Tag Archives: economics

Journalism: a suicide note

I’ve just read Build the Wall – a gently impassioned, 4,250 word essay in the Columbia Journalism Review by David Simon – that declares the only future for journalism is if newspapers – all newspapers, everywhere (in the US anyway) – start charging for their online content.

It’s billed as “One man’s bold blueprint”. It’s actually “One man’s recipe for newspaper suicide”.

His recipe in brief:

  • The financial future of newspaper journalism is in the hands of just two people: New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
  • Together, they should simultaneously erect a subscription pay wall in front of the content on their respective web sites. (On September 1, for convenience).
  • They should coerce news wire services to only offer content to providers of paid-for content.
  • They should fund a trade group to pursue bloggers and aggregators for copyright infringement.

The argument goes like this:

  • TV used to be free, but cable companies have successfully made people pony up monthly fees to watch (eventually) better programming.
  • Newspapers, in contrast, spent the past couple of decades cutting back on resources and undermining the product.
  • When this happened in the US car industry, Americans went off and bought Toyotas. But there is no substitute product for newspapers. Blogs and the like just don’t cut the mustard.
  • Newspapers also focused on advertising as their financial model (bad), rather than subscriptions (good).
  • But people are flocking to the web sites of the New York Times and the Washington Post. So they must think the online version is even better than the printed papers.
  • It’s too expensive to publish printed newspapers profitably. So jack up the price of the paper product, thus forcing those readers online.
  • Then make them pay for the online version. Many may decline to do so. But if you keep 10 per cent of your readers, that’s still a lot of cash money.
  • You can use this cash money to improve the product and attract more subscribers.
  • Repeat ad infinitum until newspapers are rich, rich, rich.

He postulates three possible outcomes for the industry:

  1. The strategy pretty much works – the two leading players set an example for other city papers, who follow suit and everyone starts making money again.
  2. Lots of cities actually lose their newspapers. But – hoorah – paid subscription news organisations move into the vacuum and keep journalism alive online, where costs are much lower. It’s a cut-down model but, hey, quite a few journalists are still employed.
  3. The Times and the Post survive “because their coverage is unique and essential”, but nothing else does, really.

And we don’t have much time – so could you both just get on with it please.

Why this is wrong on so many levels

Well, actually, first where he’s right. As has been pointed out by commentators here, the newspaper business did shoot itself in the foot when it hollowed out its offering by cutting costs and sweating assets. No argument there.

But, really. Let’s take a look at the rest of his points:

  • There is no alternative

You might notice it kind of contradicts itself in saying that [a] the web has supplied no real substitute for newspapers, but [b] the New York Times and Washington Post web sites must be even better than the print editions because millions of users flock to them. This is a long essay and I am flaying it to get the essence, so I could perhaps be misinterpreting David Simon’s points. But I don’t think so.

What he really means, I think, is that the web has provided no real substitute for newspapers other than what the newspapers themselves offer on the web. I suggest that this isn’t so – it’s just that the web has provided no real substitute for newspapers that are like what newspapers understand to be journalism. Which is subtly different.

It’s a familiar complaint. But see Paul Bradshaw’s handy list of blog-moments-that-are-very-much-like-journalism for one rebuttal.

One key difference is that all the useful and journalistic material on the web is not available in one place, as a newspaper would offer it. But there is an answer to that and it’s aggregation. But newspapers hate that because they see it as unfair competition. And would pursue it through copyright lawsuits if this essay had its way.

  • Cable TV points the way

This is not so daft, but ultimately I don’t think it works. Yes, Americans have got used to paying for TV that used to be free. But think about TV, and think about newspapers.

Viewers watch TV in the comfort of their homes, relaxing on the sofa, eating their dinner, and being entertained. They did that in the 1950s, and they still do that now. (Although, come to think of it, a BBC survey found 16- to 24-year-olds are now being distracted by the internet and are watching less TV nowadays. So, you know, the cable TV model might not be as robust as you think.)

In any event, TV consumption is different from that of newspapers.

Newspapers, in this argument, are hard work. They’re worthwhile and improving. And you need time to read them. Time that, it seems, we have less of. It’s a different product, consumed in a different way. And the success of cable TV may actually undermine newspapers, as the more time we spend in front of HBO, the less time we spend reading the op-ed pages of the Times.

  • Lessons from the car industry

The other thing to bear in mind about the analogy of the car industry is that Americans were happy to switch from US car makers to foreign competitors when the US cars became crappy, because they really needed  a car.

In contrast, Americans – and by extension the rest of us – don’t have to buy a newspaper. Really. We can live without that heady blend of news and gossip. For days. And we have found other substitutes that work just as well in totally different ways.

