Sell sell sell

Up until the recent recession, it was advertisers who paid for most of your news. Not all of it – the cover price of the newspaper covered some of the costs, and of course there’s the BBC – but publishing was able to be a truly profitable business because of advertisers paying for access to readers. And the more trusted and reputable the journal, the more valuable it could be as a vehicle to advertisers.

Why does your English let you down?

Some of the most successful ads piggyback on a newspaper’s style like mutating parasites, to borrow even more of the hosts authoritative gloss. Earlier this week, the Guardian celebrated the “Does your English let you down?” ad, which has been running pretty much continuously for almost 50 years. “Initially the reader thinks it’s part of editorial,” says Bob Heap of the Practical English Programme: “We used to match the typefaces of the newspaper it was printed in.”

Advertisers can also pay for a newspaper or magazine to produce ad copy in the house style of the journal – advertorial. Whenever this appears, it should always be clearly marked out from the editorial, both to avoid misleading the reader and to protect the paper or magazine’s reputation from corruption. In Free, Chris Anderson compares this approach to the relevance practiced in online ads – which deliberately places ads next to content on the same subject – and wonders whether print editors are over-punctilious about distinguishing ads from editorial:

It’s also entirely possible that we in the traditional media business have it all wrong.Perhaps we are just flattering ourselves with our church-and-state pursuit of purity, and readers don’t care or even notice if a Sony ad is next to a Sony review. Perhaps they would even prefer that and it’s our writers who are the real obstacles, afraid that anyone might think that their opinion has been bought.

Chris Anderson, Free (Random House Business, 2009), pp. 138-9

What’s interesting is that Anderson doesn’t place any value on ad/ed separation as a way of preventing influence, only as a way of preventing the appearance of influence: as far as he’s concerned here, if the reader doesn’t perceive a problem, then there is no problem.

Advertisers, on the other hand, are very conscious of a relationship between the ad and the copy. The presence of illegitimate, ramshackle and unwholesome material has been cited as one of the reasons for the reluctance to sponsor YouTube; the same caution might be about to be extended to newspaper comments sections, as advertisers weigh up the high engagement seen in unmoderated comments sections with the fact that most of the engagement is with racist, vituperative loons.

But just because advertisers seem to agree with some of the principle behind the “Great Wall of China” which Anderson describes, they don’t all necessarily agree with his idea of best practice – and nor do all newspapers, it turns out, since the Express has been nailed by the ASA for running specious “news” copy on a bunch of dubious-sounding CAM treatments alongside adverts for the same products:

The ASA said the articles were “always and uniquely favourable to the product featured in the accompanying ads and contained claims that have been or would be likely to be prohibited in advertisements”.

“We considered that the average reader would have understood the entire page to be a feature on the product, no matter the distinct styles of the top and bottom of the pages,” said the ASA in its ruling.

“We considered that by using that approach the publisher and advertiser were intentionally attempting to circumvent the [advertising] code by asserting the top of the pages were not advertising.”

The Guardian, “ASA raps Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers over advertorials”

(Interesting, as ever, that it falls to the ASA rather than the PCC to correct a practice in which the paper appears to be as culpable as the advertisers.)

Advertising still needs editorial, and editorial needs advertising as much as ever, but they can only have any value to each other if both maintain a basic propriety: whatever financial gain the Express and their advertisers took from this arrangement has probably been wiped out by the loss of reputation both parties brought upon themselves.

Edit 19 August: The ASA’s full judgement is here.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Unlike a blacksmith

blacksmithIn a world where subs weren’t being stripped away to a rump, the “journalists are doomed like blacksmiths” cliché would be getting green-inked into oblivion. Sadly, we live in this world, with editing viewed as an expendible cost, leaving writers free to jerk out thoughtless comparisons on the future of their trade, and no one on hand to instill any quality. And so we find Chris Anderson talking to Der Spiegel, repeating the old journalist/blacksmith analogy:

In the past, the media was a full-time job. But maybe the media is going to be a part time job. Maybe media won’t be a job at all, but will instead be a hobby. There is no law that says that industries have to remain at any given size. Once there were blacksmiths and there were steel workers, but things change.

