Wow, there’s been a lot of heat – and pretty much zero light – generated in the last few days, mainly because of a couple of stories from the New York Times, and then because of the endless argument (which shouldn’t be an argument) about “the future of journalism”. Oh, man, this stuff gets boring fast.
And more to the point, if everyone is worrying about what’s going to happen to newspapers, why is it that it’s the journalists who are doing all the debating and experimenting (I’m counting blogs and other web-only publications, such as TechCrunch and Engadget and the whole Nick Denton stable among the “journalists” thing, because like it or not they’re helping shape the landscape)?
Why is it us, the people who used to just have to worry about the grey stuff that went between the adverts, and not the publishers, who were the ones who put all the paying stuff around it? Because don’t fool yourself: the grey stuff, while it might excite your grey stuff, is expensive to make and isn’t a profit centre. It’s all the things around it that helped generate profit: the physical print, the adverts of various sorts, all sorts of other peripheral things (“special offers”, conferences organised by the newspaper, and so on).
A couple of tweets crystallised this for me. Paul Bradshaw pointed to Robert Picard who pointed out that journalism is not a business model, just a process.
Ian Betteridge then followed up: publishing is the business.
There you have the whole conundrum in a nutshell. Put it another way. Putting books into parcels is a process. Getting orders from people and then shipping those parcels to them at profit – that’s a business. Amazon is the business. Packing books is the process. It might be uncomfortable, fellow journalists, to think of what you do as book-packing, but look at it another way: people order those books because they want them, and are glad to get them.
To repeat: journalism is the process and publishing is the wrapper that you put around journalism in order to make it profitable and sustainable. Journalism will continue, just as putting books into parcels will continue, even if Amazon disappears; you’ll just do it yourself, buying it at a local store and sending it to Granny. Might be more expensive than Amazon, but that’s just how it is.
With that in mind, one has to consider what’s happening to news organisations (“newspapers” is starting to sound a bit 20th-century to my ears). The internet has come along and caught publishers completely off-balance. And there’s a new breed of publishers, who have started on the internet, and are internet natives, and they simply don’t play by the same rules either of print publishing or of print journalism. The former upsets print publishers, and the latter upsets print-origin journalists (in which I’ll include myself, at least until I had an epiphany I’ll explain below).
First, the NYT pieces that caused the row. The first, When the thrill of blogging is gone (sorry, I’m not going to do the daft headline capitalisation), takes as its jumping-off point that fact determined by Technorati that 95% of blogs are abandoned within a pretty short time, and then does the hard work of finding people who used to blog, and now don’t. Fair enough. Seems pretty straightforward to me: find a cultural trend, see if it’s backed up, write about it. Reflect the readership (because there must be plenty of NYTimes readers who’ve started a blog) back to themselves.
This kicked off something of a firestorm on Twitter, or at least those I follow on Twitter, where the NYT was accused of “dumping” on blogs. Er, no, people. It was corralling facts and relaying them. It wasn’t saying “all blogs are dead”. It was saying “lots of blogs die – howcome?”
The second piece, which had more far-reaching effects, looked at the cultural thinking behind a couple of really big news blogs, including TechCrunch. Ping! Get the Tech scuttlebutt – it might even be true! was, again, looking at something that really happens: tech blogs scrapping amongst themselves for page views, and putting up stuff that they suspected themselves wasn’t true, but what the hell, it might be, so let’s get it out there. Hence TechCrunch writing that Apple was looking to buy Twitter – even though Michael Arrington is quoted in the piece saying that he didn’t think it was true when he posted it. A telling quote from him is:
“Getting it right is expensive,” he says. “Getting it first is cheap.”
Oh, my. Twitter firestorm supreme. I found myself pitching into a three-, four-, five, six-way involving Jeff Jarvis, Matthew Ingram, Tim O’Brien (NYT Sunday business editor), Dave Winer… did I miss anyone out? The “print” journalists’ thinking: publishing stuff you know isn’t true just ain’t the way to do it. The response (from Jarvis, certainly): that’s how it is in some places. Jarvis makes this point more eloquently in a post on his own blog. It’s quite an interesting test of your own position whether you think journalism needs to be about “standards” or “process”. I found it offends me in some visceral fashion to think of publishing stuff that I really believe isn’t correct. That’s just not how I think of it being done.
