The increasingly compromised position of journalists
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The increasingly compromised position of journalists

In today’s New York Times, David Carr writes about the subjects of articles demanding to review their quotations before they are published. Needless to say, this practice is corrosive to the practice of legitimate journalism, which is about reporting on things that public figures would not openly tell you on their own.

I think it’s interesting to look at why this is taking place. Not only is the democratization of the media hurting news reporting as a business, but it’s also reducing the value of the media as an interface between public figures and the public. At one time, if public figures wanted to disseminate a message, they had to talk to reporters with the hope that the reporter would convey their message in the way they intended.

That’s no longer necessary. A celebrity, politician, or business leader can publish a tweet, or a tweet that links to a blog post, or a video on YouTube. Those, in turn, will be shared by everyone who cares about them. The idea of making an announcement by giving a reporter an exclusive interview is almost completely dead.

The power to reach the public directly gives public figures the power to dictate the terms of their relationships with reporters. The other side of this story is the increased reliance on anonymous sources in reporting. In the modern age, if you’re going to speak publicly, you may as well just deliver the news yourself. Talking to journalists is what you do if you want to deliver news without having to give your name.

I don’t see this relationship between the media and sources changing anytime soon, so it’s up to us to take this changing relationship into account as media consumers. One thing’s for sure — it’s not a great time to be a journalist.

Fifteen years of missing the point
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Fifteen years of missing the point

Last week I just happened to read a piece of media criticism by James Fallows that was published in The Atlantic in February, 1996. It didn’t surprise me to see that very, very little has changed.

Here’s Fallows, writing about 1995:

In January of last year there was a chance to see how well the lesson had sunk in. In the days just before and after Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address to the new Republican-controlled Congress, he answered questions in a wide variety of forums in order to explain his plans.

On January 31, a week after the speech, the President flew to Boston and took questions from a group of teenagers. Their questions concerned the effects of legislation or government programs on their communities or schools.

Earlier in the month the President’s performance had been assessed by the three network-news anchors: Peter Jennings, of ABC; Dan Rather, of CBS; and Tom Brokaw, of NBC. There was no overlap whatsoever between the questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors. None of the questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of legislation or politics on people’s lives. Nearly all concerned the struggle for individual advancement among candidates.

Today, President Obama answered questions posted on Twitter. The Boston Globe compared the topics of questions put to the President on Twitter to those asked by the White House press corps over the past two weeks. Two percent of the questions asked on Twitter were about negotiations with Congress, compared to 24% of the questions asked by the pro journalists.

I think the good news, though, is that when it comes to getting information about how government policies affect people’s lives, we have a lot more alternative outlets today than we did in 1996. Sure, we have several terrible 24 hour cable news networks that devote more hours than ever to horse race coverage of what’s going on in Washington, DC, but we also have plenty of online outlets that dig deep into the actual results of government policy. That’s a big improvement.

By the way, you should read the article mentioned above, Why Americans Hate the Media. It’s completely relevant and interesting. The footage from the Ethics in America television show mentioned in the article is available on YouTube.

Where is the Amazon Prime of online journalism?
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Where is the Amazon Prime of online journalism?

A lot of people have said that they wished that the New York Times’ new pricing system was more about offering more value for people who do pay rather than putting barriers in the way of people who don’t pay. Those remarks immediately made me think of Amazon Prime.

Amazon Prime subscribers pay $80 a year in exchange for “free” two day shipping on every Prime-eligible item they purchase from Amazon.com. It is, essentially, a loyalty program that you have to pay to join. I’m certain it exerts a powerful influence on the buying habits of subscribers. If a subscriber buys something from a site other than Amazon.com, they’re likely to pay more for shipping, receive the item later, or both. Plus, they’ve already got the sunk cost of the Prime membership on their mind. When they go to other sites, they probably think, “Shouldn’t I look for this on Amazon.com first to see if I can use my Prime membership?”

I always wonder how many Amazon Prime subscribers buy enough stuff over the course of the year to make the $80 they spend on their Prime membership a good deal. My guess is what they’re really buying is the ability to make impulse purchases without worrying about whether they should have waited to group items for free shipping, which in turn leads them to spend even more money with Amazon.com. Amazon.com further benefits from Prime because it encourages third party sellers who use the site to turn their fulfillment operation over to them as well so that their merchandise can be eligible for Prime shipping.

One of the core values at O’Reilly is to create more value than you capture. The fact that Prime benefits Amazon.com in many ways has nothing to do with why people pay for it — they pay for it because it delivers value to them. What can the New York Times offer that creates more value than it captures?

