Archive for the ‘Future media’ Category

Once upon a time, people paid to have their businesses listed in the Golden Pages. Once upon a time, it was against the law to give somebody information about where to get a perfectly legal abortion in a foreign country. One day, I will have to tell my incredulous children these stories about things made irrelevant by the internet. Yesterday, I was given a third.

Once upon a time, newspapers used to sue people for sending them an audience.

Apparently, “there is a fight under way that will have an enormous bearing on the future of the news industry in Ireland”.

Gather ye round kids, and I will tell you of Y2K, SARS, Blur-vs-Oasis, Pippa Middleton’s bum and many other tales that were blown out of all proportion by Irish newspapers.

At the centre of the supposed row (really just a conference organised by the National Newspapers of Ireland) is a review into Irish copyright law and the doctrine of “fair use”. Leaders in at least two of the Irish newspapers, the Independent and the Examiner, maintain that search engines “steal” their content without paying a penny in return.

The Irish Independent yesterday wrote:

“Website giants are taking journalism at no cost and offering it for free — even though it is costing jobs and livelihoods in the trusted media sector.”

The Irish Examiner wrote:

“The scale of the piracy is astounding. In 2010, while every media company in the country shed jobs and cut costs to the bone, a single search engine operating in Ireland offered around 150,000 newspaper articles that cost publishers an estimated €46.5m to generate. Last year that site offered more than 350,000 articles at a cost equivalent to more than €110m. And all without paying one cent to those who created those articles.”

We know (because it was in The Irish Times) that the “website giant” and “single search engine” mentioned is Google, no stranger to such accusations — Rupert Murdoch once referred to them as a “piracy leader”. But at least he had the courage of his convictions and stopped the search engine from indexing The Times when it went behind a paywall (it has resumed listing since then. I wonder why?).

It is that point more than any other that shows up the ludicrous hypocrisy of newspapers complaining about search engines “stealing” their content.

Newspapers have thrown up the shop shutters, spread out their wares and asked Google to please tell people about them. Or, as the Examiner puts it, a “process … hardly different to what we more commonly describe as theft”.

So why don’t they just ask Google to stop? Every newspaper website contains a file called robots.txt which tells Google what it may or may not index. If the executives at the Indo and Examiner want Google to stop listing everything on their websites, they just have to push a button. Or at least ring the editor, tell him to ring the head of IT, and he will ask Jim, “on the website”, to push the button.

But, of course, they will not. If they shut Google out, their online advertising revenues, already small, will fall. This is not a moral argument, with newspapers telling search engines to do the right thing and pay their way. This is newspapers demanding a renegotiation, saying “please sir may I have some more”.

Irish newspapers are in trouble. Circulations are falling, ad revenues are falling, and digital revenues come nowhere near to making up the difference. And the managements of Irish newspapers do not know what to do.

If you question that, take another look at those numbers:

“Irish industry group the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), of which The Irish Times is a member, said Google had offered 150,000 newspaper articles in 2010 that had cost publishers around €46.5 million to produce. Last year, this increased to more than 350,000 articles that cost the industry €110 million to originate.”

At a time when publishing has never been more widespread, easier or cheaper, these guys think lax copyright is the problem, not that each article costs them an average €314 to produce?

Let us completely ignore the fact that newspapers regularly “copy and paste” material from other sources, both public domain and not-so-public domain, and pass it off as their own, original, copyrightable work. Let us not hold our breath when we ask: do they always pay freelance newspaper contributors to reprint their copyrighted work online?

€314 per article? I don’t know what shift rates are like in Ireland these days but I’m guessing they’re less than that and I’m guessing most papers expect more than a story per day.

If this were any other industry, it is journalists who would be asking the sensible questions:

  • Doesn’t Irish copyright law already make selling somebody else’s original work as your own illegal? (Yes, for a given value of original.)
  • Would this be difficult and costly to enforce? (Yes, incredibly so.)
  • Will it stop people reading “free” news online? (Of course not.)
  • Will print publications be subject to the same rules? Digests in The Week and The Economist both carry more text than a Google link. Will they have to pay?

Newspapers are not dying because people online can read their stories without paying them. Newspapers are dying because the property and recruitment booms ended, because classified ads moved online, because they were poorly managed (aimless regional expansion, propping up vanity titles in London, €50 million for myhome.ie, anyone?) and just because technology passed them by for almost 20 years.

