Opinion

Jack Shafer

Of media typhoons and media tycoons

Jack Shafer
Sep 20, 2013 21:24 UTC

In the 1993 debut issue of Wired magazine, founding editor Louis Rossetto predicted that the media and other industries would be whipped like a “Bengali typhoon” by digital change. As it turns out, Rossetto underestimated the impending mayhem. The ruins of the newspaper industry, music business, and the book trade smolder beneath us, with newspaper companies selling for pennies on the dollar they commanded when Rossetto wrote. Madison Avenue and the retail industry stagger about like cattle just shot to the head with a stun bolt. If re-writing his manifesto today, Rossetto might want to compare the coming gale not to a typhoon but to the solar super-storm of 1859, which made telegraph machines spit fire, turned night into aurora-lit day, and encouraged some to think the end times had arrived.

The digital revolution has yet to turn our skies crimson, but Moore’s law and its codicils have not finished with the news media business. If you seek to identify the future victims of the digital typhoon, do what Rossetto did, and point your finger at the current incumbents. The organizations at the top — heavily invested in older technology, wedded to waning ideas, beholden to existing revenue streams, haunted by yesterday’s successes, and possessed by fantasies of invulnerability — are always the best targets.

My incumbents list includes but is not limited to the Huffington Post, Politico, Atlantic Wire (and its sister-site, Quartz), Business Insider, Bleacher Report, BuzzFeed, The Verge, and Gawker Media. All of these organizations raced from almost nothing to something big in a relative hurry. HuffPo was just six years old when it sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011. Bleacher Report, born in 2007, sold to Turner Broadcasting System for almost $200 million in 2012. As a point of comparison, the Washington Post, first published in 1877, just went to Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

Bear in mind, of course, that the Washington Post earned 25 percent margin profits for many of the 25 years it ruled news and advertising in its metropolitan market, a dominance that none of the digital outlets just mentioned will ever enjoy. Traditional media companies — newspapers, music, movies, magazines, cable, TV, radio, and even games — once resided inside “unique, noncompetitive” analog silos, as W. Russell Neuman wrote in his essential 1991 book, The Future of the Mass Audience. (I own two copies of this book, one for work and one for home, and have drawn on its wisdom again and again.) The analog nature of media made the translation of content from one format to another “an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor.” Once all media — music, movies, print, and broadcasting — started speaking the same digital language, the costs of translation and production fell, bringing down the silo barriers. For example, in the old days print, newswire, radio, and TV journalists competed indirectly across content silos, battling for the audience’s attention but largely sticking to their native mediums. But for almost two decades now, those distinctions have become arbitrary. All journalists have become digital journalists, producing text, video, and audio. You’re as likely to encounter a written story on the CBS News website as you are a video report on the Wall Street Journal‘s.

In addition to hammering the content silos, digital technology has also hammered both the barriers to and the costs of entry. In the old days, mobile TV news was gathered on film stock, developed in chemical baths, edited in a cutting room, and then projected before it could be transmitted over the air, a time-consuming, expensive proposition requiring trained technicians. No more. A modern smartphone can do all that in a flash, making any owner a potential recorder of visual news. A high school student sitting at his laptop can call down a universe of information compared to what the best New York Times reporter from 1975 could command. Cheap digital technology has also eroded the federal government’s power to regulate and license the producers of video news, a power it has long used over broadcasters. But no regulator stands between an aspiring journalist and YouTube or Vimeo or his own website because no federal agency can ration Internet bandwidth the way the Federal Communications Commission still rations the airwaves.

Why journalists are like cops and firefighters

Jack Shafer
Sep 13, 2013 21:45 UTC

When some of our friends in academia read the top news about Syria on a website or in a newspaper, they do so through a lens ground by UCLA political scientist John Zaller. In a 2003 paper (pdf), Zaller analyzed two modes of news production that journalists often employ. While working in patrol mode, the press surveys the landscape for trouble and writes up what it finds, like a cop walking a beat and writing the occasional ticket or making the routine arrest. In alarm mode, aroused reporters respond to calls for help by lighting up the gumball, tossing it on the roof, and peeling out for the crime scene, the building afire, or the battleground.

