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Murdoch apologizes

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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:

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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)

New York Times advances weird, self-destructive trademark theory to prop up its paywall

FreeNYTimes writes, "The twitter account I set up to broadcast data from the NY Times API, @freeNYTimes, was recently suspended, ostensibly for trademark infringement. But I set up a mirror at @freeUnnamedNews, which should be good to go because it doesn't use the paper's name in the feed. Right?"

Some background: the new NYT paywall allows for unlimited free article views for people following links from Twitter. The @FreeNYTimes feed created links to all the NYT stories, which meant that you could read the whole paper gratis, simply by following the feed (presumably, you could also create an index of Twitter URLs that corresponded to all the URLs on the Times's site, a kind of codex of free backdoors to the paper).

The NYT has many options to fight this sort of thing. They could program their firewall to restrict Twitter referers, or to simply block anything from the @FreeNYTimes account. Instead, the Times lodged an utterly bogus trademark complaint with Twitter -- bogus because trademark doesn't generically give you the right to stop people using your product or company's name; rather, it stops people from doing so deceptively. The Times's position effectively was that Times readers would mistake @FreeNYTimes for a big-hearted gesture from the Times itself, operated by the Times in order to defeat the Times's paywall. This is a stupid thing to assert.

It's also damaging to journalism: there are many trademark holders, from Sarah Palin to Dow Chemical, who'd love it if the NYT could only use their name with permission. There is no trademark confusion when the Times prints Sarah Palin's name; there is also no trademark confusion with @FreeNYTimes.

So now there's @FreeUnnamedNews, and there's no trademark basis to use to stop the account. The next step from the Times may well be to object on the basis "deep linking," and that is a doctrine that is nearly as damaging to journalism as the exotic trademark theory the Times has already advanced: for if plain true facts ("this page exists at this URL") are property, then the Times had better get its checkbook out, as there are plenty of true facts in every edition of the Times whose putative owners would love to get paid rent for them -- and there are plenty of true facts whose "owners" would love to deny to journalists altogether (think, for example, of the true facts surrounding political corruption). And, of course, in order to sue, the Times (whose reporters have gone to jail to protect their sources) will have to demand that Twitter turn over the personal identity of the FreeNYTimes/FreeUnnamedNews person.

On the other hand, the Times might just add more complexity (and more brittleness, expense, and false positives and negatives) to its paywall by instructing it to inspect Twitter referers in detail and reject those coming from @FreeUnnamedNews. Over time, the paper will compile quite an enemies list in this fashion, a long catalog of people who are not allowed to refer other people to NYT stories.

Commercially, this is not good. As I wrote before, the mental state that the Times paywall strives to evoke in its reader is "Hey, I'm getting so much value from this site, I think I'll sign up as a paying customer," not "Oh, those bullies at the Times have clobbered another programmer and this is the fifteenth time this month that it mistook me for a freeloader. Screw them!"

The Times's staff have tweeted that they are glad to have traffic from users who leap the paywall -- a visitor is a visitor -- and implied that I've mis-stated the nature of their strategy. However, this trademark theory, hostile to free speech and an open society, belies their bravado. The problem with the Times's paywall isn't (just) that it won't work -- it's that it will lead an institution whose mission is free speech, transparency and due process into a war with its readers that demands that it oppose these values to hold its ground against them.

New York Times paywall: wishful thinking or just crazy?

The New York Times just announced a new paywall that will let you see 20 articles a month and thereafter redirect you to a signup for paid access.

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Evening Standrd: anonymous satirical newspaper headline posters


Some anonymous genius has been postering my neighborhood in east London with satirical posters featuring headlines from the "Evening Standrd" (sic) (the Evening Standard is a ubiquitous London tabloid freesheet). So far, I've spotted four of them (along with this possibly related Daily Mail parody). I don't know who's behind it, but they've got my vote for God-Emperor of British Media.

