God and Mammon on the British Airwaves

August 29, 2009

Via Jeff Jarvis, watch this clip of James Murdock and his BBC/Guardian critics.  While the arguments from both are utterly predictable, it’s tough to think of a better advertisement for the need for down-the-middle journalism which is funded by private philanthropy, not government.  If Bill Clinton hadn’t already co-opted the phrase, maybe we’d call it “the third way.”


Newspapers (Along with the Rest of Us) Grope for the Bottom

August 28, 2009

The news out of Newspaperland continues to be bad, bad.  The worst part is that the second derivative keeps getting bigger:

Newspapers’ financial woes worsened in the second quarter as advertising sales shrank by 29 percent, leaving publishers with $2.8 billion less revenue than they had at the same time last year.It’s the deepest downturn yet during a three-year free fall in advertising revenue — newspapers’ main source of income. The magnitude of the industry’s advertising losses have intensified in each of the last 12 quarters.

Still, with print down 30 and online 16, it’s not clear that papers are faring any worse than most other categories.   Fashion mag ad papers for the Sept. isssue were down 30%+

Texas Monthly: The LEACH Issue

August 22, 2009

I grew up with this magazine, and am lucky that my connections to it have only grown over time.  I count as my friend Mike Levy, the visionary founder, former publisher and current irascible ass-pain gadfly (“takes one to know one, ” I suspect he’d say).  Evan Smith, my longtime friend and new business partner, had his last day at the magazine on Friday.  As an 18-year veteran of the magazine and only its third editor, his imprimatur on the enterprise won’t be soon forgotten.  Nate Blakeslee, my wife’s beloved little  brother, contributes to the new issue as deft and penetrating a piece of journalism about Texas public education as I’ve ever read.  And the light touch of Jake Silverstein’s  editor’s letter  suggests that this is an institution–journalistically, at least–in good hands.  Jake has a tough act to follow but is off to a damn fine start, having shared with Evan a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in hist first year.

Oh, and the S.C Gwynne cover article is as good as recent sports writing gets, even though I doubt Sam considers himself a sports writer.

Even if Texas didn’t self-identify as its own nation, Texas Monthly would still be a true national treasure.  Long and vigorously may it prosper.

“The Soul of a Monopolist and the Timidity of a Titmouse”

August 14, 2009

Ok, that may be a little harsh, but it’s the phrase Bill Wyman uses to explain why he thinks most online newspaper offerings aren’t that compelling (shoutout to Mark Potts, who posted about Wyman’s two-part series on–what else–why newspapers are in trouble).  More about that in a second. 

More generally, I could do without the smugness of Wyman’s tone.  Perhaps it’s the critic’s occupational hazard.  And I’m pretty sure that there’s not enough new here for a two-part series.  But three things are distinctive about Wyman’s piece.  First, because he’s not a hard-core news guy, he is uncommonly dry-eyed about the role of legacy newspapers, even if he does overstate the case:

Remember “shoppers,” the poorly designed throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to be delivered. Long before the web displayed the power and leverage of critical mass, newspapers benefited from it; once you got the franchise in your particular locale, you tried not to stir up trouble, because it just distracted you from time better spent cashing checks.

Some people liked the news, sure; most thought they were paying for it. And some papers spent more money on news than they had to. But the papers weren’t selling the news. They were selling ads and charging a lot of money for them because of one thing only: They held an informal monopoly on a societal convention whereby they deposited those ads—around which they wrapped some reporting, some of it serious, some of it fluff—on subscribers’ driveways.

(Wyman also demonstrates the pseudo-omniscience that writers of these pieces can’t seem to resist by saying how obvious it was for how long that the model would have to change.  If it were truly that obvious, one would think that Mr. Wyman would be blogging from atop Wyman Worldwide headquarters, or at least a from lovely cottage overlooking one of Mustique’s most private beaches).

 Second, and perhaps without knowing it, he makes a point that we who shelled out for an MBA were exposed to in our first year:  make sure you know what business you’re in.

Now, the papers could have used the money they were making to, in essence, buy the future of communications. Instead, they used it for something else: pleasing Wall Street, and consolidation. As the parent companies took on more debt, those fabulous returns became not just money to swim around in, but the essential component of the companies’ day-to-day livelihood—from the perspective of the boardroom, at least.

In other words, the papers were taking their profits and investing in a future not of technological change and institutional challenges, but one defined only by the search for more profits.

