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How To Save Media
October 12, 2009 8:56 AM   Subscribe

How To Save Media Jason Ponti from Technology Review offers some suggestions as to how traditional print publishers might save themselves from becoming irrelevant.
posted by reenum (30 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
This seems more reasonable than much of what I've read on the topic.
posted by snofoam at 9:29 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


A lot of old-school over-thinking in that piece -- old media could have weathered the changes with ease, but they (a) chose to be stenographers instead of journalists producing stories that were anything but news, (b) passed flawed opinion off as news, and (c) could ignore audience under 30 who they thought were too stupid to be news consumers and when they did try to come on to that demographic they did it in most cringe-worthy way possible -- by using dated slang and pop culture references -- as I have said elsewhere, there is a difference between the headlines "Are your children safe at school?" and "And you safe at school"? When news producers could finally remember what news is about, then the rest falls into place...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:33 AM on October 12, 2009


Considering this polemic is posted on a blog with links and comments, I had a hard time taking him seriously.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 9:41 AM on October 12, 2009


The "crisis" in print journalism has been brewing for more than 30 years now. The newspaper industry was struggling in the 80s and 90s due to competition with broadcast media and massive consolidation. By '90, the majority of the United States was served by only one daily newspaper, usually one that was part of a larger media empire.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:44 AM on October 12, 2009


That's an interesting article with a range of concrete proposals, which makes it much more practical that the hand-waving that often comes with these things.

The comments on the article seem to think it's merely tinkering around the edges, but the moeny prescription is surely this one:

"4. Editorial departments should become smaller. How small? Unless a newspaper or magazine has a deep-pocketed patron, it must turn a real and predictable profit. If it has a patron, a publication's losses must be predictable and sustainable. Along with other expenses, editorial budgets must retract until they are rational or the publication will be shuttered. Accepting this will be inordinately difficult for most editors; only their own termination or the bankruptcy of their company will really convince them. "
posted by patricio at 9:55 AM on October 12, 2009


looks like an interesting answer to a question very few people are asking.
posted by Laotic at 10:03 AM on October 12, 2009


Ah, once again we see the miracle: "One day, some innovator will stumble upon something that will reliably subsidize the publications of the future."

Step 3: Profit!

I do so adore the "... and all you have to do is find the right business model" parts. It's like magic. Here's an idea where I wonder if it is fundable and sustainable: a bounty placed upon the faces of every blogger who relies upon the $MagicBusinessModel method, for a righteous pieing. Chocolate. Custard. Key lime. I know Fundable.Com is more or less over, but I think we can do this.
posted by adipocere at 10:06 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


For the life of me I don't understand why anyone would want to read the news on the internet when they can have a truck deliver a sliced chunk of bleached dead tree covered with greasy ink right to their door every day of the year.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:06 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


A magazine should be run as a business? Expenses ≤ Income? Consider me shocked. Shocked.

In all seriousness, this same thing happened to Gourmet magazine. The were on the wrong side of that equation, so they folded. 60 years of history, gone just like that. Because you can't run a business based purely on the faith that you'll be there next year simply because you were there last year.

Gourmet had to maintain a certain level of quality, and those photographs/editors are expensive. And they continued to book them based on the way the magazine was before, even when their ad pages were down 42%. It seems so obvious.

Which is part of the reason why Shirky is so right. He's able to view these things from a distance.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 10:12 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I still get the bleached dead tree covered with greasy ink delivered to my door every morning for multiple reasons. I want to support the one local paper that has at least a moderately liberal point of view over the other local one that is a horrible right-wing conspiracy supporting mouthpiece of a crazy billionaire. Also, I have friends who work there and in general their local reporting is pretty good.
posted by octothorpe at 10:18 AM on October 12, 2009


This made me LOL:

The creation of good journalism is a tremendously laborious process, requiring an infrastructure more expensive than any press. The illustration and design of stories has an infrastructure, too...

Illustration and design of stories is ceasing to exist in the sense he means. Yes, graphic design as it relates to web pages is an evolving art, but it is not at all the same animal as page layout-based design. Much more likely to look like film-directing, ie, Flash photo essays, than huge page spreads of the graphic-design heyday (whenever you think that was).

