David v Goliath in the newsroom, and why we need new wrappers for journalism

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?

22 Comments

  1. Good post but I’m afraid I missed the point of Jeff Jarvis. Clicked on link and it made no sense

  2. Ok, this post is fine but please, spare us the “example of a girls’ basketball team” story.

    These were the offspring of some of Silicon Valleys deeper pockets – did you pick up on the coaches they were able to afford?

  3. great post. Looks like I have another blog to subscribe to here.

  4. In the chapter of ‘Roughing It’ where Mark Twain gets his first job as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, he asks his editor how to report. His editor’s advice to him is about a three sentence paragraph in which he essentially says two things: There is always a story, find it; and above all, be accurate in how you report it. (The quote, I believe is: “Unassailable certainty is the thing that gives a newspaper the firmest and most valuable reputation.”)

    Now journalists & others weigh in with thousands of tweets through ass-brained hashtags like #jdef trying to figure out what journalism is, which is funny, because many of these same people have been paid as professional journalists and claimed to be writing journalism for years. Suddenly, the question: What is it that I do? “A process,” you say, and one that’s expensive as hell…and a process that has time and time again resulted in staggering inaccuracies.

    Well, the rest of us can do it much cheaper. To use your Biblical metaphor: armor, a sword, and a reputation gleaned through years of accolades and experience ultimately mean nothing to an accurately-slung stone (which costs us nothing) to the forehead (which costs you everything).

  5. Wrote a very similar post on Monday – great minds etc ;-)

    http://broadstuff.com/archives/1735-Process-vs-Beta-Journalism-the-Real-Time-Point.html

    My main complaint, as discussed on Twitter, is that both sides of this argument tend not to look at the economics as an “it is what it is” thing, rather both sides try to project a lot of wishful thinking/sacred cows into their positions.

  6. Thing is, though – was journalism EVER profitable? TV news has always been a loss leader, UK newspapers have largely been funded as rich men’s playthings. So rather than finding new business models, don’t we need to find new rich folks (or institutions) to step forward and suck up the red ink?

  7. Charles

    Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 9:17 am

    @Ben_King: was journalism ever profitable? But that’s the point. Was parcel-filling ever profitable? Um.. it’s the wrong question. It’s how you wrap journalism in a business that decides whether you can keep doing it.

    For a long time TV news in the US has tilted its journalism towards car chases and things because that seemed to bring in the viewers – who then watched adverts, for which the TV network could charge more money, and thus pay for the helicopter. There’s no way, short of going round knocking on peoples’ doors and asking for a donation before the helicopter lifts off, that you can make that pay a priori. You have to spend first, and find the business wrapper later.

    don’t we need to find new rich folks (or institutions) to step forward and suck up the red ink?
    I don’t think it’s a totally viable proposition for all journalism to be reliant on sugar daddies, though I realise this puts me in something of a glass house, working for a newspaper funded by a trust. But we’re making cuts too. And I don’t think Denton or Arrington consider themselves charitable sources. They’re in it for the profit.

  8. “Getting it right is expensive,” he says. “Getting it first is cheap.”

    Michael Arrington wrote a post where he claims that he was quoted out of context by the NYTimes:

    Note the break between “Getting it right is expensive” and “Getting it first is cheap.” The break is there because there were paragraphs of dialog between them. Damon saw a way to slap them together to make us look bad. He did that because it fit his original thesis, which he had formed prior to talking to us.

    The Real Story

    The real story is what I said between those two sentence fragments, and it’s that stuff that makes all the difference. I talked to Damon about how stories evolve on our blog. How it can start with a rumor, which we may post if we find it credible and/or it’s being so widely circulated that the fact of the rumor’s existence is newsworthy in itself. But then we evolve a post to get to the truth.

