By paulgillin | March 21, 2018 - 1:29 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Paywalls

With the media world buzzing about the fake news engine that is Cambridge Analytica, news about a new Google initiative to support quality journalism might easily be overlooked. The multi-faceted investment covers everything from website analytics tuned to the needs of publishers to machine learning tools that identify potential subscribers.
Of particular note is Subscribe with Google, a service that enables readers to easily subscribe to a news source using their Google accounts, with payments handled automatically through Google’s established payment mechanisms. The search giant handles all of the back-end accounting securely and lets publishers handle all subscriptions in one place. The company is also applying machine learning to identify revenue opportunities for publisher with its Insights Engine Project, which delivers better ad targeting and peer comparisons for ad performance.
A particular interesting new dimension of Insights Engine is a feature that identifies readers who are likely to become subscribers and helps publishers to optimize offers when they are most likely to pay. With big papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post collectively boasting more than 4 million paying subscribers, this is an opportunity for small publishers to cash in on the paywall trend.
The problem Google hasn’t conquered yet is how to identify and elevate trustworthy information ahead of fake news. If it can figure that out, it can perform a much greater service than just identifying revenue opportunities for publishers; it can restore civility to our national conversations.

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By paulgillin | May 27, 2010 - 2:44 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local

While Google is busy figuring out how to save journalism, some entrepreneurs are going ahead and doing it on their own using unconventional techniques that may make some traditionalists shudder. Writing in The New York Times magazine, Andrew Rice surveys the landscape of recent media startups that are confronting the reality of plummeting margins by crowdsourced news operations.

Lewis Dvorkin of True/Slant

They range from Demand Media, which generates assignment lists based entirely on search terms, to Global Post, which hopes to charge readers for direct access to its foreign correspondents. A few themes are apparent through many of the business models. One is their reliance upon search as both a guide and a source of revenue. New-age publishers see Google as the pulse of reader interest and have tuned their models to respond, in some cases, in near real-time. Another is that they pay very little for journalism.

Rice visits True/Slant, an operation that uses a digital speedometer to match content on its site to trending topics on Google and Twitter. Thousands of writers contribute to the service, which posts about 125 articles a day. Journalists are paid a fraction of what that would make at traditional media organizations, but at least there’s a little money in the work. True/Slant has only five full-time staff and about 300 contributors. “It’s not so much a unified publication as a loosely connected commune of bloggers, who generate a continual stream of content with minimal editorial intervention,” Rice writes.

The 125-story-per-day figure may sound like a lot, but it’s a pittance compared to the daily output of Huffington Post (500) or (3,000). These publishers produce news in the kind of volumes meant to serve picky advertisers, who only buy proximity to certain keywords. Since advertisers don’t have to waste money on audiences they don’t want any more, the publishing model being built by these new companies is to churn out huge quantities of content and serve lots of niche advertisers.

Everything is search-optimized and, in some cases, search drives the boat. Demand Media actually assigns stories based upon search popularity. Freelancers pick from a list of topics culled from popular search queries and turn out articles and video that post to sites like eHow, which has a revenue-sharing agreement with Demand. No story is assigned unless there’s a high probability it will pay for itself.  Demand “says these mathematically generated ideas are 4.9 times as valuable as those devised by mere human brainstorming,” Rice writes. Journalists get $15 to $20 per item and Demand Media booked $200 million in revenue last year.

The new economics of search-driven publishing have thrown open the question of how much journalism is worth. Contributors to many of the sites Rice describes are paid anywhere from $10 to $25 per contribution. Search advertising is such a low cost-commodity that one publisher estimates a journalist needs to attract 1.8 million monthly page views in order to earn a $60,000 annual salary.

If all of this makes you slightly nauseous, you’re not alone. Many of these emerging business models play to popularity as measured by search volume. Nor surprisingly, sex and sin sell. “Writers and editors know that click-driven Internet economics tend to reward lowbrow gimmickry. They have to decide whether to work around that or to embrace it as a fact of life,” Rice writes. Some new models play directly to the will of the crowd, such as Henry Blodget’s (yes, that Henry Blodget) gossipy Business Insider and Demand Media.  Other new operations, like GlobalPost, The Politico and Awl, are attempting to produce thoughtful journalism and make money at it, mostly through creative use of alternative funding sources.

The elephant in the corner is the rising interest of businesses in inserting themselves into the media stream. Nearly everyone Rice interviews agrees that the companies that pay the bills want – and deserve – a role in determining  content. True/Slant, which is run by 57-year-old former newspaperman Lewis Dvorkin, gives its advertisers the same tools to contribute to the news stream as its reporters. “It’s the way the world is moving,” Dvorkin says.

