Archive for ‘Apocalypse Series’

A poor blueprint for digital journalism

By , 19 May, 2011, No Comment

I wrote a post yesterday for the Public Business blog about the disappointing research on digital journalism that Columbia Journalism School put out last week. It speaks to a number of the business model issues I’ve written about here – the niche-ification of news, the mismatch of supply and demand in digital advertising, the pros and cons of paywalls – but not in a way that I found sufficiently detailed or comprehensive:

It explores a handful of strategies for making news pay online, but it emphasizes that each one must be accompanied by bean counting on the editorial side, beyond what will come naturally from crashing production costs.

While it takes note of sites that have managed to eke out profits on a teensy budget, its business-side focus means there’s not enough evaluation of the content these sites have produced. It asks, for example, whether the hyperlocal model can support ‘serious accountability journalism’ but then fails to establish which – if any – of the hyperlocal sites profiled (TBD, Baristanet, The Batavian, Patch) qualifies as providing ‘serious accountability journalism.’

In failing to answer that question, this report doesn’t do much to challenge the contention made by last year’s reports from both Columbia Journalism School and the F.T.C. that certain types of public interest reporting are too fundamentally expensive to fit in the new market, that they will have to be supported by the public and nonprofit sectors. [More on these proposals here.]

We believe strongly that on the business beat, there is a unique case, both ethically and financially, to be made for nonprofit funding for certain types of stories, which is why we’re doing it.

But we would still like to see more discussion of the public-interest potential of for-profit media models. There is lots of good discussion about how to make news profitable, and lots of good discussion about how to make news better, but there is not enough discussion and research that tackles these questions together. That can’t be a good thing, for the media or the public.

You can read the whole post here.

I’m going to be doing most of my blogging on media industry issues for Public Business, and cross-posting or excerpting them here. But if you’re following this blog specifically for media industry coverage, you might want to follow Public Business too.

Apocalypse 41: AOL Buys Huffington Post

By , 7 February, 2011, 3 Comments

Tim Armstrong’s game to make AOL a content company continues today with his $315 million acquisition of the Huffington Post. Deal details are here, but the key points are: the new Huffington Post Media Group will include HuffPo as well as AOL’s content sites, and Arianna Huffington will be its editor-in-chief.

I’ve been reasonably patient and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving about the new AOL, but this strikes me as a terrible idea. First, there’s the gap between how the two companies see ‘content.’ For all the heat it takes on the grounds that it doesn’t pay its writers (and that heat is deserved), the HuffPo is very much a place that believes there’s value to a publisher in originalreporting. The front page may still read like the liberal answer to Drudge that its founders had in mind, but of late, the site has made major expansions into more serious coverage, and I increasingly run into HuffPo reporters who are doing gumshoe work. It is much more than an aggregator with great SEO managers, though it is that too.

AOL when Tim Armstrong first took it over promised to be that, hiring a number of high-profile journalists from collapsing newspapers to work on a number of smart blogs, and even recruiting stringers as foreign correspondents. But in the last few months, the strategy has shifted. This presentation of AOL’s new metrics for success is pessimistic and unimaginative, a vision of digital media seems stuck in the noisy, SEO-obsessed world of five years ago. It’s certainly not a vision that’s compatible with the kind of place that HuffPo has grown up to be, nor with some of the more interesting elements of AOL’s current content stable. No surprise, then, that those elements are the first to be thrown overboard.

Second, the new ‘AOL way’ is all about mass appeal, and, as everyone knows, the Huffington Post is partisan project. I am not sure what is harder to imagine: that all of AOL’s platforms could conform to Ariana Huffington’s worldview, or that the Huffington Post could suddenly shift center, in the way that Armstrong and Huffington promised when talking about the deal to AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher.

Actually, the whole Swisher interview is worth watching, because it highlights these two culture clashes–on politics and on reporting–that make me skeptical of the deal: listening to Ariana and then Armstrong, it seems as though they are talking about separate mergers. AOL. has been down the dangerous route of a merger with a very different culture before, and it had disastrous consequences. It’s a shame it seems to be making the same mistake twice.

Apocalypse 40: Fees and Disclosures

By , 13 November, 2010, 1 Comment

Two very different publications with very similar names–the Times of London and the New York Times–have been leading the charge within establishment media to try and take more revenue out of subscribers than out of advertisers.

The Times of London’s paywall, which blocks non-subscribers from reading anything except headlines–came down in July, and this month, News Corp announced that it 105,000 people have paid to access the site since then. Here’s the problem: we have no idea what kind of access they paid for. How many paid for desktop access vs. applications on the Kindle or the iPad? How many paid for a promotional subscription at a lower rate during the first few weeks? How many paid for single articles vs. for the whole site? Without answers to those questions, it’s impossible to know if the paywall is worth the dramatic crash in traffic that the Times has suffered. PaidContent did their best to sound cheerful in the rough calculations they published, but even they admit, the numbers look “a little meagre.” The FT, MediaGuardian and Clay Shirky were much less charitable.

