Tag Archives: Gavin O’Reilly

Regarding Academic Research and Fatuous Reporting About Trouble Media Industries

Many of the media industries for which journalism and media professors prepare students are, if not yet dying, seriously ill, stumbling if not yet in collapse due to titanic changes underway.

Ten days ago, I published here a call for American journalism and media professors to conduct more practical research because too much of their research is too esoteric to help those industries. Rather than write this call all by myself, I heavily quoted Earl Wilkinson, the executive director of the International Newspaper Marketing Association (now the International News Marketing Association). I timed it for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication‘s (AEJMC) annual conference, the largest convention of American and Canadian journalism and media professors, held last week in Denver. Wilkinson had attended AEJMC in 2002 and spoken at the AEJMC 2003 conference.

My call provoked a dozen remarkable comments, from professors and from industry change analysts, about if they should be solving the industry’s problems, if those problems are caused by business people or the people who create the industries’ content, and if whatever problems exists just in US academia. On the AEJMC Newspaper Division’s blog, it prompted blogmaster Bob Stepno,  a journalism and media professor of Radford University, to retrieve Wilkinson’s correspondence with AEJMC and  the AEJMC’s own qualitative and quantitative surveys about the focuses of its research. All worth reading if you’re a media academic, student, or someone who’s looking for answers for the media industry’s problems.

According to their tweets, many professor at AEJMC10 were disappointed that the venue (the Denver Sheraton) didn’t always have a WiFi field available in the conference hall. Some of the professors are now tweeting that a working WiFi field should be requirement for the AEJMC11 venue.

Fine idea. However, the problem says more about the professors than the venue. Most of those professors should be teaching their students how to get online when WiFi isn’t available—such as when filing a news story from the scene to their newsroom. You’d think they’d know how to do that themselves. Never rely on there being WiFi. Real world practitioners don’t. When I don’t find WiFi where I am, I plug an inexpensive USB cell modem stick into my computer. It’s gotten me online in Malaysian jungles, atop alps, and in hotels that don’t have WiFi.

Southern Methodist University Professor Jake Batsell rightly told me that there wasn’t a solid cell signal deep inside the Denver Sheraton, so this method probably wouldn’t have worked there anyway. I was just surprised how dependent professors are on free WiFi, upon which the journalists they train shouldn’t be.

Did I say that many of the media industries  are, if not yet dying, seriously ill, stumbling if not yet in collapse due to titanic changes underway? I’m sure that some professors and some media industry executives (what’s Gavin O’Reilly up to these days? He’s being uncharacteristically quiet) will still disagree with me about that, despite all the data evidence.

Speaking of which, I had to chuckle at former Guardian editor Peter Preston‘s column in The Observer on Sunday in London. Triumphantly entitled Newspapers beat the doomsayers’ final deadline, it states:

Not long ago, the experts predicted 10 US papers would be gone in 18 months. They were wrong. And prospects for print are looking better, not worse, than they did in the depths of the crunch…. In America, where the direst predictions flourished,Time ran a March 2009 article on the nation’s “10 most endangered newspapers” and forecast that ‘eight would cease publication in the next 18 months’. Well, that was 17 months ago, and all 10, from the Miami Herald to the San Francisco Chronicle, are still publishing.

What a splendid example of fatuous retorting of fatuous reporting!

First and foremost, what “experts predicted 10 US papers would be gone in 18 months”? Not any newspaper industry analysts I’ve ever heard or read, and my profession has been as a newspaper analyst for the past 17 years. No, the “experts” Preston cite is Time magazine itself, that fading and ever-more People magazine shadow of what had been a decent news magazine 30 years ago.

And what “experts” did Time itself quote in the 10 most endangered newspapers story that Preston quotes? A website in New Rochelle, New York, called 24/7 Wall St. whose six-person news staff writes stories and opinionson the subject of:

For several decades most business journalism was dominated by Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. While all of them have online editions, new web operations from Marketwatch, TheStreet.com, Bloomberg.com, Reuters.com, The Fool, and a dozen blogs and commentary sites have begun to take the place of print. Revenue is also flowing out of print to the web allowing financial websites to spend more on writers and content.

