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June 02 2011

16:15

Meet the new boss: Jill Abramson’s NYT ascent and its potential impact on the digital side of the Times

The New York Times will have a new leader in the newsroom. Jill Abramson will replace Bill Keller, who is moving to a writing job at the paper.

I’m sure Times Kremlinologists are already developing their theories about the move and its timing — let the #______MakesYouStupid jokes begin — but from our perspective, we’re most interested in the impact the new leadership will have on the Times’ digital strategy. Keller’s eight years in the top job have witnessed the complete disruption of the traditional business model for American newspapers, but the Times’ brand equity, market positioning, and quality have all given it a major advantage over its peers.

The Times has invested heavily in digital initiatives in the Keller era — I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I suspect their investment has been greater than any other American news organization. But that makes sense, since the Times has more to gain from the web’s easy distribution model than any other newspaper whose content is more tied to geography. The Times has national and global appeal, and fits perfectly with a medium that lets Times journalism reach that broad audience. From its large digital news operation to its massive adoption of blogs to its R&D Lab, the Keller era leaves the Times about as well positioned for a webby future as any of its peers.

A pro-digital mindset has never been unanimous among Times leadership, which has obvious and deep roots in print culture. The recent hubbub over Keller’s Twitter column was only the most recent iteration of the internal conflict. Maybe you remember two years ago, when a few Times reporters livetweeted a Times digital staff meeting, which led to a backlash from editors and other staffers?

Well, today, the announcement of Abramson’s ascent was semi-livetweeted by @nytimes, the newspaper’s recently humanized 3.2 million-follower Twitter account — Instagram photos and all.

We can only guess what Jill Abramson’s promotion will mean for the Times’ digital strategy — but to the extent that she’s carved out an outward-facing identity on the subject, it’s been notably pro-web. It was Abramson who took time away from her editing gig last year to immerse herself in the Times’ digital operations, which Keller said was Abramson’s initiative. (That move began on June 1, one year ago yesterday, and was supposed to last six months. The Times press release on the move quotes Arthur Sulzberger as saying: “Over the past year, she has immersed herself in our digital strategy and led the effort to fully integrate the newsroom.” So it would seem elements of the immersion lived on past the six-month span.)

Last fall, Abramson told New York she wanted to build incentives for staffers to become more web-oriented. “When you have a front-page story,” she said, “everyone is like, ‘Wow, great story!’ I’d like to get to a place where the celebration when something goes on the home page is as pronounced.”

Jennifer Preston, former Times social media editor, chimed in after today’s announcement: “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she’s fearless. We’re lucky.” She added “Jill has always been highly supportive of our real-time Twitter publishing/curation efforts.”

And for those looking for more tea leaves to read, check out Abramson’s two most recent Talk to the Newsroom features, both from 2009, where she hits on some webby subjects. You won’t find much revelatory — no secret web strategies lying in wait for the right moment. Like the Times’ staff, we’ll all have to wait and see how she shapes the Times’ digital transformation.

May 02 2011

19:20

At the NYT, no paywall exemption for Bin Laden

When The New York Times announced its pay meter back in March, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. also announced that — along with the many, many other pores and passages the paper had built into its gate — the Times had built into its new system the ability to open the gate for breaking-news stories that were, essentially, must-reads. “Mr. Sulzberger wanted a flexible system,” the paper reported at the time, “one that would allow the company to adjust the limit on the number of free articles as needed — in the case of a big breaking news event, for example.”

Or, as Sulzberger told Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters:

“Let’s imagine there’s a horrifying story like 9/11 again,” [Sulzberger] said in an interview. “We can — with one hit of a button — turn that meter to zero to allow everyone to read everything they want,” he said. “We’re going to learn. We built a system that is flexible.”

Last night’s news about the death of Osama bin Laden would seem to qualify as one of those big must-read stories. So it’s interesting to note that the Times’ coverage of the news — all of its articles and blog posts — remained behind the paper’s gate last night. And they’ll remain there. “There are no current plans to open up the news and features about Bin Laden for free on NYTimes.com,” a Times spokesperson told me. “As you know, readers get 20 articles free each month, and they can access Times content through other means, such as blogs, social media and search.”

The Bin Laden story broke on May 1, just a few hours after all non-subscribing Times readers had seen their monthly 20-article count reset to zero. Barring a big Sunday-morning reading binge, most were probably still at the very beginnings of their monthly allotments. And while “any decision to make any content free on NYTimes.com will be made on a case by case basis,” the spokesperson notes, “in this case in particular, the fact that the story broke on May 1 was certainly a factor.”

The Times’ pay meter is probably the most analyzed edifice in the news industry at the moment. And it’s not as if there were nowhere else online (or on television, or in print) to learn about the bin Laden raid.

Still, it’s remarkable how little we know about how the paywall’s breaking-news caveat works. The notion of stories that are so big that they shouldn’t be paid for — or, more accurately, so big that the Times shouldn’t require people to pay for them — is a complicated, but also crucial, one, particularly considering the careful balance the Times has struck between business interest and public interest in its rhetoric about its pay scheme.

If and when a story is taken from outside the wall, who makes the decision about the exemption? Is it someone on the business side or the editorial side— or a collaboration between both? Is the exemption something that the Times will announce publicly, or something it will simply enact, without comment? And if the day of the month on which a story breaks is a factor, as it was in this case…on what day would a big story become exemption-worthy?

