Posts about nytimes

The devil Drudge

Maybe I’m more aware of this because I’m a Hillary supporter, but it does seem as if the New York Times is taking any opportunity to swipe at her. Yesterday’s page one carried a story that was shocked — shocked, I tell you — that the Clinton campaign might actually be feeding stories to the dreaded Drudge Report.

….But it was a prime example of a development that has surprised much of the political world: Mrs. Clinton is learning to play nice with the Drudge Report and the powerful, elusive and conservative-leaning man behind it. . . .

That people in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch. . . .

The site is a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge’s targets of choice — some of it delivered with no apparent effort to determine its truth, as politicians of all stripes have discovered at times.

Would they be equally shocked if Rudy Giuliani or John McCain tried to get good publicity from, oh, the New York Times?

And it’s not as if the Times doesn’t benefit plenty from
Drudge. Last I checked, Drudge was the single largest nonsearch referrer to both the Times and the Washington Post. And I’ve heard executives from major publications and blogs say that they wouldn’t piss off Drudge because he sends them so much traffic.

So why are they so shocked that Clinton might try to get a favorable link? What’s the news there? Or is it an opportunity to slap Hillary while she’s up? Just asking.

Editing the Times

Here’s an exchange between Adam Nagourney of the Times and me over campaign coverage.

On Tuesday, I took out after Nagourney for his Times story presenting the impression that Obama is winning over Iowa youth even though the polls, which he quotes, do not back up that hypothesis. I posted a comment on his story (though it never showed up there) and also crossposted it here. Nagourney responded the next day (though being crazed with the Networked Journalism Summit, I had no time to reply until now). Here is his article and here my criticism (with my comment at the end). Here are his response to me and mine to him:

* * *

Hey Jeff:

Here’s my feeling on this: My job is about getting information out to the public, from what I see and learn on the campaign trail, and trying to put it in as much perspective as possible. In this case, it looks like something MIGHT be going on with Obama and younger voters, based on anecdotal evidence (turn-out at his rallies, conversations with younger voters, the make-up of his campaign staff), but also because his campaign is clearly trying to work it (the Iowa High School program is pretty neat.) To me, journalistically, I want to make sure I get that information out to readers – but with all the statistical and historical information that makes clear that this remains very speculative right now.. (Also, keep in mind, I wrote that for one of our Web columns, where we have more flexibility in voice and tone – hence the phrase, ‘polls aside.” — which was important I think in communicating to readers that this is not some breathless announcement story.)

The alternative would have been not to write anything at all, and sit back and feel like a jerk if Obama, say, sweeps through Iowa and New Hampshire and exit polls show it’s because it was because of a sudden surge of under-30 voters.

Hope that answers your question.

Adam

* * *

Adam,

Thanks so much for the reply.

Of course, it’s your job to get information out to the public. But it’s also your job to judge that information. You had an impression. But the polls simply didn’t back up that impression. So is that impression information? Is it news, worthy of running in the Times? And is covering your flank — so you don’t feel like a jerk, as you say — sufficient cause to shove this round peg into that square hole?

In any case, this remains a horse-race story and I’m among those who are tired of them and, indeed, think they can be a perilous addiction. For they are too much about betting, entertainment, and ego: covering one’s rear in hopes of being the one who called it right. But what value does that really give us? What does that tell us about the candidate? What knowledge or news does that provide to help us vote? Not much, I’d say.

I’d point you to this post, inspired by a Politico blog item that noted the syncopation between the polls and the media’s narrative: Clinton was ahead in the polls but Politico had the impression that national media’s narrative gave Obama the mo’. Now that all this coverage is digital and searchable, it’s not hard to test that hypothesis as I did here. Note also the six-month candidate coverage chart on Daylife (where, full disclosure, I am a partner); the service gathers and analyzes coverage from thousands of news sources. It shows that Clinton’s coverage has not broken away from Obama’s until last month. Media impression is only now catching up to voter reality.

