Friday, December 18, 2009

Hegemony Watch

I'm planning to keep an eye on developments that suggest a growing concentration of media power in ever smaller circles—at the moment, mainly Google.

I'll comment here when I have anything substantial to say. Otherwise, I'm going to post quick comments and links on The Weaver Wire at posterous.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Revenue for news: What if we're asking the wrong question?

Some time last week, the usual suspects were riffing on Twitter about a post called “
Where does the paywall go?” that postulates most website activity comes from a very small percentage of readers and they, consequently, must not be “paywalled off.”

Jeff Jarvis' Twitter question was phrased thusly: “Okay, so where do you put the paywall? No seriously, look at the data.” The obvious implication was that there wasn’t anywhere to put one.

I replied that I’d put it “just this side of what’s worth paying for” and was immediately dismissed by some for having missed the point.

Uh, no. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

I tried again. Where to put the paywall may be the wrong question, based on status quo assumptions. If we’re having a paywall discussion, the more fundamental question to ask is whether you've created something worth paying for.

I realized later that a lot of folks just can’t envision a news product that’s worth paying for. While pundits nod toward 
The EconomistWSJ and a few speciality sites, their overwhelming consensus is that readers don’t and perhaps can’t find direct, transactional value in news. If you assume internet advertising is the primary way to pay for creating content, then you havede facto assumed that maximum traffic and/or clicks is essential.

This general question surfaced a bit later when Jay Rosen tweeted “
The Big Portals’ Battle For Local: I don't think any of them--AOL, MSN, Yahoo--have cracked the code.”

I replied,  “What if there's no code to crack? If grail is ad-supported local accountability journalism, I'm beginning to doubt it.”

That drew no replies.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How do you resist global information hegemony?

What if civic news has always been a niche market and we just didn’t recognize that? Mixed up with the sports readers and food page readers and folks who just wanted to see what was on TV, the people who bought and read the newspaper mainly for civic news probably were no more than a fraction of the total “news audience” all along.

This is at odds with my sense that most people are inherently social creatures — that we’re motivated by civic urges, want to participate, like being part of a community bigger than ourselves. I often argued that the most important thing newspapers did as mass media was to “provide the vocabulary for civic conversations.” Even people who read the paper mainly for sports (or whatever) presumably glanced at the front page, saw some headlines, got sucked in to some level of awareness of the civic life around them. Maybe that little bit was enough.

But maybe that limited, serendipitous exposure never really mattered; perhaps we simply flattered ourselves that it did. Maybe only a small percentage of citizens ever thought about issues and made reasoned decisions; perhaps they were then and now remain the only ones who need sophisticated, nuanced civic news.

It’s pretty clear now the overall business model that enriched newspapers over most of the last 40 years was largely accidental. Newspaper publishers never had a strategic plan to have television eliminate half their rivals, leaving them with non-competitive pricing power. I doubt any ever realized their audience-building packaging decisions — news, sports, business, features, comics — were mainly artifacts of production and distribution realities. We delivered all that content in one newspaper package because that was at the time state-of-the-art: the best, most cost-effective way to distribute on a daily basis. There was no natural order involved.

Media success is still driven by distribution prowess and uneconomic, accidental circumstances, but those no longer work in favor of newspapers. Google is today’s dominant example.

No less than the organizations that ruled the infosphere in prior decades, Google’s success owes much to fortune and circumstance. The founders never set out to create an Adwords and Adsense behemoth. There’s no evidence they associated their indexing and searching with advertising, or that they initially contemplated the network effects that would one day give them near monopoly power of their own.

In fact, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were opposed to "advertising funded search engines," they wrote in early days, and they didn’t come up with the idea of search-driven ad sales or the mechanisms to power it. Those were developed elsewhere, and Google became good at it only after settling a court case and licensing Omniture technology from Yahoo.

It’s important to understand this not because it diminishes their accomplishments – they had many brilliant insights and have executed splendidly – but because it adds a different perspective to all those admonitions to “do what Google would do.”

You can’t.

Newspapers were protected against competition by barriers like the expense of presses and costs of delivery. Google’s supremacy grows form the fact that it makes so much money on its brilliant, friction-free advertising it can give away billions of dollars worth of services — YouTube, Maps, Gmail — to create and protect a self-serving ecosystem that keeps Google at the center. Meanwhile, its search pages and algorithmic Google News aggregation have become a crucial source of news distribution that gain strength every day.

Net result? Google now combines the equivalent of yesterday’s newspaper monopolies with control of today’s state-of-the-art distribution system.

There are still ways for a Rebel Alliance to fight global information hegemony, but challenging Google at its core — online advertising and online traffic — doesn’t seem like a good bet.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Should government policy affect news? Come on, it already does

I guess Jim Barnett must trust rich people a lot more than I do.

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends, yada-yada, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if my sister married one. (If I had a sister). But why on earth does he think putting media decisions in the hands of the richest few Americans is the best way to go?

I hope Jim and everybody else understands my own preference: journalism needs to be rooted in the community, and in a capitalist society, there’s no better way than to make things work in the marketplace. I’ve spent more than 40 years advancing that idea, and I’m trying to help do so once again.

I’m not against non-profit news orgs, either. Hell, let a thousand flowers bloom. What I object to is the specious reasoning here that says “Whoa, the government has no role in this. Leave it to the philanthropists and other independently rich people to decide.”

Come on. Government has played a huge role in shaping the press industry at least since Ben Franklin’s introduction of a postal subsidy for newspapers. Similarly, the government is the chief determinant of how non-profits operate, chiefly by deciding what qualifies for tax breaks. (You know anybody giving away millions that’s not tax deductible?) I've written about that a couple of times in the last few month, and said this: “... government inevitably puts its thumb on the scale in all kinds of situations. It's naive or disingenuous to pretend otherwise.”