The biggest question, though: If Osama’s demise didn’t make the cut, what story would?

March 30 2011

18:30

So, then…if you jump The New York Times’ paywall, are you stealing?

James Poniewozik has a great column this week asking a question we’ve been talking about here at the Lab: Given all the ways to avoid paying for a New York Times digital subscription — ways that the Times has purposely built into the pores of its paywall, and ways that clever techies have figured out — is it immoral to jump the wall? To what extent, essentially, is gaming the Times also stealing from it?

As Poniewozik said: “Calling the Ethicist!” And, totally. But — we checked — current Ethicist Ariel Kaminer is also currently employed by the Times, and so is indisposed on meta-ethical grounds…and Randy Cohen politely declined my request for a comment. So, for a bit of amateur Ethicism — buckle your seatbelts, everyone! — here are a few points to add to Poniewozik’s.

A Times kind of person

Here’s how Martin Nisenholtz explained wall-jumping to Peter Kafka:

I think the majority of people are honest and care about great journalism and the New York Times. When you look at the research that we’ve done, tons of people actually say, “Jeez, we’ve felt sort of guilty getting this for free all these years. We actually want to step up and pay, because we know we’re supporting a valuable institution.” At the same time we want to make sure that we’re not being gamed, to the extent that we can be.

This “honest people” attitude — the presumption being that if you bypass the wall, you are not one of those people — is echoed by Nisenholtz’s colleagues. At a Paley Center breakfast last week, Arthur Sulzberger acknowledged that wall-jumping, by Times mandate and otherwise, would happen. But: “Is it going to be done by the kind of people who buy the quality news and opinion of the New York Times? We don’t think so.” (And also: “It’ll be mostly high school kids and people out of work.” And also! “Just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and grab the paper and keep running you can actually get the Times free.”)

It’s familiar logic — the same kind of analog-economics-for-digital-content thinking that fuels all those “People! Don’t you realize that X months of The New York Times is just X Starbucks lattes?” comments. What it overlooks, though, is the very real possibility that, not just physically but economically, atoms have different properties than bits. Whether bits-based products involve different ethical considerations than their atoms-based counterparts is an open question — and, in fact, the question. But it’s one the Times is begging — and possibly forcing — with the ethiconomical (to coin a horrible, sorry, but possibly useful term) logic of its wall. The paper’s public establishment of a certain “kind of people” — a class who not only read the Times, but pay for it — is interesting for several reasons, one of them being its suggestion that there is also a “kind of people” (potentially adolescent, probably unemployed, and possibly morally bankrupt) who wouldn’t pay but would still consume Times content beyond the newspaper’s stated bounds.

But how fair, really, is that suggestion? Is deleting cookies or URL characters from a web browser directly akin to stealing a physical product from a newsstand? (And, then, is ad-blocking software immoral? Is reading Times content, for free, on someone else’s computer?)

Don’t steal steaks

In the physical world, property and the ethics surrounding it are straightforward things: Basically, do not take something for which you are being asked to pay money. There is a necessary lack of nuance in this: Even if that something is free somewhere — anywhere, everywhere — else, and even if the price being asked for it is ridiculous, if the something’s owner asks for money in exchange for it, your choice as a consumer is pretty much either to pay up or shut up. As CJR’s Lauren Kirchner put it, discussing Stewart Brand’s intersection with paid content, “No one would say ‘groceries want to be free’ and use that as an excuse to steal steaks. Or I guess some people might, but those people would be jerks, and also criminals.”

Definitely. But, then, the obvious obviousness of Don’t Steal Steaks is also contingent and contextual; it’s based on the fact that steaks are things. The ethical boundaries we take for granted in the physical world of commerce are generally based on actual boundaries: spacial distinctions that define ownership, separating permission from perfidy. So you can cart that steak all around Safeway if you want — but you won’t get arrested unless you take the steak outside without paying for it. As a matter of cultural consensus, in the context of the grocery store — and in the context of the grocery store’s analogs — it is the space itself, the “in” versus the “out,” that defines the acceptable against the un-. And it is the universality of that definition — the fact that it applies to and is known by pretty much everyone, pretty much implicitly — that makes “don’t steal steaks” so obvious. In it, the ethical and cultural and legal coalesce into one easy mandate.

But online, where space is as infinite as the human capacity to create it — and where your consumption of a Times article doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t get to read it — the conveniently clear line between moral acceptability and moral depravity no longer holds. There’s no obvious “inside”; there’s no obvious “outside.” And the web’s broad wall-lessness, ironically, enforces a barrier between “obtaining” something and “owning” it. In a digital environment where so much is accessible and so little is own-able, what exactly — ethically, legally, pragmatically — is yours? And what, exactly, is mine?

