Category Archives: News

“Google and the AP Should Reveal Their Licensing Terms”. Should They Really?

The always canny Danny Sullivan has a piece that calls for the Associated Press and Google to reveal the terms of any business agreements they may come to. He notes that the AP and Google first made a content licensing agreement back in 2006, and lately the AP has been making noises about extracting more dough from Google, making all kind of disingenuous accusations that Google “steals” AP content when in fact Google is helping AP subscribers by sending them traffic. (Danny and I are both former reporters turned web guys; we have both written extensively about this situation in the past.)

Information about Google/AP hookups would obviously be nice to have, but there are a lot of potentially more interesting private business agreements that it would be nice to have access to, as well. For example, I want to know what Bill Cosby got paid for doing those Jell-o Pudding Pops commercials we all remember from our childhoods. But just because I’m curious about this, it doesn’t mean I’m entitled to the information I’m after.

What makes Google/AP agreements of special interest? Google is a big technology company that is distinguished principally by its near monopoly control over search monetization. The Associated Press is a newsgathering collective that is distinguished principally over its near monopoly control over certain types of national and international news. What these companies do is of interest principally for those reasons. But I’m concerned about our impulse to treat the business of journalism differently than other kinds of businesses. I don’t think it helps consumers of news, and I don’t think it helps journalism, either.

Certainly, as Danny points out, journalism is necessary to support a vibrant democracy. From that springs forth the notion that journalism is a special activity that ought to be protected — call this Journalistic Exceptionalism. For example, we have laws (known generally as “sunshine laws”) that cover the disclosure of information to the public. Journalists are given special access to politicians and corporate bosses, and so forth.

It’s easy to conflate the democracy-enhancing nature of journalism with the dysfunctional news business. But assigning a special status to the business of news (as distinct from the process of newsgathering, which may or may not be coupled to an actual for-profit business) seems wrong to me. Let’s not treat Google or the AP specially because of journalistic exceptionalism. If you agree that Google and the AP should be more up-front with the terms of their licensing agreements, then that should take place because of those organizations’ unprecedented power over the marketplace, not because they happen to be involved in the business of news.

Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” Wins Punch Award

The Punch award is an internal New York Times award for journalism. This is the first (but, I’m sure, not the last) time the journalism award has been won by a software developer (Alan Taylor). This sounds like a tipping point to me, or at the very least a data point that points to a tipping point. If that makes sense.

Anyway, importantly, as this piece in The Awl points out, The Big Picture was not developed by some corporate brain trust. It was done by Alan in his off hours, on his own initiative.

If you haven’t seen The Big Picture, it’s the shiz. It’s often ripped-off verbatim by other online publications (I’m talking to you, British tabs). But it’s an original. And it’s terrific. Well deserved.

The Newspaper Business: Still Confused About Itself

I’m taking in all the news about the 2009 Pulitzer Prize awards. Because the industry is at a perilous crossroads, I had a feeling that the announcements would be a rich source of quotes of the ironical variety, and indeed I was not disappointed:

“The watchdog still barks. The watchdog still bites,” [Pulitzer administrator] Gissler said. “Who would be doing this day to day if we didn’t have newspapers?”

Who, indeed? Although there’s a bit of a problem with this characterization: The NY Times’ award-winning story on the hooker scandal that brought down Eliot Spitzer? It didn’t appear first in the pages of the New York Times newspaper; it actually appeared on NYTimes.com, as the Nieman Journalism Lab blog points out. So why aren’t the Pulitzer folks praising the web when the story was published there first? Are the Pulitzers about journalism or “newspapers”? Is it about the best journalism or the best journalism backed by a business model?

Maybe we need a new award specifically for online journalism. Then when last newspaper closes down, we can officially replace the Pulitzers with that award.

Although at least one Pulitzer winner won’t be barking or biting anyone, since his paper laid him off three months ago:

While he is relishing the honor, Giblin admitted he wondered what it would have been like to find out he won from within the Tribune’s Mesa, Ariz., newsroom.

“It is kind of sad,” he said. “I wish I was still at the Tribune. I’d have a party with them right now.”

