Making news pay: no easy answers at Oxford

Green Templeton College, Oxford University

I attended Andrew Currah‘s interesting talk on business models for news today at Oxford’s Green Templeton College. Currah has just released a report for the Reuters Institute called “What’s Happening to Our News.” Lots of good insights on the scary economic trends in the U.K. news media. Real problems urgently in need of solutions. Well worth a read.

Currah spoke of the “messianic” belief among news executives that digital products will become engines of productivity and profitability. Unfortunately, “the new platform doesn’t seem able to support journalism in its current form,” he said. He quoted a McKinsey report that found online revenue per user to be, at best, about 1/20th of print.

Currah outlined some of the potential alternatives being tried or proposed: micropayments, hybrid “freemium” services, charitable models of various kinds (Washington Post would supposedly need a $2 billion endowment to support its journalism). Substantial asterisks and drawbacks to all the options mentioned. Not particularly encouraging.

But what bothers me about Currah’s conclusions is that they’re partly based on what I think is the flawed assumption that “following the audience” is a bad thing and inherently at odds with a higher public-service purpose.

I believe that a news organization can follow the audience and be of service to it at the same time. In fact, I think one of the reasons why many newspapers — in the U.S., at least, and I suspect here too — find themselves in their current state is because they’ve fallen out of sync with the needs of the audiences they claim to serve.

Maybe I’m overly idealistic on this point, but I think it’s not only possible to do serious journalism that’s commercially viable, it’s a waste of time to do otherwise. Put another way: If I publish a sound, well-researched investigative piece on a topic nobody wants to read about, how is that serving an audience?

+++

Currah’s book is here. His presentation is here. (Note: Both files are large PDFs.)

(My own two cents’ on the revenue picture and what newspapers can do about it is now up on OJR.)

Photo: Green Templeton College, Oxford University, by Eric Ulken.

England notes, part 2: Gloomy outlook for newspapers

When I arrived in the U.K., I expected the state of the newspaper industry here to be somewhat less dire than in the U.S. After all, Internet penetration here is still somewhat lower than back home, I figured, so maybe print audiences (and advertisers) haven’t dried up as quickly.

This list of newspaper closures over the last 13 months — 53 titles, mostly free weeklies but with a combined circulation of about 1.2 million — shows I was mistaken. While in the U.S. small markets represent the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak newspaper climate, here they seem to be the first casualty of the advertising downturn. (This may have something to do with the large number of free local titles here, which are entirely dependent on ad revenue.)

In general, ad income at regional papers is expected to fall another 20 percent this year, and a report predicts as many as one in 10 print publications here won’t survive to see 2010.

In the face of the bad news, regional publishers are taking action. Trinity Mirror, the country’s largest newspaper chain, announced it would freeze 2009 pay after eliminating 1,200 jobs and closing 44 titles in 2008. (The company has also been doing some radical reinventing in the newsrooms of papers it intends to keep going. More on that in my next post.)

The problems aren’t confined to the regional press: The Independent, one of the four national “quality dailies” is moving in with the Daily Mail, owned by a competing publisher, in a last-ditch JOA-like arrangement that combines back-office staff while keeping the newsrooms separate. Guardian online editor Emily Bell recently estimated that in the current field of 19 national news titles, 5 or 6 could vanish.

+++

Next: Innovating to stay alive.

What I’ve been up to

OK, I’m feeling really guilty about not updating the blog, so here’s a bullet-point summary of what’s been going on since my last post, ages ago:

  • I got sick.
  • I started feeling better, so…
  • I went to BeeBCamp 2 at the BBC on Wednesday and heard lots of interesting talk about the future and the Beeb’s place in it.
  • I remained sick, but thought I was feeling better, so…
  • I went to the Guardian on Friday. Got a nice tour from Kevin Anderson and chatted with some really smart tech folks, including Django co-creator Simon Willison. I even ended up giving a little LAT Data Desk show-and-tell when the scheduled Friday afternoon guest speaker flaked.
  • I’ve been following the unfolding “effing-bloggers-vs.-real-journalists” kerfuffle here.
  • I’m still semi-sick. (I think I’ve been sick more than I’ve been well so far on this trip.)

Health permitting, I’ve got return visits to the BBC and Guardian lined up for next week, and a trip to Oxford to take in a Reuters Institute talk on news business models.

I still intend to write full posts on BBC and Guardian visits. But I’ll spare you the sickness post.

Government data wants to be free

Buckingham palace

Attended a fascinating debate last night on the topic of copyright and government agencies. (No, really. It only sounds tedious.)

Turns out government data in the U.K. is protected by something called crown copyright, which limits people’s ability to legally redistribute it.

