New Model Journalism

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Archive for the ‘Alternative revenue’ Category

Narrative Science and the rise of the robot-writer

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

The prospect of machines taking over the world, either as our servants or our masters, has long fascinated, appearing in sci-fi novels and books for at least half a century. But while intelligent robots capable of household management may yet be some way off, a new breed of automated authors, revolutionising the world of journalism, has already arrived.

Its strongest representative comes in the form of Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company that develops software able to convert large quantities of numerical data into readable prose. The company, whose strapline boasts that it ‘transforms data into stories and insight’, tends to cater for niche markets in finance and sport. It numbers among its thirty clients the business information giant Forbes, for whom it has created a platform able to predict company earnings. Naturally, the customisation of the software requires considerable human input: the staff at Narrative Science input the range of stories and angles along with the preferred house style, but thereafter comes a reliable flow of mass-produced stories tailored to each client’s needs.

As astute commentators have pointed out, the implications of such a development for writers trying to earn a crust by hand and brain are double-edged. The obvious threat to traditional journalists that accompanies the attraction of cheap, plentiful copy for publishers, are cogently expressed by Evgeny Morozov:

‘First of all, it’s much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect,’ he writes in Slate. ‘As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science’s clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article—and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose. Not even Christopher Hitchens could beat that deadline.’

On the other hand, in an article published in the Atlantic earlier this month, Joe Fassler argues that in taking the drudgery out of writing, robot-writers could improve the journalist’s lot, freeing them up to concentrate on more creative, interesting projects. ‘In theory,’ he writes, ‘Narrative Science could change that, working like a team of cheap interns to scour the dross, find the gems, and deliver insight. With bales and bales of mind-numbing government and corporate documents to sort through, Narrative Science could eventually help writers find the needle in the haystack.’

Context, of course, is all: for this to happen, journalists would need to keep their jobs and, it’s important to note, lone freelance operators would not be able to afford the services of the likes of Narrative Science.

But it’s in the less obvious implications of automated authorship that the real threat to the human lies, both commentators suggest. As the trend towards personalisation continues, with information-providers more and more driven to tailor their products to the needs of the individual, the robot-writer will dig ever-deeper into the privacy of the reader, harnessing her tastes for its own, commercially-motivated ends:

‘The real threat comes from our refusal to investigate the social and political consequences of living in a world where reading anonymously becomes a near impossibility,’ writes Morozov. ‘It’s a world that advertisers—along with Google, Facebook, and Amazon—can’t wait to inhabit, but it’s also a world where critical, erudite and unconventional thinking may become harder to nurture and preserve.’

Meanwhile, Fassler, having interviewed the folk at Narrative Science, is a partial convert to automated writing, concludes that fears about the threat to the other end of the creative process – the writer’s – are unfounded:

‘Even our simplest moments are awash in data that machines will never quantify—the way it feels to take a breath, a step, the way the sun cuts through the trees. How, then, could any machine begin to understand the ways we love and hunger and hurt? The net contributions of science and art, history and philosophy, can’t parse the full complexity of a human instant, let alone a life. For as long as this is true, we’ll still have a role in writing.’

Written by Alex

April 30th, 2012 at 6:42 am

Journalists nail down new income stream

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

A growing number of journalists are bucking the downturn in the media by taking up work in the beauty sector, New Model Journalism has learnt.

A sample survey conducted by the site suggests that up to 7.8 per cent of journalists are tapping into the boom in the nail bars. Nail bars are increasingly dominating the high street, growing by 16.5 per cent in 2011, according to a survey by the Local Data Company.

Typically, a media worker will start by doing shifts in their local nail bar, gradually acquiring the full set of skills needed to become nail professionals.

‘Initially, I didn’t know one end of an emery board from another,’ said Andrew Hoffman, a former photographer. ‘But I quickly grasped the importance of filing from the outside in, and of following the right stages when giving a French manicure.’