Owning atoms, owning bits

These are legal issues that are being wrestled with every day — and by, you know, actual experts. But, for our purposes, it’s worth noting the broad cultural context in which the Times wall has been erected. The Internet, after all, is still young (in terms of widespread adoption, it’s just a tad older than one of Sulzberger’s high school kids), and so are the communal values that help us navigate it. The web’s “wild west” element — its newness, its rawness, its up-from-nothing-ness — also suggests its lawlessness. Legally and culturally. We simply haven’t had time yet, in this bizarre new environment we find ourselves in, to reach consensus about what’s stealing and what’s not, about what’s owned and what’s not. We’re figuring it out, sure, day by day. But the offline ethical assumptions whose convenience and communality we take for granted are also, it’s worth remembering, the products of centuries’ worth of friction. Consensus takes time.

The Times is part of a long continuum in attempting to graft the ethical assumptions of the physical world onto the economy of the digital. The iTunes Store, for example — the platform whose essential genius was that made it easier for people to pay for digital content than to pirate it — framed its introduction in vaguely ethical terms, as well. (As Steve Jobs said at the time: “Consumers don’t want to be treated like criminals and artists don’t want their valuable work stolen. The iTunes Music Store offers a groundbreaking solution for both.”)

But what makes the Times’ paywall pitch so interesting is that it’s less about the interplay between ethics, economics, and convenience, and more about the interplay between ethics, economics, and the communal good. Essentially, the paper is trying to define the communal good as an economic good that is — boldness! — implicit in its product. (This is the logic that merges Times journalists being kidnapped in Libya with “the Times should be paid for.” Which is implying something, actually, fairly revolutionary: that the practice of journalism is, economically, part of the product of journalism.) That’s not simply a matter of the NPRization of the NYT (although that’s one element of it); more interestingly, I think, it’s a matter of the commodity of news collapsing into the creation of news. You’re not paying for the thing, the Times is saying; you’re paying for the process that creates the thing.

Image by like oh so zen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 25 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ fees and free-riders, and tying community to local data

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Debating the Times’ pricing structure: There was really only one big news story in the media world this week: The New York Times’ paid-content plan, which is live in Canada now and coming to everyone else on Monday. I divided the issue into two sections — the first on general commentary on the plan, and the second specifically about efforts to get around the paywall.

We learned a bit more about the Times’ thinking behind the plan, with a story in the Times about the road from its last paid-content system, TimesSelect, to this one, and an All Things Digital interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, in which he said, among other things, that the Times didn’t consider print prices when setting their online price levels. Former Times designer Khoi Vinh also looked at the last couple of years, lamenting the lost opportunity for innovation and the legacy of TimesSelect.

There were a couple pieces written supporting the Times’ proposal: Former CBS digital head Larry Kramer said he’d be more likely to pay for the Times than for the tablet publication The Daily, even though it’s far more expensive. The reason? The Times’ content has consistently proven to be valuable over the years. (Tech blogger John Gruber also said the Times’ content is much more valuable than The Daily’s, but wondered if it was really worth more than five times more money.) Nate Silver of Times blog FiveThirtyEight used some data to argue for the Times’ value.

The Times’ own David Carr offered the most full-throated defense of the pay plan, arguing that most of the objection to it is based on the “theology” of open networks and the free flow of information, rather than the practical concerns involved with running a news organization. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that the Times has its own theology — that news orgs should charge for content because they can, and that it will ensure their success. Later, though, Salmon ran a few numbers and posited that the paywall could be a success if everything breaks right.

There were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the idea that people might have felt guilty about getting the Times for free online.

One of the biggest complaints revolved around the Times’ pricing system itself, which French media analyst Frederic Filloux described as “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.” Others, including Ken Doctor, venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, and John Gruber, made similar points about the proposal’s complexity, and Michael DeGusta said the prices are just too high. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow disagreed about the plan structure, arguing that it’s well-designed as an attack on Apple’s mobile paid-content dominance.

Are paywall loopholes a bug or feature?: Of course, any barrier online is also a giant, flashing invitation to get around said barrier, and someplace as influential as the Times was not going to be an exception. Several ways to bypass the Times’ pay system popped up in the last week: There was @FreeNYT, the Twitter account that will aggregate Times content shared on Twitter, and NYTClean, a browser bookmarklet that strips the Times’ paywall coding, allowing you to read the Times just like normal. The Lab’s Josh Benton noted how easy the hack was to come up with (four lines of code!) and speculated that the Times might actually want nerds to game their system, “because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.”

So how has the Times responded to all this? A bit schizophrenically. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the people who would find ways around the system would be “mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.” And the Times asked Twitter to shut down the aggregating Twitter accounts (for a trademark violation) and extended its limit on daily search-engine referrals beyond Google. But the Times is also widening some pathways of its own, making it so you can’t hit the wall directly from a blog link, and offering 200,000 regular readers free online access for the rest of the year through an advertiser.

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan mocked the Times’ behavior toward wall-jumpers as an effort to have its paid-content cake and eat it too: “This wall is designed, as best I can tell, only to be a barrier to your most loyal — and most stupid — readers.” Slate’s Jack Shafer made a similar argument to Benton’s, pointing out that online free-riders aren’t keeping paying customers from reading the Times (like, say, someone who steals a paper edition, as Sulzberger analogized) and are actually help the paper continue its influence and reach.

Adding community to local data: EveryBlock, a three-year-old site owned by MSNBC.com that specializes in hyperlocal news data, unveiled its first major redesign this week, which includes a shift in focus toward community and location-based conversation, rather than just data. All place pages now allow users to post messages to those nearby, using what founder Adrian Holovaty called the “geo graph,” rather than the “social graph.” Mashable added a few valuable details (notably, the site will bring in revenue from location-based Groupon displays and Google ads).