It’s hard for me to understand why data collected in the public interest isn’t, in fact, freely usable by the public, as it is where I come from. (The U.K. didn’t have a Freedom of Information law until 2000, and even now data released under FOI is subject to restrictions on reproduction.)

What this means is that many of the mashups based on government data in the U.S. (I’m thinking of stuff like EveryBlock and, yes, much of the output of the L.A. Times’ Data Desk) would be impossible here under the law.

There are some encouraging signs, though:

  • Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur, who was on the panel last night, has helped lead the charge for opening up government information by co-founding the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign. He says a broad, cross-party consensus seems to be forming around the need to open up government data. Unfortunately, the government — which, to be fair, has its hands full with things like war and financial upheaval — hasn’t picked up the gauntlet yet. (Random thought: It’s kind of too bad that news organizations in the U.S. are so skittish about advocating for good causes.)
  • Meanwhile, some people aren’t waiting for the rules to change. For example, mysociety.org runs a site called WhatDoTheyKnow, a sort of clearinghouse for FOI requests and the responses from government agencies to those requests. It would appear that the responses are published without regard for any copyright restrictions, but it’s hard to imagine government lawyers going after a non-profit for reproducing information released under FOI. In other words: When the law doesn’t make sense, maybe it just needs to be bent until it can be changed.

+++

Oops: Got a little sidetracked from my “What I’ve learned in England” posts. They’ll resume soon.

Photo of Buckingham Palace by René Ehrhardt via Flickr

England notes, part 1: Twitter is huge

Jonathan Ross (aka @wossy)

People (and particularly media people) here are crazy about Twitter. Simple observation suggests the microblogging phenomenon is even bigger here than it is in the U.S., and the stats seem to bear that out.

But why is Twitter so big here? One possible explanation, offered by social media consultant Suw Charman-Anderson (aka @suw), is the enthusiastic use of the tool by some big-name Brits. To wit:

In the newspaper industry here, lots of people are twittering, and not just casually. Just ask @foodiesarah (Sarah Hartley, online editor for the Manchester Evening News), @alisongow (Alison Gow, deputy editor of the Liverpool Daily Post), @kevglobal (Kevin Anderson, blogs editor for The Guardian and spouse of the aforementioned @suw) and @joannageary (Joanna Geary, development editor at the Birmingham Post). Joanna’s boss, @marcreeves (Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post), even has his Twitter URL on his business card. How many American newspaper editors could say the same?

As development editor — a role that includes overseeing the newspaper’s efforts in social media — Joanna managed to get the Post to devote occasional space in the paper to explaining Twitter. Tapping her Twitter network, she organized a group of reader experts to act as unpaid bloggers on a variety of topics (see the authors of the Lifestyle blog for a sampling). And, job seekers take note: Her avid Twittering is no doubt partly responsible for her new gig at The Times of London, which starts next month.

The Birmingham Post isn’t the only U.K. newspaper to spill ink about Twitter: The Daily Telegraph went so far as to publish a full Twitter guide, including step-by-step instructions on how to tweet and a piece on “why the world is Twitter-crazy.” (That may be overreaching a little: It’s worth pointing out that Twitter is by one measure only the 23rd most visited social network in the U.K., but apparently all social networks are not created equal.)

I should also note that, while the rate of Twitter adoption here is high, usage doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding. For a particularly embarrassing illustration of this, here’s a cautionary tale from the BBC: Multimedia newsroom boss Peter Horrocks last week sent what he thought was a direct message on Twitter to a colleague, Richard Sambrook, discussing some high-level appointments. Except he sent it as an @-reply, visible to the candidates being discussed, along with the unsuccessful candidates and everybody else in the world for that matter. Ouch.

+++

Also: London is the birthplace of the Twestival, a social gathering of Twitter users that has turned into a global event. (The next Twestival is this Thursday, Feb. 12, in 175 cities around the world. Unfortunately, the London Twestival is sold out, so if I’m going I guess I’ll have to find another city.) And… There’s even an online Twitter newspaper here, the All Tweet Journal. Points for the name, at the very least.

+++

Next: Tough times for some U.K. papers

What I’ve learned in England (so far)

"Look right"

I’ve been in the U.K. for about a week now — long enough to feel guilty for neglecting my blogging duties, but not long enough to really get my head around what’s going on over here.

I was in Preston last week for the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, where I met journalists from Europe and Africa and heard some familiar stories about change-averse newsroom culture. I also visited newsrooms in Liverpool and Birmingham and listened as editors described the very real changes taking place there.

