The Pet for Newspapers’ Penguin

June 30, 2009

An excellent PaidContent article on Chris Anderson’s advice for newspapers:

Wired editor and author Chris Anderson told the Guardian that newspapers need to find a “pet for their penguin” – things that they can charge for to support journalism. When he talks about pets for penguins, he is referring to the Disney’s online game Club Penguin. This is free to play, but they have premium memberships that provide players with additional features. Based on the ideas of his new book Free, he says that newspapers must decide what they provide for free and what premium content and services that they can develop to make money.

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Another Idea for Local News

June 30, 2009

Martin Langveld comments on the pipe dream which is Peter Kafka’s and Mark Josephson’s model for an online only news site and which–by some revelatory act of Providence–draws 133m page view per month (40m to its original “journalism.”) This, even though they intend to write “only about the really big stories.”   Good luck with that, fellas.    You might want to consider getting out of the news business because if you can bottle that stuff you’re sniffing, you’ll be gazillionaires.

I am reminded that the pastor in the church where I grew up used to say that “when you mix politics and business, you get business.”  The exact same could be said of serious journalism and business, except in the case  of the Kafka/Josephson model judged down for reality, you really get….neither.  There’s no public service mission to speak of, and as a business, it might break even but not a lot more.  True, you don’t invest a lot of capital, so maybe a decent lifestyle business.  But…not worth all the ink, er, pixels being spilled on it as a savior of commercially driven local news.

I’m more and more reminded of Jane Jacobs’s thought-provoking but tough-to-read book, Systems of SurvivalIn it, she argues for the necessity of two, coexisting but distinct ethics systems:   that of the trader, and that of the guardian.  Mix the two of them up, and you get what she calls a “monstrous hybrid.”   The entity described by Kafka and Josephson is certainly a hybrid.  But it’s not even all that monstrous.   It’s just likely not, to mix metaphors,  a game that’s worth the candle.  Pathetic is the word that comes more readily to mind.  I don’t intend to be mean here.  It’s just that we have all these brilliant minds working in an insoluble problem:  local news is just not a business to which significant risk capital  should flow.  Period. 

Now here’s a model I could see.  Assume I own Austin.com.  Why wouldn’t I hire no reporters and isntead ink the following revenue-sharing partnerships:  Mojopages.com (an AV company) for local search and directory; Zillo for real estate; Cars.com for Auto; Monster and Indeed for jobs;traffic.com and weather.com for, well, traffic and weather;  and Outside.in for aggregation

How many employees would I need?  Five?  Three?

Then, I become the lead investor  in a  public news cooperative that is a 501c3 and funded by people and corporate sponsors who really value local news not only because the yuse it, but because they think it is a public good and they’re willing to fund its use by other people who can’t or won’t pay.  This is not so radical:  it’s just an enterprise funded by the people who use news rather than the by advertisers. 

 KUT, the Austin NPR station (which is admittedly exceptionally well run), has a $6mm budget half from individuals.  What if the community decided that a like-size organizaiton was needed to focus on local news?  It would be only about 40% of the cost of the Statesman newsroom, but it’s pretty easy to go through the Statesman and pick out the 40% of the content that’s critical to civic life (Omar Gallaga’s recent front-page analysis of other people’s analysis of TMZ’s analysis of Michael Jackson’s death might not make the cut, for instance).

This, too, is a hybrid approach, but without the monstrosity.  Traders are traders, and guardians remain guardians.  Overall, is the community any worse off?  They’re certainly not confused.  And even if you cut the Kafka Josephson numbers with a hatchet, my family and I have a pretty nice little business.


Proactive Neutrality

June 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “civic” or “public” journalism as championed by Jay Rosen and Buzz Merritt in the mid-90s (and as set forth in Rosen’s essential book, What Are Journalists For?).  At the time, Rosen was doing a Knight Fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and Merritt was editor of my hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle-Beacon.  I see great consonance between the idea of a more civically engaged journalism and what we and publications like Voice of San Diego are attempting to do.  I ran across a summary of Rosen’s ideas again today in a volume called Political Journalism, edited by Kuhn and Neveu (pp. 214-15).  As I wrote to some friends last night:

What we’re really talking about is reviving the public journalism (buzz merit called it “civic journalism”) movement that got cut off by the appearance of the commercial internet in the mid 90s.  In describing the journalistic approach he was championing,  Rosen used the term, “proactive neutrality.”

 It’s an interesting, if somewhat Pollyanna-ish argument.  But maybe their really is a silver lining in the implosion of the newspaper model.

 During the golden age of newspapers between the end of the war and the bursting of the bubble, papers became judged largely on two standards.  The first was exhaustiveness; after all, the resources really were there to print all the news that was fit.  The second was objectivity and accuracy.  As what had been kind of a grubby trade professionalized, coverage went from being biased to being so objective as to be mistakable for stenography.   Sure, good journalism was getting done that is not getting done now, but soooo much of the stuff in the papers was redundant and not terribly relevant to the civic life of the reader.