By paulgillin | May 17, 2010 - 7:53 am - Posted in Fake News, Google

News executives who insist upon seeing Google as the Great Satan would do well to read James Fallows’ 9,000-word analysis in this month’s Atlantic. Fallows is well-equipped to write the story of Google’s tortured romance with the news industry. He is a veteran traditional journalist with a technology bent who is as comfortable writing for PC Magazine as for Atlantic.

There’s a lot to digest in this article but a few insights struck us as particularly important. One is that Google sees itself as having what one executive calls a “deeply symbiotic relationship” with news organizations. Second is that Google is devoting a lot of bright people and significant amounts of money to help news organizations reinvent themselves. The third is that Google believes advertising will become a lucrative and sustainable source of income for news organizations in the future, but only if they change their tactics.

Thief or Robin Hood?

Google is often pilloried by publishers for “stealing” content. This is despite the fact that Google lifts no more than a few characters from each story, doesn’t sell ads on its Google News service and is the number one source of traffic for most newspaper websites. The real reason Google is so despised is because it has accelerated the “unbundling” of news. This is at the root of the industry’s disruption. Newspapers traditionally have delivered their entire product in one package with advertising in lucrative sections like automotive and food subsidizing the stuff no one wants to pay for, like correspondents in Afghanistan. Search engines have blown apart this model by making it possible for online readers to navigate directly to the content they want. When each form of content is forced to justify its own existence, the world/national news, statehouse coverage and other staples lose out.

Fallows points out that Google and newspapers have a lot in common. Google’s well-being is tied to the availability of high-quality information online. One of the reasons its executives feel such urgency about helping the newspaper industry is that they fear that the loss of this content will diminish Google’s core value. Fallows also astutely points out that Google’s business model is itself a bundle: the company makes the vast majority of its profits from search, which enables it to fund loss leaders like News and Books.

Genuine Concern

Google CEO Eric SchmidtFallows spent a year interviewing Google executives and he portrays their concern about the news industry’s crisis as heartfelt and earnest. Certainly, no Internet company has been more visible in trying to engage with publishing executives. CEO Eric Schmidt addressed the American Society of News Editors last month and has been quoted many times despairing about the industry’s troubles. Of the other online companies that have taken their share of news industry flesh, only Craigslist’s Craig Newmark has shown any concern about the consequences.

Fallows’ piece is basically upbeat. Google executives express unequivocal confidence in the future of display advertising, a vehicle that has been widely written off as a dying intrusion on users’ reading experience. Advertising on the Internet is still in its infancy, executives assert, and advances in targeting will enable display ads to do for readers what Google’s AdWords technology has done: deliver relevant contextual offerings to readers based not only on the article in front of them but also on their self-described interests and recommendations of their friends. As advertising increasingly reflects a two-way dialogue between reader and publisher, “news operations will wonder why they worried so much about print display ads, since online display will be so much more attractive,” Fallows writes.

The company is applying technology to increase the yield of advertising in the same way that airlines adjust their pricing, planes and schedules to maximize revenues per mile. One innovation is an arbitrage system that enables publishers to adjust the allocation of premium priced advertising on a second-by-second basis. Another is Fast Flip, a Google experiment that seeks to mimic the print reading experience on a computer screen. Google has even adjusted its treasured search algorithm to accommodate complaints from individual publishers. There is little or no revenue in these efforts for Google; the company’s motivation appears to be giving publishers more options.

Rethinking News

However, Fallows also emphasizes that Google executives believe news organizations must take responsibility for their own health by rethinking their approach to the business. Krishna Bharat, a distinguished research scientist at Google and the driving force behind Google News, probably reads more newspaper content than most humans. He notes that duplication of effort saps the productive potential of the industry as a whole.

“You see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” Bharat says, referring to pack journalism. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” This repetition is a relic of the days when readers had limited sources of information and hundreds of reporters might cover the same event. Now this approach has become antiquated. Publishers would get more bang for the buck by pooling their efforts to provide the five Ws and devote more resources to “something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”

Executives also emphasize that while they believe the ad picture is bright, a continued overreliance on display advertising will be the news industry’s undoing. Instead, they advise a “lots of small steps” approach based upon continuous experimentation and diversification of revenue streams. “The three most important things any newspaper can do now are experiment, experiment, and experiment,” says Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

Which, when you think of it, is how Google works.

