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One to Watch: The digital fortunes of The Dish

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

This month saw the launch of a start-up which is being eagerly watched by observers of the media landscape. The Dish – not to be confused with a dreadful Australian film on which I wasted several hours of my life – is the latest venture by Andrew Sullivan, the political blogger who has been dominating the US scene for more than a decade.

An online magazine covering anything from politics to religion and the arts, The Dish is subscription-based, and entirely ad-free. It has already impressed media-watchers with its early success, securing nearly $500 000 before it even officially launched – enough to keep Sullivan’s seven-strong team going for a year.

Sullivan’s journey in getting to this point – a tale he tells in this piece in The Australian – is instructive. A political blogger since 2000, he wrote unpaid for some six years, building an online readership of around a million a month. Then, seeing the appeal of his readership to advertisers, he cut deals with Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Publishing his blog on their websites helped them to build their digital readership, and gave him a share of the healthy advertising revenues.

As the digital revolution spread and advertisers became pickier, revenues fell. Sullivan’s little blog-craft – by now he had acquired business partners – looked in danger of running aground. Yet the period of financial success had clearly demonstrated the readers’ appetite for quality journalism. So he decided to cut out the advertising man and ask readers to pay for the content they loved directly.

The Dish is based on the freemium model, with the blog acting as the taster, while access to more in-depth material requires a subscription of $19.99. But is the model sustainable? Writing on the media startup Pandodaily, Hamish McKenzie raises doubts, pointing out that following the initial burst of enthusiasm Sullivan’s subscriptions have already slowed considerably. ‘If his rate for converting unique visitors to paid subscribers is the same as the New York Times’ – about 1 percent – then revenue from readers alone simply won’t be enough,’ he says.

As McKenzie points out, the bigger media players in the US are watching the Sullivan experiment with interest because its ‘leaky meter’ model so closely resembles their own. But the future fortunes of The Dish have a wider importance. Inspired by a clear vision about the value and purposes of journalism, it embodies much of which has always characterised good journalism: ‘I wrote a blog every day purely out of fascination with the idea of reaching readers without any editor or proprietor interfering,’ writes Sullivan of his early blogging years. ‘I did it free – because the editorial freedom was worth it.’

Now he is hoping that readers, too, will recognise the value of editorial independence to the extent that they are prepared to pay for it regularly. ‘There was something honest and real about asking readers to pay me to write,’ says Sullivan of his decision to The Dish. ‘No agent will take a cut; no editor can complain.’

It’s a purity of aspiration echoed by the editor of Canadian start-up Best Story Warren Perley, who resolutely insists that the future of quality journalism is reader-funded and advertising-free. And there are many other media pioneers out there who share the same high-minded approach which blends old-fashioned journalistic ideals with the realities of the digital age.

The Dish has the other ingredients – the distinct editorial vision, a personality, if you like – that have always characterised the most successful publications, and have more recently been redefined as the elusive ‘relationship’ with readers by digital development guys in big media organisations. The key question, as for many other online experiments, remains: will the readers buy it?

Alex is no longer blogging here, but tweets about media and publishing matters @alexklaushofer.

Written by Alex

February 14th, 2013 at 7:26 am

More heat than light in the debate about UK press regulation

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Report by Tim Dawson

The continuing discussion of the Leveson Inquiry proposals has thrown up a number of abiding mysteries – which were sharply highlighted, but entirely unresolved by at the Soho Sceptics meeting last night at London’s Conway Hall.

To consider the case for regulation of the press defined in statute, Nick Cohen and Suzanne Moore (against) faced Natalie Fenton and Evan Harris (for). Neither side had much new to say.  Cohen and Moore (columnists on The Observer and The Guardian respectively) argued that any regulation would tend to lead to government interference in the media, that newspapers were on their way out, that outrages that sparked Leveson were illegal anyway and that in an era when ‘anyone can be a journalist’ newspapers should be no more regulated than bloggers.

