rather than devaluing background when I say it is best linked to. The background paragraphs in an ongoing story generally do one of two things: they bore and waste the time of people who have followed the story or they underinform the people who have not been following the story. Background graphs were a necessity of print but online we can improve background immensely, investing the effort in truly valuable and long-lasting content assets that give richer and more helpful background on a story. I’ve worked with smart folks at news companies imagining how we could provide multiple paths through background: here’s the path to take if you’re coming to the story as a virgin; here’s a track to take if you’ve missed a week; here’s a track from one perspective; here’s one from another. If someone else did a great job explaining the story or elements of it, we should link to them. Filoux calls that oursourcing. I call that linking. We do that nowadays. This is why I’m eagerly watching Jay Rosen’s project in creating explainers, which is an even richer form of background.

Third, in this entire discussion of the article, I am valuing reporting higher than repetitive retyping. As our resources become ever-scarcer, I say that we must devote more of them to reporting than to articles that add little: asking the questions that haven’t been asked and answered, finding people who can add information and perspective, fact-checking.

But I have angered the gods, first Mathew Ingram, now Filoux, who also misquotes me when he says I say that: “Tweeting and retweeting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.” I say no such thing and dare him to show me where he thinks I say that with a direct quote. That sentence could stand a little painstaking editing itself. I do say that while an event is underway, tweeting is an amazing new tool to hear directly from witnesses, to question them, to debunk rumors, to manage collaborative reporting (that’s what Andy Carvin does in the Arab Spring). It is part of the reporting process. It contributes to articles later in the process (that’s what Brian Stelter was asking his desk to do when he covered a tornado).

The point is that there are many new ways to accomplish journalistic goals to cover news and gather and share information: Twitter, blogs, data, visualization, multimedia…. Jonathan Glick wrote a much more constructive answer to the question I raised about articles, saying that now that they are freed from the drudgery of reporting infobits of news — the things we have already been told sooner and by other means — then the article can concentrate on adding true value: context, explanation, education, commentary, further reporting, fact-checking….

That is the sense in which I say that the article is or often should be a byproduct of the news process. Once the public is informed of the facts through faster means, once we put digital first and print last (© John Paton), then we also no longer need to build the infrastructure and process of news around writing articles. We have to break out of that expensive, inefficient, archaic stricture. We can instead architect news around helping communities organize their information and themselves (that is my definition of journalism) and we have new ways to do that, including new ways to report news and write articles.

I dare to question the assumptions about the forms of news and journalism. That’s my job. Some — including apparently Filoux — might argue that it is the job of a university to impart orthodoxy: This is the way we have always done it, thus that’s the right way to do it, and that’s the way you will do it, students. I abhor that view.

I believe it is my job, especially in a university, to challenge assumptions and to free students to invent new forms. That is one of my hidden agendas behind teaching entrepreneurial journalism: to encourage and support students (and the industry) to break assumptions and invent new forms, because they can, because we must.

I fear Filoux’s still upset with me because I could not bear and dared criticize the discussion on a panel he ran at the e-G8 in Paris. It wasn’t him I was criticizing. It was hearing the same old stuff from the same old people. At a conference on the internet and the future, the past was rehashed once more. I can bear that no more than he apparently can bear my temerity to challenge the holy article.

But in the end, we almost agree. Filoux argues that newspapers should become, say, “biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.” Hmmm. He’s saying, just as I am, that articles should be richer and more valuable and that reporting news bits can be accomplished by other means. So where do we disagree?

Hard economic lessons for news

I’m working on a talk that I hope will become the canonical link to my essential message about the business rules and realities of news. I continue to be astonished at the economic naiveté I hear in discussions of the business of news. (Look at this comment thread and and this one.) Here is my answer, the basis of a talk — to be delivered in tweets, in the model of John Paton — and a lesson for my classes. Work in progress. Thoughts so far; please join in….

RULES FOR BUSINESS MODELS

* Tradition is not a business model. The past is no longer a reliable guide to future success.

* “Should” is not a business model. You can say that people “should” pay for your product but they will only if they find value in it.

* “I want to” is not a business model. My entrepreneurial students often start with what they want to do. I tell them, no one — except possibly their mothers — gives a damn what they *want* to do.

* Virtue is not a business model. Just because you do good does not mean you deserve to be paid for it.

* Business models are not made of entitlements and emotions. They are made of hard economics. Money has no heart.