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/06/07/the-morality-and-effectiveness-of-process-journalism/

  9. Interesting post and comments.

    There seems to me to be ‘disintermediation’ of the news process going on; this is ‘distorting’ the news cycle (or ‘improving’ it some would say). If you are comfortable in ‘broadcast’ mode as traditional broadcasters and newspapers are – and ‘feedback’ from your audience is limited to patronising “Points of View” or “Feedback” type programmes or “Readers’ Letters” pages then the increasingly symmetric nature of participation makes you feel very uncomfortable.

    The music industry model is broken, ITV’s advertising model is broken and there is No Business As Usual for the rest of us. In the NBAU world why should journalism remain unaffected?

    I went to the Media140 event on realtime news and wrote about it here: http://bit.ly/aFNdp

    We need a new term; “Potential Legacy Media” (MSM RIP) – which also has an apposite acronym.

    Thanks!

    Brian

  10. As Charles says, there’s plenty of room for everyone. I can’t imagine how the vast majority of blogs could thrive without traditional media to feed off. Besides, the best bloggers tend to be journalists and there’s a good reason for that. You know what really makes any blogger’s day? Getting into print, or better, on TV or radio. I’ve seen it so often.

    I’m thinking that the big problem is that publishers became huge, debt-laden and hell bent on world domination. One local rather large paper was taken over by giant Aussie publisher, and saw the value of its masthead evaluated up from $50,000 to $1b, based solely on the big subscriber base, immediately after the takeover. Such craziness seems to have been the norm rather than the exception and you can’t run any business like that. Local operations with print and online presence on the other hand that fill the needs of readers first and advertisers second are still profitable.

    Blogging is all very well, but it’s not a solid institution that has been shaped with some hard knocks over the past few centuries. If commercial interests and subjects of stories lean on bloggers well… they fold. The bloggers, that is, because who apart from maybe the top five blogs have enough in the war chest to fight any sort of legal battle?

    That said, journalism is being kneecapped by publishers who drool at blog popularity and the dreaded User Generated Content as a cheap and easy way to obtain content to fill the white space between ads. Content has become the new C word, and I would urge everyone to avoid it, because it can mean anything and nothing.

    Ahh… feel better now. Thanks. :)

  11. The fear of the journalist – and one that no business model has yet assuaged, in digital or analogue media – is not that deaths of newspapers will leave a void, but that blogs will not be capable of carrying out the “processes” adequately. (Also, on a mercenary point, that there will be no jobs around in journalism.)

    Technorati recently found that the median income of bloggers with 100,000+ monthly users is about $22,000. That can’t sustain an entire profession, even if more ad revenue comes their way from print.

    Fewer professional journalists presumably means less effective scrutiny of official versions of events, and greater dependence on PR and wire copy. It’s true that this is the publisher’s problem, but the journalist has a vested interest in the solution.

  12. Charles

    Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 10:57 am

    @Wessel – Thanks for the link. I knew it was about but hadn’t seen it.

    I think Arrington’s complaining too much there. We don’t need his blah blah about process. The two sentences sum up the differences perfectly. On the web, it matters a lot more to be cheap. That doesn’t make you look bad, unless you feel bad about getting it first and cheap. (Does he have some sort of itch about that?)

    And I haven’t seen many TechCrunch posts festooned in strikethroughs to show the process of how the story has evolved, though possibly I haven’t been paying enough attention. The Last.fm/RIAA “story” (which is inaccurate, and ws inaccurate both times TC ran at it) seems to me to show the weakness of this approach, though, and it’s something that might bear consideration in future. Is there a balance between first and correct? Wire services work really hard to be both.

    Perhaps it’s like the triangle of “good, fast, cheap – choose two” in food outlets. Maybe there’s “accurate, fast, cheap – choose two” for news. (Where “news” is defined in its widest sense: stuff you care about, stuff you want to pass on. Not “which politician said something yesterday.”)

    @Michael Barnett: I suspect lamplighters got similarly worried when electric street lights came along in the 19th (I think) century. Where are all the lamplighter jobs going to go? I’d love to know if they found employment as electricians. Like to think so.