Holovaty answered a lot of questions about the redesign in a Poynter chat, saying that the site’s mission has changed from making people informed about their area as an end in itself to facilitating communication between neighbors in order to improve their communities. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram applauded the shift in thinking, arguing that the main value in local news sites is in the people they connect, not in the data they collect. At 10,000 Words, Jessica Roy noted that the change was a signal that hyperlocal sites should focus not just on the online realm, but on fostering offline connections as well.

NPR on the defense: Two weeks on, the hidden-camera attack on NPR continues to keep it in the middle of the news conversation. Following last week’s vote by the House to cut off NPR’s limited federal funding, several media folks made cases to keep NPR’s federal funding alive, including the Washington Post’s Len Downie and Robert Kaiser and Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. NPR host Steve Inskeep argued that NPR’s most important work has nothing to do with any liberal/conservative bias. “Think again of my colleagues in Libya, going forward to bear witness amid exploding shells. Is that liberal or conservative?” he asked.

Elsewhere, James O’Keefe, the producer of the gotcha video, and Bob Garfield of NPR’s On The Media had it out on the air, and DailyFinance gave a picture of NPR’s financial situation. Howard Kurtz of Newsweek and The Daily Beast wrote that some NPR journalists think that NPR management’s passive, reactionary defense of their organization is damaging it almost as much as the attacks themselves.

Reading roundup: Not too busy of a week in the media world outside of Timesmania. A few things to take note of:

— A quick news item: Journalism Online, Steve Brill’s initiative to help media companies charge for their content online, is being snatched up by the Fortune 500 printer RR Donnelley, reportedly for at least $35 million. PaidContent broke the story, and Ken Doctor wrote about the unexpected difficulties the startup encountered.

— At the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll wrote a thoughtful piece on the competing claims regarding technology’s role in social change.

— For the stat nerds: The Lab’s Josh Benton looked at the latest of the continual stream of depressing graphs flowing from the newspaper industry, and Peter Kafka of All Things Digital analyzed the source of traffic for some major sites across the web, comparing the influence of Facebook and Google.

— For the academic nerds: Here at the Lab, USC Ph.D. candidate Nikki Usher talked to media sociology rock star Herbert Gans about targeted and multiperspectival news, and Michigan Ph.D. candidates William Youmans and Katie Brown shared a fascinating study about Al Jazeera and bias perception.

March 04 2011

19:30

Posted email addresses for NYT Mag reporters: A flashback to 1995

The new regime has taken over at The New York Times Magazine, and among the visible changes online is the addition, at the bottom of stories, of an editor’s credit and the email address of the writer. Jack Shafer’s written about the editor’s credit, but I’m more interested in the email addresses, which (correct me if I’m wrong) I believe is the first time the Times has ever attached reporter email addresses to stories in any sort of consistent way. (Times writers have their own author pages, but the “Send an E-Mail to Frank Bruni” link hides the email address via Javascript.)

My interest is mainly in the opportunity to repost one of my favorite all-time Lab documents, which Zach Seward wrote about two years ago. It’s a transcript from a conference we held here at the Nieman Foundation back in 1995. The conference was entitled “Public Interest Journalism: Winner of Loser in the On-Line Era” (we dug hyphens back then), and one of the sessions featured Esther Dyson interviewing the then-relatively-new publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger. It’s the oldest documentation I’m aware of the Times’ perspective on its journalists getting feedback from readers. Here’s the relevant excerpt of the transcript, after Sulzberger tells Dyson that they’ve always gotten feedback from readers, even pre-Internet:

MS. DYSON: Yes, and you get that feedback when you go to cocktail parties at Michael’s, and people come up to you who are your elite readers. But now, you’ve got some guy who can’t really spell, who wants to waste your reporter’s time sending him Email.

MR. SULZBERGER: …I don’t think that’s going to happen. And maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really don’t think that an individual reader directly to reporter, that that’s going to be a major factor in how this is going to design itself.

MS. DYSON: But it’s going to be a major factor in how they have their time wasted, or how they have their time enriched.

MR. SULZBERGER: Are you making the assumption that we’re going to put all of our reporters online? Is that the assumption built into the question, that every day, all of our reporters will have hundreds and hundreds of Email’s that they’ve got to respond to?

You can pick up a pen today and misspell a letter any one of our editors, reporters, business folks. Most — I will speak, I think, candidly for the newsroom — most of those letters go unanswered. It drives me nuts, but it’s true.

Anyway, go read the whole thing and have your own journalism version of I Love the ’90s.

January 27 2011

16:00

The Newsonomics of do-over

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

You remember do-overs from your childhood, right? On the playground, something went awry in a game, and you just called do-over: Reset the game, reset the clock. It’s one convenience of childhood that seldom makes it way into adult life. Yet that’s just what newspaper company owners are hoping to do in 2011. I thought of calling this post “The Newsonomics of inflection point,” but that seems too high-minded. Do-over is more apt to the emotions undergirding decision-making in early 2011.

Tuesday, in speaking to a group at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, one graduate student heard my description of the paid-content landscape and asked a great, simple question: “I don’t understand why now, after news being free all these years, publishers now want to be paid for it. Why now?”

