Reality starts to bite at the Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail has announced some fairly serious changes in the last week, and it’s hard not to see them as part of a much larger strategic shift at the paper. If so, it’s been a long time coming: compared to the big strategic bets at Postmedia and at the Star (and at La Presse as well, in Quebec), the Globe has had a quieter time of it. There have been layoffs and cuts, and obvious changes to the product but on the for-profit media side, the Globe and Mail seems to have been more insulated than anyone else to the wrenching transformation and revenue decline affecting the news biz.

The changes at the Globe include the cancellation of the print edition in the Atlantic region (so no paper Globe east of Quebec); the cutting of standalone arts, sports, and life sections during the week (so going to basically a two-section paper focused on news and business); and the end of two long-time (and quite popular) columnists, Leah McLaren and Tabatha Southey.… Continue reading

What the failure of Star Touch teaches us about a media bailout

The Toronto Star announced yesterday that it was shuttering its flagship Star Touch tablet app, laying off 30 employees and eating something north of $20 million in investment costs.

This comes a week after a group called “News Media Canada” — basically a legacy news media lobbying group — pitched the feds on a plan for the government to give the industry $350 million in support that would include funding 35 per cent of newsroom costs.

Clearly, the failure of Star Touch proves the need for the bailout money, yes?

Actually, no, it proves the exact opposite. Star Touch is exactly why the feds need to leave the news business to its death throes.

Some quick background: Star Touch was an attempt to recreate the walled garden of print in a digital format, to provide a closed environment where readers would come and stick around, paging through the heavily designed and curated app.Continue reading

*All The President’s Men* for the Trump era

If you’re looking for guidance on the current media-political climate in the United States, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of All The President’s Men, the book-length account of the Watergate investigation by Woodward and Bernstein. This is one of those I-can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-sooner books, something I really should have been handed the day I walked into the newsroom at the Ottawa Citizen almost a decade ago. (The movie is great too, but it only covers the period from the break-in until Nixon’s re-election in ‘72, so it misses what is arguably the most interesting stuff. It’s also a bit jarring to read the book knowing that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, the #2 at the FBI at the time.)

Aside from its value as analogue journalism-porn (See also: Spotlight) in many ways, it will make you feel better about what’s going on now. History doesn’t repeat itself but it definitely rhymes: America has seen shit-show presidencies before and survived.… Continue reading

Why Facebook is the Devil: Platforms, publishing, and the public good

Prologue

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace — John Perry Barlow, 1996

I.

You all know the line about generals always preparing to fight the last war. News media execs, and many academics and media critics, on the other hand, have spent the better part of the last two decades fighting the current war while trying to figure out a way of getting everyone to agree to return to the terms of the old. That is, a good decade after it became clear that the math for digital publishing was never going to work, there are still a lot of publishers, aided by a sizeable scholarly industry, who are devoted to finding some way of rolling back the clock on the business model.… Continue reading

Why it is a problem when journalists jump into politics

When columnist Michael Den Tandt announced this week that he was joining the PMO, just a a few weeks after he resigned as a political columnist for Postmedia, there was a fair amount of chatter in the usual places about the bad optics of the move, what we could conclude about his work and about the profession as a whole, and whether, in this economy, this is the sort of thing we should have any scruples about.

Some throat clearing:

a) I worked at Postmedia with Den Tandt, and though I never met him we did have a few exchanges. I thought he was a very strong columnist, and think his departure from Postmedia is a loss for the company and the profession.

b) This is a bigger issue than Den Tandt regardless. Lots of journalists have jumped to the Liberals, just as a lot jumped to the Tories when they were in power. Continue reading

Raising Questions over telling the truth. How Donald Trump’s discourse distorts the meaning of inquiries (in addition to everything else)

After a long year in the spotlight, we have had plenty of opportunities to study Donald Trump’s approach to discourse and truth. For sure, his willingness to disregard facts has legitimately alarmed many, especially now that he speaks with the strength of the presidency. However, perhaps an aspect of his discourse that has gathered less attention is his predilection for raising questions over expressing a position.

An illustration of what I mean here happened this week, as Trump was leading yet another charge against the media. This time, Trump chose to directly state that “the media do not report on Islamic terrorism” (which is demonstrably false) and then he hinted at some hidden reasons for it, which, to our best guesses, was something along the lines of “the media do so to weaken my presidency” (which is also false, although a bit murkier to debunk). Although the news media rightly cringed at hearing such blatant lies, we should realize that Trump has led that same charge for months, although he has mostly chosen to do so by raising questions, such as “why don’t the media report on Islamic terrorism?” In fact, looking back on the campaign, it seems that most of what he said was done through vague and evasive questions rather than assertions.… Continue reading

How to help the news media

The centerpiece proposal from the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, is to change the tax code to charge companies who want to advertise in Google and Facebook a ten percent levy, and then funnel that money into a fund that will be used to pay for digital journalism, as dispensed by an arms-length federal body.

This is one of those ideas that is high-minded, well-intentioned, and looks worse and worse the more I think about it.

There are fairness issues: why target, and punish, Canadian companies who do international digital business, and need to advertise on Google or Facebook to reach those audiences? How is the failure of the news media their problem to solve?

There are accountability issues: It is one thing to use taxpayer dollars to fund arms length institutions like NSERC or the CBC. There is at least in these cases a chain of accountability from the taxpayer to a minister to whom the institution is responsible, and who is in turn responsible to parliament.… Continue reading

How not to help the news media

The Public Policy Forum released its long-awaited (well, by news nerds and journalists, anyway) report on the news media, its challenges, and possible solutions. It’s called The Shattered Mirror, and you can download it here. 

The report is a thorough account of the current state of the industry, how and why it got to where it is, and the problems and challenges it faces. It’s also really long, but it’s well-written, has a nice tabloidy-design and it’s a pretty good read by the standards of these sorts of reports. The first three sections – diagnosing the problem and reporting on the feedback they received — should be mandatory reading for all journalism students wondering what they are getting in to, and for all working journalists wondering why management is cutting newsroom staff yet again.

But the PPF’s mandate (the report was commissioned by the federal government) was not simply to describe the problem.… Continue reading

Deinstitutionalisation: The new crisis for journalism Part I

1.

As far as the mainstream media is concerned, 2016 will be remembered as the year that the the print media ran out of runway, as the transition-to-digital bluff was called. There is no serious digital business model to speak of for online publishing – the recent round of mass layoffs at Medium only underscoring that even the digital-only ad-supported initiatives are a fool’s errand.

What should be done? For a while now, my view has been the same as Ken Whyte’s — we should do nothing. And that is pretty much the view I expressed at two of the seminars run by the Public Policy Forum as part of their initiative to determine if the decline of the news media is a problem, and if so, what should be done about it. My answers have been: Yes it’s a problem, and there’s not much to be done until the convulsions have ended.… Continue reading

Newsonomics: The steep hill of scale

A couple of years ago, after trying and failing at a free ad-supported business model and flirting with pay walls that brought in negligible revenue, a number of news publishers started to come around to the idea of scale. When it comes to monetizing an audience, it’s go big or go home.

And there is certainly a lot to be said for scale, since it appears to be the only way of making any real money selling journalism online. Big players like BuzzFeed, HuffPost, an Business Insider, even medium sized ones like Gawker, all make money by funneling colossal amounts of traffic into a hopper. Out the other end squeezes a non-colossal amount of revenue, which is used to pay for a handful of journalists.

It’s not a great business model, but it is pretty much the only one on offer right now. Which is why Postmedia — as it prepares to downsize yet again — appears to be moving into the digital-scale business.… Continue reading