14
May 12

Newspapers: even if you don’t have the solution, stick with the main issue

Teachers (and I’m one) have a habit, which understandably annoys many people who wrestle with practical problems, of posing questions to which they don’t have an answer. When I’m in this mood with an audience or class, I tend to put a questions about bundles.

Newspapers, many news websites, magazines, radio and television programmes are bundles of stuff. While this may be justified as making content more attractive and useful (variety, serendipitous discovery of the unexpected), bundles are really made by economic imperatives. A mixture of news and features collects together enough attractions to persuade someone to buy a newspaper; the newspaper sells the attention thus secured to advertisers who buy space alongside the content. In theory, the bundle’s total income exceeds its outgoings in a web of cross-subsidy. Magazines and commercial broadcast channels operate variants on this model.

But what happens, my irritating question goes, if an irresistible force blows the bundle apart? What happens if the readers or audience sees no logic in consuming journalism packaged in bundles? Social media, search engines and the internet don’t naturally see things in bundles. Bundles are by definition ambiguous compromises. Web search abhors ambiguity.

For a year or two, this uncomfortable thought has been pushed aside by more immediate, and slightly more palatable, issues. Can newspaper paywalls be made to work? (Has the New York Times discovered the secret sauce/holy grail/formula for eternal life?) Is the iPad the answer to struggling publishers’ prayers? But underlying fundamentals have a way of coming back to the surface.

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09
Jan 12

Paywalls, niche, mass and “general interest”

Here are two posts for anyone at all intrigued by what kind of income keeps journalism – and particularly journalism institutions – in business.

  • Clay Shirky on payment “threshold” schemes which are becoming more and more common in the US, particularly since the New York Times porous paywall looks as if it’s delivering on at least one aim of preserving the online audience while collecting some revenue from committed online users. Whether that’s enough revenue – Shirky thinks not – is another question.
  • Frederic Filloux on what we don’t yet know about the NYT scheme and on the striking price rises just announced by both the NYT and the Financial Times for their print editions. Filloux sees this, rightly I’m sure, as evidence of both titles trying to drive their readers online.

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23
Dec 11

Christmas catchup of stuff I missed

This post just carries links to one or two pieces worth reading that I’ve missed or put to one side in the past few weeks.

  • I’ve been waiting for some time for a systematic, measured study of new media’s role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. This looks like the first such one (if you know of others I’ve missed, please tell me). It’s only about Twitter and really only about the networking aspects, when the real study needs to link and compare the use and consumption of every thing from satellite TV to Facebook and Twitter. But it’s a start and a fascinating one.
  • Second up is a piece by Clay Shirky about news institutions and the “crisis”. Above all this is a plea for experiments in news and a strongly made argument that, important as newspapers are as institutions, their adaptive capabilities really aren’t keeping up with what’s happening. Shirky’s piece also contains a link to an essay by Jonathan Stray on the digital public sphere which also looks excellent.
  • Last is the New York Times picture essay on 2011: a vivid way to recall what has been a truly unusual twelve months.

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19
Dec 11

The meaning of the abrupt departure of the New York Times CEO

Recessions, or rumours of their return, concentrate minds. Late last week, the New York Times announced the departure of its CEO, Janet Robinson, in terms which made clear that this wasn’t her initiative and that it had something to do with the paper’s struggles to find a successful digital publishing strategy.

I suspect that Ms Robinson’s removal is a symbol of a debate not confined to the boardroom of the New York Times or, come to that, to the United States. A long period of economic uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic is starving newspapers of both readers and advertising income. In Britain print circulation declines are accelerating and given that two of the largest year-on-year falls are for the Guardian and Financial Times, I don’t think this can be attributed to the phone-hacking scandal.

This pushes all newspapers and their publishers closer to one of the biggest decisions in their history, a momentous choice which is coming sooner than many expected. How much longer can they stay in print? When do they switch to digital?

When two British editors were asked last year how much longer they expected to be printing their papers, both said that the companies had bought their last printing presses. Since both had invested in new presses in the past few years, that gave the Sunday Times and the Guardian maximum time horizons of between twenty and thirty years as paper products. I doubt that many titles now think they have that long.

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09
Nov 11

Serendipity and Mr Kurkov

When I travel I read more serendipitously and randomly, wandering off the path I normally take through newspapers and magazines. And as I sat in trains and planes, I fell across this piece from the New York Times by Andrey Kurkov.

I sat up immediately because I had never before seen any journalism by Kurkov, who I know only as a novelist. He is Ukrainian and his debut novel Death and the Penguin deserves to be more widely celebrated as a small comic masterpiece. In the course of a short, spare novel about a man who makes friends with a penguin who has wandered out of an untended zoo, Kurkov manages to say more about the bleak reality of post-communist societies than a dozen textbooks. The tone is quirky and ironic; Kurkov belongs on the same literary shelf as Bulgakov. There are other novels: I recommend A Matter of Life and Death, which in the course of a meandering story about an obituary writer manages to speak powerfully about a corrupted state.

And so with his New York Times piece. The gentle irony and local detail are deceptive (“The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 brought great joy to my family”). His conclusions about law and public honesty apply well beyond his own country. Indeed they could apply to Italy, where I happened to be when I read it. The government was just falling in Rome.


25
Oct 11

Paywalls and tablets: there is more news and some of it good

A quick update on some new stuff which has emerged about both paywalls for news and tablet devices such as the iPad.

Most of these developments are promising. Not in the sense that the problems of a sustainable business model for news has been found, but in the sense that experiments – which are they key to it all – reveal a few successes and thus a few clues to what might work.
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15
Aug 11

PageOne: a good news story about news in New York

Somewhere around the middle of this past decade, the New York Times suffered a near-death experience.

The paper’s finances were shaky in the usual ways: print income was falling, digital revenue failing to compensate. A Mexican telephone tycoon lent a lot of money in exchange for an uncomfortably large stake in the company. Magazine profiles openly disrespectful of publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s abilities began appearing. Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal and declared war on the Times’ hold on New York.

One media guru put the previously unsayable into print: that the Times might soon fold or be sold. (Even this blog has occasionally been a little snarky about the Grey Lady.)

And what happened? No newspaper dependent on those dropping print revenues is out of the wood yet, but things have looked up. The Journal has not broken through in New York and Murdoch and the News Corp hierarchy have phone-hacking lawsuits, trials and revelations to worry about. Reporters from the New York Times made a significant mark on the phone-hacking disclosures.

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01
Jul 11

The Times: the paywall puzzle

The Times reaches 100,000 digital subscribers and I’m still baffled by their online strategy. I ought to be better-placed than many to figure out what they’re up to (declaration: I used to work there). But it’s not easy.

This blog starts from the position that anything which promises a sustainable economic base for journalism is to be encouraged. Dogmatic assertions (“content wants to be free”, “content wants to be expensive”) which aim to shout down empirical experiments are to be discouraged. So any publisher adding to the sum of knowledge about what will or won’t work in charging is contributing. From that perspective, the Times announcement tells us a few things.
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