Mar 12

News = technology (and vice versa)

A headline sparked off by the annual Pew report on the state of news media caught my eye. “Tech companies control the future of news“, said a Forbes blogger John Dube.

This is the kind of headline which is designed to frighten people. Just think, the headline implies: nerds, geeks and new media tycoons messing with news which was once lovingly prepared by noble journalists who have lost control of their business. The news industry, the Pew report says, “finds itself more a follower than leader shaping its business.”

But technology always has shaped news media and journalism and always did. The two are so closely intertwined that it couldn’t be otherwise. If journalists were not so distracted by the distress of watching the business model for printed news crumble before their eyes, they’d remember that technology and the people who make money from innovations often shape, make and lead developments in journalism.

The newspapers which dominated news for at least a century – face it, a pretty good run – took their present form around the middle of the nineteenth century. These developments didn’t depend on somebody having a blueprint for serious daily journalism. They were evolutions driven by the arrival of better newsprint, fast rotary presses and, last of all, “linotype” typesetting machines. Then journalists set about exploiting these new possibilities as best they could. Many editors of local papers were technologists – or, as they said in those days, master printers.

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Feb 12

The shift of power from print to digital: a hinge moment

Buried on page 11 of this week’s Spectator was eloquent evidence of a slow but inexorable shift with large consequences: the transfer of power and influence from printed newspapers to digital publishing.

Oh that, you may say. Old news. Isn’t that already blindingly obvious? Doesn’t this blog go on about just that all the time?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that everyone sees it. Big, slow changes are hard to trace and measure when you’re living in the middle of them. And newspapers still have a central role, clout and readers. But have a look at Charles Moore’s short note about the importance of Conservative Home and its owner, the Tory peer Michael Ashcroft. Moore describes Ashcroft as on his way to being “the Beaverbrook of the internet age.”

I pick this example of because it is hard to imagine a magazine less likely to fall for hype based on a techno-fad than the Spectator. The same applies to Moore, who as a political commentator is interested in power and its use. What he is observing here is a redistribution of political influence caused by the technological revolution of the last fifteen years. Old powers will wane; new ones will use the opportunities to rise. Digital is transformative and not adaptive change.

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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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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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Dec 11

The government media review everyone’s forgotten

Amid the drama of the phone-hacking inquiries, anyone could forget that the British government is undertaking a review of plurality and media ownership. I had forgotten myself. And I’d actually sent the review a contribution.

My memo to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was based on a post on this blog. But for the record it’s here (scroll down to Brock and click). By far the hardest issue is not “how much should anyone own?” but how to measure media influence in the hands of one company.

Transparent government is a splendid thing. But that hardly makes it exciting.


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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Sep 11

State subsidies for journalism? (part 2)

Two footnote links to yesterday’s post about the slowly rising tide of opinion – particularly in America – that government should be intervening to support journalism, given that the business model which has kept private-sector journalism has broken down in many places.

I’ve made clear my doubts about this, but the point here is that the climate of thinking may be shifting. Two straws in the wind.

1) There’s an American-oriented survey of these arguments from Victor Pickard of New York University (see second item in the publications list here). Pickard is co-editor with Robert McChesney of a new collection of essays arguing that there may be a “fleeting opportunity” in the US to re-open the debate about whether the public authorities should come to the rescue of ailing news media. I suspect he’s whistling in the wind, but we’ll see.

2) One of Africa’s leading investigative journalists, Anas Aremayaw Anas, devotes an essay on africanews.com to the issues raised by the support he has had from the authorities in Ghana, where he works. I don’t know his work (and his piece is empty of links to his work) and it’s not clear how much of the support he enjoyed was financial. (Can any reader help me here?) But the kernel of his argument is that private-sector media have diluted and weakened the ability of journalists in Africa to reveal corruption and misgovernment in African societies which sorely need such information.

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Sep 11

Should states subsidise news media?

I listened a few days ago to a lecture devoted to arguing that the economic crisis of news media in America is so bad that the government should be giving journalism direct financial support. I’m very wary of these arguments. But because I think this is a subject which is going to keep cropping up, it’s worth pausing to look at this case in full.

The speaker was Robert McChesney, an American journalism professor (and much more unusual in the US, a socialist) who argues that journalism is a public good and that as such it needs and deserves public support. McChesney has recently edited a collection of essays arguing variations on this theme.

McChesney’s key points were:

  • The frequent, instant dismissal of subsidy is wrong because assuming that journalism can be a business is the wrong starting point. Journalism is essential for democracy and as a public good deserves to be sustained by public funds. The idea that journalism can be solvent is an illusion. Just because for one period in recent history advertising cross-subsidised news, doesn’t mean that solvency is attainable. Journalism is too important to depend on the accidents of business.
  • When anyone raises the idea of subsidy, scare tactics suggest that this is the start of something which will end in media control as practised by Stalin or Pol Pot. This is absurd, considering that many European states subsidise news. In fact the top five or six countries in The Economist’s annual quality-of-democracy league are the top media subsidisers. The same overlap occurs in the Freedom House democracy table.
  • The crisis of the press is part of a wider democratic decline. The three worst political sleaze scandals in recent years in Washington were Abramoff, Cunningham (both lobbyists) and Tom DeLay (congressman). The three reporters who broke those stories are now all unemployed. A business-dependent press has failed in its duty of making politicians and policymakers accountable, especially when covering (or failing to cover properly) the making of war and the steering of the economy.
  • An American BBC is not the answer: the BBC’s monolithic structure and entrenched monopoly itself causes a problem. Independent, multiple public-service broadcasters would be better.

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