Saturday, February 28, 2009

Can newspapers be like mega-churches?

this post is not about religion, it's about media and how to pay for online news.

So the debate rages on about "micropayments" for news and other techniques to get Internet users to pay for news content, so that newspapers and other news entities get a nice supplemental revenue stream and don't go out of business as their legacy advertising businesses drop through the floor.

If you've followed my blog or seen my latest column at, you know that I believe any model that forces people to pay for website commodity news content and puts up barriers (no matter how small a payment might be) is not only destined to fail, but could bring down some already weakened newspapers.

But the voluntary pay-for-content model (I'm most impressed so far with the Kachingle network-of-content-sites approach) has a lot of people moaning, "Voluntary schemes will never bring in serious money and certainly won't save faltering newspapers."

My (perhaps unusual) response: Look to churches.

Well, I guess you can pray for business redemption if that's your thing, but I don't think that's going to help. But what I mean is that some churches are financial machines that are supported by voluntary donations from their members.

If people can be convinced to voluntarily give that much money to their church (they could let those collection plates slide by), I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that we can get news consumers to voluntarily pay a monthly fee — probably less than they give to those churches — to support their favorite news websites and blogs.

Why do church-goers fill the collection plates? And why do churches collect money in this manner? Obviously, there's the peer pressure; you don't want to embarrass yourself by putting nothing in the pot and having your pew neighbors notice!

So for a voluntary online content fee system to work, the news industry must apply similar persuasive techniques. If religious people value their churches enough to give regularly and significantly, I see no reason why we can't get citizens who care about staying informed to voluntarily support the news gathering industry when they come to understand that advertising alone can no longer sustain newspapers and their websites, and other forms of news outlets.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fight for your write

Lawyer and journalist Michael Geist's work centres around online copyright laws that are becoming increasingly important to journalists. Lora Grady investigates the problems and how Geist is delivering the solution.


by Lora Grady

This past June, then Industry Minister Jim Prentice introduced a bill on Parliament Hill that sparked debate across creative industries nationwide. Bill C-61, a reform on copyright legislation, could have potentially strangled the freedom of online journalists without them even realizing it. Fortunately, thanks to university professor, blogger and columnist Michael Geist, thousands were aware of the impending bill. When Geist heard of the proposal in December, 2007, he took to his blog, posted videos on YouTube and set up a Facebook group called Fair Copyright For Canada. Soon, Geist was everywhere, making appearances on CBC's The Hour and TVO's The Agenda. The bill didn't survive with the October election, but the debate made many realize Canada needs to update its decade-old copyright legislation. And now Geist is leading the pack of journalists seeking fair copyright laws.

As writers increasingly find their print articles published online, Geist wants to clear the confusion around internet law and what it means for journalism. Legislation like C-61 would prevent journalists from effectively conducting research and news gathering, and would squelch our freedom of expression. While the government struggles to keep up with ever-evolving internet law, Geist continues to fight to protect the rights of journalists to conduct news gathering and keep the public informed. He is armed with two master's degrees and a doctorate in law, and is the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. His technology columns appear weekly in the Toronto Star and Ottawa Citizen. As both a journalist and lawyer, Geist sees an urgent need to protect Canadians' rights to use the internet for freedom of expression. "It's often citizens who are performing journalistic activities who are the first and sometimes the most authentic source of information," says Geist. "People who are engaged in [journalism] ought to enjoy the protection that journalists traditionally enjoy." Geist sensed that online freedom was about to be seriously threatened a couple of years ago.

In fall 2007, rumours swirled around Ottawa that Prentice wanted to introduce legislation for anti-circumvention laws. Anti-circumvention prevents the circumvention of Digital Rights Management software placed on digital files (such as music or Word documents) by copyright holders. Under the copyright act, journalists are exempt from infringement under the Fair Dealing provision for the purpose of news reporting. But with the proposed legislation "everybody becomes a criminal, or at least an infringer," says Geist, "once they seek to pick that lock."

In a letter responding to Bill C-61, the Canadian Newspaper Association pointed out how it would road block the Fair Dealing provision: "Journalists who come across or are sent electronic documents (for example from a whistleblower) may be unable to use them without incurring very significant liability, even though there are no barriers on using the same materials in print format." By not including the right to access material for research or news reporting purposes, the bill restricted the liberties of Canadians engaged in online journalism. But this wasn't the only problem; the important issue of "throttling" was also conspicuously absent.