So return to your story. Without the facts — and polls are about as close as we get — one is left (I was left) with the question: Why did you do the story? Seeking your motive is a reasonable question since you’re the guy who controls that news hole into which was shoved this dubious peg.

So if writing in a web column gives you more flexibility in voice and tone, then I say run with it. Be transparent. Bloggy, even. If Obama impresses you, say so. If you think his high-school program is really neat, then print that. Make that the reason for the story. For without that, we are left to wonder: Is this wishful thinking? Please tell us.

Now please allow me to speak more as a former editor than as a blogger and say that there are plenty of ways I think you could have attacked this story that wouldn’t have required the taffy stretching. A few ideas:

You could have focused in solely on that high-school program and reported the hell out of it, talking with the strategists who created it, the operatives who facilitated it, and the students who followed this Pied Piper and those who didn’t. Then I still would have seen the Obama campaign’s dogged pursuit of youth. I’d still like to know about the programs of the other candidates, though.

Or you could have gone to rallies for Obama and Clinton and done a census of age. It’s even something you could have crowdsourced: Get volunteers to ask 100 random, truly random people their age. Get a fact. Contrast that with the polls. Talk with the young people in both places. Tell me why they like either candidate. Why they don’t like the other. Let me hear them speak.

Or go to a mall and find 100 random youth yourself. Ask them for whom they’re voting and why and whether any actions of the campaigns have influenced them.

Or do a statistical analysis of past campaigns and show how much impact the youth vote had on victory since, say, 18-year-olds got the vote. Then look at the relative support of Clinton and Obama and explain why it is or isn’t wise for the Obama campaign to be going after youth.

Or poll young people about the issues and stands that matter to them — if, indeed, youth speak at all monolithically — and analyze the candidates’ stands next to that to see who should be more appealing (this approach having the fringe benefit of actually discussing a few issues in addition to the obvious, Iraq).

And if Iowa’s caucuses are, as you report, unlikely to be affected by the youth since they swing so old, then maybe picking another state might be more productive.

Journalistically, to paraphrase you, doesn’t replacing reportorial generalities and rhetorical questions with reported facts get more information out to readers and voters?

I’ll be blogging this, too. I don’t know why my comment didn’t end up attached to your story. If you with to reply, I’d hope you’d do so in one or the other of our comments.

– Jeff

[I should have added in my reply to him — in the interest of transparency — that I am likely to vote for Clinton.]

The Peter Pan of politics

Here is another example of either lazy or agenda-laded — or both — political reporting in the Times: Adam Nagourney’s exercise in apparent wishful thinking as he muses on Barack Obama attracting young voters. On Obama:

He has clearly struck a chord among younger voters. And his campaign has made what seems to be the most sophisticated effort of any of the Democrats to reach out to them, taking steps like sending recruiting teams to Iowa high schools and trying to ensure that New Hampshire college students who might be out of state on primary day get absentee ballots.

What will this mean in the end?

Now that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly, Nagorney doesn’t know and so one wonders why the story was done. The impression was certainly out there that Obama had younger supporters and that’s the premise of the story. But Nagourney’s first fact belies that:

The truth of the matter is that every four years – as sure as a sunset – stories appear about a surge of interest among younger voters in presidential politics, typically predicting a jump in turn-out that will benefit one campaign or another. It rarely turns out to be true: the percentage of voters under 30 in the total electorate was basically unchanged between 2000 and 2004– 17 percent, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls. Polls taken by The Times and CBS News last month suggest that there is no difference in the level of support between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton among younger Democratic voters, though they view Mr. Obama slightly more favorably.

One wonders again why the story was done, then. But Nagourney goes on to sell his now-questionable premise:

But could this finally be the year – and this the candidate – that produces the ever-expected burst of interest among younger voters? Polls aside, the kind of crowds Mr. Obama is drawing – and a walk through his campaign headquarters in Des Moines – certainly suggest that some young people have taken a strong interest in his candidacy.