Indeed. Why now?

There are two reasons, I think. One’s economic, and it first got big, public voice at the Newspaper Association of America session in San Diego, two years ago this month. There Rupert Murdoch and Dean Singleton laid down the gauntlet: Google was stealing content, and readers needed to start paying. It was a public expression — pushed to the forefront by the deep recession — of what had become a private realization; the exchange rate of print ad dollars for digital ad dimes didn’t seem likely to change. Simply, there wasn’t — as far as the eye could see — enough money in digital advertising to sustain large news enterprises, long-term. The other reason is emotional: What we do is valuable, so people should pay for it — though as the grad student pointed out, most of the reader payment has gone to paper and distribution costs, not to feeding journalists.

If 2009 was a period of emotional as well as economic depression for those in the industry, 2010 was one of simmering hope, which the glimmer of tablet emergence stoked. Now, in 2011, we’ve got a convergence of factors beginning to create a new sense of where traditional news publishing may go. They may, collectively, provide an inflection point, a point at which the news industry sees itself differently and consumers are suddenly confronted by numerous paying choices. Together, these factors offer a newsonomics of do-over, the ability to unwind what many call the original sin of giving away news content for free, and creating a new business model for how news is distributed and paid for.

There are four factors that have pushed us to this point, in early 2011:

  • Tablets certify the mobile, news-anywhere era: Until recently, if you asked publishers what business they were in, they’d tell you the newspaper business — and online. It’s been a two-part business, anchored in print (still 85 percent of all revenues) and moving at glacial speed “online,” meaning desktop/laptop. The smartphone began to change that mindset, but hasn’t produced significant new revenue for news publishers, even though they’ve made efforts to create some smartphone products. It’s been the emergence of the tablet, with its promise of real new revenue, that certifies what I’ve called the News Anywhere model. Arthur Sulzberger’s outlining of that manifesto Sunday at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich is as good a statement of it as any: “Wherever people want us, we must be there. That’s our commitment to be there on the devices, including paper — paper’s fine — devices and paper for as long as people want.” Now all news publishers, some pushing forward at warp speed, others being pulled along, are moving into a true multi-platform world.
  • A metering system that says you can have your cake and eat it, too: It’s not a paywall, it’s a hurdle, says Journalism Online. Set the hurdle at 10 or 20 pageviews a month, and 80 percent or so of your visitors will never even see it. Capture half the rest of those frequent visitors, and you’re started a new digital reader stream. And, by the way, if you do it right, your digital ad revenue can keep on growing — that’s your own major hope for any ad growth at all — because your traffic won’t decrease by any more than 10 percent. In a nutshell, that’s The New York Times’ strategy, as well.
  • Apple’s push and shove: Unannounced, publishers are moving forward with what Apple has told them. Apple is pushing them to align their web access strategy with their tablet strategy, saying if you want to retain direct customer relationship and revenue, you can’t offer all this stuff for free on the desktop and just charge for the tablet. That’s the push, and the strategy is shoving publishers, both salivating for tablet revenue and afraid that the tablet will hasten print readership decline one way or the other, to align their access strategies, from print to desktop to smartphone to tablet. That’s all-access, and it’s coming to be the prevailing industry model.
  • The rise of public equity: PE owners, as evidenced by their rising influence at MediaNews, are now pushing their publishing enterprises to innovate faster, embrace mobile, and get busy with new revenue streams. The all-access, news-anywhere model is a natural for them as well, offering the potential of enough new money to build new companies of sustainable profitability — and that’s their only ticket to cash out by 2015.

Put it altogether, and the do-over looks eminently reasonable.

Yet it’s no slam dunk, and we’ve got to wonder how the theory will play out in practice. The tests are now coming fast and furious. The Wall Street Journal has switched to multi-platform, all-access pricing recently. The New York Times will do the same soon, adding its meter. News Corp.’s The Daily tests out consumer willingness to pay for a new, native news product, while Ongo seems to have stumbled out of the gate with an underwhelming presentation and too small — and haphazard — a list of initial news suppliers as it asks news consumers for $84 a year. The Dallas Morning News will lead U.S. metros into this new world. Journalism Online will power a good five to six dozen newspaper sites — most are metered, most getting ready for the tablet — by mid-year, as well.

Though it all makes good economic sense to the industry, some — how many? — consumers find work-arounds more appealing than publishers expect. As daily publishers have cut back and back, we’ve seen an explosion of new news content, from top-drawer regional startups to hundreds of native hyperlocals and Patches to great niche sports sites and more entertainment and lifestyle feature content (hello, Demand Media IPO!) than anyone can stomach. There’s lots of free news content still out there, and planning to be out there, from the Reuters and Washington Posts to the GlobalPosts and BBCs and U.S. public radio stations/websites. It will be fascinating to see how the non-paywall news suppliers organize themselves — consortiums are in discussion — to offer alternatives to this very do-over strategy.

March 25 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of online ad spending, and its costs

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

It’s a complaint we’ve long heard in the newspaper industry: It’s the 25-year-old media buyers who are driving the business into wrack and ruin. If they only understood the world wasn’t just made up of people just like them — the wired, the mobile, the people whose parents read newspapers — advertising spending would be more rational.

