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January 02 2012

16:06

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

July 19 2011

09:31

12,000 (new york) times frontpage changes - a time machine on YouTube

okayfail.com :: Phillip Mendonça-Vieira created an amazing YouTube video, which he called "The nytimes they are a-changin'". It was an errant cron task which now helps us to watch the changes of the startpage of nytimes.com in the period from September 2010 to July 2011. Screenshots were taken twice per day. A note of the creator of this "study": "unfortunately, you can only watch the whole 7 minutes if you stick to 480p". So here it is ...

The author can be reached via:
Twitter: @phillmv or visit his
Blog: okayfail.com

June 19 2011

00:35

The article and the future of print

This week, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger declared that the paper would go “digital first,” following John Paton’s lead and stopping a step short of his strategy at Journal Register: “digital first … print last.”

My Guardian friends are getting a bit tetchy about folks trying to tell them how to fix the institution, but given that it lost £34.4m last year, I’d say the intervention is warranted and should be seen only as loving care: chicken soup for the strategy. So I will join in.

My thoughts about the Guardian have something to do with my thoughts on the article. That’s a logical connection because the means of production and distribution of print are what mandated the invention of the article. So it is fitting that we consider its fate in that context.

But first let’s examine what it means to be digital first. It does not mean just putting one’s stories online before the presses roll. In that case, print still dictates the form and rhythm of news: everything in the process of a newsroom is still aimed at fitting round stories into squared holes on pages. That, as Jay Rosen says, is the key skill newsroom residents think they have (and the skill journalism schools prepare them for): the production cycle of print.

Digital first, aggressively implemented, means that digital drives all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that as soon as a journalist knows something, she is prepared to share it with her public. It means that she may share what she knows before she knows everything (there’s a vestige of the old culture, which held that we could know everything … and by deadline to boot) so she can get help from her public to fill in what she doesn’t know. That resets the journalistic relationship to the community, making the news organization a platform first, enabling a community to share its information and inviting the journalist to add value to that process. It means using the most appropriate media to impart information because we are no longer held captive to only one: text. We now use data, audio, video, graphics, search, applications, and wonders not yet imagined. Digital first is the realization that news happens with or without us — it mimics the architecture of the internet, end-to-end — and we must use all the tools available to add value where we can.

Digital first, from a business perspective, means driving the strategy to a digital future, no longer depending on the print crutch. That means creating a likely smaller and more efficient enterprise that can survive, then prosper post-monopoly, post-scarcity in an abundance-based media economy. It means serving the commercial needs of businesses in our communities in new ways: not just by selling space but by providing services (helping them with their own online strategies — including Google, Facebook, Groupon, craigslist, et al; training them; perhaps holding events with them). It means finding new efficiencies in the collaborative link economy. It means outrunning the grim reaper and getting past risky dependency on free-standing inserts (the coupons and circulars that will one day, sooner than we know — zap! — disappear) and retail advertising (which continues to implode) and the last vestiges of classified (how quaint) and circulation revenue (sorry!). It means getting rid of the cost of the analog business (“iron and real estate,” as Paton says).

Print last. Note that none of us — no, not even I — is saying print dead. Print, at least for a time, still has a place in serving content and advertising. But let’s re-examine that place even as we re-examine the role of the article, the journalist, and the advertisement in digital.

Since I spoke about this with Rusbridger last time he was in New York to herald the coming of Guardian for Yanks, I’ve refined my thinking. As I understand the well-known business of the Guardian — unlike many US papers and unlike at least one of its UK competitors, the Times — its Sunday paper, the Observer, is an economic burden. My thought earlier had been to give it up, just as many American papers are contemplating giving up other days of the week but keeping Sunday (and Thursdays and perhaps another … because they are still useful to wrap around those free-standing inserts). No, they won’t keep publishing on those days for journalistic purposes but because they have distribution value. Cynical, perhaps, but true.

But all this talk about the article has made me contemplate a new future: What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news, multimedia, and comment and the Observer became a once-a-week (who cares what day of the week?) print brand of analysis, context, comment, and narrative? The Guardian has 37 million users, two-thirds of them outside the UK. Going online-only would enable it to become a truly international brand. The Observer could compete with the master of the article, the one publication that adds great value through the form: the Economist. As a newspaper of depth, this Observer could mimic Die Zeit in Germany, an amazing journal of reporting and commentary that is still growing in circulation. The print Observer could be printed in America, competing with weak-tea Sunday newspapers in markets across the country. Prior efforts to consider a print Guardian in the U.S. have stopped short. Could this succeed? Dunno.