Journalists find it incomprehensible that people can spend their time with text messaging, mobile games and iPods instead of a newspaper and be just as happy. If not more so. Weird.

  • You can’t force people to consume your product

Raising the price of your printed product will certainly cut the numbers of people buying it. But it won’t by default drive them to the online version. The implicit assumption here is that a newspaper are somehow intrinsic to your readers’ lives and they will pursue it anywhere you choose to drive them. This is false.

True, raising the price may help cover production costs better for a while, as the die-hards still pony up for the product. But it’s guaranteed to make newspapers a highly specialist purchase over time. Which their content doesn’t really justify.

And people may go online to read the news, but that doesn’t mean they’ll treat it in the same way they would the paper they’ve just given up. It’s not a direct substitution.

  • People may visit your web site only because it is free

The essay supposes that 10% of a newspaper’s many thousands of web visitors will pay for the privilege. But this is again based on the assumption that newspapers need direct substitution. That life without the local metro paper is somehow a life not worth living.

But people consume the web version of the paper in a different way from the print version. Many people are letting go of the habit of buying and reading a daily paper as their main source of printed information and escape in the day. Instead they browse a wide range of online content and also do other things with their time, from Facebook to YouTube.

  • Nothing is indispensable

Finally, the idea that “The Times and The Post survive because their coverage is unique and essential” is nonsense. Nothing is irreplaceable. Especially not newspapers. Why? Because to the reading public they are not “essential” – clearly they can live without them. Nor are they “unique”, in that there’s an awful lot of similar material available elsewhere, from news to comment to entertainment.

In fact, they are only essential to journalists’ self-image. They reflect us, not the readers. And neither they nor, sadly for those of us in the industry with mortgages to pay, are indispensable.

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Yahoo: the perils of economic statistics

Not sure what state the UK economy is in? Better not read the papers and newswires today, then – you’ll only get more confused.

Today saw the release of the UK’s second quarter GDP statistics. Hmm. How bad were they?

“Bad”, says Yahoo Finance, which takes its content from  news service AFP.

British economy sees record contraction

That kind of bad. 

Oh, but wait. Does that mean the second quarter GDP figures saw a record fall?

Well, the Yahoo story certainly seems to think so:

Britain’s economy shrank in the second quarter at its fastest yearly pace since records began in 1955, as the worst recession since the early 1980s tightened its grip.

Ooh. Scary.

But, hang on a moment. What does that actually mean?

How can a quarterly figure shrink at a yearly pace? That actually doesn’t make sense.

And when you look at the story more closely, it actually reveals that the decline in GDP for Q2 was 0.8% – much less than the whopping 2.4% fall we saw in the first quarter (though more than the forecasters’ prediction of 0.3%. But then, what do they know). 

It turns out that GDP had shrunk by 5.6% in the three months to the end of June, compared to the same period last year.

But actually, most of that fall happened at the end of last year, and then the gruesome first quarter of this year. The GDP statistics just released today actually show that the worst might be over for the recession. 

Things are still pretty grim. But this is like the messy emergency landing in a swamp, rather than the terrifying plunge from the sky that we had earlier in the year. And we’ll probably be in the swamp for a while, which sucks. 

UK_GDP_1955-2009This graphic from the Guardian shows that things are better this quarter than last. Though don’t be fooled into thinking the uptick on the graph means the economy has started growing again. That’s another pitfall of statistical representation. 

But it does clearly show that the worst news happened three months ago. 

What does this mean? 

Pretty much that statistics can be pressed into service for whatever editorial angle you like. In this case the angle is: we’re all doomed. Though I’m not sure why – normally that’s the cue for anti-government papers to bash Gordon Brown. That isn’t happening here I think. Maybe it just makes for a more dramatic splash. 

The more representative story – things are still bad, though getting less bad, but they’ll stay that way for ages – is both less dramatic and more depressing. Which is probably why Yahoo went for a different – and misleading – slant.

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Comments Unbound

For everyone who can’t get through the day without new and shiny material to look at, be reassured that there’s a lot going on here, but most of it is in the comments section, where readers and I are engaged in the savage cut and thrust of debate on matters ranging from why paid journalism is in trouble, to journalism’s vested interests and the power of Twitter.

Just so you know…

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Journalism: in whose interest?

Some interesting points have been made in the comments to my post about Why Paid Journalism is in Trouble.

Crucially, they falls into the trap of conflating the interests of readers with those of journalists. It’s worth looking at this in a bit more depth. (Quite a bit more depth actually. Sorry if I ramble on a bit.)