 Lots of people bemoan how groups like ours are just so tiny, that we can’t possibly replace the papers.  But what if we turn that bug into a feature by saying, “since we can’t cover everything, we have to cover what’s important.  And to know what’s important, we really have to engage with our public.”  Journalism never was an end in itself, anyway.  What’s being lost more than anything else is the connection between the polity and their government that good journalism provides.  Yes, that means accountability journalism, but it also means explanatory journalism and commentary that is meant to stir debate.  As Rosen says in his book, it’s not just that newspaper readers are disappearing; it’s that the public is disintegrating.  By wrapping resources and f2f interaction around our journalism, we begin to arrest that disintegration.  Because we can’t do everything, we listen to the public and make some judgments about what’s most important (based partially but not entirely on that feedback).  And that in itself is a public service


The Fallacy of “Internet” Worship When It Comes to News

June 21, 2009

This latest Zogby poll, via the indefatigable Mark Potts:

The survey discovered 56 percent of adults nationwide would pick the Internet if they were allowed just one source for their news, while television, newspapers and radio earned the support of 41 percent – together.

Among Republicans, 56 percent would choose the Internet for their news, while among Democrats that figure was 50 percent. Seventeen percent of Democrats said they would prefer newspapers as their only news source while 5 percent of Republicans made that choice.

The partisan split is intriguing, although I’d bet that NPR proclivity accounts for much of the difference.  But I still continue to be most amused/befuddled by the terminology:  “the internet” never met a deadline or filed a story.  Broadcast tends to produce its own content; “the internet” is simply a transport mechanism (as often than not, for newspaper content).  When the responses of those surveyed produce the following result:

It also shows only 1 in 200 people surveyed believes newspapers will be a dominant source of information in 2014.

I wonder how many of them realize how much of the content they are reading “on the internet” actually emanate from newspaper stories.

This reminds me a little–actually, a lot–of the 1996-2002 time frame when the investment banking and venture communities talked about “internet businesses.”   And yes, there were a few of those which literally could never have existed sans ARPANet and what followed.  But for the most part, the web is simply the very most powerful, low-cost transmission vehicle ever invented.   Another channel of distribution, if you will, but far from”just another” channel of distribution.  Just as in e commerce, the winners in e publishing are those who optimize their cost structures and business processes for a world of exceedingly low-cost distribution.  Would you ever say that an important source of your kids’ upbringing is the U.S. Interstate Highway system, because that’s the conduit you travel to see the grandparents?  What do I know; maybe you would.  But I doubt it.

And I’ll say it again, because what rests behind the end points matters a great deal:  “the internet” never filed a story nor met a deadline.  Just like I-35 never carved a turkey on Thanksgiving or gave you socks for Christmas.  Zero-cost replication and distribution are a given; it’s what’s behind the door Grandma’s house that matters.


Foundation Staff Cuts

June 21, 2009

From the NYT, pretty sobering numbers on staff cuts at major foundations.  Also, a reminder that grant cuts due to corpus reductions are still over the horizon.  Robert Wood Jonhnson offered buyouts to a staggering 42% of its employees, in response to a 30% drop in its assets.


It’s All So….Meta

June 19, 2009

From Paidcontent.org, commentary about a commenter’s comment on commentary about the authenticity of social media.  Irony police must be on strike.


Weaponized Irony

June 19, 2009

From Harper’s, easily the most clever piece I’ve read in a long time.  It’s a grant proposal from two Princeton professors to study “irony in the national defense.”

Irony is a powerful and incompletely understood feature of human dynamics. A technique for dissimulation and “secret speech,” irony is considerably more complex than lying and even more dangerous. Ideally suited to mobilization on the shifting terrain of asymmetrical conflict, inherently covert, insidiously plastic, politically potent, irony offers rogue elements a volatile if often overlooked means by which to demoralize opponents and destabilize regimes. And yet while major research resources have for forty years poured into the human sciences from the defense and intelligence community in an effort to gain control over the human capacity to lie (investments that led to the modern polygraph, sodium pentothal–derived truth serums, “brain fingerprinting,” etc.), we have no comparable tradition of sustained, empirical, applied investigation into irony. We know very little about its specific manifestations in foreign cultures; we understand almost nothing about the neurological basis of its expression; we are without forward-looking strategies for its mastery and mobilization in the interest of national defense. This project–a sustained three-year, three-pronged, interdisciplinary investigation, drawing on social scientists, engineers, and neurobiologists—will position Lockheed Martin for field leadership in a crucial new area of strategic and commercial growth.