Opinion

Felix Salmon

Is Amazon bad for publishers?

Felix Salmon
Nov 3, 2013 17:58 UTC

Duff McDonald has a wonderful review of Brad Stone’s new book on Amazon in the NYT; he’s a fantastic nonfiction book reviewer. There is one part of the review, however, which could do with a bit more explanation:

Bezos does appear to revel in outwitting even his best partners. The publishing industry, for example, still doesn’t quite know how it willingly gave him the sword with which he would slice off its head…

Publishers were shocked when he sandbagged them with $9.99 e-book pricing in 2007. Where had they been?*

It’s something of an article of faith, in book-publishing circles, that Amazon has been a Bad Thing for the book publishing industry. And certainly it is an article of faith in this review. (Authors, by contrast seem to have gotten more upset at Google than at Amazon.)

What I can’t ever recall seeing, however, is a clear and concise encapsulation of the publishing industry’s beef with Amazon. How is Bezos supposed to have sliced off their head?

I come at this from what might be an overly naive position. Firstly, and most obviously, Amazon has made it vastly easier to buy and to read books. Anybody with a smartphone, anybody with an internet connection, can now order any book in print, and get it delivered straight to their door, in any moment of enthusiasm. If they’re even more impatient, or prefer e-books to physical books, they can even buy the book and start reading it in seconds. I can’t see how that can possibly be anything but great news for the publishing industry.

McDonald makes it seem — and I think he’s right about this — that the industry’s main problem with Amazon is the fact that it discounts aggressively, and sometimes sells books (both physical and electronic) for less than the amount that it’s charged by the publishers. In other words, it subsidizes book purchases, something any industry ought to embrace with open arms. And this industry thinks it some kind of mortal threat?

When e-books started being a real mass-market phenomenon, I do recall a reasonably recondite debate about consumer expectations. Amazon was selling those books at $9.99 apiece, which meant that it took a loss on every purchase, but which also meant that more people were buying them — and, of course, were buying the devices on which to read them. This might have been nefarious if Amazon were making money on selling kindles, but it wasn’t, it was selling those, too, at a loss. It just wanted to bring e-books to as many people as possible — and was willing to make a substantial investment to do so.

The nay-sayers argued that once the public was conditioned into expecting e-books to be priced at $9.99, they would never pay more than that. The publishers didn’t particularly want the first e-books to be sold at such a low price, but Amazon went ahead and implemented its loss-making policy anyway. Remember that Amazon’s ultimate goal was to sell the maximum number of e-books, and, eventually, make lots of money by doing so. So this was just a dispute about short-term tactics: over the long term, the interests of Amazon and the publishers were aligned. (And frankly, Amazon is likely to always get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to “which company has the better sales tactics” questions.)

So here’s my question: what’s the argument which says that Amazon has proved itself to be a mortal, existential threat to the publishing industry? It’s not like Amazon has disintermediated publishers, allowing readers to buy millions of books directly from authors. There’s a very small business along those lines, but I don’t think that’s what publishers are worried about.

The only argument I can think of is the one surrounding physical bookstores. The small, friendly, neighborhood bookstore lives on, romantically, in the minds of most authors, and indeed publishers as well. But customers didn’t love them as much as book types did: that’s why they ended up going to Barnes & Noble instead. And as a result, the number of booksellers declined significantly. Then, just as B&N stomped on the small booksellers, Amazon ended up stomping on B&N. Customers value convenience more than they do any real-world book-buying experience — and while B&N was more convenient than the small stores, Amazon was more convenient than B&N.

The result is that there are fewer real-world triggers which remind us about how wonderful books can be. In a world with lots of small bookshops, you pass such things regularly, and even if you don’t go in and buy something most of those times, at least you’re reminded of their existence, and you nearly always have a good feeling about the store and its ambience. Just about every book reader thinks that bookstores are wonderful, magical places — and, of course, that their contents are wonderful, magical things. As such, small booksellers were the best marketing devices that the publishing industry had. Not through anything they particularly did, so much as just by dint of their simple existence.

