Paywalls continue to spring up across the news landscape while new-media enthusiasts warn that gated news is a throwback to a bygone age.

Britain’s Telegraph and Sun announced plans to erect paywalls almost simultaneously after successful tests. The Telegraph, which claims to have the largest circulation of any U.K. daily, will give away 20 articles free every month and charge £1.99/mo. thereafter for unlimited access to the website and smartphone apps. The Sun‘s move is timed to make the most of parent company News International’s £20M deal to show near-live clips of Premiership football highlights on its websites beginning in August.

In Canada, Postmedia Network will roll out paywalls across all 10 of its properties, including the National Post. The move completes an experiment that began two years ago and has been deployed in stages. Digital-only subscribers will have to ante up $9.99/mo. for reading more than 10 articles in any title within a month.

Perhaps most indicative of the surging popularity of paywalls, though, is Politico’s decision to experiment with the idea. The Washington, D.C.-focused news service, which was once personified the new breed of digital-only publishers, has given in to the reality that advertising rates continue to fall and subscriber revenues must become part of the business. “We believe that every successful media company will ultimately charge for its content” said a memo signed by several of the Politico’s top executives.

Circling the Wagons

We continue to be more interested in experiments that break new ground in publishing economics than efforts to resurrect old models. There’s plenty to report there, as well.

Ken Doctor kicks us  off with a fine analysis of where NewsRight went wrong. NewsRight was a consortium of 20 publishers that sprung out of the Associated Press in early 2012 with the mission of tracking down copyright violators while also creating a subscription model that would permit digital publishers to license quality content for redistribution.

“Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators…” writes Doctor on the Nieman Journalism Lab, “…but rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.”

Bingo. Consortia are good for only two things: setting standards and raising awareness. They’re a terrible way to create new products. The idea of pursuing copyright violators individually is ludicrous, anyway. It’s like trying to stamp out ants. There are always more where the first batch came from.

The only anti-piracy tactic that works is a public awareness campaign, and the newspaper industry has shown little interest in that. NewsRight died because the members inevitably had conflicting priorities, and it was impossible for everyone to find common ground when everyone had something to lose.

Does BuzzFeed Have it Right?

Sponsored Post on BuzzFeedDoctor points to the work being done at NewsCred, BuzzFeed and Forbes, among others, as examples of new ideas worth developing. “In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time,” he writes. We’re particularly interested in BuzzFeed, the viral content engine started by Jonah Peretti and others in 2006. At first glance it looks like any other new-age news site, with a bottomless home page stuffed with a jumble of seemingly unrelated content ranging from the profound to the ridiculous.

As New York magazine points out in a lengthy profile, though, there’s a lot more going on there than cat photos. BuzzFeed is tuned to create content that people want to share, and it could care less who the authors are. The home page blithely mixes contributions from staffers and advertisers with minimal labeling. Every element within every story can be shared on every social network you can imagine. Every page is designed to maximize audience interaction with the content.

BuzzFeed makes little effort to segregate advertiser contributions from the work of its own staff. A photo essay on “12 Tips to Have An Amazing Barbecue” from Grill Mates sits next to “Just The London Skyline, Made Out Of Sugar Cubes” by staffer Luke Lewis. Some of the branded stuff is actually pretty good, like, JetBlue’s “The 50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out Of Airplane Windows.”

Is this serious journalism? Well, no. We don’t think corporate brands will ever produce that. But if they want to run their grilling tips next to similarly lightweight content from professional editors, why not let them? The genie that goes by such names as “brand journalism” and “content marketing” isn’t going back in the bottle. A recent survey concluded that corporate marketers and agencies consider branded content to be among their most effective branding tactics, and that 69% plan to spend more money on it in the coming year.

The bigger issue is whether sustainable publishing business models can be found that don’t rely entirely upon display advertising or subscription revenue. BuzzFeed and NewsCred are making some progress there. We don’t believe they produce serious journalism, if sex, gossip and voyeurism can attract a large enough audience to support real journalism, then we’re in favor of it. The idea isn’t new. It’s worked in the U.K. for decades.

Content Marketing Effectiveness

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The Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media Report paints a dismal picture of the condition of mainstream media – in particular broadcast and magazines – but Slate’s . Which side are you on?

