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Posts Tagged ‘Clay Shirky’

One of my reporters seemed stunned recently to hear me say that one day most people probably would get all of their news, including their hometown news, from Web and mobile devices. She was barely out of college and a member of the generation of “digital natives” who grew up with the Internet, yet she somehow had a baby boomer’s romantic attachment with the printed page. The newspaper’s website to her was a public service, to make news quickly available in case it was needed, but not a replacement for ink on paper. Why would there not be a demand for a printed newspaper?

I think I was more stunned to hear her than she was to hear me. I thought maybe she was joking.

We had never had an extended discussion about the news business model. I knew she was adamantly opposed to charging online readers for access to the website. She knew that advertising essentially pays the bills for a newspaper but that print circulation and advertising have been in industry-wide decline.

Yet somehow she had not done the 2 + 2 math and thought out where that all leads.

And then today Steve Buttry posted a link to a piece by Clay Shirky that fairly bursts with exasperation at people who have remained stubbornly print-centric and cheered on Aaron Kushner’s attempt, now apparently failing, to reinvigorate the Orange County Register with a fiercely print-first model, investing in more staff and more pages. Shirky has an anecdote similar to mine:

A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”

I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.

That’s a thought I don’t like to think. I know that there are people of all ages who like to read, and importantly there are children, teenagers and 20-somethings out there who read newspapers and printed books – I see them in coffee shops, or in photos that friends post on Facebook of their children – but in general the way of the world is moving in the opposite direction. Fewer people do.

A couple of days ago, my wife was in a coffee shop downtown when a teenage girl there was told by the shop owner that she was in a picture in our newspaper’s print coverage of the Pop Ferguson Blues Heritage Festival. The girl didn’t care. Then my wife told her that the newspaper also put the photo on Facebook. The girl instantly went to find it online.

Many people have a sentimental attachment for reading on paper. But sentiment isn’t a business model.

UPDATE: Another view: “Print is under pressure but it does have a real business model, one that brings in real revenues.

“The sensible strategy is to not walk away from a print business model that works, that continues to do great journalism, that provides many good journalism jobs. Keep that print revenue coming in and keep looking for new approaches on the digital side, trying to create a digital business model that brings in real money.”

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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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I will take issue with the poynter.org headline The one chart that should scare the hell out of print media, for two reasons. First, it’s actually two charts, the second of which is above, from a presentation by KPCB’s Mary Meeker. The two illustrate what appears not to be a blip but a trend in the money end of the news business. The one above extrapolates the advertising revenue.

You may question whether it is reasonable to extrapolate a trend from the greatest economic collapse since the Depression. I would argue yes both because it started before the economic collapse and because of the second chart, comparing where advertising revenue is spent and where consumers spend their time:

Note on the far left: People spend 7 percent of their time with print media, but print gets 25 percent of the advertising revenue. Note on the far right: People spend a combined 36 percent of their time with Internet and mobile media, but those get just 23 percent of the ad revenue. Even if print will be perceived as a better buy (not a bet I would make), at some point those numbers seem likely to come closer to equalizing.

First conclusion: The ad revenue decline of recent years seems likely to continue.

This leads to a point made by Ken Doctor at the Nieman Journalism Lab: Money coming to news organizations from readers (paid circulation/online access) is growing as a percentage of revenue. Partly this is because of declining ad revenue — if you’re total revenue is $100, then $20 is a small percentage, but if your revenue drops to $50 then $20 is pretty big – but it’s also from the growth of various kinds of paywalls. I remain convinced that an all-or-nothing paywall closes a newspaper off from the possibility of luring new customers, but the trend toward metered paywalls seems able to draw in both avid readers and those who wouldn’t pay even for the bigger headlines of the day.

What the combination seems to lead us toward, as Doctor indicates, is a model where many news organizations will be asking for subscriptions more on the basis that NPR stations ask for memberships — not because they have something every day that you want know, but because you want free access because they regularly do. Advertising, in this scenario, becomes an increasingly less important revenue source; readers drive the revenue.

One fear I have read often in the past is that a news model driven by what is popular would gravitate toward the lurid and celebrity gossip, but I don’t think the above situation would do that. The kind of readers drawn by that kind of news would not be the ones who pay for regular access. Those readers would want at least the occasional substantial bit of civic journalism or in-depth news. You might make a living (a la TMZ) if you are at the top level of celebrity gossip, but at the local level that won’t cut it.

But what also seems likely is that the new level of revenue may not support seven-days-a-week newspapers in many markets, as Clay Shirky argued will eventually be the case even with the Washington Post. If that becomes the common model, then would mere daily scarcity of news drive enough people to buy online subscriptions to get news from “newspapers”? After all, in many markets there are TV and radio stations, which already send out news for free, and in many cases there may be small sites such as Homicide Watch (cited by Shirky) that focus on certain high-interest news areas more thoroughly. What then would spur people to pay for access to the mainstream non-TV news site?

