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.


Mar 10

Intelligence Squared on news

Big audience last night for an Intelligence Squared debate on news, or more specifically on is “free” threatening news? Diffuse discussion, long on rhetoric and feeling and short on facts. A few of the nuggets….

Media analyst Claire Enders asked the question that most of her fellow panellists wanted to avoid: will the young consume serious news? The more traditionally-minded panellists huffed that the young were always being complained about and puffed that they had never read newspapers much anyway in any era. Enders calmly pointed out that there is plenty of evidence that this younger generation aren’t reading or consuming serious news as much and that the average age of a newspaper reader in Britain is 45.

Enders was not evangelising for online. She said that the average news user on the internet looks at news for 30 minutes a month. The average newspaper reader reads for 30 minutes a day. She linked the fall in literacy to the profusion of digital communication devices, citing the decision by the state of Massachusetts to stop issuing laptops to schoolchildren when literacy rates began to fall.

Last fact from Jacob Weisberg, the CEO of the excellent Slate. The newsroom of the New York Times costs around $200m a year to run. The digital advertising income of the NYT in a year? Around $200m. So may be there are the glimmerings of a business model there – if only the NYT wasn’t so badly run.


Mar 10

News wants to be…valuable

You’ve seen the text, now read the movie: video of my lecture here.

I was going to post about the experience of being tweeted live during a lecture, but I’m going to divert to relay one or two of the most interesting comments on my lecture theme that journalists have to sharpen the definition of what they do if it’s to be recognised as valuable in a world in which previous news media business models are foundering.

First up is Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, media editor of the Financial Times, who took an original swing at the paywall issue in an edition of the FT magazine a few weeks ago and sent the link, saying “more specialisation and a sharper focus on where news organisations can add value could make it much easier to persuade readers/users/consumers that news is something worth paying for.”

I wish I’d seen that piece before writing the lecture. This is it:

If there is one orthodoxy of the past decade that the media industry has reason to curse, it was born when Stewart Brand told the 1984 Hackers’ Conference that “information wants to be free”.

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Feb 10

Bronner, Keller, Hoyt

Sitting in a hotel room in Bangalore, I did a BBC World Service interview on the ruckus over Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, whose 20-year-old son is entering the Israeli army for compulsory military service. Bronner had declared this fact to the NYT, which had apparently decided that this did not compromise his independence. The facts were dug out by a blog called the Electronic Intifada and Clark Hoyt, the NYT’s Public Editor, took soundings. Hoyt concluded that the NYT’s editor Bill Keller should reassign Bronner, at least for the 18 months of Bronner Junior’s military service. In a lengthy reply, Keller rejected the advice.

In the BBC interview today, I inclined to Keller’s view. Richard Beeston, ex-Jerusalem correspondent and Foreign Editor of The Times, said that Bronner would be unable to be seen as unbiased in any military crisis involving the Israeli armed forces. And those crises seem frequent.

I have to admit I made heavy weather of a difficult case. If you read the blogs, it is quite plain that most writers who gleefully urge the NYT to move Bronner are simply seizing on an excuse to clobber a correspondent whose reporting they already disliked. But this is everyday media life in the Middle East. Nothing, not one word, written or spoken by any correspondent is free of accusation of bias.

I have no view about Bronner’s record as a reporter. But I do have sympathy for the core of Keller’s case that all reporters come to a story with some baggage; connections are part of life and some of them may even enrich a reporter’s understanding. Bronner’s wife is Israeli: does that invalidate what he does? At what point does a family connection invalidate a reporter’s efforts to stay careful and fair? If a reporter has shown to his editors that he can navigate the traps and endless tempations to spin the story, why should a 20-year-old’s military service automatically change the equation?

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