And then this:

That's because the editorial distributed to such screens will be as interactive as that on today's websites yet retain the fonts, graphical design, and illustrations and photographs of traditional media (a wonderfully rich visual grammar that art directors labored over for centuries).

No it will likely not retain the fonts and graphical design of traditional media because it's not traditional media. Right now it looks worse, all blinky and fragmented; in future it may look better, sleek and unobtrusive. But it won't look like traditional media.

And....Centuries? Really?

Reading this was like working for my old boss, who would wax poetic about "the grid" and Mondrian and whatnot while we were laying out an utterly mundane newsletter for a company's department. I mean, yes, know your principles, but for God's sake, don't be so pompous about it.
posted by emjaybee at 10:28 AM on October 12, 2009


At least once all these mags and papers fail we'll hopefully stop hearing execs flail about on how they can save their outdated and inefficient way of distributing information. I'd like to see some of the smaller local rags hold on though.
posted by no_moniker at 11:29 AM on October 12, 2009


Newspapers and magazines make money from subscriptions and from advertising. Both sources moving more and more to the Net. But magzines and some papers catching on and soon the major ones will charge to be read online and give you cookies so you can not copy and paste without violating copyright laws. The Economist is flourishing and it has just announced and end to freebies; The Wall Street Journal is flourishing. and it give very little away now that is free. The NY Times and others are in the planning stages of a similar online presence. Magazine such as The New Yorker give some stuff free but the best items for subscribers only (on lin e or hard copy).
We can denounce the "older" way of doing things but most blogs either take stuff from the "outdated' media or rephrase what is found there or, if they ignore the media, present mostly personal views based upon reading pages that are Right or Left.
posted by Postroad at 11:31 AM on October 12, 2009


Former Guardian editor Peter Preston had some interesting observations:
Around 70.3 million unique users visited a US newspaper website in June, only one-third of the actual (210 million or so) American universe of users. The average visitor spent 38 minutes and 24 seconds a month on one, or more likely, a variety of many sites. That means that around 140 million US web users didn't go near any newspaper-originated news. It also means that, on one calculation, just 1.2% of all surfing-cum-browsing time was spent on newspaper websites...

And when you split the statistics down further, differentiating between papers, their relative standing can't be avoided. What price nine minutes and nine seconds over a month for average visiting time to the New York Post site Rupert Murdoch hopes to charge for? (Not much of a revenue stream at 19 seconds a day!) Or three minutes 11 seconds at the Miami Herald? Or five minutes 45 seconds at the Washington Times

Results like these - from the New York Times' 29 minutes 57 seconds in a month down - reveal two important facts. That only hardened readers of newspaper editions, including journalists, read the websites as though they were digital papers. And that the rest just click quickly through in pursuit of some fact or picture. No branding or devotion: only utility.

Here's a basic point to register. The average New York Times print reader spends roughly as long with his paper a day as the average NYT net user spends online in a month.
Jason Pontin seems to have some good ideas. But he's still trying to push paid subscriptions for some content: "content that is uniquely intelligent; that relies on proprietary data, investigation, or analysis; that helps readers with their jobs, investments, or personal consumption; or that is very expensively designed." But it seems to me that at only 19 to 60 seconds a day, web readers aren't really going to care enough to subscribe.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:35 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Editorial departments should become smaller.

If "editorial department" means the people who write those lame blurbs on "The issues of the day", then yes, by all means fire them.

But if "editorial department" means those fine folks who keep the most horrendous grammar, spelling and factual mistakes out of the articles, then no, my local paper needs to hire either
A) more or B) smarter editorial department employees.
posted by madajb at 11:38 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Good stuff — not so much in its specifics as in its basic recognition that you won't build the good journalism of the future by relying on amateurs.

Some of the comments beneath it, and some here, are proof of how much of the extreme, Jeff Jarvisy end of the anti-"traditional media" argument is now a matter of religious zeal with no regard for facts. Here's a person with a deep background in media, explaining that his industry will have to undergo enormous and painful change to keep producing the kind of journalism that it produces — and which we need — and yet apparently he's still a hopeless mistaken old-fashioned stuck-in-the-mud self-interested dinosaur. Apparently the only qualification for dinosaurhood, now, is believing that the journalism people produce when they're paid all day to do it is better than the stuff amateurs produce in the evening when they get home from work.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:40 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Apparently the only qualification for dinosaurhood, now, is believing that the journalism people produce when they're paid all day to do it is better than the stuff amateurs produce in the evening when they get home from work.

