How Much Journalism is Worth Saving?

Back in early 2010, shortly after launching this blog, I put pen to paper on some of the core ideas guiding my views on the future of news. Here’s one of them that I still believe is crucial and often ignored:

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 read the full post here.

Today, for the fun of it – yes, this is what I do for fun on a Sunday – I browsed the NYT homepage starting at the top and counted 25 headlines to see how many seemed to fit (based on headline alone, for time’s sake) my definition of civic journalism. I ended up with 12 out of 24, with one not classifiable based on headline (it was a Dowd column so we can be fairly sure it could go.)

That 12 included one story not civic  per se, but a breaking news story about an earthquake that seemed worth counting based on the idea of essential national news. You can count the top stories yourself and see what you come up with, though my screenshot below doesn’t capture all 25.

My point here is that most journalism isn’t worth saving, from a democratic perspective. Now, we might want to save it for other reasons. I’m a writer, so I’d like to have a job. I work for a startup that’s betting on the reinvention of media as a business. But whether writers have jobs and investors can get a decent return off of a content business are separate from the question of protecting capital J Journalism.

As for how to preserve that core civic journalism, I don’t have the perfect answer. (I lean toward a nonprofit model like ProPublica, and am additionally hopeful that universities will shoulder a lot of the burden.) But a lot of the discussions about how to save journalism – and about what new media experiments are worthwhile and not – become much clearer once you realize you’re really only trying to preserve a subset of existing media.

One thing that bugs me, perhaps because I work for a new media business, is that new entrants are often judged for the quality of their content without much attention to that of the incumbents. Business Insider gets panned for its slideshows or HuffPo for its celebrity gossip without any mention of the fact that the majority of traditional journalism served no civic purpose, but just existed as entertaining content.

That roughly 50% of the top stories in America’s top newspaper makes this clear. Now, I love the NYT and I’d rather read their non-essential stuff more than the non-essential stuff at various other outlets. But wanting to read a J-school grad reporting on New York’s nightlife lawyer isn’t in and of itself better than reading a Gawker writer mocking this that or the other.

The next time you have a conversation about saving journalism, or about the quality of a new media entrant, remember: the segment of media worth saving for the sake of democracy is only a very small slice of what has traditionally gone under the banner of journalism.


Where’s the 400 word version of NYT’s Walmart bribery story?

It’s been just a couple months since the media world debated whether Forbes writer Kashmir Hill went overboard in her curation of an NYT story on Target’s predictive analytics. Basically, Hill slapped a way better headline on the piece, pulled in a bunch of quotes, added some of her own prose, and got a ton of traffic.

Oh, and her piece was much shorter.

What did NYT learn? Apparently nothing. They have an awesome long form piece up today about Walmart’s consistent record of bribery in Mexico. It’s a damning piece executed to perfection. It’s also really, really long.

So why doesn’t NYT have a 400 word version published alongside it?

I love longform journalism, but even if every other reader did too, we all tend to read longform stuff about the issues we care most about. This is an important news item that falls outside of my core interests, and I want to know the basics. No doubt there are a lot of other readers who feel the same way.

In my case I read about 60% and skimmed the rest, but plenty of other readers are going to end up on the HuffPo version that captures the story in a few hundred words.

Why doesn’t the NYT beat them to the punch? The longform narrative obsessives and those with deep interest in Mexico, corruption, corporate citizenship, etc. will still read the long version.

But to not offer the bite size option is to cede an opportunity. You’ve already done all the hard reporting. Take even just a few minutes to think about the product.


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.


Was I wrong about the NYT paywall?

In a nutshell: not yet.

I wrote a post for The Atlantic back in March when the paywall first launched that called it “unsustainable.” And yet, as Felix Salmon has detailed here and here, the paper is on track to hit its goal of 300,000 digital subscribers. Was I wrong? I don’t think so; at least not yet.

A bit more from about NYT’s success, from NYMag:

It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success. The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website.

As Felix notes, that revenue is a drop in the bucket, but still promising. So here’s what I wrote when the paywall launched:

I wouldn’t be surprised if the NYT can raise some revenue from this in the short term from people young enough to have canceled their paper subscription but not so young to be heavily into social media, at least as a means of getting news. (Age isn’t the only relevant factor here, but it’s one.) But that already limited demographic will shrink over time. Put another way: the number of users interested in NYT content but not already reliant on social media — or even just capable of using it — to access news is shrinking and will continue to do so.

In other words, NYT was leaving some money on the table and they decided to pick it up. But I’m skeptical that they can grow digital subscriptions over time. Eventually, I’d expect the pool of digital subscribers to shrink. But Felix has some good pushback on that kind of logic:

Sales people and business-side executives tend to believe as a matter of faith that if people can get something for free, they won’t pay for it. But all they need to do is look at their own behavior to see how that isn’t true: when they go to a restaurant in a distant town that they’ll never visit again, they still leave a 20% tip. A large segment of the population feels that it’s only proper to pay for something if you’re getting value from it…

I had a couple brief online conversations after I posted a quick screed against record companies that suggested paying for music may not be necessary, and based on those conversations Felix is, at minimum, partially right. At least when people are used to paying for something, they feel obligated to keep paying for it. Multiple people spoke to me about how important it was to pay for music in order to support the artist, etc.

But is this true in some absolute sense? That it’s getting value that prompts people to pay? More likely it’s being accustomed to paying for something that gives you value. Which is to say I expect that a generation that grew up never paying for information won’t feel compelled to pay for news.