MediaFile

FT’s Barber cuts to the heart of the press problem

Some interesting points from a weekend opinion piece by Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber.
Barber analyzed how the press — particularly in the United States — got to the miserable place that it’s in now. There are plenty of reasons having to do with business models and impatient Wall Street vultures, but Barber brought up an interesting idea: the mainstream media disenfranchised itself from the public’s trust as it became more cozy with its high-level sources — precisely at the time that the Internet started to annihilate the U.S. newspaper business model.

Barber relies on Michael Elliott, the British-born editor of Time’s international edition, to sum up the U.S. newspaper crisis:

A broken business model overly reliant on classified advertising revenue that has now moved online; a mistaken notion that post-1945 newspaper staffs of 800-plus journalists were the norm rather than a historical aberration; and, crucially, a stultifying failure to innovate because of the lack of competition.

(This last part, when applied to newsrooms, amounts to blaming the victim, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi suggests in an American Journalism Review article out recently.)

Elliott suggests that the U.S. press could be more fun.

“The mainstream press in America is so conservative,” Elliott says. “Where are the DVD giveaways, where are the special promotions like in Britain? Look at the sports pages! They write about sport like they do City Hall. Where is the sense of fun?”

FT CEO spots green in the red

When the markets go south and most people are losing, it’s safe to say that there are some others who are winning, or at least spotting opportunities. You could say that about the Financial Times and its chief executive, John Ridding, who is finding a business angle on what they say about the editor’s decision-making process: “If it bleeds, it leads.”The London-based FT is building up a pretty good head of steam, particularly in the United States, as the effects of the financial crisis ooze into yet more corners of Wall Street and Main Street (sick of the “streets” cliche yet?). Here’s evidence, some of which Ridding gave me when we had breakfast at Michael’s last week:

    Newsstand sales rose 30 percent in the United States in September, and about 20 percent in Europe and Asia. That’s compared to August 2008, i.e., it’s a “sequential” gain rather than year-over-year growth. In the United Kingdom, Ridding said, “We basically couldn’t print enough copies and retailers were running out.” The number of registered users of FT.com rose to 750,000 now, compared with 30,000 a year ago. Some of this growth of course, came from pulling back the curtain last November. But Ridding said a couple hundred thousand of those showed up in the past few months, as the mortgage and housing crisis in the United States deepened and then metastasized into full-blown world-market-crisis mode. (Here’s how registration and subscription works at FT.com) During one week, Ridding noted, page views hit 25 million, more than double the normal amount. Ridding’s conclusion: “What [the crisis] is doing for our readership and audience is pretty remarkable. I think it really underlines this idea that at a time of turmoil, people really do need trusted guides, and are prepared to pay.” (The Journal, if anyone’s wondering, logged 21.7 million visitors at its website, up 110 percent from last year. It’s hard to tell whether the figure is comparable.) During the week of Sept. 22, online page views were up 300 percent, and monthly unique visitors were up 250 percent compared with last year. The United States is pitching in so far, producing the largest number of unique users.

That’s all very good, but reader interest tends to spike during news events, and ebb afterward. Ridding suggested ways to retain the newcomers:Stick to paid subscriptions. Ridding noted that many readers have stuck with the paper through its newsstand sale price increases, and plenty of folks are willing to pay for not only the FT, but access to the Lex column too.

    Do more video. People apparently like it as it’s resulting in more than a million views a month, Ridding said. Get the paper on more formats. Press hard for online subscriptions as much as print ones. Get it on the Amazon Kindle electronic book reader. Use RSS and other tools — whatever it takes to get it out there. Push online use as much as print. Ridding was proud to say that the FT’s dependence on print advertising has fallen to 42 percent, an important point to keep in mind as print newspaper advertising dries up. And don’t get worried about the idea that online use will “cannibalize” print sales, Ridding said. “The idea of online cannibalizing print is not just wrong, it’s the opposite. It’s proving to be a very effective marketing tool for the newspaper.”

None of this should indicate that the FT has figured out something that the rest of the world has missed, he noted. “No one has necessarily nailed the business model in media, but we feel that we’ve got a pretty strong vision and operation.”

My house, worth more than Journal Register?

I was reading a Forbes article about the distressing state of some of the worse-off U.S. newspaper publishers and how their debt threatens to send them into default, or worse yet, maybe out of business. That’s when I came across this distressing nugget:

The problem may be particularly acute for players who have concentrated on acquisitions in the last few years. For instance, Journal Register Co. (nyse: JRC – news – people ), whose stock was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange this year, bought nothing but trouble when it paid $415 million in 2004 for 21st Century Newspapers, a chain of Michigan papers that have been battered by a troubled U.S. automotive industry.

The company now has $642 million in debt and a market cap of a just $275,000 (not a misprint). It’s rated junk by Moody’s. Journal Register did not return a call for comment.

