Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Crosbie Media’

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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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.’ “