Last spring, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) filed a complaint to the CRTC accusing Bell of internet throttling. Bell was allegedly slowing the download and upload speeds of CAIP customers that rent portions of Bell's network to sell broadband services, forcing the providers to slow their own customers' speeds. However, the CRTC eventually ruled in Bell's favour. "If you're a well-established large broadcaster or media company, you're in a position to ensure that your content flows through on the fast track," says Geist. "If you're an independent media site, you might not be able to pay in so your content is stuck on the slow lane or throttled altogether." Geist says this means that sites such as, a not-for-profit independent journalism organization, could find people turning away from frustration over slow buffering and downloading speeds. Less traffic slowly turns into the end for these independent-voice productions.

After Geist blasted Prentice's proposals on his blog and in his columns, he took advantage of the mainstream media to further increase the awareness and other journalists acknowledge his contributions. Mathew Ingram, communities editor and former technology writer for The Globe and Mail, sees Geist's work as essential because he believes no one else is doing it. "Michael clearly felt that there was a hole there that needed to be filled," explains Ingram, "and he's certainly done a more than capable job of filling it." Toronto-based freelancer Ivor Tossell calls Geist stunningly effective in getting his message out to the masses. "He is a journalist and a source at the same time," says Tossell. "He's managed to make himself be the go-to guy for media comment on this topic." But others argue that Geist's overwhelming media influence isn't all positive.

Geist's constant appearance in the media has led to much eye-rolling and heavy sighs from people like Byron Holland who work on creating policies around internet law. Holland is the President and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) and says that "Because he writes in a paper, it gets taken as unbiased journalism," says Holland. "It's not journalism. It's Michael's opinion." Holland believes Geist uses forums such as conferences and panel discussions as stunts or props to get his own message across to the media without fully engaging in the process.

"He sits in an ivory tower and theorizes about the absolute perfections," remarks Holland, "and we work down here on the ground in the mud and trenches, having to deal with reality."

Still, Tossell sees Geist's opponents as merely frustrated. "The people on the other side of this are operating in policy and legal circles," continues Tossell, "and they're just not getting the same media attention." Geist does not censor comments on his blog, whether positive or negative and welcomes a healthy debate.

Ingram thinks that although internet law is on the government's backburner right now, and despite all the critics, Canadians need Geist more than ever. "Thanks to Geist, the government is more sensitive to those issues now," he says. "It's going to think a little harder about some of those things in the original legislation."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Online News Consumption: Strengthening the Fourth Estate or Devaluing Serious Journalism?

Janeen Heath, Pulitzer Center

Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic wrote in a recent article, "End Times": 

"If you're hearing few howls and seeing little rending of garments over the impending death of institutional, high-quality journalism, it's because the public at large has been  trained to undervalue journalists and journalism. The Internet has done much to encourage lazy news consumption, while virtually eradicating the meaningful distinctions among newspaper brands."

While many point blame at the decisions made by editors-in-chief to cut their staff and operations to stay afloat, eventually the finger blaming needs to point back to the source of the trend: that of consumer behavior. Did_you_knowConsumer demand is shifting more and more (12.1 percent growth in 2008, according to a new report by Nielsen Online for the Did_you_know2 Newspaper Association of America)  to the hyper-fragmented news and information populating the Internet at an exponential rate, abandoning traditional forms of news supply.

In the new digital media landscape it is a race to sustain operations, often by attracting advertising dollars, which puts the news quality at risk, for how does a supplier attract advertising dollars? By garnering high traffic numbers, or essentially, popularity?

Ann Derry, Editorial Director of Video and Television for The New York Times, said at a recent Google panel,  "Broadcasting the World: The New Ecosystem for News Online":

"Coming from a newspaper background, the advantage is you're not counting clicks, but you're actually looking at what the quality of the material is."

The reality of it is, unfortunately, that quality isn't necessarily providing the life support for most news producing outfits like it used to. With the advent of the Internet, people expect to get their news quick – and free.

News that is quick, and free, comes at a price – often paid for by low overhead, slashes in news quality, depth and diversity – and consumer trends are in part to blame for the demise of many well-respected and established news organizations.

But are we, as consumers, really prepared to sacrifice a strong fourth estate?

James Warren of wrote that information in itself is illuminating an otherwise dark world, and it's a service for which citizens must be willing to pay:

"The question is, how much light can you have if you aren't willing to pay to look into military hospitals in Washington, into those on Death Row in Illinois, into whether those wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toys made in China are safe, into the safety of school lunch programs, into whether people needlessly die on airplanes, or even just into whether there are obvious conflicts of interest on the local zoning board?"