More on the Trevails of the Associated Press

I couldn’t have guessed that I’d be weeks ahead of the curve in slagging the Associated Press in my Feb. 26 post, but the AP has managed to place itself at the forefront of the debate over the future of the news business. At its core, it strikes me as bizarre that this kind of frenzy could possibly take place over something like a news wire service — it’s sort of like presidential candidates debating whether the sky is light blue or medium-blue. I think the real reason for the attention is the elevated level of cluelessness on the part of AP and Wall Street Journal executives that’s being revealed in this discussion — they’re proving to be even more tone-deaf than American auto industry execs, which I bet Detroit is mightily thankful for at this juncture in their history.

Anyway, there’s this bit, in which the AP’s chairman decried the practice of aggregators linking to and excerpting AP content and got into some rather nasty name-calling (backed up by a Wall Street Journal executive who referred to “certain web sites” (*cough* Google) as “parasites”. Danny Sullivan had an excellent response in which he suggested that if the news services didn’t want Google’s attention, they’ve always had a simple way to reject it (through a file that bans search engines called robots.txt). But they won’t do this, of course, which is the reason why they’re now resorting to public whining and name-calling — it’s all they’ve got left. Traditional news businesses are stuck in a bear trap called the internet, and they can’t decide whether to saw their own legs off or slowly bleed to death.

This was followed, perhaps not coincidentally, a few days later with a nastygram from the AP to a Tennessee radio station that was embedding AP videos on its web site. What’s wrong with this? Not only is the Tennessee station an AP affiliate, these are videos that the AP posts to YouTube for anyone to watch. When questioned about it, the AP’s nastygram department didn’t even know that the AP’s department of internet video goodness was putting content on YouTube for free. The tactical lesson here, obviously, is to get your story straight before making mindless accusations, but who knows what the overall strategy is. I don’t know if the AP even has a victory condition in mind here, but if they do, they can’t be making much progress toward it.

Jeff Jarvis wrote a good post yesterday in which he calls for the AP to be shut down. I think that “shut down” is an unnecessarily confrontational way to put it; I much prefer the internet principle of routing around damage. I don’t think that the AP represents all of what’s wrong with the business of news, but they sure do suck a lot of oxygen out of the room.

To support news reporting in the future we’re going to need a new ecosystem of news and information, and it’s going to require us to build new nodes, not just tear down old ones.

Clay Shirky: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Link: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

The Dissociated Press

I mentioned yesterday that traditional corporate news organizations are being decomposed into their constituent parts. New businesses are generally using the Web to do the carving-up — sites like Yelp are replacing the traditional restaurant review, and sites like Everyblock are replacing the police blotter, and so on. But there are still interesting areas of friction between old models and new models, and the Web isn’t the only disruptive technology out there.

The Associated Press (as I also mentioned in my post yesterday) is a newsgathering collective. It’s a co-op, owned by its member news organizations. That means that its constituents are traditional news businesses — and not, say, readers, as you might expect its natural constituency to be. Readers can’t call anyone up at the AP to complain, and they can’t write a letter to the editor of the AP. AP stories are often published completely without bylines, which means there is little personal accountability on the part of reporters (and no recourse for readers who discover factual errors in AP stories, as I sometimes do). In many respects what the AP does represents the worst of 19th-century business practices combined with a mid-20th century technology and vision.

This is important to bear in mind as we consider the case of Shepard Fairey, an artist who has been involved in a dust-up with the AP over his appropriation and remixing of an now-iconic image of President Obama.

I’m not a lawyer and I don’t have a clue as to who’s legally right in this situation (although you’d think the two parties would be able to come to some kind of agreement rather than suing each other). But think about the business reasons for why this happened in the first place. The AP is asserting that they own the rights to the original photo; Fairey admits that the photo was the basis for his work, but the fact that he remixed it makes it a new work.

We went down this road in the late 1980s with audio sampling; after the lawyers hashed it out, record companies created “special products” divisions to resell things like samples of music it owned the rights to. You want a second and a half of James Brown screaming for your new record? Sold, $10,000. And so forth.

Does the AP have a special products division? Will they sell a picture of the President to a civilian at any price? It doesn’t appear to be the case. (And if they do, what would that price be? I’m sure that Shepard Fairey would like to know.)

