Category Archives: media

Walter Isaacson doesn’t know how to save your newspaper

Walter Isaacson, writing this month’s Time cover story, hopes that 2009 will see the dawn of ‘a bold, old idea’ for funding newspapers online.  Micropayments.  It is an old idea, it’s true.  Clay Shirky made the case against micropayments back in 2000, and Andrew Odlyzkow in 2003.  Isaacson makes the point that Apple have made a success of a micropayment system through iTunes:

Steve Jobs got music consumers (of all people) comfortable with the concept of paying 99 cents for a tune instead of Napsterizing an entire industry

and neatly elides the point that illegal (free) downloading far outstrips any kind of legal, micropayment driven download service.  Making the point that iTunes makes money from micropayments; ergo, newspapers should charge per article ignores the fact that music isn’t one kind of orange, and newspaper content just another kind of, slightly cheaper, orange.  While, say, the work of star columnists might be comparable to music – as in, something a consumer will seek out, and consequently might be willing to pay for – the constantly shifting product of news desks is not something people will seek out, and pay to keep.  That 99 cent for an iTunes track is a payment for something you can listen to again and again.  A news story isn’t something you rediscover when your ipod’s on shuffle six months down the line.  Paying half a cent for it is half a cent too much, and not only because of its built in redundancy.

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Media Revolution: Stop Press? Stop this..

One does wonder sometimes.  Why a half-hour piece (Media Revolution: Stop Press?, BBC2, Feb 5th) about the decline of the newspaper industry should open with Janet Street Porter pretending to deliver newspapers to South London houses; ‘Ooh, there’s a dog in this one’.  Did I miss the line in the listings that read this was a Newsround special?  After a nail-biting encounter with a recording of a barking dog, JSP gave us the figures: circulations down 10-20%; advertising down 20% over ten years; hundreds of journalists made redundant; 50 or more titles closed in the past year.  What can be done, Janet?

Take a trip to El Vino’s on Fleet Street – the latter described, over romantic archive shots of newspapermen in shirt sleeves, as having once been ‘the beating heart of the world’.  El Vino’s, meanwhile, ‘was like a second office’ to many of those newspapermen.  Fine.  Great, in fact.  But harking back misty-eyed to the halcyon days of print isn’t going to get anyone out of this mess any time soon.  (‘To the newsagent!  We must buy a newspaper so the chaps on Fleet St can drink the day away!  It’s our civic duty!’.  Nah, didn’t think so.)  Derek Jameson, a man who surely knows his online onions, is asked what he thinks the future holds (no jokes about retirement homes and liquid food, please – bit of respect).  He doesn’t think there’s much of a threat from the internet – newspapers have been through revolutions before, and survived every time.  Like with radio after World War II.  Quite.

Then to News International’s new printing presses in Hertfordshire, the biggest in the world.  They can print 86,000 newspapers an hour, up from 30,000 in Wapping.  An interview with Rupert Murdoch fails to have him answer the question ‘Why?’, the answer to which would surely have been an interesting one.  Instead, JSP speculates that the facility to print in full colour afforded by the new presses might be the answer to declining circulations and advertising.  Yes, yes, that’s it.

McFly are interviewed.  I’ll leave that line there unexplained a minute for comedy bamboozle value.

Apart from the online threat, freesheets are hacking into newspapers’ circulation base.  But would people pay for them?  Of course they wouldn’t, they’re purposely as rubbish as it can get away with because they’re free.  Regardless, this question can only be answered by a vox-pop in a busy train station.  A breathless JSP corrals commuters to get them to give the answer she wants: ‘No, I wouldn’t pay for it’.

The clock is ticking down – almost twenty minutes in and so far we’ve learned: newspaper circulations are in decline.  Advertising revenue is in decline.  El Vino’s seems like a cosy spot.

With ten minutes to go JSP addresses the camera, saying newspapers are, ‘Embracing the web as a platform for reaching readers’.  I make a mental note to check if the credits close with © BBC MCMXCVI.  ‘For all its futuristic allure’, we’re told, ‘There’s a problem with online media’.  It doesn’t pay.  JSP is stunned that the Telegraph is pouring resources into its online operation: ‘Can a posh paper like this turn itself into a serious player in the online world?’ she asks.  The rich, you see, having hooves rather than fingers, making keyboards difficult to negotiate.

