Thursday, May 28, 2009

What if readers decide what to pay for news?

Want to turn the pay-for-content debate on its head?

Fine then; take a look at Doc Searls’ plan that envisions a world where creators do charge for content, but consumers determine what price to pay.

It’s easy to dismiss the notion as naive or inadequate, but consider please his observation that “Whatever readers decide to pay, the sum of it won’t be $0, which is what readers are paying [online] now.”

More importantly, this approach recognizes that we have no idea what a news story is worth, and never have. In the days of scarcity and monopoly, price was a function of how badly readers wanted any part of the package we sold. It came only in a one-size-fits-all unit with the cost of delivery built in. If they wanted sports, 50¢. If they wanted world news, 50¢. How about classified listings for a used car? 50¢.

In that world, we never had any idea what unbundled news content was worth; there was no way for readers to show us. It was a binary vote from them: I'll take it all at your price, or I won't take it at all.

In a today’s media economy of abundance and zero cost of copying, we need to find out what news is worth. Unlike many, I don’t believe the old revenue model – chiefly ad sales – is going away entirely, but it certainly will never be the same. Tomorrow’s business model will involve (among other things) less revenue from advertising but vastly lower cost of distribution. What would we charge for a news story if we didn’t have to print and deliver a paper?

What would we need to charge? In the days when I looked at McClatchy's numbers, newsrooms cost about $300 million a year and internet revenues were approaching $200 million. The newsrooms are obviously smaller now, and internet sales at McClatchy continue to climb.

Discussion about paying for professional newsgathering these days includes ideas about philanthropy, non-profit status, even financing like NPR. EmanciPay deserves to be part of the discussion.

Rather than describe what Searls has in mind, I'd ask you to read it, ponder it, and let me hear what you think.

Think of EmanciPay as a way to unburden sellers of the need to keep trying to control markets that are beyond their control anyway. Think of it as a way that “free market” can mean more than “your choice of captor.” Think of it as a way that “customer relationships” can be worthy of the label because both sides are carrying their ends of the relationship burden — rather than the sellers’ side carrying the whole thing (as CRM systems do today).

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Becoming a news consumer, and a curmudgeon

Forgive me for a few minutes while I work on my curmudgeon merit badge today.

In my new life as a consumer rather than producer of news, I’ve been surprised to learn just how often the conventions of standard practice seem to run contrary to common sense.

EXHIBIT A: If you follow me on Twitter (@howardweaver) you’ll have seen my frequent laments about the AP’s moronic practice of attaching impressive-sounding labels to stories that that tend to be, at best, slightly better than average. These can be AP IMPACT or AP EXCLUSIVE or the like.

Here’s a recent example: “AP IMPACT: Grads face worries about money, future.”

Oh, please. Labeling your stories like that is just like using exclamation points everywhere. Like laughing at your own jokes, it’s not done in polite society.

EXHIBIT B: I also found myself chafing Sunday over an NYT story suggesting that the president's nuanced positions and willingness to re-calibrate earlier decisions might be viewed as “flip flopping.”

Here was the first sentence that struck me as both banal and self-referential: “In a sound bite culture, there are limits to how much nuance the public can absorb.”

Think about that. By definition, a “sound bite culture” is the product of people being fed sound bites. And who does the feeding? The press, mainly. And on what authority does this reporter get to say there are limits to how much nuance we can absorb? You really think anybody’s tested those limits lately? The only person who’s tried nuance in the last 10 years just got elected president, so maybe her pat little assertion isn’t true.

Later in the piece, the reporter resorts to a classic “no shit” observation to reinforce a questionable premise: “Americans’ patience may not last, and there may come a time when the public does not listen as closely or carefully to Mr. Obama as it does today.”

Oh yeah? It would be equally true (and equally unhelpful) to say, “Americans’ patience may well last, and there may never come a time when the public does not listen as closely or carefully to Mr. Obama as it does today.”

That kind of weaseling “no shit” generalization reminds me of the classic gag headline about a Carter speech that actually saw print: More Mush From the Wimp.

EXHIBIT C: Reading public editor Clark Hoyt in the same paper reminded me what a bad job the New York Times and the rest of the press did handling Maureen Dowd’s apparent plagiarism. Hoyt wrote “Dowd told me the passage in question was part of an e-mail conversation with her friend.”

Okay, then: she admits copying her friend but denies plagiarizing Josh Marshall. In either case, she passed somebody else’s words off as her own. That’s a sin in the newsrooms where I worked.