Unlike Wyman, I don’t necessarily turn up my nose at “the search for more profits.”  In a maturing business with limited expansion possibilities, that’s what an industry does.  It consolidates like the dickens and squeezes out costs.  And if you thought you were in the newspaper business, that was the right strategy.    (Think what almost happened to IBM when they thought they were in the business of selling mainframes to large businesses) .  But if you thought you were in the news and information delivery business, you would have owned at least a big piece of search, and invested in new advertising technologies.  But there’s that pseudo-omniscience again:  it was hard to think this way in a business of local monopolies.  Remember, a softball team representing the Houston Chroniclewore jersies with “THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN” emblazoned on their backs, as late as 1997, when the commercial internet was not exactly a secret.  Netscape went public in 1995.

And now, back to the title of this post.  Of his five reasons for newspapers struggles, Wyman brings the most new to the table in #3:  “Timidity Doesn’t Work on the Web.”   Here it is:

So: We have an industry facing a crisis that demands sophisticated, daring action, but that has rewarded, ineluctably but surely, timidity and caution, and whose livelihood has depended on not telling its audience anything it didn’t want to hear. Now, that industry, its underlying business model vaporizing, has migrated itself to the web.

The web doesn’t reward blandness. It doesn’t really like the obvious, the inoffensive and the established. Today, if you published a web page with the headlines I just listed on it—you know, starting with “Wooden Memories” and going right on down to “Great Gifts for Teachers”—you wouldn’t get many readers. In this way, the web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid.

Paradoxically, it also displays their superficiality: Anyone truly interested in old wood-shop projects can find a world of much better information about them on the web. A daily newspaper presents a platter to readers. You don’t have to eat everything on it, but you’re not getting anything that wasn’t sent out from the kitchen originally. And over the years editors have learned not to put anything spicy on that platter.

The web is a smorgasbord. It isn’t quite infinite, but it is comprehensive. It can satisfy any appetite. Newspapers never did that; they just provided subsistence, because no one else was around to offer anything better. That’s the first problem the monopoly mentality presents to papers trying to move their operations to the web.

The second is this: The web seems to reward aggregation in a powerful way. Now, that’s what newspapers used to do, right? Didn’t they aggregate all the best information in town? This is where the lassitude that newspapers developed comes back to haunt them. They aggregated, but they didn’t aggregate well. When you’re a monopoly, when you’re essentially the only aggregator, it doesn’t matter what you give people.

For generations, broken-down section editors have patted themselves on the back for aggregating stories like “Free burrito for teachers” and “Post Office food drive.” Continuing this restaurant metaphor, the web rewards people who’ve put better platters together, who have a good taste sense and a knack for finding great new dishes. Newspapers, by contrast, specialized in blandness. That’s an advantage if you’re the only choice, and you don’t want any complaints. But when you’re not, it’s a crushing disadvantage. Beyond that, newspapers are actually quite exclusionary; they only want the foods they’ve prepared on their platter.

Where I live, in the town that has the paper with the big story about “Wooden Memories,” a competing, smaller paper in town just won a Pulitzer Prize. It won the award for an exposé about the dangerous (i.e., involving actual deaths) and wasteful (totaling tens of millions of dollars) activities of the most popular politician in the state. The big paper mentioned the news perfunctorily and vaguely inside the paper. No one called the editor of the other paper, or called the politician for comment. The politician is in the news virtually every single day, but, as far as the largest paper in the state was concerned, the prize wasn’t again worth mentioning.

It used to be easier for a paper to hide embarrassing stuff like that. On the web, it’s harder, but that’s not even the point. A news operation that tries to hide information from its readers—which, let’s face it, daily papers in the U.S. often did, in ways large and small—will inevitably become devalued on the web.

An institution with a true aggregating mentality and a sense of how the web works would have tossed up the news and opened the validity of the award—and the politician—to the opinions of readers. It would have made itself the center of the debate sure to attract the attention of folks on both sides of the argument. Only an institution with the soul of a monopolist and the timidity of a titmouse would, instead, downplay the news like that.

Newspapers used to be their reader’s de facto window to the world, but it was just a quirk—their monopolies—that made them that. Most newspaper home pages are cramped and insular. Today, any person who creates a personalized Google home page, to cite just one example, can put together a much better window—one that comprises headlines, a clock, weather, recent postings on any blogs that interest them, and hundreds of other things—in about 15 minutes.

The papers might have had a chance on the web if they had understood it, grasped its service power, and made themselves the masters of it. That they didn’t just proves my point. It wasn’t in their genetic makeup to do anything like it.

Again, there’s more than a little “I toldya so” from somebody who didn’t clearly tell anybody anything.  But the idea that a new medium requires a new voice is one that continues to be worth pondering.

U.S.: The Lilliputians of Small Biz?

August 13, 2009

Interesting the way the eye works as newspapers attempt to maneuver readers through their various offerings.  In this case, the NYT print version blurbed a blog post by Catherine Rampell which sounded interesting enough for me to tear out the blurb for later investigation.  Is this the way it’s supposed to work?