Much of that talk, of course, is sour grapes, the inevitably griping we hear when change is in the air, when disruption messes with our views of the way the world should be, with our careers, with our paychecks.

We’ve also heard, mainly in the past year or so, that news companies just don’t think there’s much ad money on the web. Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger have been vocal about the need to get greater revenues from readers, given what they’ve said is an historic change in ad revenues. That philosophy has fueled much of the push to find paid content models that work and work big.

Let’s look at some of the data about ad spend, and at least one innovation that may impact revenue allocations in the next several years.

First, and maybe most importantly, usage of digital media — in time — far outweighs, in proportion, the ad dollars spent on it. From a recent JP Morgan report, we see the estimate that adults are spending 29 percent of their time on the web, but advertisers are only putting 8 percent of their ad spend on the web. Meanwhile, newspapers only get 8 percent of our attention, but 20 percent of the ad dollars. That’s a big, continuing disparity. We wouldn’t expcct a one-to-one relationship between time and dollars spent — too many mitigating factors — but given the trajectory of online usage, we’d expect less disparity over time.

In 2009, most reports put the total of online advertising spending in the U.S. at about $23 billion. The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) puts daily newspaper online revenue at about $3.5 billion. That’s 15 percent of the total, a number that I think is a bit high, given the bundling and difficulty of separating out print from digital buys. Even at 15 percent, though, it’s less than the historic 20 percent of the national ad spend that newspapers — in print — long took out of the market. $3.5 billion (or even $4.6 billion, had the industry maintained its print percentage) isn’t a big number — and it’s peanuts compared to print revenues lost over the last couple of years.

Yet, the $23 billion number is a big one, and the fastest growing in advertising overall. Significantly, the top 10 websites take in 72 percent of that revenue, a share three percentage points greater than a year earlier, according to Interactive Advertising Bureau. The concentration in spending on bigger properties has accelerated.

So the spoils of the new medium have gone to a relative few, most of them content aggregators, as Yahoo, Google, AOL, and MSN top these revenue charts. The New York Times is represented, but most local newspaper companies and sites fare relatively poorly. It’s not just dimes of Internet revenue to dollars of print revenue; it’s trickle-down ad spend.

Why? One key reason is scale. It’s simply easier to buy the big sites than smaller ones. That’s especially true when we consider how new and how immature the digital ad spending landscape is.

That 25-year-old buyer may now be reaching the terrifying age of 30, but she or he isn’t the problem. The problem is at least, in part, structural. The American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) has estimated that it costs twice as much to manage the placement of digital ads as compared to print and broadcast.

“If traditional services are assumed to require staffing and fees that imply an effective commission rate in the range of 12%–15% (with media planning and buying services assumed to be 1/3 of the total), Digital can typically require resources equating to an effective commission rate ranging from 25%–30% (with media planning and buying services assumed to be 1/2 of the total),” says the 2009 report.

So, the 30-year-old media buyer finds herself in a system that’s overburdened. TMI, too much information flowing in, too little time to absorb and make sense of it and not enough staff to work it. One result: More money spent on bigger ad buys, which, of course, take less time to place.

Against this backdrop, we see the value of Yahoo’s Newspaper Consortium, streamlining the buying process for all those newspaper properties. That’s boosted online revenue by the tens of millions.

Now Centro, one of the news industry’s top suppliers of digital advertising (about $100 million in ad business moved through Centro to media overall in 2009) is demoing a streamlining product. It is called Transis, and it was unveiled at AAAA’s early March conference. The product’s ambitious goal: “Transis automates the entire digital media buying process from planning through billing and centralizes all related communication. It aims to bring the diverse tasks of ad placement — from building media plans, handling RFPs and insertion orders, billing and reconciliation — into a single console for ad agencies. The intent: more ad volume for Centro and the 2,000 or so websites on which it places ads.

Ten digital agencies are now testing Transis, a trial that could last six months. So, if Transis has an impact on the revenues of non-Top 10 websites — the broad swath of local websites that Centro President Shawn Riegsecker calls “B” placement sites — it will be in 2011. Of course, Transis, or something like it, would have to become a standard to drive a major change in ad revenue buys and splits. Its principle, though, is one to watch, and one that could be more ad dollars going to smaller sites.

Further, it’s another indication that the digital industry’s out-of-the-chutes growth is based on many first-generation practices and habits. As it emerges out of gawky adolescence and matures, new technologies may have the capacity of changing how we think of business models and business potentials, and how new journalism will be funded.

March 12 2010

16:10

AFP: Online pay model will be ‘critical second revenue stream’ says Sulzberger

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger says that charging for the paper’s online content will provide a “critical second revenue stream”.

Speaking at the Bloomberg BusinessWeek 2010 Media Summit, Sulzberger also reassured readers that the print edition of the paper will continue for many years to come:

It’s a critical part of today, it will be a critical part I think for many years to come (…) The iPad is also going to be a critical part just the way the Kindle’s a critical part.

At the end of the day we can’t define ourselves by our method of distribution (…) What we care about at the end of day is our journalism, our quality journalism.