Some entrepreneurially-minded hacks are going even further and establishing their own nail bars in prominent high street locations.

‘I couldn’t have done it without the help of the NUJ’s Diversification Organiser,’ said one, who wishes to remain anonymous until his re-branding is complete.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some journalists are developing specialisms in the way that, in former times, they would have specialised in areas such as social care or the aviation industry. Fish pedicure bars, which are opening faster than fishmongers, offer one potentially lucrative specialism.

And, with brow and lash bars becoming increasingly fashionable in the States, it looks as if there will be plenty of scope for media-weary hacks to carry on diversifying in future.

Written by Alex

April 1st, 2012 at 3:27 am

Cultural inertia threatens newspaper revenues

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New research from the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism lays bare the struggle being endured by existing print media and it tries to reposition its business for a digital age.  On the promise on anonymity, Pew researchers persuaded 38 newspapers (mostly in the US), from six different companies, to share a significant body of internal data.

With exceptions, the picture that emerges is this.  For every $1 that these papers gained from new digital ventures, they lost $7 from traditional print revenue.   Some lost revenue from both sources last year.  As well as crunching a lot of figures, the Pew researchers also interviewed many senior executives –and the picture that emerges from them is as fascinating as it is depressing.

For the moment, the bulk of newspaper revenue comes from traditional print sources.  Having long enjoyed local advertising monopolies, their business operations find it difficult to turn their attention from the large, if declining receipts from this source.  Digital income might be growing, but until it forms a larger proportion of those newspapers’ incomes, it is unlikely to be the focus of their activity.

The risks of waiting for this to happen, however, are considerable – as David Parkin has shown with thebusinessdesk.com.  He was able to attract advertisers from his old employer The Yorkshire Post, with a dramatically cheaper ratecard and the absolutely dependable metrics of click-through.  Pew characterise the ‘heritage’ media as suffering ‘cultural inertia’ when trying to shift the focus of their businesses.

There are glimmers of light in the Pew report.  One of the papers that generated most digital revenue, was selling targeted digital advertising that was customised around customers online behaviour.  The company in question considered this to be its biggest likely growth area – but was the only one of the 38 papers selling this kind of smart advertising.

Another company was buttressing its traditional newspaper business with a consulting business to help its advertisers and other businesses to position themselves in the digital landscape.

The scale of the mountain that newspapers need to climb can be gauged from The Guardian’s sometimes frenetic efforts to dramatically grow its digital revenue – after a decade of trying.  Its latest volley of initiatives, including massive above-the-line brand advertising, Facebook apps, and a version of the newspaper being offered on tv.  These come with the stated ambition of doubling the £45m revenue that the paper currently generates online.  Given that GMG, The Guardian’s holding company, made trading losses of £46.2m in 2009/10, the urgency of this task is obvious.

No doubt more newspapers will survive the next decade that some naysayers allow for.  I suspect that the ones that are most likely to endure will be those that transform their businesses so completely that they are scarcely recognisable to those who know them in their current forms.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

March 12th, 2012 at 7:45 am

Think of a number and double/halve it: the science behind online subs pricing

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Comment by Tim Dawson

Deciding whether it makes business sense putting online publications behind paywalls is increasingly like finding scientific evidence for the existence of God.  Your conclusion appears to be determined more by pre-existing prejudice than from any meaning actually extracted from data.

In the past week, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star has abandoned the paywall that it had erected around its content in April 2011, which gave access to the entire paper’s content for £2.81 a week.  The paper’s publisher did not elaborate on the reasons for the lifting of the paywall, but did announce new iPhone and iPad apps for its content.

The New York Times announced that it has seen no change in traffic to its sites, since it put up a soft paywall and Mecom, which publishes a range of European newspapers on the web, has switched from providing free content to 1.2m subscribers to requiring that customers will have to pay.

The Scotsman, too, has just launched a very attractive iPad app, which is free for 30 days but will cost £7.99 a month thereafter.