Aggregation is part of the equation — if a news organization shows that no matter the source, it will round up all the news in the community, it could gain a loyal local following. But that seems not enough, to me. If less frequency is key, I wonder whether a higher quality of writing in the reduced number of publication days will be a major factor. If that’s the case, then the frequent publishers’ first instinct of holding down news salaries when budgets constrict could be counterproductive.

The keystone of my evidence, besides any manager’s common sense, is from a story by NPR’s “Morning Edition” in early May about new research measuring human performance in groups, which found that a minority of any group typically will account for a majority of the group’s performance. In other words, a few stars get more done at better quality than a larger group of more typical people. That runs counter to my experience of what managers at all levels do in the face of budget pressures, which is to replace departing staffers with someone who costs a lot less and is deemed “good enough.” “Good enough” hires, if you extend the logic of this study, actually cost more in the long run because they are not just a little but a great deal less capable.

There’s a tantalizing hint of this thinking in the memo from Jim Amoss to the Times-Picayune newsroom about changes in New Orleans from the paper’s reduction in days of print:

“Concerning pay in the new companies, I want to dispel some rumors: There could be some salary adjustments, depending on changes in job descriptions. But most people will make what they make today, if not more.”

I will repeat the relevant part: “most people will make what they make today, if not more.” In a world where the competition for eyeballs is not just local, the need for writers who can catch a reader’s attention is heightened, and it would make sense that if you find you have someone who can both produce the daily bits of news needed to keep a news site relevant while also producing stories worthwhile to the remaining partial-week readership, you would pay that person better than someone who could do only one of the two functions.

For that reason, I would reach back all the way to the early 2000s for a piece of advice I heard an executive repeatedly give (mostly in vain) to publishers: You get what you pay for. If you cut the size of your staff but increase the pay of the remaining people, so that your payroll overall is the same, you might be able to attract and retain the people you need. It is guaranteed that if you cut the staff size and hold the line on the pay – or, worse, cut it – you will never have the people you need, and who would want to pay to read your sorry rag at that point?

6/12/12 UPDATE: I’m gaining some hope about the above from an INMA article about the Star-Tribune boosting reader revenue closer to 50 percent:

“We’re asking users to pay more of the freight. But for that strategy to work, we knew we needed to focus on high-quality customers who see value in our products and have low churn. And to get those high-quality customers, we’ve focused on three areas: our core print audience, pricing/retention, and accessibility.”

If you’re going to focus on high-quality customers, you have to have high-quality staff to provide the value needed to hold onto those customers:

“The content we provide isn’t available anywhere else. This is local reporting — business, local sports, city council meetings. You are doing that, and you are relevant. Differentiate yourself from your competitors. Once you do that, you’re going to get people and you’re going to get them to pay.”

But it’s beyond content to a smart strategy on pricing and marketing. Those are not my areas of expertise, but the article’s points sound good to this journalist.

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If I had been blogging angry, my post last week about Warren Buffett’s letter to his company’s new editors and publishers might have sounded like Clay Shirky’s take on it:

“Buffett is famously the greatest investor alive, and almost as famous for plain-spoken observations about the market, so you’d assume his first public memo about Media General would offer insight into the current state of the newspaper business. The actual text, however, merely makes it clear that Buffett doesn’t understand that business.”

A lot of the rest is similar to what I said, though. I take no credit for influencing Shirky, I just wrote faster. But he has a line I wish I had thought of:

“Small-town residents of the sort Media General serves tend to adopt technology late, but the future eventually arrives, even in Opelika, Alabama.”

The CEO of Media General, in an interview with a Richmond-area business website, says something pointing in that very direction:

Publishing revenues are down about 50 percent over the past five years, Morton said, but much of the costs— printing presses, delivery drivers, etc. — have held steady.

“There was nowhere to hide from these revenue declines,” Morton said.

“Over the past five years, our first thought was that this was heavily due to the recession and, like many other recessions in the past, that this was a cycle. You tighten your belt, freeze hiring and even drop the number of people.

“So we went through a couple years thinking that was the way to handle it. But it kept going.”

It wasn’t until the second quarter of 2011, Morton says, “that we realized the world had changed.”

UPDATE: And from John Robinson, a briefer but better explanation than I gave of what these newspapers, unshackled from MG’s debt, ought to be doing:

“The real question is, what is the newspaper spending its profits on? And the follow ups: Is it investing in the future? Is it investing in its staff? Is it reducing the profit-taking so that more can be funneled back into the operation? Is it reducing its investment in the newsprint product so that it can increase an investment into digital news creation and distribution?”

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