But as I prepared to launch another tweet in the effort to breach the Jarvis defences, I found myself reflecting on something Clive James used to say in his TV reviews. “If I find I share an opinion with [some repugnant person], I reexamine it at once,” he said. Mine is the obverse: if I find I’m disagreeing with Jarvis, it might be time to step back and start questioning my own thinking, because there’s a high likelihood it’s faulty. Which led to my epiphany.
Here’s how it looks to me, viewed through yet another prism. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a really interesting piece in the New Yorker about how Davids – the little armies or organisations – can compete and defeat the Goliaths. He points to the example of a girls’ basketball team which beat many far more experience and able teams by using a tactic (the “full court press”) that’s unusual for that level; Lawrence of Arabia, who defeated the Turkish Army by using desert (essentially, guerilla), not military, tactics; and he points out that actually, David can have a pretty good shot at things by not playing according to Goliath’s rules. Because Goliath got where he did using his tactics. Of course he’s the best at them.
OK: now see the publishers of Gizmodo, Engadget, Gawker, TechCrunch et al as the Davids, fighting the Goliaths of the New York Times and, of course, the Guardian and all the other papers. Should they fight on the same terms? If they want to get beaten, sure. They’ll never be able to find the experienced journalists, the experienced sales people, the special something that the papers have been able to build up over decades. The papers have the news process down pat. They can get those stories into paper-sized parcels and out to people so effectively there’s no room left.
So the blogs have to create their own battlefield, their own rules, and fight there. (I’ll use the metaphor of military action because plenty is at stake in this. Get it wrong, and you get stuff such as the NYT management imposing 23% pay cuts on Boston Globe staff – to which one can only say “yeow”. Because
The [New York Times] company posted a net loss of $57.8 million for 2008, and $74.5 million in the first quarter of this year. The Globe has been the biggest drain by far, with operating losses of $50 million last year and a projected $85 million this year, not counting the union concessions, according to management.
OK. So blogs have to create their own rules. Such as what? Such as doing stuff that the papers won’t. Post rumours, and declare them as such; copy and rewrite like mad, so that how fast you can get the post up is more important than whether you checked it; let the readers in effect write the news; publish galleries of Photoshopped “is this the next iPhone?” galleries.
All the while, the Goliaths of the news industry stand by, shaking their heads. Hell, they’re doing it wrong! That’s not how you put stuff into a news parcel! It’s like this… hey, doesn’t anyone want it? Funny, the orders have dried up. And the Davids count the money they’re getting from adverts supplied against millions of page views. (They don’t have as many journalists as in a traditional news room, you say? Yeah. Life’s like that sometimes.)
What the established news organisations in the US really need to have right now is some people on their commercial side who really live on the internet, in the way that so many technology journalists have been for years and years. I wonder to what extent they do; all the talk about paywalls has that slight tinge to me of people who don’t live there, and look at all those millions of page views and think “surely we can persuade a few of them to pay”. I think actually that to talk about paywalls on web-only generalist content is to look in the wrong place. There are plenty of ways to make money on the internet – publishers like Denton and Arrington show us that. (Well, we can infer that they do from the fact that they haven’t vanished. If someone wants to send me their financials, or point me to them, I’d be happy to publish them.)
There is one note of relief: unlike war, it’s not absolute. There’s plenty of room for everyone to thrive in this: the Davids and the Goliaths can live alongside each other. But the latter have to adapt so that they can get it right, and trade on the things that have got them where they are – which in effect means their brand reputation – and capitalise on it. Else those Boston Globe cuts aren’t going to be the last.
In the meantime, it seems that the journalists are having to do not only the packing of the news parcels, but also try to build the business around them. Thus you get efforts such as “how to save newspapers in 140 characters“. Many are praiseworthy, but aren’t the humble (or not) scribes plenty busy just trying to pack the parcels? Rather like the stockbroker’s friend who asked “Where are the customers’ yachts?”, I’m tempted to ask “where are the publishers blogging and tweeting about the next business models?”
Because remember: journalism is the process. (Talking about the “future of journalism” is a bit daft. The future of parcel-wrapping? Yeah, probably more automated.) Publishing is the wrapper that makes journalism profitable. Denton and Arrington have created wrappers that work for internet content. Has everyone else?