Sunday, January 4, 2009

Future of news, if any

"Networking, Ad Revenue and Reinvention", by my blog friend Newscoma on the new site NewsTechZilla, which she shares with a partner, has me thinking about the parlous future of the news business. It costs money to find out the facts, and yet hardly anyone is willing to pay for it.

Reader unwillingness to pay is not new. Advertisers pay the bills, not readers, and they always have (where 'always' means 'in my lifetime').

Goodbye paper

One future we all know: Paper's over. No point discussing it.

As soon as advertisers figure out that they can get into just as many eyeball-deploying wallets on line as they get from dead trees, the whole expensive process of distributing inky gray newsprint to every suburb will immediately become too uneconomical to continue. I've read a daily newspaper for more than 40 years, but I dropped my Boston Globe subscription last fall. I feel like a sponger sometimes, but I was tired of recycling unopened papers.

Newspaper advertisers have been overpaying for years, anyway, and that wasn't going to go on forever. When I do get a paper, the first thing I do is to recycle the circulars. Sooner or later, the sponsors are going to figure that out. A little time watching a conveyor at a newsprint recycling plant should be enough.

The demise of paper has one consequence that newspapers have long realized: Video and audio clips are now part of the newspaper, just as text is part of news sites descended from TV such as One of the New York Times's chief competitors is in fact CNN.

Slice and dice

Once you're on line, though, the viewport of a news site is different from a newspaper. Why would a local paper even try to compete with the New York Times in national and international coverage? Truth is, local papers haven't been competing with the NYT forever (same definition). Part of my childhood, I read the Knoxville News-Sentinel, whose idea of international coverage was four one-paragraph blurbs - lead paragraphs off the wires - twice a week. They outsourced their national coverage to the AP and UPI or, preferably, the other Scripps papers. Nonetheless, the Sentinel pretended to cover all the news.

On line, local papers are learning not even to pretend. The MetroWest Daily News only puts local content on line. National stories without a local tie? Maybe they make the dead tree edition, maybe not. On line, the Nov. 5th headline was "MetroWest voters help elect first black president".

Why should they pretend? Their readers are already on line, where they can easily get far better and more complete coverage. As Newscoma puts it, quoting Vibinc:
Readers can get the AP feed ANYWHERE.
What's happening is the end of the vertical integration of news-gathering. Very few organizations will have the profits to compete at all levels and in all general interest areas. Really, how many national newspapers do we need? There will be some larger regional newspapers, too. The LA Times and the Chicago Tribune may have to settle for regional, though at worst the LA Times's potential region is pretty damn huge.

Location, location, location

Everyone else is going to need a niche where they can be the big dog. Some of those niches are going to be verrry small. Current well-reputed semi-national papers such as the Globe had better have terrific, detailed, and much more easily navigated sports coverage. If they don't, sites will spring up to cream off those highly motivated readers. (Hmm, business idea?)

Local coverage is a vital competitive advantage for professional reporters. Instead, newspaper consortiums are hollowing out. Community Newspaper Co., now owned by Gatehouse Media, has done this in an attempt to capture economies of scale. The problem is that Gatehouse and their predecessors have interpreted that as calling for staff cuts. They can always pull in a story from the next town over, as they do in the weekly I still subscribe to (and used to write for). Problem is, their readers want to read about their own town, not what the school committee did about mold in their elementary school.

At the bottom end are the amateurs and semi-pros who report news. Maybe they report about quilting. Or maybe they actually cover the police and fire reports in their towns. Some of them with an extreme tolerance for boredom, occasionally punctuated with real drama, may even cover the meetings of local political boards. All of these topics are valuable to someone, which is why Gatehouse Media is suing the Globe over its knock-off of Gatehouse's local aggregation pages.

Unfortunately, it appears that the subversives at the Globe who are trying bring it into the blog age don't have enough executive buy-in to get convenient links from the front web page. I'm no newbie, but I still have trouble finding the new media and had to search to find Your Town. In fact, the Globe site overall needs much better organization. CNC, unbelievably, is ahead.

It could be that the Globe executives are still pushing paper and that they want their site to be hard to use. If so, they've succeeded, though that word is an oxymoron in this context. They're only cutting their own throats.


Like 'Coma, I don't know how to pay for it. Only the Wall Street Journal has succeeded at getting revenue from on-line subscribers, and that's because of its special and tax-deductible specialty as the indispensable business paper. Even the New York Times, America's number one national general interest newspaper, failed with TimesSelect.

I'd like to think that a micropayment system might work, but I just don't believe it. No one wants to read with the meter running. (Micropayments would be a far better solution to email spam, as Bob Metcalfe long ago argued in the departed dead tree edition of InfoWorld.)