Der Spiegel, “Chris Anderson on the economics of Free”

Anderson’s problems with language start at the very beginning of the interview, when he rules out a bunch of perfectly servicable signifiers (“Sorry, I don’t use the word media. I don’t use the word news. I don’t think that those words mean anything anymore”) before helpfully declaring that “There are no other words.” But the blacksmith reference really riles me.

I’ve written before about why I find this trope unconvincing for journalism. Blacksmiths made a product which was muscled out by technical innovations that allowed functionally-identical (or better) items to be made cheaper. The work of a journalist can’t be mechanically substituted – it has to be performed by a person going through certain processes from research to writing to publication.

There are chunks of the print trade that have become technically obsolete, and as the move into digital publishing continues, more people are going to become unemployed: the paper and ink manufacturers, the warehouse employees, the newsagents. But journalism itself – the thing that is distributed – isn’t necessarily going to be stripped away by a change of format, and it’s rather embarrassing that journalists’ main angle on the electronic transition so far has been their own job security.

At the moment, newspapers and magazines are feeling pressure to retrench while they work out how to make money from electronic publishing. But one of the things that Anderson’s Free argument falls down on is that Free doesn’t seem to be quite the unalterable “force of gravity” he thinks – there are studies that show the people who make the most use of free stuff are also the people most willing to spend on similar material. And the people who spend are going to need something worthy of their cash, as John McIntyre writes:

Once journalism, print and electronic, has stabilized in a business model that no longer requires the ceaseless cuts in staff and reductions of product that have marked the past few years, it will begin to reconstruct itself. As it does so, some publishers will once again aspire to credibility and quality. Some, as always, will happily churn out junk so long as money can be made off it, but a few will seek more dignity. Some always do.

Those who so aspire will come to see that editing is indispensable and will begin to employ more editors as revenues permit. Those editors will not likely work in the structure that newspapers favored for more than a century, but whatever structure develops will take cognizance of unchanging principles:

Credibility rises from accuracy; accuracy requires checking.

Readers want clarity; clarity and focus come from editing.

Writers, who are not necessarily the best judges of their own work, benefit from a dispassionate analysis of their prose before publication.

The best writers benefit from editing; the less-accomplished require it.

You Don’t Say, “After the storm”

In fact, Anderson admits this much when he tells his interviewer that “If you have attention and reputation, you can figure out how to monetize it.” Media outlets that plan to retain their value had better retain – and pay for – their standards.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by caravinagre, used under Creative Commons.

Wired up

How does UK Wired celebrate the merits of Free? With a spread of specially-commissioned illustrations, printed on a metallic ink background – one of the MOST EXPENSIVE FINISHES KNOWN TO MAN – of course:Wired Free! spreadThe Free theory isn’t much more than loss-leader marketing gussied up, and it’s something that Wired has been particularly good at. Running several active blogs and a busy Twitter account keeps them in touch with a readership whose interest in technology makes them less likely to head to the newsagent; the excellence of the mag makes it worth buying, even if Condé Nast have made enough of the content free-to-access online for purchasing to be optional.

And the things which make Wired desirable all cost money. The design. The inks. The artwork. The editorial process is multi-layered: according to the commissioning guide, editors select pitches, compete for space in the magazine and work with their writers throughout the research and writing period – and the resulting features are smarter and better-written than almost anything else you can read.

Not everyone thinks this approach is working.  Newspaper Deathwatch, writing about the US edition, points to a fall-off of advertising and an awkward market position as it predicts a troubled future for the title:

Wired Stuck in the Middle

And what about Wired, the hip digital lifestyle magazine that chronicled the dot-com revolution? Surely it has figured out how to bridge the print-digital divide. Nope. Its business is in the tank, and even Chris Anderson, the new-economy guru editor whose books have foreseen foretold the emergence of hyper targeted media and free content, doesn’t seem to know what to do.

