Monthly Archives: May 2010

Commercial interests vs editorial independence in changing Times

Cheryl Cole
Image via Wikipedia

There are no shortage of autobiographies, memoirs and tales from Fleet Street’s pomp, when hacks would gossip the day long and could navigate its countless boozers without getting wet in a rainstorm.

Mostly, they describe a rapidly disappearing world of mass circulations, huge staff rosters and a narrow media culture compared to today. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention – and anyone interested in the trade should spend some time with Harry Evans’s My Paper Chase: Stories of Vanished Times, which I’ve only just got round to reading.

Evans is famous for tenacious, risky investigative campaigning journalism while editor of the Sunday Times in the 1970s. He and his Insight team uncovered the Thalidomide scandal that left children disfigurered at birth, often without limbs, due to the morning sickness drug prescribed to pregnant women, to name just one.

Without going into all that, here’s a passage from the book on how Evans was grilled by the editorial board of Times Newspapers in 1966 before becoming editor. Both Timeses were owned by the Thomson company then, long before Murdoch took over.

The editorial board asked him: “How independent will you be as editor?… What is your attitude to the Thomson commercial interests?…Even if it is news adverse to the Thomson interests, say in travel?” In response Evans said he would print anything, regardless of any embarrassment to the paper’s owners. Evans writes:

The directors spent a full hour examining my halo as someone who would embrace and defend the freedoms defined in the Monopolies Commission report [which required the paper to be editorially independent], not to sell out to Mammon or twist the news for a political agenda.

Looking back at what at the commitments demanded, I can’t help but wonder at how much journalism has changed.

From 1966, to 2010 – where The Sunday Times and its sister title are attempting to re-write the news economics rulebook by charging readers to read previously free content online, which in my opinion is part of a global push across Rupert Murdoch’s media empire to reverse advertising pressures driven in large part by the competitive efficiencies of search engines.

Aside from whether that will work, just look at these extracts from anarticle in the Sunday Times’s Style section last week (as spotted by The Media Blog).

…Cheryl barely reads any press, so she can’t say if she was surprised by that, or the furore over her having hair extensions and yet being the face of L’Oréal Elvive Full Restore 5 Replenishing Shampoo…

…And with that, ever the charming professional, she mentions the lip-gloss colour she’s created for L’Oréal Paris and the limited-edition Elnett hairspray that will have a sketch of her face on the can (the first time in the product’s history). “It’s amazing. I can’t believe it.”

Was the Cole interview granted in return for giving a cosmetics brand several mentions? L’Oréal is an important advertising client for national newspapers and it paid for a full-page ad opposite the ST piece.

I don’t know if the two are linked. But if the paper trade wants to convince the cynical digital generation that its content is worth paying for, it will have to seperate its commercial and editorial interests for good. You can’t sell content that has already been sold.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Delicious links: Should they stay or go?

Image representing delicious as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

Being a busy person, with (thankfully) multiple clients and places to be, I don’t update this site as often as I’d like. I find time to write at least one substantive post a week and I write about the events and major things I attend, as a rule.

Like lots of bloggers, I use Delicious to automatically generate daily posts of the things I’ve been bookmarking – here is the one from today. It’s a very easy way of pointing readers towards what you’e been reading – though you could just bookmark my Delicious feed, boot up the RSS feed or alternatively go for my Google Reader shared items.

The linkposts get very little traffic, so much so that I am now asking: Should I keep these posts or axe them? Here’s the survey, which asks one question and one question only and will take two seconds to complete. Results to come soon…

17:30 Update: The results so far: in the Yes camp, 28.6 percent of you; the “no”s to the left are well in front 71.4 percent. I’ll bring more news on this exciting story as it happens.

19:00 Update: It’s now 75:25 in favour of ditching the linkposts so… they’re gone! Thanks to everyone that contributed.

Click here to take survey

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

links for 2010-05-25

links for 2010-05-21

The Times’s paywall hopes under the microscope at the Frontline

This is cross-posted from the Frontline Club’s Forum blog, which I write for and look after as part of my work there. It’s relevent to things I generally write about here so I thought I’d share. The pic is by talented Frontline member Chris King

Paywalls debate - Ewan and Gurtej.jpg

One way to boost newspaper revenues as print circulation and advertising revenues fall through the floor is to charge readers to read stuff online. The only problem is: will a generation that has grown up with free news content – that believes in a free web – cough up for it?