It’s a bit like the secret to the continued success of The Economist: it puts a lot of effort into its covers, and those covers are featured prominently on pretty much every newsstand in the world. Even if you’re a subscriber and never buy the magazine at a newsstand, seeing it so regularly in the real world is a great way of reminding you how much you like it. As a result, the next time you pick up your iPad, you’re more likely to read The Economist, and therefore more likely to renew your subscription, when that time comes around. If the number of newsstands in the world fell substantially, that would hurt The Economist much more than its newsstand sales alone might suggest.

Similarly, a world where you’d see a Barnes & Noble in every shopping mall, where you’d see these monster bookstores by the side of every urban highway, was a world which was constantly reminding you of how many books there are, and of how popular those books are. After all, those bookstores were kept in business by a steady stream of book lovers coming in to buy books. In their own way, B&N stores were just as good an advertisement for books in general as were the small booksellers they replaced.

So while there are just as many media-based book discussions as there always were — book reviews, book excerpts, talk shows, radio interviews, that kind of thing — the real-world reminders of the book industry as a whole have definitely shrunk. There are still lots of ways we can find out about individual books that we might want to read — and, thanks to Amazon, it has never been easier to order and read those books. But Amazon’s size and reach isn’t nearly as obvious as the networks of physical stores were — especially since Amazon sells so many different types of things, the sight of an empty Amazon box doesn’t make you think “books” any more. (Although, for historical reasons, the Amazon bookmark in my web browser still says “Amazon.com Books! Earth’s Biggest Bookstore.”)

Still, I don’t think it’s really fair for publishers to blame Amazon for the fact that people like to do their shopping online, and that easily-digitizable content is going to exist mainly in a virtual world rather than the real world. Indeed, there’s an argument that Amazon has saved the publishing industry from going the way of the record labels — that it’s made buying e-books so easy that the number of free pirated versions out there is still tiny. (Amazon has made it easier to find second-hand books, which publishers don’t directly benefit from, but at the same time it’s at the forefront of pushing e-books, which can’t be resold after you’ve bought them. Net-net, let’s call that one a wash.)

Publishers have always been conservative, and Amazon represents a massive change in their industry. What’s more, the move from small booksellers to B&N to Amazon has been a move where the booksellers have ever-increasing amounts of leverage over the publishers; it’s understandable that the publishers don’t like that. But I just can’t believe that Amazon is, or would ever want to be, an existential threat to the publishing industry.

*Update: The blockquote from McDonald’s review was originally longer, and included a section about Amazon matching the prices of “mysterious third-party sellers” in order to justify its price cuts. But McDonald emails to tell me that that section was not about publishers or booksellers, so I’ve taken it out.

COMMENT

handleym99, Amazon’s system of discovery works well for mainstream published books, which is a few thousand titles a year for most people (in their field of interest).

What happens when there are no mainstream publishers, and now there are a 100,000 to 1,000,000 titles to choose among, none of which have any reviews (I’m talking about discovering new authors – old authors will do just fine until book reading slowly becomes irrelevant).

Use advertising? Not correlated to quality. Use reviews? Ha. Think about the quality of reviews when a book by an unknown gets 0.01 reviews on average. You can be almost certain that any review you read is a sympathetic/paid for/faked review at those levels.

Imagine looking for SF novels published this month and getting 50,000 hits. Now, Amazon may well show you some top 50, quantified by how much they pay Amazon. But how many of them will be readable when willingness to promote doesn’t correlate with need to make money?

There’s simply nothing we have to filter the tsunami of the not-publishable-quality material that finds its way on to Amazon. Amazon’s current response is to essentially hide the self-published stuff by unknown authors most of the time, so you don’t get swamped (and on occasion when they don’t, Amazon is useless for finding anything useful, as I found to my sorrow).