Some trends I’ve observed in the process:

In posts over the next few days, I’ll try to elaborate on each of those points. Meanwhile, here are some happenings in the U.K. media world that have spawned dinner-table conversation in the past week:

Next: England’s Twitter explosion

Photo by Charles Collier via Flickr

‘Killing local news’? I doubt it

I rarely opine about the print side of the newspaper industry, because it’s not my area of expertise and I don’t usually read printed newspapers. But humor me:

As part of its continued downsizing, the Los Angeles Times has announced that it’s getting rid of the standalone California section and folding local news into the front section. Reactions are predictably negative, with one Twitterer deducing that the Times is “killing local news.” I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried. The Times has obviously done a poor job of explaining this move, but to me it is defensible.

Combining all the paper’s general-interest news into a single section could be a good thing for several reasons:

  • A unified A section means the paper is finally putting local news where it belongs: front and center. Nothing is more important to the paper’s long-term success than local news, so relegating most California stories to an inside section always seemed a bit unfair to me.
  • Since there are already a lot of local stories in the A section, it makes sense to put the rest there too. Honestly, hardly anybody outside the newspaper industry understands why some local stories go in the A section and the rest appear in the local news section. It’s needlessly confusing.
  • People are going to have to get used to smaller newspapers; economic realities dictate it. So rather than print a bunch of anemic 4-page sections, why not do fewer, beefier ones and save some money in the process? (This of course presumes that the total number of pages doesn’t decrease substantially. I’ve seen no official word yet on how much news space is likely to be lost. If the local news hole shrinks as a result of this move, then I’ll retract this defense and join the chorus of outrage.)
  • One alternative that’s been mentioned, merging business and local news into a single section, doesn’t feel right to me because the two are thematically different. Local news is general; business is, well, specific. Meshing the two on a single section front could confuse readers. On the other hand, readers are already quite used to seeing local news merged with national and foreign on A1.
  • This solution, even if it puts some people off, feels more palatable journalistically than other alternatives, which might include even more editorial staff cuts or the closing of additional bureaus.

It’s too bad this news comes at the same time as the announcement that 70 more Times journalists will walk out the door. That will hurt. Juggling pages is comparatively painless.

Filling in the blanks on DocumentCloud

My OJR post on DocumentCloud, the muchbuzzedabout $1-million Knight News Challenge grant proposal, is up. I did an e-mail interview with three of the proposal’s authors, Aron Pilhofer of The New York Times and Scott Klein and Eric Umansky of ProPublica. Here’s an excerpt:

Aron Pilhofer: The grant would be used to create an independent, non-profit organization called DocumentCloud, which would manage the grant, build and maintain the software and so forth. Given the intensely competitive nature of the news business, we reckoned that this project had to be in the hands of an independent, impartial broker in order for a consortium like this to work.

More here.

Distinctions that no longer matter

Today in Brussels, I sneaked into the kickoff seminar for the European Blogging Competition, at which about 90 bloggers and would-be bloggers, representing every European Union nation, are getting a crash course in E.U. politics and blogging techniques.

Good panelists, good Q&A. But oddly, one of the liveliest discussions revolved around this old question: Is blogging journalism? (It’s a question that, in my view, misses the point. Blogs are simply a platform, much like newsprint, on which journalism can be produced.)

What was really being discussed, I think, was the difference between independent and affiliated journalists, or between amateurs and professionals, or between traditional and non-traditional news sources. And there, the distinctions are increasingly hard to make.

To use U.S. analogies: Is a reporter for TechCrunch independent or affiliated? Is The Huffington Post amateur or professional? Should we trust a scoop on TPM Muckraker less or more than a scoop in the New York Post?

Some in the audience seemed set on drawing a line between the journalism produced by paid journalists working for traditional news organizations and that produced by “bloggers.”

People wrongly conflate “traditional” with “credible.” (Of course, a strong brand will always bring cachet, but there are new strong brands emerging all the time.)

In a few years, nobody will care whether a website has (or had) a legacy print or broadcast product attached. What matters in the long run is the quality of your work, as judged by your audience, and the credibility that quality brings you.

It took me a while to understand that.

+++
Also today: Nice talk on standing out in the blogosphere from Clo Willaerts, who crowdsourced her presentation in advance on Twitter.
+++

+++
The actual blogging in the European Blogging Competition (sponsored by the European Journalism Centre, where I interned 6 years ago) begins Feb. 1.
+++

The when-and-where

As the travel plans take shape, I’ll be keeping an updated version of my itinerary here.

I wanted to use Dopplr to make a pretty map for the itinerary, but I find its interface a little too constraining. At some point I’ll figure out how to make it do what I want, but in the meantime a boring outline will have to do.

Incidentally, you can follow me on Twitter, or you can see a combination of my Twitter posts, blog entries and Delicious bookmarks on my Tumblelog.