I simplify Zaller here, just as he modified the patrol/alarm idea of two other political scientists on his way to his insight. But the simplification stands: The journalistic transmission knows two basic gears: slow or fast; monitoring from afar or fully entrenched; casual or obsessed. The press has long treated Syria as just another stop on its Middle East patrol, even though it has regarded massacres as legitimate tools of governance for decades, as this BBC timeline indicates. The migration of the two-year-old Syrian civil war from the back pages to the front, where it now amasses acres of newspaper coverage, can be attributed in equal part to the chemical attacks of late August in the western suburbs of Damascus and the puncturing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. There’s nothing like chemical weapons dumped on innocents followed by a U.S. president’s threat to drop bombs to change the location of the loudest alarm.

I’m not disparaging anything that’s alarmed-based, just acknowledging that it best describes contemporary news coverage, a sentiment shared by many of the scholars cited in a new book by University of California, Davis, political scientist Amber E. Boydstun, Making the News: Politics, The Media, and Agenda Setting. Boydstun argues that in practice, the press follows neither the alarm model nor the patrol model, but oscillates between the two. “[N]ews outlets tend to only patrol those neighborhoods covered by beats or triggered by alarms,” she writes. Woodward and Bernstein responded to a minor alarm story, went into patrol mode, and as other news organizations followed, the patrol coverage escalated to alarm mode again and again.

Kurtz moves from CNN to Fox with the same old song

Jack Shafer
Sep 10, 2013 20:57 UTC

After “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz parted ways with CNN in June and announced the move of his Sunday morning TV act to Fox News Channel, he had a chance to retool the media-news-and-criticism formula he purveyed on the network for 15 years. Instead, he has dressed his old CNN show in Fox bunting. In the Sept. 8 debut, he recruited members of the “Reliable Sources” stock company (David Zurawik, Nia-Malika Henderson, Lauren Ashburn, and Michelle Cottle) to chat with him about the week’s news. The new show even appears in his old CNN time slot, 11 a.m. The only new thing about the show is its name, “MediaBuzz.”

There’s always hope that Kurtz and his Fox producers will rethink the show in coming weeks, but his initial reluctance to fiddle with the “Reliable Sources” format indicates that 1) he thinks the old show was perfect as it was, and/or 2) he has no new ideas on how to report on the state of the press on TV. My assessment of “MediaBuzz” is by no means universal — it engaged the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple and attracted an audience nearly double that of the Sept. 8 “Reliable Sources” – but I am certain it is correct.

If ever a franchise needed refreshing, “Reliable Sources” is it. With the exception of the show’s modern graphics and its HD resolution, the tone and texture of “Reliable Sources” has changed very little since 1992, when it was launched with veteran reporter Bernard Kalb at the helm. Back then, the media looking at the media smacked of onanism, and I mean that as a good thing. But since the rise of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, so much of cable news has become bellyaching about the press, with Fox’s people griping about the liberal press and MSNBC’s knocking the conservative media. If the show was ever distinctive, it stopped being so in the late 1990s.

The NSA never takes “no” for an answer

Jack Shafer
Sep 6, 2013 21:47 UTC

At several recent junctures, the U.S. government has publicly sought to expand its power and control over the electronic privacy of its citizens. At each point, the government was roundly foiled by the public and the majority of the political class, which rebuked it. But that has evidently never stopped the government from imposing its will surreptitiously. As the reporting of the New York TimesProPublica, and the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s programs exposed by Edward Snowden showed once again yesterday, when the government really wants something, it can be temporarily denied but rarely foiled.

In the early 1990s, computer scientist and activist Phil Zimmerman created an encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short, to block the government and other snoopers from reading the emails and files of users. To retard PGP, the government targeted Zimmerman with a criminal investigation for “munitions export without licenses” after the program appeared overseas, explaining that the program’s encryption exceeded what U.S. export regulations allowed.

