Dear Rupert, have you lost the plot? #paywalls

July 22, 2010

The Guardian is somewhat cheerily reporting this week that its arch-rival for British eyeballs, Murdoch’s The Times has suffered what appears to be a catastrophic drop in site traffic since ducking behind the paywall last month.

According to the Guardian‘s analysis (which you might discount on grounds of competitive one-upmanship)  traffic to the Times website has fallen as much as 90 per cent since the 15th of June this year.

The results also seem to confirm my analysis – soon to be published in News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? – that the revenue streams from online subscriptions and daily paid visits are going to be a drop in the bucket compared to newspaper publishers’ overall income generating capacity:

There are approximately 150,000 Times print subscribers who get a free online registration, but if the estimated 15,000 daily online users who agreed to pay opt for the £2 a week deal, the paywall will generate £120,000 a month – £1.4m a year.

[Halliday, 20 July 2010]

That £1.4m a year is not going to cover the wages bill, let alone all the associated costs. It certainly is not a positive income stream.

I know that some commentators are suggesting that Rupert’s lost the plot – he is nearly 80 – and that the Internet has overtaken his usually sharp business brain because of its lightening speed; but I’m not so sure.

If you look at Murdoch’s strategy in New York, he has gone for a more traditional print-based newspaper war there; pitching the Wall Street Journal against the New York Times by upping its local coverage in a special section for the city that never sleeps.

To me this indicates a deeper game plan and a multiple strategy play that is yet to completely unfold. I’m not suggesting that Murdoch is going to be the ultimate winner here, but he is hedging his bets.

News International is also working on other aspects of the exclusivity of brand that the paywall might suggest. If you sign up and pay your 50 quid you get access to deals on executive travel, wine, books, etc. All aimed at the wealthier and older end of the scale. I’m shaking my head as I write this because not only is this approach nothing to do with the quality of the news on offer; but it also seems like a sinking lid strategy.

An older audience eventually gets smaller – it’s just the attrition of age and infirmity really. At the same time there’s nothing in the data to suggest that newspapers are generating interest in a younger audience – there is no long tail in this strategy.

The other clear observation is that no one has yet cracked the Holy Grail of the new business model for newspapers. It is obvious that in the short to medium term erecting a paywall means you take a hit; but it’s too soon to tell if there will be gains in the long run.

For readers, grazers and news surfers it means one less outlet, but in the crowded online market, the still-free alternatives are available to absorb the 90 per cent of Times‘ visitors who’ve given up on the once dominant masthead.

As one of my colleague remarked though, Times readers (at least those who have been loyal to the brand) tend to be conservative and may not like the more lefty tone of the Guardian or Independent.

It would be interesting to know where they’re going. Is it to The Sun, The Express or The Telegraph, or are they going off-shore for their news fix.

The next set of data on traffic, downloads and unique visitors to other news sites will be interesting, particularly if there’s a spike somewhere that might correlate with Rupert’s deserters.

I was on The Wire today discussing this issue.

Hirst_paywalls_the_wire_22_July


The Open Newsroom – a study of New Zealand newsrooms and citizen journalism

February 11, 2010

Congratulations to Masters student Vincent Murwira. He has completed his dissertation research project and it is now available for public viewing.

There is a trend with postgraduate students to present their work in non-traditional ways and we encourage that here at AUT.

Vincent is an experienced reporter and camera operator with many years in the field in South Africa before he arrived in New Zealand.

For this project he conducted lots of interviews; many of them with faces that New Zealand news insiders (and members of the public) will know well.

The project is, IMHO (declaration, I was a supervisor), well executed and certainly just about as up-to-date as it is possible to be in the rapidly changing world of print, broadcast and online journalism today.

I’d also like to express my appreciation to all our colleagues who were willing to give their time to Vincent. Without their participation, of course, a project like this is not possible.

Vincent’s site The Open Newsroom is now open and he’s hoping to keep it fresh through blogging regularly.

Please take a look. Vincent and I would value some feedback.

Click the image for the link


Some hope for the news industry yet

September 23, 2009

It’s only been 24 hours, but I think I’ve got a bit of post-writing depression.

I sent the manuscript for News 2.0 to my publisher yesterday and this morning a friend sent me a link to Michael Massing’s piece in the New York Review of Books from a couple of weeks ago.

It’s depressing when you work for two years on a project and just when you think it’s finished some new information comes along that you’d love to include. But I guess it’s the nature of books written about contemporary events; at some point the author and the publisher have to call a halt. Books that survey recent history and the process of ongoing change can never be more than a snapshot.

In this case Massing’s piece is about the financial health of the American news industry and the growing interest in paywalls (or, if you like “pay walls”) around online content. It seems that a number of publishers are now introducing them with some effect, though it’s not all beer money and skittles.

