Porous paywalls are an admission that virtually no one wants to subscribe to newspapers

Clay Shirky rings in the new year with another barn-burning essay about the state of newspapers, first noting that a "porous" paywall that allows 20 free pageviews per month is a tacit admission that pretty much no one who visits the paper's site is a potential customer for the paper's product:

To understand newspapers’ 15-year attachment to paywalls, you have to understand “Everyone must pay!” not just as an economic assertion, but as a cultural one. Though the journalists all knew readership would plummet if their paper dropped imported content like Dear Abby or the funny pages, they never really had to know just how few people were reading about the City Council or the water main break. Part of the appeal of paywalls, even in the face of their economic ineffectiveness, was preserving this sense that a coupon-clipper and a news junkie were both just customers, people whose motivations the paper could serve in general, without having to understand in particular.

The article threshold has often been discussed as if it was simply a new method of getting readers to pay, to which the reply has to be “Yes, except for most of them.” Calling article thresholds a “leaky” or “porous” paywall understates the enormity of the change; the metaphor of a leak suggests a mostly intact container that lets out a minority of its contents, but a paper that shares even two pages a month frees a majority of users from any fee at all. By the time the threshold is at 20 pages (a number fast becoming customary) a paper has given up on even trying to charge between 85% and 95% of its readers, and it will only convince a minority of that minority to pay.

From there, Shirky moves into the paradox of 21st century journalism: the majority of papers are local, and local news is the one thing that civic minded people are likely to sustain, but local papers have all but abandoned local news:

Thresholds are now mostly being tried at big-city papers — New York, Chicago, Minneapolis. Most papers, however, are not the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Most papers are the Springfield Reporter, papers with a circulation 20,000 or less, and mostly made up of content bought from the Associated Press and United Media. These papers may not do well on the God Forbid index, because they produce so little original content, and they may not find thresholds financially viable, because the most engaged hundredth of their audience will number in the dozens, not the thousands.

On the other hand, local reporting is almost the only form of content for which the local paper is the sole source, so it’s also possible to imagine a virtuous circle for at least some small papers, where a civically-minded core of citizens step in to fund the paper in return for an increase in local coverage, both of politics and community matters. (It’s hard to overstate how vital community coverage is for small-town papers, which have typically been as much village well as town crier.)

Newspapers, Paywalls, and Core Users

News of the World shredded hard-drives, laptops

A lawyer for victims of News of the World phone hacking told the court that long after NotW knew of the police investigation of its newsgathering process, it put reporters' laptops and hard-drives "through a grinder" and took them out and "smashed them up."

The destruction of the computers is understood to have taken place around October last year, prior to the launch of Operation Weeting, the London Metropolitan Police investigation into phone hacking which has led to the arrests of 16 journalists.

The shredding of hard drives would have happened long after senior executives were made aware that phone hacking had spread beyond a single "rogue" reporter.

Phone-tap tabloid's computers destroyed, court told (via The Inquirer)

(Image: Responsible Hard-Drive Destruction - Let's Get Real)

Journalism school teaches students pre-digital newspaper production techniques

Students in the Florida Atlantic University J-school produced a newspaper using (mostly) pre-computer technologies, composing on manual typewriters, pasting up with X-Acto blades and rubber cement, shooting on film and developing in a darkroom:
While archeologists try to recreate what life was like 10,000 years ago, and historians try to recreate what life was like 1,000 years ago, journalists can’t even recreate how they published a newspaper 20 years ago. No one documented the details or saved the old equipment. (I had to buy some of it from creepy old men through Craigslist.)

Journalists may write history’s first draft, but when it comes to covering their own history, they don’t even take notes. I can imagine college students 20 years from now asking their aged adviser…

Your digital cameras didn’t just beam images to the cloud as you shot them? What’s a “memory card”? And you had different programs for writing, design, and photo editing? Does anyone still have “Word,” “InDesign,” and “Photoshop”? It’d be fun publishing an issue that way – maybe we can buy copies from some creepy old men on Craigslist.

HOW TO BUILD A NEWSROOM TIME MACHINE (via Beyond the Beyond)

Damning 2007 letter asserts that phone hacking was an open practice at News of the World


Clive Goodman, the News of the World royals reporter who resigned in disgrace, wrote a letter to News International's HR department four years ago asserting that the editorial staff of the NoTW knew about the phone hacking, that it was discussed at editorial meetings, and that Andy Coulson -- UK Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-media advisor -- was active in these discussions. It also calls into question Rupert and James Murdochs's testimony to Parliament that they hadn't been aware of the practice.
Goodman then claims that other members of staff at the News of the World were also hacking phones. Crucially, he adds: "This practice was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until explicit reference to it was banned by the editor." He reveals that the paper continued to consult him on stories even though they knew he was going to plead guilty to phone hacking and that the paper's then lawyer, Tom Crone, knew all the details of the case against him.