Zimmerman and his allies eventually won the PGP showdown, as did privacy advocates in the mid-1990s, defeating the government’s proposal for the “Clipper chip,” which would allow easy surveillance of telephone and computer systems, and again after 9/11, when Congress cut funding for the Defense Department office in charge of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a massive surveillance database containing oceans of vital information about everybody in the United States.

Journalism’s new Marquee Brothers

Jack Shafer
Aug 21, 2013 22:03 UTC

When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.

In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomenon for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network’s cousin, ABC News. “Sports might be a third of the content,” he said about his site. “Politics might be a third.”

Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D [see addendum below]; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside  Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)

Jeff Bezos has two words for you: ‘No comment.’

Jack Shafer
Aug 19, 2013 22:12 UTC

When journalists pressed William Henry Vanderbilt in 1882 about his plan to discontinue his railroad’s popular but unprofitable mail run, the richest man in the world reportedly exclaimed, “The public be damned!” Whether Vanderbilt said “be damned” or not — he claimed to have been misquoted — business titans of the Gilded Age routinely assumed this default posture.

Extending the big buzz-off to the press and the public is a tradition that Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com Inc. has restored to the commonweal, as the New York Times slyly noted yesterday in its business section feature about the $25 billion man. As many journalists noted, the piece quotes James Marcus, former Amazon employee and current executive editor of Harper’s magazine, talking about the company’s sense of reserve. “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’” said Marcus. The next line of the Times story went completely meta, reading, “Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.”

It doesn’t matter whether the topic is Amazon operations, the number of Kindles it has sold, the company’s video plans, a new Kindle commercial that tweaks the iPad, Bezos’s plans for his Blue Origin rocket or Bezos’s recent salvage of the sunken Apollo 11 rocket engines: “no comment” is the default response by Bezos and the company. Today, when the entire Amazon site went down for about 45 minutes, some reporters couldn’t even reach a company spokesman to gather an explanation for the outage. 

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

The next publisher of the Washington Post is…

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2013 21:19 UTC

I resist making predictions if only to avoid the inevitable disappointment when they fail to peg future events. As best as I can tell, every forecast, every prophecy, every reading of entrails and chicken bones that I’ve committed to print (or its digital equivalent) has failed to come true. But this time I think I’ve read enough into my tea leaves to confidently assert my suspicion that in early October, after Jeff Bezos consummates the deal he made with Donald Graham to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million, one of his first acts of ownership will be to name Vijay Ravindran his publisher of the newspaper.

Ravindran, who holds the title of senior vice president and chief digital officer at the Washington Post Co., seems like such a logical fit for the job I feel guilty about killing that goat and boiling a chicken to confirm my hunch. Ravindran’s company biography makes him sound like a research product bred specifically to replace the Washington Post‘s current publisher and chief executive officer, Katharine Weymouth.

Ravindran previously worked as a software engineer and technical manager between 1998 and 2005 at Bezos’s Amazon, where he labored to help bring 1-Click ordering, Amazon Prime, and other advances to the online shopping. From 2005 through the 2008 election, he was chief technology officer at Catalist, a D.C.-based vendor of voting-list databases for progressive clients. Since joining the Post Co. in 2009, Ravindran has sought to transfer some of Amazon’s technological gravitas to its online operations. WaPo Labs, which Ravindran founded and leads, has developed several experimental services including Trove, a news personalization site that I use daily, and others that I’ve never touched, including the Post‘s Social Reader and its Poll Watch app. As part of his techno-push, the company has also recruited such talented folks as Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda of Slashdot fame. Last year, SocialCode, the Post Co. social advertising agency that Ravindran helps lead, made news when it “acquihired” 15 engineers from the previous incarnation of Digg.com.

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

Jack Shafer
Jul 22, 2013 21:44 UTC

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

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