It’s a pity because the Times’ redesigned site is a pretty sleek affair. But it’s a shame for another reason too: the Times paywall was not just an experiment for the Times but an experiment for the industry. And even those of us who agree with the Murdochs about next-to-nothing were curious about how it would work. Because we can’t get ahold of the details, the paywall can’t serve as a teaching moment. We know it probably didn’t work, but we don’t know exactly why, or where the failings were. Shame on James Murdoch for that.

Meanwhile, here in New York, the New York Times metered system is about to launch. I’m already a full print-and-web subscriber, so it won’t affect me, but one thing that is nice is to know that the meter–unlike Murdoch’s paywall–doesn’t shut out search, or traffic from blogs and other websites, which means I can keep linking to the Grey Lady from here. In that, it’s going to be a bit like the FT’s model (which I like). There’s more info on the meter and other things the NYT is thinking about in the most recent earnings call. [Worth noting: yes, profits are down for this quarter, but year to date, 2010 is looking to be a more profitable year than 2009.]

But here’s the interesting thing: despite all the hype surrounding it, the Times management seems to have already conceded that the meter is too soft an approach to radically change its digital revenue stream. CEO Janet Robinson told Robb Montgomery that she think the real paid content winner is apps. Assistant Managing Editor Gerry Marzorati told a conference in New York that the Times can stay afloat for awhile by hiking up rates on its print subscribers, and scandalized many-a-blogger by noting that many subscribers don’t know what they pay. I’m not sure, exactly, how the meter helps either of those strategies along, or why so much time an effort went into it if the head honchos don’t expect it to make a splash. Thoughts?

Apocalypse 39: Merger-land

By , 15 October, 2010, 1 Comment

As readers will know (and be bored of hearing by now), I believe the future of media is in intelligent aggregation of niche offerings within larger cross-platform organizations. I have always  assumed that we would get to this model if big old media bought up smaller new media, or if small new media sites merged with one another to become big new media, of if big old media diversified by launching smaller new media platforms.

I had not considered however, the possibility that small new media might buy up big old media. That appears to be happening now, as Newsweek–just recently purchased by Sidney Harman–considers an offer from Tina Brown’s Daily Beast.

I am not a fan of the Daily Beast. There are one or two very smart people I know who write for them, but for the most part, I find the site tabloid-y. Its better writers are people whose work already had a platform at Slate or Salon or elsewhere. It’s unclear to me, more than a year after its launch, what the Daily Beast has added to the digital mediaverse that wasn’t there already. Given that I feel rather similarly about weekly news magazines, one would think I would be down on this merger.

But I’m not, entirely, because I still have a great deal of confidence in Tina Brown as an editor. As editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992, then as editor of the New Yorker from 1992 to 1998, her mark on American journalism is undeniable. She gave Vanity Fair the combination of high fashion photography and deeply reported narrative that make it suo generis. She gave the New Yorker a batch of new writers–Jeffrey Toobin, Lawrence Wright and Adam Gopnik stand out–who made it fun to read again.  And through their voices, their combination of rich narrative, beautiful prose and rigorous reporting, she had a tremendous impact on me and the kind of journalism I aspire to produce. If that Tina Brown–magazine editor Brown–is taking over Newsweek, only good things can come of it. But if Newsweek is going to become a print version of the Daily Beast, I’ll pass.

Updated, 10/18/2010: The merger talks have fallen apart, because Brown, Harman and Barry Diller (who owns a piece of the Beast) couldn’t agree on how to share control. Says Brown in today’s WSJ: “The engagement was fun, but the pre-nup got too complex.”

Updated, 11/12/2010: The merger is back on. Read the announcement here. And note, it’s clear what Newsweek gets from the deal (Tina and her readers!), but it’s not clear to me what the Beast is getting, or what its future is.

Introducing Public Business

By , 8 October, 2010, No Comment

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been swamped with a very exciting new project, and it’s now ready to introduce to you. Along with a Columbia classmate and BBC journalist, Damian Kahya, I’m launching a nonprofit dedicated to filling in a key gap in the emerging media model: in-depth, original, public interest reporting about business. That means reporting about how the decisions made at companies affect the rest of us: about the wider economic, environmental, and social implications of business activity. Once upon a time, this kind of journalism was a core part of every business newsroom, and indeed in some high profile examples, like Fortune’s big Enron scoop or the BBC’s documentary about Nike sweatshops, it has helped change the course of events and sparked public debate about important issues. There are still great reporters doing this work, but they are fewer in number and have less resources at their disposal. Our goal is to partner with news organizations to put more funds and more people behind this kind of reporting. To do that, we need support. We’re looking for donations large and small and we’re hoping to build a membership community around our work. To learn more about what kind of work we support, how we intend to do it, and what it will mean to be a member, visit our website.

There, you’ll find a blog post I wrote about the troubles in journalism and why we’re doing this. Here’s what it says:

Apocalypse 37: AOL buys TechCrunch

By , 30 September, 2010, 1 Comment

a.o.l. has moved to acquire technology and business blog TechCrunch, as part of new CEO Tim Armstrong’s strategy to turn the company from an internet service provider into a stable of content sites, a digital version of a magazine holding company. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington on his reasons for selling:

They run the largest blogging network in the world and if we sold to them we’d never have to worry about tech issues again. We could focus our engineering resources on higher end things and I, for one, could spend more of my day writing and a lot less time dealing with other stuff.