I’ve done a chapter on this issue and I’d have loved to get just one punchy quote from Massing’s piece in there; maybe I’ll get a chance during the editing process.

Either way “A new horizon for the news” is well worth reading, particularly if you have an interest in the future of journalism and the news.

“Hat tip” to Dave for the link; better late than never.


Karl du Fresne sees some sort of reddish light down a dark blue tunnel

June 14, 2009

I must be the first to congratulate Fairfax columnist Karl du Fresne for a well-considered column about the collapse of newspapers:

Why newspapers are falling over – and why we still need them

Intent on maximising profit, the new breed of proprietors have slashed costs and shed staff. Inevitably, their papers have suffered.

It’s a vicious circle: profits fall, so the owners cut staff numbers and close branch offices or overseas bureaus to save money. The paper’s quality then slips, so fewer people buy it. Advertisers note the declining circulation figures and take their business elsewhere. Thus profit continues to decline, to which the company’s response is to … cut costs by getting rid of more staff. And on it goes in a downward spiral.

In the US, some newspaper companies compounded their problems by greedily acquiring other titles, using borrowed money, and are now struggling under a massive debt burden.

It all adds up to what American journalism professor Robert McChesney, in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand, called a collapse of journalism.

It’s amazing that Karl du Fresne didn’t break out in hives just thinking about writing the passages cited above.

And what about Karl’s rusted-on adherence to the “free market”? Surely the newspaper owners are only acting as they might be expected: maximising shareholder value by cutting costs etc. But “a vicious circle”…That’s exactly what I’ve been saying. the profit system is a vicious circle, it’s part of the problem. And “greedily acquiring other titles”…again that’s how the free market works. it’s a system built on greed and vicious circles. That’s why McChesney argues about the collapse of newspapers, the crisis and possible collapse of journalism.

Karl, you’re sounding like an “avowed socialist”. That’s excellent, comrade, keep it up. Maybe we could work together to prevent the collapse of journalism.

This is a remarkable turn-around. Just two weeks ago, Karl wrote a piece that appeared on his blog with the headline Why leftist academics hate the media. It was a strident attack on people like me who talk about McChesney and political economy in flattering tones. My reply is here: Old habitus die hard…

Of course Robert McChesney is about as left as it gets in US media criticism. He’s never been a journalist and he’s about as academic as it’s possible to be. One slight criticism, McChesney’s not a journalism professor, as Karl writes, he’s actually a professor of media and political economy of communication. A small point, but accuracy counts.

McChesney”s also a political activist for media democracy, through the organisation he founded, Free Press.

Anyway, the point is that Ethical Martini doesn’t bear a grudge and tries not to get too personal. So, well done Karl, keep up the right/left kind of thinking. We could have a beautiful friendship.

But, I really do need to ask: “Why Karl?” and “Why now?”


State of Play: Commentary on contemporary journalism

May 4, 2009

I was able to catch an advanced screening of the new Russell Crowe flick, State of Play, over the weekend. Ben Affleck also stars as a rising Washington star who falls from grace.

All I can say is, if you’ve got any interest at all in journalism and the news business, go and see it when it hits a cinema near you.

I’m not a huge Crowe fan and certainly wouldn’t go to see State of Play because he’s in it. It’s the story that’s interesting.

The movie is a Hollywood adaptation of a BBC TV series of the same name. It’s a political thriller and the plot’s fairly standard for the genre – mysterious shooter pegs small time crook leading to bigger fish and a national security scandal. Anyone who’s seen it will instantly make comparisons with All the President’s men.

What’s very interesting about this version is that it’s been updated to the digital age and there’s lots of references to blogging and whether or not that’s “real” journalism. Jokes about YouTube and celebrity also help to keep it topical.

But for me, the drama is in Helen Mirren’s role as the publisher of the Washington Globe as she comes to terms with the declining health of her once great newspaper. That side of the story rings very true. Mirren has all the great lines: “Reporters don’t have friends, they have sources.”

Read the rest of this entry »


New York Times wins 5 Pulitzers, but that doesn’t help the bottom line

April 21, 2009

The New York Times has won five Pulitzer prizes for its journalism today [Guardian.co.uk], but over the last year or so the share price has tanked. It seems that winning a Pulitzer doesn’t cover the cost of well…winning a Pulitzer

While we should celebrate the Times‘ continuing success as a newspaper of record, despite some serious upfcuks in the past (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller), we should also perhaps be preparing an obituary for the style of reporting that helps the paper be consistently one of the world’s best.

IN 2010 maybe the headline will be “Google wins 5 Pulitzers for re-assigned New York Times staff”.

Read the rest of this entry »


When is a newspaper no longer a newspaper?

