Desperate metaphors indeed

2 12 2009

At the Federal Trade Commission’s session on the future of journalism Tuesday, Arianna Huffington gave a speech defending and acclaiming the new media, entitled, “Desperate Metaphors, Desperate Revenue Models, and the Desperate Need for Better Journalism.” As usual, she is witty and cogent.

Later that day, Alexander Howard posited on the Huffington Post a desperate metaphor of his own: new media as the Protestant Reformation.  His point is that just as Martin Luther removed the priestly intermediaries between the faithful and the divine, the new media have freed news consumers from the filters and interpretations of the traditional media. Now, just as Protestants can go straight to Scripture and interpret it on their own — and just as they are encouraged to have a personal, direct relationship with their God — so, too, can consumers go directly to sources and have the power to dig out facts and interpret them on their own.

Howard acknowledges at the outset that he is treading dangerous ground — mainly for the religious implications of his analogy. But I think it suffers more from a grandiose point of view about new media and the “reform” it is bringing. I have yet to be convinced of the qualitative improvement new media brings to journalism. There is precious little news gathering done exclusively in new media that meets the standards of traditional journalism for research, fairness, balance, objectivity and separation of fact from opinion.

A more appropriate historic analogy may be found some 70 years earlier than Martin Luther’s 95 Theses — with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. New media is the result of a technology that gave the masses access to and dissemination of information previously available only to an elite. What they did with the printed word, and whether is was for good or evil, was unrelated to the technology.

Getting a little jaded on the future of journalism, are we?

1 12 2009

From MediaMemo by Peter Kafka:

Another day, another “future of journalism” panel. Actually, this one, hosted by the Federal Trade Commission, is a two-day event, and the title pretty much lets you know where it’s going here: “From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” Most of the usual suspects will be there …

UPDATE: Kafka’s jaundiced view appears to be justified. According to this AP report of the FTC session, few really new ideas or proposals came out.

Counterpoint to death watch for newspapers

28 10 2009

Jonathan Knee of the Media Program at Columbia Business School opines in Barron’s that newspapers are doing just fine.

Until recently, many newspapers had profit margins exceeding 30%. By 2008, the industry’s average margin had fallen to the mid-teens. The speed and magnitude of this decline have resulted in wrenching changes in the way these historically stable businesses must operate.The continuing drama shouldn’t distract from real earnings power. Many newspapers still have almost double the profitability of other media sectors, such as movies, music and books — which have long struggled to achieve margins of even 10%.

Knee concedes that the Internet has hurt newspapers and that Web media deliver value that newspapers can’t match. But he notes that the downside to the Internet is information overload and says newspapers may or may not play a key role in guiding customers through the cacaphony. It depends on whether they join the race for solutions to finding and identifying credible, balanced, and researched content on the Web.

THE NEWSPAPER OF TOMORROW will indeed be very different in terms of how it is produced and delivered, what is in it, and how profitable it is. It will be part of a much more crowded and complex news and information ecosystem.

Operators must aggressively focus on cost and cooperation, designing truly distinctive offerings that leverage their advantages in this newly competitive landscape.

Policymakers currently have plenty of legitimate targets of their attention without worrying about the fate of newspapers or trying to keep change from happening. If they keep out of the way, news junkies in particular should anticipate an era of unprecedented plenty. And investors will be well-rewarded by backing managers who appreciate the continuing, if diminished, profit potential of this new environment.


Conceive and publish a magazine in 24 hours

25 09 2009

Both the content and the publishing accomplishment of the magazine Strange Light are awesome.

Strange Light PreviewI had heard about the Australian dust storm on NPR, which almost did it justice through audio alone, but these photos are incredible.

More incredible is this account of how Publisher Derek Powazek got the 40-page magazine out just 24 hours after the event itself. As Rex Hammock points out, discussion of the future of magazines usually revolves around the mundane issues of business model and revenue, rarely addressing radical innovation in format. This is an eye-opening example of the potent future of the magazine medium.

J-schools sitting out debate over journalism’s future?

28 08 2009

During the accelerating decline of journalism as we knew it, I have always assumed that some of the best minds were working furiously in our leading journalism schools on the solution and that any day now, they would start leading us to the future.

Not so much, according to Ernest Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School.

He points out that at the Kerry hearings in May, not a single journalism professor testified.

Their absence points to a serious underlying problem with journalism schools and the profession more broadly — journalism schools are not adequately engaged with the great public debates over the future of their core sector.

Business school educators are regularly interviewed on NPR or in national business magazines about the state of business education, and its contribution to the crisis in confidence in business ethics and economic performance. Medical school professors are similarly engaged with their relevant publics. Not so with journalism teachers.

Yet arguably, the performance of journalism schools has something to do with the current sub-par performance of the profession. And the performance of journalists working in independent, high quality media has a lot to do with the fate of our American democracy. As journalism professors and deans set their priorities for 2009-2010, the invisibility of J-schools should be near the top of our agenda, otherwise we risk paying a terrible price for our inattention to the big picture beyond our classrooms.