They already own many of the top technology blogs. They already have a huge sales team in place (although our own sales team kicks ass and is staying on). And they have an internal events group that we will be able to leverage.

From a product and business standpoint, it’s a perfect fit.

…AOL was very aggressive about one last important issue that really sealed the deal – editorial.

Tim told me that he doesn’t want whatever makes TechCrunch special to go away. He also said it was important that we feel free to criticize AOL when we think they deserve it. And the agreement we signed with AOL fully reflects this. In particular, we used the Twitter document scandal as a test. If the same thing happens with AOL in the future, we should feel comfortable posting those documents. And in that unlikely event, we will.

More information on the deal here.

I’ve been saying for some time that the future model is a kind of aggregation of niche sites under big name banners, including a.o.l.’s. And TechCrunch is one of the best niche sites out there. I disagree with much of what they write, because they get over-excited about each and every startup they cover. But the fact is, they also break more big tech stories than anyone, and I find that the site is pretty indispensible as a result. All in all, Armstrong has made a smart acquisition.

Apocalypse 36: Status Report

By , 4 September, 2010, 2 Comments

For over two years, I have been writing a series of posts on the media industry called the Apocalypse. I am often asked whether that’s overly pessimistic. My answer: ‘apocalypse’ is a term we use for the end of the world, sure, but it’s also, to those who take the term seriously, supposed to herald the revelation of something new and extraordinary. That is what I believe is coming to media, whenever the chaotic collapse of the model we know is over.

Occasionally, the Apocalypse Series has attempted to read the tea leaves and make predictions about the new model. I don’t believe–as other media prophets seem to–that there will be no more Big Media. Human history suggests that power tends to consolidate, break down and then consolidate again. I believe that the new consolidators of power will be organizations who can mix and match. It will be the people who can take the nichification that the web brings and use it to deepen rather than to flatten what we know.

Apocalypse 35: Full Circle at Forbes

By , 24 August, 2010, 11 Comments

As you probably know by now, Forbes has bought and decided to shutter blogging portal True/Slant, and to bring its erstwhile chief Lew Dvorkin in as its new chief. What you may not know is that Dvorkin–whom I wrote about last year–was an ex-Forbesian, who left the magazine for a start-up, and then for AOL, specifically because he wanted to get deep into the web and digital marketing, and left AOL, he told me, because it didn’t have “the DNA for content-creation.” At thetime, he was trying to explain True/Slant to me as pure content informed by branding savvy, but the combination will be just as relevant at Forbes. Former co-workers there tell me the change is all about helping Forbes play digital catch-up, and the test is maintaining its reporting DNA in the process.

Apocalypse 34: Privacy and Publicness

By , 28 June, 2010, 1 Comment

This weekend, I spent some time pondering the recent departure of Dave Weigel from the Washington Post. Weigel made a name for himself at the Washington Independent, where he covered the conservative movement for a liberal audience. This spring, he was hired to blog about American conservatism for the Post.

Like most of the Washington left-of-center reporting pool, Weigel was a member of the controversial JournoList, an off-the-record email listserv managed by the Post’s Ezra Klein. Last week, a number of Weigel’s emails on the list surfaced, showcasing harsh, offensive views about the movement he covers and a desire to influence coverage of that movement at the publications of his peers. On Friday, Weigel resigned.

The political blogosphere, especially the left-o-sphere, has been quick to turn Weigel into a hero, a poster child for the principles of new media, where having an opinion and voicing it is an asset, not a liability, and where the line between news reporter and newsmaker is blurry if it exists at all.

Apocalypse 33: News on the Dole

By , 1 June, 2010, 3 Comments

The FTC has released a report on the state of the news media, in preparation for a meeting on June 15. The FTC draws heavily on previous reports by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism and the Columbia Journalism School.

To new media evangelists, the report suggests the government should protect old media organizations against dangerous digital forces, i.e. the evangelists themselves. And the FTC’s focus is traditional, The report defines journalism as original reporting in real, or very recent, time. This means newspapers and online news sites, but it does not include magazines or opinion blogs or most TV news.

Some bloggers think this line is arbitrary, but I disagree. Aggregators and analysts are beginning to find sustainable business models online, but the raw news they rely on hasn’t. Raw newsgathering is inherently inefficient, and has never been profitable. But in print, you can bundle in the money-losing news with the profitable commentary, the spinach with the candy. The web breaks the bundle. It’s no surprise that no one has figured out to monetize raw beat reporting—on its own—online. The FTC has not only chosen the most essential segment of media, but the one that, demonstrably, the market hasn’t figured out. That’s what the state should do.

The web-istas say the state has no business in journalism. But for most of history, and especially at times when new technologies were emerging, American journalism has relied on government support. Done wrong, of course, this is propaganda. But done right, it’s great. Jim Lehrer is still the best evening anchor. Enough said.

As for the FTC’s actual recommendations, I have mixed reviews: