Thursday, July 29, 2010

New rules

“Jane, you ignorant slut.” Dan Akroyd.
“Dan, you pompous ass.” Jane Curtin.
Weekend Update, Saturday Night Live, 1977-78
Over at Post Talk, the message board for the Post Register’s web site, we’re engaged in a brave experiment.

The question: Can a message board survive – thrive, even – if it doesn’t allow personal insults, assertions of falsehoods and the use of timeworn but flawed rhetorical devices?

Of the latter, there are two particular favorites. One is known, in Latin, as argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “argument from ignorance.” Put simply, it’s the idea that something must be considered true until it is proven false.

This approach takes on many guises. For example, a popular debate on some web sites lately is the claim that the Obama Administration is creating a Gestapo-like security force designed to establish a dictatorship similar to that under, well, Adolph Hitler. No, really. Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press article:
“A Republican congressman from Georgia said he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship.
"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he's the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said of Obama. "I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may—may not, I hope not—but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."
Broun cited a July, 2008 speech by Obama that has circulated on the Internet in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military. The speech has been widely taken out of context. A review of the entire speech makes it clear that Obama did not have designs on a dictatorship, but the conspiracy theory persists.

When challenged, proponents of this theory like so say some version of, “Well, prove us wrong.” That’s not how this works. It’s your theory, you prove it.

Of course, the long-time standby favorite in rhetorical circles is the ad hominen attack, in which a person’s arguments are cast into doubt by belittling or insulting the person making the argument. For example: “So and so went to Harvard, of course he’s going to be a liberal, and we all know that liberals are crazy.” There are a million versions of this one.

These, and other tactics, have long been used on Post Talk, the message blog on the Post Register’s web site. We’re now testing to see whether a message blog can be free from such blather by instituting what one participant calls “Draconian” measures. He’s probably right but, frankly, Post Talk had sunk to such depths that drastic measures were necessary.

I’ll keep you posted, or you can go to Post Talkand watch the fun yourself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Making online journalism commercially viable

Now that the newspaper industry is starting to take online subscriptions (don’t call them “pay walls”) more seriously, there are many more questions than answers.

This is, of course, absolutely common among emerging business models and technology. We tend to embrace new technologies before we figure out how to incorporate them into our business models, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we held technology back until obvious commercial applications were developed, it would put the brakes on technological development in a real hurry.

But that’s the view from 40,000 feet. If you happen to be running a newspaper during this Age of the Internet, which has brought with it the Age of Entertainment, embracing every new technology can pretty soon put you out of business.

For example, most newspapers put online for free the very same unique content (call it “news and information”) that they charged people for if it was printed on dead trees. The thinking was that this would somehow magically generate “traffic” and ad sales and would somehow enhance the newspapers “brand” with some kind of magical business benefit. It turns out that all it really did was to erode paid circulation and it taught a whole generation of young people that “information wants to be free.”

OK, all of this I’ve written about before ad nauseum. The big question now is, “OK, smart guy, what’s next?” I’ve thought about that.

The Internet is a remarkably efficient information delivery vehicle. It costs essentially the same to distribute 100,000 copies of a newspaper as it does to distribute one. That is not true, of course, of printed newspapers, which have a fixed cost per copy for printing and delivering. That’s the upside.

The downside is that the online product is not supported by advertising revenue, which generates 70 to 80 percent of total revenue for today’s U.S. newspapers. (Newspapers claiming to earn 8 or 10 percent of their revenue from online advertising are doing it by allocating certain percentages of print revenue to the online category, by bundling online and print advertising into a single buy, or a combination of both.)

In other countries (Japan and other Asian countries in particular), the newspaper model is the other way around -- about 80 percent of the revenue comes from subscription revenue. This happens in countries where newspaper readership per capita is much higher than it is in the U.S. and where cover prices for a weekday edition can be $2 or more. While the U.S. market won’t accept that for printed newspapers, it will likely have to learn to live with that online.

In other words, to make journalism as a blended print/online effort work in the long run, not only will readers need to pay for the online product, but they’ll likely need to pay more than they would for the same thing in print. The reduced cost for distribution is more than offset by the lack of advertising sales to subsidize the cost of operating the journalistic enterprise necessary to create “content” compelling enough to demand a fee.