This price point is illustrative of another area in which the fog over paywalls is so thick as to make cool analysis difficult – pricing.  At the top of the tree is the Financial Times.  Full access to its content via an iPad costs £353 a year.  The Times/Sunday Times’ digital package (which is for seven papers a week compared to the FT’s six) is just £104 a year.  That makes The Scotsman’s app, at £96 a year (also for just six papers a week) looks pricey.

Check out the costs of a Kindle subscription to any of these papers, and the picture becomes more confused.  A Kindle sub to the FT will cost you just £216 a year, The Times, on the other hand, costs £120 a year.  The Guardian and Observer, usually so opposed to charges for digital content, also ask £120 a year to read their content on your Kindle.

Magazines are no less unpredictable.  The Spectator’s cover price is £3.50, but an annual, posted subscription to the actual magazine can be had for £104 a year.  A Kindle sub, on the other hand, costs just £36. A paper subscription to The Economist can be had for £102 a year, but the Kindle subscription cost £120 annually.

Does any of this matter? This is, after all, an emerging market in which established commercial practices and price norms have clearly not settled down. There is a compelling argument that the way to profit from digital subscriptions is to make the process of paying so seamless that consumers hardly notice that they have signed up at all.

However, there is surely also a risk of leaving consumers feeling cheated. Even those who have committed to paying for content at the moment face a bewildering search for the best deal.  At least most publishers allow a reasonably generous ‘cooling off’ period, in case you plump for a Kindle version, say, and then decide that you would prefer the enhancements of reading on an iPad.  Nevertheless, it would be hard to blame anyone for deciding to keep their credit cards in their pockets in the face of such apparently Chinese-menu marketing and mixed messages about the sustainability of any charging model.

 

 

Written by Tim Dawson

January 30th, 2012 at 5:37 am

Local press: adrift without a compass and in danger of disappearing

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I met the editor of one of Britain’s oldest regional dailies at a social event recently.  We chatted about the worrying state of the media and with a resigned sigh he said:  “I am hoping that the paper will see me out”.  He is in his mid-50s and the title he edits has been published since the early days of Victoria’s reign.

It was not a carefully considered opinion, nor an official announcement – but I suspect that it tells you something of how adrift the management of Britain’s regional press has become.  Few seem to see any real future for their titles beyond getting out with their own nest suitably feathered.  Indeed, as I write dark rumours are abroad that one of the regional press ‘big three’ (Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and Newsquest/Garnett) is about to announce the complete closure of some of its best known, and biggest selling daily titles.

Of course the nation’s attention is currently concentrated on the national media – although if you ask most MPs they will tell you that they are more concerned about the demise of their local papers than with the misdeeds of some of the nationals.   But in a few dark corners, some thought is being given to whether anything can save local media from their seemingly inevitable slide.

Neil Fowler, for example, the Guardian research fellow at Nuffield College, came up with a 10 point plan to save local newspapers – Jon Slattery republished it here.  It is not altogether without merit – although the idea of a debt write-off is a bit rich for companies that have treated their employees abominably while extracting returns on capital of as much at 30%.

More worrying, though, nothing that Fowler suggests would cure regional newspapers of the mixture of arrogance and flat footedness that they have made their trademark in recent years.  The most perfect example of this is in the success of thebusinesspages.com.  Johnston Press can’t really be blamed for allowing the The Yorkshire Post’s business editor to waltz out of the door and snatch a decent chunk of their market from under their noses – after all, it was a new and original idea that he had.

What is astonishing is that the publishers of the Manchester Evening News and the Birmingham Post sat back and let him do the same again, after his already well-publicised success in Leeds.

The ‘Confidential’ group of websites is another example of the kind of venture that newspapers themselves could be spearheading.   Regional newspapers used to have their commercial departments strangle at birth, any who had the audacity to try publishing under their noses.  Today they appear to adopt the attitude of a pensioner watching the local children steal all the apples from their garden with a shrug that says – ‘oh well, at least they are being eaten’.