In a particularly embarrassing allegation, he adds: "Tom Crone and the editor promised on many occasions that I could come back to a job at the newspaper if I did not implicate the paper or any of its staff in my mitigation plea. I did not, and I expect the paper to honour its promise to me." In the event, Goodman lost his appeal. But the claim that the paper induced him to mislead the court is one that may cause further problems for News International.

Phone hacking: News of the World reporter's letter reveals cover-up (via Reddit)

Copyright troll handed ass (again), tries saddest trick ever to get out of paying its victim's legal bills

Everyone's favorite copyright troll Righthaven has once again had its ass handed to it. The company, which was spun out of a Nevada newspaper, sublicenses the right to sue people from copyright holders, then sends legal threats to bloggers and website owners who publish articles or images from newspapers, including short quotations or thumbnails. Judges keep telling Righthaven that this isn't legal -- there's no such thing as a sub-licensable right to sue -- but Righthaven keeps on keeping on.

This time, they sued a user on a sports-book message board, who pasted two complete op-eds into a sub-sub board on the system. Not only did the judge rule that this was fair use (an eye-popping precedent in its own right), but it also ruled that, as usual, Righthaven didn't have any business suing the poster because they didn't own the copyright.

Here's where it gets even sadder: Righthaven then argued that it shouldn't have to pay the defendants' attorney fees because it didn't have standing to sue, so the court didn't have standing to order it to pay. The judge laughed and laughed and laughed. And told them to cough up $34,045.50.

Defense attorney J. Malcolm DeVoy was furious. "Righthaven deserves some credit for taking this position, as it requires an amazing amount of chutzpah," he wrote to the judge. "Righthaven seeks a ruling holding that, as long as a plaintiff’s case is completely frivolous, then the court is deprived of the right to make the frivolously sued defendant whole, whereas a partially frivolous case might give rise to fee liability. Righthaven’s view, aside from being bizarre, does not even comport with the law surrounding prudential standing."

The judge agreed. In a terse order today, he decided that Hoehn had won the case (as the "prevailing party") and "the attorney’s fees and costs sought on his behalf are reasonable." Righthaven has until September 14 to cut a check for $34,045.50.

This is the second case in weeks in which Righthaven has to pay Devoy and the Randazza Legal Group he represents. The first time, Righthaven sent its $3,815 check to the wrong address.

Righthaven rocked, owes $34,000 after "fair use" loss

1968: when Britain's Daily Mirror tried to overthrow Parliament

Ben sez, "This Adam Curtis documentary (he posted the rough cut of his new one) is pretty incredible. It features the story of the head of the Daily Mirror in 1968, attempting to organize a coup of the British Parliament, partially by spreading financial panic rumors through his newspaper. He is abetted by the head of the Bank of England, and his psychic wife who convinces him that he has super powers.
Many in the Labour Party have believed ever since that Cecil King was conspiring with members of MI5 to destroy the democratically elected government, but there appears to be no hard evidence for this.

The truth is that King was in league with more familiar "rogue elements" - senior City of London bankers, including the Governor of the Bank of England, who wanted to force the Labour government to slash the financial deficit. But the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was refusing to bow to their demands.

At the same time as this was happening, many of the journalists in Fleet Street were filled with a terrible doom about the future of newspapers. As a result the BBC got excited and went and made all sorts of films about newspapers - recording Fleet Street before it died. Some of the material they filmed is just wonderful - it is full of both touching and silly moments of an old world of journalism.

EVERY DAY IS LIKE SUNDAY (Thanks, Ben!)

Reading of Shirky's "Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic"


My latest podcast is a reading of Clay Shirky's fabulous essay Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic, previously blogged here. It's a beautifully argued piece about business models, social functions, and market dynamics as they pertain to news, and it was a lot of fun to read.
This system was never ideal—out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made—and long before Craig Newmark and Arianna Huffington began their reign of terror, Gannett and Scripps were pioneering debt-laden balance sheets, highly paid executives, and short-term profit-chasing. But even in their worst days, newspapers supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news, for the minority of citizens who cared. In return, the people who followed sports or celebrities, or clipped recipes and coupons, got to live in a town where the City Council was marginally less likely to be corrupt.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked. Online, though, the economic and technological rationale for bundling weakens—no monopoly over local advertising, no daily allotment of space to fill, no one-size-fits-all delivery system. Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren’t just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence.