You are not going to solve a 21st-century technological problem by strengthening a law introduced to regulate 18th-century printing presses.

The Examiner says “Newspapers do not want or expect special treatment”, but that is not how it looks. Earlier this year, Alan Crosbie, the chairman of Thomas Crosbie Media, which owns the Examiner, essentially pleaded for a portion of the TV licence fee that funds RTÉ.

John Lloyd, a contributing editor to the FT, said the speech was driven by “the passion of desperation”. Given the parlous state of TCH finances reported in The Phoenix last month, it is unlikely that desperation has gone anywhere.

Paywalls are often suggested as a cure for newspapers’ revenue woes. I’ve written here before about why I think they’re not, but the main reason is that there will always be other sources of news. Such as the BBC and, in Ireland, RTÉ. They are not going anywhere as news-gathering organisations, despite the wishful thinking of the NNI, and as long as they’re around, Google will have news content to link to.

Google will not pay you for the privilege of linking to your content. The notion is akin to Borris-in-Ossory demanding payment from anyone who gives directions to a motorist, because it cannot extract enough money from them when they arrive. Google will just stop indexing your websites and traffic will dry up.

It is hard to think of a more misguided, and pointless “row” to be having in the face of the difficulties Irish papers are enduring than over whether copyright is strong enough. In 20 years’ time my kids will be asking what it was.

“Boss, circulation’s down, ad revenues are down, the kids are all reading for free online. What do we do?”

“Somebody get me a Golden Pages. We need a copyright lawyer.”

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Apologies to Mark Twain* for bowdlerising his quote, but it has happened again – somebody has made something up on the internet, without a thought for fact-checking or journalistic integrity. What’s worse is they then used the unregulated media of Twitter and Facebook to spread these lies. Worse still, this latest fabrication sullies the name of that fair and balanced journalistic institution, Fox News. Laugh? I nearly tweeted.

Padraig Belton, in the Irish Independent, told us yesterday that the world is not always as it seems. To support this skeptical world-view, he cites the infamous “Brian Cowen hangover” interview and this picture that did the rounds last week:

Photoshopped screengrab of Fox News Toolooz

Fox News. It's bad, but not this bad

Belton says:

In both cases, social media and citizen-journalism – not long prior heralded engines of a new democratic dispensation – were manipulated in political hatchet jobs.

Political hatchet jobs? I can see how the Cowen interview may have been politically motivated, but what’s the political motivation for “Fox News is rubbish”? Even if you could answer that, who cares? It’s not meant to be journalism. It’s meant to be a joke.

To illustrate the dangers of photo manipulation, he could have used North Korea’s nine-foot soldier, or Iran’s cloning-tool wars.  But he wanted to illustrate the threat of Twitter, so chose a joke.

That joke took a report of a multiple murder and tried to get a laugh at the expense of a cable channel renowned for screaming hyperbole and screw-ups. For example, the original, undoctored image was taken from a Fox News broadcast in which they mistakenly used a picture of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live to illustrate an item on Sarah Palin. Here’s the video (if you can trust it):

Belton then trots out a litany of other supposed deceptions, some of them nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook – such as the Sunday Times using an illustration of John ‘Soap’ MacTavish, a character from the Call of Duty game, in a graphic of a failed hostage raid – and some of them actually unearthed by social media themselves, such as ITV’s mistaken use of video game footage in a documentary about IRA links to Gaddafi:

Jokes aren’t journalism

It is Belton’s mixing and mashing of media and platforms – very 21st century for such an avowedly traditional journalist – as he takes in broadcasters, papers, Twitter, Facebook , Wikipedia, and Youtube, that makes his point so hard to pin down.

The Fox News image is a joke. The Guardian’s Cowen tape and ITV’s IRA documentary were inadvertent foul-ups. The 50-cent commenters of China and Wikipedia editors of Capitol Hill are engaged in politics less filthy than the past (remember ‘ratfucking‘?). The  RTE-bashing over the Sean Gallagher debate continues the Indo’s delusion that a false tweet lost him the presidential election rather than his floundering inability to decisively rebut its fabricated content on the night.