Fenton and Harris (Goldsmiths academic and former Liberal Democrat MP) tried to persuade the capacity audience of over 300 that a form of regulation was possible that would not inhibit free speech, that the BBC was evidence of this and that the lack of plurality in the British media was a far more pressing issue than control of a narrow elite.

As theatre, the juxtaposition was intriguing.  Cohen and Moore were passionate and combustible and were worth listening to just for their off-the-cuff curios.  Cohen asserted that ‘Murdoch and Dacre are  on their way out, yesterday’s men’.  Its an odd contention from a writer so closely associated with a media organisation that has shown the catastrophic commercial ineptitude of The Guardian/Observer.  Still, if Moore is right that what sells newspapers is sport, horoscopes and her opinions, then all she need do is add some astrological element to her columns and Alan Rusbridger can abandon his current plans to sack a fifth of the journalists working at Kings Place.

Their opponents cool, and apparently forensic approach was considerably less fun – but my impression was that speaking to an audience in which there were but but a handful of journalists, they had the larger part of the room on their side.

Like the antis, however, they did this without mention of a single scrap of evidence to demonstrate the effects, baleful or otherwise, of press regulation, however it is organised.  There are press councils in around sixty other countries, but their work went unmentioned.  Both sides quoted from the US constitution, but neither shared any knowledge of how this impacts on that country’s media.

In the Republic of Ireland, for example, the country that is most like the UK, there is a press council, underwritten by statute.  Some aspect of its work might have provided the killer blow for either side, but like the rest of the Leveson debate, the panelists preferred argument from first principles rather than dipping into the murky waters of empiricism.

At the end of the debate, the capable chair, Helen Lewis from The New Statesman, asked the audience how many had changed their minds are as a result of the debate – perhaps a dozen raised their hands.  That’s hardly surprising.  If the platform speakers demonstrated anything, this is a debate in which neither side is listening to the other.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

January 18th, 2013 at 7:51 am

The Writer’s Tale – Atwood surveys publishing revolution

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Last week Canadian author Margaret Atwood came to London to collect one of the highest awards Britain can give a writer. Becoming a Companion of The Royal Society of Literature, an honour bestowed on only ten writers at any one time, brought Atwood’s collection of awards to 99 – a recognition of a lifetime of writing which, so far, has resulted in over 50 works of fiction, poetry and essays.

Atwood was, of course, suitably enlightening on the usual writer’s subjects, such as how she started, her writing routine (or lack of ), and the current state of western society. But where she is especially interesting is in her role as insider-observer of more than half a century of publishing, at at time of enormous change.

In that same period, Atwood went from being a six-year-old who stitched together her own paper books in the Canadian backwoods to a world-famous seventy-something author with a passion for things digital. She has chosen to sign up to Twitter at a time when her fame could easily have freed her from all such digi-drudgery. She even devised, a few years ago, LongPen, a signature device that enables authors to sign fans’ books remotely.

In a piece for the Guardian earlier this year, she defended writing-sharing website Wattpad as a place where new writers can try their wings. Then, in what seems like a supreme act of authorial generosity, she collaborated with a younger, less established author in writing a Zombie series for the site. Launched in October, each author is contributing a chapter until the story concludes in January 2013.

Wattpad ‘can enable writing in other places where it doesn’t exist or are two expensive,’ she told her RSL audience adding that, along with other online platforms for writers, ‘Byliner fills the role that was filled by magazines in the 1960s and 1970s’.

Doubtless, her enthusiasm for innovations that can bring writers and readers together stems from her early experiences as a writer. Despite, or perhaps because of a rather isolated childhood in the woods surrounded by books, Atwood determined, at the age of sixteen, to embark on a professional writing career. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time – there was no national literature in 1960s Canada and few places for a writer to publish, on any terms. But over the decades Atwood made her way, writing a significant part of a national literature in the process.