For example, the Post Register now charges $14.50 per month for home delivery of the print edition (one of the lowest monthly rates anywhere). With that, you can request a password to the online edition for no extra cost (about 6,000 subscribers have done so). We charge only $6 a month for an online-only subscription. We have about 600 online-only subscribers, a number that hasn’t changed in three years.

That’s probably upside down. Not that we should charge less for the print edition, but the rate for online-only should probably be more like $20 a month. But it’s a conundrum -- not only does the lack of online advertising make online journalism less profitable, but a lot of readers consider the ads important content. So, as an online-only reader, you’ll likely end up paying more and getting less, at least in advertising. The upside is that you’ll get the interactivity, immediacy, updates and mobility that come with online.

Coming next at the Post Register very likely will be a nice upgrade to our web site with some new features and a better design. But it’ll likely come with a higher price tag to the consumer as we begin heading for the day with online journalism is funded more by subscriptions than by advertisers.

By the way, another conclusion to draw from this view of online economics is that print newspapers, magazines and similar enterprises are going to be around for a long time. Sorry to be sold old-fashioned, but there it is. I'm willing to bet a buck I'm right.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Internet isn't killing journalism, journalists are

Sydney Schanberg gets it completely right.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

History's rough draft

American novelist George Helgesen Fitch once wrote that a reporter’s job is to prepare the “first draft of history every day.”

Nowadays, that process is becoming more and more like a rough draft. Much information gets sent into the ether of the World Wide Web without first being subjected to any sort of vetting for accuracy, perspective, fairness or even a modicum of detail.

Much to their credit, many local law enforcement agencies are providing updates on crime and vehicular accidents throughout the day via e-mail. All news organizations receive these updates, and many simply report them as they are received.

What could be wrong with that? Actually, a lot.

First, through no fault of the law enforcement agency, initial reports of this sort are, at best, incomplete. Sometimes they appear to be a larger or smaller story than they eventually turn out to be. Information is sketchy, often not subjected to verification procedures that will be applied later.

There’s one sort of law enforcement release that we find particularly difficult to handle -- adult missing persons when there is no sign of foul play. These cases are nearly always resolved within 24 hours; often, sadly, when the body of a suicide victim is found.

It is the Post Register’s general policy not to publish news about suicides, except in rare circumstances. So, we judge each missing person case on its own merits and make our best judgment.

Meanwhile, however, many other news organizations publish via web site or e-mail every update coming out of every local law enforcement agency or the basic material found in a morning check of police reports. These reports are notorious for containing all sorts of information that might later be found to be untrue or, at least incomplete -- it’s simply the nature of this sort of report.

We learned long ago to apply some simple standards of reporting to this sort of information instead of simply putting it out as written. This presents some interesting challenges to the Post Register. More often than not, our own news stories are anything but definitive -- we understand that each day’s print and online editions are truly a “rough draft” of history, and that we’re going to follow up to continue connecting the dots. We’re also a little more selective in which releases from law enforcement we put out there without first doing a little additional reporting.

There’s no simple formula, but just understanding that journalists have a role to play even in reporting the seemingly simplest information is an important starting point. Being first is important, but real journalism demands just a little more than simply being the medium through which raw information travels.

