New Model Journalism

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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

Self-published reporting: journalism’s next frontier

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Interview by Alex Klaushofer.

Marc Herman couldn’t have been more surprised by the success of his Kindle Single The Shores of Tripoli.

‘The interest in the topic completely shocks me,’ he says. ‘I went over there to talk about Libya, and ended up being seen as something of an expert in electronic publishing.’

Within weeks, the book was in the top 300 of Amazon’s rankings, and Herman was being sought after as a speaker – not about inside story of Libya – but about the nuts and bolts of writing a short, journalistic book and selling it direct to readers via Amazon.

The deal, which was arranged with by his agent, gets Herman a royalty of 70% on a publication priced at $1.99.

‘That’s a fair price,’ he says. ‘I don’t expect someone to spend more for one story than an entire magazine. You can sell 99c bagels or entrees at $30. My tendency is to sell bagels.’

The ‘bagel approach’, as we might now call it, has obvious attractions for a time-poor but world-curious reader with only a couple of hours to spend reading about a conflict in a far-off country.

For the journalist, Herman thinks he has discovered the makings of a model that – while not being able to fund an entire living – forms a viable element of a portfolio of projects covering foreign stories. Three months after publication, the book has earned out its research costs and, with new sales every day, is now paying its writer a retrospective wage.

At the same time, the simplicity of the new publishing model is refreshing after the rigours of traditional publishing: ‘We didn’t have to hack our way through New York or London,’ says Herman. ‘A lot of the appeal is that it’s an alternative publishing culture you can try.’

Yet, while journalists are desperately seeking new ways of funding their reporting, and the publishing world is conducting a lively conversation about the implications of going digital, Herman doesn’t see much dialogue between the two: ‘It feels a bit like the right and the left hand are not communicating with each other.’

So could his success herald a new breed of journalists working entirely independently, as growing numbers of authors are now doing?

Herman doesn’t see much future in a journalist going it entirely alone. ‘I’m not sure it’s necessarily going to produce good journalism, because you can’t do everything at the same time,’ he says. ‘I think it’s more likely that small groups get together to work in teams – that’s really exciting.’

From his base in Barcelona, he is already working with another two other journalists on a documentary project looking at the youth unemployment in Spain, which is now approaching 50%. In line with the trend towards ‘enhanced books’, the project will be multi-media, offering readers pictures and a video as part of the package.

He anticipates that, in time, the group will become a kind of coop along the lines of the small agencies formed by photographers when they realised they were better working together rather than (competitively) alone.

And, as the models of digital publishing get more established, creators will need to protect their interests in the face of giants such as Amazon, he adds.

In the meantime, it’s clear that these pioneering days carry all the excitements and disappointments of experiments in early air travel:

‘I feel like I’m in the films of all those people who were trying to invent aeroplanes before the Wright brothers, and struggled to get them off the ground. I’m one of those guys.’

Written by Alex

March 5th, 2012 at 7:29 am

Posted in E-books,News,Niche

From frontline to publication – the rise of news e-books

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

It’s comforting, if you’re in the words business, to remember that ‘crisis’ denotes ‘turning point’, a phase of breakdown prior to resolution, as well as the more common meaning of a bad time. And now, with the line between book publishing and journalism becoming increasingly blurred, comes evidence that new opportunties for journalists are opening up in the expanding world of e-books.

This month brings the latest development in this emerging trend, in the form of a new initiative launched by non-profit news outlet ProPublica and digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media. In the partnership, ProPublica is releasing another tranche of its investigative work in e-book form, including its Presidential Pardons series, material that was originally published in The Washington Post.

The organisation joins a growing number of US publishers who are exploiting the relative cheapness and ease of digital publication to bring in-depth, long-form journalism to a wider audience.

Last October US publishers Politico opened an online bookstore in partnership with publishers Random House, allowing titles to be sold through retailers such as Amazon. The titles, says editor-in-chief John Harris, offer readers a combination of ‘great minds and writers in political journalism and publishing’.

A similar venture is being developed by Random House and Collca in the Brain Shots series, covered previously on this site.

Publishing journalism as e-books allows publishers to venture into territory such as last summer’s riots that were hitherto off-limits because the long lead-in times of traditional publishing meant that, by the time the more newsy books came out, the moment had passed.

Yet, while the attractions of the new model are obvious, it does present challenges, not least the question of how to legitimise charging for material that has already been published. One obvious selling point is the convenience of having material brought together and edited into a single format, in the way that newspapers and authors have often served up anthologies of particularly successful columns in book form.