The naive part of Barnett’s post comes here: “By design, [non-profits] put mission ahead of profit. And as a result, they will live or die based on their commitment to transparency.” You don’t have to look very far into stories about the United Way or American Red Cross to start laughing about that observation. Some do, some don’t, Jim — just like come for-profit corporations seek admirable goals and some don’t, just like some government subsidies serve the public good and some don’t.

The disingenuous part comes in the same paragraph: “When the government gets involved, it introduces the appearance of special favors and the potential for political interference. That’s the death of transparency.” The straw man here (or is that red herring? I can never remember) comes from arguing that the government better not get involved.

The government is involved, neck deep. Tax policy and regulatory barriers and philanthropic rules already dictate the economic landscape. We can change them or tweak them or reorient them (and we should) but they will always be there.

While we’re at it, let me say this: for all its flaws, government is hugely more open and transparent than philanthropic decision-making. Nobody lets you hear all the debates at the Ford Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

People can exert “political interference” on government policy? Oh, my. I thought that’s what we were supposed to do, to interfere in favor of changes that meet public needs. No need to interfere in philanthropies; their bias comes built in. Nothing wrong with that, either; it’s why they exist. But stop with the purity arguments, please.

Let me say this once more in closing: I like non-profits, I think they play a constructive role in society, and if they can help the news business navigate the turbulence of this phase transition, wahoo.

NOTE: This post was originally written as a comment to Jim Barnett's Nieman Journalism Lab post, linked above. I did clean up some typos, though.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking toward one future for local civic journalism

If you’re a reader of this blog, chances are you’ve already heard about the new online news organization being formed in Hawaii by Peer News. The brainchild of Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, this next-generation news service will bring a lot of web cred to an issue of considerable current interest: the future of local accountability journalism.

I’ve spent some time with them as an advisor, and plan to do whatever I can to help ensure success. I think this can be an important step in the evolution of news in the digital age and a chance to strengthen the role professional journalism needs to play.

I’m interested for a lot of reasons, but I’d sum it up this way: the new venture intends to demonstrate that a digitally native, technologically fluent web organization can profitably serve targeted readers who want sophisticated journalism focused on local civic affairs.

There are lot of key words in that sentence that all speak loudly to me. If I was tagging it I might choose “digital” “targeted” “accountability” and “civic.” I guarantee I would select “profitable,” and add another: “sustainable.”

I think tomorrow’s best local public service journalism (like today’s) is most likely to come from organizations built on success in the marketplace. I applaud any effort to create the journalism democracy needs — profit, non-profit, hybrid or otherwise — but my heart and my guts both tell me that journalism that meets real needs can pay its own way — and should.

Peer News hasn’t revealed many details of the new venture at this stage, and it’s certainly not my place to do so. But they have started looking for an editor, and that’s a subject I know something about; I’ll be part of the team looking at candidates. You can find rudimentary information and an opportunity to express interest online at the Peer News blog.

Like most things digital, this project is on a fast track, with announced plans to launch in “early 2010.” There will be a lot more details and transparency as the project nears launch. After all, this is all about transparency and accountability, about involving readers and audiences in the process, about listening as well as speaking. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What if internet advertising is a foundation made of sand?

I spotted a pithy, insightful notion early on while reading Ethan Zuckerman's post What if they stop clicking? , paused and sent it out as a Tweet right then. Moments later, I came across a second and Tweeted it, too.

When I Tweeted a third too-good-to-pass-up nugget, I realized I should just encourage people to read the whole post. It's a cohesive, carefully sequenced contemplation and will mean more if you do.

In short, he's gathering bits of string that seem to be adding up to a big idea: What if online advertising stops working? What if the only thing that really makes money turns out to be search ads, not banners on news sites or display ads on Facebook?

Ethan doesn't claim to have any final answers, but his logic and supporting data should make you worry if ad-supported anything is a big part of your online future.

This roller coaster is a long way from finished yet.

The three insights I couldn't help Tweeting:

Ads may not be a viable [for] anything but search...we are increasingly reliant on systems [on] shakiest of foundations
"comScore’s study suggests we – collectively – may be becoming more [online] banner-blind over time."
What if social being built on sand, on ads almost no one looks at now & fewer will look at in two years?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jerks, tweets and news

A TechCrunch article by Paul Carr (NSFW: After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth) stirred up a good bit of Twitter discussion for a Sunday morning.

To me, the important question is not whether non-professional news reporting will be available or whether "jerks with cellphone" will run amok, but rather how we learn to handle that and incorporate it into the public newsstream.

The discussion seems worth more than evanescent 140-character exchanges. To keep the conversation going, I collected a little of the colloquy from an hour or so this morning, mainly between NYU's ay Rosen and me.

Jay Rosen: Paul Carr is going contrarian on citizen journalism's ass. Jerks with cell phones and Twitter accounts appall him

Jay Rosen: I don't find the "you're ga ga, I'm de-illusioned" style of argument very persuasive … I think it's cheap.

@jayrosen_nyu I think you're writing off Carr's concerns a little too cavalierly. Those jerks were not just present, but widely cited.

@howardweaver I don't get what you want. Jerks with cell phones will Tweet wrong or voyeuristic stuff because they can. True. Therefore...?

@jayrosen_nyu The more impt issue is how they're received, retransmitted, cited by pro & am journalists alike. Indicative of filter failure.

@jayrosen_nyu What do I want? Recognition of the issues at play in trying to replace one system of reporting and filtering with another.

@jayrosen_nyu As Christ said of the poor, the jerks are always with us. Let them screech. It's how we collectively handle them that matters.

@jayrosen_nyu In that regard, criticism of how jerks feed public news stream does matter. Don't kiss it off as "ga-ga ... de-illusioned."

Jay Rosen: @howardweaver And you find those filtering-the-live-web issues, which are real, framed for our consideration in Paul Carr's post? I don't.

Howard Weaver: Agreed: RT @kmartino: @Chanders worst is that it goes both ways - every single event has choruses promoting - "its great" or "its bad".