  13. A couple of thoughts:

    1) Surely the act of passing on half-baked rumours or piecing a story together collaboratively has always been around – it’s called gossip. Blogs (not all of them, but the ones referred to above) are just gossiping in a new medium, albeit one that allows the gossip to spread far and wide. Fact-checking, interviewing and contextualisation are what turns gossip into journalism. It’s by no means limited to old-style media but I do think there’s a distinction.

    2) I like your idea of journalists as book packers – it’s a good analogy. But I don’t really understand your point. Most of the discussion I’ve seen about the future of publishing HAS been about the wrappers – cheaper methods of distribution / internet paywalls / micropayments etc – none of which is to do with content. Conversely you imply that the Davids are making money while the Goliaths are losing customers because of a fundamental difference in the nature of their content – the Davids don’t treat facts as sacred while the Goliaths do. That’s a different way of packing books and nothing to do with the wrappers.

  14. This is an interesting take but seems to me a little confused. You’ve put on the “cost” side, journalism. Then you call the other side “profit” and you put there, well, everything else: print, ads, conferences…

    While it is interesting, it just makes more complex something that is relatively straightforward. All businesses have revenue and costs and the outcome is profit (or loss).

    The revenue side is very simple: ads, sales and subscriptions. Throw in some conferences if you like but those are really separate business streams and are largely incidental to the whole debate.

    Now, your costs are fixed and variable. For a news organisation, first, you have this great print and distribution network; then, the variables, you and your journalist colleagues. It’s what’s referred to as a High Fixed Cost (HFC) business. Incidentally, conferences are almost entirely variable cost.

    Even if you really mean that print generates ‘value’, it is still a cost and, in any case, the real ‘value’ is in the words, as opposed to the ink on the paper.

    The problem with HFC businesses (like mining, manufacturing cars and steel production) is that you have to rely on high volume. When demand shrinks – and for newspapers, it was already fast disappearing before the Internet and all those blogs – you’re stuck with your expensive processes and you can only really cut back variable costs, hoping that demand or prices will pick up again soon. So you sack some hacks.

    Of course, newspapers have cut the fixed costs too by sharing printing, offices, distribution but it is still expensive to deliver out-of-date stories in a crisply folded paper to distribution points all over the country early in the morning. The value to the reader of this distribution network has gradually evaporated, due to both the timeliness and convenience of information on the Internet (accelerated by the proliferation of RSS), and also the availability of similar distraction at no cost to the reader, by courtesy of morning freesheets.

    Blogs, meanwhile, are remarkably low cost businesses. There’s next to no capex; fixed costs are very low and the variables are low too. So they don’t actually need a lot of revenue to make a decent profit. And the stories are fresh, which means greater value to readers.

    In short, it’s a case of low cost, high perceived value taking business away from high cost, decreasing value companies. Blogs are in a very sweet spot and the newspapers have been caught napping.

    Sure, you can refer to journalism as a process and publishing as a wrapper but on closer inspection it doesn’t very much help.

  15. My issue w/ what TechCrunch & Gawker did in this case isn’t that they didn’t present a full, complete report like a newspaper would try to do. As much as Jarvis would like to make this an issue of product vs. process journalism or old vs. new, it’s not. This is an issue of TechCrunch & Gawker not practicing what they themselves preach.

    On his post responding to the NYT piece, Arrington wrote:

    ——-
    The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process. CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information.

    It’s that iterative process, which Jarvis nails completely, that I was trying to guide Damon to. He can like it or hate it, but it works. And readers love it. The only people who don’t like it are competitors who like to point out that a story was partially wrong, and that they got it right later. But the fact is that they didn’t even know there was a story to begin with. Our original post kicked off the process, and they, like us, started digging for the absolute truth.
    ——————-

    Ok, let’s judge them by the standards that they themselves supposedly subscribe to. As I wrote on my blog (http://is.gd/X71B), there has been no evidence of further digging for the truth by either site since their initial rumor report, as neither has posted any more updates on the matter, even while other outlets had stories citing industry insiders and the Twitter people denying the rumor. If this was process journalism, then the process, in this case, never got off the ground at those two sites. All journalism may be beta, but in this case, those sites seem to have simply released the beta version and stopped development. So even by their own standards, they failed.

