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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

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Jamie

I work at a media company, but I'm on board: the sooner they fail, the sooner true innovation will have a chance. And executives can blame Google, blame the readers, blame whoever they want, but the fault is no one but their own.

Adam

(Apologizing in advance for any spelling grammar issues here-in. I've spent too much time composing this to properly copy-edit)

Dan, I feel much of what you're saying; I would add that I think your last point speaks loudest. Indeed, tough times will likely force the best innovation. The market will demand it. The chaff will fall away.

However, I will add, as I sit in the middle of my newsroom, that we're are still awaiting a cultural shift throughout the levels of most journalism organizations.

Yes, the industry is slowly innovating. Many reporters might blog, some Twitter regularly for work, a few even shoot video. Some people have true media 2.0 jobs. And there are small numbers of folks selling ads that aren't just imaged out of the print paper.

But many staffs would still rather return to the "glory days" of fat, printed newspapers and 11 p.m. deadlines and ink on your hands.

Many grunt journalists lament the loss of the 60-inch narrative on just about everything. To them, the web news cycle just ends up with less vetted journalism being published. They see audience interaction -- story comments, blogs, forums, etc. -- as doing little more than serving the echo chamber. A lot of them still deride New Media even if they sometimes have to use it. They don't try to distinguish between good and bad technique. Blog posts are too often just briefs that couldn't find space in print, rather than true conversation pieces or opportunities for crowd-sourced or link journalism.

And I'll admit I'm guilty of it, too. I spent a year focused entirely on New Media reporting -- video, audio, blog, Twitter, etc. -- and am back to mostly print. That's in part because my bosses aren't focused there and we all still have to feed the beast.

On the business side, it's also hardly a surprise that the folks in the trenches are still focused on the revenue model of display advertising (print or online). Their financial incentives and pay structures are largely set to continue to try to make money off the old system. And the technological systems -- ad servers, CMS, development staff -- don't exactly comply with NextGen info-commerce.

Meanwhile, the bosses -- the mid- and even some upper-level managers -- also are still concerned with putting out the print product, gutted though it may be. They worry about budgets and their budgets scream for the money print still provides. So they provide little incentive beyond talk for their underlings to pathfind. And the top corporate bosses, well, they've climbed a ladder made of the printed newspaper that they are, of course, reluctant to set on fire.

Simply put, most newsrooms, still aren't REALLY involved in delivering the info of the future (journalism/advertising/whatever) so much as they are pumping out the info of the past. And few people inside these companies are ready to take that leap of faith or trot off into the uncertain wilderness.

Meanwhile, the big, awesome-if-untested ideas that are absolutely out there -- ones that make pay-walls look like a desperate plot by desperate hacks -- are still largely experiments conceived by people who don't actually have to make decisions. There are visionaries (some of them only self-proclaimed), but few of them also face the real-time demands of a newsroom's bills and/or have direct control over the reins of an actual journalism organization. (Lookin' at you, Scoble.)

When I combine that with the corporate greed/blindness/panic that you have called on the carpet, and I find huge inertia in organizations still largely populated by people just hoping to ride this printed horse off into the sunset.

Is it any wonder, then, that ideas ranging from the simplest alternative story form to info-valet concepts to wildly complex visions of a new world featuring a wired iPod/Kindle/NextGen mobile device truly implementing the C3 model are as hard of a sell internally at news outlets as pay-walls are going to be to the public?

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but I say all of this as a caution: The architects of the new media order must accept and face this reality first, and with tolerance. If we (I include myself as a believer) choose to reject this reality and substitute our own (thanks, Adam Savage) -- one where everyone must "get it" -- we do so at our own peril and will likely end up only bloodying our foreheads as we smash them into the walls of too many closed newspaper offices.

Tim Windsor

Dan,

You write:

"What will these media executives do when that reality hits them? When these debt-burdened chains, stripped of journalistic talent by a decade of profiteering, their web traffic reduced by 60 percent by their paid-content follies..."