Podcast: Shirky’s Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic

MP3 Link

Podcast feed (XML)

(Image: [Virginia. Newspaper vendor and cart in camp] Date: c. 1863, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from oldeyankee's photostream)

Murdoch apologizes

346897917.jpeg

This statement, purportedly Rupert Murdoch's forthcoming apology for crimes committed at one of his London newspapers, is doing the rounds on Twitter. It's not terribly convincing! It reads to me kind of like this:

Read the rest

Shirky: Cheap, free, chaotic news is better than all-the-same news businesses

Clay Shirky is getting ready to teach NYU's Journalism School undergrads, and he's posted "Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic," a call-to-arms to produce a wide variety of journalisms that -- unlike the newspaper business of yore -- has a wide variety of business models that don't all fail together when technology changes some of the facts on the ground.
I could tell these students that when I was growing up, the only news I read was thrown into our front yard by a boy on a bicycle. They might find this interesting, but only in the way I found it interesting that my father had grown up without indoor plumbing. What 19 year olds need to know isn't how it was in Ye Olden Tymes of 1992; they need to know what we've learned about supporting the creation and dissemination of news between then and now. Contemplating what I should tell them, there are only three things I'm sure of: News has to be subsidized, and it has to be cheap, and it has to be free.

News has to be subsidized because society's truth-tellers can't be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market. However much the Journalism as Philanthropy crowd gives off that 'Eat your peas' vibe, one thing they have exactly right is that markets supply less reporting than democracies demand. Most people don't care about the news, and most of the people who do don't care enough to pay for it, but we need the ones who care to have it, even if they care only a little bit, only some of the time. To create more of something than people will pay for requires subsidy.

News has to be cheap because cheap is where the opportunity is right now. For all that the Journalism as Capitalism people can sound like Creflo Dollar mid-sermon, they are right to put their faith in new models for news. If for-profit revenue is shrinking and non-profit funding won't make up the shortfall, we need much cheaper ways of gathering, understanding, and disseminating news, whether measured in information produced or readers served.

And news has to be free, because it has to spread. The few people who care about the news need to be able to share it with one another and, in times of crisis, to sound the alarm for the rest of us. Newspapers have always felt a tension between their commercial and civic functions, but when a publication drags access to the news itself over to the business side, as with the paywalls at The Times of London or the Tallahassee Democrat, they become Journalism as Luxury. In a future dominated by Journalism as Luxury, elites will still get what they need (a tautology in market economies), but most communities will suffer; imagine Bell, California times a thousand, with no Ruben Vives to go after the the politicians.*

The thing I really want to impress on my students is that the commercial case for news only matters if the profits are used to subsidize reporting the public can see, and that civic virtue may be heart-warming, but it won't keep the lights on, if the lights cost more than cash on hand. Both sides of the equation have to be solved.

Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic (via Waxy)

Murdered schoolgirl was among cellphone "hacking" victims

British tabloid News of the World illegally accessed the messages left on the cellphone mailbox of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, then deleted them to allow more to arrive. According to The Guardian, its staff interfered with the police investigation, destroyed evidence, and gave her family the false hope of seeing their desperate pleas being accessed and read.
File-Milly_Dowler.jpegThe Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper's own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: "If Milly walked through the door, I don't think we'd be able to speak. We'd just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug." The deletion of the messages also caused difficulties for the police by confusing the picture when they had few leads to pursue. It also potentially destroyed valuable evidence. According to one senior source familiar with the Surrey police investigation: "It can happen with abduction murders that the perpetrator will leave messages, asking the missing person to get in touch, as part of their efforts at concealment. We need those messages as evidence. Anybody who destroys that evidence is seriously interfering with the course of a police investigation."
The newspaper, described as "heinous" and "despicable" by the family, is at the center of a cellphone "hacking" scandal in the U.K., in which the remote mailboxes of politicians, celebrities and everyday people were tapped by reporters. One of the curiosities of the scandal was the Metropolitan Police's refusal to launch a substantial investigation until embarrassed by reports in The Guardian and The New York Times, which found insiders willing to admit being influenced by "fear" of reprisals from Rupert Murdoch, owner of the News of the World. One of serial killer Levi Bellfield's victims, Dowler disappeared at the age of 13 in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002. Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World [The Guardian. Photo: Wikimedia]

Jay Rosen: What I Think I Know About Journalism

Jay Rosen's "What I Think I Know About Journalism" is a four-point mini-manifesto for the future of reporting and newsgathering. Rosen indicts the current notion of reporting with the "View from Nowhere" which Peter Goodman describes as "the routine of laundering my own views [by] dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader." Rosen also celebrates public participation in newsgathering, and decries commodity factual accounts of current events, calling instead for "narratives" that provide frame and context for the facts.
The more people involved in flying the airplane, or moving the surgeon's scalpel during a brain operation, the worse off we are. But this is not true in journalism. It benefits from participation, as with Investigate your MP's expenses, also called crowd sourcing, or this invitation from the Los Angeles Times: share public documents. A far simpler example is sources. If sources won't participate, there often is no story. Witnesses contribute when they pull out their cameras and record what is happening in front of them. The news system is stronger for it...