It’s a familiar trap. Journalists often decry the loss of newspapers and journalism jobs as being against the interests of readers, when in fact it’s mainly against the interests of the journalists.

If readers were that bothered about falling newspaper circulation, they’d buy more newspapers. But they don’t.

Current news consumption

Here’s what a lot of people do to get their news.

  • They wake up to the headlines and a bit of comment on the radio (Today for one demographic, XFM for another and so on.)
  • They listen to the radio in the car on the way to work
  • They pick up a free paper to read, or skim, on the train or tube (Metro)
  • They may drop by the BBC news web site on a break at work. (If they’re really into news)
  • They pick up a free paper on the train or tube home (The London Paper or London Lite) to catch up on celebrity gossip.
  • They listen to a drive-time show on the radio in the car on the way home.
  • They watch a bit of the news on TV in the evening. Maybe.

And after all this, you think they should be buying newspapers? Or buying news magazines? Or tuning in to news analysis on the radio?

People don’t have the time or, largely, the desire.

And now they have a whole slew of other things to do that are more creative – Facebooking, YouTubing, Flickring. Not to mention blogging.

People now have opportunities to create as well as consume content, and their time is finite.

So what is journalism?

But journalists (which includes all interested parties, including academics) don’t think this counts as journalism. (And no, I don’t think YouTube videos of cute kitties do, either. But some of it does, especially long-form blogging and some microblogging.)

Why don’t they think it counts as journalism? Because it’s just not professional enough. Hmm. Yes – but perhaps in the sense of “not being paid a salary for”, rather than in the sense of “being illiterate and ill-informed”. Because illiterate and ill-informed can be found throughout the media, after all.

Journalists think they’re special though. And this is because, increasingly, they go through years of expensive degree-level education to prove it.

But journalism didn’t start that way. Journalism was about inquisitive people who liked a drink asking nosy questions. And then writing the answers down. It wasn’t a profession as such. It helped if you could write coherently. But mainly it helped that you could find things out. It’s the FleetStreetBlues argument in a nutshell: “Journalism is about finding stuff out and telling it to other people.” It also helped if you like a drink. Fleet Street was like that. As was politics.

Journalists are too self-important

But over the years, journalism has developed a very high opinion of itself. It thinks it’s vital to cover important events. It thinks it’s vital for a functioning democracy. It also thinks it’s vital to be provided by skilled professionals, a bit like doctors, or heating engineers, with qualifications and everything, to make sure it’s done right.

The argument seems to be that journalism is good for people, and they should consume it like medicine. Or bad things will happen. To, um, democracy. Like, er, the erosion of civil liberties and growing centralisation of government power. Like that hasn’t happened recently. Thanks to journalism. Yay.

Blame it on the readers

But what if people, ie readers and viewers, lose interest in that model of journalism? To the extent that it’s not viable anymore? And those highly qualified professional journalists have a problem paying the mortgage?

Do we say they are wrong? Do we say how stupid they are for losing interest in what we are offering? Or how short-sighted they are not to want to pay for it?

Well, yes. That is kind of what we are saying.

But if people don’t want what we have to offer, what does that say? That people are stupid? Or that what we offer isn’t as special as we thought?

To make this a little less painful, I’ll tread a middle way. People can be stupid, yes. Ten years of Big Brother proves that.

But not for rejecting what we in the media offer them. Not for believing that unpaid bloggers, say, can provide material as interesting as that of paid journalists. Or that YouTube offers just as viable a way to spend 15 minutes as an op-ed in the Times. And not even for being more interested in what their friends are doing than things happening in, say, Afghanistan.

A lot of journalists hate that, because they think there’s a moral imperative to appreciate foreign affairs, especially when there’s a war on. But actually it’s understandable. I’m often more interested in what my friends are doing than what’s happening in Afghanistan. I can’t help it. I’m a bad person.

The difference these days is that the web allows us to engage with people we know in creative ways online as well as down the pub. And that unfortunately eats into our other media time. And doesn’t help to pay our mortgage.

But is all this against the interests of readers? Not really.

What readers want

Readers have decided they want a minimal framework of news, however that’s provided, and to fill in the rest of their media time with a hybrid of online gossip and entertainment that doesn’t fit with the media’s idea of itself. That’s what interests them.

But even if they decided they wanted to engage with informed political and social reportage and comment, they wouldn’t have to go anywhere near traditional journalism.

Blogs can be journalism too

There’s a wealth of expertise in the blogosphere, from economics and politics to legal issues. Try Cafe Hayek or Knowledge Problem on the free market side, or Mother Jones on the left. For an insight into the ridiculous legal mess the US gets itself into, Overlawyered is your man.

