Helping journalism to pay its own way

I just completed a mind-expanding week at the Knight Center for Digital Media in Berkeley and was exposed to five programs — Photoshop, FinalCut Pro, GarageBand, Soundslides and Flash — along with 19 other journalists and I only want to quarrel with one point I heard during six long days of training: I think journalists have to invent ethical new ways to make money from their work. A remark to the contrary at the end of the session reminded me how profound a cultural revolution journalism will have to experience to re-establish its support system. Professional journalists have eschewed money-making. Someone else did that; it was up to ad sales or classifieds or circulation. But those systems are eroding. If journalists don’t re-invent ways to get paid for their services they are doomed to extinction. So it seems to me.

Learning multimedia; monetizing journalism

I just spent a mind-expanding week at the Knight Center for Digital Media in Berkeley and was exposed to five programs — Photoshop, FinalCut Pro, GarageBand, Soundslides and Flash — along with 19 other journalists. I am not quick on the uptake. I grasped only a small amount of what was thrown at me by a patient training crew. But I did produce a Soundslide story and observed or assisted in a slew of other tasks. I got over my fear of video editing and realized that basic Flash was within my grasp. I have the confidence to get  the refreshers and advanced training that I would need to become a proficient multimedia journalist. I understand how to let the story choose its media, and have at least some sense of how to get the story done.

It was the longest six long days of training I’ve had in a good long while. And great fund. Only one point I heard caused me to disagree.  I think journalists have to invent (ethical) new ways to make money. A remark to the contrary at the end of the session is what prompted me to disagree. Professional journalists used to look down money-making. Someone else did that; ad sales or classifieds or circulation. But the old systems are eroding. If journalists don’t invent ways to get paid for their services they are doomed to extinction. Or so it seems to me.

Print news pros must wow e-readers to compete with TV

A recent slideshow and speech by Google chief economist Hal Varian titled “Newspaper economics: online and offline” lays out the grim realities facing print news professionals, including the following:

Newspaper ad revenue is where it was in 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars . . . paid circulation per capita is half what it was in the 60s.

A key finding in his analysis of online versus print news readership is time spent on news consumption. The online reader spends about “70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day,” Varian notes in a blog entry. “Not surprisingly, advertisers are willing to pay more for their share of readers’ attention during that 25 minutes of offline reading than during the 70 seconds of online reading.”

I ran into Varian last week and asked what this means for print news professionals who hope to gain more e-readers as print subscribers dwindle.

First, he said, most of that 70 seconds of online news consumption occurs at work, so newsies will have to  engage the audience into consuming more news on their own time. That means making online news reading more like the habitual leisure activity that it is for print subscribers.

How will newsies convince the audience that the electronic news product is worth more of their attention? Varian thinks this will entail adding multimedia elements to make online news more engaging and entertaining. “You’ll be competing with television,” he said.

What a tough transformation for shrinking news staffs whose incumbents have few multimedia skills.

Thanks to my friend Howard High for alerting me to Varian’s analysis.

Will content become a serf?

People used to say that content was king. Amid the recent upheaval in mass media, Time Magazine recently demoted content to a pauper. But an article in the current issue of Wired makes me think Time set the bar too high. Content — or at least content creators — may be headed for serfdom.

The story is about Demand Media, a privately-held Web company that will earn $200 million in revenues this year producing thousands upon thousands of  content bits using a combination of algorithms and freelancers.

The algorithms sift through search terms to anticipate what people might want to know; determine whether there is a glut or surfeit of content in that regard; then estimates the likely revenue-potential of that content through pay per click advertising.

Human freelance editors turn these machine-generated leads into topics that are posted on a work board (Wired author Daniel Roth says, “It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot.”) Freelancers claim the topics. Short how-to articles may be worth $15. Brief videos $20.

As the article says, Demand Media has discovered that “online content is not worth very much.”

Surely that bodes ill for content creators.

Tough love for newspapers

Working at the center of the newspaper industry meltdown has been humbling. I can’t recall how many goodbye cakes I’ve tasted in the last few years. I’ve quite lost my appetite for them.

But I agree with Jack Shafer of Slate who thoroughly debunks the notion of legislation to benefit newspapers. In his piece, “Saving Newspapers from their Saviors,” Shafer writes:

Propping up troubled papers has a cost. It weakens the enterprises that are rising from below to compete with them to deliver advertising and, yes, deliver news.

If market forces doom incumbent media that doesn’t mean using news to build a community can’t be a money-making venture. It just means new people with fresh ideas will have to figure out how to do it. Meanwhile, as one of the incumbents who hasn’t been moved out or moved on, I have to work harder and think differently, because this is an interesting time to be in media.

Newspaper ad revenues slide to ’60s levels

Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review takes a look at newspaper advertising in 2009 which is expected to collapse to $31.6 billion, or just below 1993 levels. When he adjusts for inflation the situation gets far worse:

You have to go back to 1965 to find a year with revenue lower in 2009 dollars than what this year is projected to be. That year, the industry took in $4.42 billion, which works out to $30.22 billion in current dollars. The industry can only hope this year hits 1966 levels, which work out to $32.4 billion in real dollars.

I wondered how the revenue picture aligned with newsroom staffing. I wasn’t able to find a comparable time series but I did scan a recent Congressional Research Service report on the state of the newspaper  industry which said:

Daily papers cut their newsrooms by 11% in 2008, the biggest one-year drop since 1978. Daily newsroom staffing is off 17% from the recent, 2001 peak of 56,400.28 According to Erica Smith, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, nearly 10,000 journalists were laid-off or took buyouts in the first five months of 2009 alone.29

Navy journalist by chance

(Continued from last week when I first considered enlisting because I was broke.)

Although I had forgotten completely about the Navy and journalism, chance intervened. My mother’s birthday is in February and I went over to visit her one day. While I was in her kitchen the phone rang. It was Petty Officer Hall. There was an opening in the Defense Information School, the training site for military journalists. Did I still want to enlist? He had to know and get me signed up in order to guarantee me the training. I remember standing there thinking that this must be karma. I rarely visited my mother. If I had not been there at that very moment it is doubtful that I would have gotten the message or acted upon it in time. So I said yes and took the train back to Coney Island to sign the papers. A few weeks later I went off to boot camp to complete basic training and be indoctrinated as a sailor, which was the prerequisite to getting the journalism training that I wanted.

Boot camp was a memorable experience. It is an exercise in brainwashing accomplished through a great deal of yelling and insistence on following meaningless rules just for the sake of building the habit of taking orders. If I close my eyes I can still remember the hot bourbon-and-tobacco breath of my drill instructor, Petty Officer First Class Gibson, standing almost nose to nose with me, screaming, “Do I look like your momma, recruit?” One instance from that 9-weeks of calculated abuse pertains to my journalism saga.

It was about midway through the cycle when I was told I had to take a typing test to qualify for the journalism training program. I used an old manual typewriter. I had to type either a dozen or 15 words per minute accurately. I failed. The boot camp authorities told me I could not go to the training program. No problem, I said. You can send me home. Because I was guaranteed a spot in the school and if you can’t hold up your end of the bargain, I should not have to finish my enlistment. I would have been more than happy at that point to call the whole Navy thing off. But whoever was in charge of such decisions figured it was the journalism program’s problem to teach me to type. Boot camp couldn’t afford to lose a recruit.

Next: DINFOS-trained killer