Well here's the thing, though, this is, apparently, what a majority of Americans think. From the Pew Center for the People & the Press:

"Just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate."*

Furthermore, only 18% of Americans say that the news deals fairly with all sides.

These are not my opinions, these are data, and the data show that Americans' trust in and credibility ratings of news media have been declining steadily for decades. So yeah, publications can try to charge people for content editors believe is "uniquely intelligent; that relies on proprietary data, investigation, or analysis; that helps readers with their jobs, investments, or personal consumption; or that is very expensively designed," but good luck convincing the audience that this content is worth paying for.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, only 18% of Americans say that the news deals fairly with all sides.

Well, yes, America has only gotten more polarized, and our idea of fairness has changed radically.
posted by mkb at 12:30 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your post advocates a

( ) technical ( ) legislative (X) market-based ( ) crowd-sourced

approach to saving journalism. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won't work. (One or more of the following may apply to your particular idea, and it may have other flaws owing to the avaraciousness of modern publishers.)

( ) It does not provide an income stream to the working journalist
( ) Nobody will spend eight hours sitting in a dull council meeting to do it
( ) No one will be able to find the guy
(X) It is defenseless against copy-and-paste
(X) It tries to prop up a fundamentally broken business model
(X) Users of the web will not put up with it
( ) Print readers will not put up with it
( ) Good journalists will not put up with it
( ) Requires too much cooperation from unwilling sources
( ) Requires immediate total cooperation from everybody at once
(X) Many publishers cannot afford to lose what little business they have left
( ) Anyone could anonymously destroy anyone else's career or business
( ) Even papers run by trusts and charities are already going bankrupt

Specifically, your plan fails to account for

(X) Readers' unwillingness to pay for just news
( ) The existence and popularity of the BBC
(X) Unavoidable availability of free alternatives
( ) Sources' proven unwillingness to "go direct"
( ) The difficulty of investigative journalism
( ) The massive tedium of investigative journalism
(X) The high cost of investigative journalism
( ) Unpopularity of weird new taxes
(X) Editorial departments small enough to be profitable are too small to do real reporting
( ) Legal liability of "citizen journalism"
( ) The training required to be even an rubbish journalist
(X) What readers want, in the main, is celebrity and football
( ) The necessity of the editing process
(X) Americans' huge distrust of professional journalism
( ) Reluctance of governments and corporations to be held to account by two guys with a blog
( ) Inability of two guys with a blog to demand anything
( ) How easy it is for subjects to manipulate two guys with no income
( ) Rupert Murdoch
( ) The inextricably local nature of much newsgathering
( ) The dependence of all other forms of news media on print reporting
( ) The dependence of national press on local press reporting
( ) Technically illiterate politicians
( ) The tragedy of the commons
( ) The classified-driven business model of much print publishing
(X) The tiny amounts of money to be made from online ads for small sites

and the following philosophical objections may also apply:

( ) Ideas similar to yours are easy to come up with, yet none have ever been shown practical
( ) That the US press dropped the ball on Iraq is a symptom, not a cause
(X) Print advertising pays so well because advertisers *can't* work out the return they're getting.
( ) Information does not want to be free
(X) Society depends on journalists producing news that few readers are actually all that interested in, quite honestly
( ) That your friend was misquoted once in a paper does not mean journalism is bunk
( ) Everybody reading the same story is a feature, not a bug
( ) Having a free online "printing press" doesn't turn you into a journalist any more than your laser printer did
(X) Wall Street won't allow newspaper groups to back off from 20% profit margins
(X) Newspaper executives are second only to record industry executives for short-sighted idiocy
(X) E-paper still doesn't give publishers back their ad monopoly and hence its revenue
(X) You can't charge for online content unless all your competitors do it too, all at once.
( ) Ethics are hard to hold up when your bills are due
( ) Citizen journalists are almost as good as citizen dentists
( ) "Gatekeepers" can help keep out undesirable things
(X) Publishing less often makes you even less relevant
( ) Feel-good measures do nothing to solve the problem
( ) Free society depends upon a free press
( ) Democracy is bad enough with the press we've already got
( ) You think print is bad? Imagine Fox News, as a blog. That's what your idea will turn into.
( ) Reader-generated content is to professional news what YouTube is to big-studio movies.
(X) Have you read the comments on news websites? They make YouTubers look like geniuses.
( ) You are Jeff Jarvis
( ) Or Dave Winer

Furthermore, this is what I think about you:

(X) Sorry dude, but I don't think it would work.
( ) This is a stupid idea, and you're a stupid person for suggesting it.
( ) Nice try, assh0le! I'm going to find out where you live and burn your house down!


