Question for Jarvis: How will we pay for NYT’s Foxconn coverage?

Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn claims to be raising its wages and cutting overtime, and it seems fair to attribute at least some of that to NYT’s excellent coverage of Apple’s manufacturing there, which put some pressure on them. Elsewhere on the internet Jeff Jarvis explains why he insists that news become profitable, rather than relying on nonprofit models. Jarvis:

I am certain that there is not enough charity in the nation to support the journalism it needs… I also believe they are more likely to build better journalistic products, services, and platforms if they are accountable to the marketplace.

So my question – a genuine one – is how Jarvis thinks the NYT’s iPhone manufacturing coverage fits into this. I can think of a few possibilities of how it might.

1. He believes the market will directly support this kind of work

I find this hard to believe. Shirky has written that this kind of investigative work never made money, but back before news was un-bundled, ads that were sold against articles about sports, the classifieds, coupons, etc. and could help subsidize this sort of stuff.

No doubt many people read the NYT pieces, but they must have cost a ridiculous amount to produce. So I’m skeptical of this one, but perhaps Jarvis disagrees.

2. He believes the market will indirectly subsidize this kind of work via branding

In my mind, the best retort to Shirky’s point that the news was always subsidized is to argue that papers like NYT gain an indirect benefit with their credible reporting. Sure, when readers got the paper they looked at sports and lighter stuff, but they chose to buy such a premier paper in the first place in part to associate themselves with the seriousness of the brand.

That gets harder in the current un-bundled environment, but it may still hold. Maybe I mostly go to Vanity Fair to read celebrity profiles, but the reason I can justify it is because they do serious journalism too. Jarvis could argue that this kind of indirect brand subsidy will make the Foxconn reporting a market necessity.

3. The market won’t support it, so this is one of the things nonprofits should do

Jarvis isn’t against nonprofit news. He just doesn’t want to be over reliant on it. So he could say “yep, this is one of those things that ProPublica is going to do. Just don’t think that model props up all of journalism.”

4. ???

Of course, it’s quite likely that Jarvis’s answer is none of these things. But I’d love to hear it.


Investigative journalism is great but rare

Via a terrific Felix Salmon post on media as technology “stack” I stumbled on this post of his from 2010 which contained a paragraph I just couldn’t help but post:

Dean has a very old-fashioned view of what journalism is and should be: “the corest of core” values, he says, at any news organization, are investigations. Now I have nothing against good investigative journalism, but it’s hardly a defining feature of most journalism, and in fact Dean’s attitude is extremely elitist, germane only for a handful of big daily newspapers. Most copy in all newspapers, and all copy in most newspapers, is simple stuff, and always has been. People read it because it’s relevant to them, because they can talk about it, and because they might as well read the stories after they’ve bought the paper for the supermarket coupons.

That’s exactly right. As I wrote in a post a couple years back about core civically minded journalism:

1) When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

You can say that journalism is all this stuff, or that journalism is the core civic stuff and media is the umbrella, or you can pick any other set of terms. But this is a crucial point that’s worth remembering. Salmon uses it to make the point that the blogosphere has added tons of value (I agree) and that comparing them to investigative reporters ignores most of what traditional journalism has done.

Once you grasp that the kind of amazing investigate work that we put on a pedestal is done by a small number of outlets, and even there comprises a small percentage of their product, it becomes easier to discuss how we can preserve and even expand that work, as well as to talk about what the rest of the media ecosystem should be up to.


Most journalism isn’t worth saving

In a lengthy new post, Clay Shirky hits on a point that I think doesn’t get mentioned enough:

Here’s what the newspaper business sounds like: the modestly talented son of the founder can generate double-digit margins based on little more than the happy accident that there are people who like football and buy cars living within 30 miles of his house.

That’s the newspaper business, or at least it was until recently. The average US paper runs more soft than hard news, uses more third-party content than anything created by their own staff, and reaches more people who care about local teams than local zoning.

Much public worry about newspapers concerns a relative handful of excellent dailies with national or international ambitions. Most papers, however, aren’t like that. The New York Times and the Enid, OklahomaNews and Eagle occupy different parts of the news ecosystem, and they face different stresses and fates, but more papers—many more—exist at the News and Eagle end of the spectrum.*

Buy a newspaper. Cut it up. Throw away the ads. Sort the remaining stories into piles. Now, describe the editorial logic holding those piles together.