If that were all they had to worry about, this just might work. But it's worse. Much worse. More like 95%

When the Los Angeles Times walled off its entertainment content in 2003, "total visitors to the site — people who read and interacted with content — plunged from a high of 729,000 in July 2003, the month before the wall went up, to about 19,000 total registered visitors. That’s a drop of 97% in actual audience."

http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/02/will-paid-content-work-two-cautionary-tales-from-2004/

TR @ W. Seattle Blog

You are SO spot-on. And the profit margin observation is the one that resonates most.

I worked in old, mega-profit-margin media for many years. Finally worked my way up to being overpaid. Left that job (for a TV station owned by Tribune fwiw) voluntarily a year and a half ago.

We now run the Seattle area's first financially self-sustaining online-only neighborhood-news operation. And we are in the black. But not those crazy margins. And we're not in it to get rich, either, sorry if that goes against good ol' American business spirit. Our increased revenues in recent months have gone to pay professional writing, photography, technical help.

The news ecosystem is changing. Big bloated old-media organizations just may not be sustainable any more. We aren't losing "the news." Not by a longshot. Turbulent transition times, but I believe the result will be even better service to local communities - who are now actively PARTNERING in The News, with story tips and questions and comments and tweets etc. - than the near-monopolies of before.

Crosbie Fitch

I'd say it was more like a group of similarly afflicted purchasing a retreat in which they can end their terminal illness away from the public eye.

In the future this history of our present will be understood as obviously as children today understand that the Earth orbits the Sun. That is to say that everyone will know why newspapers were doomed, and why journalists were not. However, if any time traveller ventured to enlighten the minds of his forefathers he would have been burnt as a heretic.

So in an attempt to avoid heresy, here is a simple test that anyone can perform upon themselves to see if they have a mind that is so supple it can quickly make the paradigm shift:

Conceive of a future without copyright, one in which authors exchange their writing for their readers' money, but one in which printers no longer pay authors for their writing to sell copies of it to readers.

If you can open your mind to the possibility that the market for copies has ended, then your mind is open to the possibility that there remains a market for intellectual work.

Newspapers are doomed. Journalists have a bright and prosperous future. These are not contradictory statements.

So, if you are a journalist, don't charge your readers for copies, invite them to pay you to write, to pay you for your writing. Your readers are now your customers, no longer the printer's. That traditional publisher can no longer pay you for your writing, because they can no longer sell copies of it, they can't sell your readers' eyeballs, and they can't charge your readers for reading online copies.

Newspapers are elephants in a desert of their own making, wandering from watering hole to watering hole, but the revenue flowing from each tributary of their 18th century monopoly on the sale of copies is drying up. Neither fencing off the copies nor reinforcing the monopoly will help. Their business model faces absolute drought. So they collect, not to commit suicide, but to assemble their graveyard.

Our own technology reveals the fundamental natural law governing information and intellectual work. The age of commercial privilege is ending. Natural rights must resume.

Michael Turro

Money quote: “But top-heavy, poorly run, arrogant-to-the-bitter-end media companies? This is their crisis, not our crisis, and it certainly isn’t about journalism.”

Bingo. This is an economic paradigm shift in which over sized corporations of all stripes are failing - it’s not just media, it’s finance, it’s auto, it’s agriculture, it’s any industry that has extracted value from a 20th century technology set that allowed (and to some extent encouraged) oligarchies to form and prosper.

What we are witnessing is the slow, painful death of the corporate paradigm. 21st century technologies are atomizing and distributing and empowering at the individual level.

Multinational monster banks are dying - peer to peer micro lending and local currency exchange is growing. Centralized auto manufacturing is dying - a better place and useful mass transit is coming. Factory farms are creating viruses and nutritionally bankrupt foodstuffs - backyard victory gardens and local farmers markets are restoring health.

And, thankfully, Newspapers are dying - Newsgroups are forming.

burris

Most papers don't produce articles worth paying for. Nobody will ever pay for wire agency quality journalism ever again. If that's all you got then you're done.

The other thing is that old news is worthless. Trying to get people to pay for anything older than two weeks is going to fail (TimesSelect.)