Evening Standrd

Dan Gillmor's Mediactive: masterclass in 21st century journalism demands a net-native news-media

Dan “We, the Media” Gillmor’s latest book, Mediactive is a master-class in media literacy for the 21st century. Gillmor, a former star reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, serial entrepreneur, and journalism professor, has produced an extraordinary text that disrupts the current poor-me narrative of failing journalistic business models and counters it with a set of sensible, entrepreneurial proposals for an Internet era news-media that invites broad participation without surrendering critical thinking and healthy skepticism.

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Kremlinology with Rupert Murdoch: what do the Times paywall numbers mean?

In my latest Guardian column, "News Corp Kremlinology: what do the Times paywall numbers mean?" I have a good rummage around the mysterious figures released by The Times earlier this month on the performance of its vaunted pay-for-news scheme. The Times released the numbers with a lot of triumphant accompaniment, but I'm not clear on whether their figures can be taken of indication of anything, except, perhaps, a reluctance to report in full on their experiment's performance.
Here's what the Times will say: about 50,000 of the current paid users are on a monthly subscription of some sort: £8.66, £1, or free with a TalkTalk subscription. They will not disclose how many £1 trial users turn into £8.66 users, or how many sustain their £8.66 subscription into the second or third month. However, the anonymous official spokesperson did say that whichever users are remaining after three months are more than 90% likely to stump up for a fourth month. From this, I think we can safely assume that lots less than 90% of paid users stick around for a second month, and of those, less than 90% sustain themselves for a fourth month.

But the Times isn't saying.

The remaining 50,000, of course, are people who paid £1 for a single day's access. Some number of these converted to monthly subscribers.

Some number bought a second article. How many? The Times isn't saying.

So, best case: there are 50,000 paid subscribers, all of whom got there by paying £1 for an article, converted immediately to £1 monthly subscriptions and now pay £8.66 every month (or £9.99 in the case of iPad users who want to pay extra for the privilege of not being allowed to access the website).

Worst case: 50,000 people tried a day pass and left. 20,000 TalkTalk subscribers got a free subscription with their phone which they may or may not know or care about. 5,000 people use it with an iPad.

75,000 people tried a £1 month trial. 40,000 of them signed up for a second month, 30,000 of them for a third, and 25,000 stayed on for a fourth month.

News Corp Kremlinology: what do the Times paywall numbers mean?

Irish journalism's trenchant criticism of govt bailout plans

The low-brow "red-top" tabloids of the Commonwealth (and the former Commonwealth) are not much for journalism, but they sure know how to lay out a front page. Case in point: the Irish Daily Star's commentary on the Oireachtas's bailout plan: USELESS GOBSHITES.

USELESS GOBSHITES (via @pongogirl)

Shirky: Times paywall is pretty much like all the other paywalls

Clay Shirky's latest essay, "The Times' Paywall and Newsletter Economics," examines all the ways in which Rupert Murdoch's Times paywall is pretty much like all the other paywalls, and failed like pretty much all the other paywalls.
The classic description of a commodity market uses milk. If you own the only cow for 50 miles, you can charge usurious rates, because no one can undercut you. If you own only one of a hundred such cows, though, then everyone can undercut you, so you can't charge such rates. In a competitive environment like that, milk becomes a commodity, something whose price is set by the market as a whole.

Owning a newspaper used to be like owning the only cow, especially for regional papers. Even in urban markets, there was enough segmentation-the business paper, the tabloid, the alternative weekly-and high enough costs to keep competition at bay. No longer.

The internet commodifies the business of newspapers. Newspapers compete with other newspapers, but newspaper websites compete with other websites. As Nicholas Carr pointed out during the 2009 pirate kidnapping, Google News found 11,264 different sources for the story, all equally accessible.* The web puts newspapers in competition with radio and TV stations, magazines, and new entrants, both professional and amateur. It is the war of each against all.

None of this is new. The potential disruptive effects of the internet on newspapers have been observable since ClariNet in 1989.* Nor has the business case for paywalls changed. The advantage of paywalls is that they raise revenue from users. The disadvantages are that they reduce readership, increase customer acquistion and retention costs, and eliminate ad revenue from user-forwarded content. In most cases, the disadvantages have outweighed the advantages.

The Times' Paywall and Newsletter Economics