Breakingviews breaks in to The Wall Street Journal

wall-st-journal.JPG

The Wall Street Journal recently stopped carrying the Breakingviews business analysis column in favor of its expanded in-house Heard on the Street column, but Breakingviews still managed to crash the party in Wednesday’s paper. In true merry-prankster mode, the Breakingviews ad urges readers of Heard on the Street to think about what they’re missing and how to get a new fix. What the ad doesn’t mention is that The New York Times picked up Breakingviews for its business section just after the WSJ dropped it. Such a move would be a real paper cut.

McClatchy: three new publishers in two days

mcclatchy2.jpgMcClatchy Co, fresh off amending the terms on paying back its debt, is busy making some changes at its newspapers. The owner of the Miami Herald and Sacramento Bee has replaced three publishers in the past two days. We don’t yet know if this is coincidence or part of a coordinated move.

Here’s where we are so far:

The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, California: Bruce Ray takes over from Chip Visci, who is retiring, according to a press release. Ray previously was chief financial officer at the paper. Visci, according to McClatchy Chief Executive Gary Pruitt, is starting “the next chapter of his life.” Visci’s previous chapter was as a Knight Ridder guy before McClatchy ate up the chain and incurred all those billions of dollars in debt.

(Visci just called back and left a message, which is worth reporting for its humorous candor: “I can assure you that there’s no such shuffle underway… If there really were something up, I probably wouldn’t have called you back.”)

Rolling stones with McClatchy’s Pruitt

mcclatchy1.jpgMcClatchy Chief Executive Gary Pruitt is one of those newspaper executives a reporter can get along well with because of qualities that are not always common to your typical CEO:

    He leaves the jargon behind at interviews. He is honest about bad news, making it easier to believe him when he delivers good news. He believes in the product — good journalism — as fervently as he does in his duty to please shareholders (which in McClatchy’s case includes the company’s namesake family and a bunch of other unhappy people).

Trouble is, there isn’t much good news to tell about the newspaper business. Pruitt has said as much to us and others, but in his latest interview in the Sacramento News & Review, (which we found on Romenesko) he shows us how much he feels his employees’ pain:

This has been the worst year of my life, by far.

That’s a pretty grim assessment. Then again, he’s presided over a 90 percent drop in McClatchy’s stock price, he’s cutting staff by 10 percent, and there appear to be few options open to the company to change the way it’s set up. The primary obstacle is $2 billion in debt from its acquisition of newspaper publisher Knight Ridder just before the key advertising struts supporting the company snapped.

First-time voters want *less* election news

yawning-boy.jpgI’m skipping the attempt at a witty first sentence and going straight to the press release:

Young adults often click away from 2008 election news online because they feel the sites bombard them with too much information and too many choices, according to a new study released by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center.

Here’s more: The MMC survey of 89 young people between the age of 17 and 22 — who are eligible to vote for president for the first time in 2008 — found that while they are interested in the elections and want information about the candidates and issues, they don’t want to spend much time following day-to-day developments. However, they do appreciate news sites that help them — and other new voters — understand the basics about the candidates, issues and election process.

Tribune unplugged

mainframe.JPGWhat will the newspaper of the 21st century look like? Can Tribune cut its way to growth?

What can possibly be done to cheat the death spiral its papers and those of the industry faces?

Tribune COO Randy Michaels offered one solution during its latest call with lenders:

NewsCred: You rank the credibility of news

newspapers.jpgDigg gained plenty of press because it let its users determine the popularity of various news articles. A new website, NewsCred, is taking a different approach: it lets readers rank the credibility of the news itself.

The site has been up since May in a private “alpha” mode  and on Tuesday launches into an official “beta” version — Web terminology for something that’s live for the public, but not necessarily in its final form.

To find out more about NewsCred, I spoke to Shafqat Islam, 27, who was born in Bangladesh but lives in Geneva, and is one of the two chiefs who runs the site. Islam is a former project manager for financial systems at Merrill Lynch (he built systems there for traders and private bankers) who runs the site with Iraj Islam (no relation), 24, and a resident of Stockholm.

The media, the economy and you

tv-reporter.jpgMedia coverage of economic troubles in the past 18 months has shifted repeatedly in the last year from a narrative about mortgages to one about recession, a banking crisis and now largely gas prices, according to a new report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C.

All this is good to know, but the bigger question is why it has progressed the way it has. Fortunately for us, PEJ digs right into it.(And before the meat, here’s the methodology: The PEJ study is based on an analysis of more than 5,000 economic stories from January 1, 2007, through June 30, 2008, drawn from 1,950 hours of programming on the three major cable news cable channels, 390 on network morning and evening TV, 910 on radio, and 468 days’ editions of 21 different newspapers, and the five leading news websites, some 48 different news outlets in all.)Here’s an excerpt:

[The] connection between media coverage and economic events has often been uneven. Sometimes, coverage has lagged months behind economic activity, when the storyline was dependent on government data. Other times, coverage has tracked events erratically, as with housing and inflation. … But when the story is easier to tell, as in the case of gas prices, coverage has been closely tied to what is actually occurring in the marketplace.