Saturday, October 08, 2005

Press Speak: "Charging for Columnists"

Jay Rosen analyzes the NY Times decision to charge for access to their columnists. He makes several good points about the wisdom of the move in light of the new media realities.

He cuts to the heart of the issue when he puts himself in the shoes of the NYT editors and executives:

one of my worries would be over-estimating the marketplace value, and misstating the unique selling proposition of a Herbert, a Maureen Dowd, a David Brooks. When I read Dave Anderson in sports he sounds like every other sports columnist, even when he's on target.

From inside the journalistic pyramid, space on the Times op-ed page looks like the pinnacle of the profession. For readers, in Thomas Friedman's flat world, the Times's opinion-mongers compete with dozens of others. How many readers will agree that the NYT scribblers are worth the premium price?

Some readers will pay, but the Times risks long-term brand erosion even while it reaps short-term revenue.

Rosen address that issue here:

If everyone is reading a columnist, that makes the columnist more of a must have. If "everyone" isn't, less of a must. "Exclusive online access" attacks the perception of ubiquity that is part and parcel of a great columnist's power. In his prime Walter Lippmann was called "the name that opened every door." Nick Kristof's brand of human rights journalism, which depends on the mobilization of outrage, is simply less potent if it can't reach widely around the world, and pass by every door.

Two years ago David Warsh wrote that newspapers compete in "explanation space":
the lofty region where short-term causal explanations of events are forged.

Clearly, the two most powerful weapons any newspaper has in this competition are its front page and its op-ed pages. The Times has decided to assign their big guns to garrison duty.

In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Instapundit said:
The New York Times thinks it's going to make money selling op-eds, but hard news reporting is the killer ap for news media organizations. If they want to come up with opinion, they're competing with guys like me, and we can kick Paul Krugman's butt any day. If they do hard news gathering, and they actually report what's happening, and they report it straight and fast, they can go toe to toe with blogs pretty darn well.

Rosen is somewhat skeptical of this bit of blogger triumphalism, but makes his case obliquely:
I assure you, they are chuckling in newsrooms about just possibly being able to compete "toe to toe" with bloggers in reporting a big moving story. Maybe they shouldn't be chuckling, but they are.

It may seem funny today, but the MSM might want to skip the laughter. Japanese cars seemed like a joke to Detroit in 1970, but GM is not smiling now. A disruptive innovation usually looks like a joke when it first appears: that is part of the reason that the incumbent firms are slow to respond to it. Journalists should read Clayton Christensen before they write off the threat from the new media.

That smug chuckling is symptomatic of the first problem conventional media faces. Reynolds spoke of "hard news-gathering" and "straight and fast" reporting. This is a valuable commodity. But too many reporters do not do this kind of journalism. They are tripped up by "knowingness". They are on the scene but they do not see clearly because of ignorance and their ideological blinders. (See here and here.)

Like all new disruptive technologies, the blogosphere's weaknesses are more apparent than its strengths. A newspaper editor can assign reporters to an important story. The blogosphere depends on chance and individual initiative for on-the-scene reporting. This should be a clear and decisive advantage for legacy media. Two factors, however, are eroding this edge.

The first is identified by this ex-newspaperman.
To produce newspapers in this manner requires efficient, repetitive action - papers are scripted in advance, before the news happens; reporters are told how long to write, before they cover the stories; photographers are given dimensions of an illustration, before they take the pictures. This way of working discourages innovation and encourages rote behavior.

The mechanics of conventional deadline journalism reduce the flexibility and responsiveness of traditional media. So does their technology.

Second, blogs are cheap and easy to start., As a consequence, the number of blogs is exploding. As the network grows, the density of reportorial coverage thickens both geographically and in expertise.

When news happens in the future, there will be multiple bloggers on the scene with local knowledge that no network anchor can match. The more complicated the story, the better for the blogosphere because there will be bloggers who are experts in the subject and can, therefore, run rings around the average reporter.

We saw this happens in New Orleans. The posts from Interdictor were special because they live in NOLA. Moreover, it was not just commentary about what happened- they gave us an inside view of the struggle to keep a business running while the city flooded and its government collapsed. Today, they do the same as the city tries to recover.

Similarly, Anderson Cooper looked at the devastation and reacted like a spoiled little rich boy. He stamped his feet and demanded that some one do something. Molten Thoughts, OTOH, explained what the responders were facing and why what is desirable is not always feasible in an emergency.

It is worth noting that the new media challenge encompasses more than just 10 million bloggers blogging. Traditionally, only a few beat reporters covered press conferences, congressional hearings, and think-tank roundtables. Thanks to CSPAN these are now available to all of us. As broadband connections increase, video archives of these events will be even more widely used. Network news programs make their transcripts available on the web within a few hours of their broadcast. We used to depend on press photographers to grab the picture that defined an event. Now, the ubiquity of digital cameras and camera phones means that the photo record of big events is extensive, immediate, and out of the control of any media entity.

All of this undercuts the current production model of traditional media.

As the blogosphere develops, one of its cardinal virtues-its flexibility-will prove to be a crushing advantage in the competition with traditional media. Those bloggers on the spot when news breaks will get attention. For a brief moment, they will be the big dogs. So will those bloggers with specialized expertise. In contrast, a newspaper or cable network will have to send some one in from the outside. They will be locked into their current stock of expertise. It does not matter that most bloggers are sitting at home committing punditry. There are so many bloggers that there will always be a handful whose proximity and particular knowledge give them a decisive advantage in real reporting.

In the evolving battle for explanation space, Instapundit, Michelle Malkin, and Hit and Run act like the editors of a newspaper putting together the front page. The professionals at the LA Time are stuck with their in-house talent and the AP. The big blogs can choose form the whole wide, flat world.

Newspapers face one more problem in this competition. In the internal hierarchy of journalism, pundits outrank reporters. Being a columnist is the glamour job. The best and the brightest aspire to be Krugman and Dowd. In essence, the brand of a newspaper emphasizes the area where it is weakest vis-à-vis the blogosphere (punditry) and ignores those that it claims are it greatest strength (reporting).

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