Patrick Thompson (@kiconoclast): For citizen journalism to be really valuable, it will require strong curation. Otherwise it's just noise.

@jiconoclast It's *always* been about the signal-to-noise ratio. The way to increase the value is to filter ruthlessly (and professionally).

I'd welcome continued conversation on these issues in the comments here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Enduring truths and narrative coherence

Let us start with Plato and finish with Dave Pell, with a little Jeff Jarvis mixed in to help bind it all together.

Sometime around 370 BC Plato held forth against the invention of writing, a mere crutch that would cause memory to atrophy while offering only a pale reflection of discourse in its place.

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you're equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. (from The Phaedrus).

And he was right, of course. In the age of Socrates there must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, who could recite The Odyssey from memory. Are there a dozen such today?

As he often does, Dave Pell offers a striking contemporary insight, clothed in exaggeration:

“I just became nostalgic for a tweet I read about two minutes ago but I’ve forgotten the subject matter and author because my brain is completely dead. I also planned for this to be a five page essay, but I could barely break 140 characters.” (from More Nostalgic By the Second).

And he’s right too, of course. As future media advocate Jeff Jarvis worries today:

I’m fretting about us all forgetting things because we’re using Twitter.
Twitter is temporary. Streams are fleeting. If the future of the web after the page and the site and SEO is streams – and I believe at least part of it will be – then we risk losing information, ideas, and the permanent points – the permalinks – around which we used to coalesce. In this regard, Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed. (from The Temporary Web)

And so it goes, medium and message, world without end.

The pattern is hardly confined to writing. In his day, Michelangelo created art much like Paleolithic artists in the caves of Lascaux: drawing on walls. Likewise a master architect and sculptor, his frescos and murals were huge. He was so much the master that other artists in Florence and elsewhere simply followed his lead.

But then the medium shifted: with the invention and use of oil paints and canvas surfaces, art went mobile. Though he dismissed the trend as worthy only of women and children (“Real men paint on walls,” you can almost hear him declaiming), the new wave emerged triumphant, mutating again and again through photographs, moving pictures, talking pictures and back again to drawings: computer animations displaying mastery of all those forms. Today's mashups and sampling performances extend the legacy even farther.

Unlike Jeff, I feel no cause for alarm as the paradigm shifts again. Form and fashion ebb and flow, technology marches inexorably onward.

Yet love today is no sweeter than that of Romeo and Juliet, no more deceitful than Samson and Delilah. The muscular, epic stories painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel lost none of their majesty to Leonardo da Vinci’s newfangled Mona Lisa, still less to Toy Story or Up.

Consistent through all these channels are steadfast truths constructed of human experience and the power of narrative coherence. The best work endures while the trivial fades. Society filters what it values – whether through editors or critics or curators – and sustains it.

World without end. Amen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Infobesity: the result of poor information nutrition

I've talked and written for some time about the need for serious journalism to stop marketing itself as "Eat your broccoli" and start describing the value of a balanced information diet.

I had a discussion like this in Tacoma once, when I mentioned that it’s hard to make a living urging people to eat their broccoli when the guy in the next booth is selling curly fries. Editor Karen Peterson raised her hand to remind me, "Howard, they giving away the curly fries over there."
And so they are. But if all you eat is curly fries, you die young and fat, clutching your heart. We need to be sure we are selling not just broccoli but balance, nutrition, longer life. Many people want that. We can sustain our mass audiences by finding ways to serve that impulse, with time for dessert along the way.

Now I've come across somebody else making the same point, describing what some are calling "infobesity," the condition that results from a diet of unrestricted info calories. Tim Young of Socialcast makes my old "information nutrition" point and many more quite elegantly in a post you can read here.

In the meantime, here's a taste:

Consuming foods high in fat, sugar, and other unhealthy elements can lead to a variety of health problems, causing a deterioration of one’s quality of life. Similarly, if we have a poor information diet (i.e. consistently watching reality TV and internet meme videos), our mind’s performance, clarity, and ability to achieve goals can be severely negatively impacted.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Pointing down a path to ruin

Rupert Murdoch and Tom Curley at some bizarre news summit in Beijing insist that news companies must "take back control of our content."

This is madness on many levels, but most importantly, it's just impossible. Down that path lies ruin.

I can't say this better than Jeff Jarvis and Kevin Anderson. Please go read their observations.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Seminal work or sloppy thinking?

Jeff Jarvis has already ranked it as near "seminal" and reprinted more than 350 words of Paul Graham's Post Medium Publishing, so let me try and bring something different to the party: some examples of sloppy thinking and errors in the piece.

Graham: A copy of Time costs $5 for 58 pages, or 8.6 cents a page. The Economist costs $7 for 86 pages, or 8.1 cents a page. Better journalism is actually slightly cheaper.

Reality: A pointless comparison. Time also costs $5 when it is 86 pages, which would be 5.8 cents per page. When The Economist is 58 pages, cost per page is 12 cents each.

Graham: Book publishers "treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics," meaning content does not differentiate price.

Reality: Famous, popular authors make LOTS more money than others. Laura Bush got $1.7; by some reports Sarah Palin got $7 million. Graham's contention is just plainly wrong.

Graham, on offering someone his copy of the New York Times: "Do you, er, want a printout of yesterday's news?" I asked. (He didn't.)

Reality: Calling the NYT "a printout of yesterday's news" is snotty and snarky, to be sure, but it's also inaccurate. I'll bet the ranch that there were 50 substantial items in the paper that the person had never seen, and wouldn't encounter otherwise. That's news. Graham's insult is correct only if he thinks only generic facts and events are "news." That's a small fraction of what the New York Times presents every day. Dismissing the whole paper as "yesterday's news" is misleading wrong.

Graham: "If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn't better content cost more?"

Reality: Better content (as judged by public taste) PAYS more, EARNS more and SELLS more because more people buy it. The decision to price all movies or CDs about the same is a marketing decision that says absolutely nothing about the realative value of the content. Graham needs some elementary economics and business instruction.

