Opinion

Felix Salmon

News Corp’s digital divergence

Felix Salmon
Jun 28, 2012 15:35 UTC

There’s no secret why Rupert Murdoch is breaking News Corp into two pieces. Amy Chozick explains:

News Corporation had evolved into a successful entertainment company with a newspaper problem, several people close to the company have said.

“The idea this was this integrated media company isn’t true,” said one of those people, who was briefed on News Corporation’s strategy but could not discuss its internal dynamics for attribution. “Everything else managed to do well, and the newspapers had become difficult and even toxic.”

It’s worth underscoring the fact, here, that Fox News, Sky News, and Fox Business are going to end up on the entertainment, rather than the news, side of the divide, while The Daily and HarperCollins join what News Corp describes as “some of the world’s most successful print, digital and information services brands”.

What does this mean for the much-vaunted Digital Convergence? It’s certainly happening in the narrow sense that we will all ultimately get our news and entertainment from things called “screens”, whether they’re phones or tablets or TVs or something as-yet uninvented. But the whole point about screens is that you don’t really look at the screen, rather than through it — to the content being displayed. And nothing shows the power of different types of news than what happened this morning, when the news broke that the Supreme Court had upheld Obama’s healthcare law.

As a rule, everything on the news side of Murdoch’s news/entertainment divide got it right, and everything on the entertainment side got it wrong. If you were watching ScotusBlog, or following the updates from Reuters, or even just trying to keep up with the flood of information on Twitter, the nuances of the decision came out quickly and accurately. If you were watching Fox News, on the other hand, or CNN, you would have been very confused by downright inaccurate reporting.

This is because TV news is ultimately much more an arm of the entertainment industry than it is of the news industry. Its star anchors get paid millions of dollars because they’re popular on TV, not because of their reporting skills; and while the occasional news magazine program will sometimes break news, newspapers and websites have always been the undisputed leaders on that front.

TV is still the leader in one area of news, however, and that’s live events. Which is why the CNN error caused such a big stir: because the timing of the Supreme Court decision was known in advance, there was a lot of anticipation about what the ruling might be, and Americans are hard-wired in such situations to turn to CNN, their trusted source for live, breaking, non-exclusive news. Liveblogs are all well and good, but live video by its nature is just a much more powerful medium for such events than anything text-based.

As we saw with CNN this morning, however, it also has serious reliability problems. And if we fast-forward to how the bipartite News Corp will look in a couple of years, I suspect that the WSJ’s live video feed covering the Supreme Court will be a much more reliable and intelligent guide to what’s going on than anything on Fox or even on CNN.

In other words, print media is converging on TV news, and will ultimately become the kind of trusted source of live-breaking news that CNN used to be. Meanwhile, TV news is never going to converge on the rest of the news industry; instead, it will drift further and further into the realm of entertainment.

All of which is to say that if you want to be a journalist, don’t work in TV. The pay might be better there, but if there’s any real journalism going on there right now, there probably won’t be in a few years’ time.

COMMENT

Murdoch’s newspapers were always about influence before profits, influence that was parlayed into profits for the rest of News Corp.

Now, this is what I call convergence.

Posted by Frwip | Report as abusive

News Corp loses its news

Felix Salmon
Jun 27, 2012 04:15 UTC

“In a way,” says Jeffrey Goldfarb today, “the scandal may have been the best thing to happen to News Corp,” on the grounds that Hackgate is likely to end up forcing Rupert Murdoch to spin off his newspapers, along with HarperCollins, into a new, separate company.

I can see what Goldfarb means: it’s probably fair enough, if you’re writing for a service like BreakingViews, to assume that whatever is good for a company’s share price is good for that company. But from a journalistic perspective, the news at News is much less good.

I was at the Loeb Awards gala dinner tonight, where the WSJ’s Jerry Seib won the Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s been at the WSJ since 1978, and in his acceptance speech he talked about the culture shock which descended upon the newspaper after it was bought by Murdoch. At the same time, however, he welcomed it: “there’s a reason it’s called the News Corporation,” he said — and he’s right. Murdoch, at heart, is a news man, and although most of his wealth is attributable to sports and entertainment, it’s clear that his heart is very much in journalism. Moreso, it should probably be said, than most of the Bancrofts who sold him the Journal.

In the short term, this makes sense. It would give the entertainment company more latitude to operate without the reputational baggage associated with News International, and if anything it would allow Rupert Murdoch to further consolidate his control of his newspapers, since the valuation of the spun-off company would be low enough that he could quite easily take it entirely private, if he wanted. Rupert Murdoch won’t be any poorer after this deal is done — in fact, he’ll be richer, thanks to the eradication of the “Murdoch discount” — and so his newspapers’ charmed lives as playthings of a billionaire who doesn’t care much about ROE is likely to continue either way.