While the big papers as watchdogs strengthened our democratic constitutional system, we're all wondering what is today's answer to sustaining serious journalism – in today's economic times, and with today's consumer consumption trends in mind.

Some suggest consumers should pay to sustain quality journalism. The British, after all, pay a tax to support their news services. But has this generation already gone too far in creating the expectation of free, quick news? Won't time-pressed consumers opt instead for quick information sources such as Wikipedia that offer a shallow, brief understanding at no cost?

Is today's online news landscape encouraging lazy news consumption?  Is this trend devaluing serious journalism? Will our democracy suffer as a result? And what can we all do about it, consumers or suppliers?

We'd love to hear your opinion. Click on the Comments tab below to share your thoughts.

Want to read more on the issue? See Pulitzer Center Director Jon Sawyer's speech, "Broken News: What Went Wrong, and How to Make it Right."

Also see "Where's the Profit?", a take on today's conversation and proposed remedies for the future of the journalism industry.

What Would Micropayments Do for Journalism? A Freakonomics Quorum

The notion of micropayments — a pay-per-click/download web model — is hardly a new one. But as a business model it hasn't exactly caught fire, or even generated more than an occasional spark.

Lately, however, the journalism community has become obsessed with the idea. This is what happens when an existing business model begins to collapse: alternative models are desperately invented, debated, attempted, rejected, etc.

In recent days we've seen Walter Isaacson, the biographer/pundit who used to edit TIME, write a TIME cover story in support of micropayments; in a Times Op-Ed, Michael Kinsley begged to differ; a not-quite-micropayment system for blogs, meanwhile, called Kachingle, will launch next month. In an interview, its founder, Cynthia Typaldos, says that she had the idea a few years ago but that "Newspapers weren't desperate enough … About a year ago, I said things are changing and now is the time to get going on this."

Where will all this lead? We asked a group of people who have given a lot of thought to micropayments — William Baker, Alan Mutter, Clay Shirky, and Marshall W. Van Alstyne — the following:

1. How would micropayments best work?
2. How possible is it that micropayments could be applied to the majority of online content, and how would this affect both online and print journalism?

Here are their answers.

Alan Mutter is on the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley; he's also a media/technology consultant and author of the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur.

"The widespread adoption of paid content among general-interest media would require a critical mass of publishers to agree to collaborate more earnestly, more broadly, and more smoothly than any group of humans in history."

It won't be easy for publishers to overcome the Original Sin of giving away their valuable content for free. But it could be done. Theoretically. The most logical way, as detailed here in my blog, is some sort of micropayment system. Here's how it would work:

Consumers would use their credit cards to fund accounts that would enable them to purchase online content through a system deployed at the largest possible number of participating websites. After a customer charged up her content-buying account, she could click a button to authorize payment whenever she wanted to watch a video, view a picture, listen to a podcast, or read an article.

One problem with this solution is that it wouldn't work for one publisher if a competing publisher decided to provide the same, or nearly identical, content for free.

The other gotcha is that content would have to be secured so that someone who bought it could not turn around and provide it to a friend or, worse, publish it on the web for free. Although protecting content for unauthorized use is a formidable technical problem, it has already been solved reasonably well by a number of companies.

Has it been successfully done?

While most publishers to date have declined to invest in the implementation of such systems, the few companies that sell content by subscription — ranging from Consumer Reports to Congressional Quarterly — have been successful in building loyal audiences and revenues. Very few publishers have tried to sell articles one at a time.

The amount of the charge per article would be up to individual publishers, but presumably would be kept to pennies, or even fractions of pennies, to encourage maximum readership. Consumers might not like being micro-nickled and nano-dimed for every article, but they would get over it if the content were sufficiently unique and compelling. Remember, this works only if the content is unique and compelling.

Although a specialized newspaper like The Wall Street Journal successfully has required subscription access to its entire website, the widespread adoption of paid content among general-interest media would require a critical mass of publishers to agree to collaborate more earnestly, more broadly, and more smoothly than any group of humans in history. Could it happen? Theoretically. But don't hold your breath.

What effect would this have on publications' online readership?

There naturally will be fewer consumers for online content requiring payment. On the other hand, publishers could require advertisers to pay premium rates to pitch their wares to this valuable, loyal audience.

What effect would it have on print publications?