There have been local news triumphs.  During the recent riots, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star saw daily visits to it website swell to 835,000 – which is pretty good for a town whose population is 240,000.  Archant’s Ipswich newspapers reporting of the Steve Wright/Ipswich murders trail saw teams of reporters covering the court case in short shifts so that the website could be updated hourly as the case proceeded.  But heartening as these examples are, they are both responses to a news challenge, rather than innovation in the business of journalism.

Declining sales and a tight advertising market make this a desperately difficult market in which to innovate.   But unless local papers do start thinking anew, they are on a certain course for catastrophe.  In 2009, Enders Analysis predicted that half of all local newspapers would shut within five years.  Sadly, not much has happened in the intervening period to contradict this view.  What a shame that in all the earnest attention that is being focused on the media as a result of the Leveson inquiry, almost none will consider local newspapers.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 21st, 2011 at 5:02 am

Moving to a new beat – online music tutorials flourish after band bookings bomb

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Case study by Tim Dawson

Two-and-a-half years after fully focusing on producing online bass-guitar tutorials, Paul Wolfe is earning around £70,000 a year from his business.  Approximately 500 subscribers pay $127 annual subscription for his weekly magazine and instructive video, other eBook products sell hundreds of copies at prices generally between $100 and $200.  Indeed, so confident has Wolfe become of his methods that he now offers consulting services for those hoping to emulate his success.

It is a dramatic turn around from 2007 when 48 year old Wolfe’s party-band business was hit hard by the recession.   But while his tutorials have taken off in ways that he did not anticipate, a great deal of work goes into his product.  He estimates that he devotes three full days a week producing new material for students.

How-to-play-bass.com started life when a friend’s child asked for help mastering the bass.  Wolfe, who has earned his living as a musician since abandoning a career as a surveyor in his 20s and is based in Wimbledon, in south west London, started recording lessons, which he posted on Youtube.  This mushroomed into a free weekly newsletter, which he gave away in the hope that he might sell some allied eBooks.  As his list of subscribers climbed towards 4,000, though, Wolfe realised that not enough of them were actually converting to paying customers.

“From the moment when Lehman Brothers when bust, our phone stopped ringing.  Eighty per cent of my band’s customers were corporate and from that moment on I realised that I had to make the internet business work, or rob a bank”, he says.

What he calls his ‘genius feature’ was the product of a happy accident, however.  On early tutorials, which then and now he creates in his home studio with a single, self-operated camera, he explained how to play the notes and played along with a recording of the song.  These were caught by Youtube’s copyright filter and deleted.  To get around this, Wolfe stated to create two qualities of tutorial.  On the free-to-view variant, he talks viewers through the notes and techniques, and plays along to a metronome.  A far more detailed, subscriber-only version, includes playing along with a proper recording and a more detailed instructions.

By adding progressively to the song-tutorial videos, he draws customers in through search engines and then starts to attract them towards his ‘sales funnel’.  At the moment he attracts around 600 unique visitors to his site a day.  His free weekly newsletter is sent to around 8,000 people and around 500 pay for the 50 page weekly magazine and video lesson.

He undertakes all the web coding and page layout himself, so the only costs to his business are accountancy, web hosting and email management, which cost him around £2,000 a year..  His main website is written in static html, although he says that were he starting again he would use WordPress, for its ease of whole-site revisions.

“I price in dollars because 80% of my market is American”, he says.  “Europeans are used to working in more than one currency in a way that Americans are not.”  Subscribers are offered early deals on other eBooks – he has recently published one on playing in the style of Motown bass players – and some have bought as much as $1,500 worth of product from him.  “It is both a humbling and slightly weird experience to have sold so much”, he reflects.

