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Monthly Archives: February 2012

We’re very close to learning whether the news consuming masses will accept something that would have been an absurd notion two decades ago: paying for digitally-delivered news.

Up to now, readers have been able to get their news fixes free by simply clicking on a newspaper’s website, or using a news aggregator like Google or any one of thousands, and scanning the headlines. Most of the stories they’ve seen originate from the printed product or a news agency, though the “digital first” strategies have even upped that ante. Reporters now tweet their notes as they work a story, revealing the minute details of the emerging story before it’s even written. And news readers can even have news flashes sent directly to their desktops, handheld devices without having to pay a dime to contribute to the costs of maintaining news staffs.

The proverbial chickens have come home, however, and the ongoing bleeding of advertising lineage and paid subscribers at daily newspapers has forced even the mighty New York Times to get serious about putting up toll gates to force dedicated news junkies to pay up. If it works, expect others to quickly follow.

The Times is going to lower the cantilever on March 28. At that point, there will continue to be free access to the Times’ homepage as well as free side-door access (via outside links, etc.) to individual Times articles. And you can gaze and graze freely each month until you hit 20 articles. After which: Wall up. Pay up.

The Times has divided its payment offering into different packages: $15 for a month of access to NYTimes.com and the paper’s smartphone app; $20 for web access and an iPad app; and $35 for an all-access plan.  Print subscribers, as the Times has said from the get-go, will get digital access included in their subscriptions. That’s true for any subscriber, seven-day-a-week or less — a nice reward for brand loyalty.

Gannett Newspapers will be launching digital subscriptions they hope will return $1.3 billion to shareholders by 2015.

I hope to speak to the publisher and editor of one of those Gannett papers, the San Antonio Express-News, when I travel to Texas March 20. I’m there to shadow their reporters, to allow me to see firsthand what has changed in the journalists’ toolbox as a result of the smartphone/tablet revolution. But the big picture is just as fascinating.

Why study an American paper?

PostMedia in Canada will follow with a similar model later in the year. Publishers recently visited the Times and CEO Paul Godfrey has extolled the virtues of the pay wall concept. While not as adversely affected by the digital revolution and economic slowdown south of the border, PostMedia has been watching its newspaper revenues decline each quarter and is aware of the lag in trends between the U.S. and Canada.

I hope they all work. In spite of all the hype, the “citizen journalism” movement, where ordinary citizens through their tablets and smartphones fill society’s demand for watchdog reporting,is failing. The term “robocalls” would not be on our lips if it were otherwise.

 

One of the most common dreams of young journalism students is to travel and write. They envision a glamorous life on the move overseas, financed by travel stories they would be writing for clientele back home. A few of our grads have managed to do that over the years, but many find out the dreams rarely line up with reality, especially for those graduating with substantial debt.

Still, it is possible, and through tools freely available on the Internet, could well become a realistic and attractive option for the unemployed writer.

The more successful travelling journalists I know have found jobs at a given location on the planet, and parked their pens and notepads there for a year or more before moving on, or moving home. They work as local reporters in that country, and sell a bit of work back home to interested clients as a sideline. To do that, a traveller would have to find out what publications there are, what language the paper publishes in, and how to get in touch with them. That used to be quite a chore.

Enter newspapermap.com, a fantastic global newspaper locator tool that provides all the information on a country’s newspaper population. It’s as easy as using Google Maps, and the user can zoom in and a key identifies which language the paper employs, all within seconds.

In one day, an interested person could contact dozens of overseas newspapers and inquire about internships or paid work. In developing countries in particular, like east Africa or India, a Canadian-trained journalist would be a highly prized addition to any newsroom.

It’s not 100 per cent accurate, and looks to be a work in progress. All of Canada’s dailies are there, but few of the community papers, and it’s likely the case for the rest of the world.

And of course, going hand-in-hand with that research would be the need for investigating how much these publications pay, so the journalist could afford to live there. I give the same advice to a grad looking to relocate to a rural paper: make sure you can afford to live, because the editor won’t worry about whether you can afford to pay rent, food, run a car and make payments on your student loan.

Planning and research is key to any foray overseas and this app just made both a lot easier for the travelling journalist.

 

The headline at left was something I posted to the administrator of  a group looking for somebody to take over moderating/managing the forum, ‘Cyberjournalism.’ I knew the answer was no, but I wanted to prove a point about the “here today, gone tomorrow” tendencies of online ventures, and the thin budgets so many of them have.

The chap who was giving it up came to see it was a thankless job. And certainly a job it was, easily worth some kind of compensation, even free lunch once or twice a week. But who would pay the freight to pay his freight?

It’s the central question that remains unanswered as those who extoll the glories of “free net for all” still don’t get that somebody has to pay someone, at some point, for all this activity. Or it, as most often happens, simply ends.

This blog I’m posting is on a free service. WordPress is hoping it will be able to sell advertising around it to eventually make some money from my work. I have the time to write it because my employer is paying me a reduced salary to take a year off on sabbatical. But the point is, somebody will have to pay something eventually.