We have no tools and no discovery mechanism for finding good books among millions instead of thousands that doesn’t involve a gatekeeper who only cares about promoting what customers will buy, and that’s not nearly a profitable enough industry for Amazon. Far more profitable to sell to the would-be writers.

I’m hoping my apocalypse scenario doesn’t come to pass in the next 10-20 years. But neither anything that Amazon is doing now, nor has incentive to do in future, is likely to prevent it.

Posted by TomWest | Report as abusive

Adventures with e-books, Kindle single edition

Felix Salmon
Sep 13, 2011 19:53 UTC

Ryan Avent’s 90-page Kindle single, The Gated City, is a bargain at $1.99. It was produced in close consultation with the Kindle Singles editor, David Blum — the gatekeeper who determines what gets chosen to be a Kindle Single, and what gets relegated to the long tail of Kindle Direct Publishing.

We’re running a great excerpt of Ryan’s book here at Reuters — it’s headlined “How home prices helped kill the first tech boom”. Basically, soaring home prices in Silicon Valley discouraged entrepreneurship, encouraged the flight of qualified workers to other locales, and meant that during the dot-com boom, Silicon Valley actually created fewer companies, per capita, than the country as a whole. With any luck, reading it (or other excerpts, here) will encourage you to buy the whole thing.

Meanwhile, last week Gothamist published its own debut 72-page feature story, in the same format — a 72-page e-book. After putting out a call for pitches in July, Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin decided that the first $5,000 commission would go to Patrick Kirkland — one of the jurors in the infamous New York “rape cop” trial. He’s not a professional writer, and the story is a bit clunky at first, but he becomes very fluent during the crucial central part of the book, where he explains exactly why and how the jury managed to unanimously acquit both police officers of rape. As someone who found the verdict quite shocking, I can say that he convinced me, too, that the jury made the right decision.

Interestingly, Amazon’s Blum rejected Kirkland’s story as a Kindle Single, calling it “an interesting piece”, but not “right for Singles”. What difference does the rejection make? Well, the Amazon business model is that Amazon takes 30% of the proceeds of e-books, while the author/publisher gets 70%. That’s the deal Avent got. But if you just upload your book to the Kindle store, as Gothamist did, then you only get 70% of the proceeds if you’re charging $2.99 or more. If you stick to the $1.99 price point, then Amazon takes 70% 65%, and you’re left with just 30% 35%.

This is a serious incentive to get past David Blum’s velvet rope — not only will he help you with promotion, cover design, and the like, but he can also give you a much greater share of the proceeds for books sold for less than $2.99.

So when Gothamist published the book, it was $1.99 on iBooks, and $1.99 for the direct PDF download — but $2.99 on Kindle. And then things went exactly according to plan. Apple featured the book on the front page of the iBooks store, and Amazon — as it’s allowed to do — unilaterally cut the price of the book by 33%, to match Apple’s pricing. But it’s still governed by the initial pricing plan, so Gothamist gets 70%, rather than 30% of the current $1.99 price. (So, buy it!)

We’re still in the very early days of micropayments for books, but my gut feeling is that people are increasingly willing to pay small sums for shorter pieces in the 5,000 to 30,000 word range — much as they’re increasingly willing to pay small sums for apps. And the pricing models are, of course, still very much in flux. But if Amazon’s willing to give their Kindle Single authors 70% of the proceeds even after helping them with design and marketing, they should also offer the same deal to publishers who do all that work themselves.

COMMENT

Well, yes, those are the Amazon costs. The point of this brave new paperless digital world was supposed to be that the end user wouldn’t have to pay to kill the trees. So I’d like to not pay for the stuff I’m no longer buying, thank you.

You say “If you want Kindle format books…” Well, if they cost more than the paper version, then I really don’t want them and won’t be buying them.

