Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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Snippets from a online q-and-a about newspapers

Globe and Mail deputy editor Sylvia Stead and media reporter Grant Robertson made themselves available for an online chat on Tuesday. Some excerpts and observations:


Sylvia Stead: … It’s tough to see closings of any newspaper anywhere in the world given the important role journalism plays in cities and countries. We believe so strongly in the role of a newspaper within its community and the critical role that a newspaper fulfills in a democracy. Who else has the journalistic resources to dig deeply into background documents and uncover wrongdoing?

But you have touched on the key point and that is that thousands, in fact millions of people want to and love to read newspapers. In the six months ending last September, the independent Audit Bureau of Circulations found that weekday newspaper circulation had risen 1.28 per cent in Canada but fallen 4.6 per cent in the United States. So newspaper readership in Canada is strong. Newspapers also deliver a smart, engaged, well read audience which advertisers want to attract. There is something very special, authoritative and portable about the printed product that will continue to thrive and prosper.

The Toronto Star has chopped hundreds of jobs. The G&M got rid of 80 people. CanWest has cut more than 300 jobs at its newspapers. Sun Media cut about 600. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald cut a quarter of its newsroom. That’s not evidence of thriving and prospering.

For that matter, while the circulation for a six-month period in Canada might have risen for a six-month period, how are Canadian newspapers doing in terms of readership, circulation and market penetration now compared to 20 years ago?

Edward Greenspon, the Globe’s editor-in-chief, told the Wall Street Journal the following on Feb. 27, 2006:

Mr. Greenspon says he doesn’t know what kinds of change will result from the staff-driven makeover. But he says he realizes his paper’s relative success may not be good enough in the long run. “Newspapers are falling off the cliff,” he says. “But we’re at the back.”

But maybe things have picked up in the past three years. But more likely, they haven’t.

Grant Robertson: A great way to begin the discussion, Brodie. Over the past five or seven years, mainly, we’ve seen a significant portion of the newspaper audience migrate online, particularly younger readers. Studies show they are still consuming news, just differently. The strategy we began to see emerge as Internet advertising became a much bigger chunk of the pie was for newspapers to put much of their content online for free. Since larger audiences would come to the sites to consume that news, the revenue to support the model would come from, theoretically, higher advertising revenue, rather than online subscriptions. The early numbers were trending in the right direction, but in the past year, the media sector, including TV, radio, magazines and newspapers have all been clobbered by a fast and steep drop in advertising spending. The auto makers aren’t spending, the retailers are cutting back. What that means for newspapers is the model of putting free news online is much more problematic than it used to be. So advertising has a lot to do with it.

Itay Wand from Vancouver writes: Two questions: Online news has a very big future since there is an obvious demonstrated demand from readers and the traditional alternative of environmentally unfriendly and always out-of-date printed editions simply cannot compete. The newspaper business, being an information industry, is not unique in experiencing this shift. This happened with e-mail, long distance calling (with VOIP), reference books (with online Wikis), etc. The key is that where there is demand there is still a market. My question is: assuming that print will be marginalized in the future, what combination of revenue sources do you see working for online news (subscription, online advertising, selling readership info to advertisers, value added services)? Do these pose a risk to the neutrality of news providers? 2. Micropayments (in theory) charge readers minute amounts for viewing online information which, multiplied over large readerships, generates substantial revenue. Is there a future for micro-payments in the online news industry? Is this even possible in the foreseeable future? Thanks!

Grant Robertson: That’s a very astute set of questions you pose, thank you. The revolution you’re talking about is indeed happening, with the comparisons to e-mail and reference books not far off. When it comes down to it, newspapers and the media for that matter trade in information, as you point out. To see us as purveyors of newsprint only misses the point. There is a market for people wanting to know key information first, whether it’s finding out who Rogers Communications has chosen for its next CEO, what’s happening in Afghanistan, which hockey players are being traded and what the government is contemplating. Newsprint is merely one delivery platform for that information, and online is another. So if you assume journalism is information, the key will be to monetize, as they say in business, the new platform. Since advertising has proven a volatile support mechanism, you now see the micro-payment scenario being talked about. This could work, but it’s still very early days. iTunes makes the micropayment model work brilliantly. But translating that to another product is not easy, since most people want to skim headlines and read news, they don’t necessarily want to own the stories on their iPod. But some news, as we often see in the business pages, is valuable enough that you could charge for it.

It would have been helpful to have Stead talk about the newspaper industry’s view that news shouldn’t be free. Subscription revenue is a big financial pillar for newspapers, one missing from most online operations. And those thinner margins mean a smaller journalistic staff.

