TOC The fourth dimension Your Turn

May 19, 2009

Recently, time has not been kind to newspapers. The writing appeared on the wall a few years ago. Today the Bible segues to a Western as the Financial Times' coverage of the New York Times evoques vultures slowly circling in the sky over some exhausted traveller who lost his way. Will Matthew Garrahan (*) and John Gapper (**) disagree?

In their quandary, newspapers do not lack unsollicited advice. I contributed some myself (1). Future will tell whether Jason Pontin's manifesto (***) is better received. At least a magazine publisher's opinion should carry some weight and is worth my revisiting the subject.

Jason Pontin starts with two points whose self-evidence makes it easy to overlook. First media as a business is not to be confused with individual content providers, be they journalists or bloggers. Second newspapers depend on print today as the Western post depended on the pony express.

Having established the correct perspective, Jason Pontin defines the business media by three objectives, create stories, develop an audience and sell advertising. His advice follows naturally from this analysis. Pursue these objectives online as well as on paper and please do so within your means.

There is something satisfying about a clear strategy comfortably fitting within the 140 character limit of modern concision (2). And for those who need more tactical advice, Jason Pontin provides detailed prescriptions. So why do I feel Jason Pontin has shortchanged the reader? It is as if he had provided the directions and a plan but left out the map. Disoriented, the reader may find it easier to cut back on costs than adapt to the future.

Last week I proposed to look at events in our Information Age through the prism of privacy, sharing and money. Add time as the fourth dimension and I contend we can draw the missing map.

Take story creation for example. It will not do to pursue this objective if one ignores the tension between sharing and money making. We have said it before. People pay for breaking news but, the more critical the story, the faster sharing grounds its money making potential. Aping the music record industry, newspapers may try to figth illegal copying and charge readers for online content gone flat. A recipe for disaster. "Feed the wire" and charge for alerts, as Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson illustrates with Thomson Reuters (****), but otherwise offer your online stories for free.

When I asked Jason Pontin permission to link to his blog, "Oh, of course - such is what the Web is for" was his reply and so I did. Contrast this exchange with my failed attempts to get the New York Times and the Financial Times to grant me similar rights. How indeed could these newspapers pledge to service a deep link when they want to erect at will their wall of the day (3). Sharing should be cultivated, not opposed. The more popular the journalist, the more influencial his or her stories, the more valuable the corresponding alerts. Ask Foster Vinans.

Advertising may be in temporary decline, yet most news publishers subsidize content by selling the attention of their audience. This is one reason why Jason Pontin deems audience development so vital. Beware though. I once skewered the editor of the Financial Times for being nosy in a paper survey, an abuse made easier online. Publishers may force a diet of targeted ads down the throat of their readers and offer quantitative proof of the effect. It's a losing proposition as the need to respect the readers' privacy is proportional to the potential for mischief.

As Michael Troiano declared, "user participation must come". Keyword based advertising is so successful because it responds to consumers' own actions. Can adulterating the content and trading in consumer personal information be the right way to compete? To gather readers, free ranging online with a will of their own, better foster mutual respect. Elevate advertisements to the level of entertainment, if not art and accept consumers' right to their own profile. On this basis only can publishers think of shaping, engaging, retaining and as a result monetizing an audience.

What if so called display ads were a simple minded attempt to emulate paper with a screen, be it from a computer or an eReader, the way the first cars looked like horse-drawn carriages without the horses? Online, the precious commodity is no longer space but user engagement. If so, the ad of the future may well appear in a space decoupled from the content it subsidizes. The Cybergold patent (4) introduced "attention brokering". Marc Leprat pioneers the idea that, no matter how busy, users have time to kill during which they would rather watch interesting ads on whatever device happens to be at hand. I have described (5) how to credit ad fees back to the sites which fill in the targeted profiles while respecting user privacy.

