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Growing realization that news outlets are more in ad business than news business likely to shake-up journalism 7/16/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Advertising revenues.

Journalism and advertising have had an uncomfortable relationship for the past century. Journalism doctrine dictates that those writing news be completely independent from advertiser pressures, so that readers get a pure stream of unadulterated truth. Of course, journalists have made the same demand for independence from everyone else — the government, businesses, even their own management. And the nature of the threat is a little hard to understand, given that the chances of newspapers writing an article that impacted any particular advertiser on a day-to-day basis always seemed pretty small.

But as Terry Heaton points out, with growing financial pressures on traditional media, it is becoming clear that they have been more in the advertising business than the news business all along. Traditional media companies today are suffering, not because new forms of media are taking away readers, but because they are taking away advertising. Having lost their oligopoly control of the limited number of distribution channels advertisers could use to reach consumers, traditional outlets will be under increasing pressure to tailor their publications to provide exceptionally good exposure opportunities for advertisers. Journalists’ independence from advertisers will be seen as a luxury from an age when traditional outlets had more power over advertisers than they ever will again.

Who says Old Media won’t become the leaders in New Media? 7/14/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Old media.

At an off-the-record session at the Sun Valley big-wig conference, Internet pioneer Mark Andreesen is quoted as saying ‘If you have old media, you should sell…If you own newspapers, sell. If you own TV stations, sell. If you own a movie studio, sell.” If that’s true, what in New Media should one buy?

It does seem that all these media will ultimately converge onto the Internet, so perhaps the printing presses, broadcast towers, and movie distribution networks will become obsolete. But, someone has to produce the content. And right now, the content leaders are all in Old Media. The most successful New Media company, Google, produces essentially no content. The mammoth blog the DrudgeReport produces virtually no original content. Facebook and Myspace produce micro content for friends and relatives.

Do we really expect that all of our preferred content will suddenly come from amateurs engaged in social computing? It seems like some professional class will need to be involved, and to date that class still resides in Old Media, still working for the big Old Media brands. So until that professional class moves, perhaps it is not yet time to sell.

Is new technology being oversold as the key to future newsroom success? 7/13/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Technology.
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Ryan Thornburg conducted a survey of online journalists at North Carolina newspapers, and was surprised to find that they rated traditional newsroom concepts like time pressure, attention to detail, and news judgment higher than new technology topics, like awareness of new technology and online community management.

These results do not surprise me, as we seem to have entered a new phase in technology in which journalists can afford to use it more, but think about it less. Content Management Systems (CMS) are maturing and becoming more usable, allowing journalists to function with fewer technical skills. Adding graphics and podcasts similarly has become much easier. And with each passing day, it seems like social computing is not going to revolutionize the mainstream news business as much as originally thought, with readers still preferring the work of professionals over amateurs.

All of this is good news, because it means that journalists need not be distracted by technology from the job they really have to do – cater to the interests of readers and – for better or worse – advertisers. And given their need to develop new business models that include more original content, technology is a distraction they can do without.

“Real journalism” is not about exposing what is hidden, but what diminishes individual rights 7/11/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Journalism.
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The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) appropriately praises the NY Times for exposing a rent control scandal involving powerful Democrat Charlie Rangel, even though the Times is generally perceived as a Democrat-friendly paper. Less appropriately, they go on to condemn blogs for not having the same instincts to publish such stories because “they too often pursue personal agendas, or partisan ones.” Actually, the partisan instincts of blogs have led to many such hits on powerful politicians, including Sen. Trent Lott, Sen John Kerry, and Attorney General Gonzalez.

But of greater concern is that the CJR calls this type of journalism — exposure of personal matters that politicians are trying to hide — “real journalism.” But, is it? Yes, the Founders certainly wanted newspapers to attack politicians, but not because of the bad things they might do in their personal lives. Rangel’s sweet deal with rent control apartments wreaks of corruption, but it is hard to say that it is particularly harmful to the nation. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was despicable, but had done no discernible damage to the Republic.

The Founders were not particularly concerned about what politicians were hiding, but what they might do to infringe upon the individual rights of our citizens – their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. When politicians call for reinstatement of radio’s proven speech-suppressing Fairness Doctrine, the Founders would have considered it to be “real journalism” for papers to attack this position, whether it was declared in a dark closet or on the floor of Congress. Similarly, newspapers should have been at the forefront in the attacks on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill which eliminated speech against politicians in the 60 days before an election. Journalists often would be fulfilling their responsibilities to the American experiment better by reporting on issues like these that are hiding in plain sight.

