Why quality journalism is winning

It was an epiphany: On the list of most read stories on nytimes.com during the last week of January, number one and three were thoroughly researched and expertly edited, and they were long — 5000+ words. These articles about how Apple’s remarkable success is tightly interwoven with the evolution of a global economy are examples of top-class journalism. But stories like these aren’t supposed to make it to the top of the web’s most-read lists, even on a highbrow website. So what’s going on here?

I noticed these stories first on the New York Times’ free Android app. Then I saw them tweeted and retweeted; it was clear they were being shared and recommended, driving readers in cascades to the articles (maybe the NY Times people could share the traffic data?) Recommending and sharing has a social logic* that may well have played a part in the stories’ success. When you recommend something to your friends, followers, circles or whatever, it reflects back on you. If you want to belong to the group of people who consider themselves enlightened citizens, politically aware, curious, discerning, and even with good taste, you recommend the investigation of working conditions producing the iPad, not the latest paparazzi scoop (in this case, it didn’t hurt that the imagined recipient of the recommendation would indeed be reading the article on an… iPad).

On a structural level, we might be witnessing the well-known circulation spiral effect, but now on an international scale. In its original version, the theory claims that in a competition between two newspapers, over time the bigger one gains more and more of the advertising market, making it able to invest in quality journalism. The smaller newspaper gradually loses its share of the ad market, the quality declines, and often it eventually will fold. In the digital market(s), there are x competitors. But it appears that size and quality matters here as well. The NY Times and others are able to reinvent themselves digitally while keeping the printed newspaper going as main source of revenue for as long as possible, financing increasingly attractive digital content across platforms. Buoyed by the combination of what The Economist Group’s CEO terms “the mega-trend of mass intelligence”, and the recommendation effect, this strategy might well succeed.

You guessed it, my second example of quality journalism winning is The Economist. Its audience is growing strongly. In the first half year of 2011 the weekly had close to 1,5 million subscribers and 100.000 digital subscribers. The large majority of the latter paid for the iPad app. The Economist now has a unique opportunity to invest in the quality of its content, reinforcing the positive spiral effect. Especially interesting is how the website is used to maintain and increase interest in the weekly edition. Keen users will have noted how several new blogs have strengthened both quality and interactivity. Essential ingredients here are that the blogs are authored by the magazine’s own writers and that they contain lots of original research and observations. This is more expensive than the more common model of having external bloggers contributing (often for free). However in-house bloggers makes it easier to ensure a consistent level of quality, and consistency with profile and brand values.

The Economist’s concept of quality journalism sets it apart from traditional thinking on the nature and value of news. By reading The Economist you expect to gain a better understanding of a topic. You do not expect to find the latest expose of some secret document. In fact, many of the articles are well-written and edited summaries, with an analytical edge, strictly speaking not news at all. Many old school news journalists would find that utterly meaningless, but it might be just what many readers need. Classic news stories have a very short halflife and are seldom very interesting to read — as texts. You probably will not recommend a typical news story of five paragraphs about working conditions in Guangzhou. But a broader analysis of how China’s labour market affects your country’s economy or an investigaton into how Apple is managing its supply chain, that’s something else.

*Thanks to Håvard for pointing out this dynamic to me.

Do happy users want to pay?

By the end of the second quarter of 2011 the New York Times had acquired 224.000 paying subscribers to its digital services (plus 57.000 e-reader/e-edition subscribers).

As Felix Salmon has pointed out, the NYT paywall model is different from other high-profile attempts such as the FT’s and the WSJ’s. The NYT does its best to integrate its subscriber model with the open web: Users coming to a page on nytimes.com via links on other websites or search engines, will not see the wall. Regular users have 20 free articles per month. If they read an article more than once, only the first time is counted.

More efforts are made to entice the user to pay. When you are logged in, a module in the right column is telling you how many articles you have read during the past 30 days, and showing you ten recommendations based on your behaviour on the site. Of course, the more articles I read, the better the recommendations get. If the NYT can continue to pile up such incentives, chances of making me pay will increase.

As a contrast, the FT and the WSJ paywalls try to shut you out. Especially the FT is bombarding you with user-unfriendly messages that are annoying even to paying subscribers, as Salmon shows.

It’s too early to tell if the NYT paywall is a success (others have criticized the pricing model). Are happy users really more likely to become paying subscribers? So far the signs are encouraging: By making the paywall so porous, the NYT can uphold its commitment to the open public sphere. The porous paywall has been ridiculed by many tech-savvy users, but actually the ease of sneaking past the wall is the point, as Salmon concludes:

Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society. The NYT treated its readers as mature and civilized adults, and outperformed internal expectations as a result. Meanwhile, the WSJ and FT are still treating their readers with mistrust, as though they’ll be robbed somehow if they ever let their guard down a little. It’s a sad and ultimately self-defeating stance, and I hope in future they learn from the NYT’s embrace of the open web, even in conjunction with a paywall.

It is becoming more and more clear that the NYT functions as a leading innovator for all the world’s established news media, both on the business and editorial side (see beta620 for examples). It is now really a global Leitmedium.