There’s no question that Pew’s annual media audit and survey of 2,000 consumers is about as depressing as any of the 10 annual reports that the nonprofit media watchdog has completed. Among the lowlights:

  • Nearly a third of U.S. adults have stopped using a news outlet because it no longer met their needs.
  • That’s not surprising when you consider that low-cost sports, weather and traffic information now account for 40% of the content produced on the average local newscast.
  • The population of full-time professional newsroom employees fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1978. It’s down nearly 30% from its 1989 high.
  • In an election year, the declines in coverage were particularly evident. Live broadcast reports fell from from 33% of the news hole in 2007 to 23% in 2012. And 2007 was not an election year. Commentary and opinion, which are cheap to produce, now make up 63% of  news airtime on cable channels, while straight news reporting comprises only 37%.
  • An examination of 48 recent evening and morning newscasts found that 20 led with a weather-related story. Weather coverage is cheap.
  • Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists, while twice that many came from political partisans. The report runs down a list of informational websites that political parties and advocacy groups have set up to influence media, but some are now actually becoming the media. Pew notes several examples of major news magazines that have carried partisan reports as part of their branded news stream.
  • In that vein, Pew notes a 2008 analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols that found that the ratio of public relations workers to journalists tripled from 1.2-to-1 in 1980 to 3.6-to-1 in 2008. That gap has likely grown since then.
  • In summary, “News organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever,” Pew states.
  • Incredibly (to us, at least), the public is mostly unaware that the news media is struggling. Only 39% of the 2,000 consumers surveyed said they have much awareness of the industry’s problems.

Mainstream media percentage change in ad revenue 2011-2012

Newspapers actually come off pretty well in this year’s report. Thanks to paywalls, which are in place or in the works at one-third of U.S. newspapers, circulation held steady year-to-year. The New York Times said its circulation revenue now exceeds advertising revenue for the first time.

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...

Warren Buffett (source: Wikipedia)

However, the long-term trends are still negative. Newspapers lose $16 in print ad revenue for every $1 in digital ad revenue gained, and that figure is up from $10-to-$1 in 2011. Equally ominous is that Facebook and Google are doing a better job of figuring out how to target digital advertising locally, which threatens one of the few pockets of revenue strength newspapers have left.

Because the long-term outlook is so bad, newspapers have become an attractive investment vehicle. Pew notes that value investor Warren Buffett has been snapping them up at a rapid clip because they are so cheap. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News were bought for $55 million last year, which is 1/10 of the price they commanded in 2006.

Out of Mind

Perhaps the most surprising finding is the low public awareness of the news industry’s crisis, and that’s where Yglesias’ analysis on Slate is most interesting. “American news media has never been in better shape,” he states at the outset, using the Cypriot economic crisis as proof. We’re not sure the media itself is in great shape, but readers are doing fine.

Yglesias cites a “bounty” of online resources that provide context, analysis and even an interactive calculator that lets visitors try out different ideas for solving the island nation’s financial problems. It’s easier than ever to produce news using public sources and simple publishing tools, and the Internet makes boundless background information available in seconds.

Assessing the state of media by looking only at the health of traditional outlets creates “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers,” he writes. “[T]oday’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

The finding that only four in 10 Americans are even aware of the media’s struggles can be interpreted in several ways. The pessimistic view is that Americans are basically dumb, lazy and happy with the partisan screaming matches that characterize a lot of broadcast news.

A more positive view is that Americans have already moved on to using other sources and haven’t noticed the loss of their once-trusted brands. It’s impossible to know without further research, but we have to acknowledge Yglesias’s point that the decline of mainstream media certainly hasn’t resulted in a dearth of information.

No Expiration

One important point the Slate business writer makes is that news no longer carries an expiration date. Traditional media assumed that news would be consumed within a few hours or days. Archival or background information was tedious to find, so readers were mainly limited to whatever the newspaper or broadcast provided within its limited space.

Now everything is part of a grand, searchable archive, which permits people to go as deep as they want whenever they want. Those who don’t have the time to come up to speed on the banking crisis in Cyprus can put off learning about it until later. Then they can go to a resource like Wikipedia’s coverage and spend hours digging into background for more than 40 sources cited there.

We prefer the glass-half-full perspective. While the loss of the media’s watchdog function is troubling, the power of having timeless access to resources we didn’t even know existed is energizing. The challenge is to find ways to fund the valuable services that media has provided in the past so that the information that doesn’t attract search engines and sponsorship dollars still has a platform.