Needless to say, Wolfe is by no means the only person offering online music tutorials.  Search Youtube for instruction to play the part of a particular instrument on almost any well-known song, and there are plenty of amateur videos.  There are also paid for courses from quite slick providers, such as teachmebassguitar.com, beside which Wolfe’s offering is positively home brew.

His formula works, however, because he has a likable, easy-to-follow manner to camera and, he visibly works very hard to deliver for his audience.  A teenage ambition to write popular fiction has given him an easy facility with words and, although his screen style is low key, he leaves you in no doubt that he knows his stuff and he is passionately committed to passing on his skills.  Whether his sales continue to grow as they have over the past two years remains to be seen, but he seems to be as savvy about his business as he is rhythmically sound when he picks up his guitar.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 7th, 2011 at 5:27 am

Under the spotlight: Citizen journalism site Blottr

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Since launching a little over a year ago, Blottr, or ‘the people powered news service’, has been growing exponentially.

With regional sites covering eight UK cities including London and Leeds, Blottr has recently expanded overseas, launching sites in France and Germany. Its traffic is impressive – 1.6 million unique users a month, or nearly four million page impressions – and the site’s own research suggests that the demographic of the readers is reassuringly mainstream: a quarter are students, and the rest an equal male-female split of adults aged 18-52.

Founder Adam Baker, a former digital projects director at Northcliffe Media,
is evangelical about the ability of a news service largely created by ordinary people to ‘disrupt’, as he puts it, the practices of traditional media organisations increasingly struggling to put reporters on the ground. ‘That’s the power of citizen journalism’, he says. ‘People at the scene are best placed to report it.’

‘The riots did us a massive favour,’ he adds. ‘We got nearly three million unique users over three days that propelled us into mainstream awareness, and broke the riots exclusively in Ealing and Woolwich.’

He also claims that Blottr published the first footage of the shooting of Gaddafi in Europe, just eight minutes after the event, considerably before mainstream media such as Sky.

The 24-hour news operation is overseen by a single editor supported by a handful of community and country managers, who monitor the content contributed by the public and alter it, post-publication, only if it is libellous, malicious, offensive or grammatically faulty. But editorial influence of a more traditional kind is exerted over the home page, which highlights selected stories deemed most likely to appeal to the Blottr readership.

The site’s revenue-sharing scheme pays selected contributors £1 per thousand views, an arrangement which says a lot about the way the model privileges popularity over labour; contributors are invited to join the scheme only after they have proved that they will be of continuing value to the site by regularly pulling in the punters via social media.

‘It rewards them for the popularity of their content; they’re not getting paid to write; they’re getting paid to promote their story,’ Baker explains. ‘It’s based on how valuable they are to us – they can write one brilliant post, but if they don’t write regularly, they’re not going to go on it.’ (The contributor of the Gaddafi photo-scoop, for example, did not get paid.)

Early indications suggest that, for the chosen few – about a hundred out of nearly 1600 contributors – the revenue-sharing scheme can be lucrative: ‘Last week we paid someone £230 for a three paragraph article because it was really very popular,’ he says.

The scheme is in keeping with another unusual feature of the site, an ‘authentication algorithm’ which attributes influence to each contributor, breaking down the number of people who have contributed to a story, whether in the form of photos, videos or revisions and additions.

While Baker is unfazed by questions his model raises about the quality of such future journalism, his answers do reveal a certain respect for traditional reporting. Does he think the citizen-based news model will replace news-gathering by professional journalists?

‘It definitely won’t replace it,’ he says. ‘It’s not analytical enough – that’s the reason I pick up The Guardian every day.’

And he denies that there’s a risk, if things go as profitably as he hopes, of a Huffington Post-style rebellion from unpaid contributors in future. ‘We’re really different from the Huffington Post,’ says Baker. ‘The Huffington Post are looking for professional bloggers to contribute content without being paid; that’s not what we’re trying to do.’

‘If you’re a journalist and you can’t get published elsewhere, a student trying to build a portfolio, or a member of the public just wanting to capture something, we provide a platform,’ he adds.