Presentation by Google Chief Economist Hal Varian

By paulgillin | March 16, 2010 - 2:35 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Solutions

The Chaos Scenario on Newspaper Death WatchIn this video interview, Bob Garfield, the author of The Chaos Scenario discusses the changes being brought about by the collapse of the mass advertising model, and with it the mass media. While Garfield is fundamentally optimistic about the future, he compares the pain being experienced by media professionals and their organizations today to the dislocation that occurred when the craft/artisan economy gave way to the Industrial Revolution. In the long run, Garfield asserts, we’ll be better off for the democratization of media. But there’ll be a decade or two of chaos that precedes new models.

Garfield was interviewed at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, where the people who are incubating the changes he describes have gathered for their giant annual mind meld. Running time: 19:17.

Bob Garfield on Media in Chaos from Newspaper Death Watch on Vimeo.

By paulgillin | March 4, 2010 - 12:13 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Solutions
David Cay Johnston in a Newspaper Death Watch interview

David Cay Johnston

We don’t get a lot of e-mail from Pulitzer Prize winners, so we were pleased and intrigued when David Cay Johnston sent a lengthy response to our recent comments on the shortcomings of American journalism schools. Johnston is a reporter’s reporter in the classic mold of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

In his career, Johnston has certainly done plenty of afflicting. Starting with a staff writer job at the San Jose Mercury in 1968, he progressed through reporting positions at the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer before landing at The New York Times, where he reported on economics and tax issues until his retirement in 2008. He was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting “for his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the US tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms,” according to his Wikipedia bio.  He was also a finalist for the prize in 2000 and 2003. Today, he writes, teachers and consults.

You can read much more about his accomplishments in the biography accompanying his book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill). It’s one of three bestsellers he has authored, a list that also includes Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else and Temples of Chance: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business.

Although Johnston considers himself to be an optimist, he’s anything but cheerful about the state of American journalism and its culture of celebrity-mongering, lightweight lifestyle pieces and regurgitation of factoids spoon-fed to junior reporters by executives and government officials.

“Young journalists need to learn techniques for getting people to open up and especially to check, cross-check and re-cross-check facts; they need to learn how to mine documents which J schools do a lousy job of teaching; they need to become adept at numbers, which goes virtually untaught; they need to learn the underlying principles of whatever issue they cover,” he commented in his e-mail to us. “Use your independent judgment and you stop letting sources tell you what is news.”

This 24-minute audio interview covers the decline of investigative reporting, hopeful signs from early philanthropy-backed experiments and the passive culture of many American newsrooms that has contributed to a dumbing-down of content. “I’ve discouraged a lot of young people from going into journalism,” he told us. But he also noted that if you can make a living in the field, “It’s fun, there’s a lot of freedom and a cachet to it.”

Right-click and save to download.(24:43)

By paulgillin | February 19, 2010 - 12:22 pm - Posted in Facebook, Google, Hyper-local

This week’s sorry tale of a New York Times reporter being forced to resign for plagiarizing content from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources, apparently over a long period of time, raises questions about how traditional practices can survive the pressures of the online age.

Zachery Kouwe (right) walked the plank after editors at the Wall Street Journal complained that passages in a post on the Times’ DealBook blog substantially duplicated material published in the Journal a couple of hours earlier. The Times published a correction and later suspended Kouwe. He resigned on Tuesday.

In an interview with The New York Observer, Kouwe apologize for the transgression but explained that it was an honest mistake brought on by the need to respond to a rival’s story combined with the relentless pressure to produce weekly output of about 7,000 words. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened,” he said.

There’s never an excuse for plagiarism, but an understanding of the environment in which young reporters like Kouwe work can at least explain his acts, if not excuse them.

Deadlines in Minutes

It wasn’t long ago that reporters at a big paper like the Times had the luxury of turning out a story a day or even less. Print deadlines measured in hours offered an opportunity to check sources and rewrite notes in a timeframe that seems positively leisurely today. A few skilled professionals, mostly wire reporters, excelled at deadline reporting. Their expertise in synthesizing and contextualizing large amounts of information, often in chaotic environments, was the product of years of experience.

Today, everyone who writes news online is a wire service reporter. Deadlines are measured in minutes and anyone who wants to compete has to put speed at the top of the agenda. Not everyone is good at working under that kind of pressure, so it’s not surprising that the quality of deadline news reporting is becoming more erratic. Budget cuts at newspapers have also forced a lot of young, relatively unseasoned reporters to the front lines where their work nevertheless carries the moniker of a 150-year-old trusted brand. Such was clearly the case with Kouwe who, at 31, has developed his journalism skills inside the culture and pressure of the Internet.

