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July 16, 2010, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Paying for obits online, ESPN’s news-ad fusion, and the great replacement debate

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Should papers charge for obits on the web?: We’ve written a whole bunch about Steve Brill’s paid-online-news venture Journalism Online around these parts, and the company’s first Press+ system went live on a newspaper site this week, with Pennsylvania’s LancasterOnline obits section going to a metered pay model for out-of-town visitors. PaidContent has a good summary of how the arrangement works: Out-of-towners get to view seven obits a month, after which point they’re asked to pay $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year for more access. Obits make up only 6 percent of the site’s pageviews, but the paper’s editor is estimating $50,000 to $150,000 in revenue from the paywall.

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell offered a detailed look at the numbers behind the decision and said the plan has several characteristics in its favor: It has valuable content that’s tough to find elsewhere, flexible payment, and doesn’t alienate core (local) readers. (He did note, though, that the paper isn’t providing anything new of value.) Most other media watchers on the web weren’t so impressed. MinnPost’s David Brauer was skeptical of Lancaster’s revenue projections, but noted that obits are a big deal for small-town papers. Lost Remote’s David Weinfeld was dubious of the estimates, too, wondering how many out-of-towners would actually be willing to pay to read obit after obit. GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts’ denouncement of the plan is the most sweeping: “Every assumption it’s based on — from projected audience to the percentage of readers that might be willing to pay — is flawed.”

TBD’s Steve Buttry posted his own critique of the plan, centering on the fact that the paper is double-dipping by charging people to both read and publish obits. The paper’s editor, Ernie Schreiber, fired back with a rebuttal (the experiment is intended to help define their online audience, he said, and no, they’re not double-dipping any more than charging for an ad and a subscription), and Buttry responded with a point-by-point counter. Finally, Buttry came up with the most constructive part of the discussion: A proposal for newspapers on how to handle obituaries, with seven different free and paid obit options for newspapers to offer families. Jeff Sonderman offered a different type of proposal, arguing that obituaries should be free to place and read, because if they aren’t, they’re about to be Craigslisted.

Meanwhile, MinnPost’s Brauer discovered that all you need to bypass the paywall is FireFox’s NoScript add-on, and Schreiber added a few more work-arounds while responding that he’s not worried, because the tech-geek and obit-junkie crowds don’t have a whole lot of overlap. Reuters’ Felix Salmon backed Schreiber up, arguing that a loose paywall is much better than a firm one that unwittingly harasses loyal customers.

A new degree of news-advertising mixture: We may have caught a glimpse into one less-than-savory aspect of the future of journalism late last week through the sports media world, when ESPN aired “The Decision.” Here’s what happened, for the sports-averse: 25-year-old NBA superstar LeBron James was set to make his much-anticipated free agency decision this summer, and ESPN agreed to air James’ announcement of which team he’d play for last Thursday night on a one-hour special. The arrangement originated from freelance sportscaster Jim Gray and James’ marketing company, which dictated the site of the special, James’ interviewer (Gray, naturally), and a deal in which the show’s advertising proceeds (all lined up by James’ company) would go toward James’ designated charity, the Boys and Girls Club. ESPN insisted that it would otherwise have full editorial control.

The show — and particularly the manner in which it was set up — received universally scathing reviews from sports media watchers: Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch called it “the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to,” legendary sportswriter Buzz Bissinger said ESPN’s ethical conflict was so big it can never be fully trusted as a news source, Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik fumed that “never in the history of sports has the media behaved in a such a whored-out, dazed, confused and crass a manner,” and L.A. Times media critic James Rainey accused ESPN of playing up both sides of a spectacle it created.

The ethical conflict seemed even worse when there was a report that Gray, the interviewer, was paid by James, rather than ESPN (as it turned out, ESPN covered his expenses, but other than that he says he wasn’t paid at all). But the true details, as revealed by Advertising Age, were almost as shocking: ESPN had previously hoped to arrange a special program before its sports awards show, the ESPYs, with James handing out the first award just after his announcement.