So what is Belton’s point? If it were simply “do not believe everything you read online”, well, duh. However, he concludes:

Quality journalism, employing social media like Dorian’s portrait to preserve the likeness of vitality, is too quick to abandon its fact-checking traditions.

That sounds depressingly like a newspaperman putting his own trade on a pedestal of probity (despite every print journalist you ever met knowing someone who has massaged a quote, fudged a statistic, or concealed one of their screw-ups). Belton is in good company – John Fleming had a go at Twitter a couple of weeks ago on Hugh Linehan’s Irish Times blog, John Waters has borne the internet curmudgeon’s cross for the Irish Daily Mail (they don’t put his columns online, funnily enough), and Eamon Delaney maintains, terrifyingly, that we should regulate what has become a “cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator”. Conor Brady and Alan Crosbie have both supported calls for State support of the press, which would just bring regulation by another route.

Time for some whataboutery

Donald Segretti faked a letter to discredit one of Nixon’s political rivals. Newspapers followed it up, yet nobody denounced the postal service as a network used by liars. The Sunday Times agreed to print the “grotesquely … fake” Hitler diaries, yet the writing and serialisation of memoirs remains inexplicably legal. If a newsroom takes an anonymous call that contains libellous information, we do not blame the telephone network. If a lobby journalist misinterprets a hand-written note from one minister to another, we do not call for the regulation of paper and pencil.

If a journalist prints or broadcasts material from social media networks, or wikipedia, or a message board, or email, and never bothers to check whether it is true, it is not a failure of the internet, it is a failure by the journalist.  

Flesh-and-blood sources feed bullshit and PR bumf to journalists in person and on paper every day, but they have developed tools for sniffing it out. Newspapers should be extending the use of these tools online and developing new ones when they fail, rather than indulging in this incessant hand-wringing over media their correspondents barely understand and rarely use. Complaining about the climate isn’t going to change it.

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar”

– this one is really by Mark Twain. *The one in the headline is by his friend, Charles Dudley Warner. I knew that, but wrote it anyway.

The Irish Examiner's photo archive

JFK on Cork's Patrick St - buy it now

The Chicago Reader, a free alternative weekly, has put online its archive of long-form film reviews. It’s the latest in a line of print publications (such as Vogue and The New York Times) trying to figure out a way to add to the value or extend the reach of older content they own and have already paid for. Adam Tinworth lists an interesting couple of additional uses of archival material on his blog (M&S lingerie anyone?).

I’ve harped on about this before, using the example of the Irish Examiner’s archive of great Cork photos (that’s JFK on Cork’s Patrick Street, above).

But seeing a paper publish an archive of its film reviews brings the issue into sharper focus for me. Because print publications have been aggregating and publishing their non-news archive material on paper for years. In film, the obvious example is the annual Time Out film guide. But the Daily Telegraph has printed volumes of its renowned obituaries, a compilation of Yorkshire Evening Post cryptic crosswords accompanied me around the world and The Economist even publishes its in-house style guide. In hardback.

Newspapers are experienced at wringing extra revenue from their non-news content. Some of them are transferring that experience to their online operations – Vogue’s online archive costs $1,575 a year.

But many more are sitting around wringing their hands because “newsgathering is expensive” and no one wants to pay for “journalism”. It’s far from an original statement but it cannot be repeated often enough – readers never paid for journalism. They paid for the bundle – the crossword, the weather, the stock pages, the fashion pages, event listings, movie reviews. And newsgathering has always been the most expensive part of generating that bundle.

Parts of it are worthless a month after the event. Thanks to the internet, parts of it are worthless after minutes. But some  parts are worth something a year, a decade or even a century later. Isn’t it time papers figured out which is which and started devoting more attention to bits that can provide either readers’ cash or readers’ eyeballs for years?

Lisa Simpson: Cheer up, Dad. Did you know the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?
Homer: Yes. Crisitunity.

I can’t remember when Irish journalism last looked so interesting. I may be paying closer attention with a view to returning home from Britain but I also can’t help noticing many more people are finally talking about the future of news in Ireland.

In the apocryphal Chinese proverb, interesting times are double-edged, of course. It is the sinking of print circulation and advertising revenues that is behind this drive to find a model that works (and pays) for Irish journalism on mobiles, tablets and the web. And that will mean further job losses and remaining journalists being required to do more.