(I wonder if a good book about LISP will earn its author more than a bad one? Bet it does.)

I'll close by noting that I have insisted for years that selling content was never the real business model of the press. I agree with Paul Graham and Jeff and many other media thinkers on that point.

But if I hadn't believed it before I started reading, I certainly wouldn't have found Graham's argument persuasive. I have too little respect for shallow reasoning or sloppy conclusions.

UPDATE: Also have a look at Robin Sloan's thoughtful critique of Graham, particular his arguments about iTunes and the App Store.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Enlisting readers to improve journalism

How simple is this? NYT reporter Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) asked his Twitter readers (more than 12,000 at last check) to help him make an upcoming newspaper story better:

My blog post about "GMA" is the 1st draft of a bigger story. So please comment, annotate it, ask questions, poke holes!

Even more useful and impressive would be asking them to help shape and report the story in the first place
  • What would you like to know about GMA?
  • Should the story examine other morning programs or focus on one?
  • Why does morning television these days? Does it?
  • Do you know anybody inside GMA I should talk to?
  • And so on ...
(Thanks to Dave Winer et al on
Rebooting the News for reminding me about this.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Looking at the web through reality-colored glasses

Internet triumphalists love the Wikipedia. In their view, it demonstrates why professionalism is no longer essential. The crowd-sourced online fact-a-palooza is a superior encyclopedia, news source and all-around reference, they say – and all that with volunteer editors and no paid editorial writing staff.

I love Wikipedia, too, and often cite it in this blog and elsewhere. For a certain kind of information it is both comprehensive and comprehensible, a ready public domain source that everybody can turn to. But in truth, it’s a good bit less than its partisans like to claim.

For instance, when an article in the journal Nature reported that peer-reviewed fact-checking found Wikipedia with 4 errors in 42 articles and Britannica with 3 per 42, Wired’s headline called it “a toss up” and said Wikipedia “is about as accurate in covering scientific topics as Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Well, no.

What those numbers actually show is that Wikipedia had a much higher error rate than Britannica: 10 percent of Wikipedia articles had errors while 7 percent of Britannica’s did. If I’m wrong 10 times and you’re wrong 7 times, you whipped me pretty good.

Wikipedia is probably better by now. For one thing, its original Dodge City, anything-goes format has been changed to guard against bias or animus introduced by anonymous contributors. Some articles are now sealed against revision by what Wikipedia calls its “community,” because – as in all communities – some members are assholes.

And those who are not assholes nonetheless represent a narrow slice of humanity. Though triumphalists see the web and society as largely congruent, they’re not. When you look at activist internet users, the gap grows much wider.

For instance, who are the people who selflessly contribute all that information to Wikipedia? Their own data show more than 80 percent of them are male, more than 65 percent are single, more than 85 percent are childless and around 70 percent are under age 30. “We are mostly male computer geeks,” says founder Jimmy Wales.

Now comes news that non-profit Wikipedia is spending $600,000 on a handful of consultants, advertising executives and others to help it orient its operations for the future.

I think that’s great, and I hope all these changes make Wikipedia better. But it’s worth noting that restricting access, insisting on editing and engaging professionals is a lot like what other encyclopedias and media companies have been going for a long time.

UPDATE This just in: Wikipedia is exploring ways to flag the articles that are most trustworthy.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Government subsidy, public decisions?

In a world where cheap, infinite and perfect copies are now the norm in many creative realms, old laws about limiting access – protecting copyrights, we called them – bear scant relation to reality. The world has out run the law.

Robert Penn Warren has Boss Stark explain this is All The King's Men, generally acclaimed the best political novel in American literature:

[The law] is like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. There ain't ever enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone's to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind...'"

Thus did The Boss commend the virtues of unmitigated pragmatism, the imperative of getting things done, of doing good, and let the law stretch out to match that.

Gone with the day of scarce and limited copies is the monopoly capitalism that fueled American journalism since World War II. Today finds us in between that passing era and an uncertain future, and serious citizens are discussing all kinds of ways to bridge the gap.

Often these involve calls for government subsidy, philanthropy, permission for collusion and much more. Most, in my view, are freighted with problems.

But government inevitably puts its thumb on the scale in all kinds of situations. It's naive or disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Ben Franklin (as Tim Rutten paraenthetically reminded us last week) favored postal subsidies for transmission of news. 230 years later,
Bush administration tax and energy policies subsidized the manufacture and sale of gas-guzzling SUVs. Tax policy decides what kind of non-profit contributions donors can write off, thereby directed untold millions away from public treasury and into largely unaccountable charities.

So what? Well, I mention all that to put the question of government policy on the table for legitimate discussion, and to suggest one avenue I haven't heard mentioned much: vouchers.

There's a short discussion of this idea on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog. Here is the nut graph:

[in] 2003, as the music industry was disintegrating, lefty economist Dean Baker floated an idea for government funding of journalists, artists and other creative workers that would keep media purse strings out of government hands. Instead, every adult in the country would get a transferable $100 “artistic freedom voucher” once a year, which could be cashed in only by someone putting new intellectual property — anything from databases to photos to drum solos — into the public domain.

Believe in your local transit blog? Send them some free money, courtesy Uncle Sam. Want to stick it to Keith Olbermann? Mail your voucher to Bill O’Reilly.

Asked what he'd do if he had a $100 voucher, Baker wasn't sure – but thought he might donate it to advance jazz music.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money?

Here's a suggestion I haven't heard before: somebody ought to figure out what kind of business will support journalism rather than focusing on why our old business won't.

Perhaps that's an oversimplification, but the whole argument is really pretty simple. Here's the nut graf from a discussion aimed at finding new journalism business models:

The reason newspapers and magazines are dying is that what they do is no longer related to how they make money from it ... So what will the content site of the future look like? And how will you make money from it? These questions turn out to be very closely related. Just as they were for print media, initially.