Reviewing the AP’s policy on reprints is instructive. From their FAQ:

All requests for republication of AP material must be in writing, clearly stating the purpose and manner in which the copy will be used. All republished material must carry AP credit. Unless specifically noted otherwise, all permission is given for one-time use only. No political candidate, political party, political action committee, polemical organization, or any group formed for partisan purpose may use AP copy in any publication. There may be a fee for reprint use.

Good krikey, people. Request in writing? Send you a fax? One-time use only? Stipulate in advance the manner in which it’s going to be used? Why, so you can pre-emptively decide whether or not it’s OK? And by whose standards? (These are rhetorical questions to which we already know the answer: to defend their dying member newspaper businesses.)

The AP’s power used to flow from their role as a syndicator — they would hook up any member newsroom with a communications cable (the literal “news wire”) through which stories and other content would flow. Now that newsrooms (and every single other person on the planet) has a better wire called the internet, there may be no good reason for the AP to exist in its role as a syndicator, except for inertia. To put it in economic terms, it is a classic example of an inefficient marketplace.

The AP combines several roles of the news business — they do news reporting and editing as well as syndication. Could the news syndication part of the Associated Press evolve into a new organization that isn’t beholden to dysfunctional old-model newspaper businesses? Maybe, but I think it would take a new organization to come along and disrupt it. Call it the Dissociated Press (until we come up with a name that has fewer letters in it). The DP could serve as a hub for news (and non-news) content. It could also serve as a content marketplace. If you take a picture of an airliner that’s crashed into the Hudson, instead of giving it away, you would send it to the DP and attach a price tag to it (which could be $0). If a news organization wanted to use it, they’d pay the DP, which would then pay you.

On the buy side, there would be no membership requirements, and no annual fees — strictly pay as you go — and anyone could join: CNN, tiny local newspapers, political parties, bloggers, mad scientists, whoever. The open business model would be the principal source of disruption.

If you’re looking for an iTunes for news, maybe something like the Dissociated Press is it. But unlike the white-haired dudes in suits who think that consumers should be paying $0.99 to read the front page, maybe the key is to get other publishers (not necessarily just newspapers) to pay. After all, they do this today.

Decomposing the News Organization

We know that news organizations are in trouble as businesses. It’s convenient to blame the Web for this (although I have asserted here that corporate news was plenty sick before the consumer internet emerged — and I say this as someone who worked in a newsroom back in 1992 and saw what was going on firsthand).

While it certainly pounded its share of nails into the coffin of corporate newspapers, it’s clear that the Web has really disrupted corporate news-gathering organizations. When I say “disrupt,” I don’t mean it in the pedestrian sense of “screwed-up,” I mean it in the sense that Clayton Christensen uses in his book on business disruption The Innovator’s Dilemma). Think of business disruption as an attack (either overt or accidental) on an incumbent business, using technical means to produce a new product that is a lot cheaper and (almost necessarily) a little bit worse than the incumbent’s product.

The part where the new product is a little bit worse is important; it’s at the core of Christensen’s thesis. The “dilemma” is the fact that for incumbent businesses to survive, they have to disrupt themselves, but they don’t want to do this for various reasons (partly because of entrenched patterns of behavior, partly because the incumbent business may be profitable and they don’t want to give up that profit in exchange for a better long-term business, but principally because the disruptive business seems non-threatening because it is by definition worse than the incumbent’s).

With respect to news businesses, I think the angst is that the new news product will be a lot worse than what it replaces, particularly since we hold up a vibrant press as a cornerstone of a healthy polity. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, although it may be difficult to see from where we are today. I have to say that as a San Franciscan, I was never a huge fan of the Chronicle, and I’m actually eager to see what replaces it, if it’s indeed true that the paper will be sold or shut down in coming weeks.

Anyway, for corporate news, there’s more to it than a simple disruption. I’d argue that the Web has decomposed the various roles that news organizations have served throughout history. Newspapers have historically done a lot of things, not all of which are synergistic, and one could make the case that a single organization shouldn’t be doing all the things that traditional newspapers have done. It could be the case that what we’re seeing in the news business is a constructive dismantling, and it’s totally conceivable that that process will be viewed as positive once we break through the cloud of the angst and uncertainty that surrounds it today.

