This week in media musings: Dividing and conquering, and two news models

What an inauspicious beginning: After a jam-packed Labor Day weekend, I’m waaaay behind on my first “This week.” I’d like to post them on Sundays, covering material going back to the previous Sunday or so. This time, I’m covering stuff that’s a week and a half old. I don’t intend for that to be the norm. (The explanation of what I’m doing is here.)

— A number of news media thinkers have been engaging in a rather slow-burning discussion over what exactly was newspaper publishers’ “original sin” that led to their utter inability to survive in a changing media environment. It started in February with Alan Mutter, who contended that the sin was giving their product away for free online. Six months later, the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Steve Buttry picked the original sin idea up and contended that it was actually newspapers’ failure to innovate — their failure to see beyond their original print-based business model.

Then, a week and a half ago, Howard Owens hit on an original sin that generated quite a bit of response: Newspapers’ failure to create separate business units for print and online. It’s a counterintuitive idea within the newspaper industry, where for several years the buzzword has been “convergence” between those two departments. (Though, to be fair, it’s usually used in reference to newsrooms; convergence of business units is almost assumed.) Of course, that very counterintuitiveness probably validates Owens’ assertion that this “convergence” was something virtually everyone (mistakenly) tried. Anyway, Owens argues that tying those two departments together never forced online units to learn to pay their own way, something they would need to figure out.

Within a couple of days, the responses were in. Jeff Jarvis agreed wholeheartedly, saying the original sin “was not running a business.” Buttry largely agreed too, though he noted that several newspapers did try separating print and online business units early on, with little success. (Steve Yelvington noted this, too, but said it may be worth trying, and it’s certainly better than doing nothing.) Jason Kristufek expanded on both their ideas, providing a rough model for what it might look like.

I really like Owens’ idea in theory, especially the make-online-learn-to-stand-on-its-own-two-feet aspect of it. I’m curious, though, as to how it would have worked in practice. I certainly find it difficult to envision it working in the present because, as he acknowledges, we’re quite a ways down the convergence road now. But in terms of a retrospective look at what went wrong, take Buttry and Owens and throw a dash of Jarvis, and I think you’ve got a much better (and far more comprehensive) answer than Mutter’s. Building a paywall never would have been the magic bullet.

— Speaking of comprehensive, Judy Sims has a caustic, brilliant manifesto taking down the misconceptions of newspaper execs that’s well worth a read. I wouldn’t make my case quite as stridently as she does (Lie #7, for example, is far too complex a problem and far too open a question to dismiss so flippantly), but all in all, it’s fantastic stuff.

— Two similar-looking axis-based charts were proposed to examine two different aspects of information online. In his first post at the Nieman Journalism Lab, C.W. Anderson proposed a chart for news organizations examining their institutionalization, level of fact-finding vs. commentary, and openness. I was about to complain about how it wasn’t much use until he gave us an idea of how he intends to apply it, but I see that in a follow-up post today, he’s done just that. (See what happens when you procrastinate?)

I found this chart on the value of information by Oliver Reichenstein more immediately interesting, even though it’s a simpler concept. He basically lays out four types of value for information — artistic, practical, scientific and monetary, plus the wild card that is entertainment. He doesn’t add much in terms of advice for monetization of content by news organizations, but this is a helpful one in showing why some people just don’t find many kinds of news valuable, or valuable enough to pay for.

— On a related note, paidContent.org does the shoe-leather work and gives us a few updates on how papers’ experiments with online paywalls are going. The results: Mixed and inconclusive so far, but not great.

— If you want to be depressed about where the newspaper industry’s heading, the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Martin Langeveld has some brutal graphs on historical advertising revenues for you. If you need some cheering up after that post, Jeff Jarvis has some reassuring reasons for optimism about the future of journalism. (Sorry, newspapers, you’re out of luck.)

Matt Thompson has a short but sweet look at five concrete steps to improving the news. Many of his proposals revolve around using larger “explainers,” blogs and topic homepages to help give people a big-picture view of stories. You’ll probably figure this out sooner or later (or as soon as you read the comments on Matt’s post), but I love this idea, and it’s currently one of my pet issues in my newsroom.

— I found this AP study interesting: The demographic being most affected by newspaper buyouts, layoffs and attrition are not the more expensive older journalists, but the (theoretically) more innovative, energetic young journalists between 18-35. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

— Social media guru Robert Scoble says Twitter is actually underhyped because it has the market on businesses cornered over Facebook. Is that point true? Probably. Is Twitter underhyped as a result? Goodness, no.

— Slate media critic Jack Shafer offers an insightful look at what the national news cycle looks like right now. It’s real, real fast, but it still displays a consistent, day-to-day pattern.

— My favorite multimedia educator, Mindy McAdams, has her 15-part guide to multimedia proficiency available in PDF form online. It’s an incredible reference — basically a couple of college courses for free.

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08. September 2009 by Mark
Categories: this week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 comments

  • http://mattostercamp.wordpress.com/ Matt Ostercamp

    Thanks Mark – this was interesting and I looking forward to more.

    I’m wondering if the “original sin” was something outside of publishing. Just finished reading David Wells and wonder if the psychological turn of the 20th Century (the rush to embrace self actualization as the goal of life) undermined in important ways our interest in news that was not primarily about us and at some level controlled by us. – Just thinking out loud. Keep up the good work.

    • Mark

      That’s an interesting idea, Matt. If we’re taking the idea of “original sin” closer to literally, I think you’re right, in the sense that that psychological turn you speak of is much more fundamental (and therefore more “original”) than the ones these guys are talking about. But I’m not sure it necessarily follows that since people became less interested in news not directly related to themselves, then that disinterest must have caused newspapers to fail. Newspapers still could have succeeded in an environment in which no one cares about news they’re not at the center of or can’t control; they just would have had to adjust drastically to do so.

      So I guess we may be thinking about two different problems: I’m thinking more narrowly about what newspapers did (or failed to do) to remain relevant within 21st-century society. You seem to be looking at a deeper problem–what changed about 21st-century society that made it difficult for newspapers to adjust. So yes, your idea is an answer to a more fundamental problem than what I was looking at. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–now I just need to take a step deeper and consider that, too!

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