But so long as the print properties remain public, shareholders are going to be even noisier about making them pay than they are right now. At the moment, News Corp shareholders mostly just want the newspapers to go away. But after the spin-off, shareholders in the new company will be agitating noisily for profits. Murdoch will ignore them, of course — but that kind of thing is difficult to ignore entirely.

Up until now, Murdoch has never really needed to worry very much about his newspapers’ profitability, because the rest of his empire was throwing off such enormous profits. That’s going to change. Even if he does take the papers private, none of his heirs particularly wants to inherit them. There’s a big question mark over the papers’ future, now, which will only grow as Murdoch gets older.

There’s also the fascinating question of what’s going to happen with Fox News. When News Corp loses most of its news properties, only Fox News and Sky News are likely to remain — and when big broadcast companies own news operations, those news operations tend not to perform very well. The fact that news is part of News Corp’s DNA has surely been a crucial factor in Fox News’s success; now that’s coming to an end, Fox News’s new overseers might view the channel in a significantly different light.

Again, nothing is going to happen overnight: Murdoch will continue to have personal control of both companies, and both will be run exactly the way he wants them to be run. But in the world of journalistic business models, I’ve always been a fan of being owned by a benign gazillionaire, who cares about more than just profits. Both Bloomberg and Reuters fall into that category, as do outfits such as the Atlantic, Condé Nast, and The New Republic. But Murdoch has always been the first billionaire you think of when you think “press baron”. And it’s foolish to believe that a change as big as this at the corporate-structure level will have no effect on his individual properties.

COMMENT

Congrats on the award, Felix, always interesting around here!

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How Jonah Lehrer should blog

Felix Salmon
Jun 20, 2012 15:31 UTC

In the wake of the revelations that Jonah Lehrer is a serial self-plagiarist, Josh Levin declares that if you’re an “ideas man”, you shouldn’t be a blogger:

For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there’s no liquid left and pray you’ve bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.

Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and The New Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.

While I’m sympathetic to Levin’s point here, I think his prescription is entirely wrong. The problem with Jonah Lehrer, like the problem with Zach Kouwe, is not that he was humbled by the insatiable demands of Blog. Instead, it’s that he made a category error, and tried to use a regular blog as a vehicle for the kind of writing that should not be done in blog format. Lehrer shouldn’t shut down Frontal Cortex; he should simply change it to become a real blog. And if he does that, he’s likely to find that blogs in fact are wonderful tools for generating ideas, rather than being places where your precious store of ideas gets used up in record-quick time.

If you look at the post which started the whole controversy, you’ll find a honed and self-contained 1,100-word meditation on science and intuition. It’s basically a mini-New Yorker article, and in that it’s very similar to all the other blog posts which Lehrer has written for TNY. Which is to say, none of them are very bloggish. There’s a formula to them, too: start with a news hook. Declare that it’s indicative of a deeper, broader phenomenon. Talk about some scientists who have studied that phenomenon, and what those scientists have found. Tie it all up with a neat conclusion.

Given that formula, it’s a bit easier to understand why Lehrer felt driven to self-plagiarism. The art of blogging is basically the art of glossing the news: finding something out there on the internet, and then saying something interesting about it. Lehrer has a collection of interesting-things-to-say, and at any given point it’s quite easy to apply one of those things to something going on somewhere. And if you’ve already said that thing in the best way that you can, it’s a bit silly to say it a worse way just for the sake of not repeating yourself.

But there’s an easy way out of this problem: break the formula, which isn’t very bloggish in the first place. For one thing, Lehrer’s posts seem designed to make you not want to click on his links — he’s not sharing his excitement at finding something new, so much as delivering a seminar on ideas he’s had for some time, and which he feels confident expounding upon.

So here, then, are some ideas for how Lehrer’s blog might become much better.

Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.

Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.

Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.

Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.

As the editors of the American Chemical Society write, self-plagiarising is fraud, because it is “an intentional attempt to deceive a reader by implying that new information is being presented”. A blogger should never feel the need to do that, because blogging is not at heart about delivering new information, so much as it is about finding and linking and connecting and conversing. Once you internalize that, self-plagiarism becomes a non-issue.

COMMENT

Given that far too many “major publications” pay nothing, zip, nada for blog posts, and far too many publications period pay nothing for op-ed columns and other written material, this dispute is absurd.

Journalism is insisting on professional behavior in an inherently unprofessional environment journalism itself created: the unpaid writer, the unpaid blogger, the unpaid columnist, the unpaid HuffPo contributor, and so forth.

While Mr. Lehrer may be one of the few lucky blokes receiving a paycheck for his blog contributions, he’s working in a long-established culture of people who receive no paycheck for same, and is putting to use the “you get what you pay for” tools of that trade.