I doubt that it’s going to be just me: digital books have disadvantages, too: formatting infelicities, photos and color charts look terrible (although other readers do better), getting around is more awkward. So I’d think that people for whom the advantages aren’t overwhelming (e.g. travelling light with lots of reading) will be passing as well.

Posted by David239 | Report as abusive

The NYT toughens up its paywall

Felix Salmon
Dec 7, 2010 21:08 UTC

Martin Niesenholtz, the head of digital at the NYT, clearly hasn’t been taking my advice when it comes to how to build a paywall. Instead, he’s pre-emptively cracking down on a tiny and financially meaningless minority of hypothetical readers who might want to find ways around his wall:

“We will take great pains to make sure that the first-click-free policy isn’t abused in any way,” said Martin Nisenholtz, the Times’ digital chief. “Google has been quite cooperative in terms of setting a limit for the number of free articles that can go in for any one day, so that you can’t just sit and engineer your way into a free use of the website.”

What this says to me is that the NYT is spending too much time designing its paywall, and is disappearing down rabbit-holes best left unexplored unless and until it becomes clear that they need examining.

The NYT‘s paywall is designed to be porous: readers coming in from some other site (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reuters) will always be able to read the article they’re looking for, even if they’ve used up their monthly quota. As a result, it’s more of a navigation fee than a charge for content.

That’s fine—except Nisenholtz now seems to be backpedaling from that concept, and saying that he’s going to “take great pains” to crack down on people who read a lot of nytimes.com without paying the company.

That’s silly, for three reasons. Firstly, great pains tend to come at non-negligible expense, and there’s no point in spending significant amounts of money unless you think you’ll recoup those costs in extra revenues. In this case, Nisenholtz seems to think that (a) there will be a large number of people trying to find a way around the NYT paywall — and that (b) a significant proportion of those people will end up giving in and subscribing (as opposed to simply going elsewhere), if the paywall is made hard to get around. I very much doubt that he has any concrete evidence that either proposition is true, let alone that both of them are; common sense, then, would dictate that he wait until he gets such evidence before working on bolstering the wall.

Secondly, there are so many ways to get around paywalls—simply deleting your cookies generally does the trick—that there’s no good reason to believe the NYT‘s “great pains” are going to actually work very well in practice.

Finally, the less porous the wall, the more annoying it is—for subscribers and non-subscribers both. That’s simply the way that paywalls work. Strengthening your paywall sends the message that you don’t trust your subscribers, or your subscribers’ non-subscriber friends: you’re treating them as potential content thieves.

Why would Niesenholtz do this? Why won’t he just satisfy himself with raising revenue from loyal readers, rather than trying to prevent people from reading lots of stories? It should be flattering that some people want to read NYT content so badly that they will take the long way round the paywall. Instead, Nisenholtz seems to find it downright threatening. And one possible reason is hinted at by Rick Edmonds:

A Kindle subscription to the Times cost $19.99 a month, and Scott Heeken-Canedy, president of The New York Times newspaper, said that might be indicative of where pricing for full Web access will end up.

If by “will end up” he means “will end up eventually, after we’ve quietly raised the subscription price half a dozen times,” then Niesenholtz’s tactics don’t make sense. But if by “end up” he means “will end up being when the paywall goes live next year”, then they do.

$20 per month is a large amount of money for people to pay for a product they’re used to getting for free, and indeed it’s so large that most of the NYT‘s regular readers will simply refuse to pay it. In that situation, the subset of people who will pay but only if the paywall is a tough one might start becoming relevant.

Niesenholtz says that 15% of current visitors view 20 pages or more per month. But people won’t pay $20 to read 20 pages per month: that kind of money only begins to be worth paying once you start reading a few pages per day, or say 100 pages per month. Let’s say that 5% of current visitors fall into that bucket, and that of that 5%, only one in ten will actually pay $20 a month for website access. (I’m not counting print or iPad subscribers who get free access to the website with their other subscription.)