If you’ve picked a general interest paper, this will be hard. I recently learned, from a single day’s paper, that a bombing in Kirkuk killed 27, that Penelope Cruz has only good memories of filming Pirates of the Caribbean while pregnant, that many U.S. business hotels are switching to ‘shower-only’ bathrooms, and that 30-year fixed mortgages fell from 4.63% to 4.61% the week before.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked.

The point here is that not all that much of what “journalism” produces is actually civically important. There’s only a very small slice that is democratically necessary. That fact gets lost in part because many of the people writing about the problems of journalism are journalists, and so many of them write the content that isn’t essential. They tend to lump themselves all in together. But not all of their jobs are equally important. It’s a small slice that needs to be saved, for the sake of democracy.

As I put it in a post a while back:

When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

[Side note: I happen to think the network/the blogosphere is pretty good at providing much of this “feature” content but even if it isn’t, if people want it, let them pay.  If they won’t pay, it’s no great civic loss for it not to exist.]


The NYT’s Unsustainable Paywall

The New York Times has finally released the details of their paywall, and they confirm that the model is not sustainable. I have a short post up at The Atlantic Tech saying as much. Here’s the basic point:

Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.This is tantamount to saying that if you’re a power-user, or even just someone heavily immersed in social media and the blogosphere, then the paywall won’t apply to you. Which is basically admitting that a paywall isn’t sustainable.

Go read the full post. And then go read 20 or more additional articles, since The Atlantic thankfully has no paywall!


Paying ProPublica to read The New York Times

2011 is the year The New York Times will finally erect its much discussed paywall.  The Times will charge “less than $20 a month” for full access to its site; non-paying users will have access to an unspecified number of articles outside the paywall.ProPublica

As a heavy reader of the Times – exclusively online – I am not looking forward to this.  I don’t plan, as of now, to purchase an online subscription, for reasons I’ve laid out before:

1) As much as I like the Times, I don’t need it. And I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.

2) If I am going to pay money to support good journalism, I want to know that my money is going directly to that cause.

Which brings me to an idea:

The Times should offer free online subscriptions to anyone who donates a certain amount to ProPublica.

I’d get to keep reading the Times while directly supporting quality investigative journalism.  Not only is ProPublica exclusively focused on investigative journalism with “moral force”, it’s also a nonprofit so it fits well with my preference for charitable support over payment.

You might wonder why the Times would consider giving away subscriptions in exchange for donating to another organization.  It might seem odd, but I can think of a few reasons why they might consider it:

1) To retain power users they might otherwise lose with the paywall. I’m not going to pay for the Times, for reasons I’ve laid out.  Either they lose me as a heavy reader or they find some way to let me keep reading without paying them.  Of course, the Times could care less about me, but I’d hazard a guess that the kind of user who is firmly anti-paywall and pro-ProPublica tends to be more engaged and influential than the median user.  This demo isn’t very big, but I’d imagine it’s still valuable.  It’s full of web-savvy power users who consistently share content through their networks.  There is value in keeping these users, especially in light of (2).

2) It doesn’t cost the Times anything. Offering a few hundred free subscriptions costs the Times nothing, if you assume your target group wouldn’t purchase an online subscription anyway.  (I’m imagining that this isn’t marketed but just exists as a loophole for future-of-news geeks who otherwise wouldn’t pay.)

3) To curry favor with the anti-paywall crowd. Whether or not the Times cares much about the demographic I made up for (1) to describe people like me, they certainly care about their perception in the industry.  And with the paywall going up, they risk being dismissed by new media gurus who see their move as ill-advised or backward.  Why not demonstrate a commitment to experimenting with all sorts of new journalistic models?  Sure, we’re trying a paywall, they’d say, but we’re also supporting ProPublica’s experiment by helping them attract donations.

4) To help a partner. The Times has partnered with ProPublica on numerous stories; ProPublica and NYT Magazine even shared a Pulitzer Prize.  So the Times benefits, if indirectly, from increased revenue for ProPublica.

I’m imagining the donation mark for a Times subscription would be roughly in line with what the Times might charge for that subscription.  So perhaps the ballpark of $200/yr?

So there’s the idea.  What say you, New York Times?


My parents’ coffee table, online

Growing up I remember my parents subscribing to three magazines: The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s.  Over the past couple of weeks I’ve seen updates on how each is faring online.  Results vary.  A lot.

