Archive for November, 2012

Since for most of the past 12 years, a large part of my job has been trying to help journalists – especially in small newsrooms – make sense of the changes and new tools sweeping the industry, I’m going to take a crack at interpreting the imposing study Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

So, do you need to read it? If you work in either the content (news) or business end of a journalism organization, you should read it. But realistically, it’s huge, so there’s a chance either you’ll start and won’t get far, then later think of it but won’t go get your computer or tablet to do it, and if you print it out it will go into your stack of magazines and you won’t touch it until spring, when you’ll put it in the recycling bin. So let’s prioritize: Pressed for time, what do you need to read? The whole thing is a tough slog for one sitting, both for its length and its academic style, and there are pretty good summaries out there, notably from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm.

Start with those summaries and then seek out the parts that in the summaries sound most interesting. My take:

The Introduction: If you are one of the people who think the industry’s whole problem is putting information online without charging for it, you seriously need to read the introduction because you have an incomplete understanding of the business end, its history and what’s happening to it.

Part 1: If you are unsure what exactly is changing about the role of a journalist, this helps fill in the blanks, though to me it seems overly focused on what I would call large newsrooms (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and New Orleans, for instance), not the size of newsrooms that predominate across the country. However, to the extent that these larger newsrooms have resources and an ability to experiment that small newsrooms do not, it is important to be aware of what they should or may be trying to do because changing technology may make it easier for you later.

Part 2: If you have a big-picture job – an executive, an academic, a journalism think-tanker, writer for CJR, AJR, Nieman Lab, etc. – this section gets into some useful philosophical space about institutional change. It’s also helpful if you are trying unsuccessfully to manage up in a company that is resisting change; you’ll understand better why you can’t get the urgency of your message conveyed higher up. It is not as much immediate help to the typical ground-level journalist except for further context about the changing face of the industry.

Part 3: This attempts to use some recent examples to flesh out the larger picture of how the emerging models of journalism may work. It builds on part 1, so if you still aren’t sure what the changes there mean for you, read this part.

Conclusion: This takes up where the introduction left off, going from how things have already changed to trying to extrapolate into the future. If you found the introduction useful, read this.

To me, the essential message for journalists can be summed up with these passages:

Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines.

… Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?

… For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events – natural disasters, mass murders – the transition is complete.

In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.

… The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results.

… People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill.

In September of last year, I saw what I think is a perfect example of what the above describes, and it came from a small newsroom, the News & Messenger and insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va. After severe flooding in the region, people found themselves without a clearinghouse for information and discussion — but they gravitated to the newspaper’s Facebook page and were filling it with just such information. So, seeing that, online editor Kari Pugh created a flood information clearinghouse page on Facebook (it’s still there). In just a few hours it had garnered about 250 “likes,” and the community discussion on it became mostly self-sustaining.

Though the newspaper’s circulation is something around 10,000, on Facebook it has more than 26,000 likes. And its users have remained an active community. Key to the online community’s activity has been the involvement of the journalists. You can see it in the back-and-forth between them and people in the community.

How the news staff reacted to the flooding and the community’s desire to share information is something at least close to, though less sophisticated than, what Jeff Jarvis said this week he wishes he saw in the New York area in the wake of Sandy. It’s not a complex skillset, it just takes a shift in the way you see what the role of journalists is in this world of mobile devices that let every person report on what’s happening right then and there.

The Tow Center report is massive, and the future it paints may feel at times overwhelming. But you don’t have to build that future in one day, just as video games didn’t get from Pong to “World of Warcraft” overnight. (BTW, Happy 40th birthday, Pong.) What’s one step you can take today? Engaging your “readers” is an easy one, and, as it did with the News & Messenger, it may point you to the next step.

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My first impulse was to dismiss David Brauchli’s argument in favor of paywalls as a combination of crap and a sales pitch, if that’s not redundant.

But he ends with a solid idea: that perhaps there is premium content people are willing to pay for. I agree, though I’m not sure the audience will be enough to support the traditional newspaper model, but we’ll see. Until proven wrong, I welcome the chance to experiment and find out.

Unfortunately, Brauchli spends the first part of his argument beating the dead horse that any decent journalist should not spread ideas that any content should be free. The worst part of his argument:

“Most people understand that the content found in newspapers costs money to produce. The cost of producing that content is not diminished when the content is distributed online.”