Full story at this link…

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February 26 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The Times’ blogs behind the wall, paid news on the iPad, and a new local news co-op

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A meter for the Times’ blogs: Plenty of stuff happened at the intersection of journalism and new media this week, and for whatever reason, a lot of it had something to do with The New York Times. We’ll start with the most in-depth piece of information from the Times itself: A 35-minute Q&A session with the three executives most responsible for the Times’ coming paywall (or, more specifically and as they prefer to call it, a metered model) at last Friday’s paidContent 2010 conference. No bombshells were dropped — paidContent has a short summary to go with the video — but it did provide the best glimpse yet into the Times’ thinking behind and approach to their paywall plans.

The Times execs said they believe the paper can maintain its reach despite the meter while adding another valuable source of revenue. Meghan Keane of Econsultancy was skeptical about those plans, saying that the metered model could turn the Times into a niche newspaper.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon started one of the more perplexing exchanges of the session (starting at about 18:10 on the video) when he asked whether the Times would put blogs behind its paywall. The initial response, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was “stay tuned,” followed shortly, from digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, by “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall.” A Times spokeswoman clarified the statements later (yes, blogs would be part of the metered model), and Salmon blogged about his concern with the Times’ execs’ response. He was not the only one who thought this might not be a good idea.

My take: Salmon has some valid concerns, and, piggybacking off of the ideas he wrote after the paywall’s initial announcement, even the Times’ most regular online readers will be quite hesitant to use their limited meter counts on, say, two-paragraph blog posts on the economics of valet parking. Times blogs like Freakonomics and Bits are a huge part of their cachet on the web, and including them in the meter could do them significant damage.

The iPad and paid content: We also saw another aspect of the Times’ paid-content plans at a conference in Australia, where Marc Frons, the paper’s chief technology officer, talked about the Times’ in-progress iPad app. Frederic Filloux, another one of the conference’s speakers, provided a useful summary of publishers’ attitudes and concerns about creating apps for the iPad, including their expectation that Apple will provide some sort of news store built on the iTunes framework.

Two media vets offered a word of caution to news organizations excited about the iPad’s possibilities for gaining revenue for news: Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog said that “with their hands on none of the key technology and innovation levers online … media giants continue to be without even a pair sticks to rub together to make digital fire.” And citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor wondered whether news orgs “should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions” like the ones Apple’s been making for years.

For those following the future of paid news content, we have a few other new data points to consider: The stats-heavy sports publication The Sporting News will begin charging for its daily digital edition, and a small daily newspaper in Washington State says the first year of their paywall has been a tentative success, with less effect on traffic than expected. Also, Alistair Bruce of Microsoft has a thorough breakdown of who’s charging for what online in a slideshow posted last week. It’s a wonderful resource you’ll want to keep for future reference.

NYT, NYU team up on local journalism: The Times also had one of the week’s big future-of-journalism announcements — a partnership with New York University to create and run a news site devoted to New York’s East Village, where NYU has several buildings. NYU professor Jay Rosen has all the details you’ll need, including who’s providing what. (NYT: publishing platform, editorial oversight, data sources, inspiration. NYU: editor’s salary, student and faculty labor, offices.)

The partnership raised a few media-critic eyebrows, mostly over the issue of the Times using free (to them, at least) student labor after buying out and laying off 100 paid reporters. The Awl, BNETThe New York Observer, and Econsultancy all have short but acerbic reactions making just that point, with The Awl making a quick note about the professionalization of journalism and BNET speculating about the profit margins the Times will make off of this project.

Innocence, objectivity and reality in journalism: Jay Rosen kicked off some conversation in another corner of the future-of-journalism discussion this week, bringing his influential PressThink blog out of a 10-month hiatus with a post on a theme he’s been pushing hard on Twitter over the past year: Political journalists’ efforts to appear innocent in their reporting at the expense of the truth.

Rosen seizes on a line in a lengthy Times Tea Party feature on “a narrative of impending tyranny” and wonders why the Times wouldn’t tell us whether that narrative was grounded in reality. Journalistic behavior like this, Rosen says, is grounded in the desire to appear innocent, “meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved.” That drive for innocence leads savviness to supplant reality in political journalism, Rosen said.

The argument’s been made before, by Rosen and others such as James Fallows, and Joey Baker sums it up well in a post building off of Rosen’s. But Rosen’s post drew a bit of criticism — in his comments, from the left (Mother Jones), from the libertarian right (Reason), and from tech blogger Stephen Baker. The general strain running through these responses was the idea that the Times’ readers are smart enough to determine the veracity of the claims being made in the article. (Rosen calls that a dodge.) The whole discussion is a fresh, thoughtful iteration of the long-running debate over objectivity in news coverage.

Where do reporting and aggregation fit?: We got some particularly valuable data and discussion on one of journalism’s central conversations right now — how reporting will work in a new ecosystem of news. Here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray examined how that new landscape looked in one story about charges of Chinese schools’ connections to hacks into Google. He has a fairly thorough summary of the results, headlined by the finding that just 13 of the 121 versions of the story on Google News involved original reporting. “When I think of how much human effort when into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe,” Stray writes. “That’s a huge amount of journalistic effort that could have gone into reporting other deserving stories. Why are we doing this?”

Also at the Lab, CUNY professor C.W. Anderson spun off of Stray’s study with his own musings on the definition and meaning of original reporting and aggregation. He concludes that aggregation/curation/filtering isn’t quite original reporting, but it does provide journalistic value that should be taken into consideration.

