Thursday, 22 November 2007

Media Moguls and Media Molehills

Happy Thanksgiving. Now, where were we? Ah yes: I spent Monday at the Said Business School, where various high-tech honchos were summoned as part of “Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford.” In the evening I had the choice of attending one of the three panels: "Young Entrepreneurs," “The Next Big Thing” or “Innovation & Media.” While I have the greatest respect for young entrepreneurs, and it would have been nice to know what the next big thing will be (sandpaper trousers? Do-it-yourself laser eye surgery? Splunge?), I felt compelled, in my role as newspaper savant, to attend the “Innovation & Media” session.

These are depressing times for newspapers. Circulations are down. Revenue is down. Classified advertising is being siphoned away by the likes of Craigslist and Readership of papers like The Washington Post may be up, thanks to the global reach and access provided by the Web, but no one has figured out how to make money from all these eyeballs, or, rather, enough money. Thinks aren't much better for the networks.

Mike Malone
(history’s first daily technology columnist, doncha know) is convinced the printed paper is terminally ill, with no chance of recovery. Papers that economized by laying off senior staff did the wrong thing, he argued, since they hacked off their knowledge base and continued to pump money into expensive newsprint production. Better, Malone said, to have jumped to the Web immediately.

Some in the audience didn’t agree. They pointed out that newspapers possess an easy readability that computers will never match and that circulation is skyrocketing in places like India and China, where rising literacy rates are driving the boom.

Perhaps, said Malone, but that isn’t the case in the U.S. There’s still hope for newspaper Web sites, he said, since alternative media—blogs and the like—dropped the ball early on. Selling ads, the life blood of most media, depends on having detailed knowledge about readers. Blogs haven’t been providing that. Newspapers have. Malone predicted that whoever cracks the challenge first—newspapers that offer the sort of creative coverage that blogs do or blogs that deliver the detailed metrics that advertisers crave—will prevail.

Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the Huffington Post, predicted we would see the once-sacred wall between advertising and editorial breached, not in the form of advertorials or payola, but by each side of the divide borrowing tactics and practices from the other.

“If you look at advertising, it’s highly optimized,” he said. The obsession of marketers is in how to maximize clicks. “Whereas in editorial, you just cover the important story and give readers, not what they want, but what’s important for society. That only drives traffic so much."

Said Peretti: “I think we’re going to see some of the tools from advertising get transferred to media." Headlines will be written with search engines in mind. Stories will be commissioned on the basis of what people are already searching for, since this sort of bandwagon-jumping increases links. Linkbait in the form of shorter , more polemical pieces will become more common. Peretti saw methods migrating in the other direction, too, such as Web advertisers linking to other content, the way newspapers link outside their own sites.

I got the feeling that Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, felt a twinge of sadness at the prospect of the mainstream media crumbling, possibly taking with it the objectivity and care with which it does its job. It pisses him off that sites like ValleyWag print any bit of scurrilous gossip that comes along. Even so, he said that, as an investor, "I try to look for businesses where I’m not holding up the dam." The water's rising on the traditional media.

Stanford's David Nordfors, the leading proponent of something called "innovation journalism," said the media is stuck in old ways of doing things. I was unable to grasp exactly what innovation journalism is meant to me (innovatively-produced journalism? journalism about innovation?), but Nordfors has a snappy abbreviation for it: "injo." Isn't that the name of Jonny Quest's sidekick. Or is it an Ethiopian flat bread?

Whatever it is, Nordfors thinks there should be more of it. The traditional media, he said, are "not only losing their business model, they're also drifting toward telling less relevant stories."

After the panel ended, I drifted outside, where a cold rain was soaking Oxford. I unlocked my bicycle, climbed aboard and pedaled home in the dark, thoughts of innovation journalism competing with fantasies about stripping off my sodden clothes and changing into something warm and dry.


suburbancorrespondent said...

Thanks. That was really uplifting for the holidays. I was thinking about this subject this morning - how an era is passing, and how generations to come - being so wired - will never appreciate the enticing slowness and laziness of a Sunday with nothing to do but work their way slowly through two major metropolitan newspapers. And how nothing is as comfortable as sprawling on the couch with a loved one and trying to grab the Op-Ed section first. And how kids won't have the memory of hearing their mothers saying, "Get these papers off the floor. Is that where you found them?" And how reading a newspaper can be a sociable endeavor, but surfing the web for news isn't.

We were at the bagel shop last week and 2 gentlemen were sitting at a table, both with their laptops open. (Incidentally, it looked as though they were playing Battleship.) At the same table, but isolated from one another, with none of that camaraderie that comes of trading newspapers sections and leaning over to help with the puzzle.

Yes, I'm getting a bit maudlin about the whole situation.

But Mike Malone is right - I'm still mad at the Post for getting rid of some of their best people (that guy who wrote the excellent financial column in Sunday Business, for example). What sort of short-sighted thinking was that?

But isn't the coverage on the web still vastly overrated? I check out Salon and Slate regularly, and I rarely find any articles that outdo the print media, in terms of depth or originality.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I still prefer a book or a newspaper to getting carpal tunnel. You can't take your laptop to the beach, and a newspaper's batteries won't run down on a long flight.

Still, it is time for newspapers and publishers to recognize the digital revolution and to benefit from greater distribution and spontaneity. Blogs are a good way to find readers who share common interests some of them on paper too. Author blogs are very popular with readers of good old fashioned books. The two media can complement each other.

Archival issues run amok with digital technology, but we can still read ancient texts. It's not time to burn books and newspapers. At least I hope not as I'm writing one!

Anonymous said...


Happy Birthday!!! Hope you had fun.