This week in media musings: Advocacy journalism’s (bogus) failings and more paywall options

Lots of good stuff to get to this week. And I’m getting closer to being on time. (Explanation is here.)

— Mark Bowden of The Atlantic takes a case study of the discovery and development of Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and “make policy” videos to use as a launching point into a diatribe against advocacy journalists and the establishment media outlets that unquestioningly swallow their work. He does this by zeroing in on Morgen Richmond of the conservative blog Verum Serum, who unearthed the videos.

While grudgingly praising Richmond for doing his own work, Bowden spends most of his time blasting the blogger for not going out looking for damning clips and for not paying enough attention to the sound bites’ contexts. Both are valid criticisms, but where Bowden goes off the rails is in his conclusion that Richmond and his ilk are therefore responsible for attending the rise of politics as blood sport, at the expense of the “disinterested voice.”

But it’s not Richmond’s job to not only dig up this clip, but also put it in the context of a nuanced view of Sotomayor’s entire judicial career. That’s the entire media ecosystem‘s job. And as Richmond points out in his own response — and Bowden half-acknowledges with his contention that “more serious assessments of her record would demolish the caricature soon enough” — that’s what ended up happening in this case. I think the TV networks deserve far more censure than Richmond for airing the videos without context, as they at least claim to be quasi-disinterested outlets whose aim is to educate the public and distill information surrounding the political debate. But isolating the originator of this “news” and blaming him for everything that ended up happening with it is a bit like blaming Tim Berners-Lee for internet-based fraud.

— The biggest media-related news last week was probably the revelation that Google is pitching newspaper publishers with a micropayment program it’s in the early stages of developing. This is noteworthy for a few main reasons: Google is the biggest player in this arena (or just about any other one online), and Google and newspapers haven’t exactly been buddy-buddy this year.

Some quick background on micropayments: Here’s this year’s manifesto on the subject from Time’s Walter Isaacson, and here’s a refutation from new media guru Clay Shirky. In light of the Google micropayments news, journalism prof Mindy McAdams has an interesting idea for daylong micropayments.

— I’m not newspaper-publisher-savvy enough to know if Google’s bid has legs, but Alan Mutter has news of a survey that shows that 58% of publishers are looking into charging for content online, but 49% said they have no timetable for when or how. His headline stat is that 51% of publishers think online payment for news will work — a figure he apparently believes is low, but I was surprised it was so high. For an idea to go from largely anathema to being held by half of the country’s newspaper publishers in a year or two is quite a jump.

Jason Fry homes in one stat from the survey that shows a particularly glaring disconnect between how newspaper publishers think their readers get their news online, and what those readers actually do. Great insight.

— To finish out the paid-content parade, Steve Outing looks at a successful example of the “membership” model by someone not usually known as a new media pioneer: Bill O’Reilly.

— Of course, to charge for news, your content has to have some real value. Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco looks at the story of alleged kidnapper Augie Garrido to note the difference between news that we love to consume and news that has actual value to us.

— We have two new entries in the how-to-run-a-news-organization-manifesto department: Pat Thornton, formerly of BeatBlogging.Org, uses his experience there to illustrate what a “down and dirty” system of management looks like.  And citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor has 11 things he’d do if he ran a news organization. Gillmor’s list, in particular, is brilliant and highly recommended. I think, along with Jay Rosen, that #3 would be revolutionary, for the reason I briefly explained in Gillmor’s comments section.

— A treasure trove of practical resources for current and would-be hyperlocal journalists: Jeff Jarvis gives an overview of what the City University of New York’s New Business Models for News Project found regarding the financial nuts and bolts of hyperlocal blogging, and this interview with the Batavian‘s Howard Owens and this day-in-the-life look at the Ann Arbor Chronicle are chock full of practical tips from people on the front lines.

— The Columbia Journalism Review has a fantastic package taking a more academic look at the history of the internet and the way news works on it. The undercurrent to both is the idea that the web is a collaboratively produced communication medium, rather than a place to dump content. The “further reading” addenda are great resources for those (like myself) looking to catch up on the discussion on those issues.

— Also in the theoretical realm regarding the internet, a group of German thinkers released a widely circulated (and translated) Internet Manifesto that succintly sums up much of the “net neutrality” school of thought. I wasn’t terribly impressed at first blush (and neither was Patricio Robles), probably at least in part because I’ve read much of it before, in various other places. But it does have some value in simply and powerfully stating the main tenets of a major belief system regarding the web, which, I suppose, is what a manifesto is supposed to do.

— As much as I love Mark Luckie’s work at 10,000 Words, I think he struck out with his 10 ugly truths about modern journalism. Almost every one of these paths is so well-trodden as to have lapsed into cliche. Henry Blodget has a nice takedown that hits it well.

— This remarkably prescient 1996 piece by Jeff vonKaenel on the coming decline of newspapers has gotten some play in the last week or two, and it’s worth a read, as it holds up really well.

— Finally, two other hints at possible aspects of a new system of news: Jason Fry looks at journalists as “micro-brands” within their publications, and the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Jim Barnett notes that more nonprofits are hiring journalists to do, well, journalism.

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14. September 2009 by Mark
Categories: this week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 comments

  • Matthew Whitman

    Nice work Mark, this is off to a great start. I was doing some reading earlier on why previous incarnations of the micropayment model have failed. I think people in the business (both journalism and internet business experts) might be over-thinking this. What makes things work online is two-fold. It must be easy and it must be useful (even if just for cheap amusement).

    Whatever system of micropayment online journalism outlets adopt, it has to be so simple that it takes no thought and no attention to use. Anything more complicated than “I see something I want to read and I click on this link, and here it is,” is too complex. People will go elsewhere. Micropayment must be invisible, and super-easy to sign up for the first time.

    However, even if a simple payment system presents itself, there will still be many online editor scratching their heads at why they aren’t getting any hits. Simply put, the content has to be top-notch and very current and the page design can’t suck. Capitalism is alive and well in cyberspace – if your product is horrible, people just won’t visit anymore.

    Bottom line: Easy payment options are vital, but content is just as crucial. News outlets that are putting out an average product in print won’t get results just because they found an easy way to charge for content. Good outlets COULD bring in real dollars if they make the payment process invisible and offer great content.

    • Mark

      Matt, I think you’re absolutely right, in both ease of use and content. Regarding ease of use: I think that’s a key point, and it seems to be a big part of Alan Mutter’s ViewPass proposal, which would be a single payment mechanism (though not micropayments) that works across many different news sites. You don’t have to mess with different accounts for different sites; just set up one account and add all the news sites you visit to it as you go. Regarding content: The problem is that most newspaper publishers think they have content that’s worth paying for, when it’s nowhere near that valuable. Simply put, much of it sucks.

      I think another key element that makes micropayments for news difficult in practice is that most news articles are far too ephemeral to feel as if they have any value. If I decide to pay to read a single news article, not only do I not know what I’m getting when I drop my coin, but most of the time I’m only getting two or three minutes of engagement, max. (Maybe only 10 or 15 seconds, if the article’s that inconsequential or boring.) A product that small feels to most people like it should be free. And, taken individually, they’re right. Which, of course, is why micropayments would be absurd in the vast majority of cases.