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.

“Save the New York Times” round-up

In Norway newspapers call on the state to save them (again), in the US it’s the “enlightened philanthropists” that must come to the rescue? In an op-ed in the Times, two Yale executives propose a US university-style endowment of 5 Billion dollars (!). That should be enough to fund the around 200 Million dollars that the newsgathering costs per year.

PJNet’s Leonard Witt thinks it’s a better idea to make the newsroom into a a “cooperative trust owned by its readers as it eases into the online world”.

Everyone seems to have ideas for the NYT, suddenly. When Murdoch bought the WSJ, it was thought that he would make the subscriber based website free. But it hasn’t happened. Now Henry Blodget thinks that the NYT should consider copying the WSJ’s current model, what he calls a “hybrid subscription-free” business:

” * Many news stories are available for free at WSJ.com every day. So much so that the site’s direct, non-subscriber traffic is meaningful and impressive.

* ALL of the WSJ’s content is indexed by, and available through, Google and other search engines. Most people don’t understand this, but it is critically important. The WSJ’s paid content is NOT hidden behind a firewall. It is available for free, all over the web, on a story by story basis.

* Many sites have deals with the WSJ where they can link to WSJ’s content and have their readers read it for free. This encourages bloggers and other publications to include the WSJ in the conversation economy.

* The only WSJ content that web searchers and readers CANNOT access are the full navigation pages of WSJ.com. Put differently, only subscribers can read The Wall Street Journal. Non-subscribers have to settle for reading the occasional Wall Street Journal story when they happen to encounter it.”

Blodget plays around with the numbers: if the NYT could get “only” 750.000 subscribers paying 80 dollars, that would be 60 Million in revenue.

Post-print New York Times

Michael Hirschorn debates what could happen if the New York Times had to close its print edition. On the behalf of journalism, he ends on a fairly positive note

In this scenario, nytimes.com would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting. This combination has allowed the HuffPo to digest the news that matters most to its readers at minimal cost, while it focuses resources in the highest-impact areas. What the HuffPo does not have, at least not yet, is a roster of contributors who can set agendas, conduct in-depth investigations, or break high-level news. But the post-print Times still would.

By the way, Google will not save newspapers, says Eric Schmidt. Though they would like to:

The good news is we could purchase them. We have the cash. But I don’t think our purchasing a newspaper would solve the business problems. It would help solidify the ownership structure, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem in the business. Until we can answer that question we’re in this uncomfortable conversation.

(Tip: Silicon Alley Insider).

UPDATE: John Battelle weighs in. It’s starting to sound like a smart and constructive debate…:

I hate to be the one calling bullshit on an industry I love, but really, honestly, how on earth can you want to save an industry that requires hundreds of journalists to fill a paper that has about 50-100 stories a day in it, half of them wire copy taken from AP or other syndicates? The newspaper industry has a GM problem, if you get my drift. Too many expensive workers doing too little work on products not enough people actually want to buy.

Hvem blir først i Norge?

2008 kan bli året da en av de norske avisene gjør som New York Times, Economist og Spiegel: åpner arkivet over gamle artikler og slipper søkemotorene til. Til nå har den tradisjonelle tankegangen dominert: arkivet over papiravisens artikler er bare tilgjengelig via den dyre abonnementstjenesten Atekst eller med egne betalløsninger (men selv i Atekst går arkivet ofte bare noen få år tilbake; VG er på gang med en egen arkivtjeneste tilbake til 1945). Slik kan man tjene noen slanter. Men ingen norske medier har til nå gjort som de tre nevnte (eller som Guardian, som har hatt et åpent arkiv i årevis). Begrunnelsen for å åpne arkivet er først og fremst at den økte trafikken via søkemotorer og blogger genererer mer inntekter via annonsesalg enn ved salg via Atekst og lignende. Men strategien har flere fordeler. Her er fire norske aviser som burde vurdere gratisgrepet i 2008:

  • Dagbladet: Har en sterk posisjon på nettet, men papiravisens opplag faller katastrofalt og det er ingen ende på nedskjæringer og sluttpakker. Nyheter om offensiv satsing er dypt savnet. Dagbladet har et av de viktigste arkivene i norsk presse. Ved å gjøre dette — eller så mye som mulig av det — fritt tilgjengelig, kan avisen være tidlig ute med å skaffe seg større andeler av trafikken fra søkemotorer (denne har ikke vært så stor i Norge som i andre land, men det er opplagt at den vil øke, og øke). Avisens merkevare kan bygges gjennom å gjøre historien levende igjen. Dagbladet var kjent som kulturradikalernes avis, den liberale, urbane avisen. Tradisjonen kan fornyes og gjenskapes ved å gjøre Dagbladet til den ledende nettavisen. I en slik strategi er et åpent arkiv en hjørnestein. (OPPDATERING: Magnus påpeker i en kommentar nedenfor at Dagbladets tekstarkiv nå er åpent, selv om presentasjonen av det sier noe annet. Dette er artikler tilbake til 1996).
  • Dagsavisen: Har aldri prioritert nettutgaven. I 2007 ble den pusset litt opp, men fortsatt går nesten alle ressursene til papiravisen. Behovet for å skaffe seg en bedre nettposisjon er delvis erkjent, men radikale grep er nødvendig. Ã…pning av arkivet er også her en hjørnestein i en offensiv nettstrategi. Også Dagsavisen (Arbeiderbladet) har et arkiv av enorm kulturhistorisk verdi, men det kan også få en kommersiell verdi, direkte og indirekte. Både Dagbladet og Dagsavisen burde for øvrig studere Spiegels varslede samarbeid med andre aktører om å gjøre det nye arkivet til en ledende kunnskapsportal. Noe lignende burde definitivt være mulig i Norge også. Kunnskapsforlaget ville være en opplagt partner, de trenger drahjelp for å få fres på sitt leksikon- og ordboktilbud på nettet.
  • Morgenbladet: Nettutgaven er et rent vedheng til papiravisen, kun bestående av papirartikler (“shovelware”), hvorav de aller fleste befinner seg bak en betalmur. Det er liten grunn til å tro at Morgenbladet vil prioritere nettutgaven særlig høyt, men å åpne arkivet — særlig hvis man kunne gå langt bakover i tid — ville i hvert fall være et konstruktivt første skritt. Morgenbladet ønsker å være en viktig kultur- og debattavis. Uten et levende nettsted vil et slikt organ oppleves som gradvis mer og mer isolert og irrelevant etter hvert som medieforbruket flytter seg til nettet.
  • Klassekampen: Resonnementet om Morgenbladet kan i grunnen bare kopieres for Klassekampens del. Det siste poenget har enda større gyldighet for Klassekampen. Dette er en avis som har alle muligheter til å bygge et stort fellesskap av intenst lojale lesere/brukere på nettet. Isteden har avisen tatt et bevisst valg: ressursbruk på nettutgaven skal holdes på et minimum. Derfor er det liten grunn til å vente at Klassekampen vil ta arkivgrepet i 2008, dessverre.

For samtlige gjelder nok at digitalisering av de delene av arkivet som ennå bare finnes på papir blir et økonomisk løft. Nettopp av den grunn kan det være verdt å vurdere å slå seg sammen, med hverandre og/eller med andre kommersielle og offentlige aktører, for å få større økonomiske muskler og gjøre det endelige tilbudet mer attraktivt. Igjen kan Spiegel og deres Eines Tages-prosjekt være en interessant inspirasjonskilde.

OPPDATERING: Interessant diskusjon om økonomien i Wall Street Journals ventede åpning av sin abonnementsbaserte nettutgave.

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 NYTimes.com 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 NYTimes.com top 10 list, four are columnist pieces and one an editorial. Without knowing the details of NYTimes.com 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”.


Alle nettsteder burde lære av New York Times’ lenkepolitikk. En artikkel/dokument som er publisert på nytimes.com beholder den samme adressen (URL). Til tross for at NYT-arkivet ikke er gratis, vil du altså aldri bli nektet adgang til en artikkel du en gang har bokmerket (dersom du søker opp artikkelen i arkivet, må du derimot betale for å lese den). I hvert fall ser det slik ut for meg, jeg har beholdt en del bokmerker, og alle virker ennå. Den store fordelen: Alle lenker til NYT-artikler, som denne, vil alltid virke.