Others don’t believe that, so many under-financed start-ups and projects rely on free work; contributions, and the desperation of journalism students and grads to fatten their portfolios/resumes. This has led to a diminishment of the value of content, of journalistic work, and self-image of people who are passionate about journalism.

That was underscored yesterday when the mighty Knight Foundation, the single biggest contributor to journalistic experiments in the world, announced it would no longer be funding “networks” projects (web sites) as part of its $5 million innovation competitions. Instead, it would be granting funds to projects that make maximum use of existing products and technologies. See more at http://www.knightfoundation.org/what-we-fund/

The exact wording, from Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation:

“There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.”

Knight has realized that the journalistic products and projects that are still with us, are the best bets to survive and thrive now and into the future. That’s because they’ve been accountable to the vagaries and standards of industry, where the right people were hired, the wrong ones fired, and managed a company that had to be accountable for all of that.

Walking away from projects is too easy when you’re using someone else’s money. It is the great untold story of our times, as that relates to government funding of start-ups.

Making money isn’t easy. Somebody has to meet payroll, make often tough decisions to make sure that they and others get paid. Knight now knows they afforded many people the luxury of walking away from projects in which they’d had little or nothing personally invested.

The companies and people who have survived months, years and centuries of change, like good and innovation-seeking newspapers, are those best positioned to experiment. And they are doing so today, with mixed results, as society works out what it will pay for, at least when it come to content.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburgs aren’t common. They were successful not because someone handed them a grant, but because they were driven, talented, ruthless and lucky. For the rest of us, earning a living won’t come from working for nothing.

It’s a routine question from both journalism students and parents whose kids are interested in our program: if newspapers are going broke, am I crazy to be pursuing a career in journalism?

My honest and completely unequivocal answer is no, you’re not crazy. And if you’re willing to grit your teeth and make some tough decisions, live frugally and put off kids and a mortgage for at least 10 years after graduating, you can expect to look forward to a long, rewarding and fulfilling career in the field.

Unfortunately, those are tough words for young people to hear. And they may not be the most inviting advertisement for a career in journalism. But it’s true, proven so countless times by our graduates who have thrived in journalism careers, in good times and bad.

Despite what you hear, there are no shortage of jobs in journalism in the broad sense. It’s true that large metropolitan daily newspapers have been laying off reporters now for five or more years because print revenues have been declining, really since 9/11. But dailies have never been a big employer of our grads anyway for a simple reason: the well-paid, unionized journalists who work at them don’t leave unless it’s through buyout, retirement or forced layoff. They pay very well, there are great benefits and there is still prestige attached to working at a big city daily.

Unfortunately, those legacy costs salaries and benefits — which evolved when times were good in the industry and before digital advertising became a factor — are now considered to be a drag on the balance sheets of these companies, which have seen precipitous declines in advertising and circulation revenues. They own big buildings and printing presses that cost a lot of money to heat and run. They have car fleets, highly-paid executives, advertising representatives, clerical staff, circulation and press room staff. All of them need to be paid, and the overhead, covered.

And, of course, since most of Canada’s big-city dailies are owned by publically-traded corporations, they have to turn a profit for shareholders. These are the operations that have been most affected over the last decade.

And while these same newspapers are seeing quite astonishing increases in digital advertising sales, it has not been nearly enough to make up for the losses in print revenue. So they’re finding themselves in an in-between and highly stressful phase, watching the dollars blow out the window while the pennies and nickels stack up at the door. Nobody knows how long it’s going to take before the relative pocket change from digital reaches the levels to make big newspapers as profitable as they once were. It may never happen.

In the meantime, reporter turnover among smaller papers, where the traditional newsprint product is still king, remains steady. There are more openings at smaller newspapers, more frequently, as new reporters tend to use these entry-level jobs as a stepping stone to something bigger. At most, they stay at these papers for a year, sometimes two, before moving on to a better-paying job at a bigger paper. Or they leave journalism completely and get into communications, often as assistants for local politicans or comms officers for companies or government.

Unfortunately, the mood reflected in the mainstream media is downright gloomy, because that’s what the people who write those stories are experiencing themselves. All around them, they see layoffs, editors wringing hands, advertising reps coming and going with regularity. Quarterly financial reports are about as welcome as skunks at a garden party.

One of those daily reporters, Adam McDowell, called me the other day. He was among the lucky few who’d landed a plum reporting job right out of a Toronto journalism school years ago, at the National Post. When the layoffs came, as the new kid on the block, he was one of the first to be laid off. Today, he’s a freelancer, and was interviewing me for a story he was writing for OpenFile, a start-up that publishes stories entirely online.

He wanted to know why there were still so many journalism schools out there churning out grads when the industry was in decline. Ah, a burned journalist, I thought, one of those the city dailyists who have proclaimed the sky was falling.

You can see the story at http://ottawa.openfile.ca/ottawa/text/are-journalism-schools-doing-their-students-disservice and my comments in it.

Read it, and you’ll see I’m not fan of doom and gloom, and the headline really didn’t reflect the reality of the story’s contents. But that’s urban journalism for you.

 

 

 

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