Print-advertising sales generate the preponderance of revenues for most publications, and those sales subsidize the content published online by most newspapers and magazines. Because online ad sales produce only about 10 percent of ad revenues at the average newspaper, it would make sense for newspapers to try to get paid something for the content they publish on the web. They already charge for copies of the physical paper, even though this does not cover the full costs of production and delivery. With ad revenues falling by double-digit rates at most publishing companies, every little bit of new revenue would help.

Marshall W. Van Alstyne is an associate professor in the Information Systems department at Boston University and a research scholar at M.I.T.

"Putting micropayments on news is like putting tollbooths on an open ocean."

Micropayments won't solve newspapers' pay-or-perish problem, at least not under current proposals. There are many reasons why micro-scalping readers won't work, but let me start with two: the unique properties of information goods, and inefficiency.

News is not like an iTunes song; it's perishable. Today's front page is tomorrow's fish wrap, and we don't need to replay it. If anything, a reader benefits more from a second source than repetition from the first. Facts are delivered; songs and movies are created. Facts also can't be owned, so when the Internet places geographically dispersed media in direct competition, the price of facts falls to marginal cost. In digital markets, that's zero.

Micropayments introduce friction into an otherwise frictionless world. This means that no matter how efficient they become, it is more efficient to bundle. If a person makes one or two transactions with a news source, it's more efficient to aggregate lots of them and bill a single advertiser once. If a person makes frequent transactions, it's more efficient to aggregate those and bill that person once as a subscription. Any increase in micropayment efficiency improves bundling efficiency at least as much, because the gains accrue over more transactions.

Putting micropayments on news is like putting tollbooths on an open ocean. Internet users, awash in a sea of information, will avoid new barriers by navigating around them. And frankly, the interests of a free society are rarely served by building barriers between the people and their news.

Then how do we support great investigative journalism? Let me suggest three business models that just might work for newspapers and for users.

1. Bundle a media platform onto a technology platform. Charging technology vendors a modest flat fee to put ad-free content on cell phones, e-book readers, and laptops makes them more valuable and can cover a lot of market share. This is a bundling model that "feels" free: users pay no incremental unit cost for updated media they receive. It also eliminates ads.

2. Version and process information. Free ad-supported news can coexist with paid premium versions. Faced with a choice of an ad-supported free New York Times and a faster-loading, more graphics-rich version for $1/year, I suspect even digerati would choose to pay. The business question then becomes how to add enough novelty, speed, customization, community, and proprietary analysis to convert a $1 subscription into $10 or $150. Bloomberg charges for information processing on top of stock quotes and does just fine.

3. Invert the whole business. Use the friction of micropayments to solve a consumer problem and stem the flood of information from advertisers vying for their attention. Advertisers can bid for limited units of people's time. This increases ad revenues and helps match particular ads to particular people. Vendors will bid low to rent New York apartments to sports fans checking scores for the Oakland A's, but bid high to offer next week's tickets. Publishers need to give up on the idea of profiting from distribution and focus on the idea of matching people to content.

The trick is not to add new types of costs, but to add new types of value.

William Baker is an executive-in-residence at Columbia University who is investigating "new media business models," and is former C.E.O. of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, the licensee of Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21 New York.

"Consumers must learn to associate costs, even small ones, with regular access to reliable news."

Saving journalism in the U.S. is critical to our free society. In America, most of the serious reporting is done by newspapers which are in extreme economic distress.

With the 56,000 or so feet-on-the street journalists at the 1,400 plus newspapers, currently proposed models which involve only philanthropy will not work. It would take endowments of tens of billions of dollars. It would be an unthinkable Apollo project even before the current economic meltdown.

I see a combination of advertising, subscription, philanthropy, and micropayments to be a solution. It will take all of these as one segment grows and another shrinks to get us through this very dry desert.

Unfortunately, micro-payment models have not been thoroughly tested. The most successful subscription model is Consumer Reports, which has about four million paying online subscribers and another four million print subscribers. Consumer Reports takes no advertising. But the newspaper industry, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, has been hesitant to attempt that approach. I'm not sure why. I have graduate business students at Columbia and Fordham working on models.

Perhaps a workable micropayment model is akin to what Skype does: you load up your account with, say, $20 and let the system automatically charge you a certain amount per click or story (maybe ten cents). Think of The New York Times with its tens of millions of online users going that route. Yes The Times will lose some, but it will keep many others because of the power of the brand name and its journalism. Will it work? How much is there to lose? I'm hoping to try this model at smaller newspapers and see what happens.