Scott Rosenberg takes that starting point and spins it out with a bit more subtlety than the Y Combinator post did. Neither view perfectly reflects what I think about the issue, but both perform the important – no, crucial – service of insisting that simply thinking about our new problems in old ways is certain to be inadequate.

I am increasingly convinced that filtering, selecting and verifying the news that matters most into an accessible package is a service that will make money – enough money to sustain sophisticated accountability journalism. I don't agree that the whole future of news rests with small, decentralized pro/am operations of increasing specialization and ever narrower niches.

But I know we need to explore all the options, and I certainly agree with Rosenberg on this point:

The old bundle of information services and advertising that supported print journalism is gone, Humpty-Dumpty style, and nobody’s going to glue it back together. A deeper rethinking is needed, and those of us who want to see journalism thrive ought to be working hard to come up with answers to Graham’s question.

Monday, August 17, 2009

One-book novelists and perpetual panelists

Apropos of "one-book novelists" wherever we find them, this note from one of the best American writers most people have never read:

... Creative Writers' Workshops, poetry seminars and Festivals of the Arts will materialize midst campus greenery. The Failure of Hemingway The Failure of Faulker The Failure of Whitman The Failure of Melville The Failure of Crane The Failure of Twain The Failure of London and The Failure of Wolfe will be revealed by one-book novelists embittered by the failure of David Suskind to invite them to a party where they might have met George Plimpton or even Alan Funt. Just anybody.

Perpetual panelists will clobber perpetually rejected novelists with symbolisms concealed in the work of other perpetual panelists. Manuscripts will be returned with the instruction: Insert more symbols. This can happen anywhere but chances are better in Vermont.

Hand In Hand Through the Greenery,

with the grabstand clowns of Arts & Letters

in The Last Carousel, by Nelson Algren, 1973

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why are newspaper doomsayers usually so sloppy?

I don’t know Bill Wyman from a posthole, and you probably never heard of him either. You might wonder why I’m sitting in the country on a sunny Saturday afternoon bothering to critque his analysis of Why Newspapers Are Failing. It’s certainly not like other people haven't plowed this ground before.

And besides, he actually seems like a pretty interesting guy. I agree with 75- or 80% of what he’s arguing and I’d love to have a guy who writes with his verve working for my newspaper. (Oh yeah; I did. Several of them.)

But I read so much ill-informed, sloppy criticism of the newspaper industry that I have to get this stuff out of my system once in a while or explode. What’s more, NYU prof Jay Rosen has cited this analysis approvingly; he said that it “explains very well why I'm not horrified that some daily newspapers may expire.”

Is this kind of analysis the alternative, Jay? If so, you’d better get your horrified on again.

As I said at the top, most of Wyman’s criticism is appropriate and largely correct. It’s a bit threadbare by now, more or less conventional wisdom. What Wyman has done is write it a bit nastier and with more bite than usual.

Please hear this: I am not rejecting criticism or even a lot of Wyman’s criticism. Lots of it is right. But we don’t need to concentrate on what’s right; let’s look at the rest of it.

Much of it is shockingly superficial, and some of the rest is wrong in ways that would have easy to check. It sure doesn’t add up to the kind of thing I’d expect a smart journalism professor to praise.

Wyman's main point is that newspaper companies failed to see or prepare for the epic transformation as it came. Well, who did? Salon? Microsoft? Yahoo?

I hear this all the time. Why didn’t newspapers start Craigslist? Why didn’t newspapers invent Google?

Well, Christ. For the same reason almost no established, highly profitable business ever makes radical changes in its business until it has to. That’s about the best-known truism in the disruption narrative. Why does Wyman figure it happened to airlines and car makers and steel mills and mainframe computer manufacturers? What about film and camera companies, or sailing ships? Why didn’t Western Union buy Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents when they had a chance?

More to the point, perhaps: Why did Google stumble along unprofitably until AdWords, a technology invented elsewhere for which they had to pay Yahoo to settle a patent-infringement case?

Wymnan wryly acknowledges his career has been marked by coming in after the battles to shoot the wounded; this analysis of what went wrong at news companies shows he hasn’t stopped that yet.

The central point Wyman and many others miss is that the fate of newspaper companies is far from decided. They get written off every day by careless or ignorant or mean-spirited critics, but the fat lady certainly has not sung.

For those wondering whether an industry beset by disruptive technology can stumble and yet recover, I offer two words: IBM and Kodak.

As you may know, I’ve offered several times in the last year to bet $1,000 on McClatchy’s prospects. None of the doomsayers has put up yet.

Indulge me, please, with just a few specifics from Wyman’s piece so I can get this cathartic purge over with.

David Carr offers a public serrvice by summarizing the main points of Wyman’s 9,000 words here. One of the five main points was “Newspapers were monopolists who cravenly serviced advertisers and failed to remember their fundamental mission to be of service and use to readers.”

Here’s a specific Wyman cheapshot on that theme:

... vast swaths of a typical American daily is [sic] filled with news whose primary source is a press release of one form or another, from entities governmental, political, or corporate. It was part of an unspoken but implicit agreement the papers had with advertisers—that the vast majority of what the paper printed would be complementary with the advertising. (It would be complimentary too, of course.)

I’ve been directly enagged in newspapers for 40 years, Bill. You’re full of shit.

He also suggests that circulation revenue doesn’t mean anything to news companies. He’s right that advertising accounts for the lion’s share of revenue, but ignorant about the percentages. You could have checked, Bill: at McClatchy, for instance, circulation revenues will be something like $280 million dollars, extrapolating crudely from first-quarter reports. Paid circulation newspapers are not, as he claims, “high end shoppers.” Indeed, a key differentiation between newspapers and shoppers is that people want one of them enough to pay to have it delivered. That matters to advertisers.