Re-purposing previously published material from your own hand is one of those tools, unless you’ve previously sold away all rights to it (most writers retain these rights).

If journalism wants to stop plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and every variant on what is herein being deemed unprofessional copycat behavior, then journalism needs to do some serious soul searching in its own right.

If you want professional behavior, treat your people like professionals. First stop on that road: PAY YOUR WRITERS! ALL your writers — your bloggers, columnists, etc.

Author Harlan Ellison makes that case profoundly here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g- fE

Meanwhile, don’t whine when you get something unprofessional from a business environment — in this case, journo-blogging for major (and minor) publications — wherein far too many practitioners slave away with no pay.

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Infographic du jour, Hearst edition

Felix Salmon
Jun 18, 2012 13:14 UTC

Infographics are invidious things: they seem to have an astonishing ability to make people simultaneously switch off their brains and reblog them. And today sees a prime example, from Hearst, which managed to get a credulous news article out of Steve Smith and Lauren Indvik by sending them this infographic. Here’s how it begins:

hearst.jpg

That was enough for Smith, who obediently headlined his news article “Hearst Claims Nearly 2000% Increase in Mobile Traffic In A Year”.

But of course an increase from 5% to 19% is not in itself an increase of 2,000% or anywhere near that: it looks much more like an increase of 280% to me.

So I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and by my lights, if mobile traffic increased by 2,000% and still only accounts for 19% of website traffic, then total website traffic must have increased by 550%. And even if you strip out mobile, traffic to Hearst’s websites would have to have gone up 470% over the course of the past year.

Have Hearst’s websites seen their non-mobile traffic increase more than fivefold in just the past year? I’m pretty sure that if they had done, Hearst CEO David Carey would be shouting that from the rooftops, rather than talking seriously to David Carr about the disruption which is represented by the Huffington Post. Much more likely, I think, is that the 2,000% figure is simply wrong.

But the weird thing is that I can’t for the life of me work out where it might have come from. People are bad at calculating percentages, I know, but what kind of sums would you have to do in order to come to the conclusion that a rise from 5% to 19% represented an increase of 2,000%? Any ideas?

COMMENT

Finally got a response from Hearst. Accurate percentage is 200%.

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CNBC graphic of the day, Greek bond yield edition

Felix Salmon
Jun 11, 2012 16:03 UTC

martin.tiff

Martin Wolf appeared on CNBC today, which is never a good idea. Between all the swishing noises and flashing graphics, it was pretty hard to understand what he was saying — and in any case, the questions from Andrew Ross Sorkin were generally of the form “tell me what’s going to happen in the future”, rather than “analyze what we know about the present”. At one point Sorkin literally asked Wolf to “handicap the outcome” of the Greek election. Wolf is a fascinating and erudite man, and I’ve never had a conversation with him where I didn’t learn a lot. But maybe if I asked him that kind of question, it could be possible for me to walk away none the wiser about anything.

Ryan McCarthy picked up on one point that Wolf made: he said — or seemed to say — that a eurozone deposit guarantee scheme would not protect deposits against the risk of devaluation. Sorkin really should have pushed him on this, since it seems to me at least that the whole point of a eurozone deposit guarantee scheme would be to keep depositors whole in euro terms, even if their country leaves the euro and devalues. Even without such a scheme, there’s a strong case to be made that if and when Greece leaves the euro, the EU should essentially write a large check to Greek depositors, making up for any losses due to the drachmaization of their deposits. Because if the EU doesn’t do that, capital flight from the European periphery will go from bad to catastrophic.

But CNBC is a place for heat rather than light, so instead of an interesting conversation between two smart journalists, we got shown the graphic above, twice. It purports to show a real-time quote for the Greek 2-year bond, which currently seems to be yielding 349.152%. (I love the idea that they know this number to three decimal places.) According to the chart, the yield on this instrument has been rising steadily until now: there’s no indication that there was even a dip after the bond restructuring in –

Hang on a sec. Check out that x-axis! You can’t be expected to grok this in the amount of time that the chart appears on CNBC — just a couple of seconds. But the chart stops in March, when the restructuring took place and the Greek 2-year bond ceased to exist. No wonder the yield is “unch”!

CNBC has more than its fair share of meaningless graphics, but this one is especially stupid: it’s a chart of an instrument which ceased to exist three months ago, showing what the yield on that instrument did in the run-up to its default.

Of course, CNBC’s viewers can’t be expected to understand that. The one thing they will understand is the yield, which is shown at 350%. CNBC is sending a clear message, here, that Greek debt is about to default, and it’s using a made-up measure to do so. There’s no such thing as the Greek 2-year bond yield, but Bloomberg has done its best to come up with an approximation of what such a thing might be trading at — and their best estimation puts the Greek two-year benchmark at 8.98%. Which means that CNBC is only off by a factor of, oh, 340 percentage points. Well done that channel! In any case, here’s the clip.