I'm a big believer in philanthropy and can see some place for it as an add-on to help with investigative reporting and other costly journalism. But I wouldn't count on it to be a home-run savior.

It's an unavoidable relationship: for good information to flow from journalists to readers, proportional revenue must flow the other way. Consumers must learn to associate costs, even small ones, with regular access to reliable news.

Clay Shirky is an adjunct professor in N.Y.U.'s graduate Interactive Telecommunications program and a digital media consultant in New York.

"The fantasy that small payments will save publishers as they move online is really a fantasy that monopoly pricing power can be re-established over we users."

Online, small payments only work when the collector of those payments has end-to-end control of delivery, generally by controlling the hardware or software the user has access to. (This is true of all metered billing, in fact.) Whether it's long-distance rates, iTunes purchases, or in-world currencies for online games, the core attribute of successful systems is the ability to prevent the users from expressing their preference not to be nickel and dimed.

Put another way, the fantasy that small payments will save publishers as they move online is really a fantasy that monopoly pricing power can be re-established over we users. Invoking the magic word "micropayments" is thus grabbing the wrong end of the stick; if online publishers had that kind of pricing power, micropayments wouldn't be necessary. And since they don't have that pricing power, micropayments won't provide it.

To a first approximation, articles will be priced at free (which is only to say that what seems to be happening online is what's actually happening). This is because the competitive loss of hiding them behind a paywall reduces the users' ability to share them with friends, and it is this secondary distribution that creates the most important new opportunities online.

Users like sharing. We like it so much, in fact, that we are willing to reward amateur outlets that enable it at the expense of professional ones that forbid it. (This is how Wikipedia rather than Britannica became the English-speaking world's encyclopedia of choice.) This strong preference for sharing in turn means that nickel and diming us not only raises the cost of a piece of content, it sharply lowers the value as well, because payment systems have to forbid such sharing in order to function.

This in turn opens the door to publishers who reward sharing rather than fight it, which creates the competitive pressure that destroys small payment regimes.

Applying micropayments to the majority of online content isn't possible, because it's not possible to establish a monopoly on news. Unlike iTunes, for example, which benefits from a legal regime designed to prevent sharing, discussion of events in the real world can't be kept from circulation. (You can only stonewall things that are on your side of the wall.)

Publishers have been telling each other for years that eventually people will tire of being able to produce and share amateur content, rather than just consuming professional content, but the users don't seem to have gotten that memo. Even if most traditional publishers formed a "cartel of news" tomorrow, all retiring behind a paywall on the same day, many net-native publishers, from Pro Publica to to Off the Bus, would see their competitive advantage in attacking that cartel rather than joining it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

With newspapers in crisis, newswires may learn to live without them

News agencies

High wires

Feb 12th 2009
From The Economist print edition

WHERE does news come from? The answer, much of the time, is from newswires. Many of the stories in newspapers, on television, radio and online are based on dispatches filed by the big news agencies. The biggest international newswires, Associated Press (AP) and Reuters, date back to the expansion of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, when rapid newsgathering first became possible. The agencies have usually been wholesalers of news; newspapers, broadcasters and websites act as retailers, repackaging and selling news to consumers alongside material generated in-house.

Some, such as AP (a co-operative owned by its subscribers) and the state-backed French News Agency (AFP), have stuck to that model. But Reuters, like the Dow Jones newswire (which grew out of the Wall Street Journal), has developed a huge business providing information to financial-services firms, for which rapid, accurate news is highly valuable. A more recent arrival, Bloomberg, started out as a provider of such information but has turned into a news agency as well, creating a worldwide network of bureaus and syndicating stories to newspapers.

The financial crisis is taking a terrible toll on both financial-services firms and newspapers, so you might expect the news agencies that serve them to be in trouble too. Not so. Christoph Pleitgen, a senior Reuters executive, says the big newswires have been staffing up in the past year. The Journal's owner, News Corp, announced job cuts at the newspaper earlier this month, but said that the Dow Jones newswire was adding journalists at its bureaus, especially in India. Likewise, Bloomberg's recent announcement of around 190 job cuts at a foreign-language television venture got more attention than its promise to create 1,000 jobs elsewhere, including in its news bureaus. And CNN, a television-news network, plans to set up a new international agency to rival AP and Reuters.

