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Journalism 2009: Desperate Metaphors, Desperate Revenue Models, And The Desperate Need For Better Journalism

Posted: 12/ 1/09 11:57 AM ET

I was asked to give a speech this morning at a journalism conference in Washington, DC sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission. The topic, as it so often seems to be these days, is what can be done to save journalism? Since Rupert Murdoch was scheduled to address the conference a little before me, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at Murdoch's increasingly bellicose war against new media sites that aggregate the news, the increasingly desperate revenue models being discussed for online news, and what, in fact, needs to be done to ensure that journalism will not only survive, but thrive.


I. Desperate Times Lead to... Desperate Metaphors

Ever since we decided to launch the Huffington Post, I've talked about how the future of journalism will be a hybrid future where traditional media players embrace the ways of new media (including transparency, interactivity, and immediacy) and new media companies adopt the best practices of old media (including fairness, accuracy, and high-impact investigative journalism).

And with so many traditional media companies adapting to the new realities, it was ridiculous to engage in an us vs. them, old media vs. new media argument. Either/or was the wrong way to look at things.

But playing nice has increasingly become a one-way street -- suddenly the air is filled with shrill, nonsensical, and misplaced verbal assaults on those in the new media.

Apparently, some in the old media have decided that it is, in fact, an either/or game and that the best way to save, if not journalism, at least themselves, is by pointing fingers and calling names. It's a tactic familiar to schoolyard inhabitants everywhere: when all else fails, reach for the nearest insult and throw it around indiscriminately.

So now sites that aggregate the news have become, in the words of Rupert Murdoch and his team, "parasites," "content kleptomaniacs," "vampires," "tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets," and, of course, thieves who "steal all our copyright."

It's the news industry equivalent of "your mama wears army boots!" Although, not quite as persuasive.

In most industries, if your customers were leaving in droves, you would try to figure out what to do to get them back. Not in the media. They'd rather accuse aggregators of stealing their content.

Of course, any site can shut down the indexing of its content by Google any time it wants with a simple "disallow" in its robots.txt file. But be careful what you wish for because as soon as you do that, and start denying your content to other sites that aggregate and link back to the original source, you stand to lose a large part of your traffic overnight. But as they say in Australia: "Good on ya." Of course as someone who cares deeply about the future of this country, I'd say that having Glenn Beck not searchable by Google is an entirely good thing. But a good business move? Not so much.

Thinking that removing your content from Google will somehow keep it "exclusive" shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the web and how it works. As an experiment, Google the key terms from any interesting story currently kept behind a paywall, on the Wall Street Journal, for instance. And imagine no News Corp. source being included in the search results. You'd still get dozens and dozens of links to other sources -- including many of the biggest news sites -- writing about the story, riffing on it, quoting from it, and commenting on the key facts in it. So what are you going to do, try to make the case that no one should be able to talk about or write about or comment on or report on the stories you make them pay for? It's a ridiculous notion.

I was recently on a panel in Monaco with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German publisher Axel Springer. He decided to play a confusing metaphor game by comparing news content to beer. "If it's your business decision to offer beer cans for free, fine," he said. "But don't take our beer and offer it for free."

This struck me as a really bizarre metaphor. Information is hardly the same thing as a product that can only be consumed once by a single person. If you consume a news story, you might be one of millions. If you consume a beer, no one else can consume it.

So it's a false metaphor. And if you start from a false premise, you will inevitably be led to a false conclusion. Or, to put it another way, if you chug-a-lug too many of old media's metaphoric beers, you will end up staggering down the street of illogical thinking and banging into the lamp post of wrong revenue models.

In his speech this morning, Rupert Murdoch confused aggregation with wholesale misappropriation. Wholesale misappropriation is against the law -- and he has legal redress against that already. Aggregation, on the other hand, within the fair use exceptions to copyright law is part of the web's DNA. Period.

At HuffPost, aggregation goes along with a tremendous amount of original content including original reporting and over 250 original blog posts a day. And we love it when someone links to one of our posts, or excerpts a small amount and links back to us.

Most sites understand the value of this and the way the link economy operates. It's why HuffPost gets hundreds of requests from news outlets asking us to feature their material and link back to their site. They understand that the web is not a zero-sum game and that consumers love the freedom to be able to follow where their interests -- and the offshoots of a story -- take them.

Plus, let's be honest, many of those complaining the loudest are working both sides of the street. Take, for example, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Just look at the sites News Corp. owns, as TechDirt.com recently did, and you will see example after example after example of the pot calling the kettle black. And aggregating its content.

The Wall Street Journal has a tech section that's nothing more than a parasite -- uh, I mean, aggregator -- of outside content.

FoxNews.com has a Politics Buzztracker that bloodsucks -- uh, I mean aggregates and links to -- stories from a variety of different sources, including the NY Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC and others.

AllThingsD has a section called Voices that not only aggregates headlines, but also takes a nice chunk of text -- and puts the links out at the bottom of the story.