It occurred to me that it might be useful to come up with a shared lexicon to describe the various roles that a corporate newspaper plays. What are the things that the “traditional” corporate news organization has provided, historically? There are actually a lot:

News Reporting

When I was reporting the news, the majority of my stories came from a daily visit to the police station. I also sat through a few court cases and public meetings, but I also got to watch a few corpses being recovered. Going out and getting the story is what reporting is about. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and it’s something that people who are concerned with the future of the news business are justifiably concerned about, but it’s difficult to see how the professional news reporters are paid if all the corporate newspapers go bankrupt. (That said: None of this is new. Newspapers have been shedding reporting staff like it’s been going out of style for more than a decade now. Have you noticed?)

News Writing

Most people think of news reporting and news writing as the same thing, but they’re different jobs and in some news organizations they’re performed by different people. The reporter is the person who pounds the pavement, attends the meetings and jawbones on the telephone; the writer is the person who takes that information and converts it into sentences.

Opinion and Analysis

A surprising number of the intelligent, educated people that I talk to are of the opinion that this is not part of the news. They could not be more incorrect. Objectivity is an ideal, not a law of the universe, and it’s not even possible to get a complete understanding of what’s going on (the “why” and “how” of a story) without reporters, writers and editors injecting their experience, common sense, and yes, their agendas, into the story.

In the past, this role was nearly exclusively performed by executive editors and senior news schlubs who had put in 40 years at the same paper so they could operate in semi-retirement and bloviate for six column inches per day. Today, this role can be done for free by any schlub with a blog.

Delivery

The act of getting the news from the newsroom office to the consumer. Formerly the purview of child laborers (such as myself) and retailers, now largely performed by maniacs in beaten-up Town & Country station wagons (and, of course, the internet).

Syndication

Syndication is a special case of delivery. It’s existed since the advent of the printed word. In the 20th century it was done by wire services, today it’s done by the Internet. My sense is that newspapers do not do enough of this today; one thing we could repair about today’s news model is to provide ways (both business and technical) for all kinds of newsgathering organizations to share resources more effectively. There are legal and business chasms that need to be crossed here; RSSifying your news content is necessary, but not sufficient.

Content Aggregation

Aggregation is the flip side of syndication. If I syndicate something, I am publishing it with the idea that someone else will pick it up and republish it; the person who republishes it is an aggregator. Historically this has been done by individual newspapers with content taken exclusively from wire services, but television does it a lot, too. I remember when I used to have access to the raw feed from the Associated Press, I’d go home after my work day and watch CNN reporting the same stories, often without bothering to rewrite the AP’s copy (which is kosher under the AP’s terms of use).

The NY Times recently started aggregating posts from blogs under special partnerships. It seems like the strategy here is to plug holes where their news organization has been traditionally weak. Technology is a prime example of this, and I’ve posted here many times about how poor the Times’ tech coverage is, so it’s great that they’ve recognized this and taken steps to plug the hole. It would not be challenging to think of lots of other scenarios where this strategy would work for other papers.

Fun fact about the Associated Press, by the way: did you know that the AP is a non-profit collective owned by its contributing members? I thought I would mention this here because their model is decidedly non-corporate and it has met with some success over the years. Recall that when we talk about the death of news, we’re actually talking about the death of the news business.

Reader Engagement

This used to be exclusively letters (and phone calls) to the editor. Now it’s comments on blog posts. Corporate web sites seem to be doing a poor job with this today, mostly for technical reasons — blogs have set the bar very low for the quality of user experience on comment threads and newspapers have no motivation to make them better. (I actually just dumped a comment on a ZDNet.com blog today because they make you register and log in to comment, and I didn’t want to pay a tax for the privilege of contributing content to them for free.)

One of these days, some smart cuss at a newspaper will start realizing that at least one comment out of a thousand is good enough to become the germ of an op-ed piece. At that time, the news organization will need a way to make that happen. Nobody that I know does this today; blog comments are treated like the bird cage droppings of the corporate news web site.

Another possible reason why newspaper blog comments generally suck is that news organizations think that moderating comments is going to be challenging and expensive (it’s really not). Another is the perception that there’s no tradition permitting the unwashed consumers of news to publish on an equal footing with professional journalists. Well, we’re done with that tradition now.

News Editing, Copy Editing

News editors oversee copy editors and can be responsible for writing headlines (so if you ever see a story with a nonsensical headline, don’t blame the news writer). They are the middle managers of large and small news organizations.