Her own lived experience of the transformation of publishing has, it seems, allowed her to adopt a sanguine view of the digital revolution: ‘A tree falls in the forest. Other trees grow,’ she told us serenely, adding: ‘Is paper going to go away anytime soon? Actually not.’

At the same time, in other forums, Atwood has kept her acute eye on the vexed question of how writers are to earn a crust, asking: ‘Who’s going to pay for the cheese sandwiches?’

Written by Alex

December 6th, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Inspired union: strategies for journalism to flourish

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Fiona Cullinan, Christian Payne and Lucia Adams

Conference report by Tim Dawson

NUJ freelances displayed an innovative range of strategies to survive and prosper at a one-day conference.  A capacity audience packed the event to hear from more than twenty speakers describing initiatives including: instant-video documentary making, selling into new foreign markets, self-publishing via Kindle, and creating iPad app publications.

Other novel funding sources and work models included crowd-funding foreign photographic assignments, working as a journalist on behalf of brands, cross-funding journalism with authoring corporate ‘white papers’ and, a number of successful co-operatively produced publications.

The event, organised by the London Freelance Branch, aided by the NUJ’s Freelance Office, was held at the London Welsh Centre on 17 November 2012.  Open to all, in excess of 200 people attended, more than half of them women, many of whom contributed to the lively event with their own questions and experiences.

Among the highlights was photographer, Guy Smallman, who has undertaken numerous assignments in Afghanistan, most self-funded.  By entering the country as a non-embedded journalist he has been able to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues who worked more closely with the military.  The reputation that he has built as a result has more recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

Christian Payne (documentally.com) describes himself as a social technologist, multi-tasking communicator or blogger.  After a career as a staff and freelance photographer, he now blogs and makes video documentaries, some following his own interests, others as commercial assignments.

Payne’s total engagement with Twitter started when, after a car crash, he used the micro-blogging service to ask, ‘what do I do now?’  “It was the first point of using social channels when I wasn’t bragging about myself.  I showed some humility, made myself look an arse and loads of people came to my aid.  At that point I decided to embrace the networks and be a storymaker”, he said.

He subsequently made a video from photographs he had taken in Iraq.  When he realised that more people saw his pictures on YouTube than had seen the same photographs when they were published in national newspapers, he decided that he was on to something.  “Although I wasn’t being paid for my pictures, I was building this huge audience of people who were interested in me, and some of them started to offer me work”, he said.

Fiona Cullinan’s (fionacullinan.com) entré to blogging came during a slow spell while she had been booked to work for a contract publisher.  “I would suggest to every journalist that they blog – not necessarily to monetise what they are doing but as a digital playground and as a place to experiment and to show potential clients what you can do”, she said.  Using her blog as a hub, Cullinan started writing about how her working life was developing – particularly as subbing opportunities shrank.  Subsequently, six months emailing a digital agency where she wanted to work eventually bore fruit.

“Freelancing has been a rollercoaster – but it suits me”, said Hina Pandya (@hinapublish).  After a varied career, five years ago she decided to freelance full-time.  Since then, relentless networking and going with the flow of work have been her watchwords.  After becoming frustrated with commissioning editors who would not pay, she published her own travel guide as an eBook and said that sales, to date, have exceeded her expectations.  Commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television program ‘Continum’, Pandya found that her related Tweets about the program gained a significant following.  The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.  Her tips for aspirant freelances are to make pitches short and sharp, try to negotiate your fee upwards every time, and invest in your own training.

Huma Yusuf spoke about ‘Breaking the BRICs’ or the media markets in such emerging countries as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  “Media is booming in these countries”, she said.  “In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5% a year and the Times of India has a circulation of 4.3m”.  Much of the media is trying to operate 24/7 so there is a desperate thirst for content – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news.