COMMENT

I was curious how Bloomberg came up with estimating the Greek 2-yr Note yield at 8.98%. When i checked their site i realized that you’re actually quoting the percent change between the yield on the last day of trading, 3/12, and the previous day as noted by the time stamp below the quote. Even their Chart shows the last point being on 3/12 with a value of 225%. So it seems CNBC was just showing a similar chart of the run-up to the default and wasn’t trying to imply that it was still trading. I’ve seen other sources showing the latest yield on 3/12 as high as 404%.

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Blogonomics: Syndication

Felix Salmon
Jun 7, 2012 23:10 UTC

Last week, the Economist’s Ryan Avent sparked a storm in a Twitter teacup with this tweet:

It turned out, over the course of the ensuing conversation, that Business Insider’s material from the Economist — and from Reuters, for that matter — is legally syndicated to TBI through a deal with a company called NewsCred. There’s nothing illicit going on here; it’s just that as ever in big news organizations, the editorial side is generally the last to find out when deals like this are done.

I had a very interesting lunch with NewsCred CEO Shafqat Islam a couple of days ago and his company seems to be very good at signing up publishers. Just about every major publisher you can think of has a deal with NewsCred now; the NewsCred homepage features the Guardian, Project Syndicate, and many others, and Islam talked to me about everyone from the FT to the NYT coming on board as well.

There are two big trends that NewsCred is latching onto here. The first is that publishers are increasingly desperate for revenues, and if someone comes along and offers them essentially free money, they’re much more likely to say yes. And the second is the way in which brands are becoming publishers in their own right: rather than buying ads adjacent to published content, they find it easier and more effective to simply publish that content themselves. If you look at the list of NewsCred clients, yes, it includes Business Insider and Huffington Post. But it also includes Orange, and Pepsi, and Johnson & Johnson, and Zurich Re. None of these brands has any interest in selling ads against content, as Business Insider and HuffPo do. Instead, they want to create websites which are full of interesting, high-quality, relevant content. Producing that stuff is hard; syndicating it from NewsCred is easy.

For journalists, this new income source could hardly come at a more welcome time. Islam told me that if I wanted to syndicate my blog through his platform, I would probably get at least $500 per customer per month, and more if the customer was a big news site. He reckoned he could quite easily find 10 or 20 customers wanting to use my content — which raises the prospect of a $10,000-per-month income stream, just for my blog alone. There aren’t many bloggers, journalists, or publishers who are going to be comfortable turning down that kind of money. Even if Islam was blowing smoke a little as to how much money my blog might be able to get, the fact is that blogs have real value on the syndication market, now, and it’s silly for bloggers not to realize that value.

I’m a fan of syndication — I’ve been doing it for free for many years now. My posts can be found at Seeking Alpha, where I have 59,383 followers; at Wired; at CJR; even at Business Insider. Most of those BI articles are just excerpts and links to my Reuters blog, but occasionally someone at BI will ask if they can run a post in full, and I say yes. As I do to most other people who ask me nicely. And it works the other way too: in September I ran a post from Henry Blodget on this blog.

But all of those deals were done front-of-house, as it were, between me and the editorial staff at those other publications. The big difference with NewsCred is that the deals are done back-of-house, by biz-dev types, who are out to maximize revenues, and who often don’t even bother informing the editorial staff what they’re doing. Islam told me that he thinks he should start reaching out more to the editorial side; I think that’s a great idea. The more they’re on board with this kind of thing, the happier everybody will be.

Syndication of news stories in general and blog posts in particular does have its problems. Islam told me that he doesn’t run into a lot of SEO problems, but let’s take a sentence at random from the story Avent tweeted — “So a falling stock price demographic scenario presumes that younger generations are more risk-tolerant” — and google it. Here’s what I get:

search.jpg

The top article is from BI; the second is a crappy spammy blogspot site; the third is spammier still; and the link to the Economist, the fourth result in the list, ends up directing to a very odd domain, dr.economist.com, and doesn’t actually link to the original blog post at all. Obviously, the Economist needs to work on its SEO. But equally obviously, the more that your stuff gets syndicated, and the more it gets syndicated to high-profile sites, the less likely your own site is to be the top search result for your own content.

The second problem is that comments streams end up appearing all over the shop: Ryan’s the original post* has 19 comments, for instance, while the BI version has 32 — none of which Ryan its author is likely to ever see. There are tools like Disqus which allow the same post to appear in different places and still have one set of comments, but it’s not clear that NewsCred supports them, or can mandate their use, and in any case many original publishers don’t use those tools.

A third problem lies with updates. If Ryan comes back and updates or corrects his the post, it’s far from clear how or whether those changes would ever make their way through to BI and other sites which syndicated the original piece.