The only thing people will pay for is very high quality, well informed journalism and "investigative" jouralism _while_it's_still_news_. Only available to subscribers for the first week, then open to everyone.

The catch is that the papers don't seem to understand that this is a _niche_market_. Most people simply don't give a damn about anything that doesn't directly effect their pocketbooks. Papers have to figure out how to survive catering to the niche that buys _The_New_Yorker_ or _The_Economist_ because they are the only people that value high quality journalism.

pebird

The media industry doesn't want to acknowledge that literate and intelligent people subsidized the newspaper industry for years. We willingly purchased multiple subscriptions, running up costs of $100s per year in order to read one or two choice pieces from each rag every cycle. With newspapers, it was a column or two, scan the headlines, maybe three choice articles a week. Sunday, more like a magazine.

That experience is GONE. Quality content has vanished because the industry is structured such that it cannot handle criticism - which is the fundamental basis of any worthy piece of content.

Our loyalty - our commitment to spending a large percentage of our disposable income provided the foundation for a lucrative mass advertising platform. What did we get in return?

The industry fell in love with the masses and ignored the literate. Look at magazine distribution. Less than 20 years ago, you could at least find a few decent periodicals in the supermarket newsstand. Now, its 15 bridal titles, 10 car titles, 10 "business" titles, 10 technology titles, 25 fashion titles. If you take the Proctor & Gamble branding approach and make 20 copies of the same soap in different boxes, why are you surprised when the literate choose something else?

Oh and BTW TV was *free* back then. Today, we still need to buy the electronics, but if you want content it's an extra $50 - $100/month. Sorry, print content, but our disposable income just got smaller.

Deliberate destruction of quality, ignoring your customer base, disregarding basic business fundamentals - and you're surprised people prefer reading intelligent writing with a POV that also happens to be available online.

And - it's NOT free - I spend $50 a month for my home internet access, another $50 for my phone - maybe you have a beef with someone other than me.

anonymous

Some publishers of science journals got Rep Conyers to (unsuccessfully so far) attempt to amend copyright law to prohibit NIH from requiring funded research be public.

The MPAA "big six" got copyright law changed to postpone works entering the public domain. Disney nets an extra billion dollars on Winne-the-pooh merchandising alone, every year, since 2001. And there is the current effort to make further changes, here and around the world (Canada and Sweden being recently in the news).

Newspapers are probably too small to obtain a raw tax like MPAA did on blank media. But you don't have to be MPAA to get copyright law changed. Buying Congress seems their best opportunity for maintaining profit margins.

Patrick

Dan's excellent stumping question can be found at the 1:11:30 mark.

Crosbie Fitch

Anonymous, that's a distinct possibility. I commented as much here: Saving News From the Newspapers.

I wouldn't be surprised if newspapers were preparing to ensure they get a cut of a forthcoming Internet tax.

How can you claim a share if you don't price your online news? So, they'll put a price on all their pages as a means to haggle for a cut of the tax (compulsory license). And they'll still contrive a way for most punters to get it for nothing. The important thing is to put a price on a copy - even if that copy costs nothing.

All completely bonkers of course, but I suspect it's not a fair and free market they expect to be operating in in the near future...

The market for copies has ended. The market for intellectual work resumes.

Walter Adamson

Crosbie thanks for opening my mind and also Dan for starting the thread. Like millions of others, as you say, when the WSJ starts asking me to sign in to read things I just click away in the blink of an eye. But I haven't been able to come to grips with the enormity of the change as outlined by you here.

Perhaps being in Australia, with our huge established duopolies in most fields, we're not exposed to the early failures of the outlier firms such as in media.

We've been exploring this whole topic as part of the Social Media Academy, which we recently launched in Australia, and the role of the social media in the demise of the traditional media.

This post rocked me because it seems so close to the core and the action with people "from the floor" branding the Emperor to have no clothes. And while the debate about "quality" and the future of jouranlism has been had in many places, Crosbie you've crystalized it for me wonderfully.

