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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Newspapers, the Web and IBM Syndrome

In early October, some attendees at the American Magazine Conference, in San Francisco, took a side trip to the offices of a significant media player and were told that if the great brands of journalism — the trusted news sources readers have relied on — were to vanish, then the web itself would quickly become a “cesspool” of useless information.

The broadcast media has had a dependency on newspapers that long predates the arrival of the Internet. For example, much of the material for daily talk radio shows, is garnered from newspapers. It is for example interesting to observe how often Wall Street Journal stories, set the agenda for the CNBC business television service in its morning programming hours, while later in the day, the On-Air Editor Charlie Gasparino claims credit for breaking stories and presenters are primed to coo about a story that "Charlie broke." Picking up a tidbit or two over the phone from contact and writing a detailed analysis article with content from multiple sources, is a different kettle of fish, of course.

New York Times columnist David Carr recently wrote that newspapers and magazines do not have an audience problem — newspaper web sites are a vital source of news, and growing — but they do have a consumer problem.

Carr wrote that more than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenue still derives from the print product, a legacy technology that attracts fewer consumers and advertisers every single day. A single newspaper ad might cost many thousands of dollars while an online ad might only bring in $20 for each 1,000 customers who see it.

The difference between print dollars and digital dimes — or sometimes pennies — is being taken out of the newsrooms that supply both, he said.

In the US, advertising from the car industry, retail business and financial services — for years, the three sturdy legs of a stool that print once rested comfortably on — are in steep decline.
As the younger users of the web who rely on it for news, get older, the audience for the printed media is likely to continue shrinking.

The New York Times recently reported that as America’s newspapers shrink and shed staff, and broadcast news outlets sink in the ratings, a new kind of web-based news operation has arisen in several cities, forcing the papers to follow the stories they uncover.

The Times said that VoiceofSanDiego.org, offering a brand of serious, original reporting by professional journalists — the province of the traditional media, but at a much lower cost of doing business. Since it began in 2005, similar operations have cropped up in New Haven, the Twin Cities, Seattle, St. Louis and Chicago. More are on the way.

Their news coverage and hard-digging investigative reporting stand out in an Internet landscape long dominated by partisan commentary, gossip, vitriol and citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs.

The fledgling movement has reached a sufficient critical mass, its founders think, so they plan to form an association, angling for national advertising and foundation grants that they could not compete for singly. And hardly a week goes by without a call from journalists around the country seeking advice about starting their own online news outlets.

“Voice is doing really significant work, driving the agenda on redevelopment and some other areas, putting local politicians and businesses on the hot seat,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. “I have them come into my classes, and I introduce them as, ‘This is the future of journalism.’ ”

While publishing online means operating at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, online advertising is not robust enough to sustain a newsroom.

The Times says financially, VoiceofSan Diego and its peers mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are nonprofit corporations supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising.

New nonprofits without a specific geographic focus also have sprung up to fill other niches, like ProPublica, devoted to investigative journalism, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which looks into problems around the world. A similar group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, dates back three decades.

But some experts question whether a large part of the news business can survive on what is essentially charity, and whether it is wise to lean too heavily on the whims of a few moneyed benefactors.

“These are some of the big questions about the future of the business,” said Robert H. Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Nonprofit news online “has to be explored and experimented with, but it has to overcome the hurdle of proving it can support a big news staff. Even the most well-funded of these sites are a far cry in resources from a city newspaper.”

The New York Times says that the people who run the local news sites see themselves as one future among many, and they have a complex relationship with traditional media. The say that the deterioration of those media has created an opening for new sources of news, as well as a surplus of unemployed journalists for them to hire.

“No one here welcomes the decline of newspapers,” said Andrew Donohue, one of two executive editors at VoiceofSanDiego. “We can’t be the main news source for this city, not for the foreseeable future. We only have 11 people.”

Ireland and IBM Syndrome

In the US during this presidential year, there was evidence that the IBM Syndrome attitude to the new media was changing and representatives from online political sites, were not uncommon on mainstream broadcast programs and quoted in newspaper reports.

Ireland being conservative, has yet to change and the cronyism on the political side, is mirrored in the media, in particular at the State broadcaster RTE.

Last week in the Sunday Independent, Senator Eoghan Harris commented: "But my effective exclusion from the News at One for 18 years, followed by exclusion from the Week in Politics -- which has never once asked me onto its weekly panel -- was not in the public interest. My absence made it easier for RTE to avoid awkward issues."

Harris should know more than most how cronyism works in an organisation like RTE , as he worked there for years.

Journalists use the web for sources and it has in effect become a two-way street but mainstream journalists seldom acknowledge this.

On one occasion, an Irish Times columnist used six references from a Finfacts story, in his article without attribution.

There is of course a huge amount of publicly available information on any topic easily accessible at any one time but paid journalists who find useful and free, uncommon information and generally hard-to-find facts conveniently, should have the grace to acknowledge the source.
In an article on Nov 21st, I referred to a 1933 letter that British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to President Roosevelt in 1933 and I linked to a copy of the letter.

Two days later, a Sunday Independent article by journalist Jody Corcoran on Bertie Ahern began: "There is a recrudescence of wise head-wagging by those who believe that the nose is a nobler organ than the brain."

When he wrote that to President Roosevelt in 1933, the economist John Maynard Keynes was referring to "the average City man" who believed the New Deal was a hare-brained expedition in the face of competent advice.

Coincidence maybe or maybe not!

And finally....

It was Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google who warned that the web would quickly become a “cesspool” of useless information, without the big brand print media.
But like so much else in the world, it's increasingly becoming a two-way street.