And then there are simple technical glitches. Ryan’s the original post, for instance, prominently features a chart comparing stock p/e ratios over time with something called the M/O ratio — the number of 40-somethings expressed as a percentage of the number of 60-somethings. That chart somehow failed to make its way into the BI version of the story.

More vaguely but also more importantly, there’s also the fact that blogs are a conversation, and that syndicating individual blog posts in this manner fragments that conversation. People will end up linking to the BI post rather than the original Economist version; and in general, people reading the BI post will see it in a context very different from that which was intended. I’ve long said that the unit of quality, for a blog, is not the blog post but rather the blog as a whole. If you regularly take post-sized chunks and syndicate them across the web, the blog loses its coherence. It’s a bit like the way in which pop music moved from being all about the album at the end of the 20th Century to being all about the single in the 21st: the way these things are consumed makes a huge difference.

NewsCred is in the same business as Percolate, in many ways — turning brands into publishers, even when that’s not a core competency — but it cuts against Percolate’s model in that Percolate is built on the idea that it can easily determine when lots of people are sharing the same piece of content on social networks. If that piece of content lives on dozens of different sites, it becomes much more difficult to work out when that’s happening.

Finally, the syndication model means that many decisions which I’m sure that the editorial side would love to make are in fact being made by biz-dev types. For instance, let’s say that a large global financial-services company like Goldman Sachs wanted to syndicate Reuters content, including my blog. The business side here would surely love to be able to do that — but then my blog posts could start appearing on Goldman’s website, creating the impression that I was in some way working for them.

None of these problems are insurmountable — and in many ways I like the idea that thousands of different publishers can spring up, putting together bespoke products for exactly the audience they want, with original bloggers and journalists around the world being paid hundreds of times per piece. It’s a very democratic and decentralized vision of what journalism can be, and it’s rather appealing — especially if it provides a healthy income stream to big publishers as well as small ones. I just wish that these decisions were being made and thought about higher up in the org chart, and especially on the editorial side, rather than invading from the lower reaches of the business side. Because if it’s done badly at the beginning, that could poison the whole model.

*Update: I missed this originally, but the Economist post in question was actually written by Allison Schrager, and not by Ryan Avent.

COMMENT

@Flippant – thanks – good to know that we are on the same “page” in more ways than one.

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Hoping for a better NYT ombudsman

Felix Salmon
Jun 3, 2012 22:29 UTC

Back in August, the NYT’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, penned an idiotic column about DealBook, saying that the NYT’s focus on Wall Street was in some way preventing it from big longform analyses of the European crisis. Today, he returns to his DealBook-bashing ways, complaining — I swear this is true — that by serving the kind of people who are interested in Wall Street, the NYT is ignoring the needs of individual investors who want to be told whether the latest hot IPO is going to go up or down.

Brisbane does that annoying thing of outsourcing his opinions to others (Ryan Chittum, Larry Kramer, Chris Roush), but he clearly endorses Roush’s criticism that the NYT didn’t do a good job, in the run-up to the Facebook IPO of explaining “whether this would be a good stock for an individual investor to own”.

Or, to put it another way, the NYT didn’t warn individual investors that Facebook stock was going to go down rather than up.

This of course is completely bonkers. There is no possible away that the NYT could have known that Facebook stock was going down — it’s not smarter than the markets as a whole. And in any case, it’s not the NYT”s job to rate IPO stocks on the basis of whether they’re likely to go up. You want that, buy a stock-picking newsletter, or Barron’s.

The most annoying thing, for me, about Brisbane’s column is right there in the headline: “Wall Street and the Average Reader”. Brisbane talks about “the general reader who relies on The Times to explain the risks of the stock market”, and says that “the paper could have done more to help the average investor understand the risks of the offering”. He continues:

The Times should have provided more focus for general-interest readers, who needed help cutting through the clutter. More coverage aimed at small investors may well have led to more scrutiny of the risks.

But with its specialized finance blog, DealBook, plus its general-news mission over all, the paper is committed to two audiences, and that is a challenge.

It took me a while to understand what Brisbane was saying here, so let me spell it out: Brisbane is making no distinction whatsoever between a general-news average reader of the NYT, on the one hand, and a small investor interested in buying Facebook stock in its IPO, on the other, looking to the NYT for guidance.

This is just utterly bizarre. The Facebook IPO was a big news story, which deserved a significant amount of coverage. Lots of people were interested in the story — and the overwhelming majority of them had no interest whatsoever in buying Facebook stock on day one. Many NYT readers, of course, don’t have anywhere near the amount of money or risk appetite needed to be investing in the stock market at all. Those who do, generally invest in funds, be they of the mutual or index variety. There’s a small minority of NYT readers who buy individual stocks for their own account, but even most of those generally stay away from the highly-specialized world of IPO investing. And of the tiny majority of NYT readers who actually buy stock in IPOs, only a fraction of them will make their decisions based at all on what the NYT says.

