Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street Journal’

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.’ “

Almost all Irish newspapers posted largely predictable slides in their circulation figures yesterday, with sales of the Irish Times falling below the psychologically important 100,000 mark.

Interestingly, however, the Times also posted audited figures for some of its digital editions – 2,023 for its online e-paper and 1,687 for subs on what they call “other platforms, such as Kindle” – I assume that’s e-readers as its iPhone and Android apps are currently free.

Some beermat maths: The Kindle edition costs £14.99 (€17.65) a month, the epaper between €13.33 and about €50 a month depending on how you pay. So that comes to somewhere between about €56,000 and €133,000 a month. That leaves the Times some way to go to make up for the missing 6,393 sales (worth about £325,000 a month on cover price alone).

Although Liam Kavanagh, the MD, said he was happy with the print + apps + epaper total, by far the most interesting thing he said yesterday was again raising the prospect of a paywall,  “particularly in the context of business coverage and niche content”, at irishtimes.com. That may explain the heavy trailing for their revamped daily business supplement.

I do hope the Irish Times isn’t basing its plans on the success of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal’s paywalls. I’ve written here before that I don’t think a general interest newspaper can compete with such specialist publications. Irish newspaper executives are almost certainly also looking at the relative success of the New York Times’s paywall (although plummeting advertising revenues take the gloss off that, too).

In the US, Gannett announced yesterday that it was going to put up a metered-use paywall at 80 titles. The company, which owns 200 titles in the UK, claims the US paywalls could increase revenues by $100 million. I’ll believe it when I see it. In London yesterday, News International announced a new “digital pack”, essentially doubling the online price of the Times of London and the Sunday Times. The Times claims 119,255 digital subscribers, but doesn’t break them down between web-only and print subscribers and doesn’t indicate what kind of reader turnover it suffers.

In short, the titles that use or plan to use paywalls are either so specialised, so over-optimistic or so secretive, it is very difficult to extract any meaningful indication of whether such a strategy would work in a market as small as Ireland’s. My suspicion is that it would not.

Publishers need to be made fully aware that paywalls are no panacea – at the Paywall Strategies conference in London yesterday, the Economist’s Audra Martin said it had doubled the content it produced over the past two years.

“Just putting print online was never going to be enough,” she said. “We had to up the amount and frequency we were publishing.”

Although the potential rewards are great – the Economist’s operating profits rose 6 per cent  in the first half of 2011 – how many publishers would commit to such a large increase in journalistic output while maintaining its quality?

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.