However, job losses and growing workloads have been the reality in Western newspapers for years. It is only over the past couple of months that I’ve seen a concerted drive by Irish journalists to figure out the future of their trade. Even more significant I think is the visibility of this conversation between papers and new media outfits and between journalists of all stripes and their readers.

Old media Vs …

Six weeks ago, Alan Crosbie, the chairman of Thomas Crosbie Media, which publishes the Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post,  gave a speech entitled “Media diversity and why it matters”. One line – “the threat to humanity posed by the tsunami of unverifiable data, opinion, libel and vulgar abuse in new media” – understandably overshadowed the wider point of the speech, which was a plea for newspapers to get a share of television licence fee funds. Despite that, the whole speech is worth your time. For example, Crosbie rightly points out that good journalism should be platform-independent:

“What’s important is the information itself, not what carries it.”

He also says information needs to be of good provenance. I couldn’t agree more, but where his argument falls down is in assuming that it is only newspapers that verify information and in missing possibly the greatest tool to help in verifying any piece of online information – the weblink. It is one of newspaper websites’ greatest failings that they have ignored linking out for so long.

Shane Hegarty, the Irish Times Arts Editor, knocks down Crosbie’s argument well here (although I found it odd he didn’t make reference to a commentary piece three days earlier by Conor Brady, the former Irish Times editor, which was largely in favour of the argument for a state subsidy).  As a counterpoint to Crosbie’s arguments, Hegarty cites the words of John Paton, who despite almost constantly berating newspaper executives is fast becoming their guru du jour.  Hegarty sums up Paton’s approach well in what should be a mission statement for publishers everywhere:

“It is about innovation rather than retrenchment; collaboration rather than the ‘Them vs Us’ attitude that is prevalent across the media spectrum and which coarsens much of the discussion.”

… New media

We need to bear in mind that the technology making these conversations so much more visible today is the same as that most often cited for the destruction of print’s business model – the web. Brady’s piece offers praise for some of Ireland’s emerging “new media”  producers:

There are, of course, some fine internet-based news media. For example, high standards, combining accuracy and urgency, are set by storyful.com, established by RTÉ’s former man in Washington, Mark Little. David Cochrane’s politics.ie is a valuable and intelligent forum for discussion of important public issues. thejournal.ie is an excellent public notice board.

I can’t help thinking the praise is a little faint, and I think I know why. Brady, in trying to offer examples of publications that meet his notion of broadsheet quality, looks at these as standalone offerings – not as parts of a network. The three sites he named are among the most prolific users of Twitter and Facebook to share their stories, to solicit story ideas, and to spread their (my apologies) brand. All three have a fraction of the staff and overheads of a newspaper and the first two have a bigger reach on Twitter and Facebook than any Irish broadsheet but the Irish Times. As my admittedly beermaths graph below shows, thejournal.ie beats all Irish newspapers hands down.

A graph of irish news sites' twitter and facebook followers

Facebook 'likes' and Twitter followers for selected Irish news sites as of Mar 16, 2012

The other side of that coin, of course, is that if their standards ever fall below what’s expected by readers, they will hear about it early and often through the same channels. While individual journalists are active on social media, Irish papers as institutions  have a long way to go to reach that level of interaction with their readerships.

No Irish newspaper is going to be Ireland’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal.  But they work in a small market that has a mix of newspapers in terms of size, disposition and demographics. Ireland also has a growing network of (sorry) “new media” businesses.

Hasn’t the stage already been set for Irish papers to experiment online? Doesn’t it make sense that instead of chasing drive-by viewers of single articles that more intense relationships are built with more devoted readers? As Bernie Goldbach pointed out in a post on Friday, isn’t it about time we got Ireland’s local newspapers engaged online? Thomas Crosbie Media and the Independent group both own local papers in addition to their nationals – why aren’t they trying to build a news and advertising ecosystem focused on (and assisted by) readers and advertisers in those communities, and let the knowledge gained in the process have a knock-on benefit to their flagship papers?

Facing the future

I’m not naive enough to think that Irish journalism will figure out a solution to  declining newspaper circulations and falling ad revenues at its first attempt, but it has begun to admit the problem and address it openly.

