October 15, 2013

Big newspapers: Too much content? Too dumbed-down of content? Too 2.0?

First, here's the too much content part of the equation.

The Thursday, Oct. 10 Guardian, one of Britain's top newspapers, had more words than James Joyce's Ulysses. You can't get a better explanation of how the a la carte nature of online news (I'm not counting PDF-ed e-editions, which seem more and more like a bastardized hybrid) undercut the mass market forcing of the modern metropolitan daily.

That's via an app that looks at both the online content AND the printed content of the Guardian and its Sunday sister, the Observer. The information then leads to these questions in the piece:
In the last seven days the Guardian, Observer and Guardian.co.uk between them have published 1.3 million words - and the split between print and web is more or less even. Now here are the questions:

-- What was the production cost for the print vs web content?

-- What's the tangible revenue returns from advertising and copy sales (or digital subscriptions) from both?

-- what on-going overheads are attached to both? So, people whose job it is to solely focus on print vs all that investment in web technology?

-- Is that content mix right, considering that in August The Guardian had an average Monday-Friday print circulation of 140,000 a day (it doubles on Saturday) yet more than 4.5 million daily unique browsers online?

There's no easy answer to this, but what's clear is that running a digital version of a "newspaper" or magazine — in which the exact same publishing model is ported to screens rather than print — will not work in the long run.
Indeed. And, it will work even less if, as is the Guardian, you're bleeding money like the gouts of blood of The Holy Grail's mutilated Black Knight, and you're doing so while still refusing to erect a paywall.

The answer? Put out quality news. Put up that paywall. Stop treating digital and hardcopy as the same, and, like the Economist, start thinking about how to become digital first while still producing serious news. As "Newsosaur" Alan Mutter notes, newspaper ad sales continue to sag. And, per his eight-year timeline, the sag started before the housing bubble really started bursting except in a select few places, so can't even really blame that.

There's other reasons for separating digital and print, and preparing for a digital-first future. Online ads, more and more, look for not just different software skills, but different temperaments, focuses, and angles, for one thing.

And, if you want to be really radical, when you go digital first? Drop those wire service subscriptions. Until the news aggregators have to pay high enough for them to put up paywalls, you simply can't compete.

So drop AP and Reuters.

Now, that said, this would be a nightmare from their point of view. So what. If you're an individual paper, you're not here to subsidize wire services.

(And, at some point in the future, I'm going to blog more specifically about these issues. Because, in addition to copy editors/paginators, printing presses and delivery drivers, for smaller dailies, especially, it's major overhead. If you don't drop the wire services, at least threaten to; bid them off against one another, etc.)

That said, at least the Guardian isn't acting like a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, John Timpane, who seems to be evangelizing for dumbing down via video.

On the dumbing down, we have indications that a number of newspapers are looking to add more video to their websites. But, at TV news length or shorter, contra industry claims, much of this video can't really be that informative. That's in part because at that length, it is just a sound bite, not an actual interview.

But, being more informative is just the stated surface reason, and one that's not true. The real reason? As shouldn't be too hard to guess — Facebook et al.
Streaming video is not about just showing -- it's about getting viewers to share things they like with others, helping content viralize, growing the audience. Andrew Pergam, senior editor of video for the Washington Post, says, "A huge part of our content is being looked at by people away from the site -- that means they're sharing it." Regal of the Journal reports that more than half of WSJ Live's audience sees its content off-site. Pergam says, "I want you to put our stuff on Facebook, link to it on Twitter. That's how we grow audience."
A specific example of that dumbing down? Next graph:
It's also about creating things -- products, features, stuff -- you can't get anywhere else. Pergam refers with pride to Obamacare Explained, in 2 Minutes, in which Wonkblog's Sarah Kliff gives us a swooshy, quick-cutting intro to the huge law. 
Bullshit. You can't explain Obamacare in 2 minutes, especially when only 14 percent of Americans who currently have health insurance say they understand what they now have.

John Timpane got what sounds like a great quote from well-known media analyst Mutter:
"Publishers are trying to grow their audience," says Alan D. Mutter, a consultant in new-media ventures involving journalism and technology. "A lot of people on the go are not going to sit down for a long read. Younger audiences are attuned to the quick hit, the infographic, the video that makes a complex story accessible and vivid."
I wonder if Mutter was asked that without knowing that Obamacare can allegedly be explained in 2 minutes.

And, you can't be explanatory with videos when this is your idea of what they should look like:
The Fourth Estate 2.0 isn't -- because it can't be -- the same as regular old TV. This is the Web. Productions stress brevity, sass, swooshes, quick cuts, clever visuals.
"The Fourth Estate 2.0?" Barf inducing. That said, in an email exchange, though he defended the general ideas of virality, Timpane passed on my "barf inducing" comment in the first email.