 

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By Paul Gillin | March 1, 2013 - 8:13 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers, Solutions

Occasionally a tool comes along that is so drop-dead useful that it causes you to change the way you work. We encountered such a tool a couple of weeks ago via an interview with Craig Silverman, founder of the Regret the Error blog (now hosted by Poynter) and the new Director of Content and Product Strategy at Spundge.

Spundge is a tool for content curation, a discipline we’ve written about in the past that helps readers cope with information saturation by aggregating and summarizing relevant material by topic. We think there’s a lot of value in curation, and if publishers can get over their not-invented-here mentalities, they can take advantage of it.

It’s hard to describe Spundge; it’s best to try it. If you consume content by reading RSS feeds – as we do – then its value is immediately obvious. The basic Spundge service includes RSS feeds from more than 45,000 sources that it calls the “fire hose.” It also has publicly available feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and several other social networks. You can add your own RSS feeds by pasting in individual URLs and uploading OPML files.

Users create a “notebook” for each topic and specify keyword combinations that are either required, optional or excluded. We created a simple one for this site that you can see here. You can create as many workbooks as you want and optionally share them. Other people can contribute to your notebook or just watch.

Spundge from Spundge on Vimeo.

Once you specify your keywords, Spundge goes to work filtering the fire hose to deliver items that match your query. Results consist of headlines and the first 500 characters or so of each article. This is usually enough to get a sense of what the piece is about. You can accept or decline each result. Accepted results go into a workspace for later use, while declined results disappear. Spundge is supposed to learn from your decisions and deliver more targeted results over time. That particular feature is a work in progress that will get better with time.

The items you save can be published as embeds on any site that accepts Javascript. Embeds don’t actually live on the target site, but are hosted on Spundge and displayed there. YouTube videos are commonly shared via embeds, and Storify is an example of a popular curation service that uses embedding. We’ve included an embed below that shows you how it works. One cool feature is that embeds are updated every few minutes, so the content actually updates even after you’ve published it.

Everything we’ve described so far is part of the free Spundge service. If you pay $9 a month, you get a WYSIWYG editor that enables you to customize content, write your own headlines, add comments and generally munge content however you want. The resulting HTML can be posted on any website or blog. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

Love at First Byte

We love Spundge, and we’re recommending it to everyone who’s tired of picking through RSS feeds or filtering tweets looking for nuggets of information. We’ve long used an RSS reader to monitor the sites listed in the lower left sidebar of this site. That’s more efficient than visiting each site individually, but the lack of filtering is still a problem. We have to scan each headline and summary manually.

With Spundge, we imported our favorite feeds from an OPML file, specified some keywords and were off to the races. Plus we got to take advantage of those 45,000 feeds that the Spundge developers had already found for us, not to mention Twitter and LinkedIn. Our reading time has been reduced dramatically and we’re discovering stuff we didn’t know existed before.

Spundge is still in development, and it’s not perfect. The workspace can’t easily be customized, so you can’t selectively display items without jumping through hoops. Spundge lets you specify how many items to embed, but not which ones. The service makes it easy to share items from your workspace on social networks, but links go to a copy of the content on Spundge rather than to the source. We think content providers will have a problem with that.

The biggest shortcoming we’ve seen so far is the recommendation engine, which is supposed to “learn” from your choices and deliver more targeted content over time. We haven’t noticed that the quality of our feed is improving, but let’s be fair: Machine learning is devilishly difficult to implement. If Spundge is successful, the investments will come and the quality will improve.

For now, we give the basic Spundge service an unqualified endorsement as a leap forward in technology to filter and organize information. We’re going to experiment with the paid service, and you’ll see the results here. In the meantime, our recommendation is to get thee to a Spundgery.

If you need that link again, Spundge is here.

 

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Media critics have been buzzing for more than a week about “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s feature in The New York Times about a tragic avalanche that claimed three skiers’ lives in the Tunnel Creek area of Washington state early last year. Some people say it‘s the future of journalism, and they’re right – in a way. A loud chorus of naysayers who point out that “Snow Fall” is just the Times showing off. They’re right, too.