I’ve stated before that News 2.0 is going to need to find a place for the dedicated, talented news editor. I am sure that the wisdom of crowds is not going to cut it here. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t act in a vacuum, they acted with the backing of a news organization and an editor (Ben Bradlee) who pushed them and challenged them as they pursued the Watergate story.

Executive Editing

This mostly involves setting the agenda for the paper. Job titles here include managing editor, publisher, assignment editor, and so forth. Although these roles are nominally “editors,” they almost never work with actual copy (except maybe after the fact, typically when a reporter has screwed something up). The role of an executive editor is really to manage other editors and reporters.

There is (or there should be) a community outreach aspect to this; a few years ago the NY Times created a dedicated ombudsman role (the Public Editor) to handle this.

My sense is that most papers, large and small, have too many executive editors and not enough newsgatherers, but that could just be my bias as a former reporter who never really worked under a particularly inspiring executive editor. For me, one comforting way to reinterpret the death of the news business is to recast it as the death of the executive editor. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

Photography and Videography

The pretty pictures. It’s interesting to see how traditional print outlets such as the NY Times have been dragged into the video realm by the internet.

Web-based news aggregation sites are doing a terrible job with this today, probably because it’s challenging to aggregate photos under fair use, and identifying photos that can be syndicated in a timely fashion is a big technical challenge. There is probably an opportunity for a technical solution to this problem, but I have no idea whether there’s a business in it, which is probably why the problem hasn’t been solved yet.

In a world in which nearly everyone walks around with a cameraphone, outlets such as CNN and others have been turning their consumers into videographers, but this always seemed less like news and more like infotainment to me.

News Graphics

USA Today is largely responsible for unleashing these on the world in the 80s; I’d say that the NY Times probably does the best job of it today. This is very tricky to do well because you need to have a timely confluence of information, artistic ability, and a good story. But I can tell you with confidence that America’s supply of smart, young, computer-savvy graphic designers is huge at the moment.

Entertainment

Different than news. Comics, fashion, entertainment reviews (which can also be categorized under opinion/analysis), book reviews.

Local Listings

Different than news because they generally get generally submitted to a paper from venue owners and event promoters (i.e., prospective advertisers) and published verbatim. (By the way, the “published verbatim” part may have a role in an emerging definition of “what is news versus what is non-news”. I am on the fence as to whether automatically republishing a police blotter and placing it in a geographical context is really news or something else, but my gut feeling is to put it in the same category as entertainment listings — which is to say, it has a place in the news package, but may not be news as presented).

Sports

I’m not what you’d call a huge sports fan, so I was surprised to see surveys of newspaper readers stating that the biggest single reason that readers buy the physical newspaper is the sports page. But it’s definitely true. (Comics rank way up there, too, especially among a certain demographic. You know who you are, you Family Circus-lovin’ grandmas.)

Anyway, even as a non-sports fan, I know that there are huge areas where big urban papers are blowing it — two examples off the top of my head are prep sports and club sports. Historically the excuse was that the surface area of these beats is too large and typical sports departments are stretched too thin. In the age of the internet this argument no longer holds water.

I’m sure there are more things to add to this list, but one thing that jumps out at me is that there are a lot of things that the corporate news organization concerns itself with that aren’t textual, “traditional”, bylined news stories. You can divide these up like so:

  • Listings of various kinds. Real estate, entertainment (movies, concerts, etc.), upcoming civic events, directories, police blotter. Gradually being absorbed by various web sites.
  • Editing. Probably inexorably intertwined with the actual news bit, although proponents of wiki-style community authoring (of which I am not one) would have you believe differently.
  • Delivery and syndication. Both being replaced by the Web, although there’s still work to be done in this area, and in many cases the business gets in the way.
  • Sports. No idea what the state of the art is here, but I suspect it’s poor.
  • Agenda-setting. Formerly reserved to the newspaper’s editorial board and executive editorial management, now devolving to writers and consumers. One hundred years from now, this outcome may be held up as both the best and worst outcomes of the death of corporate news.