At that point, Niesenholtz is directly monetizing just 0.5% of his visitor base—a number which is small enough that grabbing a few people who otherwise like to find a way round paywalls could actually make a significant difference.

I think it would be silly to start the paywall experiment at a high $20-a-month price point. Somewhere between $5 and $10 would make more sense. But if the NYT really is considering making nytimes.com a $240-a-year product, then maybe that explains their newfound emphasis on cracking down on those who would try to get around it.

COMMENT

$240 is toothpick money if you’re a partner at Goldman Sachs, but it’s a daunting sum if you’re nearing retirement on a nest egg more modest than those owned by New York’s uppercrusters. If the NYT thinks $20 a month is a modest amount for online access, it’s a bit out of touch with the real world.

But I don’t think that’s the problem. The NYT is a premium product, and its owners and managers think it should sport a premium price. That’s partly a strategy to protect the paper’s value, partly a strategy to protect the managers and owners from the humiliation of offering Wal Mart prices.

It’s also an old way of thinking. I’d price the paywall for unlimited access at a dollar a month, and work to get 30 million subscribers.

Posted by jrconner | Report as abusive

Book pricing datapoints of the day

Felix Salmon
Nov 18, 2010 18:52 UTC

When a big new book comes out, the publisher has two choices. It can allow Amazon to sell the Kindle edition at a much lower price than the hardback, increasing the number of copies sold but possibly cannibalizing hardback sales. Alternatively, it can force Amazon to charge a high price for the Kindle edition, garnering a passive-aggressive note on the website saying “This price was set by the publisher.”

The result looks something like this. All the Devils are Here, published by Penguin Portfolio, is $16.99 on the Kindle; Decision Points, published by Crown, is $9.99. And in return for allowing Amazon to subsidize the Kindle price, it seems that Crown has agreed not to sell the book in Apple’s iBook store:

All the Devils are Here Decision Points
List price $32.95 $35.00
Amazon price $17.50 $18.77
Amazon sales rank 7 1
Kindle price $16.99 $9.99
Kindle sales rank 16 1
iBook price $16.99 N/A
Audiobook price $20.98 $26.25

And here’s the tag cloud for the Kindle edition of All the Devils are Here:

tags.tiff

It’s easy to overstate how representative the vocal protestors are, but it’s certainly clear that e-book buyers are price-sensitive. Has an e-book priced at more than $10 ever made it to the top of the Kindle bestseller list?

COMMENT

Off topic:

Felix, huge story on the collapse of microcredit in the Times. This is right up your alley.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/18/world/ asia/18micro.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=homepa ge

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

The financial crisis as PR tool

Felix Salmon
Jul 2, 2010 00:20 UTC

There’s been an awful lot of weird and unusual PR surrounding The Zeroes, by Randall Lane. My copy has a big white sticker on it: EMBARGOED, it says, until Tuesday June 29 — as though there is hot breaking news buried somewhere in the book. (It’s definitely not in the Vanity Fair excerpt, which came and went with barely a ripple of notice.)

Lane himself maybe hit on a slightly newsier story with an excerpt at the Daily Beast, where he’s “editor-in-large”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. In an article timed to coincide with the book’s publication, Lane talks about Lenny Dykstra, who may have made some slightly sleazy deal with a small company in California:

In the late winter of 2008, an entrepreneur named Richard O’Connor, who had become Dykstra’s favored adviser, introduced him to Shannon Illingworth, the founder of a publicly traded company called Automated Vending Technologies, or AVT, and the two quickly cut a deal. O’Connor told me that on March 25, 2008, Illingworth gave Dykstra roughly $250,000 worth of AVT stock in exchange for plugging the company on Cramer’s website, TheStreet.com, and promising to provide a personal introduction to Cramer.

This is a bombshell of utterly minuscule proportions, especially since Dykstra disclosed his long position in his column. And neither Lane nor O’Connor are particularly reliable sources when it comes to these things: Lane happily admits to lots of reasons why he has an animus towards Dykstra, while O’Connor, according to Teri Buhl, owes AVT $37,569.82.