Tom Harris from Canada writes: With SO many ‘News’papers, in so FEW hands, working on such slim margins, it is no wonder that the general public has become cynical. I see very few real articles that go beyond the headline with some detail. Almost no investigative reporting, which I blame on the litigious nature of society these days. It might take some time to earn the trust of the reading public, but I for one am willing to pay for my news delivery regardless of medium to get both sides and not the infotainmentcorp, content short, blurbs that are the norm today. Why can’t the media (corporate or no) find some way to vet the bloggers of a particular region of interest. The people who are living the news of the moment, and pay them a publishing fee of some sort to give on scene coverage of what is happening? One trusted journalist going to a region to cover the news seems to be an expensive proposition. Supplying a vetted ‘local’ with a laptop, camera, sat phone is very inexpensive these days.

Sylvia Stead: Thank you Mr. Harris. Let’s talk about investigative reporting and its importance. It is very difficult, in fact almost impossible, for small organizations or bloggers to do this kind of work. They just don’t have the resources to allow a reporter the time or expertise to uncover what is not on the surface. The New York Times for example has been leading the work on the bonuses for the AIG executives. We are all better informed because that newspaper has the resources and expertise to delve deeply into the inner workings of AIG. Bloggers can provide comment and discussion but they don’t provide everything that you and we need to know. We are proud of the stories we have done over the past year including our Afghan reporter Graeme Smith’s Talking to the Taliban which has become an invaluable research tool for dozens of government officials and military. Also my colleague Grant Robertson’s investigation into the outdated 911 emergency telephone technology which probed numerous deaths and near fatalities because ambulances were being sent to the wrong address and lead to the federal government ordering an update of the system. It may be more expensive to have our foreign bureaus and our expert beat reporters than supplying locals with a laptop as you suggest, but we think it is worth it in terms of the quality for our readers.

Does the the Globe not use stringers and freelancers?

Yes, newspapers do the lion’s share of investigative reporting. That undoubtedly requires resources, not the least of which are skilled journalists (the Globe has some very talented people on staff). However, those resources, including the human ones, were predicated on a highly profitable economic model based on artificial scarcity (i.e. printing presses are expensive). In a more competitive environment, maintaining those high margins becomes almost impossible.

How will the Globe and other quality newspapers keep doing the great work they do in a less profitable environment?

K S from GTA Canada writes: The decline of newspapers is of great concern. They provide a depth of coverage, professionalism and accountability not available from other media. However, the transition to an online format is inevitable which means they’ll have to find other sources of revenue. One obvious possibility is an honour system or shareware model where users pay a voluntary contribution of whatever they think the service is worth to them. Do you think this would work and is it something the Globe has considered?

Sylvia Stead: Hello KS and thank you for your support of newspapers. Rather than a transition to online though, I see both surviving, adapting and evolving. A number of newspapers have tried a small payment for sections of their newspaper, notably opinions and columns. The Globe and Mail and New York Times among others both did that and decided that it was better to leave all sections open therefore attracting more readers for the advertisers. Your idea is intriguing however and thank you for it.

When the New York Times dropped Times Select, which cost US$50 per year, and allowed free access to its columnists, it went to 21 million unique visitors per month from 12 million.

In an environment of perfect competition, putting a $50 barrier in front of a reader before they can check out Mo Dowd’s deep thoughts on Michelle Obama’s biceps is simply too high.

Yes, the Wall Street Journal can charge a fee for access to its online edition, but I wonder how many of those subscription fees exist because people can write them off as a business expense.

Grant Robertson: Very interesting idea – and to be honest, one that I don’t think I’ve heard before in terms of news. This is how Radiohead famously sold their last album and it generated a lot of buzz as a new model for selling online. But I think the jury is still out on how much people pay for the product when given the opportunity to anonymously accept it for free. That could take a lot more study, but it’s certainly something that could be looked at. In discussions I’ve had with industry and technology experts, one idea that has been proposed also is creating subscription news feeds through the companies that offer mobile platforms. Since mobile is the next frontier platform, and soon to be the dominant one beyond our computer screens. Creating a monetization system for people reading on their iPhones, Blackberries or tablet computers, could and should be the next priority from a business standpoint.

I’ll have to do some research, but I believe some not-for-profit j-operations in the U.S. are experimenting with the crowd-funding model.