What’s important isn’t whether this package – which doesn’t fit neatly into the category of article, video documentary or e-book – is a turning point, but rather its importance as an evolution in story-telling. There’s nothing revolutionary about the technology the Times used. It’s the way the elements were combined that makes “Snow Fall” a great experience.Snow Fall Intro screen

For example, some of the graphics unfold as the reader scrolls down the screen, illustrating elements of the narrative in a way that feels seamless and natural. Embedded slide shows appear next to the names of key people in the tragedy, showing them in happier times. It’s a moving tribute to dead and their families that doesn’t seem heavy-handed or maudlin. It’s just part of the story.

Romenesko says the package racked up 3.5 million page views in its first week and that one-quarter of them were new visitors to nytimes.com. Ad Age complains that the ads the Times ran next to the copy nearly ruin the reading experience. Mathew Ingram superbly balances comments from both fans and critics. He concludes that, for all its elegance and beauty, “Snow Fall” still doesn’t address mainstream media’s frustrating fiscal woes. Laura Hazard Owen suggests that the “e-single” version of the feature – which sells for $2.99 – is an important endorsement of the growing mini-book concept.

We dropped by to see what all the fuss was about and ended spending an hour reading every last word and viewing every last video. “Snow Fall” is a visually stunning example of what a well-resourced news organization can produce when it spares practically no expense to break the mold. Few media companies can attempt something so ambitious (although there are some corporate marketing departments that could foot the bill). What’s important about “Snow Fall” is the ideas it introduces – ideas that will be adopted and iterated by other publishers on a smaller scale. We don’t think that’s showing off. It’s just being creative.

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Two filmmakers who identify themselves as Lenny Feinberg and Chris Foster have released a trailer for what they say will be an upcoming documentary called Black and White and Dead All Over. We haven’t seen anything more than the four-minute clip embedded here, but it appears that the authors have interviewed an impressive cast of journalists and publishers. The trailer presents a sympathetic view of the plight facing the U.S. newspaper industry, pointing out that the information people expect to find for free online has to come from somewhere, and that the institutions that provide it are in peril. As one speaker puts it, “Where is the Internet going to get its information if the newspaper in your town goes out of business?”

The documentarians provided few details about when or where the full film will be available. The URL for BlackAndWhiteAndDeadAllOver.net goes to a parked GoDaddy page. We don’t even know who these guys are. Maybe they’ll leave a comment and tell us more.

 

Journalism traditionalists who suffer from high blood pressure probably shouldn’t read this piece by Forbes editor Lewis DVorkin. In it, he outlines the role of what he calls “brand journalism” in the evolution of Forbes.com, and even in Forbes magazine. He also scolds journalists for their objections to this increasingly popular concept, saying that their interest in keeping marketing content cordoned off from staff editorial is in part an instinct to minimize competition.

DVorkin has been a vocal critic of those who cling to the traditional Chinese wall principle of strict separation between advertising and editorial. In his view, the new economics of the profession demand radical new ideas, and journalists are standing in the way. “After five years of media turmoil, the profession I love clings to the belief…that the industry’s problems are for other people to solve. And when steps are taken to solve them, my colleagues will put up a fight if they can’t do exactly what they did before,” he wrote a couple of weeks ago in a summary of the changing advertising landscape and Forbes’ adaptation strategy.

Like it or not, DVorkin’s vision of increased integration between marketing and editorial content is gaining favor in traditional publishing circles. The trend is called “brand journalism,” “native advertising” or “content marketing,” but whatever the title, it’s breaking down some traditional walls.

Business Intelligence Solutions Boston Globe promotion

Boston.com, which is the online arm of the Boston Globe, recently launched “Insights,” a sponsored advertising feature that showcases blog posts from advertisers. Boston.com is a little more aggressive about labeling Insights material as advertising than some other brand journalism practitioners, but it’s the same basic idea. The publisher appears to have no problem with participants like Business Intelligence Solutions embedding the banner ad at right on its blog, saying nothing about the sponsorship arrangement.

Some other publishers have all but erased the lines between staff and brand content. BuzzFeed, which is one of the new breed of breathless, celebrity-stuffed news sites for the ADD set, expects to derive nearly all of its revenue from branded content and sponsored posts. So far, things are going pretty well. The site was a magnet for political advertising during the US presidential campaign and is expected to triple revenues this year. Branded features, like this one from JetBlue, look the same as BuzzFeed content and carry only lightweight advertiser labeling. The Atlantic is also in the pool with Quartz, a news site that blends branded and staff-written content more or less seamlessly.