But this non-story is getting a new lease of life — even making the New York Post — thanks to a threat from AVT to sue Lane for defamation. And lo, the lawsuit has now appeared — complete with an utterly stupid claim for $100 million in damages. Here it is, from Illingworth via Buhl:

AVT vs. Lane

This is basically all bluster and bullshit, written in particularly bad legalese which doesn’t even seem to have been proofread. There’s lots of talk of “untrue and false statements” but at no point does the plaintiff, AVT, bother to actually say what those libelous statements might be, nor how they might have caused anything like $100 million in damages. (The market cap of AVT is just over $30 million, and it hasn’t moved significantly in months.)

Whenever anybody launches a substance-free lawsuit with a stupidly huge number like $100 million attached, you know that they’re mainly interested in publicity. But this is where things get weird: why would Illingworth and AVT want to give free publicity to the book they claim is libeling them? And why would they carefully time the lawsuit so that it coincides exactly with the publication of the book?

I’m sure that both sides are loving whatever extra publicity they can extract from this lawsuit and I feel a little bit sleazy adding to that publicity myself. This is one of those spats you don’t particularly want either side to win. But I guess the good news is that we’ve come through the first tranche of serious and important crisis books and now we’re seeing the second tranche, where the crisis is used as an excuse for failed hype merchants to try yet another desperate attempt at self-promotion. The sleazy and litigious side of the American Dream, it seems, is impervious to crisis. Maybe in fact it thrives on it.

COMMENT

“editor in large” sounds like a fat joke.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Pricing kindle nonfiction

Felix Salmon
Feb 25, 2010 15:14 UTC

Yves Smith, of Naked Capitalism, has sent me a note to tell me how unhappy she is about the kindle pricing of her new book, which has a cover price of $30, an Amazon price of $19.80, and a kindle price of $16.50. Her publisher, Palgrave, is part of Macmillan, which just won a fight to force Amazon to sell e-books at more than $10, but part of the fallout from that fight is that books which cost much more than that on the kindle often get one-star reviews on the basis of their pricing alone.

Writes Yves:

You know my base skews heavily toward the type that buys on Amazon, and to top that off, as you would imagine, my book promotion is going to be more than usually web oriented, so that will maintain that skew.

I don’t know about you, but the vast majority of the time, if I see a book with an Amazon rating of fewer than four stars, I won’t buy it. And it does not take many one stars to drag an average down.

In principle, my sympathies are with Yves and Amazon here. Amazon wants to subsidize her book; she wants Amazon to subsidize her book; but her publisher, worried about kindle sales cannibalizing hardback sales, won’t let that happen, and is willing to risk bad reviews as a consequence.

My feeling here is that none of this matters a great deal. And the main reason is pretty simple: after about a year of kindle ownership, I’ve come to the clear conclusion that it simply isn’t suited for reading the vast majority of non-fiction. You might not even notice it when you’re doing it, but when you read a non-fiction work like this one, you tend to flick backwards and forwards a lot, skim past the bits you already know about, re-read earlier passages in light of later ones, that sort of thing. And that’s prohibitively difficult with the kindle, which is designed primarily for reading narratives where you start at the beginning and make your way steadily to the end. Truly narrative non-fiction a la Krakauer is fine, but “learn about the crisis” nonfiction just doesn’t lend itself to being read on the kindle at any price. If you’re the kind of person who reads footnotes, you will get very annoyed very quickly with the kindle whenever they start appearing.

What’s more, the phenomenon of angry one-star reviews will I think fade away pretty quickly: they’re a response to the change in prices more than they are a response to the price itself. If the price for a kindle book goes up from $10 to $17 without the product changing at all, that’s annoying. But if it was never $10 to begin with, the annoyance is much lower.

