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December 21 2011

15:00

Dan Kennedy: 2012 will bring “the great retrenchment” among newspaper publishers

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Boston-based media commenter Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a regular panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” and the author of the Media Nation blog.

Following years of retreat in the face of shrinking readership, mounting financial losses, and a rising chorus of digital visionaries telling them they’re doing it all wrong, 2012 will be a year of retrenchment for newspaper publishers.

Still standing some three years after the near-implosion of the newspaper industry in 2008 and 2009, executives will point to their continued existence as proof that their situation was never as bad as it seemed, and that a few tweaks here and there will restore them to pink-cheeked, if downsized, health.

Their rallying cry will be Dean Starkman’s essay in the November/December 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Confidence Game.” In the course of nearly 8,000 words, Starkman dismisses those he calls the “news gurus” (principally Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis), arguing they are more interested in promoting their own the-sky-is-falling agenda than in the fate of public-interest journalism. Starkman calls for the preservation of traditional journalistic institutions, which brought a memorable retort from Shirky:

Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.

Starkman’s essay is actually a nuanced, deeply intelligent meditation on the future of journalism, but it’s the caricature — newspapers good, news gurus bad — that traditionalists will embrace. That is especially true with respect to the notion that online readers have been getting a free ride, and that it’s time to insist that they start paying.

At the Boston Globe, for instance, several staff members have taken to tweeting “This is why we pay for journalism” whenever their paper has published something particularly noteworthy — a reference to the Globe’s newly instituted paywall. Never mind that we have always paid for journalism — until recently, primarily through advertising. Never mind that NPR, some commercial broadcast outlets and a rising tide of non-profit news organizations are producing excellent journalism every day that is paid for by someone other than the end user. The unspoken message is, We hard-working journalists have been giving away our work for 15 years, and we’re finally putting a stop to it.

In fact, there are reasons to hope the traditional newspaper industry might have a bit more life left in it than we thought a few years ago. The Globe and The New York Times, both owned by The New York Times Company, are pioneering the use of flexible paywalls that keep much of their content open to social networks and blogs while imposing a fee on regular readers. The Times, at least, has had some success; the Globe has not yet released any numbers. Publishers everywhere are hoping to emulate them.

The forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore.

Since advertising comprises an ever-shrinking share of revenues, publishers have to persuade readers to pay in the form of higher prices for print and something — anything — for online access. The alternative is to continue sliding toward oblivion. And despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s still not at all clear what would replace newspapers, especially at the local level. For every community that has a high-quality non-profit news site like Voice of San Diego (currently experiencing its own problems) and the New Haven Independent, or a for-profit like The Batavian or Baristanet, there are hundreds without anything but their shrinking, debt-ridden, chain-owned local newspaper.

The great newspaper retrenchment may prove to be more than a dead-cat bounce. As the economy slowly improves, the newspaper business may well enjoy a semi-revival. But before long, the forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore. Some progressive newspaper executives, like John Paton of Digital First Media, are trying to figure out how to combine the best of the new and the old before it’s too late. For the most part, though, you can be reasonably sure that newspaper companies will continue to cut costs, maximize profits (or minimize losses), and do their best ostrich imitations until they find themselves under siege once again.

After all, they’re standing up for traditional values — and what could be more traditional than failing to plan for the future?

Wall image via Mark Heard used under a Creative Commons license.

December 10 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The WikiBacklash, information control and news, and a tightening paywall

[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]

Only one topic really grabbed everyone’s attention this week in future-of-news circles (and most of the rest of the world, too): WikiLeaks. To make the story a bit easier to digest, I’ve divided it into two sections — the crackdown on WikiLeaks, and its implications for journalism.

Attacks and counterattacks around WikiLeaks: Since it released 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables last week, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have been at the center of attacks by governments, international organizations, and private businesses. The forms and intensity they’ve taken have seemed unprecedented, though Daniel Ellsberg said he faced all the same things when he leaked the Pentagon Papers nearly 40 years ago.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happened since late last week: Both Amazon and the domain registry EveryDNS.net booted WikiLeaks, leaving it scrambling to stay online. (Here’s a good conversation between Ethan Zuckerman and The Columbia Journalism Review on the implications of Amazon’s decision.) PayPal, the company that WikiLeaks uses to collect most of its donations, cut off service to WikiLeaks, too. PayPal later relented, but not before botching its explanation of whether U.S. government pressure was involved.

On the government side, the Library of Congress blocked WikiLeaks, and Assange surrendered to British authorities on a Swedish sexual assault warrant (the evidence for which David Cay Johnston said the media should be questioning) and is being held without bail. Slate’s Jack Shafer said the arrest could be a blessing in disguise for Assange.

WikiLeaks obviously has plenty of critics: Christopher Hitchens called Assange a megalomaniac who’s “made everyone complicit in his own private decision to try to sabotage U.S. foreign policy,” and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman called for Assange and The New York Times, respectively, to be prosecuted via the Espionage Act. But WikiLeaks’ many online defenders also manifested themselves this week, too, as hundreds of mirror sites cropped up when WikiLeaks’ main site was taken down, and various online groups attacked the sites of companies that had pulled back on services to WikiLeaks. By Wednesday, it was starting to resemble what Dave Winer called “a full-out war on the Internet.”