The craft of note-taking has also changed. In today’s cut-and-paste world, journalists assemble background information from snippets published elsewhere. Notes are typed rather than hand written. In a document made up of first-person interview notes mashed together with clips from other sources, it’s not surprising that the origins of information can become confused. That’s not an excuse for shoddy note-taking, but it is an explanation for how errors can happen.

Changing Views on Copyright

The standards of intellectual property ownership that have been broadly accepted for so long are also growing fuzzier. Many bloggers don’t even post copyright information on their sites or they choose from one of an assortment of Creative Commons licenses that can themselves be confusing. The nonprofit culture of the blogosphere largely looks the other way when people lift content from each other. Many people use blogs as essentially online notepads, posting everything up to and including their shopping lists. Even if they cared about plagiarism, it’s difficult to spot violations and usually not worth the trouble of chasing the offenders. This works okay in the blogosphere because few bloggers practice their craft for money. In some cases, theft of content is actually considered a compliment to the author.

Then there are the proliferating forms that online communications take. Are Twitter messages copyrightable? If so, then isn’t the coveted retweet a form of copyright infringement? Google Voice has a feature that transcribes phone messages and makes it easy to embed those transcriptions in websites. Is that also a legal problem?

Finally, software tools now enable  someone to republish entire articles on multiple sites without even copying and pasting. Posterous is just one that makes this process automatic. A person using this feature may be violating someone else’s intellectual property without even knowing it.

This is not an excuse for Kouwe’s transgressions. A professional reporter should understand the fundamentals of the craft. However, the freewheeling nature of the democratized information landscape creates all sorts of gray areas. Journalism schools and editors need to do a better job of giving young journalist the tools to living with the growing pressures of deadlines and information overload without violating basic principles of ownership.

New Image Protection

Photographers have a particularly difficult time tracking copyright violations. Search engines don’t index images and the content embedded within tags gets lost as pictures are copied and redisplayed around the web. Watermarking affords some protection, but it also can make the image unattractive to potential publishers.

PicScout is trying to do something about this. Founded in 2002 to market an image recognition and classification technology, the company has a new platform that analyzes images and stores ownership information in a registry. That information travels with the image wherever it’s reproduced, thanks to technology that is capable of recognizing certain patterns within the bitstream. With one click, a potential user of the image can be connected to the license holder to work out terms.

License holders can upload their images to PicScout for indexing. The service then continually scans the Web looking for reuse of that content. License holders get a regular report on potential violations, along with company name and a screen capture. Users can download a free plug-in that alerts them to images that are listed in the PicScout database. The company just signed a partnership deal with PhotoShelter, a website for professional photographers and enthusiasts, that will automatically include PhotoShelter images in the PicScout registry.


If you think the demise of newspapers has killed good journalism, take a look at the list of the 13 winners of George Polk Awards for 2009. The awards, which have been administered by Long Island University for more than 60 years, cover a wide range of national and international accomplishments, ranging the New York Times reporter who documented his seven-month captivity by the Taliban to a ProPublica journalist who reported on the dangers of a natural gas-drilling process that yields carcinogenic byproducts. While the honorees include the usual lineup of mainstream media sources, a few surprises crept into the group this year. They include a team of Stars and Stripes reporters that unearthed a Pentagon campaign that profiled journalists in order to steer them toward positive coverage of the war in Afghanistan and a group of Bloomberg reporters who documented abuses of the government’s bank bailout program.

The Phoenix-area East Valley Tribune just won’t die. Owner Freedom Communications filed a motion with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court this week seeking approval to sell its Phoenix-area publications — including the Tribune — to 1013 Communications LLC. The purchase price is reportedly just $2.05 million. Freedom has been in bankruptcy protection since September and has been trying to unload the Tribune for more than a year. It had earlier announced plans to shut down the paper at the end of 2009, but is keeping the lights on in hopes of finding a buyer.

Growth of digital coupons is outpacing growth of newspaper coupons by a factor of 10 to 1, according to a company that has a stake in the digital market. reports that more than 45 million American consumers are now using online coupons, a nearly 20% increase from the 38 million who used them in 2008. “Of that number, nearly a third (13.1 million) don’t clip coupons from their Sunday paper, a 140% increase over 9.4 million in 2008,” said If anyone can explain how the difference between 9.4 million and 13.1 million comes out to 140%, we’d like to hear it.

Questions are already being raised about Apple’s iPad licensing terms and whether its policy of keeping subscriber data close to the vest is a deal-killer. The Financial Times reports that the generous royalty model that Apple uses with book publishers (they get to keep 70% of the take) doesn’t work so well in subscription models.  It’s particularly bad in light of Apple’s practice of gathering all subscriber information and sharing nothing with its publisher or developer partners except download and sales totals.  “Is it a dealbreaker? It’s pretty damn close,” says one senior US media executive. Here’s another opportunity for Amazon. Publishers appear to prefer the Kindle platform for a number of reasons, but Amazon’s licensing terms grant them too little of the subscription revenue. If Amazon would loosen up quickly, it could grab most-favored-reader status in this important market. So far, though, Amazon shows little inclination of changing anything.