Finally, a talking head with some dedicated online chops.  Cameron Yuill is an ad exec who has helped the Guardian and the Telegraph, amongst others, create a system that allows location dependent advertising be shown on their sites.  The Guardian, it’s noted, has 7 million unique readers in the US every month.  By targeting advertising at an ever growing global audience, British newspapers may be able to secure at least some part of their future.  Huzzah, an insight!

Then: fin.  This show was never going to be an opus.  But couldn’t it have been just a little bit better?

(McFly released their last album via a free CD giveaway with the Mail on Sunday.  The stunt boosted circulation by 300,000.)

On special tonight: Sea kitten souffle, Omaha steak, and Publicity stunt – p’wned and lightly braised

PETA’s, to be honest, fairly odious campaign to have fish renamed as ‘sea kittens’ has generated a lot of publicity for the organisation; they are masters of the art of whipping up controversy with their PR stunts (see here for a rundown), so it’s hardly surprising.

It’s a deeply stupid idea:

Would people think twice about ordering fish sticks if they were called sea kitten sticks? Would sea kitten soufflé be a hot seller at the local seafood restaurant? Does fillet o’ sea kitten sound even remotely appetizing?

and, while the campaign has a high profile, it doesn’t seem to be garnering much support – just over six thousand people have signed a petition for the name change.  The intention, presumably, is to be provocative, but the problem with this kind of provocation is that more often than not, people fail to see any worth in the message because they’re rolled their eyes to heaven already.  Anyone who doesn’t give up at this stage will probably just provoke right back (the nyer nyer dialectic) and sure enough, a couple of pranksters have registered the domain name and mocked up the site to look exactly like PETA’s Save the Sea Kittens page, but with an ad for Omaha steaks in the banner.  The stunt was professional enough to take in AdAge,the Wall Street Journal (‘We looked at today and found atop the page an ad for Omaha Steaks. To our mind, steak is a much better argument against eating fish than kittens are’) and Silicon Alley Insider, for a couple of hours anyway.

Prime time for Time Life

American prime-time tv has been taken over by infomercials, The New York Times reports:

The two-minute commercials, for a DVD set of “The World at War” and a CD of relaxing classical music, both from Time Life, ran during almost every show on the (CBS) network’s recent Saturday nights.

It is a sign of just how bad the advertising market is: infomercials are running during network prime time, filling slots that automobiles and banks once owned.

Time Life are running twice as many prime-time ads as they did this time last year, the piece reports.  And newspapers are filling their ad space with stuff that would previously have been relegated to a 3 x 3 square in the classifieds: USA Today and the Wall Street Journal have both been running full-page ads for an Amish room heater.

Things aren’t looking too good on this side of the world either.  The Sunday Times sold all of page 4 to the National Newspapers of Ireland (Association?), whose ad was a plea for more ads:

News, as the name indicates, is the essential component of newspapers…Press is the one medium that never fails to actively encourage information-seekers.  So if your advertising is in the newspaper, then it’s also in the news.  Make the news today.  With newspaper advertising.


Noticed any Amish room-heaters, or the like, occupying page three of your newspaper?  Tell us in the comments.

B’Tselem and citizen journalism as a very serious enterprise

A brilliant idea:

In January 2007, B’Tselem launched its camera distribution project, a video advocacy project focusing on the Occupied Territories. We provide Palestinians living in high-conflict areas with video cameras, with the goal of bringing the reality of their lives under occupation to the attention of the Israeli and international public, exposing and seeking redress for violations of human rights.

The camera distribution projcet works with families who live in close proximity to settlements, to military bases or at the sites of frequent army incursions. Settlers daily harassing a family in Hebron or attacking farmers in the South Hebron Hills, soldiers invading Qalqilya, daily life in the village of Yanun… these are just some examples of the material filmed by over 100 cameras that we have distributed to families throughout the Occupied Territories. B’Tselem has succeeded in airing this material on major Israeli and international news networks, exposing global audiences to the previously unseen.

This is what citizen journalism should and can be.  Not to denigrate the efforts of cameraphonists recording weather disasters or planes in the Hudson, but the B’Tselem project takes it to another level.  And on a number of levels.  One being giving cameras to people who might not otherwise have them, and whose voices, therefore, might remain unheard.  For all the talk about the great democratisation brought about by the web, too many of its democratising elements remain yet out of reach of an unwired, rather than wireless, majority.  Another being the incredibly significant capacity to record aggression in real time.  How many times have we read stories of unpleasantness in countries far from our own and salved our consciences, to a degree, by assuming some bit of artistic licence, exaggeration, rather, by the journalist reporting it?  It can’t be that bad, surely, reasons a small part of our cornflake crunching brain; and on to the next page.  Seeing this stuff in real time does, like it or not, make it an awful lot more real.  Go.  Watch.