One man who hopes so it Gurtej Sandhu, digital director of Times Newspapers, which next week launches paid-for, fully paywalled online versions of The Times and The Sunday Times (see previews here) after many months of preparation.

He joined a panel at a Frontline event on digital media, mobile and paywalls on Wednesday to defend – in the face of some serious audience scepticism – The Times’ new strategy, and by proxy parent company News Corp’s tough line on the value of journalism and news.

If you couldn’t make it to the club this time, you can watch the whole thing here.

Also check out paidContent:UK’s two reports, this interesting blog post from William Owen at from the evening and the lively chatter on Twitter.

“We’re one of the first general [interest] newspapers to do this,” says Sandhu. He said that The Times – which has just laid off around 10 percent of its editorial staff (via through voluntary job cuts – is “in a position where we have to do something”. Some papers have tried the paywall route and turned back, such as the New York Times which charged for its online comment section and built up some 250,000 subscribers only to bring the paywall down after complaints from columnists and readers. They chickened out when they should have held firm, says Sandhu:

I think the New York Times blinked when they shouldn’t have done. It was 250,000 people, that’s a significant amount; they didn’t really fail… The ad market boomed and suddenly they felt the revenue they could generate from the ad market was far more substantial.”

He also had a few words for The Times’s free content-loving rival Guardian News & Media: “The sense is that people are downloading the Guardian iPhone app and not buying the newspaper edition – it’s not an insignificant number and they only pay for it once.” Having said that, Sandhu isn’t that bothered whether people read Times content via the print, desktop or mobile versions – as long as they pay. “We’re starting a journey… will it matter in the long run whether it’s a digital edition, mobile or newspaper? It’s all readership to us.”

And the loss of readers that will come from lowering the credit card drawbridge on Times Online? Sunday Times editor John Witherow reckons (via paidContent:UK) that as many as 90 percent of readers could go elsewhere. Sandhu: “We don’t see that as a permenent postition; we believe we will generate more revenue through doing this.”

I recommend checking our video from about 1 hour 10 minutes to get a feeling of just how hostile our audience was to the paywall plans. Perhaps it’s not the most representative focus group, but if this was a flavour of what people think, the plan could have a rocky road ahead.

Also on the panel was Marybeth Christie, head of product developement at – a business that has met with some success charging readers of news and data, albeit a highly targeted professional, business audience. Some 126,000 users happily part with £170 and more for breaking news, company data, the Lex column and the use of the FT’s mobile apps (including, yes, the iPad). “The advantage of the metered model is that we know what our users want,” she said. “Those that find it most useful, our more engaged users, don’t mind paying because they like us.”

Pushed by moderator Steve Hewlett  to reveal how many corporate subscribers has – a market consumer papers like The Times won’t be able tap in nearly the same way -  she said it was “less than half”. And does a paywall hurt advertising? Not at all: “It has not hurt our ad revenues, quite the opposite. Because we have so many registered users, we now have more data on them and we can pass that on to advertisers.”

Ewan MacLeod, editor and founder of Mobile Industry Review has first-hand experience of going from free to paid-for. His well-respected site for mobile industry professionals regularly clocks up 250,000 readers a month, sometimes as many as one million, and in March last year it was “bought out” by another company (I covered the story for PCUK) and went subscription-only for the steep price of £1,000 a year. “How many subscribers did I get? None. Nada. Not one,” says McLeod whose site is now free-to-air again.

Here’s a flavour of what people were saying on Twitter:


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

links for 2010-05-20

@Future of News Group meet-up: What’s the business model for journalism about real people?

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Image via Wikipedia

I get tired of bloggers and journalists (let’s face it, like me) who spend their time opining about the problems and challenges for journalists. Which is why I’m a fan of Adam Westbrook’s Future of News Group, which he founded to discuss the latest in practical solutions for the news biz instead of lofty theory.