I was cheered and saddened by a Roy Greenslade post last week quoting Hugh Linehan, the online editor of the Irish Times:

“… let me be really frank and lay my cards on the table: I think print will die.”

There is nothing new in “print will die”. It echoes a 2010 statement by Arthur Sulzberger on the New York Times:

“… we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.”

I would miss the notion of a print edition of the Irish Times, but I buy it once a week and nostalgia won’t pay their bills. I do, however, find it heartening that the environment has finally changed enough to allow open contemplation of a world where it no longer exists on paper. It’s also worth pointing out that the seminar where Linehan voiced his opinions on the future of print was also attended by representatives of the Irish Examiner, journal.ie and storyful.

Critics will no doubt point out that talking about journalism won’t save it, but from where do they expect the ideas that will? Acknowledging openly that print is screwed and engaging with your “competition” shows a much healthier side to the Irish journalism debate. As long as nobody gets too carried away – a final word of “I’m not the Messiah” warning from John Paton, as reported in the New York Times:

According to Mr. Paton, his new employees at MediaNews were hoping to discern the silver bullet that would enable them not only to survive, but prosper. Instead, he worked his way through a detailed presentation about outsourcing most operations other than sales and editorial, focusing on the cost side that might include further layoffs, stressing digital sales over print sales with incentives, and using relationships with the community to provide some of the content in their newspapers.

“When I finished, they looked crestfallen,” he said, adding that they seemed to be asking, ‘No secret sauce? No magic program to make us go from print to digital? Anyone can do what you’re talking about.’ “

Declan Lynch has form when it comes to spouting nonsense about online journalism. While his column has clearly shown he knows next to nothing about the web (Twitter is little more than “a bunch of people talking about what they had for breakfast”), as a long-time columnist for the Sunday Independent, shouldn’t he know a bit more about the history and economics of newspaper publishing?

Just as newspaper chief executives longingly hark back to a golden age of growing circulations, advertisers jamming the switchboards and profit margins rarely seen outside drug dealing, Lynch hangs his piece on a golden age of quixotic but brilliant editors such as the Observer’s David Astor, who hired disgraced butlers and former lion tamers (he doesn’t mention that he also hired George Orwell and kept the Observer running by using his family fortune).

Lynch “senses echoes” of Aenghus Fanning, the late Sunday Independent editor, in Robert McCrum’s description of Astor. It seems odd that Lynch misses the echoes in Astor eventually selling the Observer to an oil magnate for £1, given that is how much Alexander Lebedev paid Independent News & Media for the Sunday Independent’s sister titles in London.

Lynch has little time for “the noise” of an industry “bamboozling themselves” with “gibberish” as it faces the “challenges of the online age” and suggests the industry just start talking about it. Yet his piece makes no mention of the fairly digestible problems facing newspapers – falling circulation, falling advertising revenues, the impact of 24-hour TV news and the impact of the internet.

Instead, his latest solution (last time it was paywalls) is more comment, less news. In case you think I am oversimplifying:

“Given that most people don’t get their news from the paper any more, the one outstanding service that any paper can provide, is a view — a commentary, a perspective on what has happened.”

First off, it’s a long time since most people got their news from a paper – “most people” get their news from television.

Brushing aside the lack of research on his part, has Lynch been online? The notion that newspapers can hold up commentary as some sort of USP (that’s unique selling proposition, in case you’re bamboozled) is ludicrous. For comment, it is already a very crowded marketplace – Huffington Post, Slate, Salon.com, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Atlantic, the Economist, to name but a few, not to mention every other newspaper, magazine and an ever-present army of bloggers who will comment on anything. For free.

Lynch also has a pop at those meanies who told him you needed to be a provincial reporter covering boring court cases for years to earn your spurs as a proper journalist. Despite offering evidence for neither, he says:

“So they were wrong about that, and they weren’t right either about the old chestnut that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.

The ‘comment is free’ bit, as any reader of The Guardian or watcher of their bizarre TV ads knows, is from an essay by another legendary editor, CP Scott. Had Lynch read it, he would have come across this bit:

“There are people who think you can run a newspaper about as easily as you can poke a fire, and that knowledge, training, and aptitude are superfluous endowments. There have even been experiments on this assumption, and they have not met with success.”