And Finally…

“There is nothing more frustrating than having a perfect comment for a conversation the two strangers in front of you are having.”

“It’s never more important to me to look my best than when I’m gonna be around someone I can’t stand.”

“I don’t understand the purpose of the line, ‘I don’t need to drink to have fun.’ No one does. But why start a fire with flint and sticks when they’ve invented the lighter?”

Those are just three of the gems from Ruminations, a website that accepts short, funny, original observations or anecdotes and then encourages its members to vote them up or down the popularity scale.

Reading Ruminations is like listening to a nonstop Steven Wright standup routine. Many of the contributions are hilarious, but some of them make you ponder the odd, illogical and bizarre things that humans do. “How many times is it appropriate to say ‘What?’ before you just nod and smile because you still didn’t hear what they said?” asks one contributor. The site was started by author and comedian Aaron Karo (above), who has a newsletter by the same name.

By paulgillin | February 3, 2010 - 7:12 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Paywalls

Alan Mutter is stirring things up again with a spreadsheet that journalists can use to value their work. His thinking: Stop debasing yourself by working for peanuts. Figure out what your time is worth and charge accordingly.

With his characteristic eye for detail, Mutter figures such factors as the self-employment tax and capital expenses in his calculations. The sample shows a fictional reporter charging about 55 cents a word to cover his/her fully loaded costs figuring an average pay rate of about $30/hour, which is union scale in Pittsburgh. Your mileage may vary, of course.

If journalists “don’t put a value on what they do, then no one else will, either,” Mutter declares, noting that media organizations are using the explosion of blogs and citizen media operations to “pick off writers, photographers and videographers on the cheap.”

We have enormous respect for Alan Mutter, but we find ourselves in complete disagreement on this one. In our view, journalists who draw lines in the sand and start charging only what they think they’re worth will find themselves practicing a lot less journalism.

Are media organizations taking advantage of plummeting freelance rates? You betcha. Is what they’re doing wrong? We don’t think so. Supply and demand is the underpinning of a capitalist economy, and if the rules have changed in a way that devalues quality journalism, well, those are the cards we’re dealt. It sucks, but it’s how the system works.

Journalists can try to charge what they think they’re worth, but they’ll ultimately live or die by what the market is willing to pay. With the arrival of Web 2.0-style publishing, millions of people have started playing at journalism and it turns out some aren’t half bad at it. The trouble is that many of these casual journalists don’t make a living as reporters. Their journalism is a sidelight to their day jobs. They may be happy to work for a vague reward defined as “exposure” if it pays off in speaking jobs, consulting work or book contracts.

Mutter is outraged that people contact him asking “to commission an article or reprint a post in exchange for the ephemeral compensation known as ‘exposure,’” but the reality of the market is that a lot of people are willing to work for that (full disclosure: we recently approached Mutter about contributing to a for-profit website in exchange for a modest fee; he politely declined). For example, many book authors write extensively about their expertise for free in exchange for exposure in major publications.

We sympathize with journalists who have seen the market value of their work collapse over the last couple of years. We’ve experienced some of that pain personally and we have many friends and colleagues who are suffering because of it. However, the market has spoken, and the solution to collapsing fees isn’t to insist on getting a rate that employers will no longer pay.

Is there a solution? Well, journalists who specialize in everything from geography to gastroenterology can still command higher prices than general assignment reporters. Also, a lot of journalists work for commercial clients on the side so that they can afford to practice their craft. There’s money in speaking, consulting, writing books and corporate ghost-writing. Some of that work may be distasteful, but at least it pays the bills.

That doesn’t solve the problem of who is going to embed in Iraq for six months at 25 cents a word. That’s a much tougher issue and we wish we had better ideas how to solve it. But drawing lines in the sand is career suicide.

Indianapolis-based freelance journalist Christopher Lloyd sees things our way. He’s passionate about movies and has contributed free movie reviews to some area newspapers since being laid off by the Indianapolis Star. “I knew I wasn’t going to drop my passion for film criticism. If I was going to do it, I might as well have it published,” he writes. Plus, movie studios won’t pay attention to a journalist whose work isn’t being read by anyone. He’s still plugging away and some of his clients are now paying a modest fee. He’s also got a site for film buffs called The Film Yap, where contributors work for, you guessed it…

Speaking of careers, a university professor has analyzed six months worth of recent job postings and discovered that traditional and non-traditional news outlets differ in their criteria for hiring journalists. Dr. Serena Carpenter, an assistant professor in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, looked at 664 online media job postings and concluded that established media organizations such as newspapers tended to favor candidates with solid writing and reporting skills while new media operations looked favorably on what she calls “adaptive expertise.” That includes broad-based experience and creative thinking.

