If anyone’s wondering why people turn to comedians for their news and editorial commentary, watch Russell Brand take the “Morning Joe” crew to the woodshed. Skip ahead to around the 4 min mark if you’re in a rush.
This morning Wired’s Epicenter blog is running an interesting piece: Five Things Google Could Do For Newspapers. There’s some pretty interesting stuff in there, but my fear is that all of the suggestions are merely handwaving unless papers deal with the real problem – they don’t actually print enough real news. Newspapers made bets in the 90s and into the 00s that served (essentially) to divest themselves of the business of publishing the news, in many cases preferring wire services for the majority of news content. What (many) newspapers have become are reprinters of wire copy padded by a myriad of opinion, editorial, and marginally ethical fluff “journalism”.
What Google should do is to set up a fund to help struggling newspapers re-staff their news divisions and a deeply discounted consulting wing to help owners – who have made the bad decisions that got us where we are today – understand that their only real commercial value springs from factual reporting.
Mitch Joel wrote an interesting post today to which I want to respond, but my response was longer than a blog comment so I’ve written it here.
Mitch notes six interesting questions that media companies should ponder, and then follows up with this: “why don’t traditional media companies create a new physical area (how about an office space away from everyone else) and set-up those interested in the above challenges and questions. Let them spend a few months tinkering and experimenting.”
I suspect that it’s going to take a lot more than sitting people in a room to work out the new model. That’s not because it’s so difficult, but rather because a) a lot of that work has already been done – by the NY Times, notably; and b) some of those dollars are just gone.
The problem for most media companies – particularly paper-based media companies – is that they no longer have a platform to build upon. Readers (and advertising dollars) are leaving, and have been leaving for years – and companies are hamstrung. They think it’s “the internet” that’s done it to them, but they’re wrong – it’s their reaction to new media over the course of 10 or more years that has put them where they are today.
Sure, some of the dollars are simply gone. Consider newspapers. A Big Guy at a major Canadian broadsheet mentioned to me several years ago that the classified ad business – which accounted for over a third of overall revenue at such papers – was dead, due to Craigslist. Newspaper people have known that a major revenue source was drying (or had dried) up for years now, and they did almost nothing about it.
That’s the past now. Those dollars have fled, and there’s likely nothing to do about that. It’s still significant, though, because right off the bat the pot is that much smaller.
As far as the rest of it goes, I actually don’t think it’s that difficult. The traditional media outlets have to understand their unique value proposition, the same as any company selling a product or service. For any content business on paper, that value is in the editorial quality, and when those properties are good, they do things that no one else – and particularly not blogs – can do as well as they can.
For me, that’s in-depth, factual reporting. NOT opinion, op-ed, or columnists – in a blog world, no one gives a damn about some former reporter’s opinions on anything (except maybe politics, where a reporter’s history of access to political players gives a clear value add).
The nice thing about news and investigative reporting is that it serves as a platform – by opening up the archives making sure everything is searchable and directly linkable (with human-readable links), a company starts creating value that it can leverage. Gravitas has value. Being the organ of record has a real value.
That value can be packaged online by editors who take that work and develop collections, but also by leveraging the blogs discussing those stories. Make it simple for bloggers to refer to stories – and have their opinions linked FROM the source of the reporting (automatically via trackback or through other means). The Montreal Gazette and La Presse should be THE definitive source for information on any subject in Montreal over the past 50 years. Until they take steps to become that source, that reference, I don’t think there’s much that they can do to stem the tide.
For me, print media have over-invested in opinion, columnists, and light non-reporting journalism, and that they did so as a direct reaction to the expanding media market that the Internet represents. What they didn’t understand is that the value of opinion journalism goes down, not up, when opinion writing proliferates (as it has with the rise of blogging). They made a bet starting over a decade ago – and it was exactly the opposite of the bet they should have made.
(Note that this assumes that Canadian newspapers are having the same problems as they are in the US – the last I read, Canadian dailies are holding their own, and the Canadian magazine market seems as healthy as ever).
My friend Craig Silverman has written a post with some great advice for freelance journalists trying to develop their career in difficult economic times: Freelancing the future. He came to this in response to a post by Adrian Monck, who has been making the case recently that journalism is not at fault for the decline in newspapers.
Monck is almost certainly right, and Craig’s advice is really good advice – not just for freelance journalists but for any independent consultant-type person trying to get things going. But it’s the business side of the news media business that has and continues to screw everything up, IMO. When the net came along, they said, “look, blogs are great, everyone wants more opinion and context” and went ahead and gutted their news reporting function in favour of more opinion, more columnists, more of what the blogosphere was doing very well from it’s inception.
The problem is – that was the exact opposite of the bet they should have made. Opinions are like noses – everyone has one – and no one gives a damn if it’s some “journalist” (whose publisher likely sold him/her out long ago) who has written the opinion piece. On any conceivable subject, I can go out into the blogs and find at least one if not a dozen writers with more experience, more context, and more knowledge about a subject than any journalist has.
What we need – and by “we” I mean society at large – is honest, exhaustive, factual reporting. Newspapers should have (and should be) increasing their reporting budgets and decreasing their spend on columnists and opinions. I do want more opinion and context – but the last place I want to go to get it is a newspaper.
The most recent member of the “our archives are more valuable open than closed” group among the traditional media is Sports Illustrated, which has opened the SI Vault. You can now read 54 years of Sports Illustrated history at your leisure.
Like many, I’m pretty skeptical about big network led efforts to bring their TV and other content online, but still kind of optimistic. So it was with interest that I read John Battelle’s post Hulu Is Up at Searchblog. His conclusion? “This is a big step.”
A response, in three screen captures:
Journalist Mark Glaser, host and editor of MediaShift, has published a fantastic post: Traditional Media Ready to Elevate the Conversation Online. It’s all about how the so-called mainstream media has been trying to adapt to a media environment in which discussion and audience commentary is ubiquitous. It turns out there is starting to be a bit of a consensus around best practices, though these are far from universal yet.
is that the New York Times will stop charging for TimesSelect, offering the whole paper free online. They say the subscription program was a success, but that they noticed the potential of advertising growth to be greater than subscription growth (which is what most said two years ago, but whatever – better late than never). The key to this, of course, is that the Times still does reporting, unlike most regional or city newspapers that have largely abdicated this function to the wire services.