So far, the prospects for a profitable future are promising. Having been bankrolled for the first year by Baker, Blottr earlier this year secured a £1m investment from Mark Pearson, founder of web-marketing outfit Markco. ‘We’re not breaking even yet, but we’re close to it,’ says Baker. ‘We’re ahead of our projections, especially for traffic and revenue.’

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the revenue comes from non-traditional sources. Some 80% comes by selling licenses for the software developed to enable the Blottr’s user-generated content to other publishers, now branded as Newspoint; the remaining 20% comes from self-serve advertising in the Gumtree mould, persuading customers able to advertise events and services free to pay to have their adverts promoted.

It’s hard to tell, at this stage in Blottr’s development, whether the news site is really a basis for a new form of quality journalism, or whether it’s the product of a canny business mind that has seen an opportunity to ride a profitable new wave of technology and culture. But its early success certainly testifies not just to the healthy demand for web-based news, but also to the growing appetite of citizen journalists to report it.

If you have any feedback on Blottr or other initiatives reported on this site, please tweet us @newmodeljourno or email us directly.

Written by Alex

October 31st, 2011 at 7:14 am

Tablets provide media with sweet relief

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Analysis by Tim Dawson.

News International’s announcement last week that digital sales of its Times/Sunday Times products had grown by 3% over the past three months dispel for the moment suggestions that Murdoch’s paywall strategy is bust.  With 111,000 subscribers, and growing, it is quite possible that News International’s online customers will over take the daily sales of some print editions before long.

That does not mean, of course, that this constitutes a sustainable business.  Times digital editions are being so extensively marketed at the moment, that it would astonishing if they were not making sales.  But as Murdoch has shown time and again, he is more than willing to invest over the long term to achieve a position of market dominance. Indeed, it would be rash not to think that Times digital subscribers might not outnumber buyers of The Independent reasonably soon.

Which element of the digital offering it is that is driving sales is not easy to unpick from NI’s figures – but it is fair to assume that the much admired iPad edition is a significant factor in the success.

It is by no means the only iPad add success either.  The New York Times now offers a $20 app, the Daily Telegraph is now offering its app to it 330,000 print subscribers.

And while magazine iPad editions are not yet a significant part of the UK market place, the rush of US magazines to tablet editions suggests that this won’t be the case for much longer.  The Newstand feature of iOS5, which groups newspaper and magazine apps together in the App Store, appears to have prompted a rush to launch digital editions. Meredith Corporation, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens, Parents and Fittness magazines announced iPad editions this week, joining Martha Stewart’s Living and a host of other US newsstand staples.

The extent to which consumers are willing to pay for tablet editions, remains subject to dispute.  Joint research by the Pew Centre and the Economist Group found that 11 per cent of US adults now have a tablet computer, of whom 77 per cent use them daily, for an average of 90 minutes. Just over half of users told the researchers that they used their device to access news, 14 per cent said that they had paid directly for content, while 23 per cent had pre-exiting subscriptions that gave them access to digital content.

“If news organisations are more successful at finding a way to reap revenue in the tablet environment than they have on the Internet more broadly, the movement toward tablet consumption could be quite promising,” the study  concluded. “The likelihood of that, though, is uncertain at best.”

Not all crystal ball gazers agree, however.  A new report from Juniper research predicts that annual revenue from eNewspapers will exceed $1.1billion by 2016.  While some publishers will struggle to adapt, it observes, modest subscriptions charged for access would soon outweigh initial losses from online advertising revenue.

Whether Dr Windsor Holden, author of the Jupiter report, is right or not, you can be sure that larger publishers will be aiming a great deal of their product development spend on tablet editions for the foreseeable future. It is a situation that will place some smaller players in a quandary. The window of opportunity for self-funded iPad start-ups like Sailracing will not remain quite so wide open for much longer.  It will always be possible to start a tablet publication relatively cheaply, but once the market is crowded with expensively produced titles, it will be a lot harder to gain a foothold.