Polls aside. Facts aside. History aside. Damnit, he’s determined to write this story, to push the image of Obama as the political Pied Piper. He moves to meaningless observations:

At 46, Mr. Obama has just the slightest streak of gray hair, no creases in his face and works out every day to keep trim. Democrats may debate whether his youthfulness makes it tough for him to come across as presidential; at the least, it means that he does not come across as parental, at least not to the newly voting age crowd.

The story is utterly uninformative. And I have to wonder whether there is an agenda here: another slap at frontrunner Clinton or an effort to boster the flagging Obama. In either case, I wish that we could have a dialogue with Nagourney over this story to ferret out the motive and method behind stories such as this.

I posted this comment on the story:

In one breath, you quote polls saying that there is essentially no difference between Obama and Clinton in youth’s support of them.

In the next breath, you try to argue that Obama is the youth candidate with little more to back up your contention — is it a wishful one? — than your vague, generalized observations about his hair and fitness and tactics, still unproven.

Why was this story written? What is the news here?

Times deselected

TimesSelect is dead. It was a cynical act doomed from the start. With it goes any hope of charging for content online. Content is now and forever free.

No one with sufficient experience ever thought that TimesSelect made good business sense. Oh, they talked a good game: It was another revenue stream to balance dependence on advertising, said the spin, . . . It was a tribute to the great value of the Times brand and its unique content ,. . . It was an opportunity to create added value worth added revenue. . . . It was a way to give print subscribers new benefits. Yada-yada-ka-ching.

Bull. TimesSelect represented the last gasp of the circulation mentality of news media, the belief that surely consumers would continue to pay for content even as the internet commodified news and — more important — even as the internet revealed that the real value in media is not owning and controlling content or distribution but enabling conversation.

I remember Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, giving a speech in which he ridiculed the revenue TimesSelect brought in. In his beloved PowerPoint, Rusbridger showed a picture of the new Times headquarters and said that the revenue from TimesSelect wouldn’t even pay the gas bill for the place.

The financial analyses of TimesSelect were always too simplistic — as if revenue were profit. The Times obituary for its service said that the service collected $49.95 per year or $7.95 per month from 227,000 paying customers at the end — 787,000 total customers, including print subscribers and, recently, academic readers given a free ride. The Times said it brought in $10 million revenue after two years, which sounds damned respectable. But no one ever mentioned the marketing cost to get that revenue. A magazine that costs $50 a year will spend almost that much acquiring subscribers. No one mentioned the extra editorial costs of creating more content to try to make the damned thing special enough to pay for. I never heard any calculation of the customer-service cost of maintaining that many customers, most of whom brought in no revenue. And then there was the question of how much revenue was lost in the Times archives, included in the deal. So though TimesSelect may have brought in revenue at a rate of $10 million at the end, it didn’t earn that much profit. I wonder whether it was profitable at all.

And TimesSelect cost the paper much more in the internet age: It took the Times columnists out of the conversation and reduced their influence in America and worldwide. Worse, it diluted the paper’s Googlejuice. Even as the Times acquired About.com, a grand demonstration of the economic power of search-engine optimization (where, full disclosure, I consulted for a year and a half), the company shut off some of its content from Google’s search and bloggers’ links. That was its greatest harm.

TimesSelect’s brilliant cynicism was that, when forced to find something to put behind a pay wall, they came up with content that was, indeed, uniquely valuable — the columnists and archives. But this was also content for which there was no significant ad revenue at the time (advertisers buy ads in food and travel but not opinion sections; there is essentially no endemic advertising for blather). Thus they made the good college try to prove whether or not a pay news service could work without harming the ad revenue of the business. Even so, TimesSelect hurt the larger brand and its position in the marketplace, in the conversation, and in Google. It was a short-sighted strategy.

I should add that this is apparently why the company just decided to make some of its archives free — great news for readers and for the paper, for it will bring in more traffic, more Googlejuice, and more revenue (and, besides, it’d be hard to charge for archives once they were perceived as free for most TimesSelect users). Oddly, the Times story says that archives from 1987 to present and from 1851 to 1922 will be free but there will be charges for reading articles from 1923 to 1986 (I smell a committee decision).