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan looked at the response by WikiLeaks’ defenders to argue that WikiLeaks will never be blocked, and web pioneer Mark Pesce said that WikiLeaks has formed the blueprint for every group like it to follow. Many other writers and thinkers lambasted the backlash against WikiLeaks, including Reporters Without Borders, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, Roberto Arguedas at Gizmodo, BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin, Wired’s Evan Hansen, and David Samuels of The Atlantic.

Four defenses of WikiLeaks’ rights raised particularly salient points: First, NYU prof Clay Shirky argued that while WikiLeaks may prove to be damaging in the long run, democracy needs it to be protected in the short run: “If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.” Second, CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said that WikiLeaks fosters a critical power shift from secrecy to transparency.

Finally, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and Salon’s Dan Gillmor made similar points about the parallel between WikiLeaks’ rights and the press’s First Amendment rights. Whether we agree with them or not, Assange and WikiLeaks are protected under the same legal umbrella as The New York Times, they argued, and every attack on the rights of the former is an attack on the latter’s rights, too. “If journalism can routinely be shut down the way the government wants to do this time, we’ll have thrown out free speech in this lawless frenzy,” Gillmor wrote.

WikiLeaks and journalism: In between all the attacks and counterattacks surrounding him, Julian Assange did a little bit of talking of his own this week, too. He warned about releasing more documents if he’s prosecuted or killed, including possible Guantánamo Bay files. He defended WikiLeaks in an op-ed in The Australian. He answered readers’ questions at The Guardian, and dodged one about diplomacy that started an intriguing discussion at Jay Rosen’s Posterous. When faced with the (rather pointless) question of whether he’s a journalist, he responded with a rather pointless answer.

Fortunately, plenty of other people did some deep thinking about what WikiLeaks means for journalism and society. (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a far more comprehensive list of those people’s thoughts here.) Former Guardian web editor Emily Bell argued that WikiLeaks has awakened journalism to a renewed focus on the purpose behind what it does, as opposed to its current obsession with the models by which it achieves that purpose. Here at the Lab, USC grad student Nikki Usher listed a few ways that WikiLeaks shows that both traditional and nontraditional journalism matter and pointed out the value of the two working together.

At the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles said that WikiLeaks divides journalists into two camps: “Those who want to see information get to the public, by whatever means, and those who want to control the means by which information flows.” Honolulu Civil Beat editor John Temple thought a bit about what WikiLeaks means for small, local news organizations like his, and British j-prof Paul Bradshaw used WikiLeaks as a study in how to handle big data dumps journalistically.

Also at the Lab, CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson had some thoughts about this new quasi-source in the form of large databases, and how journalists might be challenged to think about it. Finally, if you’re looking for some deep thoughts on WikiLeaks in audio form, Jay Rosen has you covered — in short form at PBS MediaShift, and at quite a bit more length with Dave Winer on their Rebooting the News podcast.

How porous should paywalls be?: Meanwhile, the paid-content train chugs along, led by The New York Times, which is still planning on instituting its paywall next year. The Times’ digital chief, Martin Nisenholtz, dropped a few more details this week about how its model will work, again stressing that the site will remain open to inbound links across the web.

But for the first time, Nisenholtz also stressed the need to limit the abuse of those links as a way to get inside the wall without paying, revealing that The Times will be working with Google to limit the number of times a reader can access Times articles for free via its search. Nisenholtz also hinted at the size of the paywall’s target audience, leading Poynter’s Rick Edmonds to estimate that The Times will be focusing on about 6 million “heavy users of the site.”

Reuters’ Felix Salmon was skeptical of Nisenholtz’s stricter paywall plans, saying that they won’t be worth the cost: “Strengthening your paywall sends the message that you don’t trust your subscribers, or your subscribers’ non-subscriber friends: you’re treating them as potential content thieves.” The only way such a strategy would make sense, he said, is if The Times is considering starting at a very high price point, something like $20 a month. Henry Blodget of Business Insider, on the other hand, is warming to the idea of a paywall for The Times.

In other paid-content news: News Corp.’s Times of London, which is running a very different paywall from The New York Times, may have only 54,000 people accessing content behind it, according to research by the competing Guardian. The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle announced it’s launching an metered model powered by Steve Brill’s Press+, a plan Steve Yelvington defended and Matthew Terenzio questioned.

While one paid-content plan gets started, another one might be coming to an end: Newsday is taking its notoriously unsuccessful paywall down through next month, and several on Twitter guessed that the move would become permanent. One news organization that’s not going to be a pioneer in paid online news: The Washington Post, as Post Co. CEO Don Graham said at a conference this week.

Reading roundup: Other than the ongoing WikiLeaks brouhaha, it’s been a relatively quiet week on the future-of-news front. Here’s a bit of what else went on:

— Web guru Tim O’Reilly held his News Foo Camp in Arizona last weekend, and since it was an intentionally quiet event, it didn’t dominate the online discussion like many such summits do. Still, there were a few interesting post-Newsfoo pieces for the rest of us to chew on, including a roundup of the event by TBD’s Steve Buttry, Alex Hillman’s reflections, and USC j-prof Robert Hernandez’s thoughts on journalists’ calling a lie a lie.