And Murdoch's News Corp. also owns IGN, which has a variety of web properties, including the Rotten Tomatoes movie review aggregation site -- which is entirely made up of movie reviews pulled together from other places. Did someone say "stealing"?

Talk about having your aggregation cake and bitching about others eating a slice too.

That's why I could only roll my eyes when the Wall Street Journal's Robert Thomson wagged his finger at Google, and complained that it "encourages promiscuity" among news consumers.

Heaven forbid! Let's be honest, while promiscuity is not good in relationships, it's great for those looking for news and information. Trying to deny news consumers as wide a range of options and viewpoints as possible seems shortsighted -- and ultimately self-defeating. This is a Golden Age for news consumers who can surf the net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world, and be able to comment, interact, and form communities. The value of having the world of information at your fingertips is beyond dispute.

So it's time for traditional media companies to stop whining and face the fact that far too many of them, lulled by a lack of competition and years of pretax profits of 20 percent or more, put cash flow above journalism and badly misread the web when it arrived on the scene. The focus was on consolidation, cost-cutting, and pleasing Wall Street -- not modernization and pleasing their readers.

They were asleep at the wheel, missed the writing on the wall, let the train leave the station, let the ship sail -- pick your metaphor -- and quickly found themselves on the wrong side of the disruptive innovation the Internet and new media represent. And now they want to call timeout, ask for a do-over, start changing the rules, lobby the government to bail them out, and attack the new media for being... well, new. And different. And transformational. Suddenly it's all about thievery and parasites and intestines.

Get real, you guys. The world has changed. Here are some facts culled from one of the most popular anthems to the impact of technology on our world, a video originally put together by a math teacher, Karl Fisch:

Did you know that newspaper circulation is down 7 million over the last 25 years while unique readership of online news is up 34 million in the last 5 years?

Did you know newspaper advertising fell nearly 19 percent this year while web advertising is up 9 percent and mobile advertising is up 18 percent?

Did you know that more video was uploaded to YouTube in the last 2 months than if ABC, CBS, and NBC had been airing all-new content every minute of every day since 1948?

And did you know that we have access to more than 1 trillion web pages, 100,000 iPhone apps, and send more text messages a day than there are people on the planet? And Rupert Murdoch still thinks aggregators are the problem?

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. And some things are better while some things, for the moment, are worse in terms of upheaval and especially the painful loss of jobs. But this is unarguably a Brave New Media World. And there is no use living in digital denial.

The information superhighway is a busy thoroughfare and there's going to be some road kill along the way. But only among those who insist on merging into traffic riding a horse and buggy.


II. Desperate Times Lead To... Desperate Revenue Models!

Practically every day now, we hear about a new initiative designed to "harness digital media" and "get people to pay for their news on the web."

The big buzz last week was about News Corp.'s fantasies of breaking up with Google and tying the knot with Microsoft, giving its heart -- and all its content -- to Bing. I'll gladly wager my share of the Huffington Post that this ain't gonna happen.

The charge-for-content crowd seems to change strategies as often as Lindsay Lohan switches meds. First paywalls were going to be the answer. Then it was micro-payments. Then per article purchases. Then day passes.

James Harding, editor of the London Times and a member of Team Murdoch, recently said that he preferred the idea of charging for 24-hour access to his paper's website over the use of micro-payments, which he fears could lead to newspapers, and I quote, "writing a lot more about Britney Spears and a lot less about Tamils in northern Sri Lanka." For those of you up on Britney but not on the Tamils, they were on the losing side of the Sri Lankan civil war.

In any case, only 3 percent of consumers say they prefer the micro-payment method. But, hey, who cares what they prefer... they are only consumers!

Now, James Harding is a really nice, really smart guy and Times Online is a really great site, but, seriously, on what grounds would a reader decide that on any particular day instead of surfing around the web, clicking on the stories they find interesting, snacking, sampling, and moving on -- or digging deeper by following a link -- they are going to purchase a 24-hour pass to every bit of content on just one single site? Is it because, of course you fool, Tuesdays at the Times are always so much newsier than everywhere else? Or will readers save their money until Thursdays and pay for The Sun because they have more boobs and bottoms that day? I mean, Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Stephen Brill's Journalism Online reportedly has 16 different payment schemes that it plans to offer its member publishers. Nieman Lab recently listed six payment models that Brill has trademarked, and that news publishers can employ.

These include: High activity Pay Points (a metered model); Selected Content Pay Points (a partial paywall); Time-based Pay Points (charging for new content only); Enhanced Service Pay Points (charging for special features); Market Access Pay Points (charges based on a users location); and Preview Activity Pay Points (allowing previewing of paid content).

In other words, it's payment made simple!

Or take the New York Times. A quick search of headlines in the business press shows that in the summer of 2009 it was, "New York Times Company CEO Confirms Likelihood of Paywall for NYT Content by Autumn." By September that had become: "New York Times Paywall Decision to Be 'Gut Call.' By November it had become: "New York Times Paywall Decision Coming Within Weeks."