Clearly the New York Times would argue that their articles and blog posts deliver value well beyond their subscription fee. Unfortunately, they have lowered the perceived value of their product by providing free access to their articles for years, and more importantly, close substitutes for what the New York Times offers remain freely available.

Anyway, my plan was to make this a really awesome post with a suggestion for the New York Times that would save the paper and revolutionize online journalism. Unfortunately, great ideas elude me. I even sat and thought about what service I would gladly pay for from the New York Times, and I couldn’t come up with anything. Maybe I’m just happy I don’t work for a news site.

The New York Times tries to thread the needle
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The New York Times tries to thread the needle

The New York Times is about to embark on its latest experiment in getting online readers to pay up. They posted the details today. If you visit the Web site, you’ll be placed under the following constraint:

On NYTimes.com, you can view 20 articles each month at no charge (including slide shows, videos and other features). After 20 articles, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber, with full access to our site.

They are allowing readers who are referred to the site from blogs to read those articles:

Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.

I may or may not pay for the site, but I’m glad they’re going to take some steps to make sure that their relevance doesn’t fall too far in terms of being a site referenced on blogs. I generally don’t subscribe to sites behind paywalls because even if I enjoy them, I can’t link to them from the blog.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the New York Times can thread the needle of earning subscription revenue without losing in the market for attention. Most other sites that have tried it have not done well.

Update: Felix Salmon has some thoughts on the New York Times’ pricing model. I noticed this oddity as well:

Beyond that, $15 per four-week period gives you access to the website and also its smartphone app, while $20 gives you access to the website also its iPad app. But if you want to read the NYT on both your smartphone and your iPad, you’ll need to buy both digital subscriptions separately, and pay an eye-popping $35 every four weeks. That’s $455 a year.

The message being sent here is weird: that access to the website is worth nothing. Mathematically, if A+B=$15, A+C=$20, and A+B+C=$35, then A=$0.

Update: Cory Doctorow’s comments are worth reading as well.

Why do all those galley slaves seem so happy?
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Why do all those galley slaves seem so happy?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the users of social sites being “serfs” and “galley slaves.” Scott Rosenberg has a good rundown of these sentiments at his blog. What I find interesting is that these writers don’t seem to offer the basic value proposition of sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Posterous, or to an even greater degree, user blogs on sites like the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos.

Social sites enable you to exchange control for audience and convenience. Many people don’t understand this tradeoff fully, but they do understand that signing up for Tumblr or posting their links to Facebook is achievable for them in a way that building their own robust Web presence is not. And plenty of people have moved to positions of more control over the years as their writing gains popularity. Plenty of popular blogs started out under the blogspot.com domain and wound up on their own domains.

I’ve set up blogs in pretty much every way you can, including manually editing an HTML file and uploading it to the server when I created new posts, and for my most recent blog, a link blog for people who are interested in college sports at my alma mater, I set up a Tumblr blog on a custom domain. Why? Mainly because the Tumblr bookmarklet makes it so easy to post things to it. I can just read the news I’d read anyway and quickly turn the interesting news into blog posts.

In the end, most people are writing on the Web for fun, and they’re using the software that lets them keep it fun rather than turning it into work. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of social networking sites far better than the professional writers who see them as serfs.

Fox News in a nutshell
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Fox News in a nutshell

James Fallows captures Fox News in a nutshell in a longer post about the significance of NPR:

“News” in the normal sense is a means for Fox’s personalities, not an end in itself. It provides occasions for the ongoing development of its political narrative — the war on American values, the out-of-touchness of Democrats — much as current events give preachers material for sermons.

The journalist’s dilemma
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The journalist’s dilemma

Finance blogger Steve Waldman explains what it’s like to meet Treasury Department officials who he normally criticizes:

Abstractly, I think some of them should be replaced and perhaps disgraced. But having chatted so cordially, I’m far less likely to take up pitchforks against them. Drawn to the Secretary’s conference room by curiosity, vanity, ambition, and conceit, I’ve been neutered a bit. There’s some irony to that, because some of the people I met with may have been neutered, in precisely the same way and to disastrous effect, by their own meetings and mentorings with the Robert Rubins and Jamie Dimons of the world.

I think this passage explains in large part why big name journalists are generally so horrible at their jobs.

Political science vs political journalism, continued
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Political science vs political journalism, continued

Christopher Beam illustrates the point I was trying to make about political journalism and political science the other day with humor:

A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday—an arbitrary event that had no affect on the trajectory of American politics.

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

He goes on. Funny, and accurate.