* Begging is not a business model. It’s lazy to think that foundations and contributions can solve news’ problems. There isn’t enough money there. (Foundation friend to provide figures here.)

* There is no free lunch. Government money comes with strings.

* No one cares what you spent. Arguing that news costs a lot is irrelevant to the market.

* The only thing that matters to the market is value. What is your service worth to the public?

* Value is determined by need. What problem do you solve?

* Disruption is the law of the jungle and the internet. If someone can do what you do cheaper, better, faster, they will.

* Disrupt thyself. So find your weak underbelly before someone else discovers it. Or find someone else’s.

* The bottom line matters more than the top line. Plan for profitability over revenue, sustainability over size.

REALITY CHECKS FOR NEWSPAPERS

* Circulation will continue to decline. There can be no doubt.

* Cutting costs will reduce product quality and value, which will further reduce circulation, which will further reduce ad revenue. A vicious, unstoppable cycle.

* Low-cost competitors and abundance will continue to reduce the price of advertising.

* Local retail will continue to consolidate, further reducing ad revenue. Blame Amazon.

* Classified categories—real estate, auto, jobs, merchandise—will continue to become more self-sufficient. They will need market mediators less and less.

* There’s a cliff coming: the end of a critical-mass of circulation needed to maintain inserts. That will have a big impact on newspapers’ P&Ls and will take away a primary justification for still printing and distributing paper.

* Some readers are not worth saving. One newspaper killed its stock tables, saved $1 million, and lost 12 subs. That means it had been paying $83k/year to maintain those readers. In creating business plans, the net future value of readers should be calculated and maximized.

* Once fixed costs are sliced to the bone, they will rise again. Cutting alone does not a business strategy make.

* “The newspaper model is broken and can’t be fixed.” Says John Paton.

DIGITAL RULES

* Scaling local sales is the key challenge. Google will pick low-hanging fruit from the 6 million businesses that have claimed their Places pages. Facebook’s fruit will be businesses that use its free Deals. Each will use distant sales. Groupon and Patch will attack the challenge with the brute force of local sales staff.

* There will always be new competitors. For content, attention, advertising, and advertising sales.

* You no longer control the market. You are a member of an ecosystem. Play well with others.

* Abundance will drive down prices in digital even more than in print. That’s the lesson Google tries to teach media (and government).

* The question about pay walls is whether they are the *best* way to make the *most* money. It’s not a religious matter. It’s a practical question of whether circulation revenue will net more than equivalent advertising, whether one can afford to give up audience and growth, what the costs are to support pay.

OPPORTUNITIES

* Scaling local sales is the key opportunity. I think the answer will lie in productizing services for local merchants (across all these platforms — not just selling them space in a media site but also helping them with Google Place pages and Foursquare and Facebook deals and Twitter specials) and establishing new, independent, entrepreneurial sales forces. The key challenge then will be holding down the cost of sale and production.

* There is huge growth potential in increasing engagement. Facebook gets roughly 30 times the engagement of newspaper sites, Huffington Post’s engagement is also a multiple of newspapers’. If we are truly community services, then we must rethink our relationship with the public, becoming more a platform for our communities, and that will multiply engagement and, with it, audience, traffic, and data. We have not begun to extend and exploit the full potential of the value news organizations can have in relationships with their communities: more people, more value, more engagement equals more value to extract.

* There are still efficiences to be found in infrastructure. If the presses and the distribution and sales arms of papers are not in and of themselves profit centers, they should be jettisoned and their tasks outsourced. If other tasks — including editorial tasks — can be consolidated, they should be.

* Journalists should do only that which adds maximum value. That’s not telling the public what it already knows. It’s not exercising ego. It’s not production. It is reporting, vetting, curating, explaining, organizing, teaching…. Do what you do best and link to the rest.

* There is growth to be found in networks. The more members there are in the ecosystem, the more content there is to link to (without having to go to the cost of creating it), the more opportunities there are for free promotion (links in), the more opportunities there are in aggregated and joint sales. See our work on new business models for news in the local ecosystem at CUNY.

* There are efficiencies to be found in collaboration. Working with the community and with other members of the ecosystem enables a news organization to specialize and increase value and to do more with less.

* There are other revenue streams worth exploring. Local bloggers are making considerable shares of their revenue in events. Newspapers are going into the real estate business and are also selling merchandise.

* We have not begun to explore new definitions of news.

: Note: I rearranged a few of the rules and combined two into one for better organization.