So I came down to the latest #FONG meet-up – concerned with “entrepreneurial journalism” – on Tuesday night to find out more. Westbrook – who himself has a very healthy entreprenuerial streak – kicked off the session by admitting, with blunt accuracy, that “lots of us are coming round to the idea that we can be entrepreneurial journalists, but none of us have a bloody clue how.” Here’s Adam’s take on the event, but here’s what I made of it:

Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

First up was Emi Gal, founder of Brainient, a Romanian video advertising start-up – it adds a layer of contextual or affiliate-led ads over any video content. (I’m not entirely sure how this engages with Google/YouTube’s own increasingly profitable overlay ad programme, but that’s for another time…)

24-year-old Gal is a good person to listen to because this is far from his first attempt at making a start-up work. He founded his first business aged 18, a social network which became very successful, and then went on to found an online TV start-up, which he admits “failed big time”. Brainient was one of six winners at the Seedcamp start-up competition in 2009, which landed it $50,000 in seed funding, and Gal has since received more funding.

Gal has lots of advice for would-be entrepreneurs, though much of it is the kind of thing you will hear from other enthusiastic entrepreneurs: things like pick a good co-founder, get the right team, pick a massive market, figure out the “minimal viable product” that people will pay for. Check out my coverage of this Techcrunch’s GeeknRolla confernce for similar advice, particularly the excellent Morten Lund (funded Skype at an early stage, made gazillions, went bankrupt) and Rummble founder Andrew J Scott.

But for me the best advice Gal had for news professionals looking to either sell themselves of a product they’ve built is that “you are marketing, your product is marketing, your mum is marketing.” In other words, everything you do as an entrepreneur should contribute to the buzz about your business.

Being personable and memorable when meeting people is a big part of that: it sounds flippant, but Gal made a big deal of his vibrantly red shoes. But, he says, at least it makes him memorable.

But how do you fund journalism about human rights?

Up next was YooDoo, which provides advice and tools for new businesses. Tony Heywood and Nick Saalfield talked about what they do – I wasn’t entirely sure how they might specifically help news entrepreneurs but I’m sure they’ll offer help to some people out there and the service is free.

This was Saalfield’s harsh but accurate approximation of the print media: “Start feeling sorry for newspapers and publishers. They’re badly managed, they work very slowly, they’re fragile and not very agile.”

I was more interested in the debate that started after their talk. Deborah Bonello – aka @thevideoreport – founded and carved out a niche as a multimedia freelance journalist (she spoke at the Frontline Club alongside Adam last month at a great event on freelance journalism).

Bonello hit the nail right on head by describing the economic barrier for anyone wanting to make a living from original content: the FT can make money from writing about stock markets and emerging markets; Gizmodo sells ads by writing about gadgets – this is all actionable content, stuff that will inspire readers to click on an add or affiliate link and buy something.

But what about reporting focusing on human rights? Who’s going to click on an ad surrounding that? She said:

The problem is, if you’re not writing about the decisions about who people make investments, [but about things like] immigration, or culture, art… there’s not that same market for people that might like to pay for that.

As she so rightly says, “as journalists we’re taught to questions the powers.” The plan for most people who go into the industry – I would say – is not to think about how to give the capitalist classes exactly what they need to make more money.

Here’s what content entrepreneur Evan Rudowski said on paywalls on PCUK in February:

The paid content opportunity is greatest if the content is unique, actionable, targeted at a relevant niche, frequently updated and from a credible or trusted source.

Availability of free alternatives can be a limiting factor, but not the determining factor – there are barrel-loads of free content about wine, for example, but plenty of people are nevertheless willing to pay FT wine columnist Jancis Robinson £69 a year for her unique expertise.

So “actionable” is one of the things journalism needs to be to be profitable. But could you tick the other boxes on Rudowski’s list and still make a living? Or, more likely, is there a public or charitable solution to this problem that takes news production out of the corporate, profit-driven, assembly line model?

I have no “bloody clue” either but I’m looking forward to more FONG meet-ups in the hope of getting closer to some answers.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

links for 2010-05-19

links for 2010-05-18

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]