But what about real, hard news, snarl the hard-bitten hacks who think blogging is just hot air (take a bow, Playing The Game).

Well, if you want to get the inside scoop on what’s happening in the NHS in the UK, for example, you could read NHS Blog Doctor or The Jobbing Doctor – insiders both. Or for the scoop on the police in the UK, go to the Nightjack blog, written by a serving police officer.

Oh, you can’t. Because it was shut down. Thanks to the Times.

Which is a great example of why readers need  professional journalists. Because professional journalists will do anything to get rid of the amateur competition, it seems. It’s in their interest…

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iPhone – the saviour of journalism

Inspired by the thoughts of blogger Soilman, my post on Why journalism may become software development struck a chord with a few readers.

I’m now pleased to say it seems to be coming true (though not because of me, you understand).

Media Industry Newsletter web site Min Online suggests 5 online content models worth watching – among them one that seems to work precisely because it tries to hide the fact that it’s an online magazine.  

One of the smartest things People did with its $1.99 iPhone app is not to call it a mobile magazine. 

But the Min site argues that’s exactly what it is – though “the ‘Tracker’ label gives it the patina of utility”.

Whether people will be prepared to pay hard cash for just a “patina” of utility once the shiny, shiny iPhone buzz wears off is another matter. But this clearly points the way forward for content if you want people to shell out for it. 

Maybe the key thing is to focus on making it really useful. (It also doesn’t hurt that the platform has a captive audience and proprietary barriers to entry…)

[HT: Bristol Editor]

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Why paid journalism is in trouble

As a coda to my post on why journalists can’t afford to be purist about their trade anymore, Eat Sleep Publish sums up exactly why the paid journalism model is in such trouble.

Former P-I staffer Curt Milton runs theEastlake Ave blog. He keeps a part time job, makes tons of local connections, writes his posts, edits them, and shoots and edits and uploads video and pictures.

It’s simple economics. When one-person publishing costs virtually nothing and can achieve much of what the news dinosaurs can, it’s much harder to make the economics of journalism add up.

And don’t start on how a one-person, part-time neighbourhood blog just can’t offer what a professionally staffed newsroom can. At the local level that simply isn’t true any more. And even nationally, the quality of journalistic output can be pretty ropey. 

Crucially, when you’re at the level of the hyper-local, I suspect a local neighbourhood blog actually does a much better job of reporting than a local paper.

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Journalists can’t afford to be purist about their trade anymore

There’s a nice rant over at Fleet Street Blues decrying the media’s current seeming obsession with the delivery of media content over its practice.

The best thing about journalism isn’t blogging, or Twittering, or finding innovative multimeeja ways to tell a story, or even asking someone difficult questions Paxman-style. It’s about finding something out that no one knows, and telling people. Simple as that.

When it comes to learning your trade, they say, don’t get sidetracked with all that web technology malarkey:

If you want to be a specialist, don’t learn Dreamweaver or podcasting or how to put together Google map. Be a police reporter or an education reporter or a health reporter, and learn your field. 

My comment on the post hasn’t been approved yet (what – don’t they trust me?). But essentially, while I admire the sentiments, I think there are some fundamental problems with it. 

The post actually recognises some of them. At the end it says: 

If you want to be a journalist, then forget payment models, multimedia development and how to drive traffic. That’s not your job. Your job is to be a damn fine reporter and let the chips fall as they may. If they – the editors, publishers and readers – can’t figure out a way to pay for us, then so be it. They’ll miss us.

It’s that tiny detail – finding someone to actually pay for this stuff – that is at the crux of this whole “where is journalism going” debate. And, of course, if you’re one of the thousands of journalism graduates being spewed out of the higher education system every year, that’s not much comfort when you can’t find a job. 

I look on all that multimeeja nonsense as basically a tool. It’s a bit like saying if you want to be a specialist, don’t learn to type, or don’t learn to use InDesign. 

The tools of the trade are changing – and we need to keep up. The problem we face at the moment is that the tools of the trade are changing really fast. And the trade itself is also changing really fast, thanks to the double whammy of recession and technology change. 

That’s why I think the idea of the old-style investigative reporter, armed with just a notebook and the knowledge of his or her beat, is now a bit of a luxury. In order to be anything resembling a journalist, you’ll probably have to be able to set up and maintain a web site, know how to drive traffic and have some idea of payment models as well as being a damn fine reporter.

Hey, I never said it would be easy. But I don’t think there’ll be a choice for a lot of us…

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