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.