07
Aug 13

The Washington Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos isn’t just rich – he experiments, he invents

The Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe sale of the Washington Post for $250m to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have taken Washington DC unawares – newspaper people are good at being secretive when it matters – but nothing in this emblematic story is surprising. There’s every chance that this is a good development. Here’s why.

The Post, owned until Monday by three generations of the Graham family, had been struggling as a media business and had sought a way out by buying into businesses which looked likely to help keep the company afloat. It had become an electronic education corporation with a famous newspaper as an appendage. Last month, the company bought a furnace business; it stopped describing itself as a media business some time ago.

Editorially, the paper still holds the attention of Washington’s older movers and shakers; its reporting can still set the capital’s agenda. But advertising revenue had fallen steadily, partly because it was not recruiting younger readers in sufficient numbers. Its editorial personality has lost much of its self-confidence.

I’ve written a book (published next month) which tries to explain exactly how this kind of crisis has come about in the European and American print news media. I argue that despite the threnodies for mainstream newspapers in difficulty and decline, the future prospects for journalism are good. As it happens, the book’s graph showing how online advertising income has not compensated for the loss of print ad income uses the example of the Washington Post.

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The Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsShare This Post

24
Jul 13

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer up

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upTo judge by the prevailing tone of public discussion, journalism in Europe and America has been suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown. Jobs are lost as newsrooms contract, print circulations shrink and online news startups fail because they can’t make enough to survive. The portrait of some newsrooms painted by the Leveson Inquiry was not pretty.

Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date. Certainly, much is lost in a phase of change. But I am sure that the net impact of digital communications on journalism will come to be seen as positive and not negative. My book is called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Era and here is the elevator pitch version of its argument.

  • Journalism is being renewed and re-engineered for new conditions. It is almost impossible to measure with scientific precision, but the generative energy needed to adapt the ideals of journalism to radically new possibilities does exist. Established journalists often seem determined not to see the evidence of this.
  • The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising one doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or state support. Gradually, larger numbers of new platforms are succeeding even as many fail.
  • I reached this optimistic frame of mind not only by looking at the present and speculating about the future but by recalling the past. Journalism exists in inherently unstable conditions (the junction of social and democratic purposes with the market) and is always being renegotiated, improvised and the subject of experiments. The dominance of printed journalism, for example, began crumbling earlier than most people realise. The aggregate circulations of British national newspapers peaked in the early 1950s.
  • The greatest single driver of change is the quantity of information available. That shifts the emphasis of reporting and editing to the management of abundance, for information in quantity is not the same as information on which you can rely. Many journalists have yet to come to terms with this shift. (There’s an excellent piece on this theme here from Slate’s business and economic writer Matthew Yglesias).
  • Why have journalists (myself included) been slow to adapt? Possible reasons include…the news business is inherently conservative because its practitioners are so caught up in the daily/hourly struggle…the importance of independence to journalists has meant a resistance both to change and to accepting advice (such as from software geeks).
  • But a corner has been turned. The long trends show that print won’t disappear, but that as a vehicle (and a culture) for news it will be much less important in the future. As digital re-routes the way information travels and changes access to knowledge, the exciting challenge is to adapt journalism’s basic aims to a new phase.

That’s the short version: I naturally hope that you’ll read the longer version (you can pre-order here). I’m about to take my summer break, but when the book is published in September I’ll most probably be writing about it again….

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11
Jun 13

This post about skim-reading on the web is short because…

We all suspect that people read less on the web than they pretend. Not least because if you blog, you can read the analytics and discover that very few people ever turn the page.

I’ve always wanted to see how few people actually reach the end of even short posts and stories. Now someone’s actually using software which does that and more. It’s all explained in this story by Slate’s technology writer, Farhad Manjoo. At some length.

On the face of it, this skipping, hopping, snacking pattern of reading is discouraging if you write stuff in the hope that people will read it. But I suspect that this is a transitional phase and that these habits may change over time. Each new communications technology which increases the amount of information in circulation creates a temporary explosion of stuff to consume which is chaotic and which splits attention into small fragments. Then, we master the new flow and settle down to slower, calmer absorption of what we want and need to know.

