Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Zero Game

This is really about John Paton, Alan Mutter, Robert Picard, and the economy of journalism. But first, a segue:

I knew, when I felt no need to grab my iPhone and immediately post a comment such as "NOOOOOOOO" at the end of Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones" -- I'm trying not to be a spoiler, but has anyone who watches this show not heard about this episode yet -- that there's nothing worthwhile I could ever say about social media. I did the traditional thing -- my wife and I talked about it -- and she talked about it at work with another fan. No need for endless posted speculation about how could they do this! and will anyone keep watching! and the like. I could have posted something like, well, that's really using the old Bean, but -- to what point?

And then, of course, I write about it here. One could drive a truck through the contradictions in self-expression that exist in a world where everyone has a printing press. Entertainment Weekly provided actual journalism on the episode, talking to the star and the producers about the surprising turn. Except, of course, that it wasn't surprising to anyone who has read the books, or a synopsis of them, and has seen how faithfully the plot has been followed. So were the gasps of "NOOOOO" authentic gasps of surprise, or were they anticipated gasps, or were they attention-provoking exhalations simply to position oneself in the conversation? That's always been a problem with journalism -- we say we report the truth, but in damn few cases do we actually know it. What we know is what people say, and we try (sometimes) to line that up against what other people say and some things that are actually Known Facts, and then we say it has worth and (we used to say) people should pay someone to have it delivered to them, or someone should subsidize us for gathering an audience.

But now comes John Paton, widely hailed as a visionary for his digital-first emphasis at the formerly broken-down (let's be honest, still broken-down) Journal Register newspaper chain. Paton was given a weak hand to play and has played it well -- he has not only kept his neglected newsrooms afloat, but has made efforts to strengthen them, unlike the previous ownership, which cared about profit only, and has positioned himself as a 21st-century media guru. Alan Mutter, the well-regarded "Newsosaur" who has been one of the leading critics of the slow pace of media adaptation to a digital world he feels he was among the first to see, feels Paton has gone too far, though:

"Here’s what Paton said in remarks prepared for a keynote speech last week to the WAN-IFRA International Newsroom Summit in Zurich: 'As career journalists and managers, we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.'

"Explaining that the digital media have empowered everyone, everywhere to report or comment on the news, Paton pronounced 'traditional journalism' to be dead, according to a text of the speech he published at the blog he maintains to motivate the employees of his company. 'The Crowd collectively knows more about any subject, city or event we choose to cover than we do.'"

Mutter has not been among the "conversation" zealots or the "Stop the Presses immediately" crowd -- he has tried to base his views in economic analysis as much as in post-Internet journalistic theory or anger at plodding executives who didn't increase his web-news budget 150 percent every year because it would chip away at classifieds. But Paton is not breaking new ground. Media analyst Robert Picard largely said this in a speech at Oxford in 2009 called "Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay." Some excerpts:

"If one assesses the value that journalistic practice and skills creates, one rapidly comes to the conclusion that journalists are not knowledge workers, that is, they are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such professors, medical personnel, and engineers or even electricians and computer technicians. Consequently, they are unable to create value through the scarcity of and control over professional knowledge. Journalists instead gather and convey knowledge from others. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others.

"Today the value created by the practice, functions, and skills of journalism are being severely challenged. The fundamental challenge comes from technology that is deskilling journalists. It is providing individuals the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively without the support of a journalistic enterprise. Well‐paying employment requires that workers possess unique skills, abilities and knowledge. It also requires that the labour must be non‐commoditized.

"Unfortunately, journalistic labour has become commoditised. Professionalism of journalism and journalism education have determined the values and norms of news, commoditized the product, and turned most journalists into relatively interchangeable information factory workers. Average journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. Few journalists encounter skills‐related problems changing from one news organization to another and the average journalist is easily replaced by another. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special skills (such as enhanced ability to cover finance, science, and health) are able to command higher wages. Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation.

"This problem is compounded because the uniqueness of their skills and activities are diminishing and that there is high competition to provide the news and information from persons outside the journalism profession.

"It is clear that journalists do not want to be in the contemporary labour market, much less the highly competitive information market. They prefer to justify the value they create in the moral philosophy terms of instrumental value. Most believe that what they do is so intrinsically good and that they should be compensated to do it even if it doesn't produce revenue."

Indeed, as Mutter said:

"Even if, arguendo, there were no 'commercial value' to journalism, the pursuit of disciplined and open-minded inquiry into public affairs and social issues has an incalculable value to society. Whether they are working for a media company or blogging for free, ethical and professional journalists contribute just as much as artists, scientists, academic researchers and people who dedicate themselves to fighting to assure honest government, enhance social justice and alleviate human suffering."

Which is exactly Picard's point -- and probably Paton's. Maybe there is, but it has to be created.

Although Picard did not have a concrete answer, he did show a direction -- one in which Paton does not go, from Mutter's synopsis:

"If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re‐report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences. ... It is not just a matter of embracing uses of new technologies. Journalists today are often urged to change practice to embrace crowd sourcing, to search specialty websites, social networks, blogs and micro‐blogs for story ideas, and to embrace in collaborative journalism with their audiences. Although all of these provide useful new ways to find information, access knowledge, and engage with readers, listeners, and viewers, however, the amount of value that they add and its monetization is highly debatable. The primary reason is that those who are most highly interested in that information and knowledge are able to harvest it themselves using increasingly common tools."

Which brings us to an editorial in this month's Editor & Publisher that I can't find online:

"Newspapers still own a solid competitive advantage over the Internet, but this advantage is slipping as newspapers play to the level of their competition and adapt to what everyone else is doing, instead of vice versa ... Newspapers that make the gutsy move away from day to day headlines -- news that is being disseminated better and faster online -- and focus on strong investigation and intelligent intrigue may be the ones that succeed in reintroducing themselves to subscribers willing to pay for breadth rather than immediacy."

As TTPB has repeatedly said: You need to find out who your customers are. You need to understand that your customers are not yourself. You need to create a pipeline to those customers that you control the spigot, because without that you cannot price. Simply trying to be part of "the conversation" is a doomed enterprise for a business or for most journalists, because much of the theory of "the conversation" is a rebuke to journalism as a business, a desire for a noncommercial agora of ideas, and most journalists do not have the ability to create an individually economically scalable presence.

Perhaps Mutter now sees better where some of this is going -- which is not the way he wanted it go to.

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