That something costs money to produce is the worst possible foundation on which to assign a value to that thing. I could employ 100 really awful mechanics to build as many car-like conveyances as they possibly could produce, but whether any of those things would be worth money is not a good proposition. The average newspaper probably is in a better position, value-wise, but that doesn’t mean that everything the staff spends time to produce is worth money, or that everything that is worth money to a portion of the readership also is worth something to the rest of the readership. High school sports is one area where newspapers in recent years have decided they should devote a LOT of resources, on the entirely reasonable basis that no one else covers it. I don’t give a rat’s ass about high school sports; why should I pay one thin dime for that coverage? But I don’t have that option when I pick up the Saturday paper after Friday-night football.

As a recently laid-off journalist, I have had to make the value judgment, and I chose not to continue the daily newspaper. After almost two weeks, I really can’t say I’ve missed much. It reinforces the point made to me in 2001 when I first moved out of a daily newsroom: Once you are not directly connected to the daily operation of a newsroom, your perspective changes, and you gradually realize that what the newsroom staff is doing every day may not be as valuable as you thought. Unfortunately, that message is hard to push. I and no one I know really tried hard to push it; at most, major change was given the status of a distance goal, and we tried to push the idea of working toward a better ideal, not making huge changes in the short term.

But the biggest business problem with the newspaper model — one that would not be fixed with any changes on the content side — is it remains a one-bundle-for-all model. It’s a mass-circulation model because that’s what the big advertisers — the people who REALLY pay for the paper — historically have wanted. The content has innovated — it is more mobile than ever and better able than ever to be atomized and customized — but the business end remains a bundle. I doubt you’ll see much innovation on the business side — until the traditional side’s dollars slide far enough that the digital dimes look much more attractive than they do now.

11/27/12 UPDATE: Similar thoughts from Alan Mutter:

By their inaction, publishers have been shut out of nearly half the digital market.

Now, the same thing appears to be happening again. While the IAB reports that mobile advertising has doubled in each of the last three years, most newspapers have only rudimentary capabilities in this rapidly developing area. Publishers also are weak contenders in video, the next-biggest area of growth after mobile.

The challenges will keep coming. Not the least of them will be the innovative, target-marketing capabilities bound to be developed by Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other social media to capitalize on their expanding audiences. And who knows what lies beyond?

While publishers are preoccupied with managing the epic decline in print, they are losing sight of the future.

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Not a journalist, believe it or not
I’m constantly amazed at the serendipity of the information I run across, two or three or four things in a day or two that seem related to a particular line of thinking I had. Here, thanks to Matthew Ingram of GigaOm, is a natural Part Two to my previous post.

Given my argument there, that advertising in newspapers is continuing a downward slide that paywalls, or anything else tried so far, will not stop, what then should journalists do? We’re in the content business, not the revenue business, so our ability to affect the bottom line is limited. But we can affect how our readers (aka, customers) think of our business, as a post at the confused of calcutta blog instructs. In fact, in a future ever more reliant on subscription revenue, which is dictated by declining advertising revenue, it is not optional. We MUST treat readers more as customers, engage them individually, draw them into conversation. If we see our role purely as SENDING OUT information, we doom ourselves.

From the blog:

“Ask yourself ‘Will the customer get a better product or service as a result of what I’m doing?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer return and trade with me again?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer recommend me to others?’ And again and again, ask yourself:

“Will this help build trust between the customer and the company?”

Journalists often don’t like thinking in terms of “customers.” It feels shady. Those of us who came to the work because we thought of ourselves first and foremost as writers think of our work as a product of our soul, so thinking of it as business is like we’re selling our bodies. That’s a conceit, and a luxury we can’t afford. If you want to be a starving artist, there is no end to the ways you can avoid helping any business make money.

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Google ad revenue
I keeping beating the dead horse of journalists’ knowledge about their own business, and here I go again. Complain about staff cuts, focus on the quality of the content, whatever, just stop ignoring the reality of the business, which is that advertising is going away, finding new paths to consumers. No paywall will stop it. The news end of the industry keeps doing what it can to keep up with the customer, but the business end of the industry has proven inept at solving its part of this riddle. Is that because the folks there aren’t that good, or is it just that any good solutions are much harder to find?

11/27/12 UPDATE: Alan Mutter has another chart:

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Through my insomnia, my mind kept rolling back to this quote from the Washington Post item about the closing of the News & Messenger in Manassas, Va.:

“They put a lot of emphasis on their digital products,” Kroeger said, “so their print circulation fell even further.”