James Bartlett from Winnipeg writes: It seems to me that city-based newspapers must decide quickly how to capitalize on their last remaining advantage over the Internet before it is too late: local credibility. The Internet has papers beat on almost every other measure. Distribution of information? Advantage Internet. Personal relevance of subject matter? Internet. Ability to incorporate and share user-generated content? Internet. The fundamental principle, now realized in the Internet age, that newspapers seem to have missed entirely is that information is no longer owned – it is shared. Newspapers don’t get to tell us what information we should read any more. Sifting through lots of content that I am not interested in is a chore that yesterday’s newspapers force upon me. That’s boring. That being said, I think there is still room for city-based newspapers to develop an information-portal model, through which the customer is guaranteed that the information they access is credible and accurate, but the subjects and content is user-determined, so as to serve the interests of the individual. Newspapers then become much leaner, but could still support their own in-house reporters. All other information could be sourced through peer-reviewed partnerships. What would a newspaper look like if it offered a unique product for each person? Me, I like local, national and international politics, and business news (especially organizational development) I also like local music (folk, rock and rap) and entertainment (comedy and live theatre), in-depth weather coverage and any updates on new restaurants (Thai!). I also have a strong interest in the environment, so I would like to know if developers are planning anything where I live. If someone could organize all of this information for me and deliver it to my Blackberry, I might be interested in paying a monthly fee for such a service, or at least look at the ads you sell. Mr. Robertson, Ms Stead, thank you for your time and insight.

Grant Robertson: Several great points here. The local strategy – or hyper-local as the buzzword inside the industry has become – is one that some observers see as the key advantage that metro papers hold over the Internet. The problem though is how much appetite people actually have for local news. If you do a readership survey, readers will tell you they value the hyper-local variety of news, such as what’s going on at city hall, the local school boards and in their community. But one thing that really surprised me in reporting the article we wrote on the weekend was how this doesn’t actually prove itself true in the number of clicks on the Internet. In San Francisco, Berkeley’s Journalism school has put extensive resources into building a local website that covers a certain part of the city, with a hyper-local focus. This is a great news website which, from what I can see, provides a valuable public service. Yet, the clicks only number a few hundred a day. Not enough to support advertising. Then you have the lawyer in San Francisco who was upset with the Chronicle’s city hall coverage so he started BeyondChron, which writes about civic politics. He too has been surprised at how low the interest actually is in local events. So the hyper local angle is a problem. How engaged are people, really? Believe me, the answer to this question keeps me up at night. Your point on personalization, though, is a good one. That may be the future, at least Google thinks so. They are currently building better elements for Google news to increase the ability for a user to personalize the headlines they are fed. I’m not sure about this though, since one of the benefits of mass media is it can show people news they otherwise would not care about. It’s the old iPod problem. If you only listen to your own playlist, how do you find out about new songs?

Sylvia Stead: Grant, you are completely right about that. That is what a newspaper provides: the unexpected. While the internet is invaluable at taking you into great detail about what already interests you, a newspaper does gives you a vast smorgasbord of news and views that might be completely new to you.

In her haste to pimp newspapers, Stead seems to miss entirely the serendipitious experience that social media can provide. I liked the fact that Robertson poked some holes in the “hyper-local” news fad, but he missed social media too. 

Andrew Laing from Toronto writes: There is some evidence to suggest that more people, particularly young people, are getting news from TV satire, particularly the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart. Stewart argues that his show is not journalism because it is not balanced, fair, fact-checked or objective, but yet its influence on journalism and public discussion can’t be denied. Is a problem with the declining appeal of newspapers is that its emphasis on fair and balanced news reporting, and lack of emphasis on opinion (relegated to the last page of the newspaper) is a structural failure of newspapers in their current format to tap into a desire for more opinion, less information? The web has led to demand-driven information, so shouldn’t newspapers focus more on opinion-leading? And as a follow-up, do you think the Daily Show is journalism?

Grant Robertson: Andrew, great question. I sometimes quiz my friends on how they know the news they know. And not surprisingly, they know the punchline from the Daily Show. I think Stewart should be commended for being upfront as he has been that his show is not journalism. That said, it approaches that model often, but I think he has acknowledged balance is not adhered to in the same way that a news outlet would. I’m not sure that newspapers should trend in that direction. It is very entertaining, I’ll give you that. But there are some topics satire shows can’t tackle in an unbiased way in order to stay true to their first function – comedy. As newspapers, our job is to get the facts out there, the best way we can and as fast as we can, then attempt to build context around that. That function is necessary, I believe. But I know not all readers would agree with me on that.

I believe some studies have found that Daily Show viewers are pretty engaged with current events. You have to be, in order to get the satire.

And through satire, the Daily Show often gets to the heart of things that the mainstream U.S. news media seems to either miss or be unwilling to tackle.

But here’s where I’ll really give Jon Stewart some credit. After one puffball chat with a Republican senator, Daily Show viewers gave Jonno an earful.

“So, you told us what you thought about the (Rick Santorum?) interview: It su-u-u-cked!!” said a rueful-looking Stewart.

He was right. It did. And the admission gives him credibility, in my view.

Draw what conclusions you will from that statement.

Wed, March 18 2009 » Main Page, Media