The too modest media business

The announced Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism sounds like an excellent idea, a way to bridge the gap between the newsroom and academia. Though that gap has become more narrow in recent years, it’s still there. That’s not always and not only the fault of the media.

There are many ways to structure the relationship between media and education institutions. In Norway the journalism schools are almost all part of the state-funded university/college system. Newspapers and television contribute only through guest lecturers and some internships. Too modest – wouldn’t it be in their best interest to improve the standards of journalism and media education? Germany is a good example: There the media groups are directly involved in education. Hence you have the Henri-Nannen-Journalistenschule financed by Gruner+Jahr and Die Zeit, and a similar Axel Springer school.

Columnist rocks the kiosk!

One of the dearest words in Norwegian journalists’ vocabulary is “kioskvelter” – which can be translated (though admittedly not very elegantly) as “newsstand-overturner”. The dream of all journalists, to produce a piece of news so sensational that the public storm the kiosks and fight for copies.

Seeing the list of the 10 most read articles on in 2005, the kioskvelter image came to mind. On top of the list, columnist Maureen Dowd’s “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”. An essay 95 percent of Norwegian editors would have dismissed as “long grass”, almost 30.000 characters, most read of all stories! OK, the topic – feminism, the relationship between the sexes – is a popular one, but the piece is very in-depth, written in a personal style, with lots of references to science, history, culture and society. That piece as no. 1 is a real surprise.

Or is it? In an essay in the anthology “Media and Media Power”, recently published by the Swedish Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Dagens Nyheter’s political editor Niklas Ekdal argues that gifted writers increasingly are today’s agenda-setters:

…I am convinced that in a media cacophony where everything is about soundbites, images and reflexes, the relative weight of the coherently written sentence increases dramatically.(…) You might call it the quality paradox of the modern media landscape. The more news muzak we are treated with, the more we crave for classical compositions. The more streamlined the media message, the bigger the impact of the truly original idea or the boldly stated opposing view.

Ekdal laments the commodification of news reporting, but to his credit he claims that “serious analysis and high quality reporting will not go away – the only question is where they will go when the old media behemoths crumble”.

On the top 10 list, four are columnist pieces and one an editorial. Without knowing the details of traffic structure, it would still be fair to guess that one of the reasons for the remarkable success of the Dowd article must be traffic generated by the ever increasing blog discussion. Over 17.000 blog posts indexed by Technorati contain the phrase “Maureen Dowd”. The discussion peaked around October 30, when the essay was published:

('maureen dowd').png

The idea that the value of originality and creativity will increase in an age of cacophony is a favourite topic on this blog. And when you find someone agrees with you, it’s easy to get carried away. So let’s close this with a couple of eh, more problematic examples. Dagbladet’s top 100 list of 2005 is headed by a piece with the irresistible headline “This way you can get half price in hotels”. And over at our state broadcaster NRK kioskvelter no. 1 was simply – why beat about the bush – “Women expose their abdomen”.

Side door experiment

I would definitely like to know what conclusions The Washington Post will draw from its experiment – extending archive access to 60 days to increase traffic to the site. No less than half of the traffic now comes to the site directly to stories via RSS, search engines and blogs, not through the main door. The WP wants to compare the increased revenue it can get this way with what they lose from archive subscription revenue.

A related approach is being tested in Norway, where parts of the monopoly newspaper archive Atekst has been made available on the visible web through the Sesam search engine. Here the “content owner” gets paid for each article that is viewed (smartly integrated in the search engine page, by the way). Sesam’s owner (the same as the owner of many of the newspapers in the archive, but not all) draws traffic to Sesam, and gets the ad revenues.