No sooner did I head off for San Diego and Maine than the Associated Press filled in the details of that something it was going to do about the supposed epidemic of sites stealing content. The AP’s plan is for its stories to carry an “informational wrapper” that will report back on where they go and how they’re used. The most-notable point about this “news registry” is the AP’s apparent philosophy about how it will be used: AP CEO Tom Curley said the company’s position was that simply offering a headline and link to an AP article — standard fare for innumerable aggregators, search sites and blogs — would require a licensing agreement.
Critics have blistered that idea as running counter to the tenets of the Web and fair use (here’s Jeff Jarvis), and there’s not a lot I can add. Except, perhaps, to suggest that a simple question is a good starting point for making things clear.
If the Associated Press didn’t exist, would anyone start it today?
The answer, to me, is an obvious and resounding “no.” At News Futurist, Jeff Sonderman is scorchingly on target in explaining why the AP has no place on the Internet. As Sonderman explains, the AP evolved to solve problems of the pre-Internet era. It’s a relic of a time in which newspapers’ reach was limited by geography and the only way to spotlight another paper’s reporting was to reprint or rework it. Today, neither condition applies: The whole apparatus of reprinting and reworking has been replaced by something simple, efficient and elegant: the hyperlink. (At reDesign, Rakesh Agrawal has takes on what the AP did wrong and what it ought to do now. And Marksonland’s Mike Markson explains why the AP is in a classic strategic investors’ trap.)
The real danger to the AP isn’t aggregators or blogs, but the lessons its customers are increasingly drawing from aggregators and blogs. As its customers evolve from print-centric to digital-centric publications, they will realize that links to original reporting are simpler and less expensive to create than paying for the same content in watered-down form. And contributors to the AP will realize that it’s far better to hoover in links to original stories and try and capture readers of those stories than it is to let them read reworked versions of those stories elsewhere. And then the AP — or, to be precise, its rewriter/aggregator arm — will be done, as much an anachronism as the physical wire across which its stories once moved.
Here’s Sonderman’s killing blow (emphasis his): “The AP is the ‘parasitic aggregator’ that it and others so often label other blogs and news sites.”
He’s right, and I suspect some form of that ironic judgment will be the AP’s epitaph.
I’m off for San Diego and then Portland, Me., which I acknowledge is a ridiculous itinerary. Will be back on the blog at the end of the month….
This morning I read two different columns that led me to the same conclusion.
First off, Economist.com poses eight questions for Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s editor-in-chief. The money quote flying around the blogosphere is this: “The problem is that the leading news organisations have a stake in web-only newspapers not working because they will accelerate the decline of the large, if faltering businesses that revolve around print.”
I think that’s true, with a couple of caveats. Weisberg’s quote makes it sound like that’s a conscious strategy, or at least that’s the way the quote is being treated online. I don’t think it is conscious. I think most newspapers know their future is online and are honestly trying to figure out how to get there. But a lot of them have such large print investments — talking both infrastructure and culture — that it’s somewhere between difficult and inconceivable for them to truly remake themselves for the Web-first world. The sheer gravity of the print model pulls their ambitions down to a lower orbit, or leaves them short of escape velocity. In some ways that’s more insidious and harder to combat than a consciously misguided strategy.
The first half of Weisberg’s quote has gotten less attention. It’s this: “The test I’d most like to see is of a well-financed, for-profit, web-only ‘newspaper’ with no printed version.”
I’d like to see that too. The question is how to get there. As Weisberg has discussed, well-financed papers have trouble making the leap because they have so much invested in print. On the other side, there are papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and AnnArbor.com (discussed today by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds in a follow-up to a piece I commented on here), which have big ambitions but are pursuing them with lean resources. This isn’t to say that those papers aren’t the right size for a Web-first operation — perhaps they are. But I worry if they have sufficient resources to make the difficult transition from big newspaper to lean but innovative Web shop.
Transitions are also on the mind of Fast Company co-founder Alan M. Webber, who pens an interesting follow-up to the Financial Times’ report that McGraw Hill could wind up selling BusinessWeek for just $1 — the same price that TV Guide fetched from OpenGate Capital.
“It’s time to buy when panic-stricken publishers offer up well-known brands with real assets at a price that is one stop away from Chris Anderson’s free,” Webber writes in the Huffington Post, noting that BusinessWeek has “a circulation — paid circulation — of almost 1 million, with a healthy pass-along rate. It has a top-notch web site. It has terrific followership in a number of areas where it’s attempted to carve out a position of thought-leadership.”
This isn’t to say that Webber thinks all is rosy at BusinessWeek. He thinks its problems begin with the newsweekly model, which he sees as no longer a good fit for consumers of news. His suggestion is to remake BusinessWeek as an American version of the Economist, interpreting the news and creating a stable of opinionated columnists from the ranks of old-school business journalists and new-school bloggers.