With apologies to Cory Doctorow
posted by fightorflight at 1:51 PM on October 12, 2009 [46 favorites]


With apologies to Cory Doctorow

For the record, that's not Doctorow's work.
posted by madajb at 2:18 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


What do people mean when they say the want to 'save traditional media'? Are they concerned about the integrity and/or viability of professional journalism? Or are they talking about the local newspaper per se? I see a difference between the two.

If you're concerned about the local paper, then the way to 'save' it, and to protect it from 'copy-and-paste', is to make it local. Make it a useful source of information about the local area. Withdraw the focus from covering national / world events by offering warmed-over AP articles and op-eds about the national scene - there are plenty of places for people to get that stuff. Stop trying to be a national 'paper of record.' Try to be more like the Chicago Reader or RedEye or some actual local paper, although obviously less rock-and-roll focused.

Focus on local issues, in a sophisticated and knowledgeable way. Write about stuff that's big enough to be useful to people in your area, and small enough that no one outside of that area is going to care. Cover local restaurants and theater companies, cover the start of deer season, talk about issues in the local police and fire departments etc. Review local hiking and biking trails. What's happening at the local university. Cover local and state elections, property tax appraisals. Have a big map of the city on the back page, with the locations of that week's major local events highlighted there. Maybe have a 'standing' map with useful locations marked on it, every week, for visitors and out-of-towners. Sell the damn thing for $.25 out of vending machines, especially at the airport, bus stations, train stations.

Frankly, I think a lot of 'small town' newspapers are pound-for-pound more 'valuable' to their readers because it contains actual information about the area, including inexpensive advertising for local businesses. Think about how much of the Sunday paper you throw away every week right off the bat - PARADE, the ad circulars, etc., compared to something like the Cross Plains Register, pop. 1047. The challenge is to do the same sort of thing but with more polish than small town, mom-and-pop paper. Get over the idea that just because a paper is local means it has to be hayseed.
posted by Hot Wing Militia at 2:26 PM on October 12, 2009


Without posting all that again, Hot Wing Militia, that doesn't work because there's no way to pay all the journalists that are required to write all that local news. All the big traditional methods of making money that newspapers used are now done much better and for much cheaper or free by the Internet. That's why and what people are talking about "saving": exactly the thing you say they should be doing.
posted by fightorflight at 2:30 PM on October 12, 2009


1. I guess I have it in my head papers can reduce some overhead by not having to shell out fees etc for access to AP wire reports, having local writers to cover national events, etc. Admittedly I don't know how much money that would actually save. Not a very sound basis for argument.

However, it doesn't look to me that there are that many papers that have done, or are doing, just that - i.e. going local - that are in trouble. My impression from reading the news is that many of the papers in real trouble are the semi-national ones - Chicago Trib, LA Times, Rocky Mt News, as well as the larger suburban newspaper chains that ape the format of the nationals. Yet whenever I'm in some redonculously small town here in TX, there's always a local paper for a quarter a throw, that's been publishing continuously for decades. And again, there are small papers like the Chicago Reader that seem to have been around forever. Why? Do people need them? Can they not find that information elsewhere?

I wonder if there isn't some inherent value in the fact that a paper isn't on the internet, but that you can actually carry the damn thing around with you, fold it up and stick it in your briefcase, and read it on the train.

Anyway, maybe this is just misty-eyed sentamentalism for some 1950s paper that could never exist again...
posted by Hot Wing Militia at 2:52 PM on October 12, 2009


while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate.

Including 100% of people who were interviewed for stories, it seems.
posted by smackfu at 7:41 PM on October 12, 2009


It's funny, emjaybee; that line you mentioned LOLing at ("The creation of good journalism is a tremendously laborious process, requiring an infrastructure more expensive than any press") was basically my takeaway message from the whole thing when I first read it back in May. That doesn't mean I agree that charging for any and all content is the answer, because I don't necessarily think that. I'm not sure what the answer is, especially for my branch of the media (magazines). I'm just saying...that line struck me as truth, and I'm not sure why you found it so funny.