Seth Lewis, a former Miami Herald editor and Ph.D student at the University of Texas, has joined the Nieman Journalism Lab as a contributor (paid?) specializing in journalism education and he’d like to know your ideas for what J-schools should teach. Perhaps stealing a line from the research noted above, Lewis is inclined to recommend a focus on adaptability. He defines that as the skills “to work in unpredictable settings, to generate their own funding as needed, and otherwise learn as they go.” In the process of interviewing for a faculty position at various academic institutions, Lewis says he was often asked what journalism schools should teach, which indicates that the profs at those schools are perplexed as well. Maybe you can provide him with some guidance.


Opponents of government subsidies for media organizations overlook an important detail: US media has been subsidized for 200 years, reports The New York Times. Citing a report released last week by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, the Times notes that government support of newspapers has actually been declining in recent years as mailing discounts have diminished laws requiring businesses to buy newspaper ads for certain kinds of legal notices have been dropped. In fact, the study’s authors estimate that annual government support has declined from more than $4 billion in 1970 to less than $2 billion today.

News organizations are starting to figure out how to monetize social networks. The Austin American-Statesman is charging for tweets and actually booking revenue. Local businesses can buy two tweets per day of up to 124 characters (to allow for retweets). The messages are labeled as ads and must prompt the reader to take action. Huffington Post is experimenting with the same idea. The New York Times is also selling packages of ads against visitors to its Facebook site. Nobody’s making much money at this yet, though.

Gannett executives demonstrated a rarely-seen attitude during this week’s earnings call: Optimism. “”We are very excited by what we are seeing,” said CEO Craig Dubow. Circulation is beginning to recover and profitability is returning to the income statement, enabling Gannett to pay down some of its debt. Profitability was still driven more by cost-cutting than by revenue growth, however. Classified revenues were down nearly 22% in the quarter and digital revenues fell 7.2% due largely to the dismal picture state of employment advertising. More coverage.

Newspaper readership continues at record levels when you factor in online traffic, according to the latest results from Nielsen Online and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). More than 72 million people — about one quarter of all Internet users, according to the NAA — visited a newspaper site in the fourth quarter, racking up 3.2 billion monthly page views. The NAA declined to provide year-to-year comparisons, citing a change in Nielsen’s measurement technique.

By paulgillin | January 20, 2010 - 8:16 am - Posted in Google, Hyper-local

Watching the heart-rending images and stories coming out of Haiti over the last week, we’ve found ourselves worrying not only about the human tragedy but also about how much we really know about what’s going on down there.

The Haitian earthquake is a vivid example of how the world still relies upon the mainstream media to tell the stories that no one else will. The news media is often guilty of overkill, such as when Tribune Co. sent 14 reporters to cover a Super Bowl in which none of its hometown teams played or when reporters jam-pack a Presidential press conference to report on the same thing everyone can see on TV. Haiti is different. A natural disaster needs to be told through many images and personal accounts. There can’t be enough reporters in that devastated region right now.

Who’s going to fill that role as news organizations shrivel? We have more information available to us today than ever, but we rely on organizations with fewer and fewer resources to tell us about important events like the Haitian earthquake. Few bloggers are going to travel to an impoverished and devastated region on their own dime and the participants in the tragedy are too focused on survival to tweet what’s going on around them.

Calculating Media’s Value

A new research study dramatizes the continuing value of mainstream media, albeit in a small domain. The Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at the news ecosystem in Baltimore for one week last summer and followed six major narratives that dominated the headlines. It concluded that while there was lots of chatter going on, eight out of 10 stories merely repeated or repackaged information published in mainstream media and 95% of all new information came from traditional media sources.

The most important source of original reporting was the Baltimore Sun, which contributed nearly half of all original news reported in the area. However, the study also found that the Sun produced 32% fewer stories than it did in 1999 and 73% fewer stories than in 1991. The good news is that researchers found 53 different outlets disseminating news. Unfortunately, “83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information,” said Digiday Daily.  “Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.” Radio accounted for if a pitiful 7% of all original news.