: Was mit Medien translates these rules into German. And translated again.

New molecules

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger asked for help with his view of the fourth estate’s separation (outside the U.S.) into three sub-estates: legacy media, public media, our media (my wording). My response:

Pardon my metaphors:

I had a bunch of public broadcasters from Sweden at my school last week. They’re quite successful—audience is up; marketshare is up—and so it may be difficult for them to feel the urgency of the winds of change and move with them. I suggested that we are only beginning to feel the storm (/metaphor) and I argued that if we are coming out the other side of what some Danish researchers call (metaphor) the Gutenberg Parenthesis then our concepts of media and our consequent cognition of society will change profoundly over years yet to come.

In her amazing history of Gutenberg’s influence, Elizabeth Einstenstein argues that it took 50 years for books to come into their own and not merely copy the scribes and another 50 years or so for the impact of the press to become clear. The Gutenberg Parenthesis team argues that we are entering a period of confusion as great as the one Gutenberg caused. Granted, we are operating in internet years, not Gutenberg years. Still, we’ve only seen the beginning. And so I asked the Swedes to pull back and consider their role more broadly.

So I urged the Swedes to think of media as the essential tool of publicness and one that is no longer mediated. And so in their role of being publicly supported (but not — I’ll grant to them and to the BBC their fig leaves — tax-supported) then I suggested the best thing they could do is to enable and protect the voice of the public. They could curate, train, promote, and collaborate with new people using new tools in new ways, for example. They could establish platforms that make that possible and networks that help make it sustainable. They could see it as their role to support a lively, healthy ecosystem and all of its members, including not only the new kids but also the struggling legacy media (by that view, I’ve long argued that the BBC should make it its mission to use its powerful megaphone to promote and support the best of journalism and media in the UK, no matter who makes it; that is a public good).

All of which is to say that I think your trilogy-view of media today is correct but temporary. We are still in the phase when the printers are copying the scribes’ fonts and content. New wine, old skins. We are also still in a phase of separating the old-media folks from the new-media folks, the public from the private, and for that matter, the media (the journalists) from the public. I think those distinctions must melt away when we move past the stage of copying the copyists and invent entirely new forms.

We see content as that which we make. Google sees content everywhere. Twitter creates content even Twitter doesn’t understand yet (our useless chatter has real value as a predictor of movies’ success). Blippy creates a transparent marketplace for stuff. Google Goggles with Foursquare and Yelp and Facebook and Google Maps and the devices we carry that are always connected and location-aware and us-aware force us to rethink our definitions of both local and news. The Guardian turns data into news by collaborating with the people formerly known as its audience. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

So I don’t think we’re yet at a stage of stasis where we can find three estates out of the fourth estate and count on the tensions among them to support a new dynamic of media.

Overlaying this view, I think we are entering a phase in the economy in which industries — filled with closed, centralized corporations that own their means of production or distribution — are replaced by ecosystems — filled with entities that must collaborate and cooperate and complement each other to find efficiencies and through those efficiencies profitability and sustainability. So the idea that your three sub-estates will compete won’t be sustainable; they will have to specialize and then collaborate and as that occurs there may still be separations of roles — e.g., creator v. curator, platform v. network, local v. national — but they are new separations.

What you are identifying is the start of an atomization of media. But I see those atoms reforming into new molecules. (/metalphor)

Welcome, TBD.com

Listening in to most of TBD.com’s press preview today, I was kvelling like a proud uncle. I’m so delighted to see Jim Brady and company create so many of the things I’ve wishing for in journalism. Ken Doctor beat me to a great list of many of those things.

What makes me happiest is that it recognizes that it’s part of an ecosystem and a network and it benefits the more it helps the members of that cloud succeed.

It is for-profit. If journalism isn’t profitable, it’s sunk. So that is God’s work, not the devil’s.

It recognizes the value and ethic of the link. It will do what it does best and link to there rest, damnit. DWYDBALTTR (in Twitter, @greglinch pronounces that “dwid-ball-ter-ing”).

It’s small and efficient and can be right-sized for the new efficient and targeted media landscape.

It’s collaborative in so many ways. It recognizes that the people formerly known as the audience are their best distributors. It recognizes that no story is perfect and the public often can help complete a story and make it better and more correct and complete.

When he testified before the FTC (or was it the FCC? so many hearings; they all sound alike) a few months ago, TBD founder Jim Brady said he recalled standing in a conference room at CUNY a bit more than a year ago whiteboarding what the new newsroom would look like, little imagining that he’d be building that very newsroom. He is.

