Posts tagged ‘media models’

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?

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 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.

New Media = Back to Basics

By , 19 December, 2008, 1 Comment

Another interesting debate in class today, where I got a bit heated and yelled at some fellow classmates who were trashing news executives for “failing” to find a way to pay for what they see as the one true journalism–i.e. objective, general-interest and long-form. I tried to remind them that this model was a 20th century anomaly; for most of its history, journalism has been short, snappy, niche and opinionated. Why are we all hung up on mourning a fluke?

I don’t rejoice when old media companies go down; I think longtime professionals have a level of expertise that is more, not less, valuable in the emerging niche media world and I want them to stay in the field and on the airwaves. To do so, I believe we in media have to take the long view and recognize that the place media is headed looks an awful lot like the places we’ve been in the past, so we can calm down and drop this obsession with 1970s style reporting.

To that end, in addition to yelling at my classmates, I’m researching and writing about older media models that might serve as more relevant precedents: one model is the Victorian radical press, which I’ve described in today’s Columbia Journalism Review. This winter, I’ll be combing the 1830′s French press for another option. Where and when else should I be looking?

Not-so-apocalyptic after all, or, I told you so

By , 17 December, 2008, No Comment

I’ve been saying for ages that the future of media is in a rapprochement between the best and biggest old media companies and the best and leanest of the new media startups. Another example to add to my trend list: Reuters and Politico announced a content-sharing deal this week.

This is especially good news because Reuters is a wire. On the one hand, the wires are having a hard time rejigging their revenue structure for the digital world. On the other hand, because they already specialize in being fast and scrappy, and in putting out raw content for others to reuse, wires are already suited to the content of web-style reporting.

Instead of supplying newspapers–who need to move away from trying to break headlines that readers can get online on Reuters’ own site–Reuters can supply blogs. Blogs like Politico DO need to be fast news-breakers but since the best ones are specialized they need content outside their focus area that Reuters can provide. Meanwhile Reuters drives a new generation of readers to its site (so it can monetize its own content directly, instead of just through subscribers). And it gets to outsource some of its political reporting to Politico’s staff.

I wish I could say ‘I rest my case’ about this but I think ’09 will see even more of these partnerships. And shamelessly enough, I am compelled to toot my horn when I’m proven right.

Some insights on the apocalypse

By , 14 December, 2008, 1 Comment

There’s no shortage of handwringing about the future of the newspaper industry these days and this blog has definitely contributed its fair share. But this item by John Gapper at the FT seems far more balanced than most of what I’ve read. Gapper’s argument is similar to the one I’ve made on this site:

1. We don’t need more than a few major news organizations covering national and international news. If the Miami Herald loses it’s D.C. bureau, it’s no big deal, because Floridians can get the WaPo online or the Herald can content-share with the WaPo on its own site.
2. Some things like weather and sports scores (ie pure information) can be done by any number of web start-ups and newspapers really don’t need to have staffs for this anymore.
3. City papers outside the national news hubs should stick to local news, and most of them are slowly going this way.

The innovation in Gapper’s article is the way he explains the current financial troubles of news media: no one should wring their hands for the NYTimes, even if they are starved for revenue right now, because AS the other city papers go more local, the market share of the NYT in national news will increase. The big guys will be just fine. It’s a nice silver lining in a dire newspaper economy and a well-written item I thought I should pass along.

Apocalypse 9: Glocalism

By , 5 December, 2008, No Comment

Been having some passionate debates at Columbia about the future of media, and particularly investigative journalism. In class the other day, I suggested that the best use of investigative journalism is on a local level–where you can actually get on the streets, gumshoe-style–and that most papers should focus on reporting what happens in their backyard. If local outlets don’t do that, no one else will, and communities will suffer.

I’m persona non grata in class now, because what I said smacks of New Yorker snobbery, as though I were claiming national news as the exclusive prerogative of my city’s papers (the Times, the WSJ) and those in other big media markets (the Washington Post). But I don’t consider the Times and the WSJ to be New York papers. These are international titles, and even when international news happens here (ie at the Stock Exchange or the UN), I don’t look at that as New York news. Real New York papers–the Post and the Daily News–report just on New York, and that’s as it should be.

An example: the Daily News won a Pulitzer last year for its coverage of the medical fallout 9/11 had on the emergency workers who spent time doing rescue work at Ground Zero. They’d have missed that one if they’d been busy with a national or international story. In other words, I’d be just as incensed if the Daily News got themselves a Pentagon reporter as I am when I hear about a Washington bureau for a local paper from the Midwest or the South.