News or entertainment? What to make of “crowd-powered” sites like NowPublic and Truemors? 7/10/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Citizen journalism.
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A lot of hard-to-categorize news-related sites have been popping-up in the last couple of years. “Crowd-powered” NowPublic provides news from eyewitnesses using their own digital cameras and mobile phones. And now they’ve acquired Truemors, a year-old web site that tracks rumors and vouches for their credibility. NowPublic co-founder Len Brody boasts, “We are now the largest user-generated news website in the world.” But, “so what?” unless all this user-generated content occupies a monetizable niche of the news business. Does it?

My hunch is that sites like NowPublic, should they succeed, might fill two different niches in the news industry of the future — and in neither case will they compete head-on with more mainstream news sites. First, if put in terms of food, they will fill a news niche somewhere between a “main meal” providing full nourishment and a titillating “snack.” Second, they may provide a good source of material for those “main meal” news providers of the future — news aggregators. All in all, there should continue to be a stronger market for news sites that do the work readers would rather not do themselves — sort out the most important news, and deliver the highest quality productions of it. (H/T: Larry Hallas)

If investigative journalism has a future, it will be on partisan news sites 7/8/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Investigative journalism.

Now that competition has been entering the news industry, it is becoming clear that while journalists might love investigative journalism, there is not much of a consumer market for it. If it were that popular, why would newspapers be devoting only perhaps 1% of their budgets to it per Jeff Jarvis, while its high expense makes it a juicy target for budget cuts?

But the decline of investigative journalism in mainstream outlets is not the tragedy that it might seem. When you actually investigate investigative journalism, you find that knowingly or not it is often used to achieve partisan ends. The Washington Post’s list of top newspaper investigations reveals the center-left establishment slant we’ve come to expect from mainstream media — private sector wrongdoing, people cheating the government out of tax money, sub-labor union quality working conditions abroad, corrupt and incompetent Republican administrations, and male sexism. We should expect more of the same from the new, purportedly “objective,” not-for-profit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, which is funded by Herbert and Marion Sandler — lefty billionaires who also provide substantial funding to the American Civil Liberties Union, Acorn, the left-wing think tank Center for American Progress, and MoveOn.org.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that (other than ProPublica’s lack of ideological transparency). America will be well served and will get valuable information from investigative journalists and their benefactors at partisan sites fulfilling their passion to make their opponents look bad. In fact, they will be better served than by mainstream media investigative journalists who try to be objective but lack the self-consciousness to realize their targets always seem to be the foes of the establishment.

Murdoch repeats strategy: WSJ’s “objective of being objective” mirrors Fox’s “fair and balanced” 7/7/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Murdoch, NYTimes, Wall Street Journal.
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In the cable news wars, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox New Channel famously launched while claiming to be “fair and balanced,” a none-too-subtle slam against CNN, which conservative viewers suspected of liberal bias. The strategy worked, splitting the market between left and right, and perhaps also pulling-in some liberal viewers who had no objection to news being fair and balanced.

Now it appears that Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal might be attempting a similar ploy as it positions itself as a rival to the New York Times for U.S. and international coverage. New Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson says that his journalists “have the objective of being objective,” adding “At The New York Times, you have news with a skew. Or a skew with news.” Not quite ready for an advertising jingle, but you get the point. The WSJ plans to seize the high ground for fairness and balance, shoving the NY Times into left field. Or at least, that’s Murdoch’s objective.

Newsroom diversity mongers should look for opportunities to re-create ethnic publications instead of counting layoffs by race 7/6/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in EthnicPublications.

Since there has been a long-term push in the newspaper industry to increase the number of minorities, I guess it’s not surprising there’s a movement to layoff minorities last. To me, it’s always seemed a bit racist to assume people would think or write differently based on the color of their skin, but let’s for a moment assume they do. Why not take advantage of minorities’ uniqueness to build audiences who share their worldview?

More than a century ago, many cities were flooded with a variety of newspapers in different languages, and designed for different ethnic groups. The cost of printing and the de-ghetto-ization of America made many of these papers vanish, but online publishing could once again allow them to be profitable. With more calls for imagination, and fewer cries about victimization, new news jobs for minorities might soon appear.

Newspapers’ terrible week illustrates need for “the suits” to lead their organizations to web-based models 7/3/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Online news.