Obviously, the number of kindle versions of Econned sold will be lower at $16.50 than it would be at $9.99 — just as I doubt many people buy kindle versions of books which are more expensive than the ink-on-paper versions. But a substantial proportion of the people who would have bought at $9.99 but won’t buy at $16.50 are people who will now just buy the hardback instead — and I’m pretty sure they’re going to have a better experience that way. And that should make Yves happy, not angry.

COMMENT

For context, the list price of the hardcover is $30. BN.com has an ‘online price’ of $24, but ‘members’ pay $21.60, and at the moment non-members can get the member price.

Borders’ website has it at list price ($30).

Posted by jonhendry | Report as abusive

Why BusinessWeek shouldn’t ape Time.com

Felix Salmon
Nov 23, 2009 14:05 UTC

Why was Josh Tyrangiel hired to be the new editor of BusinessWeek? One reason, the pundits agree, is that he successfully dragged Time — another weekly — onto the web. Ryan Chittum writes about “his eye-popping numbers at Time.com”, with pageviews rising from 400 million in 2006 to an estimated 1.8 billion this year, while Marion Maneker says that “he had tremendous success in building Time.com’s Web traffic over a few years”.

I’m an admirer of Tyrangiel too. But it would be depressing if Bloomberg’s brass hired him on the basis of his pageviews, because Time.com is an object lesson in how not to boost traffic. Reading Time.com is an exercise in frustration: the stories there are hugely painful to read. Barely-relevant links to other stories interrupt the flow on a regular basis; slideshows are everywhere; and in general it’s almost impossible to get through a whole story without being forced to visit multiple pages in doing so. Revealingly, no one’s talked much about Time.com’s uniques over the past few years, just its pageviews.

The last thing that Bloomberg should ever want to do with BusinessWeek.com is use such tactics. It might make sense for Time.com to operate in the CPM-driven junk-mail paradigm, where revenues rise with pageviews and therefore you maximize the latter to maximize the former. But BusinessWeek’s high-end readers won’t and shouldn’t put up with such shenanigans.

Tyrangiel’s job at BusinessWeek.com will be to build strong bonds with the readership — to make them loyal readers and to constantly exceed their expectations of what a website can deliver. That will help give Bloomberg the prestige and glory it wants from its consumer-media operations, and will also allow Bloomberg’s business-side staffers to position themselves happily at the high end of the market, selling relationships with readers rather than simply eyeballs-by-the-million. If BusinessWeek.com becomes half as annoying to read as Time.com is today, it will have failed, and Bloomberg is going to have to be careful to make sure that Tyrangiel undrinks the pageview Kool-Aid he quaffed so gluttonously at Time.

COMMENT

I read 21 national business news homepages for my blog about business journalism every weekday, the big nationals, ones you would expect. The one I have the most trouble deciphering is Reuters’.

Time lays out all of its business stories in one place where it is easy to find them and tell which ones are new. Reuters makes this a mess. Finding Matt Goldstein can take multiple clicks (although you are usually buttoned on top). There are days I only look at the top story because it’s the only one I can tell is new.

My cross-eyed list of most helpful homepages is:

1) The New York Times Business Section
2) The Wall Street Journal “In Today’s Paper”
3) Bloomberg News “Exclusives” section
4) Fortune.com homepage
5) Portfolio.com homepage (the one thing they did right)
6) NPR Marketplace homepage
7) Time.com business/tech homepage
8) Newsweek.com business/tech homepage

The ones that annoy me because it’s hard to figure out what’s new and featured…

1) Forbes.com (do any actual journalists contribute?)
2) Reuters.com (so much content, so hard to find)
3) BusinessWeek.com (so much content, so hard to find)
4) CNBC (a little busy and the highlighted stories are mostly not highlights)
5) CNN/Money for making it so hard to find Paul LaMonica.