To break into these markets, Yusuf suggested initially offering material to smaller titles – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.  With your reputation established in ‘the only market that matters – their own’, approaches can then be credibly made to larger titles such as The Times of India.  Happily, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper’s websites, and most are ‘addicted’ to social media.  Pay rates vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words.  The best way to up these rates, Yusuf suggested, is to offer ‘multi-media’ packages, as many Indian papers have very ‘snazzy websites’ that are perilously thin on content.

The issue of credibility in foreign markets was also addressed by Max Glaskin (@cyclingscience1).  Specialising in engineering and technology, 20 years ago he faxed his details to 150 US magazines.  The replies were few, but made clear that a ‘as a Limey he was unlikely to be able to understand the complexities of American culture’.  Six months later, however, he received a fax from ‘Biophotonics International’ seeking a European contributor.  With credibility established at one journal he picked up work from publications in the same stable – and was then able to use those contacts to leverage work on other US titles.

Work in south east Asia came via a friend who moved there, that Glaskin nagged for work.  When his pal moved on, Glaskin stuck with the title and then made himself known to his friend’s new publication.  “I never pitch stories”, he said.  “I simply let publications know that I am here and that I can supply them whatever they want, so long as it interests me.”  Once his reputation was made with one or two ex-pat journalists, word of his competence was passed around.

Examples discussed at the event varied between techniques that have allowed jobbing freelances to reach new clients and extend their workbase, and more substantial business ventures.  The magazine that Una Murphy edits in Belfast certainly falls into the latter category.  View is a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland’s voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, like Murphy, a 20-year media veteran, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established, but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is now generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service, Exaro (exaronews.com) said that although the traditional media model is breaking down, opportunities are also being thrown up.  “The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson, but accountants”, he said.  “Accountants told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism, and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open, and if you can’t see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself”.  Watts did warn, however, that freelance looking for work at Exaro should obey the old rule – check out the product first – and make sure that they have the right range of skills, experience and contacts for investigative journalism.

David Boyle the author of The Case For Media Co-ops described several publications that have enjoyed success anew, having adopted a co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press, for example, was bought by its 13 employees in 2009.  Today, they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital.

Marlborough News Online, in Wiltshire, was established as a workers’ co-operative by four journalists.   Providing news for a town without a newspaper, it already generates sufficient revenue to employ all four members for one day a week each and is ‘on track’ to increase this to full times jobs within five years, said Boyle.

At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened the business’ survival.  An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000.  The readers are now the magazine’s owners and receive a four percent return on their outlay.  “In the conventional media, the number of titles and reporters is down and so are circulations – but there are outliers where they are proving that local readers do want local content”, said Boyle.  “The great benefit of co-ops is that young talent is in the boardroom from the start, because all staff are involved”.

Alex Klaushofer, co-author of Help Yourself: New ways to make copyright pay, and joint editor of this site, (@alexklaushofer) highlighted a number of trends.  There is life yet in print, she suggested, citing The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of long-form writing about football.  The jury is out on advertising, with profitable hyperlocal news publications such as the Filton Voice (filtonvoice.co.uk) confounding predictions that the advertising model is definitively broken. Meanwhile, foundation and grant funding is supporting a range of new media from investigative heavy hitters ProPublica in the United States to village newsletter The Ambler, in Northumberland. But the States are considerably ahead of the UK in funding quality journalism, innovative practice and research into the changing media landscape, she observed.

Other initiatives mentioned at the event included Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers’ recent travails that was spawned from a blog and has now sold more than 10,000 copies, the Berlin Newspaper Die Tageszeitung, which is owned by its 30,000 subscribers and The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine whose first edition was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies.

Closing the conference, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stansistreet committed the NUJ to extending its services for freelance members.  “It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union”.  Stanistreet promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union’s work in the months to come.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 22nd, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Status politics: could local newspapers be allowed to become charities?

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Report by Tim Dawson

With a UK Communications Bill White Paper expected in early 2013, there is a growing hope that one of its provisions might be to make it easier for local newspapers to operate as charities.  A consortium of charities and trusts has already made a submission to this effect to the Department for Culture Media and Sport to this effect.

