Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's still about the content

Local affiliates for broadcast television are in a pickle.

Google TV wants to stream all of those network shows on the Internet for free, relying on ad revenue to cover the cost. Google says it'll share that revenue with the networks.

Not surprisingly, the networks aren't buying it. For one thing, the move would disrupt the networks' distribution vehicles -- the local affiliates. For another, Google ad revenue wouldn't generate enough money to support the level of programming now available.

If you're an affiliate, here's some news that should make you uneasy: Google and the networks are negotiating.

For now, the networks are blocking Google from streaming their programming. But the future of local network affiliates is uncertain, at best. Here's the view of Cory Bergman of lostremote.com:
Of course, this is all very interesting from the perspective of local affiliates. If people can watch network shows a la carte on their TV sets, then the highest-rated daypart known as primetime risks becoming an artifact. And economically, that’s not good news. The urgency for local TV is simple: produce and aggressively distribute unique, compelling local content that you control. For the networks, well, we’ll see how this battle plays out. Remember, many of them have cable TV channels of their own, so they’re not inclined to make enemies with cable companies. (And in NBC’s case, Comcast will soon become its majority owner.)
Newspapers face the same challenge -- produce unique local content or die. The differences are, first, that newspapers have always been local news producers first and foremost; second, there's often just one newspaper in a market that may have three, four, or more network affiliates vying for viewership, and; third, producing news and information for print and online is a lot cheaper than doing it for TV.

Netflix is in this mix, too. We have all learned recently that the streaming of Netflix movies now accounts for the use of about 20 percent of U.S. bandwidth. Netflix has been smart -- it pays for the content up front and charges customers to view it, instead of attempting to make its money via advertising on the back end. This is potentially a much more attractive model to TV networks, but it circumvents the local affiliates.

Here's what Mark Cuban thinks:
All you internet pundits want the broadcast networks to give the content away for free. THAT IS STUPID. Get Netflix to pay you on a per subscriber basis on a par with what your other TV providers pay you. Netflix becomes a competitive TV provider. BRILLIANT. You get paid. You reach Google TV users and non Google TV users.
OK, Cuban is a goofball, but when it comes to the business of the Internet he's been pretty spot on.

Live streaming across the Internet isn't going to replace traditional TV distribution channels any time soon. For one thing, the current Internet infrastructure can't support that much data. But here's one thing that's all but certain -- if you don't produce your own high-value content (in the case of small markets, that's local news and information), you're eventually going to be in trouble.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Culture of scandal

Journalism and politics are in a sorry state -- there can be little debate there.

How we got here is a more open question. Any student of history will know that the days of civil public discourse, or universally good-faith practitioners of either journalism or politics, are mostly mythical. While many good people have labored in both vocations over our country’s history, there have been all too many villains.

Author Mark Feldstein has skillfully and carefully (his footnotes and bibliography run to more than 70 pages) laid a portion of this history out in his excellent new book, “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.”

In his prologue, Feldstein writes:
“In the modern era … predatory politics and merciless media returned with a vengeance. Policy differences effectively became criminalized as partisans used investigative machinery of government and the press to wage political battle. In the same way that war was diplomacy by other means, so attack journalism became politics by other means, and the news media became the crucial vehicle by which this guerrilla warfare was waged.”
And so it is. Journalism and politics are increasingly intertwined and the victims are truth and facts.

In my apparently naïve and outdated view, journalism’s aim should be to put information into the hands of the people with context, perspective, substance and, to the degree humans can provide it, objectivity. I’m not alone, of course.
America is blessed with thousands of journalists who have the same goals.

Likewise, our country is blessed with many thousands of elected officials whose main goal is to make their country, their state, their county, their city a better place. I’ve met many of them.

Unfortunately, power and greed are hard to resist for both journalists and politicians. Perhaps even more sinister is the tendency for people of either vocation to convince themselves that the ends justify the means, that so long as they sincerely believe they are striving for a good outcome they may pursue an unethical path.

While there’s no doubt that neither journalists nor politicians have uniformly upheld their highest ideals over the years, it’s equally clear that our circumstances today are more dire. Cynicism runs both deep and wide -- too many in our country either accept and embrace the scandal culture or have become so angered by it that they believe threats or pursuit of violence are the only options.

The solutions rest not with either journalists or politicians, but with the people. When you demand that your elected officials and providers of information clean up their act, it will begin to happen. Until then, smarmy politicians and purveyors of bad information will thrive.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Whither Associated Press

Every weekday at 3 p.m. the brain trust of the Post Register’s newsroom gathers around a desk and collectively decides what stories will appear on the next day’s front page.

The process usually involves a dart board and/or dice. Nah, just kidding.

In truth, we consider a number of factors when deciding what to put out front. First, there’s always a local story and photo package planned in advance. Barring any breaking news, that becomes the centerpiece of the front page. There’s usually a second local story and photo package planned for our West section front.

Almost always we have two or three more local stories in consideration for the front page and a similar number for the West section front. An editor also prepares a review of the day’s selection of stories from the Associated Press.

We are sometimes criticized for our selection, particularly when there has been a significant national or world story that doesn’t make the front page. Here’s how we approach the decision.

Remember that our presses start every morning at 12:30 for a newspaper that will be delivered to your home at around 7 a.m. The first papers off the press head to Salmon and Challis and the last ones are delivered to Idaho Falls. Since there’s a time lag, we often won’t put a breaking national or world story on A1 because that news will likely have changed by morning.