The bottom line is that the staff of the Times online did the best it could with TimesSelect, creating the richest service they could and probably garnering the largest paying clientèle possible — but still, it was a bad idea from the start. It turned out to be one expensive experiment, one bad investment.

But now everyone else in the content business can learn from the Times’ mistake. Rupert Murdoch has publicly toyed with the idea of taking down the pay wall around the Wall Street Journal online; I’d bet the odds of that just increased. If the Times and the Journal stop charging — and the Economist just took down its wall — then I’d have to imagine that the Financial Times will have to follow suit.

So much for the idea of charging for content — news content especially — online. Too much of it is commodified. There’s no end of free competition. The value is fleeting in time. The cost of charging is too high.

Whether or not content wants to be free, it is free.

Don’t let anyone tell you that this is bad for the content business. It’s only good sense. Having worked in the magazine business, I saw this even at the dawn of the internet: As I said above, a magazine has to pay up to $30-40 in marketing costs to acquire subscribers; it can pay up to $5-7 to print and distribute a copy of a glossy magazine; it has high editorial costs. Add that up, and a magazine can find itself in the hole $60 or more per subscriber in the first year of a subscription. And they get as little as $1 per issue in subscription revenue. Yet clearly, a magazine can make money because that subscriber’s value to advertisers is much greater.

It’s the relationship that is valuable. It’s the relationship that is profitable, not the control of the content or the distribution. That is the essential media moral of the internet story. It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for, but they’ve finally learned it. That is the lesson of the death of TimesSelect.

: Here’s the Times’ announcement. Note that they sold American Express as a sponsor of the now-public opinion section. They are good at sales.

Here’s Staci Kramer’s report in PaidContent (hmmm, a name that has never been great but is now less-great than ever). She interviewed NYTimes.com GM Vivian Schiller:

The change is because of what’s happened in the internet in the past two years–particularly the power of search.” She added later: “Think about this recipe–millions and millions of new documents, all seo’d, double-digit advertising growth.” The Times expects “the scale and the power of the revenue that would come from that over time” to replace the subscriptions revenue and then some.

Old hires new

Great news for the future of journalism: TVNewser Brian Stelter has been hired by The New York Times business section to cover media online and in print.

The reason that’s good news — besides Brian’s energy and talents now adding to the paper of record — is that it shows how anyone can take on a beat, do it on their own, make it their own, and rise up to the top of the field. Nobody covered TV news as well and completely as Brian. That’s why TV news execs read (and fed) him. That’s why the Times hired him. He did this without a journalism degree or any degree, actually — or even the legal ability to drink beer. On a blog, nobody knows you’re a dog. They just knew that he knew his stuff.

Pay attention, journalism students: When I suggest that you blog, this is what I’m talking about. Take a beat. Add journalism to the discussion around it. Answer a need. And if you’re good, good things can happen.

Pay attention, also, editors: There is talent working outside your newsroom. Go find that talent. Nurture it. You don’t even have to hire it.

Long ago, when Brian went to Media Bistro, I briefly tried to counsel him not to take the job because I thought he could build something bigger on his own. His move there was good for him — it paid him — and good for Media Bistro — it let them own the beat he owned. And it’s equally a good move for him to go to the Times.

But hiring is not the only way to find, engage, and nurture such talent. A media organization could syndicate content (as washingtonpost.com is doing with PrezVid at Channel08). It could sell ads for the blogger (as washingtonpost.com, again, is doing with its blog ad network). It can provide promotion and services and knowledge.

I’m delighted for Brian. He’s a star. The official memo from Times business editor Larry Ingrassia says:

You read about him on the front page of The New York Times last November, in “The Kid With All the News About the TV News.” Now you’ll read him in The New York Times.

Brian Stelter, the TVNewser blogger, is joining the Times next month as an 8i reporter to cover the media world for NYTimes.com and for the paper. . . .

So dedicated was Brian to his blog that he updated it – posting an item about NBC News – between interviews with Times editors in our building recently.

I sent email to Brian urging him to learn from his new colleagues, of course, but also to remember that they have a lot to learn from him. I hope they know that.