Perhaps news organizations in the future will mobilize groups of stringers to cover momentous events while cutting back on pointless trips to political conventions. Or perhaps they won’t. A 2008 survey found that, faced with shrinking staffs, newspapers were actually consolidating their coverage on fewer stories and shedding the special interest stuff that didn’t draw large audiences.

An interesting side note is that the Pew study also found that 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, most notably the police. Since those institutions generally don’t talk to anyone but the traditional press, perhaps a bigger issue is how to democratize access to the sources of information.

Public relations blogger and new media expert Shel Holtz contributes some interesting perspective. He points out that while social media is serving as an effective means of accelerating knowledge of a news event, “it’s not panning out as a replacement for professional journalism.” Social media has had considerable value in the Haitian disaster as a fund-raising vehicle, but not as a primary news source.

The Newspaper Association of America might consider how it could use the public’s fixation on the Haitian disaster to tactfully point out that it was mainstream media that brought this story to the world. Perhaps the industry can use events like this to warm consumers to the idea that these services have value and deserve to be supported.

By the way, Google has used its satellite imaging service to dramatically document the devastation in the region. The Google Earth images are available here and will be continually updated.

By paulgillin | January 8, 2010 - 8:32 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local

We don’t entirely agree with Michael Kinsley’s piece in the Atlantic this week criticizing newspapers for verbosity, but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it (briefly). Kinsley (below right) eviscerates both The New York Times and the Washington Post for their coverage of health care reform by dissecting lead paragraphs and quotation choices. Are all these words really necessary? Kinsley thinks not.

The Post, for example, leads its story with 13 words of pointless Presidential rhetoric and then proceeds to quote other lawmakers making equally vapid statements. Readers don’t care if legislators are “answering the call of history,” Kinsley notes. They want to know what happened. Unfortunately, reporters and editors have been trained to frame everything within the bigger context of “what it means,” and in the process have obscured news of the actual event.

Michael Kinsley

Perhaps the most controversial point in the piece is Kinsley’s criticism of the standard journalistic tactic of attributing analysis where attribution really isn’t needed. He cites a recent New York Times story about the unintended consequences of regulatory crackdowns on Wall Street bonuses. It turns out some executives who were forced to take stock instead of cash are now making a killing as financial stocks rebound. The reporter clearly considers this irony, Kinsley notes, but she’s not allowed to say that. So she digs up a quote from an obscure trade editor to validate what everybody already knows.

This last point is a slippery slope for news organizations. Facing competition from bloggers whose stock in trade is opinion, journalists are redoubling their efforts to sound impartial. Of course, impartiality doesn’t really exist, so reporters search for third-party sources whose opinions validate their own. Bloggers have no such limitations, so they are free to get to the point, state an opinion and move on. This has the effect of actually making blogs more efficient to read than stories in the mainstream media.

We don’t think it’s that simple. The most common complaint we hear about the decline of mainstream media is that people don’t know whom to trust anymore. By at least taking a stab at presenting an unbiased view, mainstream news organizations can save readers from having to triangulate multiple perspectives to form their own opinions. The risk, as Kinsley accurately observes, is that reporters pick and choose analysis that matches their own. That’s worse than misleading; it’s downright deceptive.

We have always believed the smart people have the capacity to hold opinions while also fairly representing multiple points of view. We see nothing wrong with the reporter in the Times piece writing a separate opinion, whether as a blog entry or something else, that states the view of an informed observer. If anything, that should encourage a reporter to present a more balanced perspective in the piece that’s labeled news. Just don’t mix the two.

Freelance Free Fall Threatens Quality

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Rainey laments the freefall in freelance compensation that is forcing writers to scramble to make a fraction of what they made two or three years ago. With publishers paying as little as five cents a word for assignments advertised on Craigslist, journalists are finding they can’t afford to practice their craft and are fleeing the profession.

The problem is systemic. Advertising doesn’t pay the bills the way it used to and online publishers have to shovel information into a bottomless pit in order to generate revenue. As advertising gets cheaper, the pit only gets deeper. Amateur writers and offshore competitors who work at a fraction of the traditional freelance wage are attractive new sources of words.

But what are those words about? As the pressure to generate traffic intensifies, online publishers are tempted to push out anything that will drive page views. So the news is increasingly dominated by sex, drugs and “Twilight” instead of investigative or interpretive journalism.

This is a real problem. And there are precious few ideas what to do about it. There will always be an elite cadre of journalists who can command a living wage for what they do, but the vast middle class of meat-and-potatoes reporters are seeing their livelihood seep away. A lot of publishers are working on ways to make advertising more profitable through better targeting and contextual relevance, but until those new models emerge, the freelance market will become less and less appealing for quality journalists.