A few struggling newspaper groups have stopped subscribing to newswires. Many others, having cut their own newsrooms, have become more dependent than ever on regurgitating agency copy. The proliferation of news websites, hungry for content, but lacking staff to produce it themselves, has also boosted the agencies. Last year printed newspapers contributed only 25% of AP's revenues, says its boss, Tom Curley, down from 55% in 1985. Mr Pleitgen says that in developing regions, such as the Gulf, new television stations, websites and even newspapers are springing up, compensating for the newswires' loss of customers elsewhere.

But if newswires are thriving and newspapers are making ever more use of wire copy, why don't the wire services supply news direct to the consumer? The risk that newspapers will be disintermediated is noted in a new report by, of all people, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. In some ways, it is already happening. Reuters and Bloomberg offer their top stories direct to consumers on advertising-financed websites.

And as more people consume news via smart-phones and other mobile devices, the newswires are providing it there, too. Norman Pearlstine, a senior Bloomberg executive, says the firm's application for the Apple iPhone has been downloaded over a million times. Its service is free "for now". AP, which is owned by its main subscribers, is treading carefully: it has struck deals with 1,200 American newspapers to create mobile websites, for which AP provides national and international news and they provide local news.

Nobody yet knows which business model, if any, will work for mobile news. Mr Pearlstine notes that mobile users happily pay for a new ringtone, so why not for news? It is unclear how good news agencies will be at marketing direct to consumers. But as they continue building their worldwide news bureaus and providing more comprehensive coverage, they may be more likely to survive in the long term than those newspapers which, through constant rounds of cuts, risk becoming ever less distinctive.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why I dislike news micropayments, and a better idea

Forget Micropayments — Here's a Far Better Idea for Monetizing Content

If you follow the media biz, you've surely seen the brouhaha over new calls from prominent journalists like Walter Isaacson and Steven Brill for news publishers to start charging for content on their websites. The argument — which I find to be seriously flawed — is that everyone who produces serious news content needs to own up to the media industry's "original sin" of giving content away free online and institute a system of micropayments for news. In other words, but up barriers and "take ownership" of your valuable content again, so the industry can afford to pay journalists.

I learned about an alternative idea recently, and I think it can work without the MANY problems that micropayment systems for news content present. The soon-to-launch Kachingle puts the user in control of paying a voluntary regular fee for all content online (primarily blogs and media websites) and sharing the money based on users' preference of favorite blogs and sites, and their measured visits to those sites.

It's a contrarian idea that I think has great merit. Imagine it on a scale of Google (or if Google acquired Kachingle) with a serious marketing campaign; it could mean real money for popular websites and blogs, supplementing advertising.

Best of all, it avoids putting barriers and walls around content, which is the antithesis of the right way to leverage the nature and culture of the Internet.

Good idea? Lame? Might work? Please discuss…

How Much Would You Pay For Journalism?

So how much would you be prepared to pay for the content you receive in your daily newspaper? How much would your friends pay? Something? $2? $5?

Or would you pay for something else - some other kind of news content?

Waddya reckon?

This question is spurred by a so-called "grassroots" attempt to tout for newspapers in the USA.

Can there possibly be such a thing as a "grassroots coalition of newspaper editors and executives"? Sounds like a contradiction in terms to me, but that is the kind of group that is behind the USA Newspaper Project, which is running ads in American newspapers aimed at overcoming the pessimism about the medium.

It's a companion to the Australian Newspaper Works, which runs ads on the wonderfulness of newspaperse in our Australian publications, although there is nothing "grassroots" about the local iteration. Newspaper Works is funded by our main newspaper publishers and aimed at convincing advertisers that they should spend their bucks on print. So while Newspaper Works touts about all the fine journalism newspapers produce, their credibility, and so on and so forth, the Australian defenders of the medium actually spend very little time thinking about what journalism is, why it matters or how it might have to change.

Both the USA and Australian organisation make the point - which I certainly wouldn't dispute - that newspapers can be a very good thing, and that we have yet to develop alternative methods of doing what they can do at their best. They also say that newspapers are still very widely read. All of which is true, but misses the point.

It's the business model, stupid. That is, the linking of advertising and journalism in the physical product of a newspaper. That link has been broken.

I agree that there is absolutely no evidence of a declining appetite for news. The question is how is the journalism to be paid for?

At the same time, technology is making new models possible - but they have yet to develop. The kind of news reporting they support when they reach maturity will in any case look different to what we get from traditional newspapers. There will be good and bad in this, as has been discussed before on this blog.

