Sep 13

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

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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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Apr 11

Blogs, paywalls: trends and straws in the wind

Two signposts for two clear trends this week.

Last night a journalist whose form is live-blogging won the “Political Journalist of the Year” title at the UK Press Awards. This is Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian, who has carved himself a niche as the Westminster reporter who writes minute-by-minute bulletins of big political set pieces and crises. What makes Sparrow good is his blend of old skills and new form. He is fast, but he is also wise.


As I’ve heard him explain, he began as a normal political reporter and just evolved his live-blog speciality as he went along. He doesn’t think live blogs on any subject replace reporting of a more conventional kind; they complement and enrich it. His strength lies in a combination of “old” qualities (journalistic self-discipline, background depth) and the “new” digital opportunity to distribute updates frequently and instantly.

Second trend sign: people experimenting with paywalls. It isn’t a coincidence that at least two newspapers on either side of the Atlantic announced digital charges this week: in Wolverhampton and Tulsa (with perhaps San Francisco to come). This isn’t just a metropolitan rarity any more. And we had the first public appearance by the two head honchos at the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson, since the paper announced its metered payment system.

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Oct 10

The New York Times goes all emotional

Twice in the space of a few weeks I have heard a top honcho at the New York Times make a speech with the crucial importance of emotional engagement as the main theme. In London it was Arthur Sulzberger (see here) and today at WEF in Hamburg, President and CEO Janet Robinson.

What is it with these NYT executives that they want so much to be loved? Robinson said that many digital websites had not fulfilled their potential because their connection with their readers wasn’t strong enough. And the missing link is emotion: they’re after the readers’ money (as of next year a charge will kick in after a so-far unspecified number of clicks in a month) but, even more important, they want to capture their hearts. Besides using that phrase, Robinson talked about expanding and maximising the “consumer experience”.

Language like this can only be the product of market research studies. Opinion researchers love studies of emotional temperature. But this preoccupation with filling the emotional hole still sits oddly with the other standard component in both the Sulzberger and Robinson speeches: that the NYT will never compromise on standards and quality. Isn’t some of that quality down to formality (chilly stuff like rules about how you do journalism)? They didn’t nickname the NYT the “Grey Lady” for nothing. Can you have warm affection and serious respect? Maybe you can, but if these speeches are going to convince, they have to tackle that question.

And a last piece of advice to the NYT’s executive floor: reading a prepared text is probably not the best way to forge an emotional  bond with an audience.


Sep 10

Fast Food News

Kept forgetting to post a link to this presentation I did at a WAN-IFRA conference in London this month (same one as Arthur Sulzberger spoke at). I was asked to speak about “fast food news” and had been invited before the iPad appeared on the scene and entirely changed the how people think about wireless, tablets and the mobile internet. So, despite the title, I ended up as I usually do talking about the journalism, the world, the universe and everything. If the slides don’t make sense, there’s a editorsweblog summary here.

The one-sentence takeaway? The more information people have available the more often, the more they will eventually rely on filters, meta-information and (whisper it) editors.


Sep 10

Arthur Sulzberger on the New York Times and “wantedness”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times, popped up in London today at a WAN-IFRA seminar and told us what we mostly already know about how the paper plans to charge its digital readers in the New Year. But he was more interesting about how the Grey Lady wants to be hugged by its readers.

Having been burned on one earlier paywall experiment, Sulzberger is now an evangelist for “test and learn”. If one scheme doesn’t work he told his audience more than once, we’ll drop it and try another one. The plan which has so far been eight months in development and will launch in January or February will allow users of nyt.com a set number of items for free, after which they will be charged.

They’re still working on what content exactly counts for moving a user towards triggering a charge. Thye haven’t decided the pricing. They’re still working on how the search engines will reach them. A user arriving at an NYT story from a third party will be allowed the “first click” free. The paper wants, Sulzberger said, to be part of the “free eco-system.”

Sulzberger painted these decisions as part of a larger reconsideration of what kind of relationship the paper wanted with its digital readers. We are rethinking, he said, “the very nature of engagement.” The language of marriage is not inappropriate here, for Sulzberger wants the NYT to bond, truly, madly, deeply with its readers. The relationship is glued by emotion. With the possible exception of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the New York Times is one of the most formal papers on earth. Yet respect isn’t enough. It officially wants to be loved.

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