By the way I stumbled on the all this through BackType which kind of points me to believe that it is the buzz around quality work which determines the quality not the owner of the press. Of course it seems obvious in the Internet world that Typepad is not valued by the quality of its bloggers' posts - but I hadn't thought that way about the traditional world

So what is traditional media's value - the amount of advertising they can sell, 99% of which has zero value in the eyes of buyers and the target market. Something has to break. And you're saying that it is closer than we think.

I find it staggering to think that a whole industry has been unable to engage in critical thought about reinventing itself, although I guess the music and film industry is also in the same mold.

Walter Adamson
@g2m http://www.socialmedia-academy.com.au

An Ink Stained Bastard

Okay I may be a dumb sales guy at a newspaper. But i seems to me paywalls need to be introduced slowly combined with a print subscription or coupons for a few free papers etc. Real cheap etc. Kinda like getting a teen hooked on smoking first few are free...niyayya

Fred

this is their crisis but the pay wall or pay window is a terrible way to respond to it. i guess we should have expected it would end like this. shakespeare would have written it this way.

Sys Admin

I have over a decade of newspaper experience. One issue I don't see here is the fact that the majority of newspapers are corrupt. The old days of newspapers as the main source of real journalism are long gone. The majority of mainstream media is strictly controlled by the rich owners and used as a propaganda tool. I haven't really even looked at a newspaper (or TV news) since they all banged the war drum for Dubya. We all know what a corrupt enterprise that was, but there were very few voices pleading for sanity at that time, even though it was very obvious the whole thing was BS.
I have seen a lot of fresh faced college kids walk away from newspaper journalism after seeing just how corrupt and controlled the whole thing is. It's really a shame to see these kids have their dream shredded. I admire those who walk away, rather than sacrifice their self respect.
The best news is all on the web these days. The best TV news shows are "comedy" shows like Colbert. That's just sad.

coldbrew

All I know is that I keep finding more and more journalists, current and former employees of traditional media organizations, writing online using CMSs meant for so-called blogging. Curious that the majority opt for hosted systems (e.g. Typepad), but I suspect that is simply a matter of technical understanding. The writing, however, is imminently better than most of those who have only written content intended for digital distribution. It is also interesting to me that the comments on these posts are typically well reasoned (though often long-winded). It is becoming clear to those with talent that they no longer need a big media brand with an org chart the size of GE's.

Carlos Cardona

Amazing article. Very insightful.
@Sys Admin - You said "The best TV news shows are "comedy" shows like Colbert. That's just sad." Its not sad. Its great. Television is at its most dangerous when it attempts to take itself too seriously. The combination of "and now this..."—in which a reporter jumps to a completely different topic—and commercials at regular intervals has led to a generation that has a 10 minute attention span and an inability to sympathize with what they are seeing on the news.
Regarding the death of the typographic medium Neil Postman said in 'Amusing ourselves to death', " The nonsensical answer is to create television programs whose intent would be, not to get people to stop watching television but to demonstrate how television ought to be viewed, to show how television recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious though, etc. I imagine such demonstrations would of necessity take the form of parodies along the lines of 'saturday night live' and 'monty python', the idea being to induce a nationwide horse laugh on televisions control of public discourse. But, naturally, television would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the program vastly amusing, in the television style. Thus, the act of criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television. The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials (161)."
It sound like "The Daily Show" & "The Colbert Report" to me!

greho

Let's put a stop to one idea right now. Pay for "new." i.e. less than a week old news.

Anyone who has run up against sneaky local officials already know how this paywall could be used to game the system.

People with no respect for sunshine laws and FOIA will greet this paywall with glee, as they announce major last-minute changes to legislation, meeting times, and locations from behind the safety of a "publicly available publication."

That idea needs to die now.

greho

I would also like to advocate for a tax, which would provide enough funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so that we Americans might have an independent watchdog like the BBC.

Not a perfect solution, but it would be a recognition of the importance of hard journalism.

And to those who say only private industry can provide a free and independent press, I think most of the posters here have stories to refute that vacant oligarch-serving claim.