The point is that the article as a high form of journalistic practice could succeed in a high-value print form while the Guardian could become a journal of news and comment in text, photo, video, audio, graphics, data….

What also makes me wonder about this is The New York Times’ proud announcement that it will remake its Week in Review into the Sunday Review next week. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Sunday Times in ages. I used to hang on its arrival at newsstands on Saturday nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now I find it to be day-old bread, yeasty but stiff. Could The Times turn its plans for Sunday Review into an American Economist? I’m less sanguine about its chances than the Guardian’s. In either case, the winner would be the one that finds the greatest value in the old form of the article.

See, it’s not dead. It just needs a savior.

May 28 2011

14:44

The article as luxury or byproduct

A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

* See the amazing Brian Stelter covering the Joplin tornado and begging his desk at The Times to turn his tweets into a story because he had neither the connectivity nor the time to do it in the field and, besides, he was too busy doing something more precious: reporting. (It’s a great post, a look at a journalist remaking his craft. Highly recommended for journalists and journalism students particularly.) (And aren’t you proud of me for not drawing the obvious and embarrassing comparison to Times editor Bill Keller’s Luddite trolling about Twitter even as his man in Twitter, Stelter, proves what a valuable tool it is?)

* In Canada’s recent election, Postmedia (where—disclosure—I am an advisor) had its reporters on the bus do nothing but report, putting up posts and photos and videos and snippets as they went, keeping coverage going all day, maximizing their value in the field. Back at HQ, a “twin” would turn that into a narrative — as blog posts — when appropriate. At the end of the day, the twin would also turn out a story for print but everything had pretty much been done earlier; this was more an editing than a writing task. I asked my Postmedia friends what had to be done to turn the posts into an article. Mostly, they said, it meant adding background paragraphs (those great space-wasters that can now be rethought of as links to regularly updated background wikis, don’t you think?).

* At South by Southwest, the Guardian’s folks talked about their steller live-blogging. Ian Katz, the deputy editor, said that live-blogging — devoting someone to a story all day — was expensive. I said that writing articles is also expensive. He agreed. There’s the choice: Some news events (should we still be calling them stories?) are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.

* Of course, I need to point to Andy Carvin’s tweeting and retweeting of the Arab Spring. He adds tremendous journalistic value: finding the nodes and networks of reliable witnesses; questioning and vetting what they say; debunking rumors; adding perspective and context; assigning his audience tasks (translating, verifying a photos’ location); even training witnesses and audiences (telling them what it really means to confirm a fact). What he does never results in an article.

* I’ve been talking with some people about concepts for reorganizing news organizations around digital and I keep calling on John Paton’s goal to keep in the field and maximize the two things that add value — reporting and sales — and to make everything else more efficient through consolidation or outsourcing. As I was talking to someone else about this, it occurred to me that in some — not all — cases, not only editing and packaging but also even writing could be done elsewhere, as Postmedia did in its election experiment. I’m not talking about complex stories from beat people who understand topics and need to write what they report from their earned understanding. I’m talking about covering an event or a meeting, for example. The coverage can come from a reporter and in some cases from witnesses’ cameras and quotes. The story can be written elsewhere by someone who can add value by compiling perspectives and facts from many witnesses and sources. It harkens back to the days of newspaper rewritemen (I was one).

Carry this to the extreme — that’s my specialty — and we see witnesses everywhere, some of them reporters, some people who happen to be at a news event before reporters arrive (and now we can reach them via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare….), some who may be participants but are sharing photos and facts via Twitter. Already on the web, we see others — bloggers — turn these distributed snippets into narratives: posts, stories, articles.

The bigger question all this raises is when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I’ve been yammering on for a few years about how news is a process more than a product. These episodes help focus what that kind of journalism will look like — and what the skills of the journalist should be.

The accepted wisdom of journalism and its schools was that storytelling was our real job, our high calling, our real art. Ain’t necessarily so. The accepted wisdom of blogging has been that now any of us can do everything: report and write, producing text and audio and video and graphics and packaging and distributing it all. But I also see specialization returning with some people reporting, others packaging. Can we agree to a new accepted wisdom: that the most precious resource in news is reporting and so maximizing the acquisition of facts and answers is what we need?

So what is an article? An article can be a byproduct of the process. When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process. The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.