I’m rooting for him. We all must. Yes, even the Washington Post should, for TBD will show the way to new means, methods, and efficiencies. They will succeed and fail and show us all new ways to make journalism sustainable and to build a new and much stronger collaborative relationship with the communities we serve.

Godspeed, TBD.

Cookie Madness!

I just don’t understand Julia Angwin’s scare story about cookies and ad targeting in the Wall Street Journal. That is, I don’t understand how the Journal could be so breathlessly naive, unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business. It is the Reefer Madness of the digital age: Oh my God, Mabel, they’re watching us!

If I were a conspiracy theorist — and I’m not, because I’ve found the world is rarely organized enough to conspire (and I found this to be especially true of News Corp. when I worked there, at TV Guide) — I’d imagine that the Journal ginned up this alleged exposé as a way to attack everyone else’s advertising business just as its parent company skulks behind its pay wall and surrenders its own ad business. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. That’s why I’m confused.

The story uses the ominous passive voice of newspaper scare stories: “…a Wall Street Journal investigation has found…” As if this knowledge were hiding. Cookies have been around as long as the commercial browser, since October 1994. Or was that 1984?

The piece uses lots of scare words: “surveillance technology” … “tracking technology” … “intrusive” … “no warning” … “surreptitiously re-spawn” … “rich databases” … “so powerful and ubiquitous” … and my favorite: “targeted ads can get personal” (well, yeah, that’s the damned point).

The Journal acts as if it has discovered a conspiracy of its own: “Marketers are spying on Internet users — observing and remembering people’s clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests.” Gasp! Mabel, hide the kids, the Romans Huns Krauts Commies Marketers are coming!

There is absolutely nothing new — thus nothing newsworthy — in what the Journal promises threatens to be a series.

The Journal does measure its own cookies, finding its site moderate (I count 34 Journal cookies on my new Mac and I don’t use the site often) in what it ominously calls an “exposure index.” Mabel: Bring the Geiger counter!

Well, except the Journal is unique because unlike the other sites the story writes about, the Journal has my personally identifiable information! It has my friggin’ credit card number and name and address and phone number as well as my web behavior and it allows me to be tracked by third parties. The Journal has more information about me than ANY of the sites it warns about. And the Journal is owned by a company some people don’t trust. Hmmm.

It’s a fine thing that the Journal also tells readers how to “avoid prying eyes.” And if enough people do that, then the value of the advertising-supported web falls. Without cookies, the effectiveness and price of advertising would plummet as ads everywhere turn into remnant junk (smack the money), reducing revenue for media sites and reducing their content to junk. Hmmmm….

A story like this might also affect policy as the FTC is looking at regulating online advertising and marketing; its chairman, Jon Leibowitz testified before Congress on the topic this very week. Hmmm.

I think the Journal should have told exactly how it places and uses every one of its cookies and beacons and ominous tracking surveillance spying technology. It doesn’t. The story doesn’t even link to the paper’s privacy policy, which says that cookies and beacons and all that scary surveillance/tracking/spying technologies are used at WSJ.com and its affiliates and also by third parties over which the Journal has no control. Opportunity lost.

If I were an advertising-supported site, I’d be aggressively transparent. I’d tell you exactly what we track and what impact that has on what we serve in advertising and content. I’d create an app to read the cookies placed just for you and explain them. I’d give you the chance to correct information. I’d give you the chance to select your own advertising (now that would be valuable). I’d treat this with radical openness.

Otherwise the scare mongers like those regulation-loving, anticapitalist commies at News Corp. will win the day.

: Oh, and I neglected to point out that it was the very same Journal that had the wingnutty story about privacy and RFID tags on our pants, quoting as an expert a woman who thinks that RFIDs are — and I exaggerate not — the work of the devil. What the hell is happening there? Are they going out for drinks too often with their new neighbors at the Post?

: Oh and here’s more scaremongering from the commie Telegraph in London, which equates Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Man, we are in silly season.

: MONDAY: The Journal campaign against digital advertising continues today with a shocking exposé revealing that Microsoft is a business-friendly business that chose not to release its browser with a default that would have killed ad tracking and targeting. Horrors!

Now if the Journal were really a business newspaper still, there’d be no news there. The news would be if Microsoft did not do what was good for revenue.

Here’s a too-metered Microsoft response to the weekend’s follies from the browser team.