Do people really spend so little time reading news online?

From the December/January 2008 edition of the American Journalism Review:

Newspaper Web sites are attracting lots of visitors, but aren’t keeping them around for long. The typical visitor to, which attracts more than 10 percent of the entire newspaper industry’s traffic online, spent an average of just 34 minutes and 53 seconds browsing its richly detailed offerings in October. That’s 34 minutes and 53 seconds per month, or about 68 seconds per day online. Slim as that is, it’s actually about three times longer than the average of the next nine largest newspaper sites.

The Reuters report I wrote about  yesterday gives similar figures for a discrepancy between time spent reading the news online and in print, this time in Europe:

…visitors to the leading UK newspaper websites (as measured by overall traffic) typically only spend a few minutes each day perusing the content. The Daily Mail leads the pack, with an average daily visit of only 8.7 minutes; followed by the Guardian(5.4 minutes), News of the World(3.7 minutes), The Sun(3.7 minutes) and The Times(3.3 minutes).In contrast, McKinsey estimates that, on average, consumers spend roughly eight times longer reading a physical newspaper, compared to the equivalent time they spend at a news-paper website.

In other words, someone who reads the Daily Mail online spends 8.7 minutes doing so, but a reader with a physical copy of the newspaper spends 69.6 minutes at it.

In line with this, (this may have been where McKinsey got their data, I’m not 100% as that data isn’t available online) the UK National Readership survey estimates the average UK print newspaper reader spends 30 minutes reading it per day, with just over 20% spending around an hour.That’s a pretty big discrepancy between time spent reading online and reading print.  And the AJR sees it as having an effect on the amount of money online news providers can charge for ads: Continue reading

What’s happening to our news?

The Reuters Institute is shortly to publish a wide-ranging report called What’s Happening to our News? It’s based on interviews with 70 significant players in the British media and quantitive data from a range of sources.  The report’s author, Andrew Currah, wrote a piece for Monday’s Guardian summarising the main research findings. First:

News publishers have always had some degree of consumer feedback – but never at the range, intensity and speed that the web makes possible.

He concludes that,

…as newsrooms become more digitally integrated, the flow of data from the web will be faster, more detailed and much harder to ignore. It will put pressure on editors and executives to review the popularity and revenue performance of content, the value of specific journalists and the overall allocation of resources. Already, in the quest for digital success, publishers are being nudged to depart from well-established brand and editorial values. This shift is contributing to the development of a softer and more populist news agenda in the UK, with preference given to topics seen as effective generators of traffic, such as celebrity, entertainment and sport.

To the main report, to find the evidence for this shift.  Unfortunately, the report does not contain any quantitive data on the softening of the news agenda in the UK.  On page 88 there is the assertion:

The distant and relatively ill-defined promise of the clickstream is also luring quality daily newspapers into a more populist, comment-driven andtabloid-like style, which is designed to attract eyeballs from the international ether of the web. For example, the inclusion of entirely new categories of coverage—such as ‘celebrity’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘weird’—to the websites of the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Guardian underscores the radical difference between these newspapers and their pre-digital counterparts.

All of the newspapers mentioned above have had such sections for years, and without giving the precise date for each paper’s beginning to include ‘soft’ topics it’s difficult to credit the tyranny of the clickstream with this kind of editorial shift.  Research by Professor James Curran is cited to support the thesis that the UK media has shifted toward ‘softer’ news, it’s true:

…research by Professor James Curran (Goldsmiths, University of London) has found that the UK news media are shifting towards the softer, entertainment-oriented model of the US, and away from the harder, factually oriented model of public service havens such as Denmark and Finland.

That paper hasn’t been published yet, but a report on the Reuters website on its forthcoming publication indicates that it was dedicated to assessing the impact of public vs private media ownership on the kind of news reported:

In collaboration with other colleagues, Professor Curran recently conducted research into the impact that the ownership structure of media has on the availability of different kinds of news in the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland and Denmark. The aim of the research was to assess what, if any, differences could be found between public broadcasting systems and commercial broadcasting when it came to the news mix on offer, vis-a-vis hard news and soft news as well as foreign and domestic news.

It’s possible that the report addresses a ‘shift’ from harder to softer news but

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