After proving that he doesn’t grasp all the history, Wyman proceeds to offer his prescription for success. I can’t imagine why anybody would care, but in case somebody does, please take care with his first recommendation: “Go hyper local,” basically, go all-in on a single strategy.

Well, okay. Maybe. But to be clear, this is the one well-tested prescription in the list that has been repeatedly proven to be a loser. Just saying.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Is a journalist a brand?

So, what’s with the logo? I’m glad you asked.

A Twitter friend says it makes me look “corporate,” which I don’t think she meant as a compliment. It’s definitely a high-class design, done by my pal Peter Dunlap-Shohl in Anchorage. But it isn’t intended to signal a move back to the executive suites.

Instead, it’s part of an experiment on my part. Thinking about the notion that individual journalists are (and need to be) now brands in themselves, I wanted to use a striking logo to identify my work across many platforms. Instead of using cute photos or the avatar-de-jour on Twitter and Facebook, I will use the same logo on both – and on the two blogs where I regularly comment, and on my business cards (when I get some) and my email signature (when I can figure out the html for that).

It’s been seven months since I left my job as VP/News at McClatchy, and I’m involved in a number of different projects. I am writing fiction, serving on the Publish2 board and advising them, doing video columns/stories with a small Sacramento company, maintaining (kind of) two blogs and Tweeting actively. I just accepted the assignment of writing an occasional column explaining American politics and culture to Canadians in a small new newspaper there.

All these things are just me, the iteration I’m calling Howard 3.2 at the moment. I figure the first phase was all those wonderful years of newspaper journalism in Alaska; 2.0 was Sacramento, both at The Bee and in corporate. 3.0 started when I left the nest, and continues to iterate.

Meanwhile, the logo abides.

Nielsen numbers reported by Nieman don't support dire conclusions

The headline at the Nieman Journalism Lab website does sound apocalyptic, so of course it was quickly repeated and gained wide currency amongst folks who think the battles about journalism are already over.

It says, “NAA/Nielsen stats show newspapers own less than 1 percent of U.S. online audience page views, time spent.”

Less than one percent? We’re doomed.

Well, no we’re not. The measure Martin Langeveld uses as a base is “Active Digital Media Universe” – which means everybody who uses the web for anything.

I posted a comment at the Nieman site this morning to express my concern with that:

This is useful, and thanks for flagging it, but the important information is *not* what you’ve concluded.

“Active Digital Media Universe” is a meaningless point of comparison. That includes e-commerce, porn, news, MySpace, music, ad infinitum. A huge percentage of that use isn’t and won’t ever be even remotely about news. Never was, isn’t now. Bad comparison.

It’s also not true that the 65% who didn’t visit a news site “got their news elsewhere.” Chances are a lot of them didn’t get their news *anywhere* and weren’t interested. Again, t’was always thus. Not everybody who read the comics or classified got the paper looking for news, that that’s far less true today.

The important measurement, it seems to me, is how news sites do in serving people who are looking for news. Your interpretation of these figures sheds little light on that essential question.

I know news companies can do better at this, and have argued how, most recently proposing collaborative, mass scale aggregation of curated news. That can be hugely profitable -- but still won’t capture the porn audience.

Obviously, that number (percent of total audience) looks better as it gets higher, but it's not the key metric. Despite the assertions of critics, news sites like McClatchy's continue to grow audience and revenue. This new Nielsen report needs more study and thought, but it is not the bombshell it's been presented as.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A prejudice (and a prayer) for the power of the newsroom

Off the news ticker this week:

McClatchy and a number of other newspaper companies recently surprised and pleased Wall Street with first quarter earnings reports far better than predicted. One analyst (who’s invested in newspaper stocks) predicts that cost-cutting at the papers has taken hold just as the economy bottoms out, meaning that even modest improvement could mean “spectacular earnings growth” for several quarters.

By no coincidence at all, newspaper stocks – languishing in the cellar – rose dramatically. Their levels are still at or near historic lows, but after a long, steady plunge many are climbing again.

All of this relies on the economy getting better – people selling cars and houses, placing help-wanted ads, advertising clothing sales – and news on that front also brings tentative signs of improvement. Numbers involving home sales, earnings, declining unemployment claims and news from other sectors all gave hints that the bottom of the recession may be near.

On top of all that, beleaguered newspaper people must have taken some comfort from an article in Advertising Age that show public use of the internet is flattening, while traditional media have generally slowed or reversed their declines.

So it’s all good, right? Won’t be long ‘till everything is back to normal.

Well, no. There is no “normal” nowadays, and there’s no going back. But it is equally true that predictions of apocalytical change are overstated.

This is unquestionably a run of good news for those of us who don’t believe total, immediate digital transformation is the best scenario for journalism in America. Some do, and they argue their case tirelessly. No doubt they’ll find many reasons to dismiss my analysis of those development.

At least I’m consistent. I’ve argued for years that the shift from analog to digital is inevitable; on my first web page, in 1995, I wrote, “I’ve always been a storyteller, and I'm convinced the stories of the new millenium will be told digitally."

But I also argue, against a gale of internet triumphalism to the contrary, that the shift won’t (and shouldn’t) be immediate or total. Many of the people predicting the imminent death of printed news or counseling companies to shutter newspapers and spend all their money on the web are drinking their own bathwater. They have a vision – many times a clear and compelling vision – of what the shift to a digital, networked world will look like, but they’re in danger of leaping to conclusions that aren’t there.

I don’t believe untrained or unpaid volunteers alone can produce the kind of journalism on which democracy depends. I believe most people want and value good filters to separate signal from noise – and the best way we’ve ever found to do that is with professional journalists.

Of course I am deeply prejudiced on this subject. I love newsrooms and newsroom culture; for 40 years they’ve been my church, my job and my playground. You have to view my analysis with that in mind.