But the e-book, lacking the tangible virtue of a physical object, has to do more. So the new publishers are seeking out extra content like videos, maps and interviews with journalists, to add value to the product. One such ‘enhanced book’ is Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo follows the child-residents of Bombay slums as they scrape a living by sorting and selling rubbish. The e-book package includes video footage, shot by the children themselves, over three years of reporting.

Yet, as the new model gets more established, journalists may increasingly ask themselves whether they wouldn’t be better off by cutting out the middle man. Just as more and more authors are concluding they are now able to do for themselves what only a traditional publisher used to do – and with less cost and delay – the next phase may see journalists going it alone.

One example to watch is Marc Herman, a freelance journalist whose self-published book on Libya has been hitting the top few per cent of sales in Kindle Singles. In this interview about the nuts and bolts of the experiment, Herman reveals himself to be a model of the new entrepreneurial hack, prepared not just to go out and get the story, but to bring it to market too.

The next frontier in long-form journalism may be a lonely, but exciting one.

Written by Alex

February 20th, 2012 at 4:03 am

Posted in E-books,News,US

New download mag for Northern Ireland’s community sector

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Report by Tim Dawson.

With 27,000 people working in the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, it is easy to see why Brian Pelan thinks there is space for a magazine that addresses their interests.  With the first edition of View now available to download, he is about to discover whether his hunch was a good one.

After a newspaper career of more than two decades, Pelan’s job of the past six years on the Belfast Telegraph was outsourced.  So, inspired by a friend’s publication, Union Post, which serves Irish trades unionists, the Belfast native set to work creating View – a new free-to-download, digital publication.

The magazine is laid up as though it was a print publication and is them distributed either as a downloadable pdf, or can be viewed on the Yudu site.

After months of meetings with sector representatives, showing them a dummy, the first edition came out last week. Pelan is pleased with the results: “It was on deadline, and I thought that it looked good, and to date the feedback has been fantastic”, he says.

He is running the magazine as a business, but received financial support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council as well as backing from a Dragon’s Den-style initiative run by Belfast City Council. “I have enough money for three or four issues, but for the magazine to be sustainable in the long term, I will have to find advertising or sponsorship”, he explains.

He continues to receive some ‘pro bono’ support from freelance journalists, but hopes to start paying them as his revenue swells.

He is selling the advertising himself – a wholly new experience having previously worked as a sub-editor and newspaper designer – but he is encouraged by the initial level of support.  “If we can get in £2,000 a month, then the magazine is sustainable and will pay me a basic wage.  If we can get in £3,000 a month, then we can start paying other people to undertake some of the work”.

Less straightforward, he concedes, is getting the product to the audience and being able to prove that they are reading it.  To date Pelan is looking to grow his Facebook page and Twitter stream to show the level of support that he has, and he is also now distributing the download address via bit.ly, which gives him a basic analytic.

He also hopes that by creating a high profile for himself in the voluntary and community sector, View will act as a shop front for other work when organisations are looking for a media professional.

Pelan’s identification of his market looks like a smart move – he is serving a sector that is large, and distinct from its counterparts south of the border and across the Irish sea.  Whether he will attract enough readers to be able to stitch up the advertising market, remains to be seen. On the basis of his first edition, he certainly looks like he has a decent chance.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

February 13th, 2012 at 4:57 am

Public interest journalism takes a kangaroo leap forward

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Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Today brings the launch of Australian news websiteThe Global Mail, one of the best-funded public journalism initiatives the digital age has seen to date.

With a mission to provide independent, quality journalism – strapline ‘our audience is our only agenda’ – and generously bankrolled by Australian web-preneur Graeme Wood, the site’s approach is determinedly uncommercial.

The idea for the project came when Wood and former ABC journalist Monica Attard came to a common conclusion about the state of foreign affairs reporting; ‘I think that the quality of public interest journalism is at the lowest ebb that I’m aware of,’ Wood told the website Crikey. “That’s a result of financial difficulties that media organisations are suffering, so as the quality goes down … there’s demand there that’s not being met.”

Attard, a former ABC journalist, was concerned that foreign affairs reporting was suffering from the crisis hitting the industry just as international affairs, with the Arab Spring, were getting particularly interesting.

The resulting Sydney-based site – which went live Down Under on what was yesterday in Greenwich Mean Time – may become for Australia what ProPublica is to America and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to Britain.