We also assume that if there’s a big story that has been all over TV, radio and the Internet during the day, most of our readers will be very much aware of it. Local newspapers are better than any other media at in-depth local news and providing context and perspective on national and world news. Other media are better at national and world breaking news -- an obvious example being the Chile mine rescue. The savvy news consumer will selectively use all media.

So, sometimes a big story gets inside play in the Post Register if we don’t think we have any significant to add to the story. That’s when we’ll get a few calls from people asking what we were thinking.

Some stories are so big that we put them on the front page anyway -- national elections, for example. As sources for news beyond eastern Idaho become increasingly ubiquitous, we are printing less information about what’s happening outside our coverage area.

Indeed, we have frequent discussions about whether there will come a time when we will no longer print any national and world news provided by the Associated Press. At least one daily newspaper, the 14,000-circulation Chronicle in Centralia, Washington -- has taken this step.

No, this isn’t an announcement. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

America's imperfect journalism: Still better than the rest

The newspaper business model that has served news consumers reasonably well for about a century is rapidly evolving into something new.

When that sort of disruption takes place, a lot of people from both inside and outside want to find a single solution. It’s more likely that America’s journalism landscape will be populated by a variety of business models that will include both traditional and new revenue sources.

In the early years of our country most newspapers were sponsored by political parties instead of relying on advertising and subscriptions for their income. The resulting crossfire infuriated the leaders of the time, from Washington to Lincoln and beyond.

As the number of political parties diminished, many newspapers disappeared and the survivors turned to other means for revenue, eventually settling on the basic formula in use today -- advertising and subscriptions. In the United States the mix is about 70 percent advertising, 20 percent subscriptions and 10 percent “other” (events, printing, etc.). In Europe it’s more of a 50-50 split and in many Asian countries it’s precisely the opposite of the U.S. : 80 percent subscriptions, 20 percent advertising.

Why the history lesson? First, while relying on advertising isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a lot better than relying on a political party, with its obvious issues. All media must have sustainable business models to operate, and where there’s money there’s the concern that journalism can be influenced. In many countries outside the U.S., taxes pay for a lot of the journalism. The imperfect American model is better than that.

As media of every sort attempt to find their way on the Internet, some are toying with the idea of relying on donations to operate -- the National Public Radio model. While it might work for a handful of organizations, it’s not the panacea some are hoping for.

Last fall, Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, spoke to the Media Technology Summit at the Google world headquarters in Mountain View, California. I was privileged to attend the conference. Weiss made it clear that non-profit journalism has its limitations. Here are some of my notes from her presentation:
The NPR non-profit model has taken 35 years to build up. Essentially, she's saying, it's not as easy at is looks. Contributors are "members," not just contributors of cash. "It's an inconceivable degree of loyalty," she adds.
Good journalism is expensive, requiring skilled and experienced people spending the necessary time to gather and verify information and put it into the appropriate context. There’s a major disruption in the system that has paid for that journalism over the past hundred-plus years, and it’s likely that there will ultimately be multiple solutions.

Friday, October 8, 2010

HuffPo turns a profit by both stealing and rejecting journalism

The much-celebrated Huffington Post declares that it is turning a profit after five years a red ink, and the formula seems to be something like this: Steal the journalism of others but otherwise ignore basic journalistic principles.

Even though it doesn't release its detailed financial statements, by all internal accounts Huffington Post turned profitable in 2010 after five years of bleeding the angel investor capital that Arianna Huffington wrested from wealthy friends and associates. By some estimates, HuffPo is worth $100 million.

There's really no reason to disbelieve these numbers. As Forbes magazine writes this month, Huffington is a force of nature, able to get herself onto just about every talk show imaginable, then uses her own web site to report on what she said on TV.

So, how does one create a free-access, profitable web site? Here's Huffington's model:

1. Use 6,000 free bloggers.
2. Self-promote.
3. Steal content from both legitimate and questionable sources (HuffPo calls it "aggregation", but it is what it is).
4. Self-promote.
5. Include on your site a mix of liberal opinion, R-rated content (even better if it's about a celebrity: "Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore Have An Open Marriage, Enjoy Threesomes") and a "slapdash" mix of content.
6. Did I mention the importance of self-promotion?
7. And, finally there's the subtle blending of "news" and advertising: "HuffPo ... (is) selling ... 'social marketing,' which allows brands to attach a logo or marketing copy to blog posts that are marked as 'sponsored.' Coleman describes a recent sell to GE that centered on a campaign called 'healthy imagination'."

Here's the nut graph of the Forbes piece:
Lots of HuffPo's news pages come from and link to third-party stories from traditional outlets. Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. slammed sites like HuffPo as "parasites living off journalism produced by others." He attributed HuffPo's success to its appeal to partisan political prejudices and headlines about "titillating gossip and sex." (One wag says it's more like a frat club than a debate club.) Downie may be right about gossip and sex. Recent headlines on HuffPo's entertainment page: "Watch Naked Heidi Klum in Seal's New Video" and "Bridget Moynahan Dating McG?"
HuffPo's apparent climb to profitability is important, mostly because of how they did it -- the site contains very little real news and almost no unique content, relying on cheap help, free bloggers and "the journalism produced by others."

HuffPo's apparent climb to profitability is important, mostly because of how they did it -- the site contains very little real news and almost no unique content, relying on cheap help, free bloggers and "the journalism produced by others." Dare I say it? One way to put a stop to the stealing is for producers of legitimate journalism to restrict access to their web sites and enforce copyrights.

Meanwhile, HuffPo by may have found one way to become profitable on the Web, but it's not the future of journalism.