Friday, May 25, 2012

Digital geniuses and wanting it neither way

The most surprising thing about this week's news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune plans to reduce its print editions to three days a week is the reaction to it.

For more than a decade now, Internet geniuses both inside and outside the newspaper business have been bemoaning newspapers' slow response to online technology. "Print is dead," has become the mantra, and anyone who dared suggest otherwise was labeled a technological troglodyte.

Recently, John Paton ("digital first!") and Clark Gilbert ("community journalists!") have emerged as industry darlings, keynoting just about every newspaper conference around the world.

None of these folks has offered a sustainable business model. In the case of Paton, the pattern has been to simply reallocate print revenues as digital and declare victory. Gilbert has packaged his LDS Church News with his new "national weekend edition" of the Deseret News to grow that newspaper's Sunday circulation -- in print. Meanwhile, he's gutted the newsroom of the Deseret News, replacing their input with that of "citizen journalists."

Of course, we all know the main danger in using free citizen journalists is the information is often inaccurate, incomplete, self-serving or just plain fantasy.

Meanwhile, when the T-P announces plans to do exactly what the digital geniuses have been suggesting -- go hard into digital, reduce the emphasis on print, get with the program -- there is a hue and cry from other corners of the journalism world that bemoans the loss of one-third of the T-P's newsroom staff and suggests that democracy itself very much hangs in the balance.

There is, in fact, much truth in this latter view. The problem is, where are these folks when Paton, Gilbert, et. Al. are spouting their indefensible ideas? Usually, it's pretty quiet out there.

"Newspaper" readership (what is a newspaper when it is online?) has never been higher, when print and online numbers are combined. Alas, online readership is not profitable -- it doesn't begin to pay the bills. As cheap as it is to reproduce (since there's no need to print a new product for every reader), advertising and subscription dollars don't cover the expenses. Print subsidizes online at nearly every newspaper.

Part of the reason for this is the 15-year-long blunder of free content that most newspapers embraced (and some continue to).

Another issue is that journalists covering their own business can't even get the terminology right. Many wrote that New Orleans would become the first major American city without a daily newspaper.

Wait a minute! When the T-P goes out with its daily online edition on the days it doesn't publish something in print, that suddenly doesn't count? To me, it clearly doesn't carry the gravitas of a print edition, but haven't the geniuses been saying that this is not only OK, but both inevitable and preferred?

In my reading, only David Carr of the New York Times got it right:
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which distinguished itself amid great adversity during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is about to enact large staff cuts and may cut back its daily print publishing schedule...
The main difference between most of the digital soothsayers and those who have taken a more cautious approach is that the latter group mostly consists of people who actually run newspapers and report to employees and shareholders. Those folks understand that print is far from dead, particularly (as Warren Buffett has recently reminded us), in small and medium markets.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New twist to online libel

There's a scary lawsuit going on in northern Idaho right now that might be a harbinger of things to come in Internet message boards.

First, here's the post on the Spokane Spokesman-Reviews blog, Huckleberries:
Kootenai County GOP Central Committee Chairman Tina Jacobsen has filed a lawsuit gains a Huckleberries Online commenter who goes by the pseudonym "almostinnocentbystander." The Spokesman-Review is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Jacobson is claiming that the anonymous commenter “committed a tort of libel by publishing, via the internet, a malicious defamation” on Huckleberries Online about Jacobson during the visit of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum to Coeur d'Alene in mid-February. According to the lawsuit, “almostinnocentbystander,” had commented at Huckleberries Online that “there was $10,000 missing from the Republican Central Committee funds and that the missing funds were hidden on the person of Mrs. Jacobson.” The suit goes on to say that Huckleberries blogger D.F. Oliveria removed the comment. The complaint adds that Oliveria and the Spokesman-Review refused to provide the identity of the commenter to Jacobson. The lawsuit seeks damages  from the anonymous poster for alleged libel and an injunction to prevent future acts of libel.  It is expected that, as part of the litigation, the plaintiff will seek to learn the identity of the anonymous poster. 
Numerous court cases over recent years have found that web sites cannot be held liable for comments made by anonymous posters. This lawsuit takes something of a different tack, asking the newspaper to reveal the name of the poster, apparently so the plaintiff can then go after that person in a libel tort.

I have little sympathy for web sites, including those hosted by newspapers, that allow anonymous posts. Anonymity removes accountability from the process, and people are emboldened to say outrageous things. Message boards tend to degenerate into name-calling anyway, but they are worse when the participants are anonymous.

But that's not the issue here. The question the judge is being asked to decide is whether the newspaper must identify the poster. On this matter, I side with the newspaper -- if the courts have found that web sites cannot be held liable for the comments of anonymous posters, then it should follow that the owners of web sites shouldn't have to provide the names of those posters (in many cases, I suspect, the newspaper or other web site host doesn't know the identities anyway).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Warren Buffet makes a killer newspaper deal

Outside the newspaper business, this week's purchase by Warren Buffet of a passel of small newspapers from Media General for a paltry $142 million has gone relatively unnoticed.

In the biz, however, it's big news for several reasons. First, we like the idea that Buffet finds value in community newspapers, and that he has openly said so. Second, the deal Buffet made is the bargain of the century, or beyond. The real estate alone he acquired is probably worth more than the purchase price. Third, it's interesting that part of the deal is an agreement for Media General to borrow $400 million from Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway company for an interest rate of (gulp) 10.5 percent. This, at a time when healthy companies can borrow for less than half that rate. The deal allows Media General to pay off overdue bank loans of nearly that amount.