Ad it all up

That means we're stuck with advertising. Web browsers make many wicked annoying ad types possible. The Globe now pops up ads when you click a link. I kill them as fast as I can. Pop-unders are hardly better. But the worst ad type is a hijacking ad; the Minneapolis Star Tribune pops up borderless ads with transparent backgrounds. Try to click a link under the ad pane and you get jerked over to a commerce site that you're probably not interested in since you were trying to click something else. In fact, the Star Tribune probably gets to charge its sponsors more money because they generated a click-through, even if that does border on fraud.

There are going to be product placements, too. When I used to still be willing to watch all the fluff on CNN TV, about half the stories felt like placements to me. The conscientious sites will label ads. Many others won't.


Crystal balls are notorious producers of bullshit. This one may be no exception.

Print media already serve a market segment rather than everyone who wants news. Most people don't read much if they can avoid it. They'd rather see pretty pictures. Print-oriented news sites that descend from newspapers need to recognize that not everyone wants to read, and they should serve those who do want to read. No doubt, they still need to be visually attractive and easy to use, both for their core customers and to attract new ones.

Print media companies will not be virtual corporations, though sometimes they will look like them. Instead, they will have their niches, and they will aggregate everything else. Each day will be a rap track that samples heavily from other sources. Assigning rights and payments will be a matter for lawsuits, evolving markets, and eventually statutes.

To this point, news aggregators mainly suck. Most aggregation sites are automated, ugly, and hard to navigate. I use the blog aggregator BlogNetNews, but the learning curve there is steep, and their rankings are easily manipulated. Technical problems will be solved, not by magic but first by proprietary software and then by open source. Or maybe open source will get there first, last, and only.

The sites that the aggregators aggregate will have all sorts of sizes and specialties. The advertisers will determine which ones survive as businesses and which are left to hobbyists. If I claimed I could tell in advance what type of organizations would be best suited for the new environment, well, I might be the Bernie Madoff of new media.

One thing that will be especially hard to judge is the relationship of one site to others. Do you share traffic, or are you competing for the same traffic? With this post, I want to share NewsTechZilla's traffic. Since I'm not working this subject every day, that's probably fine with my blog friends, but what if I did want to poach on their preserve? Is building a larger conversation more important than hosting the conversation? It will depend...

The answer will affect how much link-sharing sites want to do. The Globe links to me, primarily I'm sure because I asked early. They'll get stingier later. Most of the Globe site, in fact, is already verrry stingy with links, which is one of the reasons I suspect that their business people really don't understand how doomed their current business model is. (Or maybe their owners at the NYT are making them, as a hedge. Except that the NYT does not encourage its commenters to link, either.)

My suggestion for a rule: If you have even one order of magnitude more traffic, link away. You'll help the little site, and its owner will be grateful. (Against that, CNN used to give me links, and I constantly bit the hand that fed me.)

The new media winners will be good enough that they can link freely to interesting and vivid one-offs without losing their readers to the linked site. Their readers will continue to trust them to find - and sometimes, to re-report - nuggets that would otherwise wind up buried in the avalanche of mostly crappy content. Chances are, for example, if you won't help your commenters link to their blogs or whatever, you don't have enough confidence in the uniqueness and quality of your content to build a permanent audience.

I don't make the news

What's the upshot for reporters and columnists? The generalist days are probably gone, and this is a loss. Both reporters and columnists need areas of special expertise. Don't blame me; I'm just calling it as I see it.

Tom Friedman and Bill Kristol have been superficial or wrong so many times that it's a wonder they still have jobs that don't involve upselling French fries. Many political bloggers do a better job without expense accounts, though of course you have to find them. That will be the future role of op-ed editors.

Reporters need forensic accounting or business experience or foreign studies or public administration or something else that will permit them to do much more than rewrite press releases. They need math and science. (Sorry!) Because so many of us crazy semi-pros and amateurs are willing to spend Sunday afternoon writing analyses like this, reporters need knowledge that is rare, and English usage is not rare enough.

Reporters will need one integrated skill that columnists are supposed to have: the willingness to call bullshit and make it stick by deft display of facts. They don't need a visible point of view; there's plenty of that for free. But the jejune, faux balanced story structure pioneered by Time Magazine of thesis-antithesis-superior shrug is not going to cut it.

Reporters will need to be able to write short. Yeah, I still need to figure that one out. But at least I gave you cut-lines.

Update (1/5): One classic example of expertise that takes one slice of news stack and owns it is Nate Silver's 538.

1 comment:

Newscoma said...

This is an amazing breakdown. Just amazing.