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

(UPDATED) Why there is no ad-supported digital business model for journalism

The CJR has an ominous  piece about the “darkening” employment outlook for journalists at digital only publishers like Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, and so on. It’s a disheartening corrective to the widely held, but pretty much entirely wrong view, that print is failing because it is run by dinosaurs who don’t know how to properly transition from a print to digital world. While print continues to melt (Rogers is preparing to massively shift its magazines to largely or exclusively digital publishing), there’s little indication digital is much in the way of a stable icefloe.

In fact, just the opposite. Mashable basically gave up on news this year, as Gigaom did the year before. Vice has laid off reporters. Buzzfeed recently shuttered its Ottawa bureau after a year or so.

What’s remarkable about the supposed digital behemoths, like BuzzFeed, is how tiny their revenues are. According to the CJR piece, BuzzFeed was expecting revenues of $240 million in 2015, and came in with $170 million.… Continue reading

The news is not about information (or, why everyone hates the media)

When I became managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen in 2011 (then Editor in 2013) I started to have a lot of contact with readers — emails, phone calls, and a surprising number of handwritten letters. It was through this contact that I began to get a sense of what our readers really cared about, and what they valued in their subscription. Two things stuck out:

The first was that, by and large, what readers cared about were things like comics and puzzles, the daily weather map, the TV listings. Somedays it seemed like we could have put a picture on A1 of the prime minister consorting alien space prostitutes, but if we also printed the Sudoku upside down or got the “On this date in weather history” wrong, that is all I would hear about.

The second was that readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet.… Continue reading

What should be done about the state of the news media?

Over the past six or seven years, I’ve spent more nights than I care to count sitting in bars with fellow journalists bemoaning the relentless decline in the industry’s fortunes, while spitballing about alternative revenue models, content models, regulatory policies, or technologies that might save the business. In that time, I’ve held pretty much every position imaginable. Many of these positions I’ve argued for in private with colleagues, in public in columns, on panels, even as a paid speaker.

If there is one thing I’ve concluded, it is this: No one knows what the future of the news media looks like. I don’t, the people running the major news companies don’t, the people running the cool new digital shops don’t, and the consultants who continue to charge healthy fees giving advice certainly don’t. Yet the “legacy”, or traditional media, continue to decline, and the new media darlings, like Buzzfeed, Vice, and others, aren’t doing so well either.… Continue reading

The wheels are coming off the wagon

This is not really a surprise, given the structure of Postmedia’s acquisition of Sun properties (buying the newspapers only). Still, it is a welcome relief:

 

sun

 

It puts me in the mood to reminisce. Everyone has their favorite Sun Media moment. Here is mine:

 

o-SUN-NEWS-HARPER-TRUDEAU-570

Now remember, this little comparison graphic is not a paid advertisement. This is… what? What exactly does one call this? Editorial content I guess.

If anyone is ever tempted to forget what Sun News was/is, I would encourage them to return to this little graphic.

P.S. by the way, I assume that Trudeau Jr. is driving the car made famous by his father, which he presumably inherited.… Continue reading

The (messy) ethics of freedom of speech

A few days ago, I took part in a very interesting panel discussion on the issue of free speech. The panel was prompted by the tragic events that took place in Paris a couple of weeks ago. One of the most interesting aspects of the panel was that despite our disagreements, none of the participants actually thought that the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo actually raise any particularly interesting issues to do with freedom of speech as it is usually understood. As far as I am able to tell, hardly anyone thinks that the cartoons that the satiric magazine has published over the years warrant censorship. Even commentators who believe that there are cases in which the state appropriately steps in to limit freedom of speech – cases in which speech promotes hatred toward an entire group, for example — acknowledged that Charlie Hebdo steered clear of the line separating ridicule directed at religion, religious symbols and religious beliefs on the one hand, and contempt or hatred directed at a group of people, on the other.… Continue reading

How to close down a discussion (before it starts)

I must say, I had been looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. Not so much because I expect to agree with that much of it – if she hasn’t changed her mind about anything since her article in The Nation a while back, then I know that I disagree with much of what she has to say on the topic of climate change. But I’ve been mentally pencilling into my schedule time to read it, and then write something in response to it.

The reason I find it worthwhile to engage with Klein’s work is that the views she articulates are often widely shared on the left, but are usually the sort of thing that you hear people say – like things I hear from my students – but that you don’t often find written down anywhere. So whenever she puts these ideas down on paper, it offers a good opportunity for discussion and debate (and for me, an opportunity to point out what I think is wrong with a lot of conventional wisdom of the left).… Continue reading