Last week, Mark Potts chronicled the stunning recent staff losses in the newspaper industry, and today the NY Times added to the bad news, reporting that the LA Times is shrinking its newsroom by 150.

Yet as Timothy Egan points out, the audience and reach of newspapers have never been greater – it’s just that they are reading the Internet editions, which are free and more up-to-date. And, local advertisers should still be most interested in the most popular local sites, a position that many papers already hold. So, the only thing, but no small thing, keeping papers from returning to their historically high margins are costly resources not coverable by print revenues and not necessary for Internet revenues.

In the end, newspapers actually do have an opportunity to restore their traditionally high profit margins, but it comes down to three questions. First, will they shed their no longer helpful resources quickly enough? Second, will they be able to tell the difference between those resources that are helpful from those that are not? Since both of these questions are better answered by cold, calculating business people than by journalists, the third question is this. Will newspapers allow “the suits” to call the shots? That may be the difference between papers that survive and those that don’t.

Hyperlocal news shifting focus from journalists’ to readers’ interests, but ultimately advertisers’ interests will come first. 7/2/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Advertising revenues, Hyperlocal news.

It occurs to me that while much of the discussion in these days of newspaper cutbacks continues to be how to maintain content journalists want, those focused on hyperlocal news are focused on what readers want. For example, in this article by Steve Outing the hyperlocalists consider how to satisfy the news interests of a single person without kids to whom dog parks and train delays are the most important news items.

Focusing on readers is a step in the right direction, but not the final step. While it is painful for many journalists to hear, what will ultimately matter most in the no-paid-subscription, online-news-world to come is what is best for advertisers. If a train schedule can draw substantial advertising from the rail service or similar businesses related to train travel, it will be a candidate for inclusion. If dog park information can draw ads from sellers of pet products, it may also be a candidate. In journalism-think, news must be completely separate from the interests of advertisers. But in the emerging newspaper-business-think, in an environment where advertisers and not subscribers pay the bills, advertiser is king.

Hartford Courant should not be afraid to cut journalism by 25%, too 6/30/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in NewspaperCuts.
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Reading her column, you can feel the pain of Hartford Courant’s managing editor Barbara T. Roessner, whose paper needs to cut staff and newsprint by 25% to stay in business. The dramatic changes that will be made reveal her priorities, which largely make a lot of sense. There will be more emphasis on stories within Connecticut, exclusive stories which more directly affect readers’ lives. For similar reasons, there will be more local stories. And, only a small amount of space will be used for stories that don’t require much detail, leaving more space for those that do.

But her column also shows the tell-tale signs of push-back from journalism-thinking that could possibly get in the way of the paper’s survival. It seems axiomatic that their circulation declines must have something to do with readers being somewhat dissatisfied with the content, but it is unclear that the Courant is ready to consider the differences between what their journalists and their readers want. The column equates the shrinking number of newspaper pages devoted to the journalism that their own journalists “hold dear” with the fear of losing readers. The column also indicates that the Courant will “concentrate our best journalists on the work that has the greatest impact — aggressive investigative or ‘watchdog’ stories that unearth wrongdoing or reveal threats to your health and safety.” It cites a report on water quality as a “superb example.” Given the paper’s dire straits, shouldn’t the best staffers be focused on stories that have the most circulation impact, rather than societal impact? It may be tough medicine to swallow, but a paper in trouble must take its readers’ tastes more seriously than those of its journalists.

Brewing battle between AP and its member newspapers will make papers healthier and their readers happier 6/29/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in AP.
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Lost Remote reports that there is growing interest around the country in Ohio newspapers’ plans to side-step the Associated Press and share statewide news only among themselves, ensuring that their papers are the exclusive sources for their original stories. Some papers feel they are simply being taken advantage of by the AP. The editor of the Columbus (OH) Dispatch said “What has happened is we’re becoming the wire service for the wire service,” as the AP lifts their statewide stories and distributes them to others. Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, searched for a reason for being for his paper’s relationship with the AP, telling the Wall Street Journal, “If they’re our partners, they’re going to help us find ways to reduce costs. If they’re not our partners, they’re just vendors.”

If this trend catches on, it will be good for both these papers and for readers. The papers will be publishing more exclusive content, reestablishing their positions as indispensable news sources. Readers will benefit because more of the news they receive will be at the state rather than the federal level — news of education, roads, public services, and other areas that more directly affect their lives than most news out of Washington. Papers will be better off looking to their readers’ lives for inspiration than to Washington.