The Charities Act of 2006 requires that, to obtain the benefits of charitable status, an organisation must comply with one of charitable purposes mentioned in the Act, none of which provide an obvious way in which a publisher might comply.  Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of Wikipedia did obtain charitable status in 2011, after a long and complex negotiation with the Charity Commissioners, which it likened itself to the nineteenth century reading rooms that provided a ‘public resource’.  Derived from a statute of 1601, however, this route is thought to be off-puttingly complex for more mainstream publications.

It is not hard, however, to find evidence of the benefit to communities that newspapers can provide when they are produced by charities.  In Northumberland, for example, the Ambler is a bi-monthly newspaper, produced for the former mining village of Amble, by the Amble Development Trust.

Edited by Anna Williams, who is employed by the Trust, the paper is largely produced by volunteers and is distributed free to Ambles 6,500 residents.  An allied website is updated daily.

‘Our mission is to promote community cohesion’, says Williams.  ‘We were fortunate that, from the beginning, people took the paper to their heart and thought of it as their own.  And we are lucky to be in a village that is small enough for people to know who you are talking about but big enough for there to be something going on’.

The Development Trust obtains its funding from a range of statutory and other agencies often having to trim what it does to fit with the funding available.  The Trust provides the paper with a comfortable home and the computers that are required for production.  Williams’ salary is also met by the Trust – for whom she undertakes other work as well as editing the paper.

Under the current legislation there is nothing to stop other community charities from establishing newspapers, as they have in Amble.  For a charity to take over an existing newspaper, or for a charity to be established whose main purpose was to publish a newspaper, however, would almost certainly require a change in the law.  The main benefits that charitable status provides is that it provides access to some funding streams.  Slightly more nebulously, it could also provide newspapers with a badge to demonstrate their community worth.

Given the tumult of the Leveson enquiry and the potentially far-reaching consequences of the Hargreaves Review, it remains to be seen whether such a measure appears to be sufficiently attractive to the Government for it to appear in a Bill.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

July 9th, 2012 at 5:02 am

OUT NOW: Free ebooklet for writers from New Model Journalism

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By Alex Klaushofer.

Against the background of change and struggle that has afflicted the media and publishing in recent years, one strand of good news has consistently emerged. This good news story of the crisis in journalism tells of innovation and experimentation, of pioneering practices and the opening up of new frontiers, as writers of all kinds develop cutting-edge models to sustain quality work.

So we’re pleased to have the opportunity to gather together some of the best, and most distinctive, examples of this pioneering trend. Some of the case studies, such as Disability News Service and iPad magazine Sail Racing, are updates on initiatives we’ve been tracking for a while. It’s been great to see them going from strength to strength, refining their models as they do so.

Other experiments, such as community newspaper The Ambler or author Simon Winchester’s enhanced app Skulls, are new to us or have received little coverage in the British media press. Most are working as individuals or in small groups, and all are entrepreneurial – but not relentlessly so. Some are combining their new projects with other ambitions or commitments, fitting them into their own temperaments and particular circumstances. In every case, the innovators share the lessons learnt (so far), details of the nuts and bolts of their models, and offer ideas on how their models might be replicated by others.

The forthcoming e-pamphlet has been generously sponsored by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society and supported by the NUJ. Freely available to members of both organisations, it is effectively a gift to the writing community. The hope is that readers will draw both inspiration and practical advice from its contents.

‘Help yourself: New ways to make copyright pay’, is available here.

Written by Alex

July 2nd, 2012 at 6:13 am

New, print and profitable – a new model for hyperlocals

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Print is dying, and hyperlocal websites notoriously difficult to make pay. But one recently-established community magazine is challenging these orthodoxies of the digital age.