Even more significantly, the market for the kind of skills necessary to bring such products to market will be a good deal hotter than has been the case till now. Many will choose the guaranteed returns of working for major publishing houses than the uncertainties of their own ventures.

Fundamentally, though, it is good news for those who worry about journalism’s future.  Even if the public’s enthusiasm for paid-for table content proves to be illusory, the scale of investment that it will take to conclusively reach that point will be enough to tide a great many editorial workers over until the next great hope – whatever that might be.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 25th, 2011 at 5:01 am

E-publish and be damned – emerging trends of the digital book economy

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Photo by thekellyscope (Flickr)


Analysis by Alex Klaushofer.

Those trying to follow the changing fortunes of book publishing in the digital revolution have had a tough time of it trying to discern the direction things are taking. But, finally, in the last quarter of this year, a few trends are beginning to emerge.

First fact: the long-predicted shift from physical to digital publishing is gathering pace: according to a survey by FutureBook, independent publishers are predicting that digital sales could account for 15% of sales by the year’s end.

The shift heightens the rather fraught issue of digital royalties which has been dividing authors and publishers since e-books appeared on the scene. Authors, arguing that the removal of printing costs should free up more of the book’s revenues to come back to the creator, have been seeking a cut of 50%, while publishers – maintaining that a fifty-fifty split fails to take into account the true costs of publishing – have tended to offer a maximum of 25%, a rate which has become increasingly standard across the industry.

However, it seems that the gap between the two positions is beginning to narrow, with the Society of Authors reporting that royalties paid out on e-books are increasingly 30-35%, a rise attributed to its general secretary Nichola Solomon to effective lobbying. Meanwhile, there are signs of a similar upwards movement in the US: The Bookseller in August reported that e-royalties were increasingly moving to 30-35%.

The differing perspectives of authors and publishers reflect the widespread ignorance about the new economics of e-publishing. In a clear-eyed breakdown of the costs in June this year, Tom Tivnan points out that the lack of transparency about the financial model underpinning e-books is contributing to the suspicion that publishers may be raking it in. Noting that publishing an e-book involves conversion to digital files and digital warehousing, as well as the usual labour-intensive costs of editing and marketing, he proposes a compromise royalty of 40%.

Part of the reason for publishers’ caginess about costs of e-books may be that, with the market price yet to settle at an agreed point, they don’t yet have a clear idea of the revenues they can generate. Other uncertainties include how far the new format affects what people are most likely to buy to read on-screen. There is some suggestion that popular genres are particularly suited to the medium: the US thriller writer John Locke claims to have made over £375,000 from online publishing this year, for example.

The limitations and opportunities of on-screen reading are also leading publishers to experiment with length, commissioning work written specifically for e-consumption. The idea that people can only absorb bite-sited chunks of information via phone or computer has been beating a retreat in journalism for some time, with longform articles finding a ready audience. Now the publishing world is following suit, with initiatives such as Brain Shots, a series of short monographs aimed at the ‘time-poor’ reader published by Random House,
and Collca, a publisher producing e-books for phone apps that can inform the reader on a given subject in an hour.

It’s easy to see how the lack of transparency about the financial benefits of the e-book, combined with the difficulties besetting traditional publishing and the openess of the digital world is fuelling the newly-respectable trend of self-publishing. Some authors are wondering whether signing up with a traditional publishing house is worth all the bother, with a few established writers such as Stephen Leather taking the indie route online while maintaining a deal with publishers for the physical versions of their books. This kind of pragmatic approach gives authors the possibility of earning royalties of up 70% on Amazon while putting pressure on the publishing world to prove it is genuinely adding value.

And, with the Christmas exchange of e-readers giving a further boost to electronic reading, these trends look certain to accelerate in 2012.