Ad pages are off 50% this year, making Wired the third worst performer among the 150 magazines tracked by MIN. The problem may be systemic.  Wired serves the digerati, whose natural preference is online media.  The publication’s website is operated almost entirely independent of the magazine, and despite multiple design awards, the print version of Wired has been unable to find the popular appeal that could make it a million-circ powerhouse. At 704,000 subscribers, it’s one of the smallest magazines in the Condé Nast portfolio. It lacks the scale to support giant branding campaigns by luxury products, but is too large to deliver efficiency for smaller advertisers.  It’s an uncomfortable place to be: in the middle.  And Condé Nast, which has already shuttered two major titles this year, is probably not in the position to invest in it.

Newspaper Deathwatch, “Malaise spreads to magazines”

“Major titles” is a bit of an oversell for Portfolio and Domino – well-regarded titles within Condé Nast for sure, but relatively new. Still, the CN empire looks like the sort of thing that the internet ought to kill off, and when the Observer profiled Si Newhouse and his company, the article adopted a nostalgic attitude towards a company that’s still a terribly long way from dead (even if many of its major personnel aren’t).

What Wired and its parent company specialise in is excellence. It is increasingly possible for an excellent magazine to be a boutique production, so perhaps publishing houses like CN will prove shortly to be redundant. For all the pleasure there might be in gloating over Chris Anderson, though, I would like to see Wired do ok; and I think the potential for CN to use Wired as a test case in surviving the internet means it makes business sense to look after it.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Free! to the South West

24-7

My local area has its own experiment with the Free! model. Bristol 24-7 is a free-to-read online news portal, set up and operated by Chris Brown, and he’s just reported his first run-in with his print media rivals:

In a nutshell, [The Bristol Evening Post] insisted that I could not rewrite its content and publish it on my site, even with a credit in the first paragraph and a link back to the original source on its website. A particularly amusing complaint considering newspapers up and down the country have passed off re-writes as their own for years.

If you came into Paperhouse before May this year, then you know that I’ve had my concerns about the newsgathering and reporting techniques of, not the BEP specifically, but its sister papers in the region, so I’ve got a bit of sympathy with Brown’s dig here. Meanwhile, the Evening Post’s attempt to defend itself from competition by preventing other websites from summarising and linking to its contents (a technique that’s recently been given a speculative legal outing in the States) is simply asinine, entirely missing the operation of the link economy online and stretching copyright to the point of smashing discussion. Brown:

My reply to them was that if they really felt they had no need of free publicity from sites such as mine, which aims to provide people with a full range of news from ALL sources, then that was fine. I would in future take their own stories on myself, adding new angles and better balance of the issues, but would have no obligation to credit them as the original source. The fact is though is that I will continue to do that anyway, because I feel it is more honest and gives readers the chance to decide for themselves on the validity of what they are being presented.

Their attitude was not surprising, but goes to the heart of why the business of producing news is suffering so much in the internet age. My opinion is: you cannot ‘own’ news. […]

And yet – news isn’t just a thing awaiting discovery, out there where anyone can see it. It takes time, skill, funds and resources to make a good story – fixed costs that can’t be digitised out of existence – and as Brown rises to his Free! theme, it starts to sound as though he’s thought through every expense involved in news production and distribution, apart from the actual journalism:

On Wednesday, I went to listen to Chris Anderson from Wired magazine in the US speak at a Festival of Ideas evening at @Bristol. The main point I took was that in the old economy of producing “stuff” – material goods – the costs inevitably rose year on year. But in the digital age the same pattern is repeating in reverse, the cost of producing digital material and content is falling year on year.

What this means for journalists – and the people who still, I believe, want to read the news of what is happening in their community – is that the ability and costs to spread this news is falling closer and closer to zero. And this takes the power of “ownership” out of the hands of traditional news suppliers. We do not have to rely on them to find out what is happening in our city.

That is how it should be. News was never meant to be owned in a democracy. It is about what happens to us and the people around us. And we are free to share it as far and wide as we can.

Like Phil Chamberlain, I appreciate that Bristol 24-7 hasn’t launched itself on a slurry on unpaid interns. But for all the inspiring talk of democracy and freedom, what it actually seems able to offer is a long way short of the sort of detailed scrutiny that could earn those terms – and unless it begins to see “new angles and better balance of the issues” as essential parts of reporting rather than the optional extras that let you carry off someone else’s story, it’s hard to feel hopeful for the 24-7 vision of the future.

© Sarah Ditum 2009