Helping Google help news media

A good idea from Michael Massing:

I propose that Google set up a Journalism Innovators’l Fund with an initial annual budget of $100 million-less than 0.5 percent of the more than $20 billion it takes in annually. The fund would seek not to subsidize existing news operations but to support creative ideas and new programs aimed at reinventing the news as Schmidt suggests. It would support start-ups and fledgling enterprises engaged in investigation, international reporting, policy analysis, blogging, and other forms of probing and provocative reporting and commentary undertaken by the independent journalists who, given the severe retrenchment taking place at traditional organizations, are making up an ever-larger part of the field. More and more journalists are becoming entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs need start-up capital, and who better to provide it than Google, itself a product of, and tribute to, the entrepreneurial spirit?



I registered the domain name Netzeitung.de on October 5, 1999. So although the website wasn’t launched before a year later (soft launch in September for the Olympics, official launch November 8), in a way you can say that Germany’s first online-only newspaper just managed to reach the 10-year mark. It looks like the current owner M. DuMont Schauberg will keep the domain name, but the website as journalistic product will be history from January 1, 2010. The press release, for the record:

Aus wirtschaftlichen Gründen wird das bisherige Konzept einer Internetzeitung mit eigener Redaktion zum 31. Dezember 2009 aufgegeben. Aus diesem Grund wird sämtlichen Mitarbeitern in Kürze betriebsbedingt gekündigt werden. Bestehende vertragliche Verpflichtungen der Internetzeitung werden noch im 1. Quartal 2010 erfüllt. Es wird geplant, zukünftig die Netzeitung als automatisiertes Nachrichtenportal zu nutzen. Die NZ-Teletextaktivitäten sind davon unberührt und sollen in Zukunft eine stärkere Rolle in der Gruppe spielen. Wir bedauern die für die Mitarbeiter mit der Entscheidung verbundenen Härten. In der derzeitigen Form ist die Internetzeitung wirtschaftlich aber nicht zu betreiben.

I wonder if being “automated” is almost worse than just being closed. A fitting irony: The news reached me via the “automated” news and social media site Rivva.

Obits at Carta and Onlinejournalismus.de. I guess there will be more. But I have some nicer reading for you: Spiegel’s story “News and more” from the heydays in 2000. And here’s the list of my own blog posts mentioning netzeitung.de.

Real-time challenge

Bjarke Myrthu sees a business opportunity for “old media” in “the challenge of the age” identified by Google’s Eric Schmidt: Learning how to rank user-generated, real-time information. Bjarke:

Part of what he calls “real-time social content” is what old media is calling “breaking news”. In other words Google is working hard at becoming the best at collecting and organizing breaking news produced by all of us. While most of us had no idea what Google was about to do first time around (I remember thinking it was a great service but too bad they would never make money), this time around the Newspapers and the rest of the media industry actually have a chance to compete. Why should the best brands in old media not be able to create a great search technology and future business model for breaking news?

Fast Flip is fun, but no giant step for publishers

The latest idea to emerge from Google’s labs is Fast Flip, a new way of speed-browsing through news and current affairs websites. You should try it, it’s fun and easy to see the potential. I’ve already discovered many good stories and had a new look at forgotten sites. Serendipity, like browsing a good magazine rack in a kiosk, but much faster.

Some media observers see a significant shift in that Google will share revenue from the ads shown with the content, but this must be an exaggeration. How could Google not share revenue when they are displaying whole pages from other publishers’ websites? This surely goes beyond the usual search engine indexing. Google not sharing revenue here would make publishers call their lawyers — and this time rightly so.

Good weekend flipping!

How expensive is quality journalism?

Good information about how much quality journalism really costs is strangely difficult to come by. So thanks to Zachary Seward for sharing a few examples with us, prompted by the ProPublica/New York Times 13,000 word Katrina magazine story:

In this case, Fink was paid $33,000 plus $10,000 in expenses for her Kaiser fellowship, according to Steve Engelberg, her editor at ProPublica, where she’s been for 14 months. Engelberg, who was kind enough to go through these figures with me, said, “Fourteen months of salary plus benefits for us easily gets you north of 100 plus, 100, 150 or something.” He threw in another $20,000 to $30,000 for travel expenses, in addition to three months of editing and lawyering at ProPublica and the Times, which also spent $25,000 to $30,000 on photographs, he said.

UPDATE: A more detailed breakdown in Mother Jones. 10.000 for fact-checking? Wow.

Probably most news organizations prefer to keep such numbers for themselves, or maybe they don’t even break them down in much detail. A good thing about a crisis in journalism: It would probably expose the real costs.

And now I have to read the Katrina story — and wonder if any Norwegian newspaper will foot the translation bill and re-publish it, which they can after Sept. 29.

New owner and expansion for EveryBlock

MSNBC has bought EveryBlock, which means that the previously foundation-funded, innovative hyperlocal/microlocal site made by Adrian Holovaty & co can continue and even expand:

…it means that we’ll have resources to expand EveryBlock profoundly. MSNBC.com is the most-visited news Web site in the U.S. and is in solid financial shape in a time when news organizations around the world are struggling. We’re excited about the possibilities of pointing a massive audience at EveryBlock and having the resources to beef up our technological infrastructure and staff. Our site is very young — it’s only been live for about a year and a half — and we have a lot of ideas and expansion plans. I often tell friends and industry colleagues that EveryBlock in is current incarnation is only about 5 percent of what we want to do with it. We’re now in a position to make this happen.