Two other interesting pieces on the related subjects of citizen journalism and hyperlocal journalism: PR/tech blogger Darren Barefoot raises concerns about citizen journalism’s ability to do investigative journalism, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer makes a strong case for the importance of entrepreneurs and citizen journalists in the new system of news.

Reading roundup: I’ve got two news developments and two thoughtful pieces for you. First, BusinessWeek reported on AOL’s efforts to build “the newsroom of the future,” a model largely driven by traffic and advertising data, not unlike the controversial Demand Media model, only with full-time journalists.

Editors Weblog raises some questions about such an openly traffic-driven setup, and media/tech watcher Tom Foremski says AOL should be focusing on creating smart news analysis. Social media guru Chris Brogan likes the arrangement, noting that there’s a difference between journalism and publishing.

The second news item is ABC News’ announcement that they’re looking to cut 300 to 400 of its 1,400 positions and move toward a more streamlined operation built around “one-man band” digital journalists. The best examinations of what this means for ABC and TV journalism are at the Los Angeles Times and the Poynter Institute.

The first thoughtful piece is theoretical: CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis’ overview of the evolution of the media’s “spheres of discovery,” from brands to algorithms to human links to predictive creation. It’s a good big-picture look at where new media stand and where they might be going.

The second is more practical: In a Q&A, Howard Owens of the award-winning upstate New York hyperlocal startup The Batavian gives an illuminating glimpse into life in hyperlocal journalism. He touches on everything from advertising to work hours to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry says, the loyalty and engagement is so much greater online: “I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.”

January 19 2010

15:49

What thoughts about metered paywalls say about journalism, the public, and The New York Times

When I was trying to come up with a conclusion to my doctoral research on local journalism, I penned these thoughts:

The internet has deeply problematized local journalism’s vision of its public…Online, all publics appear fragmentary. There is always an element of the public that cannot be networked. There is always a fraction of this uncaptured public only a mouse-click away…Insofar as journalistic authority rests on its claim to give the public flesh, such a claim is no longer tenable — if it ever was. Insofar as local journalism’s image of the public is grounded in a vision that sees the public as a unitary, structural, or even interlocking entity that journalism can either confidently speak to or call into being, the authority of journalism has become deeply problematic.

The questions about newspaper paywalls, then, are more than simply economic questions. They are more than simply questions about “will the model work?” and “can we balance the ratio between clicks and advertising dollars that maximizes our paywall’s effectiveness?” There are also questions about how journalists see themselves, and whether they can live with the answers that a paywall provides.

In its article claiming that The New York Times was “close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, [through the kind of] the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe,” New York Magazine took a trip back in time to the days of TimesSelect, the Times’ last major attempt to charge readers for content:

The Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East.

Its easy to attribute Friedman’s displeasure to vanity, and to some degree, it’s probably just that simple. But his attitude is a window into a larger newspaper mindset, one that sees the news provided by newspapers through reporting as creating the common language by which “the public” informs itself about issues of public relevance. As creating the public, as it were. It’s a world where “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is more than just an outdated slogan. It’s a world where the slogan is true.

I wrote last month that the emerging consensus about paid journalist content seems to be, “most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else.” In other words, people will pay for niche content. Any sort of paywall — even the metered kind, like the Times is said to be proposing — is ultimately making a wager on the argument that it is enough of niche product that a wealthy enough niche of readers will pay for it. Putting up a meter represents the ultimate compromise between visions of news that are “mass” (“we want everyone to read this”) and niche (“we want to be unique enough that we will get unique people to pay”), because it ultimately amounts to a tax on the heavy users. (I have a sneaking suspicion that it is this compromise between the Times’ vision of itself as the crucible of the public and a vanity product that rich people will pay for that Jay Rosen was referring to when he tweeted that the alleged NYT plan “fit the mold” of previous attempts by the paper to strike the proper balance.)

In the days of advertising-funded journalistic content, there was no contradiction between the number of readers you had, your profitability, and the degree to which you could claim to print “all the news” that mattered. (This ignores, for the moment, the fact that even in the glory days of the industry business and circulation managers targeted particular demographic slices. But that was a decision largely hidden from editors and journalists, who could continue on under the illusion that they were writing for everyone.) These days, however, there is just such a distinction. In the world of the networked public sphere, putting up walls around your content ultimately moves you out of the center of the public network, which means you’re less linked to and less read. Putting up walls around your content means you can charge the niche but must sacrifice the illusion that you speak for and to everyone.

So there’s more to the New York Times’ decisions on meters and paywalls than just the question of whether the strategy will succeed economically. There are questions about how the internet has already changed the Times, and how the dawning world of niche-reader taxation will change journalists’ ideas about what they do and who they write for. And there are questions about how we ourselves see the “public” we are a part of. We live in a world where were our “nicheness” has never been more obvious, and one of the great questions in the years ahead is whether we are still capable of seeing ourselves as a part of something more. In order to do so, I think we need to radically rethink what we mean when we say the word “public.” Down with structural notions like “public spheres,” or even phrases “networked publics!”

These topics get us away from issues directly related to The New York Times, though, and might be better addressed in a future post.

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