What really grabbed me — and brought me back to Weisberg’s thoughts — was Webber’s general advice.
“Most of all, BW needs to create a franchise,” he writes. “Because it’s not print that’s dead, or even print about business that’s dead. It’s old and tired franchises that are dead, franchises that have run out of gas and purpose and energy — franchises that deserve to die. Think about another medium that’s suffering ad sales loses [sic]: TV. Nobody bats an eyelash when a TV show goes off the air because it’s lost its franchise; nobody marvels at the ability of a new hit series to create a fresh franchise.”
That’s the key lesson, I think, and one that a lot of today’s papers would do well to heed. Today too many news franchises are so tangled up in the specifics of their print model that they’re having trouble moving forward to find a Web model that works. The franchise and the legacy business model need to be separated, with print finding its proper place among a host of models and their attendant strategies. Without that, news organizations’ efforts to change will be hobbled, and their franchises tarnished or lost.
Forty years ago this week, the world was riveted by Apollo 11’s mission to the moon — a time nicely captured by the New York Times in a series of articles and this interactive.
Over the last couple of years the Times has become an interactive shop that consistently does superb work with photographs, video and interactives, and this one is no exception: You march through the videos narrated by veteran science correspondent John Noble Wilford, accompanied by a simple, effective animation of Apollo 11’s course. Archived PDFs of Times front pages and key articles sit below the animation; links to other videos and photographs sit below the main video. It’s simple and well-designed, and very deep without being flashy — the kind of interactive that draws you in by not seeming busy or intimidating and then encourages you to stay and explore at your leisure.
Part of the fun of this interactive is exploring the old Times front pages — and having Wilford as a guide. In an accompanying article (not linked from the interactive), Wilford looks back from the perspective of 40 years not just at the mission, but also at the experience of being the reporter covering it, and his struggles with self-consciousness in preparing to write what he knew in all likelihood would be the article of his career. (And maybe, given enough history, the article of all our careers.)
Wilford recalls how he wisely made careful notes of each milestone in the countdown, in case a scrubbed launch or an accident vaulted those moments to importance. Looking back, he notes that “I think of what I will write. I have never made a practice of composing a draft story in anticipation of a success, or alternative drafts for failure. I trust myself to draw inspiration from what happens, thinking spontaneity will serve me better and endow the story with the energy of immediacy. But now, phrases and disconnected sentences spill out of my wakefulness.” (In the story “wakefulness” is an automatic link to a health guide to sleeplessness. Ugh.) He recounts how he auditioned various opening sentences, putting them on strict diets, scratching superfluous clauses and dropping “American” as an adjective — “too restrictive and chauvinistic”. After a fair number of tries, he recalls, “I finally get to the irreducible essence in one short sentence: ‘Men have landed and walked on the moon.’ ”
And so it is in the finished product: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s country of origin isn’t in the headline or lead, though Wilford does note the phone call from President Nixon and the unfurling of the American flag — kept unfurled on the airless moon by a metal rod at a right angle to the mast, if you ever wondered. Wilford writes from the perspective of an Earthbound observer awed by the adventure, with wonderful turns of phrase throughout: The astronauts “steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly,” the moon is “the first port of call in this new age of spacefaring,” and Michael Collins (who stayed in the orbiter above Armstrong and Aldrin) gets a sympathetic nod as “the man who went so far but not all the way”.
Looking back at the Times front pages from those two weeks, you think not just about how the world has changed and how scientific exploration has changed, but how newspapers have been transformed. Some things remain: Wilford’s graceful, powerful story would fit with the Times today (as Wilford himself, happily, still does), and while the Times’s elegantly hand-lettered 1969 graphic of the mission now looks like something out of Jules Verne (in a good way!), the 2009 animation is its logical, digital-age descendant. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine today’s Times reserving part of an epochal front page for a poem, or being stuck running a borderline-abstract photo from a TV feed.
Of course the Times is digital now. John Noble Wilford is a reporter in print, on the Web and in video. The paper can hold our attention with words, but also with a full paper’s worth of video, graphics, photos and stories from its own history. How would touchdown for, say, a Mars mission play in today’s world? Reporters would note those countdown moments not just in case something went wrong, but so they could file to breaking-news blogs and to Wikis. The audience wouldn’t just be staring at little TVs, but supplementing those reports, commenting on them and sharing them on blogs and Facebook pages of their own. Video would stream from mission control and possibly the Mars lander itself. Reporters, observers and probably an astronaut or two would Tweet about the mission, making #Mars the mother of all trending topics. (And you just know some TV news channels wouldn’t give “American” such restrained play.)
Looking back at the world since 1969, there are disappointments: The laptop on which I write this would have been the envy of NASA mission control, but there is no keepsake MEN WALK ON MARS front page to treasure; in fact, no one has walked on the moon in 27 years. (And the Second Avenue subway — you’ll spy a story about it in the Times’ back pages — still doesn’t exist.) While it’s wonderful that Wilford is still part of the New York Times, valuing such tenure and expertise has become a rarity in an industry battered by a brutal and bloody transformation.
