Following the Flipboard flip-flops

Publishing The New York Times and Conde Nast each reversed its policy recently regarding aggregation of their content through the iPad and Android reading app Flipboard, and the reversals are revealing on the question of value-capture for online content publishers.

After originally allowing all digital content from The New Yorker and Wired to be pulled into the Flipboard app, Conde Nast is now pulling back. From now own, Flipboard users will be limited to a hyperlinked headline and a few sentences for stories from those publications. To read the full story, users will have to click through to the magazines’ own web site — that is, out of the Flipboard app. Conde Nast is also pulling back from its efforts to sell ads in the Flipboard feeds for the two publications. Read More »

Apple's media strategy: There's an app for that

It’s here. After nearly a year of carefully orchestrated speculation and hype, Apple has finally unveiled: the “iPad,” thus causing millions of women across the blogosphere, in unison, to go, “eewwww.”  (Are there no women in the marketing department at Apple?)

Among the less lunationally sensitive, the verdict has been more mixed, but the rough consensus seems to be that, at this point at least, the iPad is basically an iPod Touch on growth hormones: neat, but not quite overwhelmingly amazing, fantastical and way-cool the way the iPhone seemed when it launched.

Particularly disappointing to some, or at least puzzling, was the relative scarcity of media apps at launch for a device that was billed as revolutionizing the media industry, leading many to wonder what you’re supposed to do with the thing.

I have no doubt those apps will come, however, not only because Apple has already released an iPad SDK but because of what it offers media companies. Read More »

You say goodbye, I say Hello Music

The artist & repertoire (A&R) reps at a record label are like reporters at a newspaper: a cost center performing an inherently inefficient task that generates no direct revenue of its own but is nonetheless critical to the operation of the rest of the enterprise. Without reporters to gather the news, publishers couldn’t aggregate reader eyeballs to sell to advertisers; without talent scouts, record companies couldn’t break new acts.

The two job descriptions also face similar dilemmas in the digital age: the high profit margins their enterprises once enjoyed, and that subsidized their inefficiency, have been undercut on new digital platforms. But digital technology has done nothing–or at least not enough–to make those functions any less inefficient. Both remain time and labor intensive and you sink a lot of dry holes in each.

That doesn’t necessarily mean digital technology couldn’t do more to make those functions more efficient, however. Or, if not more efficient than perhaps directly monetizable. The problem has been a lack of digital business-to-business tools to facilitate commerce and capture the value that functions like news gathering and A&R create for other enterprises, or for other parts of their own enterprises. Read More »

This just in: Conventional wisdom on journalism is wrong

The Federal Trade Commission held a two-day workshop last week called How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?, which featured the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Arriana Huffington and former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie nattering on about who is to blame for the economic problems of newspapers and whether the government should do something to underwrite the cost of producing “quality journalism.”

Of all the ideas being kicked around about how to save journalism in the Internet age, clearly, getting the government involved seems clearly the worst of them. No good can come of that, for anyone. Nor can any good journalism.

JournalistThe bigger problem with the whole enterprise, however, was its premise. The Media Wonk is hardly the first observer to note newspaper executives’ propensity for conflating newspapering with journalism, and for insisting that if the former goes under, so will the latter (from the title of the workshop, it was clear the FTC is also at least half-way in that same bag, too). But I think  the problem goes even deeper than that, to the whole notion of “quality journalism,” itself, and its unacknowledged relationship to technology.

So much of the process that defines what we generally refer to as “journalism” is really no more than a collection of technologically determined conventions that we have mistakenly and unnecessarily elevated to the status of “principles.”

I’m talking here about the whole package, from the institutional beat structure to the inverted pyramid, to rules about sourcing and the “reached in his bunker for comment Mr. Hitler denied…” approach to balance, to the scoop and the second-day lede.

Most of those conventions are traceable, directly or indirectly, to the high fixed costs long associated with publishing newspapers, and to the particular means of production the technology imposed on publishers.

As in any business, where you have high fixed costs you need a high volume and steady flow of product through the pipeline over which to amortize those costs. That meant hiring a lot of reporters and editors to churn out “news.” High costs and high volume, in turn, create pressure for standardization and routine to insure the quality and consistency of the product.

Most newspaper publishers, moreover, serve two masters: readers and advertisers. And advertisers require predictability (i.e. standardization and routine) in order to make informed buying decisions.

The situation was much the same for news broadcasters when that technology emerged. They didn’t need printing presses but they needed well-equipped studios and transmitters. And they needed affiliates to retransmit their broadcasts to outlying areas. For most of the history of broadcasting, networks paid affiliates to carry their programs, not the other way around as it is today.

Standardization also encouraged the professionalization of journalism. As in law or medicine, the professionals became the keepers of the standards that defined them as professionals. That boosted salaries, which increased costs further, while at the same time erecting a useful barrier to entry for potential competitors.

The cost, labor and effort involved in producing a newspaper (and later a network broadcast) also created pressure to organize the work in a very particular way. In a time before cellphones, email and webcasts, and when newspapers came out once, or at most twice, a day, stationing a reporter full time in the state house, or on Capitol Hill, or monitoring the police blotter, was an efficient way to organize the work.

As with any formalized system, however, over time the system itself become its own subject matter (much as it is in law, for instance). Thus, the instutions to which the reporters were attached–for reasons largely related to costs of publishing newspapers and reinforced by professionalized standards–themselves came to be regarded as the “news,” rather than the substance of what they did or its relationship to institutions that were not part of the system (i.e. most of what made up most readers’ day-to-day existence).

The deployment of reporters also dictated the line-up of stories that went into a newspaper or an evening broadcast: The “news” was what the institution-bound reporters reported.

printing-pressCritically, for most of the past two centuries, most of costs associated with maintaining a professionalized news organization, whether fixed or variable, and which created the pressures toward standardization, routine and institutional bias, were and are related not to the expense of news gathering itself but to expense of owning a printing press or a broadcast network, of paper, ink and setting type, of the cost of  postage and delivery trucks, of maintaining affiliates, and ultimately of maintaining “professional” standards in the first place.

In short, “professional” journalism is expensive because it’s designed to be. So when publishers complain, as Rupert Murdoch did again in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday that producing “quality journalism” is expensive, they are speaking the truth. But they are also speaking a tautology, which tells us nothing about the actual substance or value of journlism, but everything about how publishers’ capital is deployed.

Today, digital technology is removing (or has removed) most of the fixed costs long associated with reporting and publishing “news.” And the conventions of “professional” journalism that grew up as a result or in response to those costs, have lost their foundational purpose.

That leads us, inevitably, to ask at least two critical questions: What, then, is their purpose today? and, is that purpose sufficient to warrant extraordinary measures to preserve them?

Having spent the first 25 years of my professional career learning, honing and following those conventions, I certainly understand the impulse to preserve and protect them. But I have to wonder how much of that impulse is mere nostalgia.

Those conventions–the very definition of “professional journalism”–ultimately rested on a technological system that no longer obtains. So if those conventions are no longer necessary for economic and technological reasons, if the definition of “news” and the process of news-gathering is no longer constrained by the mechanical requirements of print and broadcasting, are those conventions still necessary for journalistic reasons? Could a new, equally valid set of conventions and definitions of “news”, in time, emerge to reflect the new technological system?

And should the government, or anyone else, stand in the way of that?