The problem, as one of my classmates pointed out last night, is that very few people consume as much news as I do (most people have lives). So while I can read the WSJ, the WaPo and the Times for national and international information and then get local headlines from the NY1 TV station, many Americans want everything together. Going too local will reinforce the parochialism many foreigners find irksome about Americans.

It’s not that readers in cities outside New York and D.C. don’t deserve to hear about national news; it’s that their papers should not squander resources looking for it at the expense of local beats. That’s what wire services are for.

I’m not alone in looking for a news universe that is geographically segmented. Take a look at these readership figures for the top 5 visited news websites:

New York Times 707 764 000

USATODAY.com — 186,178,000

Washingtonpost.com — 163,844,000
Wall Street Journal Online — 107,333,000

Boston.com — 77,536,000

No local outlet is level with the nationals. But the one that comes closest is Boston.com, the website of the Boston Globe, because the Globe has smartly zeroed in on exclusively local coverage: Massachusetts stories and local sports scores. Today, there’s only one national story on the whole front page; it’s way at the bottom and it’s coming from the AP.

The real crisis, then, is what to do about wire-style reporting as the Associated Press hurdles towards collapse. Someone needs to devise a system for national and international news to be fed to papers for whom it’s not, and should not be, the primary bread and butter. CNN is starting its own wire service, and there’s ProPublica, but there’s no guarantee these business models will work any better than the AP’s. I’d like to see more activity and experimentation in this field–are there projects out there I don’t know about?

In case you didn’t believe me

By , 30 October, 2008, 1 Comment

I wrote on Monday that blogs will add to, not subtract from or replace, existing media forms like the narrative or the investigation because people still want to know facts and tend to process facts best in narrative form.

Today, I listened to a great NPR session with Nick Lemann (Dean of Columbia’s J-school, and my professor in a class on journalistic methods and ethics this fall), Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic writer and blogger extraordinaire) and Tina Brown (former editor of Vanity Fair and a newcomer to the blogosphere). Here’s what this trio of media giants thought:

Even on the blogosphere, people aren’t giving up on the need for information and analysis, for Linkdefinitive answers in the way Jeff Jarvis et al contend. They just verify information in different ways. Lemann reminds us that the biggest web traffic still goes to the “established” sites. Sullivan says that among amateur blogs, the winners are still people with expertise in some niche, people you can “trust and verify” because they give you the links to their sources and encourage readers to correct them. If print professionals get you to trust that they tell the truth because of their personal intelligence, bloggers earn trust by transparency and humility.

Yet Sullivan just wrote in the Atlantic that blogs are a bit postmodern, based on cultivating a back-and-forth of opinions that might in a theoretical aggregate contain the objective truth, but not in any one place you can hold in your hand or read from start-to-finish. But, he says, just as postmodern criticism has failed to swallow up all of academia, blogs cannot and should not swallow up all of news production: for some things, people still like and need the fixed narrative.

Sullivan, Lemann and Brown make the same point in the NPR spot–newspapers shouldn’t mimic blogs by getting more vitriolic, going all-digital or cutting stories to 150 word blurbs. They should worry about finding better ways to finance the kind of in-depth, objective-fact reporting blogs don’t do.

I often talk about media convergence. What I mean by this is not that one form will win out and everyone will go there, but that news organizations will learn to produce some combination of old and new media so that individual journalists can work across platforms. Sullivan is a great example of that–a magazine man who is also a full-time blogger and understands the difference between the two forms. Lemann is getting there–he used to think blogs were the end of journalism, now (in this NPR spot at least) he thinks they are the “golden age” for free discourse and commentary, but should not and cannot replace old school investigations.

At the individual level, then, convergence is moving along fine. Even at the institutional level, many newsrooms are learning to strike a cross-platform balance. The issue is one of financing that balance and that’s the one area where I thought this NPR dialogue covered new and controversial ground: late in the session, the group discussed the possibility of more public financing for print media, akin to the funding streams for NPR and PBS. I hadn’t really thought about that, since newspapers in America have never had state aid.

But is there any inherent reason why public financing for print should be unacceptable when we already do as much for broadcasters? I’m still not sure what to make of the proposal, whether it’s feasible and whether it would help the situation. What do you think?