So it’s baffling to me why Brisbane is talking about the “average reader” here. The NYT served the average reader perfectly well.

And it’s frankly stupid for Brisbane, armed with 20-20 hindsight, to declare that Nick Bilton’s very good article about Facebook’s final prospectus revision wasn’t enough, and that “the Times could have delved much more deeply” into the issue. Surely he knows that the only reason he’s saying that is news that came out after the IPO, about the way in which the revision was accompanied by whispers from Facebook to various Wall Street analysts, causing them to downgrade their estimates of Facebook’s second-quarter revenues. There’s no way that the NYT should have known about those whispers pre-IPO, even if it did deep delving.

More generally, Brisbane is still stuck in a mindset which says that the NYT has to be all things to all people. It is possible that some tiny number of NYT readers thinks that the newspaper is the best place to go for fundamentals-based analysis of the Facebook IPO price, and that they should read the NYT, first and foremost, before deciding whether or not to participate in the IPO. But even if those people do exist, it is not incumbent upon the NYT to write articles for them.

Brisbane does at one point cite with admiration the work of Eileen Brown, a blogger at ZDNet. I’m not sure, but I think that he thinks that the NYT should have basically written the articles that she was writing. (Or, for that matter, that any number of other bloggers were writing all over the internet, at sites like SeekingAlpha or Business Insider or many others.) That’s just silly. Brisbane could — but didn’t — say that the NYT was missing links to the work of bloggers like Brown or Henry Blodget: that because the NYT sensibly does not consider itself a source of advice on whether or not to buy into a certain IPO, then it should point readers interested in such things to the best analysis available online.

But in order to say something like that, Brisbane would have to be a very different kind of public editor. He’s leaving, in September; I very much hope that when the NYT appoints his replacement, it won’t plump for yet another curmudgeonly dinosaur. So far, we’ve had a series of 60-something white men with long experience of, and nostalgia for, the glory days of print journalism. It’s time for a change: it’s time for someone younger, who appreciates that the overwhelming majority of the NYT’s readers no longer read it in print, who appreciates the power of hyperlinks and social media, who will use the public editor’s blog and Twitter accounts in new and powerful ways, aggregating the vibrant conversation which is always raging about the NYT, rather than treating those tools like a regrettable and newfangled source of extra problems and extra work.

My suggestion: Anna Holmes. I’m quite sure that she, unlike Brisbane, would engage effectively with, say, Xeni Jardin’s fantastic critique of today’s NYT declaration that men invented the internet. She might even — horrors! — engage in the comments on Xeni’s site, rather than remaining aloof in the NYT’s ivory tower. The NYT is a hugely important digital news organization with a fantastic social-media footprint. Here’s hoping that it manages to find a public editor worthy of engaging with the organization the NYT must be, rather than the one it was in decades past.

Update: Failing Anna Holmes, it seems to me the least they can do is appoint Pat Kiernan.

COMMENT

The NYT’s coverage of FB hits close to home for me. I submitted an op-ed to the NYT the week of Facebook’s IPO. They passed on it and the piece appeared (with slight edits) in the Philadephia Inquirer the following week.

Without attempting to provide any stock market advice the op-ed, “The Death of Facebook,” is critical of FB’s long term prospects. Publishing items like this would have left NYT readers better informed of the risks of investing in the company.

The full text as published appears here:
http://community.mis.temple.edu/stevenlj ohnson/2012/06/05/predicting-the-demise- of-facebook/

Posted by StevenLJohnson | Report as abusive

How Gawker wants to monetize comments

Felix Salmon
May 22, 2012 17:26 UTC

Back in November, I grappled with the fact that online display ads in general, and banner ads in particular, are clearly not working very well; my suggested alternative was for brand advertisers to embrace the power of the external link. That was one suggestion; there are many, many more. But what they all have in common is that they’re attempts to go beyond the ad, and to leverage the interactive power of the internet.

Over at Tumblr, David Karp is being characteristically vague about what he’s offering to potential advertisers: all we know for the time being is that he “wants brands and marketers to use Tumblr as a way to tell stories that they can’t otherwise tell on other social networks”. Which sounds great, but doesn’t even come close to answering the obvious first question, which is “how?“. I understand that the idea is to sell space on the right hand side of the screen, and that clicking on one of those units will take Tumblr users to the advertiser’s tumblog. But this seems uncomfortably close to the idea that advertisers buy a banner ad and that clicking on that banner ad will take users to the advertiser’s website. The tumblog itself might well tell a story — but then again, so might the advertiser’s website. The difficult thing is getting users to click on things, especially when those things look like — and are clearly labeled as — ads.