Anyway, Rampell points to a study by the Center for Economic Policy Research which reveals that measured by self-employment rates, the U.S. is a little more entrepreneurial than Luxembourg and a little less so than Norway.  And nowhere near the countries of Southern Euorpe–Greece has a self-employment rate 5x the U.S.

The study immediately dives into the why’s and wherefores (tax structure, healthcare costs, etc.).  But what’s striking is how out of whack the numbers are with our self-image.

This also jogged my memory that I meant to post encouraging comments about Longman and Boshara’s The Next Progressive Era.  In it, they analogize the current state of U.S. affairs to the first progressive era, and argue that the notion of “yeomanry” has been largely lost in the U.S.   The point of much regulatory policy, they believe, should be to re-energize and encourage small business formation.  Worth a skim.

The Nichepaper Manifesto

August 11, 2009

In his post on the Harvard Business site, Umair Haque lays out better than I ever have the characteristics of the genre which The Texas Tribune  aspires to inhabit.   Particularly, the idea of “knowledge, not news” is one that I’ve appropriated wholesale for our discussions with partners and investors.  The twin ideas of placing news in context and building on a topic–rather than a story–as the basic units of news are among the things that got me most excited about starting TT.   Matt Thompson first introduced me to these concepts more than a year ago at newsless.org.   A helpful interview with Matt is here.  Hopefully, we’ll be hosting Matt in Austin in September for a jam session about news in context.

Here are Haque’s characteristics of a nichepaper, some of which I buy into more than others:

Knowledge, not news. Newspapers strive to give people the news. Next stop, commodity central. Nichepapers strive to impart meaningful, lasting knowledge instead.

Commentage, not commentary. Newspapers dictate to their reader what news and opinion are. Nichepapers co-create knowledge through “commentage.” Commentage is the kid sister of reportage: it is the art of curating comments to have a dialogue with the audience — because the audience can fill gaps, plug holes, and thicken the foundations of knowledge. Many newspapers have comments — so what? Almost none are having a dialogue with commenters — who are mostly stuck in a twilight zone where they can only talk to one another. Nichepapers, in contrast, are always having deep dialogues with readers.

Topics, not articles. That’s why Nichepapers develop topics — instead of telling quickly-forgotten stories. When Talking Points Memo exposed the Bush administration’s series of politically motivated firings, it did so in a series of posts, that let the story develop, surface, thicken, and climax. Stories are for information — topics are for knowledge.

Scarcity, not circulation. Newspapers strive for circulation, by telling the same stories in the same ways — in slightly different places. Nichepapers strive for scarcity: to develop a perspective, analytical skills, and storytelling capabilities that are inimitable by rivals.

Now, not then. Newspapers give you the news then. Nichepapers give you knowledge now. Why have weekly columns and daily articles — that then get lost in the wilderness of a vast archive? It’s an arcane, obsolete way to produce content. Nichepapers develop topics of conversation, not individual stories, and let them co-evolve with readers.

Provocation, not perfection. Newspapers seek perfection: perfect grammar, perfect ledes, perfect headlines. Nichepapers seek provocation instead. Sometimes, yes, that provocation is mere titillation. But more often than not it’s authentic provcation: nichepapers provoke us to think; they challenge us; they educate us in ways that newspapers stopped doing long ago.

Snowballs, not sell-outs. Newspapers long ago sold out to advertisers, PR flaks, powerful “sources,” and lobbyists. When was the last time the WSJ bit the hand that fed it? Why is the Post’s editorial page so predictably tepid? Nichepapers haven’t sold out — and if their economic promise delivers, they won’t have to. They “sell in” instead: they pitch topics and stories to the community, and let the best ones snowball — through contributions like tips, criticisms, and corrections.

Tasks, not tech.
Nichepapers aren’t about technology. They might use a blog post, vlog post, podcast, wiki, series of tweets, or a long-form article — or all of these, all at once. They are tech-neutral, using whatever works best for a given task.

NYT Interview with New NEA Chair

August 8, 2009

Today’s NYT has an eyebrow-raising and refreshing interview with Rocco Landesman, incoming NEA Chair.  I had never heard of this guy, but I like him already:

He was particularly angered, he said, by parts of the debate over whether to include $50 million for the agency in the federal stimulus bill, citing the comment by Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February, that arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”

In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”

And while he praised the way recent endowment chairmen have carefully rebuilt the agency’s political standing, Mr. Landesman — who is known more as an independent entrepreneur than as a diplomatic company man — said he was not planning to follow too closely in their footsteps. While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.

“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”

“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”

Mr. Landesman does believe that the agency should be “perceived as being everywhere,” he said. “But I don’t know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography.”