For Buffet, it's a win-win. He's a big newspaper fan (he delivered his hometown paper in Omaha as a kid) and understands that community newspapers have a much more sustainable business model than many metro papers. Not insignificantly, he also understands the pay wall issue.

"I don't know of any business plan that has sustained itself that charges in one version and offers the same version free to people," he said.

Count to three and slap yourself on the forehead.

Buffet, of course, is not particularly sentimental when it comes to business. He is, however, a bit old-fashioned. He likes railroads, for example. Here's what he says about community newspapers:

"In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper. The many locales served by the newspapers we are acquiring fall firmly in this mold and we are delighted they have found a permanent home with Berkshire Hathaway."

I don't know about you, but that gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Meanwhile, the move takes Media General almost completely out of the newspaper business. The company has been shifting to television for years, and this pretty much completes that move.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Breaking news is broken

The Post Register doesn’t do a lot of “breaking news.”
This is a studied decision. Most of what passes for breaking news these days amounts to either trivia or a splash of information that turns out to be wrong or, at the very least, incomplete.
When urgent matters of general interest happen in eastern Idaho – a civil disaster, a dangerous criminal on the loose putting people at risk, that sort of thing – we’re the first to go out with a “breaking news” alert. While we regularly update our web site, we’re pretty circumspect when it comes to sending out a breaking news email.
We also don’t cover things like bomb threats, unless there is an obvious public interest to do so. Why? First, people potentially directly affected by a bomb threat already have the information. Usually, it’s a school or some other public facility. Second, publicizing every bomb threat can actually go against the public interest. We believe we’ll encourage the next person inclined to make a threat if they know it’ll hit the Internet and the newspaper.
This is fresh on our minds after a local high school was evacuated recently when a written threat was discovered in the building. A number of local news sites went out with a series of breathless “breaking news” updates. Of course, the threat turned out to be bogus.
"But what if it had been real?” you might reasonably ask. “Wouldn’t you feel a little sheepish then?” The people who need to know about the threat – those inside the building in question – are not likely to see our post, and we’re not helping the situation by sending it. We are, however, sending parents or loved ones into a panic. Schools and other organizations most likely to be the target of these threats are generally in the best position to deal with them.
This policy is not new – we have followed it at the Post Register for many years. We think it has served us, and you, well.
We are making one change – when a threat creates a highly visible event like the total evacuation of a public building, we’ll follow up with a short story in the next day’s paper.
All of this sounds sort of old-fashioned when the world seems to be moving at light speed, quite literally. We continue to believe, however, that inaccurate information received quickly is a bad thing. So, unless there is a compelling and obvious reason to make a post or send a breaking news alert – and determining that is more art than science – we don’t do it. We hope that you’ll know that when we do send one, it’s legitimate. 

(Disclaimer: I stole the idea for this headline from a story on Salon. Or was it Slate?)

Friday, May 4, 2012

The emperors of FON

There is a clique of gurus who have been saying for some time that not only is old-style journalism dead, but that they have all the answers when it comes to what to do about it.

At long last, two things are happening: 1) At least some of those geniuses are admitting they haven’t a clue what the future holds. 2) People writing about this genius clique are starting to openly wonder if the FON (future of news) crowd has been wrong all along.

“You ask what the future of news is? I have no friggin’ idea. No one does.”

The speaker was Jeff Jarvis at a recent FON forum. Jarvis is one of the self-proclaimed FON gurus who has been telling us for years how backward and wrong newspaper managers are and how the future is all about aggregation through networks of what he calls the “commodity” of news. His admission that he has “no friggin’ idea” what the future holds is the first truly honest thing he’s said on the topic in a long time.

Perhaps more encouraging, the informal but tightly held prohibition against openly questioning the FON crowd is, if not crumbling, at least showing small signs of wear and tear. A recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review featured a story by Dean Starkman headlined, “Confidence game: The limited vision of the new gurus.”

In particular, he took on the notion that news has become a near-valueless commodity. He repeats a now-famous comment by digital-first “guru” John Paton: “As career journalists and managers we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace, and that value is about zero.”

But Starkman comes back with this: “Seeing news as a commodity, and a near valueless one (Paton above says its value is “about zero”), is a fundamental conceptual error, and a revealing one. A commodity is the same in Anniston, Alabama, as it is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Whatever local news is, it’s not that.”
He goes farther:
“But we can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that “information wants to be free” (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information’s value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, “walls,” don’t fit into a networked vision. It’s worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn’t to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it. The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it.”
Starkman suggests the future of news probably looks a lot like its current iteration: “In that spirit, I’m going to make a bold leap and predict—eenie meenie chili beanie—that for a long time the Future of News is going to look unnervingly like the Present of News: hobbled news organizations, limping along, 
supplemented by swarms of new media outlets doing their best. It’s not sexy, but that’s journalism for you.”

Those who view news as a commodity are spending too much time on web sites like Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, which largely consist of links to reporting originating elsewhere. They are not paying enough attention to the 1,400 daily newspapers still putting out local news only they can provide -- unique content, in the modern parlance. As Starkman notes, even FON guru Jay Rosen recognizes this:
“In journalism,” Rosen writes on his blog, "Press Think," “real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. ‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it. ’”