The News & Messenger in many ways is a microcosm of the issues facing the industry, and the above quote is itself a prime example of one side in the debate about what the response should be. Do active efforts to build audience online erode circulation? Even if they do, if print advertising keeps dropping then are online efforts needed to build an audience that will give you a bridge to a future where most people will get their news online? I know I don’t have the answer.

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One thing in particular to note from the news earlier today that Warren Buffett’s World Media Enterprises is closing one of its newspapers:

“Terry Kroeger, chairman of World Media, said the newspaper is in direct competition with many other publications and, being part of a large metropolitan area, had a tough time finding the sense of community that a community newspaper needs to prosper. He said the paper had been losing money for years.”

That’s not entirely true. If you check on Facebook for the page of insidenova.com, the website of the News & Messenger, which is the Virginia paper Buffett’s company is closing, you’ll see it has more than 24,000 likes, and if you dig down you’ll find that the Facebook community that had formed around insidenova.com is an active one. There is a community there. The problem is that WME, like other print publishers, doesn’t know how to make a profit from that. That’s the entire crux of the crisis in print publications. There is not necessarily the lack of an audience for news about any particular community, there is just (so far) a lack of ways to make enough money from those folks to keep the lights on.

UPDATE: Don’t take my word for it. From the Washington Post:

“This is horrendous news for everyone in Prince William County and those who care about Prince William news. The News & Messenger and InsideNoVA are the definitive source of news in Prince William.”

And note this quote: “They put a lot of emphasis on their digital products,” Kroeger said, “so their print circulation fell even further.”

So [Edited to clarify] If that view is correct throughout the industry, then the question is whether the closing of the News & Messenger is an aberration or a sign of things to come.

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I feel a bit like the teenage Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” after he was arrested for the first time, and Jimmy comes to greet him at the courthouse and tells Henry, “Congratulations.”

“Why? I got pinched.”

“Everyone does. You did it right.”

I’m not a hood, I’m a journalist, so instead of getting arrested, I got laid off. I think I did it right: I saw it coming literally six months ago, and even if I hadn’t, it was virtually telegraphed to me by the new ownership of the company (here’s a hint, in case you are ever in the same boat: When people stop communicating with you, you’re on the way out), but I was the good soldier and kept at the job every day. I kept quiet about what I saw coming — which hit another 104 people besides me today — and showed up early every day, worked at least a little most weekends. Just this morning a woman came by and asked me whether I ever went home. When the news came, I was ready, I had just a couple things at the desk to gather up, and I walked out without fuss.

So. What’s next?

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I am happy to have actual scientific evidence that I am right: Newspapers can’t go wrong by explaining to readers what they are paying for and why. Actually the proof is tangential to my argument, but it’s related so I’ll claim it as evidence anyway.

As the combination of the recession and the migration of advertising revenue drove newspapers to lay off staff and cut back content, journalists and readers alike often complained that the publications were being slimmed down and made less compelling just as the price per copy was being raised — all of which is true. The thing is, readers were not presented with any options. The decision was made and then presented to them in as happy terms as possible. I wondered whether it had to be that way and have argued that if you tell readers exactly what it costs to produce a single copy of the newspaper, including specifically the cost of printing and delivering it, readers would be much more likely to accept price increases. After all, the typical subscriber is barely covering the cost of paper, ink and gasoline as it is, leaving the cost of all the humans involved in creating the content out of the picture.

The evidence I’m claiming comes from a study of consumer reaction to the New York Times’ online paywall. The study authors fault the Times for failing to adequately justify charging for online content after it had been free for so many years, because the justification or lack of it made all the difference in the world in how people reacted:

“When participants were provided with a compelling justification for the paywall — that The New York Times was likely to go bankrupt without it — their support and willingness to pay increased,” Cook and Attari concluded.

Times readers who thought the paywall was merely an effort to improve the newspaper’s bottom line, on the other hand, visited the website less frequently and looked for loopholes to avoid the charges.

The reason I’m claiming this as evidence in support of my argument is that the basic situation is the same: People do not inherently understand our industry’s finances. If they truly value what your publication does, they will accept a higher price as the cost of keeping it. If they don’t value it, well, then you have a larger problem. But if you don’t even bother to explain to them the exact reasons you want to charge more, they just assume you want to pocket the higher revenue.

Readers I have talked to don’t even realize advertising has declined. They don’t realize that advertising essentially pays (or historically has) the full cost of news production. They think that all the cost-cutting of recent years, as well as the move to start charging online, has been about INCREASING profits. People understand the need to balance income and expenses. Explain it to them. It’s not a radical concept: Treat them like adults.

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