I am confused as to why Lynch thinks that a newspaper could be saved by having a class of professional commenters kept safely behind a paywall, but not by an open-market class of reporters and editors who have served their time learning a trade. And therein lies the rub. Filling a paper with comment is far cheaper than filling it with news. Filling it with free comment is cheaper still and there is plenty of it about. Lynch should be careful what he wishes for.

How do you monetise archived newspaper stories? One of the more frequent arguments used against an “iTunes for news” approach to selling individual newspaper articles is that they do not have the shelf life of a song. You listen to songs many times – you bin a newspaper the next day.

Depressingly often, those most guilty of a “tomorrow’s fishwrap” mentality toward newspapers are those most involved with their creation. The focus, understandably, is on the value to be added to tomorrow’s edition and rarely on extracting any from work that has been done, paid for and archived.

That’s why I found this story about the New Yorker charging for collections of old articles cheering. They started with baseball pieces selected from 90 years of the periodical and moved on to golf and other subject areas. The collections were for the iPad, but they could just as easily be for any other tablet, an e-book reader or even printed for an old-fashioned dead tree edition.

This isn’t a new idea – on-demand printers, such as Amazon’s CreateSpace will print your book. Wikipedia will print books of any entries you choose. Newspaper Club will print you a one-off, small newsprint run from any files you send them. National newspapers regularly give away vouchers for print-your-own photo books.

The consumer side of this market is well stocked, but there are few newspapers or magazines chasing this stream of revenue.

The trouble is, a lot of the functions needed to put this together take place behind the scenes of a newspaper’s archive and the value only starts acruing from when you get organised. In other words, to be reaping the value from a properly organised, categorised database of its content NOW, a newspaper website would have had to start 10-15 years ago. Some did, but some still don’t tag content properly.

But better late than never – Google is digitising books that are out of print but still in copyright, with a view to selling them. The technology cannot be that different when digitising the more saleable elements of a newspaper’s cuttings archive. It means scanning a lot of yellowing paper, or more likely microfiche, but many newspapers have begun the process already. Optical character recognition (OCR) software is pretty reliable these days, and should a newspaper make a wiki of all their past information on a subject, crowdsourced corrections could conceivably make any scanning problems minimal.

If a newspaper’s database is sufficiently well organised, there are almost endless possibilities with this:

– Books of obituaries. These could be organised by job (politicians, World War II air aces, drummers) by nationality (50 famous Belgians), by home town, or by any combination. Set up a website, let readers build their own collections.

– Coffee table books of archive images – when I worked for the Irish Examiner, the picture processing team would scan old glass plate  images into the digital during down time. The images included JFK’s visit to Cork city. People pay for reprints.

– Annuals – a year’s gardening columns, organised by season or month; a collection of travel columns organised by country.

– Sports – I have little interest, but there are those who would pay for a book of match reports and images of their local hurling or football club’s year.

There are also great sponsorship possibilities – Robinson’s pay for an e-book of Wimbledon greats, Odeon a collection of the year’s movie reviews, or PC World a pre-Christmas collection of tech reviews.

CJR’s Felix Salmon sums it up: “the small sponsored collections are for me the most exciting, from a business-model perspective. It’s hard to sell old content — but it’s much easier to repackage it and get a sponsor to pay you to do so.”

If you involve the reader in the creation and correction of these documents, you minimise the costs of production. If you use print-on demand, or e-books, you minimise production costs. If you organise your database properly, you minimise  (but, thankfully, don’t eliminate) the need for editorial input.

As Salmon points out,  “the more different models and revenue streams, the better”. Better yet if you’ve already borne most of the costs.

A few additional thoughts on Declan Lynch’s cliched and curmudgeonly paean to the paywall.

Hugh Linehan has a much more polite take than mine in which he pokes another hole in Declan’s argument:

“the biggest problem facing newspapers isn’t declining circulation; it’s declining ad revenues”

His post, “Do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers?”, also makes me suspect that blogs obey the same rule as print – if a headline asks a question, the answer is no.

For any journalists unsure of how much to charge for news, Julie Starr’s thought experiment is well worth a couple of minutes of your time.