It’s easy to exaggerate how much printed news content people actually read. Yes, the minutes logged as newspaper reading are much higher than on screens. A person reading a paper for 20 or 30 minutes will probably reach the end of at least one piece of several hundred words. But how many people read past the first two paragraphs of a printed news story or feature? The more information in circulation, the more we switch off if we suspect we know what’s coming in the rest of the piece. Formulaic journalism now dies quicker on any platform. There was an editor of the New York Times three or four back who is said to have never quite recovered from being told by market researchers that in the category of the paper’s most loyal readers, no more than 10% of those read past page 4.


13
Dec 12

James Harding departs The Times: follow the money

I’m sorry to see James Harding shoved out of the editor’s chair at The Times. He had made mistakes, but he had also done the paper (for which I worked) a lot of good.

The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.

Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.

In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.

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05
Nov 12

Google and the difference between information and knowledge

I am a regular reader of Frederic Filloux’s weekly commentary on media, The Monday Note. I cannot recommend it too highly for its trenchant originality.

Triggered by a new wave of complaint about Google in Europe, today’s note looks at Google’s interest in legacy news media. Why, Filloux asks, has Google maintained Google News for so long when it makes no money and when news sites are so relatively insignificant as sources in Google’s gigantic search business?

He thinks that the answer lies in Google’s planned move from being a search engine to being a knowledge engine: the ability to deliver more sophisticated and useful answers than most of us can dream automated search can now deliver. At the heart of that effort is something called Knowledge Graph. And the key to that is the boring-but-important issue of the structure of data. News media connect bits of information to make it knowledge people may want and need.

As Filloux points out, pure-play web news sites are often better at this than the ones built by established mainstream media – despite the fact that the legacy media often hold richer, bigger databases. New media’s data is easier to find because what is stored is better labelled and can be made sense more easily.

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29
Oct 12

Indian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directions

By what seems only to be coincidence, there has been a bundle of rich, informative writing about the India news media in the last month. It seemed a good idea to collect the links in one place – and they turn out to have a common theme.

Exhibit One is the James Cameron lecture by N. Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu. As befits his biography, Ram writes as a newspaperman but his magisterial survey does not neglect the astonishing growth of 24-hour news television in India. I have already posted about this lecture, so I’ll summarise brutally and say that Ram’s underlying message was: because Indian news media is a “growth story”, don’t assume that everything is fine.

Second item is a piece in the New Yorker (£) by long-time media analyst Ken Auletta on the Jain brothers who run Bennett & Coleman, the owners of the immensely successful Times of India. Auletta isn’t the first person to write about the changes which have occurred at the Times of India but he is the first writer to lay out with such clarity and force the truly revolutionary ideas which have altered the group’s papers.

I do not mean “revolutionary” in any romantic sense. The insight on which the Jain brothers based their changes at the Times of India and the Economic Times was simple but turned the world of those newspapers upside down. The idea is shocking to journalists like me, brought up on the assumption that newspapers have a democratic function beyond their existence as businesses. Not so, thought the Jains: we’re not in journalism, we’re selling advertising. And so the journalism was gradually but firmly subordinated to adjusting the newspapers to be platforms collecting readers whose attention could be sold to advertisers. This has been so successful and influential, that the group’s executive no longer feel and need to fudge or obscure what they have been doing.

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15
Oct 12

At last: a journalist with a sense of history and of its power to renew

People who run university journalism schools get used to being asked why they are offering courses to wannabe journalists who won’t be able to find jobs because so many of those jobs are disappearing in the digital disruption. I get asked this twice a week.

Nicholas Lemann steps down as head of the Columbia Journalism School in New York next year and an interviewer from the Daily Beast asked him just this question. His splendidly iconoclastic and counter-intuitive reply makes an excellent riposte to the unreflective pessimism which dominates much pipesucking and public moaning about journalism.

Lemann doesn’t dispute the facts: that jobs have been lost on papers and that more will go (see this blog on Britain here and here). He’s not optimistic about the 25 largest big-city dailies in America. But Lemann takes aim at two fallacies which pop up in most discussions about the future of journalism: the idea that these problems didn’t exist in a golden age sometime in the recent past and the assumption that the future of well-known daily newspapers is the same as the future of journalism.

“People tend to feel, whatever the pressing problem of the moment, that humans before me didn’t have to deal with it,” as he puts it.

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01
Oct 12

It’s tough out there in print

Within two minutes this morning and without need of any comment, these two tweets recording cuts made by major papers….

Gordon MacMillan@GordonMacMillan

Times closes monthly science & environment mag Eureka http://bit.ly/Pmm7sx  << Lost its largest advertisers /@BrandRepublic