NBC.com set to transfer wealth from local TV affiliates 6/27/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Local affiliates, NetworkTV.
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Reuters quotes NBC TV Network President John Eck, “Next year the NBC.com service will generate tens of millions of dollars” in revenue “in a business that didn’t exist” a few years ago.

Where is this new found revenue coming from? Subscription fees? No. More spending from current advertisers? Seems an unlikely prediction in this economy. How about new advertisers, like the micro-advertisers Google has found in its keyword searches? That doesn’t seem likely either. In fact, the only reasonable source of large revenue seems to be a portion of the ad budgets of prime time advertisers, as more and more programs are downloaded or viewed on the web, bypassing local TV affiliates. Over time, there will be fewer and fewer viewers watching local TV for prime time programming, squeezing local TV revenues, while the networks no longer have to share prime time ad inventory with them. For the networks, this may be a business that didn’t exist a few years ago, but for local affiliates it will ultimately be a business that once did.

Maybe member newspapers should dissolve the AP, set-up news exchange instead 6/26/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in AP.
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It seems like AP member newspapers are finally beginning to understand that the AP monster they created has turned on its masters in the Internet environment. They give the AP their money and content. In exchange, they lose original content they might have had, while everyone in the world has immediate access to the same AP stories they do.

But, who is controlling whom here? Just about every member of the AP’s Board is a newspaper exec. If the AP isn’t working for them anymore, they could liquefy this not-for-profit for its assets, distribute the proceeds among the members, and create one or more organizations that do make sense in the age of New Media.

How about a news exchange, where the papers buy and sell articles among each other? Some of the more entrepreneurial papers could redeploy staff they might otherwise lay-off, and turn them into profit centers who create news for other newspapers. Some might even create articles that vary by worldview – from left to right – providing the other papers more choices to match their readerships than the traditional, center-left establishment worldview of the AP. Most importantly, since use of such an exchange would require out-of-pocket expenditures, it would force newspapers to think twice before offering anything other than their own, original content. Their focus should no longer be on the big national and international stories anyway, which have become a commodity, ubiquitous on the Internet. As the Wall Street Journal points out, newspapers in Ohio and Montana are beginning to experiment with cutting the AP out. But perhaps all papers would do better to simply cut the AP off.

Net neutrality proponents’ ideals as contradictory as French Revolution’s 6/25/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Net Neutrality.

Those of you who read my blog know that I am very much opposed to net neutrality legislation because I want the Internet to be as free of government control as newspapers. After all, freedom from government is what the First Amendment’s free speech and free press clauses are all about. It literally took an American revolution to rid our newspapers of government pressure. And our wimpy, pro-establishment, network news programming shows the tell-tale signs of an FCC licensing procedure requiring the networks every few years to prove to political appointees they are “good corporate citizens.” For an example of how hot political talk can be without such licensing requirements, watch cable news.

Government regulation always begins with a call from those who claim they are only trying to right some hard-to-argue-against wrongs, but whose consequences are poorly thought out. Today we learn of a new such party, InternetForEveryone.org, which has a mission so contradictory that it almost makes my head explode. Their ideals call to mind the French Revolutionists, who called for “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” not realizing that liberty and equality are incompatible — that making people equal requires liberty-suppressing force. The new group calls for guaranteed high speed Internet access for everyone (a basic right of all Americans, they say), lower usage prices, more competition, and more innovation. Tell me, if we force Internet providers to give access to everyone, then force them to charge less than the marketplace tells them they should, where will the money come from for innovation? And what would happen to the potential profits that might entice others to join in the competition? Guess it will have to come from taxpayers and that government will have to run the show. InternetForEveryone.org claims to be neutral on the net, but it is surely not neutral on government — they want a lot more of it.

Tim Russert: The Day Network News Died 6/24/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in NetworkNews, TimRussert.

This week at Pajamas Media, I suggest that just as the song “American Pie” marked the untimely death of rocker Buddy Holly as the day the music died, Tim Russert’s passing will be remembered as the day network news died. By all accounts, network news should have died a long, long time ago, when alternative media exposed the hollowness of CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s end-of-broadcast claim “that’s the way it is.” Tim Russert saved network news from our new scepticism by serving as network TV’s cheerful honest broker – a man with the rare ability to win the admiration of the Beltway, the Left, and the Right all at the same time. Now that he is gone, there is no one to replace him who is trusted by all, certainly not his fill-in, dino-anchor Tom Brokaw. Network news will not survive. Read more about it at PajamasMedia.com.