In other words, Time based its 10 most endangered newspapers story on a single source which has a vested business interest in seeing printed editions fail and being replaced by companies like that single source. In fact, if you’re planning a conference and a speaker on that subject, the 24/7 Wall St. website says they’re the speakers you want about how companies like theirs are replacing printed news publications. Moreover, 24/7 Wall St. is hardly an expert about the newspaper business. Ask people, either pro or con the future of newspapers, within the newspaper industry or any academic who follows that industry. There are plenty of experts about the newspaper industry, but 24/7 Wall St. isn’t one. Go to its site, particularly its About page, and judge for yourself.

Indeed, no real or credible “experts” about the newspaper industry has ever said that eight out of the ten newspapers on the list that Time got from 24/7 Wall St. will fail in 18 months. Or even 36 or 72 months. But Time‘s fatuous reporting provide a London columnist and former newspaper editor a chance to say the talk about newspapers being in jeopardy or dying was much ado about almost nothing.

2007-2009 declines, by percent

Here’s that almost nothing, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the US, combined print and online newspaper ad revenues dropped 27.2 percent just in 2009. That’s a plunge from $37.8 billion to $27.5 billion. US newspapers’ online revenues, which were already less than a tenth of those newspapers’ revenues, dropped 11.8 percent.

Most real experts about newspapers have talked about the real possibility that half of the 1,408 daily newspapers in the US could fail during this coming decade. Just because 8 of a fatuously cited endangered 10 didn’t fail within 18 months doesn’t mean their danger is over.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK might have read Preston’s column in print Sunday, but people wanting to read the Montreal Gazette could do so only online that day and future Sundays. After 22 years, the Gazette ceased print publication on Sundays, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Alan Allnut announced.

At the end of this month, Jornal do Brasil, one of the oldest newspapers in South America’s largest  country, will stop publishing its print edition and will be only available online. in 1995, Jornal do Brasil was one of the first South American dailies to launch a website.

A WAN Attempt to Turn Back Time

In 1994, I was doing some consulting to The New York Times Information Services Group (NYTISG), which had put that newspaper’s content onto America Online’s proprietary online service. It had recently launched a website containing New York Times Syndicate stories, which were taken from the front sections of the newspaper, and NYTISG was deliberating whether to launch a website for the newspaper itself.

But first it wanted to promote the NYT Syndicate stories’ website. Its staff had noticed from usage logs that one person in particular was accessing the syndicate site many times each day. So, they asked me track down that person and ask him if he’d be willing to be part of a promotional ad for the website.

Running that person’s IP address through a WHOIS engine, I it resolved to filo.stanford.edu. I phoned Stanford University’s IT Department and I learned that filo.stanford.edu wasn’t one person, but a computer server operating a Web indexing spider under the direction of two doctoral candidates, Jerry Yang and David Filo.

I reported this the vice president in charge of NYTISG. I explained what a Web indexing spider was; how the basics of that technology were in the public domain; and suggested that The New York Times Company should operate one. That way, I said, the Times’ site would offer online users not only ‘All the News that’s Fit to Print’ but also a searchable index of everything that is online.

The vice president (who now publishes a newspaper in the state of Washington) looked at me as if I was daft and he replied, “No, we’re a newspaper, not some sort of online encyclopedia or phone book.“

Of all the consulting advice that I’ve given clients during the past dozen years, it was the one bit that I wish had been followed.

The New York Times Company and most every other newspaper in the world nowadays wishes it had the online traffic, gross revenues, and market capitalization of Yahoo! — the Web indexing company that Jerry Yang and David Filo built from that spider.

I mention this because last week the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the trade organization representing 18,000 of the world’s newspapers, announced that it had joined other traditional publishers organizations in efforts to determine if can they legally charge the search engines that index their news.

The other publishers organizations involved are the International Publishers Association (IPA), International Federation of the Periodical Press (FIPP), European Federation of Magazine Publishers (ENPA), European Publishers Council (EPC), European Magazine Publishers Association (FAEP), French association for magazine publishers (SPMI), association of French national newspapers (SPP), and the French regional daily newspaper association (SPQR), plus the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP). Some online groups that are dominated by subsidiaries of print publishers, such as the Online Publishers Association of the UK, have given the endeavor a “cautious welcome.

Don’t be fooled by this initiative. Rather than catch up by doing what they should have done long ago, these publishers are searching for legal ways to tax the railroad because the gravy train has left them behind.