To feel informed, we also need background knowledge, a framework into which the relevant facts can be put. Or, as I put it in 2008, "There are some stories--and the mortgage crisis is a great example--where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop."

What I Think I Know About Journalism (via Memex 1.1)

Righthaven copyright troll loses domain

Righthaven is the copyright trolling outfit created by the Las Vegas Review Journal to blackmail alleged newspaper copyright infringers with baseless threats of domain seizure and huge cash judgements. When they created righthaven.com as a home for information related to their indiscriminate bulk-litigation campaign, they neglected to supply the registration information required of them, and it appears that they declined to provide the info when requested to do so by their registrar, GoDaddy. So GoDaddy's taken away their domain:
Now it appears that GoDaddy, the domain registrar for the domain Righthaven.com, has taken down their domain for an invalid whois. According to ICANN rules domain owners are required to maintain valid whois information. Anyone can report an invalid whois record via the WDPRS system, which then passes on the complaint to the sponsoring registrar of the domain. The registrar would then attempt to contact the domain owner and ask them to verify/update their contact information. Should they not do so, the domain can be suspended or even deleted.
RightHaven.com Taken Down for Invalid Whois (Thanks, Clifton!)

Ethiopia's "newspaper landlords" rent the want-ads by the minute

Ethiopia's "newspaper landlords" are entrepreneurs who rent the right to read a US$0.35 newspaper for 20-30 minutes at a go, for less than $0.01 per rental. Most of their customers are reading the want-ads. Newspaper publishers are ambivalent about the practice -- on the one hand, it creates a newspaper-reading habit among the nation's aspiring poor, but on the other hand, rentals displace some sales -- and the "landlords" complain that customers steal their newspapers.
Tesfaye says that 30 to 40 people will read a single paper. At the end of the day, the well-thumbed publications can be sold on.

"After a newspaper passes its deadline we will sell it to shops who can use it as packaging for items that they sell," says Tesfaye, who says he uses the earnings from his business to support his three siblings.

Renting a read from 'newspaper landlords'

NYT paywall sub is $100 more expensive than WSJ, Economist and Daily combined

Here's an interesting price-comparison between the forthcoming NYT paywall and other subscription services from the Economist to Dropbox. The NYT offering (in its most expensive guise) is extremely expensive relative to the competition, which leads some to conclude that this is primarily about making paid print subscriptions a good deal, rather than pursuing any kind of digital strategy from people who don't read news on paper, or who live outside the areas where a print NYT is readily available:
As Frédéric Filloux and others have pointed out, The New York Times pricing seems designed not to get people to subscribe digitally, but rather to discourage existing subscribers from cancelling their print subscriptions. I think the chart above validates that view: they apparently have no interest in competing for digital-only dollars.

Does The Times really think the mass audience is going to decide their $455/year is better spent on The Times rather than getting 20+ free articles/month from The Times plus The Wall Street Journal ($207/year) plus The Economist ($110/year) plus say The Daily ($39/year) for good measure, and still having ~$100 left over each year?

Digital Subscription Prices Visualized (aka The New York Times Is Delusional) (via O'Reilly Radar)

Kick-ass ad for a muckraking journo

This amazing job-posting from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune advertises for a journalist who's willing to make trouble, go crazy, chase the story, and fight the good fight -- in Florida!
We do a mix of quick hit investigative work when events call for it and mini-projects that might run for a few days. But every year we like to put together a project way too ambitious for a paper our size because we dream that one day Walt Bogdanich will have to say: "I can't believe the Sarasota Whatever-Tribune cost me my 20th Pulitzer." As many of you already know, those kinds of projects can be hellish, soul-sucking, doubt-inducing affairs. But if you're the type of sicko who likes holing up in a tiny, closed office with reporters of questionable hygiene to build databases from scratch by hand-entering thousands of pages of documents to take on powerful people and institutions that wish you were dead, all for the glorious reward of having readers pick up the paper and glance at your potential prize-winning epic as they flip their way to the Jumble... well, if that sounds like journalism Heaven, then you're our kind of sicko.

For those unaware of Florida's reputation, it's arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here. Our elections are colossal clusterfucks. Our new governor once ran a health care company that got hit with a record fine because of rampant Medicare fraud. We have hurricanes, wildfires, tar balls, bedbugs, diseased citrus trees and an entire town overrun by giant roaches (only one of those things is made up). And we have Disney World and beaches, so bring the whole family.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune (via Making Light)