Usage of newspaper websites is trending slowly upward, although the numbers reported by various sources remain surprisingly small. The Readership Institute says the percentage of people who never use newspaper websites has dropped from 70% in 2003 to 62% in 2008. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers says about 20% of the population accessed  a newspaper site in the past 30 days. On the other side of the equation, Scarborough Research reported a couple of months ago that  74% of American adults read a paper in print or online during the past week. Pew Research reported a year ago that 35% of American rely primarily on newspapers for news. Each survey examines slightly different slices of the public, but the discrepancy between the figures from all four sources indicates that someone is asking the wrong questions.

Hyperlocal news site EveryBlock added its first major enhancements since its purchase last summer by Visitors will now be able to post their own announcements, which will show up in the localized views that the service provides. asks what the appeal of advertising will be if advertisers can simply publish their own notices for free. Presumably they’ll get some kind of enhanced placement.

Speaking of PaidContent, it’s hiring. The website is seeking reporters with specialties in either digital entertainment or the combination of tech, media and finance. Both jobs are based on the West Coast.

Former Baltimore Sun copy chief met John McIntyre continues to document the declining investments publishers are making in copy editing. He notes that Media General will consolidate the copyediting of three of its largest newspapers into one desk and that the Minneapolis Star Tribune is cutting 30 editorial jobs, with more than half of them coming from the copy desk. The paper says it won’t sacrifice quality. “Uh-huh,” McIntyre comments.

They’re taking the concept of hyperlocal seriously in the Netherlands. Telegraaf Media Groep has moved the former editor-in-chief of the Dutch tabloid Spits to lead a new venture that will create a network of hyperlocal information platforms. Details are still sketchy, but Bart Brouwers says the venture will ideally incorporate existing local bloggers. He also has some interesting ideas about slanting advertising to be written in more of a blog style to engage the audience rather than pushing messages. Imagine that.

By paulgillin | December 18, 2009 - 10:30 am - Posted in Google, Hyper-local

One of our favorite year-end delights is the annual publication of Craig Silverman’s Crunk awards. Silverman, whom we interviewed about a year ago, devotes hundreds of hours each year to documenting the missteps of media organizations large and small on his Regret the Error blog. Each year around this time, he publishes the high — and mostly low —  lights of the previous 12 months of media messups. It’s a half hour of reading pleasure.

Silverman’s award for the “Correction of the Year” goes to the Washington Post for this brief but symbolic beauty:

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

The misstep gets the award because of the torrent of reaction it sparked. The Post‘s error was ridiculed in leading online publications like Techdirt and Huffington Post and even sparked a twitter hash tag (#washingtonpostcorrections) in which thousands of people have posted satirical corrections based on literal interpretations of popular songs.

There’s a serious side to the story, however, and Silverman provides some perspective at the top of his lengthy retrospective.

dekalbhookerNews organizations can be forgiven occasional lapses under the burden of deadline pressure, but it’s unfathomable that basic errors of historical fact can occur when the truth is only a Google search away. This reality was brought into sharp relief in July, when The New York Times published a stunning correction of eight errors in a reporter’s retrospective on Walter Cronkite’s career. They included such Wikipediable factoids such as the date of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Such careless disregard for easily verifiable facts doesn’t do news organizations any favors at a time when their credibility is at historic lows. Silverman points out that the media watchdog function has passed into the public domain and sparked several efforts at self-regulation by media companies. Newspaper correction columns have long been a casual afterthought that did little to address the pain and humiliation that the original error may have caused. Publishers  could get away with that in the days when they owned the channels of information. Today, bloggers and tweeters can turn an error into a persistent chorus of mockery.

In the case of the Post‘s correction, the lyrics of the Public Enemy song were easily available online, along with interpretations. The abuse that the newspaper earned for the transgression may have been extreme, but hopefully it turned a few heads among the ranks of top editors.

Turning back to the Crunks, there are too many good ones to summarize here, so read through and choose your favorites. You can also show your support for Silverman’s efforts by buying a copy of his book. Our personal favorite comes from the Advertiser in Australia, which published an editor’s dummy copy as this Thought for the Day:

This is the thought of the day and this is where you put the thought of the day as if anyone has a thought for the day. And can’t work out what the hell is going on. But who knows what is happeningishness. – Jesus Mark 7:21-23 (Bible for Today)

We suspect that nearly every veteran journalist can relate to that one.

We’d like to quietly note that this is the 500th post on Newspaper Death Watch since this blog launched in March, 2007. Thanks to the nearly 1,000 people who visit this site on a typical weekday. Your many comments and messages of encouragement do far more to keep us motivated than the sporadic beer money from Google AdSense.

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