But those 40 years have also given me experience and insight I think come to play here. I know what a good newsroom can do, because I’ve been lucky enough to work in some. I have seen principle stand up against pressure, courage hold sway against expedience, ideals triumph over self-interest. I know what it takes to produce work like “A People In Peril,” the Anchorage Daily News’ 1989 Pulitzer for Public Service, when more than 30 talented professionals applied decades of skill and training and all their energy in the service of a singular public-spirited vision. I don’t think that will come from a volunteer collective.

But I neither am I terminally nostalgic about the past. A lot of things need to change, and others will change no matter what we think about it. Hierarchy has evaporated, the gatekeeper role has vanished and what was once inclined to become a sermon must now be a genuine conversation. “Objectivity” and distance – the “news voice” of our heritage – are dead. Transparency and fairness remain achievable goals; combined with the new plethora of views and opinions, that may be enough to support a consensus reality and common vocabulary for public affairs.

None of these things are the exclusive provence of professional journalism, certainly not exclusive to legacy newsrooms built to meet different needs. There are a handful of creditable “hyperlocal” news operations, there are examples of non-professional journalists making important contributions, and a few beacons that show us outlines of how newsrooms may evolve. All of these will grow stronger with experience.

But none of them now come close to the capacity of a good newspaper newsroom, which encompasses so much talent and experience and knowledge that it can produce a fountain of vital, important and compelling journalism where others are still producing trickles.

Talking Points Memo – a clear example of how journalism can evolve into new forms without forsaking heritage – did a fine job (along with McClatchy’s DC bureau) of exposing the politicization of the Department of Justice. And while it was doing that, traditional newsrooms opened our eyes to things like unauthorized wiretapping by the NSA, the CIA's secret "black site" prisons in Europe, illegal back-dated stock options at public companies, scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, and much more.

Thus I come to my continuing prayer: that the potency and capacity of our best newsrooms will be preserved and once again nurtured, and that they will continue to rise to the challenge of embracing a new news paradigm and a new relationship with audiences. I am encouraged to believe this is happening.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From oration to conversation

Whatever happens, however we rearrange our marketplace of ideas - as sooner or later we certainly shall - our sense of what “publication” means is bound to change. We will be able to make our commentary part of the text, and weave an elaborate series of interlocked commentaries together. We will, that is, be moving from a series of orations to a continuing conversation, and, as we have always known, these two rhetorics differ fundamentally. It seems reasonable to assume that as the definition and nature of “publication” changes, our system of academic rewards and punishments will change as well. If we keep an eye on these changes, they may change for the better. Above all, we may be able to introduce our students to the scholarly conversation sooner than we do now, and in more realistic and effective ways. (emphasis added)

Richard Lanham
The Electronic Word:
Democracy, technology and the arts

University of Chicago Press 1993 p22

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stupid headline words: the readers speak

I asked folks on Twitter what stupid words in headlines bothered them most. Here are the initial responses:

Probed; spar; faces; linger; walks back; curb; spark; exec; inks; Solons; pokes (for the Dallas Cowboys); mull; nix; tapped kudo; eyed; inked; dissed; slay/slain

One person offered a three-fer: Moguls Ink Pact

Add to the list in comments below. There must be more stupid words than these ...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Scoring this round: McClatchy 1, critics/analysists 0

A Macintosh blogger I follow has a feature he calls "claim chowder" in which he delights in digging up and exposing old predictions and claims after they have been proven spectacularly wrong. It's a delightful dip in a pool of revenge and schadenfreude.

Michael Simonton, welcome to a hot, steaming bowl of claim chowder:

Fitch Ratings analyst Michael Simonton is among the camp that believes McClatchy will wind up in bankruptcy court at some point. "Default is imminent or inevitable," Simonton predicted after McClatchy's debt exchange flopped.

In fact, evidence at hand now suggests he was not just wrong, but stupid wrong. This from yesterday (AP):

The surprising profit raised hopes that McClatchy has shrunk down to a size that will enable it to remain in good graces with its lenders and avoid bankruptcy protection ... "'It's really remarkable,'' said newspaper analyst Edward Atorino of Benchmark Co. ''They have done a Herculean job in a difficult economy. Unless things get a lot worse real fast, they should be OK for the rest of 2009.''

Obviously, much remains uncertain and unpredictable in the middle of both economic meltdown and an epochal phase transition in the news business. Anything can happen. Your mileage may vary. Yada, yada.

I'm no longer at McClatchy, certainly not privy to any insider information. I'm sure the execs there, as always, will be cautious and deliberate about what they have to say.

But I don't have to be. In the end, you ought to place your bets on one side or the other or shut up.

Note to Simonton: You get paid for this kind of analysis, right? You're an expert? Put up or shut up.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A couple of drinks with Walter Cronkite

I was having drinks with Frank McCulloch at the bar in the Crow’s Nest in Anchorage one night in the early ‘80s. (We never went for “a drink” in those days; we went for “drinks”.)

Walter Cronkite, in town for a broadcasters’ shindig, spotted Frank across the room and came hustling over. A thirty-something journalist whose entire career had been in Anchorage couldn’t have dreamed of sitting at the table while they swapped trans-global war stories. My favorite was Cronkite’s recollection of “all we went through to get our folks out” of Saigon as the city was falling.

Cronkite left before we did. A waiter came over with some concern and told us he’d left his credit card behind.

Frank offered to deliver it. We all knew, in that time and age, that almost nowhere on earth could anyone else get away with using a card that said “Walter Cronkite” on it.

Feedback, push back and a final word

The feedback and push back I'm getting for suggesting that news companies compete by building a better news site has become too varied and detailed to handle in the comments section.

First, thanks to Scott, Dave, John and Chris for giving the idea respect enough to argue with it. (I haven't heard back yet from Jeff, whom I think misread my argument, but I hope to. I actually expected us to be on the same side on this one: compete, innovate, collaborate, link, fight back).