Turning a conflict which pits profitability against privacy and sharing into an alliance which makes the best of time goes a long way to implement Jason Pontin's strategy but leaves a gaping hole in our map. No matter how talented, isolated bloggers will never replace the business infrastructure of The Technology Review. But they can count on search engines, social sites and their associated advertising networks to provide what they lack.

Do publishers expect regulators to take on the Google juggernaut? "There is clearly something in the air" according to Richard Waters (*****). But asking to be exempt from antitrust laws while hoping Google falls afoul of their less permissive reading smacks of hypocrisy and desperation.

The truth of the matter is that publishers are competing with search engines and social sites in the same business of making recommendations between readers and contributors. Within this segment, publishers would be well advised to understand what advantages they enjoy and what challenges they face in terms of content, audience and advertisers.

I find newspapers sites a waste of my time when I need specific information. I search for it on Google or directly on Wikipedia or the site of the original author if I know it. But when I want to survey what's new, nothing beats the editorial choice of a good newspaper or magazine. Publishers do not create stories so much as the complex context which alone can support what Michael Schrage calls "browsing". Have publishers ever tried to make online readers pay to access the front pages holding their selections but freely welcome deep links from Google and bloggers alike?

In his tactical advice, Jason Pontin comes out strongly in favor of reader participation. This should go beyond welcoming comments. A vibrant community demands a network of reciprocal recommendations. Yet what to do as long as the ads and hence advertising revenues are tied to the pages served? If anyone could post links, the community would drown in spam. But can Jason Ponting allow deep links on request, to this fillip for instance, lest he decrease the Technology Review page hit count? And so its audience splits its time with more democratic blogger only sites.

A third type of recommendations however could lead to immediate revenues. David Carr points out (******) that one of "newspapers' essential strengths" is their independence, which allows them to "write negatively about products". I savor as anyone else a scathing review as long as I am not its target. But read David Pogue on, say, the Zoomback (*******). A good reviewer goes beyond the product at hand and explain how to reach a judgment. If you look at any wireless service, check the coverage. Obvious? Well check a later post on how to measure it (********).

For Jason Pontin, "classifieds [...] are no longer part of the business of publishing. Get over it." If Craigslist is kicking the Boston Globe all over the pitch, does it follow there is no need for a better matching system? I, for one, believe that there is a latent demand for formal, objective mechanisms which force participants to fully, if confidentially, reveal their offer upfront. If in his domain of expertise David Pogue were to enter the criteria on the ePrio platform (6) and the New York Times to operate this market, would users waste their time reading between the lines of traditional classifieds?

Display ads are not classified. Yet my proposal of getting readers to ask for display ads because they feel like it falls within the recommendation business also. This time the publisher would use its reputation to recommend ads to its readers based on the profiles enabled by their interactions.

Such is the map. But will existing publishers have enough time to put it to profit? The Fourth Estate may well be squeezed by the fourth dimension.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............... 'Grey Lady' has a patient suitor, by Matthew Garrahan (Financial Times) - May 13, 2009
  • (**) ............. Find the right buyer for your paper, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - May 14, 2009
  • (***) ........... A Manifesto, by Jason Pontin (Technology Review) - May/June, 2009
  • (****) ......... Thomson Reuters upgrades applications, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - May 11, 2009
  • (*****) ....... Global trust-busters ponder Google, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - May 12, 2009
  • (******) ..... Newspaper' Essential Strengths, by David Carr (New York Times) - May 3, 2009
  • (*******) ... Peekaboo, Zombak Sees You, by David Pogue (New York Times) - April 23 , 2009
  • (********) . Decoding The Hype On Gadgets, by David Pogue (New York Times) - May 14, 2009
  • (1) see "media industry" in the theme index for these fillips.
  • (2) 109 signs to be exact - Create stories, develop an audience and sell advertising, online as well as on paper and within your means.
  • (3) At the gates of their walled sites, publishers may extract money or personal data on all or part of their content. I have stopped counting policy changes.
  • (4) see US patent no 5,855,008
  • (5) see US patent application no 20090076914
  • (6) see tEC domains for more details
May 2009
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