Finally, there’s this:

And let nobody tell you any different (via http://www.jacklail.com)

A strange confluence of links in my rss feeds today really annoyed me/spurred me to write.

I cannot fault the logic in Simon Waldman’s post:

“These days we can’t live without Google; but before it existed, I couldn’t even have articulated my need for it.”

It should scare everyone who is neither an inventor nor an entrepreneur — it surely scares the life out of me, because it seems like exactly where news online is headed. For an essentially subjective endeavour such as news gathering, I still feel that reporters, sub-editors and designers are a resourceful, inventive, practical lot. But from where I sit, we’ve got nothing to offer the pot — the changes in how we work and why those changes are being made are being dictated from outside.

What really caught me was this age-old observation about Kodak:

“We all know that the digital camera was invented in Kodak’s labs, but it threatened the formidable profitability of their three-legged model of chemicals, paper and film, and the innovation was never made a priority.”

When placed alongside this story about how Nokia had a touchscreen smartphone ready to go six years ago, but shelved it, it makes you feel far less sympathy for their current floundering.

“It was very early days, and no one really knew anything about the touch screen’s potential. And it was an expensive device to produce, so there was more risk involved for Nokia. So management did the usual. They killed it.” – Ari Hakkarainen

Disruption can be good, is often necessary to sweep away outmoded production methods and can give an industry the means to transform and survive. But how often are managements killing things they aren’t prepared to take a risk on? Worse still, how often do managers buy into a load of guff that sounds disruptive and transformative because it’s on the right bandwagon rather than because they actually understand the change and how it applies to their business? And how often are newsrooms even aware that any of this has taken place?

I would submit that “The art-director will run the newsroom of the future!” is in the guff category. The exclamation point is theirs, and should speak volumes. What utter bilge, peddled by people with more interest in how the container appears than in its contents. Again and again, news executives are bypassing the talent in their newsrooms looking for disruption and the iPad-led gold and glory they assume (and new media conferences and consultants promise) will follow.

Perhaps a more concrete example can be found in Juan Antonio Giner’s Innovation in Newspapers blog. It has been essential reading for me for quite a few years now, but as I have pointed out before, concerns itself less and less with newspapers as time goes by. That really is a shame – this post should illustrate to fans how far it has sunk.

It is one thing to pronounce daily on good and bad newspaper design and journalism but to put forward this “concept phone” as a possible solution is seeing the news consultant merry-go-round finally begin to eat itself.

The solution!! Hallelujah!!! — too bad it’s five to 10  years away, by which time every problem we imagine it will solve will either have ceased to be or will have been cracked more cheaply and simply by somebody else. Why not just suggest an “app” that prints money? It’s about as credible and is designed to appeal to exactly the same instincts.

Which brings us back to the true disruptors – the guys who will make a mint turning news on its head at low cost, using technology and scale, and without the burdens of legacy news production such as people, pensions and presses.

Simon Waldman cites the following:

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang and David Filo, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, Reed Hastings, Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com), Andrew Black and Edward Wray (Betfair), Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster, Natalie Massenet (Net-a-porter),Tony Hsieh (Zappos.com), Evan Williams and Mark Pincus.

You’ll be familiar with most of the names. I dare say none of them has ever phoned a fire station at 1am, doorstepped a company director or tickled an intro with seconds to go before deadline. But until the operatives of every journalistic enterprise of every size come up with something better, the future of the industry is in the hands of the entrepreneurs and not those more concerned with its nuts and bolts.

 

 

It was quite entertaining to watch this Sky News interviewer try to tame Jeff Jarvis on the issue of the Times paywalls (the Sky guy looks to be shielding himself with some sort of tablet computer and uses the word “monetarising”, so the odds are stacked against him from the start).

While Jarvis’s language about Rupert Murdoch is a little direct, it is difficult to disagree with his conclusions – the Times is cutting itself off from the rest of the web. Therefore, how will it grow as the web grows? How will it increase its audience and reach online, how will it attract new readers via the new tools the Web is sure to throw up?

The New York Times, which tried a paywall experiment and relented —  partly under pressure from its own columnists unhappy with the lifeblood of links, tweets and comments being tied off — will install a metered model in January, where incoming blog links do not count against a reader’s allotted “free reads”. Given that most of the NYT content I read is via a blog or twitter link, I don’t see how that will raise any extra cash from me,  but at least they’re still in the open.