Perfecting a Donation Model for Local News

We belong to a couple of mailing lists in San Francisco for parents and families, one for school and another for the neighborhood. Parents in our neighborhood are going berserk at the moment because San Francisco is apparently threatening to eliminate most of the after-school programs run through the city Parks & Recreation department, which means that working parents are going to have to quit their jobs to look after their kids.

If your only source of information on this is The Chronicle, you might come away with the sense that this is no big deal, but there’s a giant dissonance between what the newspaper is reporting and what parents on the mailing list are actually saying. I guess the budget doesn’t get finalized until June 1, but a public hearing on the budget cuts is happening tomorrow, and naturally it’s taking place in the afternoon when working parents are, you know, at work, and that’s the source of a lot of parents’ angst here.

It’s insane that people should have to band together on an ad-hoc, last-minute basis to do something about this. This is where news reporters should come in. People should be able to attend public meetings if they want, but reporters (or “citizen journalists,” whatever) should be there at every one, acting as advocates for the people who are their constituents and kicking the asses of public officials at every turn. And these reporters should be able to make a living even if big news-gathering organizations can’t figure out how to make money. (Bonus points if the person doing the ass-kicking is a smart, motivated 25-year-old with a chip on her shoulder and absolutely nothing to lose.)

There are sites that are trying to match up motivated donors with freelance and semi-professional writers. The idea is to get people to kick in a few bucks apiece to send someone with a sport coat and a notepad to bust the asses of government officials in public meetings, then write up the results and post them somewhere.

I like what Spot.us is trying to do, but for me, it falls short in a couple of areas — most notably the fact that “newsgathering” is different than “a story”. The site’s flow pivots around the notion of a single news story (and the site itself walks and talks like a news portal with a series of stories on its front page), but its model doesn’t seem to support an ongoing newsgathering process. The difference may seem subtle, but suffice it to say that ongoing newsgathering is why major newspapers hire full-time staffers instead of exclusively relying upon teams of freelancers. For example, back in the day when I was reporting the news full-time and I saw a coroner fishing a body out of the surf as I drove by, I pulled over and got the story because I knew that I wasn’t going to have to get into a protracted negotiation with an editor about whether I’d get $20 or $25 for my work that day.

And rather than emphasizing “the story,” it should also be possible to fund the writer or the beat. Ongoing funding for a column or a beat can also align enthusiastic supporters with specific resources within a news organization; news organizations can divide up that support in various ways (just like research universities do with corporate donations). You might not feel super-motivated to cough up $100 a year to support the Miami Herald, but you might spend a little something to support Carl Hiassen, and if a fraction of the aggregated donations to Carl Hiassen also supported a full-time investigative reporter, then that would give people the news they need and gives Carl more fodder to write about at the same time. It’s what we in the winning business refer to as a win-win.

So what’s needed here isn’t an iTunes for news reporting. iTunes isn’t the right model for iTunes, much less for journalism. What we need is an Elance for news reporting. Provide a way for people to suggest coverage (not one-off stories, but ongoing coverage of issues, like city government, cops, poverty, etc.) and to get donors to pay for them. Then allow the news to fly free with the understanding that more exposure will draw in more donors.

Conversely, if the donors don’t come through, we pull the plug on our coverage, and we make sure that everybody knows that that took place. When the money runs out, the system sends an email out to people saying “we will have no city council coverage this week because there’s no money.” And watch how fast the money comes in.

Why haven’t news organizations done this in the past? I suspect because they don’t think that a donation model would support their capital investment (it’d be hard to get people to donate to pay for a new building for the SF Chronicle) and partly because of the pride/prestige factor (newspaper managers have an impulse to seem like dignified corporate executives than awkward pitchmen hosting a public broadcasting pledge drive). But nobody says that this has to be the only way that journalism gets funded. It’s just one possible replacement for an advertising-driven model that has been thoroughly kerploded.

News-gathering organizations actually have been doing a kind of sponsored targeted coverage for years. It’s called pool coverage. In situations where it’s not practical (battlefields) or economical (political campaigns) to have every news organization send reporters and photographers to every event, news organizations assign one of their writers (and photographers, and I suppose videographers, etc.) to cover the event as part of a pool. The report is made available to the pool and anyone who participates in the pool can use it. The difference between the pool coverage model and the Spot.us model is that it decouples the business from the agenda — the people paying for the news determine what gets covered. Time will tell if this is 100% good (it seems like if the model catches on it might favor car chases over public corruption — who knows if Woodward and Bernstein would have gotten funding to cover Watergate wherever it led in 1972 when even their own editors thought they were crackpots, but who knows, if this model had existed in 1972 it’s conceivable that Woodward and Bernstein would have been millionaires by 1974, when being a millionaire actually meant something).