An article can be a luxury. When a story is complex and has been growing and changing, it is a great service to tie that into a cogent and concise narrative. But is that always necessary? Is it always the best way to inform? Can we always afford the time it takes to produce articles? Is writing articles the best use of scarce reporting resources?

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki) isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

We write articles for many reasons: because the form demands it, because we want the bylines and ego gratification, because we are competitive, because we had to. Now we should write articles when necessary.

This new structure changes not only the skills but likely the character of the journalist. These days when I see a journalist talk only about his or her passion to write and tell stories, I worry for them that they will find fewer jobs and less of a calling. But when I hear journalists say that their passion is to report, to dig up facts, to serve and inform the community by all means possible, I feel better. When I hear a journalist talk about collaboration with that community as the highest art, then I get happy.

Let the record show that I am not declaring the article useless or dead. Just optional.

: Seconds after I posted this to Twitter, Chad Catacchio said that by the time the article is written, its’ not news, it’s history (albeit the fabled first draft).

April 04 2011

03:16

Who’s afraid of Arianna Huffington?

The New York Times has been gunning for The Huffington Post lately, which makes me wonder what exactly Arianna Huffington has done to scare or anger them so. Or perhaps that’s the wrong question. Given that our enemies are often those we don’t understand, I wonder what The Times fails to grasp about HuffPo. That then leads to the question of what The Times can learn from this Post.

Felix Salmon has done a skillful job covering this one-way war, this schoolyard taunting in two posts. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote two columns and a blog post going after Huffington—once directly; once without (as Salmon puts it) the intellectual honesty to link to and allow his readers to judge those he criticizes; and once defensively, after Huffington called his bluff. Times staff loyally picked up Keller’s spitballs to lob their own. Media critic David Carr wrote and then killed a tweet sniping about Arianna that he later conceded was “tasteless.” Andrew Goldman didn’t so much interview Huffington for The Times Magazine as he acted like a parody of a TV prosecutor trying to bait a cagey witness—or perhaps it is better described as a comic homage to Joe McCarthy trying to elicit confessions of leftness. Then Salmon points out that The Times snagged a HuffPo scoop without credit. Just now Carr delivers a glancing blow to Aol/HuffPo, reading into a defection a defeat.

What is The Times’ problem? I think it’s that they do not understand what makes Huffington Post successful and they lash out at the unknown. Here, I suggest, is what The Times and Keller don’t understand about HuffPo. Here is what they think is wrong with it:

* Huffington Post is not content. Content is what content people make; if they don’t make it, it’s not content. That, I believe, is The Times’ cultural view of HuffPo: It cannot be content because the likes of The Times have not made it (no matter how many Timesman Huffington hires). That, I theorized, is why The Times and other media temples did not start their own HuffPo’s or buy the original: It’s not real. Even if The Times were to give it credit for the one-third of HuffPo that is content—by dozens of journalists—they’d still say it’s diluted by the other third that is aggregation and the last third that is comment. And that leads to…

* Conversation is not content. When I had Henry Blodget speak with my class on new business models and disruption, he praised HuffPo for its understanding of the value of conversation. In The Times’ view, conversation is what they enable—no, tolerate—when readers chatter under articles once they are finished. As I learn in every damned meeting with news folks I ever have, comments have cooties. All they can ever hear from the vox populi is the voices of the trolls. Blodget and Huffington have a broader sense of the conversation. That was Arianna’s essential insight when she gave celebrities a place to speak; that is conversation. That was Henry’s insight when he learned to listen to what people were talking about so he could join in and add to their conversation. Which leads to…

* Aggregation is cheating. The Times thinks aggregation is not content. Worse, they are coming around to Rupert Murdoch’s view that it is theft. As Jay Rosen tweeted, seen from the readers’ point of view, aggregation is helpful; it adds value to coverage. Indeed, that’s why The Times does aggregate and curate. But when looking for enemies, it’s best not to look in the mirror. I talk (a lot) about the link economy and how there are two distinct creations of value online: the creation of content and the creation of a public (née audience) for it. Aggregators, curators, and commentators bring audience—and value—to content. If the recipient of those links can’t build a relationship of value with the people who are clicking, that’s their problem. At CUNY, I will soon finally have the time to start a research project on the value of links and how to optimize it. I’d like to see this debate about aggregation between The Times and HuffPo occur on economic rather than emotional terms and hope to inform that discussion with facts.