Information wants to be ... expensive. Really, really expensive

More than a quarter-century ago, Stewart Brand -- the guy who invented the Whole Earth Catalog and once participated in scientific research of LSD – attended the first Hackers Conference, which was memorable for this quotation:
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."
Unfortunately, the only thing remembered about that statement is the “… information wants to be free” part, which really makes no sense until you put it into the context of the entire statement. Essentially, what he was saying is that the value of accurate of information will increase as the cost to spread it around decreases.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, and the intervening 26 years have proven Brand absolutely correct. After the failed experiment over the past nearly two decades of disseminating “free information” and looking for various ways to turn that into a sustainable business model, serious news organizations are returning to a simple premise: Journalism done well – compelling, relevant, accurate, and often, local – has a value that can be calculated in dollars and cents, and people who want to be engaged in their communities will pay a reasonable amount for it.
“If this trend succeeds, it could not only save newspapers and magazines, but usher in a new golden age for them,” writes Walter Isaacson in this month’s Atlantic magazine. “It could also be a boon for citizen journalism, which is now practiced largely by those who can afford to do it without pay. In a future where people pay for good content, bloggers who produce truly valuable information might actually be able to pay their mortgages and buy food for their families.”
But, wait, there’s more. He continues:
“For 300 years … there has been a system in which the creators of intellectual property … had a right to benefit when copies of them were made. This “copyright” system helped to encourage and sustain generations of creative people and hardworking hacks. From this grew an economy based on the creation of intellectual property, along with industrial organizations such as newspapers and publishing houses that trained and supported writers. If we want to have that for future generations, we may have to get used to the notion that some information wants to be paid for.”
Elsewhere in the same issue of The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn writes:
"Ironically, only the 'old' entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a decade building up."
Oops.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Steve Outing is getting warmer

Steve Outing is a bright, passionate guy with a journalism background with whom I've crossed swords a few times.

Over his time as an Editor and Publisher columnist and an independent blogger, he's argued that newspapers should essentially give up on a subscription model since the "free" horse left the barn a long time ago. His more recent arguments are more nuanced:
"I am not against online users paying for journalism. Rather, I don’t believe that enough people will pay for general-interest news online from a single news brand, like The Times, to pay for a well-staffed newsroom, except in certain non-competitive markets."
While it's encouraging that Outing and others like him are "not against online users paying for journalism," it continues to be discouraging that he, and they, are fighting against their own straw men.

He says that not enough people will pay for "general-interest news" online. He's probably right about that. However, most newspapers aren't general interest. Except for a handful of American newspapers with a truly global and/or national reach, newspapers are intensely local news providers that really don't care a whit about what's happening outside their circulation areas. We have long understood that local news is our Great Differentiator.

Most of us do it well enough to get paid for our product, regardless of how we deliver it. We do more local news than our competitors by a wide margin -- a magnitude of five, 10, or perhaps 20. So, while a local TV web site can give you repeats of the 30-second sound-bite news they put on the air, newspapers still own local journalism.

"...most won’t pay when the free alternative is one click away," writes Outing. If his assumption were true, so would be his conclusion. But there really aren't free alternatives in most markets. Yes, if you want "general news" of the sort provided by CNN or the Associated Press, there are many free options. But what if, say, you want to know what's really happening where you live? Unless you're satisfied with 12 minutes of local news a day, newspapers still lead -- arguably by a wider margin than ever.

Outing and others like to use examples like the Guardian in the U.K. and the New York Times. Of course, the Guardian has a particularly difficult problem -- it competes with the BBC, which is funded by a tax on TV sets. Using only the largest newspapers to represent the industry ignores the fact that 90+ percent of American newspapers are local and regional papers focused with a passion on local news.

Yes, it once was true that one of the main obstacles for potential competitors to local newspapers was the high entry cost -- the multi-million-dollar press, the delivery infrastructure, etc. Today, the obstacle is perhaps even bigger -- newspapers have the experience, the skills, the commitment to journalism and the institutional memory to produce a superior product. It's up to us to convince readers of the difference, and I'm optimistic that we are and will. Outing has less confidence in the news consumer than I do.

Outing chides us for going after people who steal news product by putting it on their web sites without permission. This is, perhaps, the oddest argument of all. That content is what separates us from our competitors. Why in the world wouldn't we go after people who steal it?

Finally, Outing refers to newspapers in "certain non-competitive markets." Which markets would that be? I'm not aware of any. Competition is fierce, and newspapers have to be serious about staying ahead. I fail to see how giving away the very content that separates us from our competitors is a good thing.

To Outing and others who agree with him, I suggest taking a look at how you argue your case. Instead of suggesting that we should, as Outing recently wrote, "figure out how to make the inevitable into a profit center and brand enhancer," they should get on the bandwagon of people that know where future profit will come from -- by remaining the essential sources for local news and information and asking a fair fee for that product.