Columbia Journalism Review has this Q&A with Randy Siegel, who is one of the "grassroots" group of editors. He makes the case for newspapers very well, but scratch the surface and you find he is not only talking about the dead tree product. He is talking about the institutional infrastructure and the set of social norms and practices that we call journalism. :

"It's the infrastructure, it's the professional training, it's the ability to condense massive amounts of information into accessible prose for the reader and the online visitor. It's the editing. I mean, this notion that you don't need editors anymore is laughable. Editors make things accessible for readers and online users, and they help educate all of us about stories and issues that we otherwise might not see. I highly doubt that your favorite blogger, for example, is in a position to fly to Iraq and cover what's going on there, or to fly to the far East and decipher our relationship with China as an economic superpower, or to go into City Hall and expose instances of municipal graft and corruption, or to get behind the scenes of a major sporting event and help people understand why a game turned out the way it did. I believe that, in journalism, you get what you pay for. And quality journalists will always have a role in our society. And as newspaper companies evolve, great journalism will now be more important than ever. Across multiple platforms.

I hope so, but (I say again) the problem is not declining appetite for news, but the fracturing of the business model. Siegel admits as much:

"I don't have it all figured out. But what we're trying to do with our effort,, is to create as much productive debate and discussion over what the right models need to be to make sure that the marvelous news and information newspapers provide is both widely distributed and also valued by the people who receive it. And one of the things that I think the newspaper industry will need to ask itself is, "Are the online aggregators paying enough for what they receive?" We've created a classic free-rider problem. You can build billion-dollar companies around the quality content that other people invest in and pay to create. The value proposition is completely out of balance.

There is an obvious point here. At what stage do we stop calling the new model a newspaper? Particularly since it is likely to be delivered online.

And of course Siegel opens up the whole "will people pay for content online" debate, which I have blogged on before here and here.

This is a key question but everyone is guessing about the answer. I am glad to say that people are beginning to turn their mind to the need for solid research on this issue of whether people will pay for journalism, and what they might be prepared to pay. I hope to have more to report on this later.

I think the American grassroots movement- and any local versions - would be better advised to focus not on the platform (newspapers) but on what they deliver - journalism, as well as being prepared to consider that the way journalism may have to change.

I am optimistic about an evolving journalism, but not about newspapers as we are used to thinking about them. Some sobering stats and facts on that business model in the USA:

In some cities, midsized metropolitan papers may not survive to year's end. The owners of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer have warned that those papers could shut down if they can't find buyers soon. The Star Tribune of Minneapolis recently filed for bankruptcy. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News will soon stop home delivery four days of the week to cut operating costs. Gannett, which owns 85 daily newspapers in this country, recently said it would require most of its 31,000 employees to take a week of unpaid leave

Meanwhile, fresh intelligence reaches us all the time about redundancies at both News Limited and Fairfax. Watch Crikey, and this space.

And think about it. How much would you pay?


Monday, February 09, 2009

How to Save Your Newspaper

Then along came tools that made it easier for publications and users to venture onto the open Internet rather than remain in the walled gardens created by the online services. I remember talking to Louis Rossetto, then the editor of Wired, about ways to put our magazines directly online, and we decided that the best strategy was to use the hypertext markup language and transfer protocols that defined the World Wide Web. Wired and TIME made the plunge the same week in 1994, and within a year most other publications had done so as well. We invented things like banner ads that brought in a rising tide of revenue, but the upshot was that we abandoned getting paid for content. (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)

One of history's ironies is that hypertext — an embedded Web link that refers you to another page or site — had been invented by Ted Nelson in the early 1960s with the goal of enabling micropayments for content. He wanted to make sure that the people who created good stuff got rewarded for it. In his vision, all links on a page would facilitate the accrual of small, automatic payments for whatever content was accessed. Instead, the Web got caught up in the ethos that information wants to be free. Others smarter than we were had avoided that trap. For example, when Bill Gates noticed in 1976 that hobbyists were freely sharing Altair BASIC, a code he and his colleagues had written, he sent an open letter to members of the Homebrew Computer Club telling them to stop. "One thing you do is prevent good software from being written," he railed. "Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"

The easy Internet ad dollars of the late 1990s enticed newspapers and magazines to put all of their content, plus a whole lot of blogs and whistles, onto their websites for free. But the bulk of the ad dollars has ended up flowing to groups that did not actually create much content but instead piggybacked on it: search engines, portals and some aggregators.

Another group that benefits from free journalism is Internet service providers. They get to charge customers $20 to $30 a month for access to the Web's trove of free content and services. As a result, it is not in their interest to facilitate easy ways for media creators to charge for their content. Thus we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.