That said, this whole idea of "grow audience," and not just for newspapers, but for websites in general talking about "community," has long been refuted. The "pageview" idea for newspapers in particular died long ago. You may be growing an audience for somebody on Facebook who has beaucoup RSS feeds, or follows 5,000 people on Twitter, but you;re not building growing audience for your newspaper.

And this piece from Tech Crunch undercuts the idea of online "communities" in the discussion of whether or not to have online comments.

I think the idea of Internet communities is more bullshit than reality, and that bullshit has gotten worse in recent years, probably fueled by the self-congratulatory epistles of various founders and/or boosters of the social media world, Gnu Media memers, etc. 

That said, browsing the combined website for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, which itself looks like some sort of mashup of a Buzzfeed wannabe and Windows 8 Surface tiles, for Mr. Timpane's writings, I can see how he might be a Gnu Media memer, social media touter, etc.

Beyond that, unless it's something like a natural disaster, news videos don't get shared. Entertainers' videos, "stupid people tricks" stuff, other LOLs stuff? They get shared.

So, on Timpane's "Fourth Estate 2.0?" Pass. And, no, bringing up these ideas isn't "shouting at myself."

That said, I will offer a bit of sympathy for this particular version of devil. Folks like Timpane are trying to make the traditional newspaper "cool" to young people. Well, you can do that. It's called the Daily Mail, which has massive hits on both sides of the pond.

That said, at least in web form, I don't consider the Daily Mail to really be a newspaper anymore. It's halfway down the road to the "virality" equivalent of a shopper. 

Beyond that, contra Mr. Timpane and per this piece in the NYT about its own online revenue future, we have:
While media analysts have predicted that video advertising revenue could also soon decline, Mr. Thompson said video would contribute to the company’s broader strategy. 
I'm not a media analyst, but that's certainly possible. It would reflect monetization issues on the Internet in general, where you have the exact reverse of the tragedy of the commons. Until electricity prices go to the moon or server computers become insanely expensive, we have an essentially infinite "space" for both "content" (news, theoretically, in the case of newspapers) and advertising as well. That means fewer eyeballs see YOUR news, even while advertisers pay less to fill your diminishing share of that infinite space.

So, somebody comes along with a new angle. A year or two ago, it was "mobile," and we've seen how much money that generated. And, how much more it's likely to continue not generating. Now it's "video."

Also per Mutter, younger people are skewing away from online videos. Mr. Timpane probably didn't even notice that.

Beyond that, the article is good for noting how, in general, newspapers seem to overvalue the monetization possibilities of new offerings.

Except when they resist the monetization of automated ones, that is. Earlier this week, AdWeek had a story talking about programmatic ad buying, and publishers pushing back against it, insisting that more human element on their sales side is still needed.

Why? Look at Google's personalizing its search algorithm for "you." Or Amazon, as noted here, using an algorithm, not people, to personalize its books recommendations.

Programmatic ad buying and placement is in its infancy. Give it five years. Sorry, but half of ad departments at major newspapers will be either part-time or gone by then, in all likelihood. That's sad, yes, but if you're a publicly traded newspaper company, and your hardcopy ad sales and circ both continue to slip ...

And, at the same time, this is another reason I'm not totally sympatico with the Gnu Media gurus. They tell traditional media that they could do a better job of covering hard news, without explaining how to pay for it. When the issue of paywalls gets raise, their hackles go up. So, a newspaper like the JOA twins in Philly bets on virality (after canning its previous editor, which makes me wonder if Timpane's comment isn't at least a bit PR fluff). But the Gnu Media folks then tell you, like I did above, that the old pageview idiom is dead.

Update, Oct. 24: McClatchy is another company finding enough gold in paywalls to offset continuing hardcopy ad and circulation revenue declines. 

That said, I get the Jay Rosens and Clay Shirkys of the world for not dealing more head-on with newspapers trying to finance news gathering. After all, they're all in academia and have been for decades. I don't get Mathew Ingram or Jeff Jarvis; they both have extensive time in the biz, and know that you find revenue as it is; if a paywall brings in more revenue, especially as part of a larger strategy, than it chases away (and the evidence on that is pretty clear that it does), you do it.

I've not heart Ingram on the "information wants to be free," but I know the other three get it wrong, as part of fighting paywalls.

That said, if hardcopy papers are the equivalent of SUVs facing high gas prices, video won't pay that much freight, and becoming junior versions of the Daily Mail will likely be off-putting (besides not building "communities") what's to be done?

1. Get Wall Street to accept further reality on profit margins
2. Start cutting those corner suite salaries more
3. Take your newspapers private


Jeff Jarvis said...

If the wonders of paywalls are so self-evident, then why did Dallas and San Francisco kill them, for example?

Gadfly said...

San Francisco was doing theirs wrong, even by the limited success a two-track regular plus premium paywall is likely to have.

Dallas? They're stupid.

I've blogged about both before. Especially the Snooze, right here: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/09/dallas-morning-news-hits-new-online.html

Let me put it this way: if no paywalls is so smart, why don't regular newspapers just become free, like alt weeklies?