Written by Alex

October 17th, 2011 at 7:08 am

Charitable model could save local news

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Photo by Howard Lake (Flickr)


Guest blog by David Ainsworth.

Recently a group of my colleagues and I became interested in the idea of creating a charitable local newspaper.

The reason for this was simple. Local newspapers are important, but they are also in trouble. It’s time to try out a new model.

Those of us who’ve worked in local news can see it’s dying by inches. Papers are losing the trust of their readership base and many of their traditional sources of revenue. Reporters are becoming increasingly isolated from the communities they write about, paid terrible wages, and reduced to writing up press releases on industrial estates far from the centres of the towns they cover.

However, these papers are an important community resource. They provide information about local people. They provide a conduit between the authorities and those they serve. And they keep those same authorities honest.

So why might a charitable newspaper fare better than the traditional ones?
One advantage is obviously financial. Charities don’t pay most taxes, and they don’t have to pay dividends to shareholders. If they do produce a surplus, this can be reinvested in improving the business or on improving the community they serve.

Not only that, but charities can access for free many services that others have to pay for. One obvious example is that a local news provider is likely, in the long term, to live or die on the strength of its website, and a charity is likely to be able to leverage in some top quality IT support to build a really good one.

A charitable newspaper could also access start-up funding from grant-giving trusts and foundations, although in the long term, it would need to be self-financing.

There are other benefits too. A charitable provider, if it is doing its job of serving its community, should also benefit from the goodwill of that community, and should be able to draw on its resources.

Perhaps the most important of those resources is volunteer workers. While I envisage that trained, professional journalists would remain at the core of a local news service, there is plenty of scope for drawing on local people’s skills, both as contributors and members of the board.

The question of whether being a local newspaper is a charitable purpose has yet to be tested with the Charity Commission, who will only make a decision on a particular application. But the initial response to some concentrated lobbying from charity lawyers, published in Third Sector magazine, appears to be a cautious yes:

‘While the provision of news is not a charitable purpose in itself, in principle a community newspaper could further a charitable purpose through the advancement of citizenship, arts and culture, and recreational facilities.
Any application would need to be considered on its own merits against the existing legal framework.’

Certainly, any local newspaper which became a charity would have to have stringent safeguards in place to guarantee its political neutrality, and would have to be more careful than a normal newspaper about how it went about campaigning.

It seems likely that there would have to be some method of holding the editorial team to account, similar to that governing the BBC Trust. However, given that it’s the nature of good journalism to be complete, accurate and impartial, I think this is something that a paper should welcome, so long as day-to-day editorial control remains absolutely with the staff, and there is no outside interference.

The theory, now, has advanced far enough that it’s possible to think about giving it a practical try, but it’s still at an early stage.

One encouraging sign is that there appears to be plenty of interest in the model, including from journalists happy to volunteer their services, and from charitable funders who would like to put cash into a start-up.

The main thing now needed is a location.

Earlier this year, it appeared there was an opportunity to start something up when Lambeth Council announced it would outsource all of their statutory advertising to a single paper. They offered a single tender for £200,000 a year, which would have covered many of the costs of a small and growing organisation. The council encouraged a tender from a not-for-profit source, but the tender process was not designed to allow a small start-up a fair chance. In the end, they went with a local commercial provider.

So we’re still looking for the right place to try this out. It would need to be somewhere which is not well-served by its existing newspaper, because the purpose of something like this should not be to displace existing providers who are doing a good job, and it would ideally be somewhere with a strong community spirit.

We’re currently very interested in launching a charitable paper in partnership with existing community groups, not something that is top-down, imported from outside, but one that emerges from within the community, and has its blessing from the start.

On that basis, we’re really keen to hear from other people who want to get involved. The more support a project like this has, the sooner we can get the first example up and running.

David Ainsworth is Financial Reporter at Third Sector magazine. He can be contacted at: daveainsworth@yahoo.com

Written by Alex

October 3rd, 2011 at 3:34 am