Disclosing journalists’ pasts

Felix Salmon
Nov 19, 2009 20:00 UTC

Dear Henry,

I’m not annoyed by you! How could I be, when you call me the “king of financial bloggers” no fewer than four times in one piece? I think you’ve created a powerful, innovative, and disruptive franchise in The Business Insider, which employs some very smart people and publishes some great journalism — even if sometimes it’s neither checked nor correct. I’m entirely happy that you’re out there hiring people even as most publications are doing the opposite, and I wish you and your investors the very best of fortune.

My blog entry yesterday was not about you qua entrepeneur; I just thought that if you were going to get into the business of publishing earnings estimates for technology companies — exactly the business you were banned from by the SEC — then it might be worth mentioning the ban as you did so.

In fact, the blog entry wasn’t really about you at all, as you might have surmised from the picture at the top and the lead paragraph, which were all about Michael Whitney. Maybe you could answer my questions where Bloomberg’s Judith Czelusniak didn’t: do you think it was OK for Bloomberg to hire Whitney and not disclose his past? If not, would it have been OK for Bloomberg to hire Whitney if they had disclosed his past?

I suspect that the differences between us are not particularly great, and that we believe that while such episodes aren’t necessarily disqualifying when it comes to hiring journalists, they should definitely be treated transparently. At the margin, the necessity of disclosing such things might well lead media organizations to pick an experienced out-of-work journalist instead: that clearly doesn’t apply in your case, where you’re the hirer rather than the prospective employee.

You say that you’ve disclosed everything in great detail in the past — this is true, and in fact I linked to one such disclosure. I feel that the disclosure should be a permanent thing, easily available to new readers, especially when you start revisiting ground extremely similar to that which you trod as a securities analyst. It’s not a major difference.

I think we’d have a much more substantive disagreement if you defended Bloomberg’s failure to disclose Whitney’s past, or Thom Calandra’s failure to disclose his own past when selling his new newsletter; I look forward to reading your views on them. But as it is, I think you might be overreacting to my piece slightly.

Best,

Felix Salmon, KFB

COMMENT

If Bernie madoff started publishing a split strike newsletter people would be pissed…why aren’t they pissed about blodget?!?! Because people are dumb and have no memory.

Posted by Al Coholic | Report as abusive

Navigating the news

Felix Salmon
Nov 19, 2009 15:56 UTC

The indispensable Abnormal Returns has a smart post up on aggregation:

Aggregators, investment or otherwise, are not the cause of the downfall of traditional news gatherers like newspapers. They are simply a sign that people are hungry for information and analysis presented in an efficient manner. For better or worse, that instinct to seek out order in an increasingly complex world is here to stay.

Of course, the news media has been trying to present information and analysis in an efficient manner for centuries: there’s nothing new there. The difference today is that the internet has brought thousands of different news sources just one click away, and so there’s demand for a new layer of editing. Newspapers have always needed editing to put the focus on the most important news, but different readers want different kinds of news and no one editor can be all things to all people.

On the internet there are thousands of people sifting news through their own particular filters, and some of them, like Abnormal Returns, prove to be extremely popular. That’s partly because they’re simply very good editors, and partly because they’re not artificially constrained in the way that newspaper editors are: they can link to anything they like, not just the product of one news shop; and they can ignore important-but-boring stories in favor of the ones that people actually want to read.

It’s almost impossible for newspaper editors and publishers to compete with that — which is exactly the reason why they should instead be embracing it. Either you can encourage people to read your news, or you can discourage them. Everybody needs some degree of help navigating the vast ocean of news and commentary which is produced every day, and no sensible publisher will come to the conclusion that cracking down on invaluable navigators is a good idea. Instead, they should be encouraging them as much as possible. As the late Sy Syms might have said, an educated news consumer is any publisher’s best customer.

COMMENT

Aggregation? That makes a nice brand name for a locally focused service. “Where do you get your news?” “I go to the Philly Aggregation.”

Posted by bdbd | Report as abusive
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