Perhaps the question of whether she should be fired remains open. The question of whether she should be trusted does not.

( The typically level-headed Hoyt also added, “I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”)

Exhibit D: One final peeve to end my apparently grumpy afternoon.

Most of the news reports I’ve seen and California's governor himself referred to recent election results on budget issues as an emphatic rejection by Californians. An article in the Sunday opinion section went so far as to call it a “resounding message” from voters.

That strikes me as an absurd characterization considering that it a verdict rendered by about eight percent of the state’s eligible voters. (The percentage of population is even smaller if you consider than less than three-fourths of those eligible to register bothered to do so).

What's more, here’s that troublesome word from Exhibit A, above: nuance.

Very few news stories or even commentaries on the election noted the 800-pounds of gorilla truth in the room: much of California’s budget crisis results from the profoundly anti-democratic fact that legislators here can’t enact a budget by majority vote.

Honestly, they can’t. The votes of those elected by the most people isn’t enough to govern in this instance. Owing to restrictions on majority rule adopted years ago, it takes a 67% yes vote to pass the budget. That’s right: 34% of the legislators can trump the other 56%.

Whether you think that’s a good idea or not, you have to admit it’s relevant information.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Good news on McClatchy debt

Today's news about McClatchy's deeply discounted debt swap is a big deal, for the company and the industry.

The story may seem a bit opaque to us non-financial types, but I read it as a move that significantly strengthens the company's ability to weather the recession and positions it well to continue transformation as economic activity resumes. Early returns from the market agreed; the stock's up nearly 20% as I write this early Thursday.

More as I learn more. Today I am celebrating a smart, innovative move by McClatchy management.

END OF THE DAY UPDATE: The market, at least, has made its opinion known. McClatchy stock (nyse:mni) was up 30% on 6.3 million shares, about eight times the average volume.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A short defense of daily publishing

Maybe Jeff Jarvis and I disagree so often because our view of journalism and the value it provides is just so different.

That’s the inference, at least, from his post today (The death of daily) berating “outmoded ... dailiness” as “staleness.”

“Once it’s out, it’s over,” Jeff writes.

That’s true, of course, but only if your view of value is restricted to event-driven facts. I’ve been arguing for years that newspapers – yes, printed, daily newspapers – have a good long horizon on the value curve if they shift their focus to the value they already do best: summary, briefings, orientation, authentication. If a printed product did that well, the fact that it’s a once-a-day product would be a strength: a starting point, presumably first thing in the morning, which helped readers orient their day and prepare to parse and interpret all the fact-clotted data that would wash over the ceaselessly for the rest of the day.

The newspaper thus becomes a tool for managing the rest of your information habit. It can help you sift and sort and filter the vast river of news that flows past constantly, effervescently through the day. Think of it as a cup, or instruction manual, for getting a drink of water from a firehose.

Society is not a mere assemblage of individuals each acting purely on self-interested motivation. We are a collectivist, social species, and we need a common vocabulary, a shared starting point, at least, from which to launch our individualist endeavors. We can’t all check the accuracy or authenticity of every data point that floats by. There is a robust, profitable business here for the entity that provides those services.

Remember, even in cities with great libraries, people still bought encyclopedias. You don’t always need the whole library; indeed, it can overwhelm or bewilder, and leave you more confused than when you started.

Data gets stale; insight doesn’t.


I had a nagging feeling I'd said more or less this same thing once before. (That happens to me more and more these days.) I searched this blog and found this, from May 2006.

I'm reminded again that most choices facing us in this new era inolve AND rather than OR. We need to do everything Jarvis is talking about and sustain our central role in provising context, perspective and authentication:

Yes, we know you’re awash in data and information. You wake up to NPR, listen to talk radio on your commute, surf the web when you should be working and see CNN in the lunchroom. You’ve been titillated by blogs and email alerts all day; friends and coworkers have sent you IMs about the latest item to tickle their fancy. You’ve got books and podcasts cued oup on your iPod. So what can we possibly do for you?

How about this: I’ll ask a hundred of the smartest people I know to spend all day sorting through that information, figuring out which of the blog items you saw is accurate enough to deserve your attention, comparing what the Secretary of Defense said on TV with what he told you last month, figuring what’s likely to happen tomorrow on that big story that dominated CNN. They’ll organize it in concise and manageable dimensions, collect it all in one spot and deliver it to your doorstep first thing in the morning to help you organize and orient your coming day.