There are some straw men and some plain old mistakes in these criticisms. I'm sure there are valid points and gotchas, too, but I'm not highlighting them :)

Biggest straw man: Google News. Nobody is talking about Google News, which is a strange beast by any measure – and not a very useful aggregation page, in my view. We're talking about all the ways across all Google platforms in which people hunt for news or get back news results when they hunt for something from any source.

A news search can and does include ads, fellows. Click here, for instance. And when you search for topics generically, news results some up at the top of pages with ads. Try this one.

But this isn't my main point. This is:

I'm not suggesting we beat Google at search or "take away" their business. I am saying we can beat Google at a customer service they don't do well: filtering and displaying news content of relevance and utility for busy, overwhelmed consumers, pitting judgment vs algorithms.

"Leapfrogging," if you will, to a new game.

In my view, this has to be done at scale. Small new initiatives are essential and some will doubtless prove viable, but we're not talking about one problem and can't rely on one solution.

Finally, I have to tell Chris that his argument isn't at all persuasive to me. Topix is and pretty much always was the opposite of what I'm talking about. It may well have a place, and I hope they find it, but it isn't about judgment.

I understand lot of this is religion and not subject to ordinary debate, so I'll end my part of the back-and-forth here. I devoutly hope I get a chance to be proved right – or wrong. (It's all about mistakes, eh Jeff?)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Time for news to play offense: how David can attack Goliath (and win)

If you don’t think paid content can ever pay the freight for professional journalism – and I don’t – then what hope is there for news companies?

Well, the good news is that there’s plenty of money being made on content online. On the other hand, the news companies have to be willing to fight for it.

Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL are making more money from online content than the newspaper industry makes from everything. Many billions of those dollars are tied directly to the distribution of news and news searches, and that’s the money news companies must find a way to get.

Let’s say those online giants – call them GYMA – make $15 billion a year from news and news-related content (searches, archives, etc). I think that’s a conservative guess.

If we could find a way to get just 10 percent of that – $1.5 billion – pumped into American newsrooms, the impact would be direct, immediate and dramatic. The layoffs could stop, and owners would have breathing room to address strategic questions instead of constantly bailing water to keep the boats afloat. Newsrooms could start hiring the kind of people they need to create the journalism of the future.

Too often, executives and editors I talk with at news companies act like that’s impossible. You can’t compete with Google, they say, grasping instead for legislation or regulation to let them keep their content behind pay walls, away from GYMA altogether. They somehow think their content is valuable enough to charge readers for, but not valuable enough to compete in a marketplace that’s already proven extremely lucrative and attractive to consumers.

Say that again: valuable enough to sell to people who haven’t been willing to buy it so far, but not valuable enough to compete with GYMA? Not good enough to capture 10% of their ad revenue?

That’s a losing strategy. And it’s wrong.

I’m a real dinosaur in the news business in one respect, at least: I spent the first 20 years of my career in life-or-death competition for readers and revenues. The good guys won (that was us) and I’ve never flinched from a competitive fight since.

Not many news executives and editors nowadays were lucky enough to have that seasoning. The newspaper industry as a whole was monopolistic in many important ways over the last 40 or 50 years. Truth is, it was easy to make money for most of them.

I’ve often heard McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt say the news business in that era proved the wisdom of Warren Buffet’s admonition to “always invest in a company that can be run by a complete idiot – because sooner or later, it will be.” When the Anniston Star’s owner (Brandy Ayers) announced in 2003 that he was creating a foundation to keep the paper he inherited independent and reinvest profits in community and academic affairs, he told ASNE he had been raised in a great newspaper tradition with “the twin blessings of monopoly and nepotism.”

News companies no longer have either: few are nepotistic these days, and the notion of monopoly is a distant, dimming memory.

To win and survive in the future, they need to look back instead to a tradition that used to define the industry: competitive fire.

An old politician in Juneau once reminded me that “you can’t beat something with nothing.” Newspapers won’t beat Google or other aggregators by building pay walls and leaving the field of battle. To win, they need to provide something better than GYMA. That’s where the money is – that $15 billion isn’t theoretical – and besides, open competition is the only way to keep serving a mass audience, which is their mission.

The good news is that they already have a product that can beat even Google in the news business: curated, edited, verified, sorted news – not just an exhaustive list of stories, but the news that matters most. What they don’t have is any way to play on the same field as Google. They lack the scale and internet savvy to put that product in front of consumers who want it and for whom advertisers will pay. Google has proven that works; what news companies have to do is take some of that money away.

Google’s algorithims are a wonder of the world, by far the best at sorting and retrieving static information of all kinds. What they don’t do very well is sort through information on the basis of trustworthiness: which is best, most reliable, most accurate? “We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the NAA last April.

Well, journalists can and do handle that in a coherent way, every minute of every day.

The problem for news companies is that Google spans the globe, and they individually can’t. Only by banding together to offer the collective judgment of thousands of journalists about hundreds of relevant stories and presenting that in web-savvy ways can they reach the scale necessary to win a share of the billions already flowing to Google, Yahoo, AOL and MSN.

Disclosure: I am on the board of a company (Publish2) that is finalizing plans we think could do just that – and something Google never will: share 50% of the revenue with those who create the stories. Others are also looking at or thinking about ways to address the need for joint, competitive action. For any to succeed, the news companies will have to stop building walls and find the nerve to play offense again. They will have to work together and win by offering a better product. They will have to do it soon.

The Anchorage Daily News was just beginning to win its 40-year battle with the Anchorage Times when that once-dominant paper was sold to a rough-and-tumble oil millionaire with deep pockets and a reputation for ruthless competition. It seemed like everybody I talked to after that said something like, “You must be scared now that you have to compete with Bill Allen.”

Honestly, I wasn’t. “If I wanted to compete in the oilfield services business, I’d be terrified,” I told them. “But in the news business, Bill Allen ought to be terrified of us.”

After spending two years and a reported $40 million learning that, he folded the Anchorage Times.

I’d be terrified to think about competing with Google on anything involving algorithms. But when it comes to news judgment, they ought to be terrified of us.