The publishers organizations acknowledge that search engines “provide a valuable service to publishers in terms of traffic generation” but claim that the search engines “have built their business models in large part on taking content for free.”

Let’s consider that phrase “taking content for free,” but first look at this:

Did I now just take WAN’s content? Was that citation comprehensible? From it, would you know what WAN and those publishers are doing?

I ask because I’ve just cited WAN’s online content exactly the same way, word for word, that Google News’ automatically did. Neither that eight-word abstract headline nor its 25-word abstract text even explains what WAN and the other publishers’ organizations are doing.

Look at Google News or Yahoo! News and see for yourself how the search engines briefly abstract news organizations’ headlines and texts. Whether or not a gist of a news story, nonetheless its content, as cited by the search engines is comprehensible depends entirely upon if that news organization’s headline writer and text author were pithy and cogent enough. Does the publishers’ content really consist of a (often incomplete) headline of less than ten words and an incomplete text of less than two dozen words?

No. I think the publishers’ claim that the search engines are taking their content is absurd. The search engines are merely pointing people to the content on the news organizations’ own sites. Indeed, the search engines’ citations towards the publishers’ news is even less than academic abstracts or business abstracts. Ask a librarian or professor.

However, WAN President (and Group COO of newspaper publishing company Independent News & Media PLC) Gavin O’Reilly told the Financial Times “That’s often enough” for readers browsing the top stories and “the fact here is that we’re dealing with basic theft.”

If you accept Mr. O’Reilly’s logic, then don’t be surprised if the restaurant industry sues the newspaper industry for providing capsule listings and reviews that point potential diners to restaurants. The newspaper industry could defend itself by claiming that it doesn’t actually provide the food content to restaurant’s potential patrons (at best, the reviews might provide a bit of the restaurants’ flavors) and that the reviews are simply pointing potential patrons to those restaurants and thereby increasing those restaurants’ traffic. However, the restaurant owners might claim ‘That’s often enough’ to prevent people from coming onsite and browsing.

Is “theft” what the search engines are doing? Is theft pointing to something that is being given away for free? The news organizations aren’t charging anyone for accessing their news online.

If the newspaper industry wants to claim that citing its headlines online is “theft”, then it might first pursue the other daily newspapers that are doing it (such as this or this regular example) Publishers should pursue their direct competitors who are doing it, before claiming that the search engines are competitors.

Mr. ‘’Reilly also said, “The irony is that these search engines exist, largely, because of the traditional news and content aggregators and profit at their expense.”

That statement is both patently and historically false. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! existed for many years before indexing the news organizations’ websites. During that time the search engines, without pointing to those organizations’ news, grew to dwarf those organization in terms of online traffic, asset value, and market capitalization. News has never accounted for a significant fraction of these search engines traffic or revenues.

The only basis for theft that Mr. O’Reilly might legitimately claim is that the search engines have ‘stolen’ advertisers and consumers from using those publishers’ websites more often or more fully. Google and Yahoo! now have more online advertisers than those publishers because these search engines attract more consumers than any of those publishers’ sites do. And the search engines attract more consumers than the publishers’ sites do because the search engines provide a service that those publishers long ago failed to provide but could have.

Indeed, the organizations announced their legal initiative eight days after Google announced that it was removing the ‘Beta’ from Google News. I don’t think that timing was random.

In the WAN announcement, Mr. O’Reilly referred to the’ Napsterisation’ of content, hoping to lend credence to his industry’s claim that search engines are stealing its content.

However, what the search engines are actually doing has nothing to do with ‘napsterizing content or stealing content. What the search engines provide to consumers is a package of pointers to where information — including now news — from all sources is located online. As I’d mentioned from my New York Times experience, the newspaper industry could have done that a dozen years ago. Or five years ago. Or now.

The newspaper industry didn’t and doesn’t. Five years ago, did attempt to create what it called Internet ‘portals’, but those website contained only the content from that newspaper company and its affiliates. A portal just to them.

I don’t wish this WAN endeavor well. I think it’s a waste of time and money that the newspaper industry could better be spending on providing the types of services that it should have done long ago or those that it needs to now. Perhaps it is too late for The New York Times or other newspaper companies to become Googles or Yahoos (or Ebays or MySpaces), yet there are still plenty of new services to be developed online.

Don’t try to tax a gravy train that you’ve missed. Start another one.