Walter Isaacson: “How To Save Your Newspaper” on the Daily Show

Continuing the theme of the death of the journalism business model, here’s an interview from yesterday’s Daily Show with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute. Isaacson is a champion of the “there should be an ‘iTunes for news’ even though iTunes’ own business model has invalidated itself” crowd. He’s written a cover story on the topic in this month’s Time magazine; I don’t agree with much of what he says (particularly the part where he uses a totally bogus homespun childhood analogy to imply that free content is somehow tantamount to theft), but I thought it was interesting to hear.

Battle Plans for Newspapers

Excellent piece on the NY Times debate blog today on the future of journalism. I’m seeing a lot of these discussions both on newspaper sites and on sites that cover the future of journalism like the Nieman Foundation. It’s great that these things are getting discussed, although as I’ve mentioned before it seems like there is a divide between people who produce and pontificate about news and the people who understand the technology that’s disrupting it. Also, I suspect that the discussion is taking place at least ten years too late. Worse for news organizations, it’s happening in the context of a global recession, in which the impulse is to shed resources and hunker down rather than retool and realign to confront the disruption of their businesses.

Couple of thoughts on the Times piece:

1) We have got to get past the notion that “if the newspapers would just stop giving away their content for free, we wouldn’t have this problem”. Guess what? Newspapers have been giving away their content for free since the beginning of time — certainly before the advent of the internet. Every time you pick up a newspaper in a coffee shop or a library, you’re reading free news content.

Lots of newspapers (including the horrible pod-people Examiner here in San Francisco) deposit themselves on your doorstep whether you ask for them or not. How can that possibly be, in a world in which handling molecules is supposedly far more expensive than moving electrons? Somehow, the guy who puts the Examiner on my doorstep (where it goes unread) is making money.

So, the notion of “free content” can’t really be the whole problem. More importantly, with a few rare exceptions, consumers simply won’t pay for news content online. There was an ah-ha moment with the release of the new version of the Amazon Kindle this week — we were reminded that some Kindle users pay $13.95 per month for access to the Times on their Kindle devices. This seems crazy to me, although it probably wouldn’t seem so crazy if I had a 45-minute train commute each morning. It’s crazy because it’s the exact same business model that iTunes just abandoned — proprietary, expensive hardware, a closed model, draconian restrictions on how you can consume the content and on what device, and stark vulnerability to competitive emergent open systems. If you believe (as I do) that systems designed to control information are inherently destined to fail, investing in something like this is not in in interests of newspapers or their readers.

2) Andrew Keen, who argues that any serious discipline cannot possibly survive without a corps of dedicated professionals, is (still) a meathead. Most of what he asserts can be proven wrong by any eight-year-old armed with Google. Keen has developed a personal brand around internet community skepticism, and he defends his thesis so vigorously that it’s difficult to know whether he even believes himself. He is the Ann Coulter of online community.

3) The internet, as we see so often, is being held up here as a whipping-boy. This is unhelpful to the discussion of the future of journalism; it’s a distraction. Imagine a world in which local newspapers were in decline without the hindrance of the Internet. If you worked in a newsroom in 1992 like I did, you don’t have to imagine. But back then, publishers didn’t have the Internet to blame for declining circulation and advertising sales. In that context, you could imagine that free distribution and access to free content would be perceived as a panacea, not a threat. I would argue that the hesitance on the part of professional publishers and newsroom managers to accurately forsee the threat and opportunities posed by the internet and their reticence to adapt to is is mostly to blame for what’s going on now in journalism, not the internet in and of itself, since the problems of journalism predate consumer availability of the internet.

4) Anyway, this discussion is often framed as “the future of journalism,” but it’s really about the future of the business of journalism. Journalism and the business that supports it aren’t inexorably intertwined, although it may seem that way at the moment; one can argue that the business of journalism has been so badly mismanaged that it’s richly deserving of defeat in the marketplace.