Monthly magazine The filtonvoice is the brainchild of Richard Coulter, a former staffer on The Bristol Evening Post. Having taken redundancy from the struggling newspaper, Coulter looked around and noticed that Filton, a well-defined part of Bristol with a population of around 12,000, had local publications aplenty. And they were full of adverts. Yet the editorial material was poor or non-existent.

‘I thought, if I can tap into the commercial success but bring some of the skills that I have in terms of the content, there might be a model here”,’ he told NMJ.

Coulter persuaded the former ad manager of The Evening Post to sell ads on a commission-only basis. Local businesses immediately took space, and Issue One of filtonvoice, published in October 2011 with 16 pages, went immediately into profit.

The page length soon went up to 32, and eight editions later, the magazine hovers between 40-48 pages, depending on how many ads have been sold; since he is not charging for the publication, Coulter feels no obligation to commit to a certain length.

Around 5000 magazines are printed each month and delivered door-to-door by a small team, or left at pick-up points in local shops and community centres.

‘The feedback has been very positive,’ says Coulter. ‘People say it’s just what was needed. They are surprised how much goes on in the community.’

Meanwhile, the advertising revenue the magazine generates pays him a decent wage for the two-and-half-day week he spends on producing it – around 40% of what he was earning as a staff journalist.

In Coulter’s view, the experiment demonstrates that there is an enduring appetite for print publications serving local communities, as well as a market for the advertising to sustain them. He has no plans to go digital-only.

‘I’m not going to get to the point where we don’t need the magazine anymore,’ he says. ‘My view is that I simply do not see where there’s any revenue for news websites digitally.’

He prioritises print, publishing material online only after it has appeared in the magazine. No web-only advertising rates are offered, and so far only one client has requested an online advert.

The keys to success, Coulter thinks, lie in having a well-defined niche with the means to advertise, something that can be replicated by other entrepreneurial journalists in many areas and sectors.

‘Just plunge in and have a go,’ he advises. ‘There is a way of setting this up and being profitable from Day One.’

A fuller version of this case study will appear in ‘New Ways to Make Copyright Pay’, an ebook of pioneering practice that New Model Journalism is producing for the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society

Written by Alex

May 28th, 2012 at 4:29 am

The places that the tablets can’t reach

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Rupert Murdoch’s reputation as a media visionary might have taken a battering in recent months.  His famed enthusiasm for iPads as a news deliver device, however, is beginning to look as if it might yet prove to be as shrewd as his gamble as the one that he made on subscription tv two decades ago.

Research by Forrester, the US based consultancy and research firm, shows how profoundly the acquisition of an iPad changes users behaviour.  Around a third of those answering the company’s questionnaire said that they read fewer books and used their personal computers less frequently after buying an iPad.  One in four say that the number of newspapers and magazines they read fell, and 20% found themselves using their MP3 players less.

Part of the reason for this appears to be that iPad users have different attitudes and expectations compared to other device users – one survey in the US found that among all computer users just 5% were willing to pay for news, rising to 12% among iPad users.  Murdoch’s The Daily, which is not available in the UK, might not have been a runaway success, but the 120,000 subscribers that they reported last October is a respectable and growing base. And surprisingly, most opt to subscribe for a year at a time, rather than on a rolling daily basis.

In 2011, 56 million people found themselves owners of a new tablet computer.  Forrester predicts that global sales will rise to 375 million by 2016.  Taking into account those that are discarded, broken or lost, this suggests 760 million tablets in use around the world by 2016, a third of them by business and 40% of them in emerging markets.

As Ken Doctor, author of Newsenomics has noted, “surveys show that people seem to like reading news on tablets, with many saying they prefer the tablet experience to that of the newspaper. As tablets become cheaper to buy, it’s merely a matter of time before newspapers flip the switch and stop printing altogether in favour of digital editions”.

At one level I suspect that he is right – not least as I am among those iPad newspaper subscribers.  However, I have been exercising my political-activist muscles this past few weeks by indulging in that bedrock of electioneering – delivering leaflets.  It is a miserable and thankless job.  Apart from the chance to examine unfamiliar neighbourhoods at walking speed, delivering to letterboxes is without relief.