I offer the Iraq war and the domestic wiretapping story as just two glowing examples of our current lapdog corporate press. I will never trust the New York Times Company again after the wiretapping story.

bellatrys

(here via dKos)

I worked for almost 3 years at a small New England indy weekly, in prepress, and watched editors and journalists burn out and leave because the libertarian owner's attitude was that the content was "fill" for the ads - that was the word he used, and that was exactly his attitude. Not simply that ads were important to pay the bills, but that they were *all* that mattered on the paper's pages (with one, family-related exception) and any story, any piece about anything could be dropped or butchered for the sake of another ad.

Needless to say it has been declining since its initial heydey, when it provided the only alternative to our conservative daily, and had people at the helm who actually cared about the content.

Equally needless to say, the owner blames this all on "the economy" from what I've heard through the grapevine. I got replaced by a couple junior part-timers because they were way cheaper. They also make enormous typos on the front page headlines sometimes, too, as well as running ad graphics at 72dpi. (I wonder if they can spell 'Schadenfreude" now?)

So anyway it isn't just the big papers that have this problem. And yes, why should I pay when I can get better for free? I can get better world news from the Beeb's website to name one, and better editorial commentary from any number of blogs...hm, given that we all share in this pool of op-ed/arts reviews and local/specialized news reporting, the blogosphere already functions as an alternative to the AP, in some ways!

Richard M Stallman

I've occasionally paid for a printed newspaper (though I never did it
regularly). I have always done this anonymously, paying cash. I also
look at some newspapers' pages on line. This too is anonymous. I
normally refuse to do e-commerce because it is not anonymous.

I would not be outraged to pay to see a newspaper article on line, as
long as it is equally anonymous, and provided it doesn't make me agree
to terms which are not imposed on buying a newspaper. The technology
exists. What's needed is a decision to implement it.

If anyone from the newspaper business is reading this, I would like to talk
with you about it. You can write to me at rms at gnu org.

Joe Mescher

Paid Content.

Funny, I produce as much (likely more) content that is distributed through Twitter, Blogs, and Web Video sites (like YouTube) without compensation.

I'm not just a good Samaritan looking to work for free.

Rather, I am investing in an Online education that allows me to start conversations, build a brand, learn the fine art of copy writing & video editing, all for about $100 per year in web hosting fees.

Maybe, in some small part, my Online efforts are chipping away at the value of traditional papers.

I hope this comment provides some insight, however, into WHY free content is not going away.

Digital Natives like me are a highly motivated bunch, eager to learn and form profitable relationships Online.

Cheers!

Kathy Gill

Spot on, Dan.

I've been beating my head against this wall (e.g., here and here and here) because, in part, I live in Seattle where gnashing of teeth got very intense this year re the Seattle PI and in part because I study/teach/write about the digital economy.

In addition to a lack of relevance, there is another point that the newspaper conglomerates willingly ignore. Metro dailies priced themselves out of the local, small business advertising market. Free weeklies (some of which have excellent investigative journalism) picked up that slack. Ditto hyperlocal online news venues (aka blogs).

To bellatrys : newspapers have always served two audiences, the advertisers who paid the bill and the readers who determined the advertising rate. That advertising base has continued to erode, predictably, with consolidation in retail (and WalMart doesn't buy a lot of print ads).

And if y'all haven't read it -- run to your favorite bookseller for "Here Comes Everybody" by Clay Shirky.

MikeH

So, assuming that there were an "internet tax" and a portion of it were shared out to newspapers who have an online presence... how big a tax would it have to be to keep these companies alive? It seems to me that it would have to be a pretty gigantic chunk of change or we're still going to see a mass collapse of newspapers. A tax might lead to an ongoing press, but I think it would probably be a heavily consolidated press which is probably nearly as bad as no press at all.

Captain Obvious

With few exceptions, journalists are incapable of critical thought or critical inquiry. They bought Bush's argument on going to war with Iraq, hook, line, and sinker. They bought Bush's deficit spending. Where was their critical analysis on the build-up of the housing bubble? Nowhere. There's nothing to lose, because real journalism has been MIA for over a decade. Good luck and good night.