It amazes me that Murdoch and Brill and the Paywall Team at the Times continue to believe that people are prepared to pay for news online -- despite the recent survey showing that 80 percent of U.S. news consumers say they "wouldn't bother" to read news and magazines online if the content were no longer free.

Sure, free news content is not a perfect system but it's a lot like what Churchill said about democracy: it "is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." That's the reality. Free content is not without problems. But it's here to stay, and publishers need to come to terms with that and figure out how to make it work for them.

And all across the country, passionate entrepreneurs are doing just that, experimenting with new and creative revenue models. TechDirt.com is monetizing its engaged and highly informed community by turning them into focus-groups-for-hire. ProPublica is using a not-for-profit model to produce impact investigative journalism. And there are many different powerful local journalism models, including Voice of San Diego, which supports its award-winning local journalism with a combination of advertising and public radio-style contributions from foundations and users.

The new paths to success are still being charted -- and much remains uncertain. But this much is clear: we can't use an analog map and expect to find our way in a digital word.


III. Desperate Times Desperately Call For Better Journalism

Here is what we must not forget: our current media culture (with a few honorable exceptions) failed to serve the public interest by missing the two biggest stories of our time -- the run-up to the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown. In both instances, there were plenty of people who got it right, who saw what was coming and warned about it, but they weren't given much of a voice or were drowned out by the thumping sound of journalists walking in lockstep.

As a result, we've had far too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies of what was about to go wrong. Many important stories have died on the front pages of newspapers. Online media, on the other hand, are particularly well-suited to obsessively follow a story until it breaks through the static. When new media journalists decide that something matters, they chomp down hard and refuse to let go. They're the true pit bulls of reporting.

We hear lots and lots of talk these days about saving newspapers -- Congressional anti-trust exemptions, perhaps? -- but we mustn't forget: the state of newspapers is not the same thing as the state of journalism. As much as I love newspapers -- and fully expect them to survive -- the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers.

Indeed, the future of journalism is to be found, at least partly, in the rapidly growing number of people who connect with the news in a whole new way.

News is no longer something we passively take in. We now engage with news, react to news and share news. It's become something around which we gather, connect and converse. We all are part of the evolution of a story now -- expanding it with comments and links to relevant information, adding facts and differing points of view.

In short, the news has become social. And it will become even more community-powered: stories will be collaboratively produced by editors and the community. And conversations, opinion, and reader reactions will be seamlessly integrated into the news experience.

We saw the power of citizen journalism during the uprising earlier this year in Iran. People tweeting from demonstrations and uploading video of brutal violence taken with their camera phones were able to tell a story, in real-time, and circumvent the efforts of the regime to control the media and the flow of information.

In fact, the new paradigm was illustrated perfectly by the New York Times, which covered the story both in the old way and the new way. The former came by way of executive editor Bill Keller who was in Tehran for the election. Three days after the fraudulent vote, and well after the street protests had been revved up and hundreds of videos had been uploaded and thousands of tweets had been posted, he reported: "With this election, Mr. Khamenei and [Mr. Ahmadinejad] appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said."

Uh, not exactly.

At the same time, the Times also ran an aggregation blog by Robert Mackey that was, like the terrific one our national editor Nico Pitney did on HuffPost, a 24/7 nerve center of updates, video and tweets -- largely by citizen journalists.

Citizen journalists can play a key role in investigative journalism. At the Huffington Post, they help shape our stories in multiple ways -- from whistleblowing to combing through thousands of pages of bills and government documents to being part of our Bearing Witness 2.0 project, finding great stories from across the country that put flesh and blood on the statistics and consequences of our economic crisis.

And yet the contributions of citizen journalists, bloggers, and others who aren't paid to cover the news are constantly mocked and derided by the critics of new media who clearly don't understand that technology has enabled millions of consumers to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation -- from couch potato to self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are just a few of the active entertainment options now available. But when the data began to show a significant shift in consumer habits, traditional media responded by belittling web journalism.

The same people who never question why consumers would sit on a couch and watch TV for 8 hours straight can't understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues -- great and small -- that interest them. For free. They don't understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, who maintain their own blogs for free, who Twitter for free, who constantly refresh and update their Facebook page for free, who want to help tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities... for free.

At the Huffington Post, and at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, we deeply value the role of professional reporters and editors, and have dozens of them on payroll. And we think the value of editors will only increase as the constant stream of information coming at us continues to swell -- making trusted guides and curators more and more essential to keeping us from being swept away.

But there is no denying that thousands and thousands of other people want in on the process and have much to contribute to it. And that number will only continue to grow. To deride the value of their contributions is to completely misunderstand the world we live in.

And the sooner we all embrace that world, the sooner we'll be able to stop the name calling, put aside the increasingly desperate metaphors and increasingly desperate revenue models, and focus on what really matters: ensuring that in the future, journalism will not only survive, but be strengthened and thrive.

 
 
 

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