Writing on emedia, Rob O’Regan has a good summary of this trend, which has been fueled by Twitter’s sponsored tweets and Facebook’s sponsored stories. Those companies, which have no preconceptions about ad/edit separation, say these new vehicles are a resounding success. Publishers are taking notice, but a news site is not a social network. News organizations trade on credibility, and “native” ads tread into new territory. Recent research by Mediabrix and Harris Interactive found that  readers often feel confused or misled by branded content.

Mediabrix/Harris Advertising Research

Compatible Content

The reason all this is happening, of course, is that the traditional print advertising model doesn’t work in the highly targeted online world. Display advertising is the fastest growing category of online advertising, and publishers have always known that display ads surrounded by compatible content perform best. Advertisers have traditionally bought space next to compatible content, but now they want to provide the content, too, because people are rejecting traditional messaging.

Businesses are quickly glomming onto this trend. Cisco relaunched its press room last year as a news stream, hiring laid-off journalists from major business publications to write thoughtful trend pieces. Intel is doing the same thing. Coca-Cola just overhauled its corporate site as a lifestyle news magazine under the “Coca-Cola Journey” brand. Expect many others to follow.

Sponsored content is nothing new. Mobil Oil bought space on The New York Times‘s op-ed page in the 1950s. What’s different today is that a severely weakened mainstream media is willing to be more the creative than ever in placement and labeling – even if that means potentially compromising their own brands.

Is this a horrifying development? The journalism purest in us says yes, but we’re inclined to keep an open mind. Lewis DVorkin has a point when he says journalists live in a bubble.  Social media have shown that good information can come from anywhere, even from people who aren’t journalists. As media organizations have learned to their chagrin in recent years, you can’t shove anything you want down people’s throats when they have infinite choice. The same applies to advertisers.

Regardless of who the author is, anyone who publishes content is at the mercy of readers. Marketers who publish the same dreck on branded media sites that they use to fill their purchased ad units won’t see much return on their investment. If people don’t want the content, it doesn’t matter how much you pay to publish it.

So the stakes are higher for marketers, too. The question is how many of them can successfully change their perspective to think like publishers. In our experience, precious few can. The natural instincts of people who have grown up in the traditional marketing world is to sell at every opportunity, not to serve the informational needs of the audience.

This will change over time as a new generation steps in, and publishers will play a key role in effecting that change. They will need to work with their clients to make sure the sponsored content they carry is worthy of their brand. It can be done. Admit it: If you clicked on the JetBlue link above, you scrolled down the entire page. It’s good stuff, even though it’s sponsored.

The silver lining is that if “native advertising” can become a major new revenue source, it can enable publishers to re-invest in quality journalism. In the end, that’s more important than labels or Chinese walls.

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Fake storm photo Hurricane Sandy

The photo at right was one of several that made the rounds on the Internet as Hurricane Sandy lashed the east coast on Monday and Tuesday of this week. It’s a powerful image. It’s also completely bogus, a two-year-old Photoshop mashup that took on new significance when no one had a clear picture of what was happening on the Atlantic seaboard. It was one of many false reports that circulated on social networks during the storm. Although the increasingly Twitter-dependent mainstream media didn’t circulate this photo, it reported its share of falsehoods.

We personally heard the CNN report of three feet of water in the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, live security camera feeds showed that the floor was dry. We also heard media reports that Con Edison had shut off power to all of Manhattan. Also not true. The Detroit Free Press rounds up some of the prominent rumors here.

Instagram was the new kid on the block for this event. The photo-sharing service communicated some powerful images, like the fully lit Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn surrounded by flood waters (left), but it was also used to drag out Photoshopped favorites from years past that reappear with each new disaster. The Verge has a roundup of photos shared on Instagram and Twitter during the storm and the Atlantic put together a great collection of real, fake and questionable images shared on social media.

Are these deceptions proof that citizen journalism sucks, that the ability to reach a global audience tempts people to spread falsehoods and make mischief?

We don’t think so. While social networks spread a lot of rumors during the storm, that’s nothing unique to the Web 2.0 age. Disasters always spawn speculation. Remember the reports of planes flying into buildings in Chicago and San Francisco on 9/11? The difference today is the speed at which falsehoods spread. But another important difference is the speed at which they’re dispelled.