Let’s start with the worst…


harperscoverIt wasn’t all that long ago that I was considering subscribing to Harper’s.  They have some great essays, including this quality August nonfiction essay: Happiness is a Worn Gun.  But if this week’s column by the magazine’s publisher is any indication, Harper’s holds the web in outright contempt.  Publisher John MacArthur describes his web strategy as “protectionist” and that says it all.  MacArthur is impervious to the recommendations of “internet hucksters”.  Moreover, he’s “offended” by “the online sensibility”.

The internet’s impact on our politics is a controversial topic.  There are a diverse range of respectable views on the subject.  But it’s clear MacArthur has no interest in pro-internet arguments, no matter their merit or credentials.  He prefers to dismiss them, just like he dismissed email.  And we all know how that turned out… No joke, this is the argument.  You can’t make this up.

With a publisher like this at the helm, I’m not optimistic about Harper’s chances.  And that’s a real shame.

The New Yorkernewyorkercover

The New Yorker is my boring, middle-of-the-road example here.  It’s not a natural web innovator, but it hasn’t rolled over either.  They’ve got a robust blogs section.  And they recently redesigned their site.  It feels more web-like, yet preserves much of the classic New Yorker look.

The Atlantic

AtlanticcoverFull disclosure: The Atlantic was my favorite of the three growing up.  And it still is.  These days a lot of that is due to its excellence online.  The magazine has assembled a top-notch team of bloggers, built around the celebrity of Andrew Sullivan.  And just months ago it launched a terrific Technology channel which quickly became my favorite source of tech news and analysis.  On top of that, they’ve parleyed it all into profit.

Online matters

I could go on at length about all the reasons online matters, but for now I’ll address only how it impacts my consumption and support of these magazines.  I can say with confidence that so long as John MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s I will never subscribe.  I was given a subscription to The New Yorker as a gift, and I’m really enjoying it.  But would I purchase it on my own?  Doubtful.  On any given week I read maybe 2 New Yorker pieces.  But the Atlantic?  It’s increasingly a go-to source for me.  I haven’t subscribed to the magazine, but that’s more a reflection of how I read the news.  If they ever offered a donation model, I’d happily support them.  Not that they’d need it, given their success with advertising revenue.


Just ask nicely

Despite being a huge fan of the New York Times, I’m reluctant to subscribe when the paper institutes its paywall. There are a couple of reasons for that, but in this post I’ll focus on just one: I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.NYT Office

Being asked to support a worthy cause triggers an assessment of that cause’s importance to society, whereas being asked to pay triggers a selfish cost-benefit analysis.

Is the good or service in question worth the money?  Could I find it cheaper elsewhere?

The NYT has lots of terrific content but in an information economy characterized by abundance it has to compete against lots and lots of quality, free content.  I’m constantly overwhelmed by intelligent, valuable content that I’d like to read/watch/listen to.

If managing my information intake is a matter of weighing quality content against quality content, looking for any slight preference for one feed over another, why would I select the one that requires an annual subscription?

Moreover, while reporting may still be expensive, quoting is cheap.  Even if every major news source put up a paywall, bloggers could still quote a couple key grafs on their way to offering analysis.*

In short, I believe that the marginal benefit offered by outlets like the NYT will not meet my own criteria for being “worth paying for.”

I’d much rather be asked to give to an organization whose work I want to support.

Some might see this as hopelessly idealistic.  How many people would really donate?  Perhaps it is, but so is the alternative.  I just don’t see many sophisticated readers weighing the cost of subscription against the wealth of free content online and deciding to subscribe.

One final note: the membership model at one point under consideration by the NYT strikes me as closer to what I’d like to see.  Ask loyal readers to become dues-paying members, for which they get access to extra content in exchange for offsetting the cost of keeping most of the website freely available.

*At this point I think it’s fairly non-controversial to suggest that America’s copyright regime is overly restrictive and that further restricting it, so as to prevent the sort of quoting I refer to, would be incredibly damaging.


Future of news – various thoughts

I may not own an NBA team, but since everyone and their grandmother seems to be weighing in on the future of news and journalism, I figured I’d share some thoughts.  That’s a big part of what this blog is supposed to be about, after all.

It’s not intended to be a unified theory and the points don’t necessarily even relate to one another.  But they are all things I stress whenever I discuss the topic with anyone.

So here we go…a very rough overview of my thoughts on the future of news and journalism…

Continue reading Future of news – various thoughts