Similarly, Facebook’s revenue problems are based on much the same underlying issue: Facebook itself is highly interactive and immersive, but the ads you find there are not. And while there are one or two companies I will follow on Facebook, they’re invariably companies which are run by my friends. Facebook is a great place to keep up with what your friends are up to, but it still hasn’t cracked the nut of working out how to make itself valuable to brand advertisers.

Now, Gawker Media’s Nick Denton has a new idea:

In an internal memo on Thursday, Denton announced the formation of a new sales unit that will focus on helping advertisers and brands take part in the new commenting system

According to the memo, Gawker is creating a new content unit within the sales department that will be headed by Ray Wert, formerly editor of the Gawker-owned automotive blog Jalopnik. This new unit will take over responsibility for all of Gawker’s branded content functions, as well as marketing communications and events — and the purpose of the unit will be to promote the new Gawker discussion platform as a way for marketers and brands to engage with customers in an open forum. Says Denton:

We all know the conventional wisdom: the days of the banner advertisement are numbered. In two years, our primary offering to marketers will be our discussion platform.

Last Friday, Denton gave me, along with a few other New York digital-media types, a preview of his new commenting system; yesterday, I had a pretty geeky conversation with Wert about how he intends to turn it into dollars.

At Gawker, as at most other popular sites, the number of people reading the comments is vastly greater than the number of people writing them. But the way they’re presented, they’re not easy to read, there’s far to many of them, and the signal-to-noise ratio tends to be extremely low.

So Gawker’s new commenting system is based around threads, with the default view being the main, most interesting thread. It’s possible to click through to other threads, and every thread — indeed, every comment — has its own unique URL; what’s more, the person who starts a thread has quite a lot of control over which comments in that thread will get featured.

What that means is that if an advertiser buys a sponsored post — and sponsored posts have been part of Gawker’s menu of offerings for some time now — then once the new commenting system is in place, the advertiser will have a reasonably large degree of control of the conversation that most people see in that post.

Denton’s vision for Gawker Media’s editorial product is very much moving towards comments and away from posts, and he reckons that advertisers will follow him in that direction if he blazes the trail. Expect Gawker’s blog posts to get shorter, in future, and sometimes just be a headline, at least in the first instance, so that the conversation can get going before a pretty post can be put together. And if Denton’s scheme goes according to plan, when you follow a link to a Gawker website, it will often — or maybe even usually — be a link to a comment, rather than to an original post. Eventually, it’s possible to envisage a world where the distinction between the two is erased completely.

This is a very ambitious vision. Historically, Gawker has been pretty weak with respect to technological innovations, and so it’s reasonable to take an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it approach any time that Nick Denton claims to have invented a revolutionary new technology. As Wert said to me, forums have been around on the internet since the 90s, and no one’s managed to reinvent them yet. But a few companies like Reddit and Quora have pointed in interesting directions, and Wert was quite open about wanting to ape Reddit’s AMA (“ask me anything”) feature for his new advertorial conversations.

The idea is for these things to be more a PR/marketing product than a brand-advertising product. The idea is to get challenger brands, in particular, to take part: they tend to be very open and transparent about what they’re up to, and they love the idea of engaging with the public as much as possible, if they can do so in a reasonably controlled environment. When that kind of a brand has some kind of news they want to share, doing so through a Gawker Media sponsored post will be a pretty effective way of getting the news out to a large number of people while at the same time sending the message that they’re trying to be as transparent as possible and are happy to answer lots of questions in a friendly and conversational and open manner. The metric for success, says Wert, isn’t going to be the number of pageviews they get; rather, it will be the amount of earned media they get — the degree to which other media outlets pick up on the initial announcement and the rest of the information that the company reveals in the comments section.

The conversation will probably only go on for a day or two, but after that the post — and all its associated comments — will live on in perpetuity, a much more open and accessible record of the announcement than any press release could be.

The problem here, for Denton — and the reason why he got an editorial guy to run this new project — is the old one: how to persuade his websites’ readers to read the sponsored posts and to engage in their comments sections. Wert’s stated ambition — and you can hold him to this — is for his sponsored posts to be so well written and newsworthy and generally high quality that the editors of Gawker’s websites will love to be able to feature them on their home pages. There have been very high-quality sponsored posts in the past, but Wert is going to have to work very hard, I think, to turn boring PR announcements into something of Gawker-level juiciness.

What’s more, this move of Denton’s is to a large degree a reversal of his stated aim back at the end of 2010, when he did his big network-wide redesign. Back then, I explained the departure of sales chief Chris Batty, now at Quartz, as being a function of the fact that Batty was a huge fan of the sponsored post, while Denton’s redesign “essentially sacrifices the idea of having a sponsored post on the home page—something Batty was almost religious about—and replaces it with interstitial videos which aren’t nearly as sharable, aren’t extensible, and quite possibly won’t even have permalinks.” This move of Denton’s, then, is a step backwards, in many ways, towards the Batty vision which he rejected two years ago.