  16. Nice post, and something I’ve also been considering a lot. Especially as a lot of discussion about the success of blogger, Twitter etc seem to focus on the fact a small proportion are contributing most of the content/reaping most of the rewards – the Pareto Principle in action..(the 80:20 rule).

    Bloggers can and will evolve to fill any vacuum left by the decline in print publishing and the failure of many print brands to successfully transfer to digital. And slowly the traditional brands are picking up diversification of revenue – possibly influenced in some part by the successful bloggers.

    The key to profits from online content will come from going beyond the display advertising model which has been in decline for years in terms of response rates (it still has use for branding). Then we’ll see what business models digital publishing can sustain…

  17. I’m not convinced that blogs are as low cost as people make out. Yes you can start a blog for free or for a few dollars, but once you start to scale it and add all the widgets you need to make it successful (making sure there isn’t any downtime etc..) costs begin to rise. If you look at the Huffington Post their movable type web site cost six to seven figures to build and a few thousand per month to run. Its cheap (in terms of the number of readers they get and compared to sending out print magazines to a similar list of readers) but its not low cost. The production costs either equal or exceed print production costs if you want something that’s good.

  18. V interesting….and spot on about the journos seeming to be doing the bulk of the thinking, when its the wrappers who have got the problem here.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Denton is feeling the heat financially… not himself, of course, he is minted. But Gawker has been selling off blogs recently, not building. Also, Denton implemented a pay-per-hit structure at Gawker last year, and a friend who writes for them started churning out boobs-and-wild-rumours posts quicker then his fingers could carry him. This isn’t breaking down the boundaries or replastering the journalisic ceiling, it is pure hit-baiting, necessitated by a brand that is big on equity and reputation but not as big on revenue…. and probably *cough* malfunctioning. Best practice, of course, would be well-funded bloggers, who don’t need to pander, which is what the forward-thinking MSM are trying to do, to some extent. All they need now is the eureka moment, when someone works out how to monetize free content properly.

    Wonder what would happen if the NYT offered Arrington a high-paid editorial job, with a free-ish remit? If the MSM decided to keep their enemies closer, it would be a fascinating red pill/blue pill scenario. They would have to do it soon, before their brand power wanes (I still believe the majority of bloggers would bite the MSM’s hand off if offered a column).

    Finally, minor moan on Lawrence of Arabia. Can of worms. http://is.gd/XyxH

  19. 1) It should be noted that in the Biblical story, David wins against Goliath by essentially making a (divine/lucky) sniper-shot. This is not using different tactics – it’s having authorial fiat make your super longshort work for the sake of the plot. Having God on your side against the ungodless is not a tactic one should rely on outside of fiction.

    2) Similarly, redefining the rules to be slinging half-baked rumors against the wall to see if they stick, well, that strikes me as kind of a might-makes-right tactic.

  20. As someone who has a passion for writing personally, I question is this blog a statement, or a debate?

    No job is complete without a part which manages the process and one which works on the packaging to make sure it sells.

    The two work hand in hand….syngery.
    It reminds me….someone once told me, you’re not complete until you’re married. Until then, he said, you’re only half a person. My reply? Well, amongst other things… I told him, he’d gotten it completely wrong. Despite what Tom Cruise quotes in Jerry Maguire, I actually complete myself…but my Partner, complements me. And I feel the same way about the “process” and “packaging” debate.

    “Process” can work on it’s own, effectively and passionately, but it’s the “packaging” that helps keep it alive by making sure people buy it…and read it…and care about it.

    I didn’t have time to read the whole blog – sorry Charles, but felt enough from what I did read that I wanted to comment.

    For someone who dreamed of being a writer and never quite got there…if I was a writer….I wouldn’t care if I was called the processor or the packager…as long as I got to write.

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