Malcolm Coles offers up a different problem – the divisions between the paper Times and Sunday Times start looking a lot shakier online:

“Forcing people to subscribe to both sites but keeping them entirely separate, with no cross linking, seems a bit odd.”

The people who work there make an eloquent case for online journalism (although not one of them mentions charging):

We have been here before. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, he was very gung-ho about dropping their paywall, until the economics of the situation were brought home to him.

The irony of the situation is the Times website now looks fantastic. With the relentless focus of an operation that must either work or drop somebody in the shit, it has been redesigned. It is clean, there is hierarchy, the vibrant colours are from the Times-branded palette, the use of pictures is great. The interactive graphics and the Spectrum photo galleries are especially eye-catching.

However, it all raises the question that if this was worth doing as a spring clean before the paywall goes up, why wasn’t there this level of excitement and interest in how the website looked when it was officially chasing unique users and advertising money? The FT reports this morning that fewer than 10% of the Times’s unique 21 million-ish users are likely to pay for the revamped content. Would this level of energy and creativity have brought in enough extra unique users to justify staying in the open?

Journalists these days are being constantly harried to find the business model in what they do. On the Times’s and Sunday Times’s new-look websites, (video here, if you can stand the awful soundtrack and a PaidContent slideshow of pages here), the online editorial people have clearly upped their game, the designers have played a blinder and the infographics team – especially on the excellent eureka graphics – have pulled out all the stops. They are more than pulling their weight in trying to adapt to this experimental business model – but where is the commercial side of the operation? What are they bringing to the table?

It would be a terrible shame if, having come up with an elegant, if  newspaperesque, design (almost to the point of the website being a better designed paper than the Times itself), all of this hard work is seen by fewer readers than any other Fleet Street website. If enough of them pay, of course, it will be hailed a success, but for now it feels like Jarvis was right, and this is a retreat into old ideas rather than a striving for new ones.

A wonderful brouhaha has blown up between some new media heavy hitters over Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times and her ridiculous notion that iPhones, “apps” and “the gated web” will leave “open Web” users shambling around the digital equivalent of Detroit.

Blanket statements such as “open beats closed” are not enough to dispel the blatant scaremongering of a notion of web-based “white flight”. Heffernan has stretched the already perished “web as city” metaphor beyond its snapping point – maybe she has read a little too much William Gibson or Neal Stephenson and not spent enough time playing with mobile phones.

Stowe Boyd demolishes the usless city metaphor here.

Tim Maly has a pop at her for ignoring the obvious fact that it was the iPhone that brought “open web” browsing to the mobile masses in the first place.

Pat Thornton (@pwthornton on Twitter) found the piece worthless and offensive.

The excellent Dave Winer takes issue with the NYT running a story he says is so devoid of fact. (According to her wikipedia entry, Heffernan used to be a fact checker for the New Yorker.)

The most annoying thing about the piece, for me, is that it ignores that Apple’s is not the most used or fastest growing smartphone OS out there, nor is it the largest smartphone handset maker. I am consistently frustrated as an Android user when organisations announce with fanfare that they have had their “app” published only to find it confined to iPhone users.

Certain newspapers have long been accused of being “Dublin-centric” or “London-centric” – ignoring swathes of their countries’ wider populations for a geographically concentrated audience that they better understand. The massively diminished costs of online publishing were meant to do away with it, but we find that this city-centrism has made way for a type of platform-centric behaviour. There are demographic reasons, I am sure, but none can convince me of the wisdom of taking a general interest product like a newspaper and self-limiting its distribution.

Less annoying, but probably more significant, is that most “apps” are rubbish. I like it when Apple fanboys tout the number of “apps”  available at the App Store as some indicator of quality. I like games and fart noise generators as much as the next man, but it’s not really the hook you think it is.

Even the terminology at work here is interesting – iPhone users go to an App Store, like consumers. Android users go to a Market, instantly conjuring up a place, rightly or wrongly, where commerce takes place.

None of which addresses my real interest in “apps” – the notion that  they are seen in some way as a boon for struggling newspapers, a way of selling “content”. I will have to leave why that is total bullshit until tomorrow.