Still, I do like the fact that Denton’s constantly trying new things, constantly trying to reinvent what an online media company can and should be. Really ambitious brands, indeed, won’t need Wert’s help at all: they’ll have the ability to dive straight into existing non-sponsored editorial posts and respond to commenters directly, much as they’re already responding to people who talk about them on Twitter. But I suspect that the brands which do that will actually be more receptive, rather than less receptive, to Wert’s sales pitch — they will already understand the power of conversation.

And in general, I like Denton’s bigger idea of building a comments system designed more for the majority of readers who don’t comment than it is for the minority of commenters themselves. I don’t believe for a minute that the new system will attract the big-name commenters — Dov Charney, Brian Williams — that Denton really wants. But I do think that the new system will make very high-end comments threads much more common. And when those things do appear, they’re wonderful.

I used to help run a site, back in the early days of the blogosphere, called MemeFirst. The posts were short; the comments threads were long, and generally very high quality. We didn’t have much of a signal-to-noise problem, because very few people knew we existed. We were basically just a group of friends using the web as a discussion aid. But the fact is that even though there are many more readers than there are commenters, there are also many more commenters than there are posters. And collectively, those commenters are faster and funnier and more knowledgeable than the staff of any website.

Nick Denton wants to be the first publisher to develop the ability to effectively tap into that collective wisdom. And then, he wants to try to sell his new-found ability to advertisers. If — and only if — Denton can do the former, I suspect that Ray Wert has a decent shot of being able to do the latter.

COMMENT

LOL…Gawker has degenerated into total crap in the last 12 months (and even when it was at its best it was only “meh”, IMO). Not to mention that quite a few of their employees are total dicks. Of its 8 networks (io9, Deadspin, etc), it’s probably at No. 5 right now in terms of overall quality. Stuff like outing folks who don’t really deserve that (ie ABC reporter Robin Roberts) and cheap flame bait like “Obama is being patronizing to issues of gay marriage”, as well as the unnessecary overhaul of the comments section (which has led to stuff like some guy spamming every article with “Hot Pockets” ads, which I think is some sort of backlash from telling Drudge Report readers that Matt Drudge was gay after he linked to their site about the Roberts outing) makes me think that Gawker is on the way out in a year or two and owner Denton and co. will be slumming it up elsewhere (probably Salon.com).

Posted by robcypher | Report as abusive

How to cover Greece

Felix Salmon
May 17, 2012 14:58 UTC

economist-cover-the-greek-run2.jpg fb.jpg

You might have heard that Facebook’s going public; certainly the editors of Businessweek have, and so they’ve managed to come up with a listicle (“five hacks that have changed Silicon Valley forever”) to put on their cover this week. The Economist, by contrast, not only has a much better cover; it has also gone with the much more important story. (Which doesn’t yet appear to be online.)

Watching the two stories play out in the news media, especially here in the US, has been fascinating. And it’s no coincidence that the London-based publication went with Greece while the New York-based publication went with Facebook. Looked at from New York, the Greece story is a horribly complex mess of players and parties and agendas, with no obvious timetable and no chief protagonist. Plus, while it’s clearly important from a global perspective, it’s perennially impossible to come up with any really good explanation of why a US audience should really care.

On the other side, looked at from across the pond, the Facebook IPO seems like much ado over relatively little: a hot company is managing to raise a large amount of equity at a high valuation. That’s fine — but in this case there’s really no reason why the average European should care: Facebook is not going to visibly change at all for having gone public, and Europeans in general don’t pay nearly as much attention to individual share prices as Americans do.

My guess is that this dynamic is going to stay in place even after Facebook has gone public and the share price has settled down: the European media will cover the Greece story in minute detail, while the US media will largely ignore it, but for the occasional dull-and-worthy piece buried where no one will find it, until such time as it starts causing visible repercussions for US banks or stocks.

For a world which supposedly globalized decades ago, the crucial and central importance of the Greece story to Europe, and its decidedly peripheral status in the US, is telling. If you were launching a new publication aimed at the “global business elite” right now, which of these stories would you consider more important? You’d try to cover them both, of course. But if you spent too much time on Facebook, your non-US audience would consider you frivolous, and if you spent too much time on Greece, your US audience (and, crucially, your US advertisers) would consider you wonky and worthy and boring. Maybe the answer is to just stick with shiny photos of a major global city at night. That always works.

COMMENT

The latest US edition of the Economist has abandoned “The Greek Run” cover, in favor of a cartoon of wolly mamoths heading for a cliff; “The Endangered Public Company” is the headline.
It seems even the Economist has no faith in its US readers’global attention span.

Posted by headludd | Report as abusive
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