These are not my opinions, these are data

Data about people's opinions, heh, DiscourseMarker. Not that I disagree with anything you said, just found the wordplay amusing.
posted by limeonaire at 8:42 PM on October 12, 2009


I couldn't get past this guy's smugness. And what's the word for myopic smugness? The guy is lecturing me about how I, the news and opinion consumer, will suffer horribly at the hands of bloggers as opposed to "real" journalists, and yet his publication probably won't exist in five years, whereas places like Talking Points Memo will.

Journalism won't die, but it's going to look a lot different from now on. It's going to become decentralized and alas, we won't have assholes like conservative loon David Broder, gravitas and all, telling us what we should think about our politics. But this is a good thing. This is an exceptional and exciting thing.

Print newspapers and magazines, however, can't die fast enough.
posted by bardic at 9:04 PM on October 12, 2009


These are not my opinions, these are data, and the data show that Americans' trust in and credibility ratings of news media have been declining steadily for decades.

Yes, but they're not data that give any reason for thinking that amateurs can do things better. We need to get over all this grave-dancing glee and smugness (usually from those accusing the traditional media of smugness) and really ask ourselves a) if we want, as a society, what newspapers at their best have provided, and if so, b) how specifically we are going to get that in the future, either by protecting traditional news organizations or building new ones. "Let them fail and see what happens in their place" isn't good enough, and nor is "they brought it on themselves".
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:38 AM on October 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


For the record, that's not Doctorow's work.

How could it be? It's clever and readable.
posted by Ratio at 10:47 AM on October 13, 2009


Yes, but they're not data that give any reason for thinking that amateurs can do things better. We need to get over all this grave-dancing glee and smugness (usually from those accusing the traditional media of smugness) and really ask ourselves a) if we want, as a society, what newspapers at their best have provided, and if so, b) how specifically we are going to get that in the future, either by protecting traditional news organizations or building new ones. "Let them fail and see what happens in their place" isn't good enough, and nor is "they brought it on themselves".

I'm not trying to say anything about who can produce quality journalism. That's not my point. My point is that in the current profit-based, corporately-owned model of news production, news content is a product, and it is a product, fundamentally, that most Americans do not want to buy. Based on other public opinion research I have read, I actually think that the answer to a) is in fact, no.

I'm sorry to say, but however popular investigative journalism may be on MetaFilter, it does not seem to have the same currency with the rest of the country. I personally think that is quite depressing, but I think that any solution that tries to fix the problem by focusing on variations of the business model are missing the point. If you want to save journalism, you have to first convince the American public that they want/need it. Then you come up with a way to pay for it.

I have, frankly, no idea how we do that, but none of the proposals I've read seem willing to address this issue, either.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:08 AM on October 14, 2009


Over a decade ago I was part of a London-based magazine publishing company, and the company decided to risk a big throw of the dice on a new monthly high-end magazine about food. Food illustrated with expensive arty photos, and guest columns by the great and the good. If you know the UK market you can probably work out the title.

So they launched this thing and it was a huge launch: front-page advertising on daily newspapers, copies given away free with the Sunday editions of the bestselling broadsheets, a lot of money. And the sales total for the first issue came back, and it was under 10,000 copies. Quite a long way under. Money-haemorrhagingly under.

(The title I was on, meanwhile, quietly passed 100,000 sales, with half the staff and a quarter of the editorial budget. We would go upstairs and ask if we could use the foodmag's colour printer--we didn't have a colour printer on our floor--and be looked on like we'd just farted in their blancmange.)

After a few more over-hyped and under-selling issues, the magazine underwent a minor change. A new word appeared above its lovely serif title, in smaller but significant type: the name of a respectable supermarket chain. This had, so far as I'm aware, never been done before: a magazine had never jumped from pure consumer to part-commercial. And although the rebranded hybrid illustrated food magazine survives and in fact goes from strength to strength, I'm not aware of it ever being done subsequently either.

There's a lesson there.
posted by Hogshead at 8:23 AM on October 14, 2009


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