My first visit to the home page brought me a triptych of three very different images – an arresting, if slightly confusing, introduction. The three stories they illustrate are clearly carefully chosen for their range: an investigation highlighting the failings of Australia’s register of health workers and the implications for patient safety, an analysis piece on Obama’s re-election prospects by veteran commentator Michael Maher, and a report by Middle East correspondent Jess Hill examining the opposing worldviews of Egypt’s Salafis and Sufis.

All the pieces are beautifully written and replete with the kind of colour and detail that has become increasingly rare in foreign affairs reporting in recent years. They are also, in terms of both pace and choice of subject, noticeably less news-driven than their British counterparts. With galleries of pictures following the copy, it’s clear that high values have been placed on images, so much so that at points it almost feels as if you’ve stumbled into a photography or graphics-led site.

Yet the site, while undeniably elegant, is not easy to navigate, with pieces arranged in a multi-column magazine format that involves repeated clicking to keep up the flow of reading. This makes a refreshing contrast to the busy, at-a-glance appearance of so many info-heavy news sites, and arguably helps to foster the kind of thoughtful approach to news consumption that the site aims to serve. Nonetheless, it remains an open question how easily it will win readers away from other international news sites in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace.

All of which points up the issue which will determine the long-term success of The Global Mail. It will doubtless take time for the website to establish its particular approach to foreign reporting, and for the country-based correspondents – Hill is one of five – to break exclusive stories on their patch. And the challenge facing all foreign news providers of finding an editorial balance in terms of geographical coverage is heightened by its status as a website potentially potentially appealing to a global audience.

Meanwhile, the website’s shakers and movers seem enviably unconcerned with revenue-generation, and have no plans to either get advertising or charge readers. In a pre-launch interview with long-established Australian newspaper The Age, Attard bristles at questions about The Global Mail’s financial viability: ”What’s the hurry? We’ve got a solid five years’ funding, during which time I reckon a bunch of hugely intelligent people will come up with a way to make money, with an operation as small as this, with no legacy to carry on our back.’

Written by Alex

February 6th, 2012 at 8:02 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

From cooperation to crowd-funding: The case of Port Talbot

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Its bleak industrial landscape was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its population of diverse life-forms evolving new ways of being in the struggle for survival. And now, Port Talbot’s bleak media landscape is … You get the idea. While on the one hand, Port Talbot is the perfect illustration of the crisis in local journalism, on the other, it’s the scene of an experiment which combines the cooperative model with crowd-funding.

The origins of Port Talbot MagNet go back to January 2010 when a group of local journalists, having lost their jobs to the crisis hitting the industry, decided to do something about the news vacuum in the area. The local paper, the Port Talbot Guardian, had closed down, leaving the town without any local news provider, and has since been followed by the council newspaper and the community radio station.

The group of local journalists formed a coop and were initially optimistic about the prospects of funding it through both grants and commercial activity. But a year of funding-seeking generated nothing, while plans to set up a news agency ran aground as the recession bit into budgets for local stories. The team decided to go ahead anyway and launched last June, having entered into a partnership with the National Theatre Wales to cover the Passion, an interactive theatre production set in the streets of Port Talbot.

In the event, the project did secure a form of funding when founding member Rachel Howells won an award to do a PhD examining the effects of the lack of news on the area run by the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. The award, which provides £50K for a three-year case study of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Port Talbot, effectively means that Howells is paid to work on the site.

‘It works very well, because the project feeds into the PhD, and the PhD research feeds into the project,’ she says.

The research, which will result in one of the first in-depth studies of the effects of the disappearance of traditional local news providers, will compare an historical analysis of the town’s local news sources with the ways in which the local population now get their information about what is going on.

‘My suspicion is that a lot of people are finding out about news by rumour and word-of-mouth,’ says Howells. ‘Really, what are the people of Port Talbot getting? National news, a bit of regional news, and not much else.’

Taking weekly turns as editors, the eight-strong team also draws on help from volunteers to write and source stories, and recently launched a crowd-funding initiave based on Spot.us adapted for the local community. The Pitch-in! scheme has so far brought them a free office in Port Talbot, plus some cash donations to to revive the traditional reporting of magistrates’ courts and council meetings. ‘You can’t have volunteers doing that; you must have a professional journalist,’ says Howells.