We like John Herrman’s analysis on BuzzFeed. He notes that Twitter users were just as quick to disabuse each other of storm-related misinformation as to spread it in the first place. “Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace,” he writes. “To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

Sites like Snopes.com and Wikipedia are effective at sifting fact from fiction. Although neither is under the same time pressure as CNN, in the long run they get it right. Electronic media are always under the gun during a news event, and have always been susceptible to reporting bad information. To their credit, the news networks are usually good about qualifying unconfirmed information as just that. Any experienced reader of blogs or social networks knows that fantastical claims shouldn’t be taken at face value. New media even have some fact-checking features built in. For example, The New York Times used geo-location to verify that eyewitness tweets were in fact from people who might reasonably be assumed to be eye witnesses.

We think more information is always better than less, even if some of it is bad. As layoffs continue to hack away at mainstream media, those outlets continue to turn to citizens as front-line news sources. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. Rather, the tools for spotting bad information will mature and our bullshit detectors become more refined.

Anyone watching the #Sandy or #Frankenstorm hash tags on Monday and Tuesday read amazing stories from people who taking the storm head-on. Mobile social networks continue to deliver information from blacked-out areas that would otherwise have no outlet. The fact that some of that information is bad is the price we pay for having a First Amendment.

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By Paul Gillin | September 6, 2012 - 2:17 pm - Posted in Business News, BusinessModel, Future of Journalism

Journal Register Co., which has been the poster child for the “digital first” strategy that many newspapers are pursuing, declared bankruptcy today, just three years after emerging from a previous bankruptcy filing. This doesn’t mean the end of the road for the company, of course, but it does dramatize the difficulty of transitioning from a model based upon captive audience and economies of scale to one that accommodates constant audience churn and targeted advertising. We still like CEO John Paton’s vision for reinventing news.

Mathew Ingram has an excellent analysis on GigaOm, as usual. There’s not much we can add to it. As Ingram states, “Digital first is not a magic wand.” There’s still a massive amount of legacy baggage that needs to be discarded. We particularly like his characterization of paywalls as “just a line of sandbags against the rising tide.”

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James Macpherson, Pasadena NowEver heard of James Macpherson? If you’re a veteran journalist, you probably have, although you might know him better as “that asshole who fired his entire reporting staff and outsourced local coverage of Pasadena, Calif. to India.”

We got a note from Macpherson the other day pointing out that recent trends would indicate that he was a trailblazer, not a nut.

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then — and in spite of the Journatic debacle now –  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon…Newsroom outsourcing is inevitable. The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Macpherson also pointed us to a couple of his own blog entries on the subject: “The Outsourcing of Hyperlocal Journalism Is Inevitable” and “And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts.” They’re both worth reading. As we pointed out recently, the price of journalism is being readjusted to a new equilibrium point, and ideas like outsourcing local city council coverage to writers in Manila aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed.

It’s a Business

A lot of debate about the future of journalism has been tinged with emotion, which is understandable given how many jobs have been lost. The harsh reality, though, is that the vast majority of journalism is practiced by profit-making organizations. These companies are struggling with seismic shifts that have changed their business model forever. Advertising costs are in long-term decline, reader switching costs are zero, barriers to competitive entry have vanished and mass media are being displaced by specialized media. Any organization that hopes to survive in such a market needs to do things differently.

The approach to outsourcing that Macpherson outlines in this post is rational and workable in many scenarios: Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a lot of work that doesn’t require people to leave the office. Copy editing is a desk job. So is obituary writing. Editors fill holes on print pages by rewriting wire copy. Sports editors rarely go into a locker room and city editors don’t cover school board meetings. They’ve done all that stuff and graduated to jobs where they supervise others.

Some of this stuff is easy to outsource, and a lot of it already has been dispatched to interns or specialty shops like Legacy.com. The tough part is deconstructing jobs where experience is an asset, like the sports editor. Those jobs should stay intact on these shores, although some of the routine work may be able to be done elsewhere.

Get Me Rewrite

Journalism has traditionally been a vertically integrated craft. The reporter who covers the city council meeting is also expected to write the story, even if that person can’t compose a coherent paragraph. We’ve all known people who were great fact-finders or interviewers but who couldn’t write. Rewrite editors were an early tool to compensate for that. Now technology is taking deconstruction to a new level.

Anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streaming news source. People on the scene can embellish or correct a published account, even if they don’t work for the news organization. Aggregating, summarizing and commenting upon published reports is the essence of what most bloggers do. In many cases, being on the scene isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

Outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a process of optimizing for value. Move routine work to the lowest-cost source and invest in stuff that makes a difference. Businesses have done this with manufacturing, payroll, facilities maintenance, information technology and the many other tasks for years.

But what about quality? That’s the most common objection to outsourcing in general, but we think markets are pretty good at figuring that out. Journalists aren’t the ultimate arbiters of quality; their readers are. If you believe that the public no longer has an interest in quality journalism, then outsourcing is a pretty depressing prospect. However, we don’t think the public is that stupid.

Macpherson is right: These ideas should be developed and not dismissed as lunacy simply because they break with tradition. If someone can put out a journal at lower cost that its audience values and that someone will pay to support, then the market will make it own decisions.

By Paul Gillin | August 30, 2012 - 8:57 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, Newspapers

Jeff Jarvis nails it with this headline:  “Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?” And he goes it one better by running some numbers that estimate that media organizations will spend $30 million this week covering a Republican convention of which the outcome is already known. Then they’ll do the same thing next week for the Democrats.

Here’s what we’ll get for this investment:

  • On-the-spot analysis of speeches that could be covered just as easily by watching them on television;
  • Interviews with political junkie delegates who in no way typify the American voter;
  • Journalists talking to each other;
  • TV reports that are supposed to look more urgent because the reporter is standing in front of  a sign labeled “Wisconsin.”

All this is happening in an industry that’s in free fall.

Yet what we’ll get over these two weeks is the same political pabulum we’ve gotten for decades, served up to an American public that’s sick of it all.

1952 Republican National Convention via Wikimedia CommonsPolitical convention coverage epitomizes what’s wrong with mainstream media today. Conventions long ago ceased to have any news value. The last brokered convention was in 1952. Since then, the only purpose of the quadrennial party has been to deliver what Jarvis calls an infomercial. Everything is scripted for the greatest possible momentum going into the fall campaign, and the media plays right along.

Why? Well, as Tevye said: “Tradition!”  It’s always been done this way. Conventions aren’t about news. They’re a junket for senior reporters. They’re easy to cover because everyone who attends them is media-trained and has a scripted message. There’s what media needs today: stuff that’s easy.

How can you cover the reaction of voters back at home when all your best reporters are down in Tampa snarfing down shrimp and free booze? Why are the TV networks  interviewing a small number of delegates and ignoring  millions of online conversations between real voters? How can the media, which prides itself on independence, cooperate so willingly with the PR manipulators who script this stuff? How can it possibly spending so much money on something that produces no news?

Let’s ask different questions: What if The New York Times, Washington Post or NBC made a statement in 2016 and announced that it would skip the conventions and invest that money instead in an investigative unit or database journalist? What if the media stopped coming to the conventions entirely and left the coverage to Journatic? Do you think we would be any worse off? Do you think the economy would suffer? Do you think anyone outside of the media would even notice?

Won’t happen. That would be rocking the boat. And for heaven’s sake, why would anyone want to do that?

Update: Andrew Cohen writes about the unholy camaraderie between media and political parties in the Atlantic. Noting that Huffington Post, The Politico, CNN and Bloomberg spend lavishly on receptions for  delegates, he notes, “People are angry about politics and politicians. They are angry about the way the media cover politics and politicians. Can you blame them, in the face of [media-sponsored] spas and sports bars, in the face of the self-promotion, for perceiving some sort of unholy alliance between reporters and the people upon which they are supposed to be reporting?”


Apparently a Pulitzer Prize is no protection against the ravages of the marketplace. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, and the Syracuse Post-Standard will reduce print frequency to thrice weekly beginning in January. They follow the lead of their Advance Publications brethren in New Orleans and Alabama, which scaled back this spring. The news is particularly disappointing because the Patriot-News  won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for its coverage of the Penn State scandal. These are not small marketers. The two papers have a combined Sunday circulation of nearly a quarter million. They’ll keep publishing on Sunday. The other two days of the week haven’t been decided. Expect more members of the Advance family to follow.

Update: A tipster says he’s been told there will be a 50% staff reduction at the Post-Standard starting next week. “That’s 200 lost jobs in an already hard-hit community.”