Currently a few newspapers, most notably the Wall Street Journal, charge for their online editions by requiring a monthly subscription. When Rupert Murdoch acquired the Journal, he ruminated publicly about dropping the fee. But Murdoch is, above all, a smart businessman. He took a look at the economics and decided it was lunacy to forgo the revenue — and that was even before the online ad market began contracting. Now his move looks really smart. Paid subscriptions for the Journal's website were up more than 7% in a very gloomy 2008. Plus, he spooked the New York Times into dropping its own halfhearted attempts to get subscription revenue, which were based on the (I think flawed) premise that it should charge for the paper's punditry rather than for its great reporting. (Author's note: After publication the New York Times vehemently denied that their thinking was influenced by outside considerations; I accept their explanation.),8599,1877191-3,00.html

Friday, February 06, 2009

Ground Breaking Certificate Course in New Media - Online Journalism

The growing use of the Internet and digital technologies in the media space and declining influence of traditional media demands an urgent need to increase the supply of journalists and associated professionals with cutting edge skills, who can write, edit and manage online content seamlessly for the benefit of their very sophisticated online audience.

 African University College of Communication and International Institute for ICT Journalism (PenPlusBytes) ground breaking Certificate in New Media – Online Journalism course is designed to provide an exceptional opportunity for Journalists and allied professionals to acquire International standard training in New media using theoretical and practical approach.

 The main highlights of certificate in New Media- Online Journalism course are:

  • Introduction to online journalism and convergence
  • Web 2.0 for journalists
  • Writing and editing  for the web
  • New media Leadership and Management strategies
  • Multimedia Production for the newsroom

 The main goal of this programme is to increase the number of journalists and allied professional who are equipped with online skills in order for them to leverage the opportunities of the new media movement.

 The course is going to take place at modern Discovery Campus of AUCC with cutting edge facilities, online tutorial support and well stocked new media library with each participant expected to acquire online skills, which they can take back and implement on the job in a very practical manner.

 Visit   email :

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Scholarships - Freedom of Expression Workshop, 15-17 April 2009, South Africa

Highway Africa (, a programme of Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa) will be running a unique training programme entitled Freedom of Expression in Cyberspace from 15-17 April 2009 at the Africa Media Matrix Building, Grahamstown, South Africa.

This 3-day workshop will focus on safety training for journalists and bloggers operating in fragile states. The training's accent will be on safe communication and publishing using new media (internet and mobile technology).

We hereby call for applications from journalists and bloggers from Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland for a full scholarship to attend this workshop at Rhodes University.
The application requirements are as follows:


-          A 500-word statement motivating why you should be selected for the programme

-          A detailed Curriculum Vitae (CV)

-          Intermediate computer skills (online search, blogging)

-          Only bloggers and professional journalists with a solid publishing record need apply

-          Only persons resident in the countries of Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland need apply

-          Proficiency in the English Language


The 15 scholarships available will cover: airfare; accommodation; daily subsistence allowance; and visa reimbursement. The scholarships will NOT cover any other costs outside of these items.


Please send your e-mail applications by 6 March 2009 to:


Cecil Mutambanengwe, Project Administrator





Sunday, February 01, 2009

Google users get bogus warning on site searches

Computer users doing Google searches during a nearly one-hour period Saturday morning were greeted with disturbing but erroneous messages that every site turned up in the results might be harmful.

The company blamed the mistake on human error and apologized for any inconvenience caused to users and site owners whose pages were incorrectly labeled.

The glitch occurred between 9:30 a.m. EST and 10:25 a.m. EST, Google Inc. said in an explanation on its company blog. Anyone who did a Google search during that time likely saw the message "This site may harm your computer" accompanying every search result, the company said.

Google said it routinely flags any search results with that message if the site is known to install malicious software in the background or otherwise surreptitiously, a practice aimed at protecting its users. Google said it maintains a list of suspicious sites based on criteria developed with, a nonprofit project headed by legal scholars at Harvard and Oxford universities who research consumer complaints.

Saturday's error happened when Google erroneously applied one of its periodic list updates in such a way that the warning would apply to all URLs, the company said in a statement.

The glitch was caught by on-call staff and the file was quickly fixed, Google said. Since the updates are applied in a staggered and rolling fashion, the errors began appearing at 9:27 a.m. EST and disappeared no later than 10:25 a.m. EST, with the duration for any particular user approximately 40 minutes, it said.

"We will carefully investigate this incident and put more robust file checks in to prevent it from happening again," said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, in the statement.