Dan

Sorry I've been so absent from this excellent comment thread. I'm in a beach house with one bar on our 3G card, and the connection goes in and out without warning.

The idea of a content fee, which sits atop your ISP bill, is interesting... and the newspaper industry is aware of it. The problem? The only fair way to distribute it would be to spread out the pool to ALL sites, based on traffic, which means it's no big win for the newspaper sites.

At any rate, getting away from everything for a few days is good. Step back just a bit and you
begin to see how transformative the present really is. We're living in an age of logarithmic advances. I have to remind myself of this, over and over.

chano

I have little sympathy for the newspaper industry and most magazines for that matter. There are VERY few publications that truly serve their readers, rather than their self-interest, their proprietor's whims and of course the loathed advertiser.
When key issues of public information are concerned, such the Iraq War, common coverage of human suffering rather than the ongoing story of Jewish suffering, failure to cover so many topics at all for reasons of political or sponsorship expediency, spreading mis- and disinformation at will and so much more besides.
Newspapers and mags have mostly just become vehicles to suppress truth and earn ad revenues.
Why would anyone miss them. Like giving up smoking....It takes a while to understand the change when all the shit has gone and you don't miss it and things seem better somehow.
There is plenty of news around and it is better because it has not been filtered by all those 'professionals'. The web news phenomenon is still in its infancy. It will develop fast and it will regulate itself because the web is like that. Put out lies and crap and you are history. Forget who your true sponsor is and you are history.
And thankfully, there is greater hostility to advertising on the web than on TV, radio or print. Thank goodness for that.
I have a feeling you will not post this.

PeterJ

This is typical of the blogger rant against commercial news media. As if newspapers are going to stick a simple "buy your journalism here" button on their websites! I find the level of analysis on most blogs to be deplorably poor, based primarily on the ill-informed views of other bloggers - chinese whispers. So often, they deal with here-and-now interpretations of events, despite the self-righteous proclamations that they are visionaries. Mostly, bloggers are the kind of people who once stuffed multiple letters to the editor in the one envelope!
Typically, bloggers like yourself preach to an audience of converts and devotees - they tend to close their minds to the possibility that exponential change will also change their current online paradigm as well as generate completely new and unforeseen business models. These models will be developed. The alternative is the evolution of a peasant culture online where information is valueless, where everyone is a huckster, where everyone makes a few measly dollars, just enough to buy a coke and some pizza to power the next opinion. Unfortunately, you can't survive on opinions, but you can eat your own words.

Dan

With whom are you arguing, PeterJ? Because this is a shoeleather post, not a secondary interpretation of someone else's reporting. So are you arguing with this post, or are you arguing with "most bloggers?"

And if you're confused about my thoughts what types of content can be sold online or on the pace of developments in new business models, try following the hyperlinks in this post. If you wish, I can even give you the links specifically rather than asking you to pick them out of the context of the essay. The problem isn't that there aren't options, it's that none of the functional options match the product newspaper companies want to to sell.

You're lost and you're angry. If you'd like to get unlost, I'd be happy to help you get there. If you just want to argue with "most bloggers," the most satisfying way to do that is solely in your imagination.

Justin de la Cruz

Great post, great site, keep it coming.

profit lance

Well, I don't think that a tax to save newspaper would be a good idea.

People are free to choose and if they prefer to search the same information online, the should have the possibility to go online.

Anyway, newspaper are actually been overcame by online "journal" and they should do something different to come alive..

Johnny

Newspapers are old news. Nowadays we have the internet. Now don't get me wrong, newspapers can still be great for advertising. But with the internet, you can reach a much bigger audience.

Nice post ;)

james

Well I would have to agree but journalist have to make a living as well. Everyone is just doing there job.

james

What are you talking about "Journalist are incapable of critical thought" That is hwat journalist do. Please keep this in mind that there are people (journalsist) who are good at what they do and there are some that are not. It applies to anybody. TO make a statement that you had made is not a fair statement.

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