* Free is offensive. Here’s another area in which The Times is coming to side with—gasp!—Murdoch. Now that it has a meter—and without a proven economic basis for it (not yet)—Times people must put the case again, in emotional terms of entitlement: Readers *want* to pay. Readers *should* pay. Times content *deserves* payment. People who question the strategy are demonized. (David Carr attacked me on NPR over just this … we’ve since hugged and made up; this is what I really have to say about the Times’ meter.) Huffington created value—we know the exact amount, to nine figures—out of getting people to write for free (because they wanted to and found value in). She’s cheapening the valuable work we journalists perform, isn’t she? No, like her free writers, she’s valuing something else. She’s valuing the relationships she has with the people formerly known as an audience.

* Left is not right. Goldman’s desperate effort to get Huffington to admit—CONFESS, I SAY AGAIN, CONFESS!—that she’s—gasp!—liberal, taken with Keller’s paeans to himself and his kind of journalism, were as revealing as they were disingenuous. I find Arianna, too, disingenuous in her efforts to sidestep the word the way Roger Ailes won’t own right. All of them want to dump us, the people, in these two buckets, left and right, but they are above classification. The Times’ real problem is not that Huffington a liberal but that she is an advocate of a point of view. So she tweaks The Times for WMDs and upholding antiquated definitions of objectivity and balance.

* Fun is not allowed. Journalism is serious business. It’s no place for kittens.

In my class, I’ve had my students pick a target to disrupt with a new business (after doing that, they’ll turn around and act as the disrupted company to craft a defense—it’s a lesson in finding opportunity in change). The class picked their target: Huffington Post (when I thought they would have picked The Times). Last week, they presented research and what struck me was the difference in engagement at both sites. HuffPo users generate 18 page views per month on average. The Times is defining only a small slice of its uniques—10%? 20%?—as that engaged, at 20 pageviews per month. I say The Times would have better used the $30-40 million reportedly spent on its meter finding ways to better engage its public—multiplying pageviews (fourfold or more?) and consequent ad revenue—while finding new ways to exploit these deeper relationships (data, commerce, events….). The Times knows it needs to increase engagement; that’s the industry’s favorite conference buzzword. The irony of The Times’ meter is that when it succeeds at engaging a once-casual reader, their reward is a wall. That is an economic and strategic question.

How could The Times increase engagement? By learning from Huffington Post rather than snarking at it. Aggregation has value for readers. Conversation is engaging. Fighting for the people—which is what newspapers did, in their good old days—is the most meaningful way to engage with a community. Fun is fine.

I am reminded of the schoolyard, when the boy nasty to a girl and some sage adult would see that he really just had a crush on her and didn’t know how to say it. OK, Bill and Arianna, kiss and make up.

September 22 2010

13:07

Wrong battlefield

It’s kinda touching that Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants are trying to entertain the boss by starting an old-fashioned newspaper war (old-fashioned modifies newspaper). But it’s also ever-more revealing of their worldview.

And of course, the best way to declare a war is to declare it over and claim victory. “Nationally, there’s no contest now,” Robert Thompson, editor of the Wall Street Journal, said, according to the AP, “We’re more than twice as big as The New York Times. They’re not a serious competitor.” The AP goes on to tell us that the “Journal sold an average of about 2 million copies nationwide on weekends compared with the Times’ 900,000.”

OK, but that’s half the story. It’s more like 10 percent of the story. For now shift to the future, the web, and comScore tells us that in July, The Times reached 43.6 million people online vs. the Journal’s 16.1 million. By the time you add in pass-around readers for the paper and de-dupe the same readers for print and online, those numbers might change, but the moral to the story doesn’t.

The New York Times has roughly two and a half times more readers than the Journal. That translates to two and a half times more influence, two and a half times more relationships, a two-and-a-half-time bigger brand.

Murdoch has been willing to lose tens of millions of dollars on his New York Post for one reason: he wants a “bully pulpit” (his words.) He has certainly turned FoxNews into just that. So its kind of sad, if you’re feeling empathetic, that his Journal is losing so to The Times. That’s why Thompson doth protest too much.

That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world.

Now I argue these days that brands are no longer magnets; they become labels when you find content through search, algorithms, and peers’ links. Murdoch cut off the algorithms when he pulled his Times of London out of Google News just as he put it behind the wall. That was not a business decision but an emotional but. But I’m even willing to stipulate that his pay wall could work — work in the sense that he gets satisfactory revenue (whatever the definition of that is) from readers rather than from advertisers.

But the real price is growth. It won’t grow. I see that not as victory in the war for the biggest bully pulpit — for the bragging rights to talking to more people. I see that as surrender.

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