In the meantime, we’ll use all those other channels as well to keep you posted on what we learn about the latest developments, and to deliver the information – chiefly local – that we alone have bothered to check out and discover.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Government policies define all economics – including those for news

I’ve been arguing with good friends and others for a while now about why I don’t think charity or government subsidies are the right way to “save newspapers.” There are philosophical and policy reasons to argue about, but my main point has been that only success in the marketplace can ensure robust, independent journalism.

That said, there’s nothing to prevent charities, non-profits and government itself from helping news companies transform to match today's radically changing landscape and transition their skills and values into the new, more pluralistic arena.

Philanthropies, universities and other non-profits are doing a lot of this right now. Hats off to the Knight Foundation, Pew, Poynter et al. On the occasion of Sen. Kerry’s hearings in the Senate, let’s focus on government involvement for now.

Many of the instant commentators have proved predictably eager to jump in and simply rain on the whole idea. Typical was Alan Mutter’s initial reaction, under the headline “Why the feds can’t – and shouldn’t – rescue the press.” (Jeff Jarvis didn’t have to wait for the actual hearing to have an opinion about what should happen).

Government shouldn’t bail out the press? Well, no kidding . Who thinks it should? Many of the arguments about this issues across the blogosphere are a classic examples of the straw man or red herring schools of rhetoric: mis-frame or abbreviate the issues to make it easy to prove the point you believed all along.

It simply makes no sense to circumscribe the discussion, as Mutter does, to reject government supplying “cash bail outs,” or noting that news companies, unlike financial giants or automakers, are not “too big to fail.”

I happen to agree with him on both those points, but it’s silly to extrapolate from there that government has no role to play. It always has, it does now, and it always will. We’re only arguing what it should be, what’s fair, and what’s in the public interest.

Government policy defines economic viability for everything from oil companies to internet start-ups. Do you suppose eBay and Amazon would do as well as they do if the government hadn’t decided to protect online sales from local sales taxes paid by brick-and-mortar competitors? Do you think Comcast and Verizon would have been in the same broadband business with different government policies about spectrum sales and local utility monopolies? Does the music industry care about how the government defines copyright? Does Pfizer care about patents?

Every one of those subjects describes government influence on business and industry, and there are thousands of other examples. Governments can make rules to serve the public interest or because somebody got bribed, but either way, they make them.

Jarvis has no issue with spending billions on extending broadband (me neither) or government policies that encourage “innovation” in areas he’s interested in. Mutter, who reminds of his tenure as a “Silicon Valley CEO,” surely knows what a role government policy and government spending played in the development of all things digital.

Not all press critics and internet triumphalists will acknowledge it, but there is a hugely valuable reservoir of talent and expertise at risk as newspaper newsrooms disintegrate. Governments routinely pay to retrain workers for new economy jobs. Governments routinely create tax and investment policies to encourage specific industries to transition into new fields (think about clean energy, solar, hybrid cars).

Why would people argue that thoughtful government policies that recognize the public’s interest in experienced, skilled and ethical journalism are somehow out of bounds?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Post reporter gives us a view from inside his bubble

Asked in an online chat why the Washington Post calls Bush-era practices "harsh interrogation" rather than torture, reporter Paul Kane replied, in part:

KANE: You can’t call someone a convicted murderer until he/she has actually been convicted. Understand? Get it? The reason we say “alleged” murder and things like that is for our own legal protection. So we can’t be sued for libel.

No, Paul; you don't understand, and you don't get it. The reason we say "alleged" isn't to prevent libel; it's to be fair and honest.

If you see a person shoot and kill somebody else, you should say he killed him. It might be up to a jury to decide whether it's legally murder, but there's no question he's a killer.

And once we learn from official records of hundreds of waterboarding sessions with the same suspects, of boxing people up with insects, and other extreme actions, that's torture, by any fair and honest definition.

Props to the Post for hosting the chat, and to Kane for participating. But honestly, Paul: come out of that newsroom bubble and have a look around.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Thinking about innovations

A young multimedia journalist caught me in the hallway last week at the Bar Camp News Innovation session in Philadelphia. Her skillful editing makes me sound more coherent than I deserved, which is why I'm sharing it here.

There are links to other interviews by Jeanmarie Evelly and assorted blog posts and stories available here.

Howard Weaver from Jeanmarie Evelly on Vimeo.