— A few iPad bits: News media marketer Earl Wilkinson wrote about a possible image problem with the iPad, All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka reported on the negotiations between Apple and publishers on iTunes subscriptions, and The New York Times’ David Nolen gave some lessons from designing election results for the iPad.

— The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley interviewed former TBD general manager Jim Brady about the ambitious local online-TV project, and Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman looked at TBD and other local TV online branding efforts.

— Advertising Age’s Ann Marie Kerwin has an illuminating list of 10 trends in global media consumption.

— Finally, two good pieces from the Lab: Harvard prof Nicholas Christakis on why popularity doesn’t equal influence on social media, and The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and Jennifer Preston provided a glimpse into how one very influential news organization is evolving on social media.

August 04 2010

17:00

“AdSense for online subscriptions”: Meet MediaPass, the platform that wants to put pores in your paywall

In a post over at Poynter yesterday, Rick Edmonds analyzed the paid-content experience of Spokane’s paper, the Spokesman-Review — and made, in the process, a case for a mixture of paid content and free living together on a media website. A case for, essentially, a porous paywall.

Like a number of industry analysts I have spoken with recently, [digital operations director Shaun] Higgins sees a business model in which news and special, online-only features (like a columnist singing his song parodies) is used to draw an audience. Once on the site, users can then buy archived articles, click on contextual ads and search local business listings. So the site essentially acts as a free marketing tool that can be used to pitch an assortment of products.

The upshot, for both Higgins and, by the looks of things, Edmonds: the walled-versus-free debate about web content, with its broad and often politicized terms, misses the point. Because “the obvious answer for newspapers” is “a hybrid formula.”

If that’s the case (and if The New York Times’ current path toward porousness is any indication of Paywall Zeitgeist, it could be), then publishers have another option besides Press+, Journalism Online’s paywall-facilitator: MediaPass. The platform takes a brick-by-brick approach to walls: through its modular system, it wants to give publishers the flexibility to determine not only the specific terms of their subscription asks, but also which sections (or even individual pages) of their content to make premium in the first place.

As MediaPass’ CEO, Matt Mitchell, puts it: “We want to be to online subscriptions what AdSense has been to online advertising.”

That ambitious goal pivots, like many such goals do, on a simple insight: whether you’re searching the web or monetizing its content, ease of use can make all the difference. “Part of the reason everybody monetizes through advertising networks and AdSense and Yahoo’s comparable product,” Mitchell told me, “is that it’s all very easy.” MediaPass tries to leverage the power of simplicity through its quick, AdSense-y sign-up process: provide your site’s basic info, select your subscription’s price point (when I tested the system out, the pre-populated options were one-month, three-month or six-month periods at fees of $9.95, $20.85, and $47.40 respectively — though you can write in your own price, as well), and MediaPass generates a line of Javascript that you can paste onto the back-end text of whatever content you want to keep behind your wall. There are no up-front costs for publishers who use the service. And the code itself is laid over content rather than integrated into it — and thus won’t, MediaPass promises, affect a site’s SEO.

The business proposition? MediaPass takes a flat 35 percent commission on subscription sales. (That’s an “introductory rate,” Mitchell told me, noting AdSense’s 68 percent cut for content ads.) And the value proposition for publishers, Mitchell says, comes in the system’s ease of use — which translates to nimbleness of use. As the MediaPass site notes, alluding to the Times of both New York and London, “a change is occurring in the industry as major media conglomerates have announced plans to charge a subscription for some of their online content. But while they are investing significant time, money and resources in building a proprietary subscription infrastructure, you can get started right now.

So what about the most common argument against a paywall strategy — that whatever money you manage to make in subscriptions and other payments will be negated by the exodus of the walled-off masses?

“If you do it right, you don’t lose users,” Mitchell says. ESPN.com, he points out, hasn’t seen a drop in its user base since it went paywall with Insider; quite the opposite. What’s “right” will vary by publication; still, Mitchell notes, it’s clear that, online ads being what they are, publishers need something beyond ads to support themselves. (Even the Huffington Post, he points out, widely cited as a successful outlet in terms of popularity and influence and other traditional metrics, has yet to turn a steady profit.)

Again, though, hybridity is key. Take the Times of London’s paywall, which, Mitchell says, erred on the side of excess: it put everything behind its wall, without even abbreviated content to let non-subscribers know what they’re missing. A smarter strategy is seduction: You need enough content outside the wall, Mitchell points out, to entice users to come in. You need peepholes. You need pores.

As for MediaPass’ pitch to publishers: the point isn’t necessarily to convince them of the merits of salvation-via-subscription. It is, though, to convince them to give paywalling a try. To take some of the life-or-death, all-or-nothing thinking that often surrounds the paid content debate…and re-direct it toward some (potentially) productive experimentation. As the platform’s FAQ sheet puts it: “Our entire goal in creating MediaPass was to make a subscription system that is easy to try with no obligations. We wanted to create a service in which publishers would ask themselves, ‘Why not?’”

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