Making news pay: no easy answers at Oxford

Green Templeton College, Oxford University

I attended Andrew Currah‘s interesting talk on business models for news today at Oxford’s Green Templeton College. Currah has just released a report for the Reuters Institute called “What’s Happening to Our News.” Lots of good insights on the scary economic trends in the U.K. news media. Real problems urgently in need of solutions. Well worth a read.

Currah spoke of the “messianic” belief among news executives that digital products will become engines of productivity and profitability. Unfortunately, “the new platform doesn’t seem able to support journalism in its current form,” he said. He quoted a McKinsey report that found online revenue per user to be, at best, about 1/20th of print.

Currah outlined some of the potential alternatives being tried or proposed: micropayments, hybrid “freemium” services, charitable models of various kinds (Washington Post would supposedly need a $2 billion endowment to support its journalism). Substantial asterisks and drawbacks to all the options mentioned. Not particularly encouraging.

But what bothers me about Currah’s conclusions is that they’re partly based on what I think is the flawed assumption that “following the audience” is a bad thing and inherently at odds with a higher public-service purpose.

I believe that a news organization can follow the audience and be of service to it at the same time. In fact, I think one of the reasons why many newspapers — in the U.S., at least, and I suspect here too — find themselves in their current state is because they’ve fallen out of sync with the needs of the audiences they claim to serve.

Maybe I’m overly idealistic on this point, but I think it’s not only possible to do serious journalism that’s commercially viable, it’s a waste of time to do otherwise. Put another way: If I publish a sound, well-researched investigative piece on a topic nobody wants to read about, how is that serving an audience?


Currah’s book is here. His presentation is here. (Note: Both files are large PDFs.)

(My own two cents’ on the revenue picture and what newspapers can do about it is now up on OJR.)

Photo: Green Templeton College, Oxford University, by Eric Ulken.

England notes, part 2: Gloomy outlook for newspapers

When I arrived in the U.K., I expected the state of the newspaper industry here to be somewhat less dire than in the U.S. After all, Internet penetration here is still somewhat lower than back home, I figured, so maybe print audiences (and advertisers) haven’t dried up as quickly.

This list of newspaper closures over the last 13 months — 53 titles, mostly free weeklies but with a combined circulation of about 1.2 million — shows I was mistaken. While in the U.S. small markets represent the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak newspaper climate, here they seem to be the first casualty of the advertising downturn. (This may have something to do with the large number of free local titles here, which are entirely dependent on ad revenue.)

In general, ad income at regional papers is expected to fall another 20 percent this year, and a report predicts as many as one in 10 print publications here won’t survive to see 2010.

In the face of the bad news, regional publishers are taking action. Trinity Mirror, the country’s largest newspaper chain, announced it would freeze 2009 pay after eliminating 1,200 jobs and closing 44 titles in 2008. (The company has also been doing some radical reinventing in the newsrooms of papers it intends to keep going. More on that in my next post.)

The problems aren’t confined to the regional press: The Independent, one of the four national “quality dailies” is moving in with the Daily Mail, owned by a competing publisher, in a last-ditch JOA-like arrangement that combines back-office staff while keeping the newsrooms separate. Guardian online editor Emily Bell recently estimated that in the current field of 19 national news titles, 5 or 6 could vanish.


Next: Innovating to stay alive.

Government data wants to be free

Buckingham palace

Attended a fascinating debate last night on the topic of copyright and government agencies. (No, really. It only sounds tedious.)

Turns out government data in the U.K. is protected by something called crown copyright, which limits people’s ability to legally redistribute it.

It’s hard for me to understand why data collected in the public interest isn’t, in fact, freely usable by the public, as it is where I come from. (The U.K. didn’t have a Freedom of Information law until 2000, and even now data released under FOI is subject to restrictions on reproduction.)

What this means is that many of the mashups based on government data in the U.S. (I’m thinking of stuff like EveryBlock and, yes, much of the output of the L.A. Times’ Data Desk) would be impossible here under the law.

There are some encouraging signs, though:

  • Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur, who was on the panel last night, has helped lead the charge for opening up government information by co-founding the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign. He says a broad, cross-party consensus seems to be forming around the need to open up government data. Unfortunately, the government — which, to be fair, has its hands full with things like war and financial upheaval — hasn’t picked up the gauntlet yet. (Random thought: It’s kind of too bad that news organizations in the U.S. are so skittish about advocating for good causes.)
  • Meanwhile, some people aren’t waiting for the rules to change. For example, runs a site called WhatDoTheyKnow, a sort of clearinghouse for FOI requests and the responses from government agencies to those requests. It would appear that the responses are published without regard for any copyright restrictions, but it’s hard to imagine government lawyers going after a non-profit for reproducing information released under FOI. In other words: When the law doesn’t make sense, maybe it just needs to be bent until it can be changed.


Oops: Got a little sidetracked from my “What I’ve learned in England” posts. They’ll resume soon.

Photo of Buckingham Palace by René Ehrhardt via Flickr

England notes, part 1: Twitter is huge

Jonathan Ross (aka @wossy)

People (and particularly media people) here are crazy about Twitter. Simple observation suggests the microblogging phenomenon is even bigger here than it is in the U.S., and the stats seem to bear that out.