But we’ll get to Mars one day, and when we do, the richness of the news experience will be breathtaking. The news will be reported from innumerable perspectives by a wealth of media outlets big medium and small. And the audience won’t just be devouring all the words, photos, audio and video it can get — it’ll be producing plenty of its own, too.
A while back, I touched on my belief that greater transparency in newsroom processes (within responsible boundaries) would make readers think more highly of their newspapers, not less.
This can be a hard sell in journalism, where transparency can run counter to deeply held ideas about how the craft ought to be practiced: Fair, accurate and professional work emerges from a rigorous process of interviews, research, testing hypotheses, fact-checking and editing, with false starts and dead ends and mistakes excised before publication. From a more-practical perspective, there’s the old saw that if you want to keep eating sausage, you’re better off not seeing how it’s made.
But by keeping the workings of the sausage factory secret, we allow readers to fill in the blanks in ways that are inaccurate, unfair and unhelpful to our profession. Take the question of motive. Talking to newspaper readers or getting their opinions through comments or other forums, I was often disturbed by their certainty that reporters and columnists approached every story with a preset agenda, and that agenda had been dictated by the paper. To be sure, I worked for the Wall Street Journal Online, and a lot of people incorrectly assumed (sometimes approvingly, sometimes not) that the Journal’s legendarily conservative editorial page also dictated the paper’s news coverage. But it wasn’t just politics at work: Many a story was viewed as part of some larger campaign waged by press barons.
A few years ago, I wrote a “Real Time” column wondering how booksellers on Amazon made money selling books for a penny. It was a fun column to research and write, and it left me simultaneously impressed by the doggedness of booksellers who actually made money this way and struck by the irony that for many of them, penny books weren’t a business model but an unintended and unwelcome consequence of a business model.
After the column ran, I was directed to a raging discussion of the article and the larger issue on a message board reserved for Amazon sellers. “It now seems the WSJ is placing blame on AMAZON and ebay for this problem of USED books causing a final depression in overall book market for publishers and authors,” one seller wrote, adding that “they must be getting letters from Authors, etc. claiming foul play. Industry conventions must have this problem of depressing prices by self motivated book sellers as a number one topic.”
Wrote another poster: “The WSJ can be very sneaky, and is probably exposiing these sellers motivation by letting these less than humble people dig their own graves. This is better than Desperate Housewifes. Now I have to go to the library everyday to catch the next WSJ -vs- the used book business episode. The future of the USED book business is being played out in the WSJ – how fun is that.”
It was briefly a thrill to imagine myself as a secret agent in a clandestine war within the publishing industry, except I knew what my agenda for the column had been, and it wasn’t quite so lofty. In fact, it was the same one that motivated me every week: to have a column. Sure, I was happy that the story had turned out to be intriguing and proud that the column was pretty good, but mostly I was relieved that I had a couple of days to recharge before looking for the next column. And that was it. I hadn’t been summoned to some Dow Jones star chamber and given marching orders, or briefed by a shadowy cabal of publishing titans. My life wasn’t that interesting; I’d sat and typed and emailed and talked on the phone and tried not to procrastinate too horribly and hoped the story would work.
This isn’t to say reporters and papers can’t have agendas, of course — our most-dangerous biases are the ones we can’t see. But in this case the agenda and the motive were figments of paranoid booksellers’ imaginations. Mostly that was because they saw everything through their own narrow lens. But part of the problem was that news organizations were so closed. My column, like nearly all newspaper stories, “stood for itself.” And that helped imaginations run wild.
So how would a more-transparent process have changed things? Before the column came out, perhaps not much — for competitive reasons, I doubt I would have announced what I was working on. But later, a lively give-and-take with readers in a variety of settings might have made things different. (My co-writer and I offered a weekly roundup of edited emails called “Real Time Exchange,” and I did write a follow-up column after hearing from a bookseller who made a lot of money selling penny books. But the dialogue was a lot closer to letters to the editor than to a true discussion.)
If I wrote the Amazon column today, I certainly would have tweeted it, shared it on Facebook and hoped that it sparked an interesting debate among readers — readers whom I’d try to make part of a community around my column. Today, I’d figure out a way to post to the Amazon seller boards — in 2005 I was still caught up in the mentality that journalism was something orated from the mountain to readers, instead of a conversation. And I hope I’d see the column as part of an ongoing story, one that had begun long before I offered my take on it, and would need to be chronicled afterwards.
As part of those efforts, readers would have got a sense of me as a person and not just a mysterious byline. They would have learned what stories interested me and what topics I like to explore. And they probably would have guessed that no self-respecting star chamber would admit me.