Maybe all that’s needed to turn around the news business is consumer marketing 6/23/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in NewspaperGrowth.
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These days there is the sense in the news industry that since Internet technology has been the cause of recent business problems, technology must also be the solution. This would seem to be the main reason the not-for-profit Tow Foundation is offering generous multi-million dollar grants to the j-schools at Columbia and CUNY.

But that’s not what I’ve been finding in my consulting work with newspapers seeking to survive and thrive in this challenging environment. Yes, technology has caused the disruption, but mostly because it has messed-up the key consumer benefit the papers’ have been offering. Newspapers were once the indispensable, first-read, must-read, exclusive source of the most compelling stories in their metro areas. The Internet has not made it impossible for newspapers to continue delivering this benefit in their online editions — it’s just that this benefit does not come naturally by being the only newspaper in a one-paper town. Restoring this consumer benefit is perhaps 90% about content, and 10% about technology – which is why we are more likely to see news’ business problems solved in newsrooms than at j-schools.

NBC’s step backward, replacing Russert with Brokaw, shows network news is at its end 6/22/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in NetworkNews, TimRussert.
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NBC has decided to take a step backward, replacing Tim Russert with dino-anchor Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press. Actually, the decision was made for them because a step forward, or even a step to the side, does not exist. Network news is over.

Tom Brokaw is a relic from the days America actually believed there was one right way to tell the news – the days when CBS’ Walter Cronkite ended his broadcasts, “that’s the way it is” and we actually believed him. But that myth could not survive the era of cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet, when we learned that what we were really hearing was the center-left voice of the Beltway establishment. In came Tim Russert whose unique talents allowed him to serve as network TV’s cheerful honest broker, earning the admiration of the Beltway, the Left, and the Right all at the same time. No one but Russert knew how to do this, and NBC’s next generation – the Chris Matthews’ and Keith Olbermann’s – alienate the Right. National news will now shift partisan, and will become the domain of fragmented cable channels and web sites. But don’t worry — this is the natural state of news in a democracy. America will be better for it.

Blogs are readers’ way of telling Old Media what they want that’s been missing 6/20/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Blogs.
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As Time Magazine points out, when blogs first came out there seemed to be a division of labor – Old Media broke news, while blogs dispensed opinion. But, that doesn’t really tell the story. Blogs dispensed opinion readers found lacking in fact-obsessed Old Media. Blogs offered style found lacking in the dull formulas of Old Media. Blogs projected a likeable personality and a sense of belonging found lacking in the anonymous and institutional style of Old Media.

Eventually, blogs began to provide storylines traditionally found lacking in Old Media. The media criticism that could take down a Dan Rather. The easily-missed remarks at a Strom Thurmond birthday that could take down a Trent Lott. The Swift Boat veteran attacks on media-preferred candidate John Kerry. The persistence that could unravel Attorney General Gonzales’ career. And recently, the willingness to flout journalism protocol, allowing citizen journalist Mayhill Flower to catch Obama diss rural Pennsylvanians and Bill Clinton badmouth someone who wrote an unflattering article.

So rather than spend time looking at bloggers and enumerating their differences, perhaps Old Media should simply be asking “why can’t I do that?”

Huffington Post’s metro expansion plans seem unlikely to work 6/19/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Uncategorized.

No question, Arianna Huffington’s “The Huffington Post” is a big success, ranked as the most visited or most linked-to blog, depending on which service you check. Before it was launched, I would have thought the market was already saturated for left-of-center positions of celebrities, but apparently not. In retrospect, it seems like there is also a market for ordinary people who want to feel like they are part of this club.

Historically, the Huffington Post reminds me of 18th century Paris, where some of the city’s finest hostesses held formal news groups called “salons,” named after the elegant reception rooms in which they were held. The best, brightest, and most connected were invited to share the most important news with other elites. One can imagine Arianna as a hostess, sporting an enormous and elaborate wig. And one can also imagine a few extra chairs in back where today’s HuffPo visitors might sit, gawk, and feel like they were part of an elite and superior in-crowd.

But now, the Huffington Post is talking about expanding into Chicago and perhaps other cities with skeletal staffs operating outside this formula. Encouraged by the work of a remarkable and unique “citizen-journalist” involved in a joint experiment with NYU Professor Jay Rosen, Arianna is looking to build a franchise out of breaking news using amateurs. Given that she was right and I was wrong last time, I would not count her idea out. But I do think her audience would much rather hang with celebrity know-it-alls than amateur gumshoes.