But why is Twitter so big here? One possible explanation, offered by social media consultant Suw Charman-Anderson (aka @suw), is the enthusiastic use of the tool by some big-name Brits. To wit:

In the newspaper industry here, lots of people are twittering, and not just casually. Just ask @foodiesarah (Sarah Hartley, online editor for the Manchester Evening News), @alisongow (Alison Gow, deputy editor of the Liverpool Daily Post), @kevglobal (Kevin Anderson, blogs editor for The Guardian and spouse of the aforementioned @suw) and @joannageary (Joanna Geary, development editor at the Birmingham Post). Joanna’s boss, @marcreeves (Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post), even has his Twitter URL on his business card. How many American newspaper editors could say the same?

As development editor — a role that includes overseeing the newspaper’s efforts in social media — Joanna managed to get the Post to devote occasional space in the paper to explaining Twitter. Tapping her Twitter network, she organized a group of reader experts to act as unpaid bloggers on a variety of topics (see the authors of the Lifestyle blog for a sampling). And, job seekers take note: Her avid Twittering is no doubt partly responsible for her new gig at The Times of London, which starts next month.

The Birmingham Post isn’t the only U.K. newspaper to spill ink about Twitter: The Daily Telegraph went so far as to publish a full Twitter guide, including step-by-step instructions on how to tweet and a piece on “why the world is Twitter-crazy.” (That may be overreaching a little: It’s worth pointing out that Twitter is by one measure only the 23rd most visited social network in the U.K., but apparently all social networks are not created equal.)

I should also note that, while the rate of Twitter adoption here is high, usage doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding. For a particularly embarrassing illustration of this, here’s a cautionary tale from the BBC: Multimedia newsroom boss Peter Horrocks last week sent what he thought was a direct message on Twitter to a colleague, Richard Sambrook, discussing some high-level appointments. Except he sent it as an @-reply, visible to the candidates being discussed, along with the unsuccessful candidates and everybody else in the world for that matter. Ouch.


Also: London is the birthplace of the Twestival, a social gathering of Twitter users that has turned into a global event. (The next Twestival is this Thursday, Feb. 12, in 175 cities around the world. Unfortunately, the London Twestival is sold out, so if I’m going I guess I’ll have to find another city.) And… There’s even an online Twitter newspaper here, the All Tweet Journal. Points for the name, at the very least.


Next: Tough times for some U.K. papers

A first draft of the itinerary

Newspaper boat

I’m busy packing up my L.A. apartment in preparation for my upcoming adventure. So I haven’t had much time to spend on travel planning, but things are starting to take shape. Everything is subject to change, of course; here’s what it looks like now:

  • Europe: I will be there roughly from mid-January to early-April. It’s a work/play trip; I’ll be visiting family and friends in addition to my reporting. I plan to spend most of February in the U.K. Otherwise I’ll hang out on the continent, checking in on individuals and organizations doing innovative work that’s relevant to the practice of online journalism. I’ll be blogging the results here (and possibly on other websites, though everything will be linked here).
  • South Africa: I’m hoping to tack a couple of weeks there onto my time in Europe. I’m interested in looking at how the digital revolution is unfolding in societies with large unwired populations. Are cheap and ubiquitous mobile phones taking the place of PCs as news delivery platforms?
  • U.S.*: In late April and early May I’ll do a little reporting back in this country. I plan to focus on trends in database apps and information visualization for news. (*Update: I overlooked Canada here — an unintended slight as I do hope to make it to Vancouver at least.)
  • Latin America: In May I will try and get to Mexico and/or South America for a couple weeks. This is still pretty iffy.
  • Japan: I plan to head to Japan in June or July. I promised my teenage brother, a budding Japanophile, that I’d take him so he can practice the Japanese he’s been learning (and, hopefully, be my interpreter). I’ll use the opportunity to investigate this apparent paradox: How is it that one of the world’s most wired (and wireless) societies is home to seven of the 10 largest newspapers on the planet?

Why aren’t Australia/China/India/the Mideast/etc. on the list? There are lots of great stories in each of those places, I’m sure, but I have to draw the line somewhere. As it is, I have no idea if I’ll actually get to all the places I’m shooting for. Either way, by August I will be thoroughly tired of traveling and writing, and I’ll probably go off the grid for a while. 🙂

I’ll post more details as I figure them out. If you have suggestions for places to visit or people to contact — or you can hook me up with a tour guide or a place to stay in one of the stops on my itinerary — holler.

Update 2009.01.24: An up-to-date itinerary can be found here.

Photo by marcelgermain via Flickr.

A visit to the pressroom

After four and a half years at the Los Angeles Times, I finally made the trek to the other side of downtown Friday to tour the paper’s Olympic printing facility. As part of the effort to merge the web and print staffs, the Times has been giving some of the websters a “Newspaper 101” crash course. I tagged along for the tour, but my low-res BlackBerry photos just don’t do justice to the size and scope of the place.

Anecdote: The machines that were bought to insert preprints (like the ones flying off the presses in the photo) ended up being too error-prone, so the distributors still have to stuff them into the paper by hand. Let’s see:

Umpteen preprints x 1.1 million Sunday papers = a lot of hands

I’m reminded of why newspapers are still largely a manufacturing and distribution business. And why this business model is falling apart.

(For robotics geeks: Here’s Dakotta’s video of one of the robots moving a roll of paper. They follow electromagnetic guides embedded in the floor.)