Ad Age’s phenomenal article hammered home another important point for those concerned about the future of news: This program represented a new level of integration between advertising and news, and even a new breed of advertiser-driven news programming. Ad Age detailed the remarkable amount of exposure that the program’s advertisers received, and included superagent Ari Emanuel, the man who orchestrated the arrangement, boasting that “we’re getting closer to pushing the needle on advertiser-content programming.” In his typically overheated style, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called the show “the prototype for all future news coverage,” in which a few dominant news organizations create their own versions of reality in a race for advertising money, while a few scattered web denizens try to ferret out the real story.

Replacing the newspaper, or complementing it?: This week, the University of Missouri School of Journalism publicized a study that its scholars published this spring comparing citizen-driven news sites and blogs with daily newspaper websites. The takeaway claim from Mizzou’s press release — and, in turn, Editor & Publisher’s blurb — was that citizen journalism sites aren’t replacing the work that was being done by downsizing traditional news organizations. Not surprisingly, that drew a few people’s criticism: Ars Technica’s John Timmer said the study provides evidence not so much that citizen-driven sites are doing poorly, but that legacy media sites are embracing many of the web’s best practices. He and TBD’s Jeff Sonderman also pointed out that if one startup news site is lacking in an area, web users are smart enough to just find another one. The question isn’t whether a citizen journalism site can replace a newspaper site, Sonderman said, it’s whether a whole amateur system, with its capacity for growth and specialization, can complement or replace the one newspaper site in town.

TBD’s Steve Buttry (who must have had a lot of free time this week) delivered a point-by-point critique of the study, making a couple of salient points: It ignores the recent spate of professional online-only news organizations and vastly over-represents traditional news sites’ relative numbers, and, of course, the long-argued point that the question of whether one type of journalism can replace another is silly and pointless. One of the Mizzou scholars responded to Buttry, which he quotes at the end of his post, that the researchers had no old-media agenda.

After hearing about all of that debate, it’s kind of strange to read the study itself, because it doesn’t actually include any firm conclusions about the ability of citizen-led sites to replace newspapers. In its discussion section, the study does make a passing reference to “the inability of citizen news sites to become substitutes for daily newspaper sites” and briefly states that those sites would be better substitutes for weekly papers, but the overall conclusion of the study is that citizen sites work better as complements to traditional media, filling in hyperlocal news and opinion that newspapers have abandoned. That’s quite similar to the main point that Buttry and Sonderman are making. The study’s guiding question may be deeply flawed, as those two note, but its endpoint isn’t nearly as inflammatory as it was publicized to be.

Looking at a BBC for the U.S.: A few folks went another round in the government-subsidy-for-news debate this week when Columbia University president Lee Bollinger wrote an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal advocating for a stronger public-media system in the U.S., one that could go toe-to-toe with the BBC. Bollinger argued that we’re already trusting journalists to write independent accounts of corporate scandals like the BP oil spill while their news organizations take millions of dollars in advertising from those companies, so why would journalism’s ethical standards change once the government is involved?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson agreed that government-funded journalism doesn’t have to be a terrifying prospect, but several others online took issue with that stance: CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said we need to teach journalists to build self-sustaining businesses instead, and two British j-profs, George Brock and Roy Greenslade, both argued that Bollinger needs to wake up and see the non-institutional journalistic ecosystem that’s springing up to complement crumbling traditional media institutions. But the people who do want an American BBC are in luck, because the site launched this week.

Reading roundup: A few cool things to think on this weekend:

— Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review has a long story on what is a safe bet to be one of the two or three most talked about issues in the industry over the next year: How to bring in revenue from mobile media.

— French media consultant Frederic Filloux asks what he rightly calls “an unpleasant question”: Do American newspapers have too many journalists? It’s not a popular argument, but he has some statistics worth thinking about.

— Adam Rifkin has a well-written post that’s been making the rounds lately about why Google doesn’t do social well: It’s about getting in, getting out and getting things done, while social media’s about sucking you in.

— The New York Times and the Lab have profiles of two startups, Techmeme and Spotery, that are living examples of the growing role of human-powered editing alongside algorithmic authority. And Judy Sims urges newspapers to embrace the social nature of life (and news) online.

— Finally, news you can use: A great Poynter feature on ways news organizations can use Tumblr, from someone who used it very well: Mark Coatney, formerly of Newsweek, now of Tumblr.

POSTED     July 16, 2010, 10 a.m.
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