To be fair, many J-schools and their auxiliaries are working hard on the issues. It’s more a lack of visibility that lack of effort, he notes. Certainly, great thinking is going on by the likes of Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky at NYU and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou. mu-home-logo

Still, as an institution, journalism education remains relatively silent. The New York Times reported in April on J-schools trailing the transformation of their industry. I opined then that it had much to do with populating the faculty with washed out journalists.

Maybe that was harsh, but Wilson also points out that J-schools largely have yet to grasp the urgency of the situation — a fault of living out the past rather than envisioning the future. Second, professors need to inform their teaching through more contact with the journalists in the trenches rather than falling back on the way they used to do it. Third, Wilson says, the schools need to move toward rigorous and relevant academic research  — again a call for future orientation. Finally, J-schools need to expand the conversation. They’ve been too inwardly focused. It’s no longer about journalism only; it’s now about democracy and societal transformation.

Latest potential savior for newspapers: The Big Kindle

4 05 2009

Big KindleFrom The New York Times Sunday:

But it is Amazon, maker of the Kindle, that appears to be first in line to try throwing an electronic life preserver to old-media companies. As early as this week, according to people briefed on the online retailer’s plans, Amazon will introduce a larger version of its Kindle wireless device tailored for displaying newspapers, magazines and perhaps textbooks.

Watching Boston Globe developments with ambilvalence

4 05 2009

I can’t help rooting for a solution, however temporary, to keep the Globe on life support. It’s hard to imagine Boston without the Globe. But it’s become a shadow of itself, and the current concessions that the New York Times Co. is forcing on the Newspaper Guild can only accelerate the death spiral.

Note the lukewarm vote of confidence from the newspaper’s publisher:

While negotiations with the paper’s smaller unions have been relatively productive, the Guild, representing such a large and diverse group, has had to overcome deeper divisions. Still, most Guild members felt something would be worked out to avoid closure, according to Globe employees, and an email Thursday from Globe publisher Steven Ainsley lifted their hopes.

“By all accounts the talks have been substantive,” Mr. Ainsley wrote, adding that he thinks “we’ll emerge from this difficult period in better shape than when we entered it.”

On Sunday night, the Guild said that after “arduous deliberations” it had exceeded management’s demands for $10 million in cuts. “These tremendous sacrifices, across virtually all categories of compensation and benefits, are more than adequate to continue The Boston Globe’s mission of quality journalism,” the Guild said in its statement.

Viewing the situation as a “difficult period” from which we can emerge is part of the problem. It’s the end of the era for newspapers, and what will emerge for journalism has yet to take shape. But now is the time for creative evolution, not the prolonging of death throes.

I love newspapers and journalism, and I admire the commitment and courage of those still fighting the good fight. But you can’t cost-cut your way out of this problem. The work must be done on the revenue side and in building a viable business model.

Boston is the home of some of the world’s greatest minds in technology and business. I’ve got to believe that if there is a future for journalism, it can be born here.

Newspapers and their Web sites, a deadly duality?

27 04 2009

Jeff Sonderman has an interesting post about how difficult it is to produce a great newspaper and a great community web site at the same time, and how the attempt is killing newspapers.

He makes some good points from an insider’s perspective. I like to see someone thinking about compromise rather than the usual rants of traditional vs. online news media, even with the great challenges Sonderman lists:

Production and planning. A lot goes on behind the scenes at a daily news organization. The major meeting of the day comes in late afternoon to plan what stories go on what print pages for the next day. In a web-centered newsroom, you might have that meeting at 6 am to be on top of the morning traffic peak. Tough choice: schedule your day and planning around the 24-hour web cycle or the daily morning print cycle? You can’t really do both (unless you just meet all day, which is even worse).

• Staff specialties. A web-centered newsroom would have a team of web developers working constantly on special projects and beta experiments. In reality, most newsrooms are lucky to have one or two people capable of this, and even then they may not be given the time or freedom to innovate. Tough choice: spend salary on a print copy editor or a web developer. You can’t do both.

• Writing style and content focus. Most newspaper-based news organizations are still writing “newspaper stories” and posting them online. It’s what they know. A web-focused organization, however, would rarely write a single long block of words to tell a story. We would focus on shorter, conversational-style, blog-like entries — heavy on links and embedded media. Tough choice: write for a print style audience or a web community. You can’t really do both well.

However, more is killing newspapers than the Web. The business model is antiquated on many levels, and the death spiral started before even a few people turned to the Web for news.

NYT: J-Schools playing catch-up

20 04 2009

Across the country, professors are hustling to figure out how to teach journalism at a time when the field is undergoing  a sweeping transformation.

“Catch-up” is right. This seems awfully slow on the uptake. Or maybe that’s  the Times more than the j-schools.

Last month, CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism told students they no longer had to commit to a track. “All media become one,” Jeff Jarvis, the director of its interactive program, wrote in a blog post.

That’s getting there, but again, this has been the obvious trend for  a decade. There’s a problem with populating j-school faculties with washed-out journalists.