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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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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May 11

I’ve changed my mind about privacy

Never mind that Max Moseley may have been defeated today in the European Court of Human Rights in his action about privacy. I think that a combination of factors mean that a new privacy law is more likely than not in Britain. Given that’s the case, it’s time for the editors and publishers who have so much at stake in such a revision to come out and fight for a good law. There are plenty of people who want a bad one.

I’ve set out these argument in an opinion piece in The Times today (£).

May 11

About blogging, this much I now know

This blog is just over a year old and so that – and a refreshed design – seems the right moment to round up what I’ve learnt so far. What you learn about blogging when you do it is not necessarily the same as what you read on the subject. This is what I’ve found about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Few blogs are instant hits. Virtually everyone who publishes their own work – that’s now a colossal number of people – nurtures a secret dream that their words will be found to be so dazzling, so wise and so eloquent that thousands will circulate these posts among themselves and fame will be instant. This gradually gives way to a much older and more solid truth: stamina, patience and the long haul matter in this, just as in most things. This blog has gradually grown a loyal core of readers who keep coming. But boy is it slow.
  • I have written just under 200 posts in a bit over a year. Call that 400 days and I find I’m posting on average every other day.
  • You’re a prisoner of your past: my background (see here) is in print journalism. I write in that mode, for good or ill. I am conditioned not to write too carelessly or too hastily. Does this occasionally inhibit me from pushing out a quick post? Maybe.
  • My largest contributor of incoming traffic so far is Twitter. (I’ve only just set up a Facebook site for blogposts).
  • One of the best things about blogs are links, making a post not only an opinion but text with the evidence for the argument in the background and opportunities for the reader to wander through the links to somewhere quite different. I’ve even suggested that more journalists should use links more frequently as footnotes (see here). But I’ve got to admit that putting in the links is painfully time-consuming. I haven’t timed it precisely, but I reckon that linkage usually takes at least half as much time again as the writing.
  • People talk a lot about “engagement” as the quality which readers look for in a blog. Experience tells me that by far the most effective form of engagement is aggressive disagreement. Some of the largest hits I’ve had have been for posts with strong criticism, needling or disapproval: Lee Bollinger’s dotty ideas about an American BBC, the first and fluffy set of figures from The Times on online subscribers (now superseded by better ones) and almost anything disobliging about Julian Assange. Say what you like about the man from Wikileaks but he has fans who spring to his defence with passion. (It was one of them who called me a “supercilious weasel”). People find reasonableness, common sense and – worst of all – the ability to see both sides of a question simply dull. So bash someone hard and watch the hits climb.
  • Best of all, bash an Australian. Don’t ask me why a verbal walloping for anyone from that blameless and lovely country should be such a powerful blogosphere boost, but it is. The single largest number of hits this blog has ever had in a day followed a post casting some doubts on Assange and Wikileaks (and that was before Assange had gone supernova with the US warlogs and diplomatic cables). The name of Rupert Murdoch is of course likewise catnip.
  • I’ve read that short posts fare better than long ones and posting at the weekend boosts traffic. My experience contradicts both. I see no correlation at all between the hit rate of a post and length. Hardly surprising in that this is a blog about professional and not personal things, but traffic falls at the weekend.
  • I am addicted to Google Analytics, distracted and fascinated by the traffic level wiggling across the days and months. The world map is even better. I know a few of my fans outside Britain (hello to Chris and Katherine, my faithful readers in Cairo) and can see where talks and lectures of mine have created clusters of readers. But the rest is a mystery. Taking a quick look at the last three months and readers in 94 countries…even a tiny number of blog visitors in Sudan, Kazakhstan and Algeria are a surprise. Why am I more popular in Poland than Morocco? But thank you to every single visitor anyway.

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Apr 11

Come off it Kelvin!

Kelvin MacKenzie sounds off today about university journalism schools, how they’re all a waste of space and how they should all be shut down. If training on the job was good enough for me, runs the argument, then it should be good enough for today’s generation.

Kelvin MacKenzie

Kelvin MacKenzie

First, a declaration of interest: I lead a university journalism school. Second, Kelvin is talking bollocks.

There is a delightful irony in the route that Kelvin’s opinion took to be published. Last November, he came to speak on a panel at City University on local television news. While wandering round the subject in characteristically subdued fashion, he took a sideswipe at journalism teaching in universities and advised any students present to abandon their course and get a job as a reporter on a local paper. The students took this on the chin and ignored the advice. And one of them must have thought: there’s an idea there someone can use.

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Jan 11

A micro-manifesto on press freedom for David Cameron

The excellent Times columnist Bill Emmott suggests today that people should stop looking to America for the defence of important human freedoms. President Obama and the US are mired in too many difficulties and bad policies to be able to do that right now. Britain’s David Cameron, Emmott says (£), should step up to the challenge.

He starts with freedom of expression:

“So the task of promoting Western values can and should fall to Britain, for 2011 will offer the opportunity to strengthen our democratic credentials.

The most quixotic, but still satisfying, way would be for David Cameron’s Government to speak out strongly against Hungary’s new media law, for if EU treaties truly were statements of principle Hungary ought now to be expelled. That would also require Italy, with its media firmly under the thumb of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to be kicked out, which is why it won’t happen. But it would be good for the Government and British pride to stand up in Europe for the freedom of the press.

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Nov 10

Shirky, paywalls and newsletters

Intriguing suggestion here by Clay Shirky, analysing the opaque numbers issued for the websites of The Times and Sunday Times: that a paywall for a general interest paper can only work on the “newsletter” model of privately circulated content to a small, fee-paying readership. In other words, charging can only succeed by altering the nature of the publication.

Shirky makes the powerful point (and he’s made it before) that the web decisively disrupts the continuity of well-known titles and brands in news.

One of the problems for the printed press is the fall in the value that people think newspapers have. Perhaps the most powerful driver of that decline is the simple ability now given to the reader to compare. Before the web, only working journalists sat down each day to compare the relative performance of a competitive set of news outlets; it was part of the job. Now anyone can do this on the web, using any basis of comparison they choose. The lack of relative orginality and the commodity nature of much news, particularly in an era when editorial resources have been thinned out, is far more obvious to all.

It’s beginning to dawn on newspapers that they can only respond to this by thinking the unthinkable. Even if a newspaper decides to make separate pieces of its output special “micro-brands” and to ask readers to pay, this involves restructuring to concentrate on these new outlets. And it may not be easy to locate or form a paying community which appreciates what a paper thinks is a key strength (“comment”, say). Specialist and niche websites will already be in those spaces and they may not be easy to dislodge.

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Nov 10

The Times paywall numbers: what counts for what

By bundling together different varieties of consumers of the digital versions of The Times and the Sunday Times which might usefully have been kept separate, the two papers managed to squeeze a headline figure – 105,000 – just into six figures.

That number is for “customer sales” for the past four months. As a method of   reporting this doesn’t even begin to be convincing. Any business journalist on either title confronted with this sort of chicanery from another company in the online market would gleefully rip into the executives releasing numbers in such opaque form. But it’s not very likely that News International will be getting that treatment in the pages of either paper.

The best analysis I’ve seen so far has been from Rob Andrews of PaidContent and Ian Burrell of The Independent. The most detailed working of the figures is here. Burrell defiantly continues the quixotic old-fashioned practice of actually ringing up experts and recording what they say.

Six quick observations to help interpret the interpretations: Continue reading →