Driven primarily by a desire to provide the local area with news, the Port Talbot MagNet approach is certainly not a well-worked out, sharply-defined commercial model. Pragmatic and experimental, the model is likely to end up hybrid, involving a mixture of advertising, grant funding and commercially-generated revenue. But Howells is clear about one thing: ‘We would love it to be profitable. We think of ourselves as a social enterprise,’ she says. ‘People talk about not-for-profit, but you’ve still got to make an operating profit to pay the journalists and the running costs.’

She adds sagely: ‘Although we know that the traditional print model is showing signs of wear and tear, we have to be careful we don’t throw away all the things that have made businesses, particularly media businesses, work in the past.’

And although she doesn’t say so, it also seems likely that the success of the project will depend as much on the hard work and tenacity of one individual as the collective efforts of the cooperative.

Written by Alex

January 18th, 2012 at 9:51 am

Profit is dead. Long live Public Interest: Journalism in 2012 and beyond

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Photo by Joe Athialy (Flickr)

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

With the first week of the New Year bringing only warnings from politicians and economists, it seems that wise men have realised it would be foolish to feign optimism for 2012. But while things remain bleak on the economic front, there is at last a glimmer of hope for those rooting for quality journalism.

As Ian Burrell documents in this Independent article, philanthropically-funded journalism has been burgeoning in the States for some time. Over the last decade, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism, while its leading light, the non-profit news body ProPublica, which was only founded in 2008, is thriving, and now has some 1,300 donors.

Meanwhile, Down Under, a major new initiative is to launch next month. Funded by Australian entrepreneur Graeme Wood to the tune of almost £10 million, The Global Mail aims to provide independent international journalism in the public interest.

A similar trend finally seems to be taking root in Britain. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been very productive since launching some twenty months ago, while The Journalism Foundation, a new charitable foundation funding journalism which serves the public good, was born in December.

Meanwhile, in regional journalism, York-based news website One&Other is to launch a print edition funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There are also plans for the social enterprise, which started with backing from the charity UnLimited, to launch seven similar projects in cities around the UK over the next three years.

The significance of these developments lies not in their pioneering of the new, longed-for business model that will save quality journalism; as one editor points out, the ProPublica model is hardly a commercial one that can be replicated by media businesses.

The tide that is turning is more about socio-economic attitude; the rise of grant-funded journalism indicates a growing recognition that journalism is a good-in-itself rather than just another means to profitability, and profits are seen as the means to this end. In other words, what matters is people – or in this case, readers – an attitude that can comfortably be shared by both grant-funded models and commercial bodies with realistic profit aspirations.

Historically, it was this more reasonable attitude towards profit that was held by the proprietors of local papers back in the day – yes, they wanted their organ to wash its own face, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. But their expectations of the revenues that could be generated by a inherently labour-intensive craft were modest, attenuated by the recognition that the point of the paper was to serve the local community.

Contrast this, then, with the profit margins expected by some regional publishers a century or so later, with news groups such as Johnston Press achieving profits of up to 29%.

Yet, with journalism hitting exceptionally hard times, it seems that a kick-back has begun as people cast around not just for different ways of achieving the same financial outcomes, but for different attitudes to those outcomes.

The pioneers of this not-for-excessive-profit attitude include Nigel Lowther, founder-editor of the Cleethorpes Chronicle, who says he would be content with profits of around five per cent, and David Ainsworth, who has argued on this site that the charitable model could save local papers.

Meanwhile, founder-editor of the New Camden Journal Eric Gordon has called for a government-backed ‘media bank’ to ensure the survival of the local press, while others are promoting the cooperative model.

Of course, it’s doubtful that all these ideas will translate into concrete reality. But what’s valuable here is the way they change the terms in which the debate about the media economy is framed, just as in the wider economy the failings of unchecked capitalism have led to a questioning of the desirability of endless growth.

So here’s, in 2012, to the spread of a more realistic, nuanced approach to media profitability which remembers that journalism is – and arguably always has been – about serving the public interest.

Wishing you all a very sustainable 2012.

Written by Alex

January 9th, 2012 at 5:09 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

Leveson v. the moguls – can the lawyer who let Ken Dodd slip, outwit Murdoch?

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Review by Tim Dawson.

The British press has rarely been in such a fix.  During two weeks in July, apparently unshakeable pillars crumbled to dust.  News International was humbled, the company’s BSkyB deal collapsed, the News Of The World closed and several senior officers of the Metropolitan Police resigned.