February 2, 2009

There’s been some movement over the last year of newspapers dropping their print edition and becoming online-only. Which raises an interesting philosphical question: When does a newspaper stop being a newspaper?

For example, the Christian Science Monitor will stop publishing a daily print edition in April 2009 while offering a weekly subscription print product and a continuously updated online version (edition? publication?).

Does the CSM then stop being a newspaper? More importantly is this how newspapers will “die”?

While discounting for the inevitable puffery of self-reporting, this is how the CSM described its shift in an October 2008 online editorial:

While the Monitor’s print circulation, which is primarily delivered by US mail, has trended downward for nearly 40 years, “looking forward, the Monitor’s Web readership clearly shows promise,” said Judy Wolff, chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society. “We plan to take advantage of the Internet in order to deliver the Monitor’s journalism more quickly, to improve the Monitor’s timeliness and relevance, and to increase revenue and reduce costs. We can do this by changing the way the Monitor reaches its readers.” [Monitor shifts from print to web-based strategy]

Three things about this:

“improving timeliness and relevance”; “increase revenue” and “reduce costs”.

The first is not really questionable. Of course continuous editorial updates are timely and relevant. But how is the Monitor going to increase revenue? Obviously by reducing costs – newsprint, delivery, etc – but this does not equate to an increase in online advertising necessarily.

It seems that the jury’s still out on that whole issue. According to an analysis piece in the LA Times, the CSM strategy is risky because online advertising revenue is not guaranteed and the paper takes an immediate hit in subscription income.

But the change will present considerable risks. Unlike most daily newspapers, the five-day-a-week Monitor receives the bulk of its revenue from subscriptions, not advertising.

The Monitor plans a new weekly magazine to maintain its print presence, but that is expected to bring in only a fraction of the $9.7-million circulation revenue it receives annually. To compensate, the publication will have to increase online advertising dramatically. [Monitor to discontinue daily print edition]

The whole shift also raises another question. If it’s no longer a newspaper, what does the newsroom look like? Read the rest of this entry »


A last little bit of England

January 12, 2009

I’ve been back from the UK for about three weeks and I’ve just finished marking the project work my City University students completed last (UK) semester.

I’m actually quite proud of them. We had about 11 weeks to get our heads around a totally new (to them) topic and to learn the rudimentaries of journalistic writing in a web environment.

The paper they did is called “WEEM” – Writing and Editing for Electronic Media. So not only did they have to read up on convergence and new media journalism, they had to learn to write in an online environment and then to rustle up some half-decent HTML so that their projects could sit on the web.

Like all student work, this is a bit eneven. Some bits are better than others. But, overall I think they’ve done a very good job.

Some interesting topics were covered and I think it’s worth sharing.

Convergence Culture.UK.ORG

There’s no way for you to leave comments on the project pages unfortunately; it’s all rather static. However, feel free to comment here on the work as a whole, or on individual projects. I have let the class know that this link is here and that they should come back now and again to see who’s commented.

I would appreciate if you keep the commentary positive. All dribblejaws comments will be swiftly deleted, so don’t bother.


Epic 2015 – what’s beyond the horizon?

September 13, 2008

I was fortunate today to meet and interview Matt Thompson. He’s a journalist, blogger and thinker. He’s also the guy behind the wildly successful viral flash videos Epic 2014 and Epic 2015.

The premise of these 8.5 minute creations is to predict the future of the media in our digital world. They were both created a few years ago now and they tried to look ahead 10 years from when they were produced.

Epic 2014 was made in 2004, but a year later Matt decided it needed updating.

While I was in Columbia, Missouri at the Missouri School of Journalism 100th anniversary celebrations I met Matt and heard him talk about a new project. He calls it “Wikipedia-ing the news”, but admits the name doesn’t really capture what he’s doing.

Matt is a visiting fellow this year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at MU that was also launched today.

I was able to grab a few minutes with Matt between his break-out session and the official launch where he and the other RJI fellows were announced.

I asked Matt why he had changed some of the content from Epic 2014 in the second version, a year later.

Read the rest of this entry »


Fairfax journalists lock-out threat: Where’s the EPMU?

August 31, 2008

Fairfax Media journalists at the company’s Australian titles are on strike, but their return to work tomorrow is not certain as the company has threatened to lock them out. The four day strike was in response to the company’s announcement last week that it was mounting a “business improvement” plan that would see more than 500 job cuts to save the company $50 million. Obviously at the expense of jobs and quality journalism.

One of the key principles of the union movement is international solidarity. The journalists’ union in New Zealand, the EPMU should be doing a bit more than it is right now.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton was sacked for refusing to file his column on Friday and other Fairfax columnists are backing him. This dispute is getting ugly across the Tasman, but it appears that there’s none of that action happening in New Zealand. Why not?

Read the rest of this entry »