With time on my hands for thinking, though, I could not help but wonder whether there was not a better way to get messages to householders?  Surely email, Facebook and Twitter could replace shoe leather when it comes to identifying potential voters?  Could my leaflets not be simply ‘pushed’ to the putative voter iPads.

I discussed the idea with my local party organiser – a talented electioneer of long experience, who travelled to the US to work on Obama’s first election campaign.  He did not give me much hope that my days of expressing my commitment in shoe leather were coming to a close.  “Social media has some uses among activists, it is good for getting messages out quickly and I have even managed to recruit on Twitter.  For communicating with the electorate itself, however, it is all but useless.  However high the take up, we are nowhere near the point where half the electorate can be reached by electronic means (apart from the telephone).  For so long as that is the case, electoral politics will always start with leaflets and printed election addresses”.

These twin truths appear to place us in a strange an paradoxical position.  On the one hand the rush to new media will quite properly be the main concern for most media companies.  In this respect, tablet formats that retain clear editions and create a clear revenue stream, will be the rightful preoccupation of many.

However, there will be a mass analogue market for many years to come.  Eric Gordon’s optimism about genuinely local papers – expressed here – might sound backward looking.  But I suspect that even now there are a few journalists entering the trade even now, who could see out their careers committing their words to ink –  albeit they are likely to be at the resolutely local end of the game.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

May 8th, 2012 at 4:20 am

From newsroom to blogosphere – the sexism goes on

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Where are all the women? That was the question behind an NUJ fringe meeting at last week’s TUC women’s conference.

A wide range of women gathered from all sections of the media. Shadow media minister Helen Goodman, citing the coalition government’s plans to relieve Ofcom of the duty to promote equal opportunities in TV and radio, concluded: ‘Things are moving backwards. Things are getting worse’.

NUJ activist Jess Hurd gave some depressing examples of the naked sexism that still prevails in newsrooms and the photography business.

New Statesman journo Helen Lewis reported on the rise of online misogyny which leads to women writers getting violent threats and personal, sexualised abuse. A fuller account is here. She argued that such threats and intimidation need to be taken more seriously by employers and police if society is to convey the message that using the internet for such abuse is not acceptable.

Veteran activist Linda Bellos said she still gets responses to her articles whose ‘vitriol, [the] hatred reminds me of the reaction to the formation of the feminist movement.’

But there were reports of positive things being done.

Broadcast magazine editor Lisa Campbell and Lis Howell, head of broadcast journalism at City University, outlined the reasons for their joint Expert Women Campaign, based on research which highlights the gender imbalance in media experts. Radio 4’s Today programme has a ratio of six male experts to every female, for example.

They’ve launched a petition asking for a modest 30% representation of women. (‘We’re not even asking for equality; we’re not that daft,’ said Howell.) Sign here now.

Meanwhile, frustration at not seeing women’s views represented adequately led Alison Clarke to found Women’s Views on the News, which covers under-reported stories such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s endorsement of the view that ‘men are fundamental, women are second-rate’.

Sadly, being entirely run by volunteers, the site suffers from the same absence of a business model that afflicts older feminist sites.

I banged the drum I started thumping on this site in November, and puzzled over the fact that, amid all the experiments currently being conducted in making journalism pay, few pioneers seem to be women. Did the internet, with its adrenal, long-hours culture, I asked, foster and reward a kind of ‘digital machismo’?

Members of the audience helpfully suggested other contributory factors: the techy nature of many of the new business models, and the enduring fact that women carry the larger burden of care in families, and so have less time and energy to be entrepreneurial.

Whatever the case, it seems that there’s plenty for the latest phase of feminism – I forget which wave we’re on – to address in both old and new media.

Written by Alex

March 19th, 2012 at 7:03 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