Buffeted by its own proximity to the Murdoch empire, the government has initiated an inquiry which will consider what ails British journalism, and what can be done to improve matters. It will be chaired by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson whose prosecution of Ken Dodd for tax evasion famously failed, despite an otherwise impeccable legal career.

Sadly, in all the fulminating about the evil octogenarian emperor, relatively little has been heard from journalists themselves about what the think ought to be done.

So the publication of the submission from the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom A Chance For Change is welcome.  Not so good, however, is that its invective is informed by a critique of the media that dates back to the Wapping dispute, and today is more museum piece than rallying cry.

At its heart is a staggering failure to understand the nature of newspapers.  “Is the press, and not just News International, above the law, beyond regulation and accountable to no one but itself?” it asks rhetorically and then, to no great surprise, answers in the affirmative. “If democracy is to survive, this situation needs urgent remedy,” CPBF fulminates.

British newspapers are unusual in a numbers of ways, as consumer products and by way of international comparison.  The vast majority are purchased daily from newsagents.  If the buying public don’t like what their paper is saying, they have the most immediate remedy imaginable – they can keep their money in their pockets.  Or they can buy an alternative.  There is more choice of national newspapers in the UK than in nearly any other county.  This is the basic means by which newspapers are held to account, by millions of people, every single day of the week.

CPBF, of course, would have you believe that newspaper buyers are dupes, fed wicked subliminal messages by malign owners and their henchmen in the editor’s chairs. It is a tired insult, born of a dislike of the politics of much of the press and a rather lofty disdain for ‘ordinary people’. As anyone who has worked in newspapers knows, the buying public are highly sophisticated consumers who are wooed daily with products that require enormous imagination, talent and investment.  Far more effort goes into figuring out how to make newspapers chime with readers’ interests and proclivities than in promoting the proprietor’s agenda.

What particularly irks the report’s authors is that the most successful newspaper stables in the UK are News International (for whom I undertake on-going freelance work) and Associated (publishers of The Daily Mail).  Not only are they generally right wing, but neither recognises independent trades unions.  Like it or not, however, both also produce the most successful newspapers available today and, to judge from September’s ABCs, their consumers have demonstrated an extraordinary degree of loyalty, despite the scandals.

Happily, CPBF’s three-fold prescriptions are slightly more grounded than their analysis.  Media ownership should be regulated in such a way that newspaper owners with a national market share of 20% or more should be limited to a 20% stake in any broadcast media in which the are involved.  There should be a statutory right to the correction of factual inaccuracies with financial penalties for newspapers that fail to satisfy the aggrieved and there should be tighter regulation of contacts between government ministers and media executives.

All worthy enough, but it is worth considering what would be the consequence of enacting any of these might be.  Rules on density of media interests sound laudable – but were CPBF’s model to be applied, it would almost certainly reduce overall investment in the media.  Perhaps that is a price worth paying for a more pluralistic society, but I suspect that it would also mean a significant reduction in the number of journalists in reasonably well-paying jobs.

A statutory version of the Press Complaints Commission might improve standards.  Funnily enough, though, in the cases about which CPBF professes to care the most – ordinary people about whom untrue stories have been written – my personal experience is that the PCC provides an effective remedy.

On those few occasions when complaints have been made about my work to the PCC (none of which have been upheld, I might add) I have been required to present my case, and my notebooks to the managing editor and the lawyers. My work was then scrutinised in an atmosphere of chilly seriousness that left me thinking that I would be out of the door if I could not provide watertight justifications for everything that I had written.  Statutory penalties, over and above the libel-law lottery, can only make newspapers more cautious and journalists’ lives more difficult.

The case for routine recording of contacts between ministers and the media is obvious – although, no amount of paperwork and oversight will remove the unofficial means by which politicians and the media cross-pollinate.

The most glaring admission in CPBF’s manifesto is any clear sense of what the media of the future might be like.  Indeed, given the speed at which the public’s attention is switching away from printed media, in years to come it may seem that the entire Leveson enquiry had more to do with the past than the future.

I share CPBF’s enthusiasm for more plural media ownership and control, but what is needed is some idea of how that might happen, be it levies on broadband providers to fund local news, for example, or tax concessions for owner-operated news services.  Fond as the left is of refighting the wars of yesteryear, figuring out how a new media model might work is a far more fruitful undertaking than trying to settle old scores.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 10th, 2011 at 5:53 am