Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is This a Corner, and Is It Being Turned

There was long a saying: Newspapers are like elephants. It may take them forever to move in a meaningful way. When they finally do, get out of the way.

The fact that the Times paywall has actually been successful -- at least in the short run -- seems to have brought people's courage back.

So read this. It's long, it's sometimes difficult, and it takes forever to get through the anecdotal lede -- but read it. And then ask yourself: Is our "digital strategy" really the right thing?

There are so many highlights here. Among them:

"In the debate over journalism’s future, the [future-of-news] crowd [Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, John Paton, Jay Rosen, etc.] has had the upper hand. The establishment is gloomy and old; the FON consensus is hopeful and young (or purports to represent youth). The establishment has no plan. The FON consensus says no plan is the plan. The establishment drones on about rules and standards; the FON thinkers talk about freedom and informality. FON says “cheap” and “free”; the establishment asks for your credit card number. FON talks about “networks,” “communities,” and “love”; the establishment mutters about “institutions,” like The New York Times or mental hospitals. ... The consensus believes that reporters and editors must enter into deep, if not constant, contact with readers via social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. The consensus favors “iterative” journalism—reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way—versus traditional methods of story organization, fact-checking, and copyediting; it favors spontaneity and informality over formal style and narrative forms."

"FON’s practical prescriptions—what it calls engagement with readers—have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time." "Seeing news as a commodity, and a near valueless one (Paton above says its value is“about zero”), is a fundamental conceptual error, and a revealing one. A commodity is the same in Anniston, Alabama, as it is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Whatever local news is, it’s not that.

"As a consequence, fon thinkers have derided subscription pay walls as old-think by a generation that just doesn’t get it. Shirky and Jarvis, in particular, vocally dismissed The Wall Street Journal’s early successful pay wall (a then-heretical, now-vindicated decision made by Dow Jones’s then-CEO Peter Kann), then the Financial Times’s successful pay wall (financial news, somehow, is not a commodity; it’s magic), and other spot successes as anomalies. Nor did they hesitate to point to the collapse of TimesSelect, The New York Times’s early experiment in 2005.... But now look: the new Times paywall, a metered system allowing some free access, but charging for unlimited use, is working. After just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website, far ahead of projections. As Advertising Age noted, combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook subscribers and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another roughly 765,000 print subscribers registered their accounts online.)"

"We can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that “information wants to be free” (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information’s value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, “walls,” don’t fit into a networked vision. It’s worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn’t to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it. The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it."

"Journalism needs its own institutions for the simple reason that it reports on institutions much larger than itself. It was The New York Times and Gretchen Morgenson, followed quickly by Bloomberg’s late Mark Pittman, who first pried loose the truth about the bailout of American International Group: namely, that it was all about Wall Street, led by Goldman Sachs. Those tooth-and-nail battles were far from fair fights—Goldman’s stock-market capitalization is about fifty (that’s “five-oh”) times that of the Times’s parent. Whether it be called The New York Times or the Digital Beagle, we must have organizations with talent, traditions, culture, bureaucrats, geniuses, monomaniacs, lawyers, health plans, marketing divisions, and ad salespeople—and they must have the clout to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs, the White House, and local political bosses." (And yes, TTPB was saying this back in 2009.)

"In the second decade of the twenty-first century—thanks in no small part to FON thinkers, including, sad to say, Rosen—journalism is now enslaved to a new system of production. Publishing is now possible all the time and in limitless amounts, forever and ever, amen. And, given the market system, and the way the world is, that which is possible has quickly become imperative. Suddenly, the “god” of the old twenty-four-hour news cycle looks like lovely Aphrodite compared to the remorseless Ares that is the web “production routine.” And this new enslavement—trust me here—hurts readers far more even than it does the reporters who must do the blogging, tweeting, podcasting, commenting, and word-cloud formation until all hours of the day and night. This is why, IMHO, journalism is great these days at incremental news, not so good at stepping back and grabbing hold of the narrative. In some circles, this is frowned upon.
"The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime. Indeed, if one were looking for ways to undermine reporters in their work, FON ideas would be a good place to start:
• Remind them, as often as possible, that what they do is nothing special and is basically a commodity.
• Require them to spend a portion of their workday marketing and branding themselves and figuring out their business model.
• Require that they keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.
• Prematurely bury/trash institutional news organizations.
• Promote a vague faith in volunteerism.
• Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too."

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