The new media frontier – a travelogue

The author in front of NYT offices

The author in front of NYT offices

by Marc Josten, editor-in-chief
HUMAN Public Broadcasting

 

November 2013.

‘We’re on the sharp edge between content and advertising,’ says Bill Nichols, editor-at-large at Politico. ‘Sometimes we’re crossing that line.’

‘Absolute independence of our advertisers is our permanent pursuit,’ says Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica. ‘That ‘s what our funders demand of us.’

‘We often make pieces that neither journalists nor advertisers have asked for,’ says Ted Fine, head of program business of the television-department of Bloomberg, the financial media group of business tycoon and politician Michael Bloomberg, ‘they are only there because Michael wants them.’

If the new frontier in journalism is anywhere to be found in the whole wide world, then it would be on the East Coast of the United States.

For that reason ​​five Dutch media professionals visit the region in late autumn 2013: Jeroen Illy (ncrv), Frans Klein (vara), Carel Kuyl (ntr), Wilbert Mutsaers (3FM), Willem van Zeeland (vpro), and the author of this article.

How can we still deliver journalism of a certain quality in this rapidly changing media landscape? What will happen to the software if the hardware changes in revolutionary ways? Our quest is to find answers to these questions.

 

The Boston Globe

We start out in Boston, at a great icon of the golden age of media.

The Boston Globe, founded in 1872.

In its heyday the newspaper had over half a million subscribers, now it has only half that number. Despite 26,000 digital new-borns, the increase in online subscriptions cannot reverse the downturn. Their number is too meagre, and the profits out of digital ads are thin.

Since 1993 The Boston Globe had been owned by The New York Times Company. Last year, the owner of the baseball club The Boston Red Sox, John W. Henry, bought the company for $ 70 million. Twenty years earlier The New York Times Company had paid fifteen times more: $ 1.1 billion.

Since the takeover by Henry, there has been more emphasis on the web site boston.com and The Boston Globe‘s penchant for sports has been more visible.

At the time of our visit sports are everywhere, in the newspaper as well as on the web site. The excuse is more than reasonable; the Red Sox have just won The World Series two days earlier.

But in spite of the acquisition by the sports tycoon, the Globe is not yet back on track, as was frankly admitted by our hosts.

One of the internet experts in our delegation is also not impressed by the new media strategy of boston.com.

‘The Dutch news site nu.nl is much better,’ he says.

 

Nieman Lab

A few hours later and a few miles away, it is all done with the pessimism.

‘We’re in the middle of a major industrial change,’ said Josh Benton, director of Nieman Lab. ‘Slowly we begin to rediscover the possibilities of journalism.’

We’ve just arrived in Cambridge, to the north of Boston.

The Indian Summer overwhelms us with its long shadows and golden sunlight. The campus of Harvard University looks like a pointillist painting. A little further on, we halt at a white villa in Dutch colonial style. On the facade we read ‘Walter Lippmann House’. Lippmann was a legendary journalist, media critic and co-founder of the left-wing-liberal weekly The New Republic. Irony of history: in 2012 The New Republic was taken over by Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook.

Lippmann House is home to the Nieman Journalism Lab, the Harvard institute which closely watches developments in the old and new media. Some of us receive its daily newsletter chronicling these developments.

Indian summer at Harvard, home to the Nieman Lab

Indian summer at Harvard, home to the Nieman Lab

Nieman is a typical American private initiative designed to strengthen public values. In 1938 Agnes Wahl Nieman, the widow of the founder of The Milwaukee Journal, donated a million dollars ‘to promote and elevate the standards of journalism in the United States and educate persons deemed specially qualified for journalism.’ In the house brochure stacked up in the vestibule she is called ‘Mother of Invention’ – a more flattering title in progressive America is hardly conceivable.

In a sober presentation room, with plenty of chairs, a table and a blackboard, director Josh Benton gives a tour d’horizon. His key message: in the online world there is an open future for journalism. Content-wise and business-like.

Soon, we are into business models.

According to Benton most of the survivors among old-media organizations have already swallowed the worst. Based on his recent studies Benton advises journalism entrepreneurs to extract money from all possible sources.

Advertisements, pay-walls, subscriptions: grab whatever you can. And economize where you can. Cut back, but keep your boundaries always in mind. Never even touch your hard core. Never skimp on your newsroom. Which leads us into the territory where Benton wants us: content strategy for the old and the new media. If you’re a start-up, your position is easier because you don’t carry the ballast of the past. No set patterns, no expensive labor force. Are you from the old media, then the struggle will be tougher.

It does matter if you are one of the small local media, or if you are The New York Times which can afford general news. Benton: ‘People want to read that newspaper because it has the authority of The New York Times. Due to the infinite range of internet, the competition for the general interest has become so large that it is useless to work there as smaller party.’

But even The New York Times will have to adapt to the new rules of business, says Benton. ‘You can watch the newspaper touching on a number of lucrative sub-areas such as food & drinks and home & garden. These are the so-called verticals. Eventually The New York Times will monetize them as separate publications. I also foresee a competition between a large number of verticals founded by traditional newspapers and broadcasters. In the end there will be only one thing that counts: the relationship with your customers.

From left to right participants Willem van Zeeland, Jeroen Illy and delegation leader Lia Rosenbrand

From left to right participants Willem van Zeeland, Jeroen Illy and delegation leader Lia Rosenbrand

If they recognize themselves in your media organization, than the future is yours. That makes strategy an easy game for The New York Times since they are the bible of progressive America. For other titles it will be much more difficult to keep close to the hearts and minds of their customers. In many cases their problem is the hybrid identity of their constituents. These media should narrow their focus and specialize further. Less is more. The quality of your customer relationships will make the difference. You have to invest permanently in the sustainability of this relationship. You also need to be determined that you are the most important institute for your customers. Because in these times of globalization the public demands more than ever reliable institutions.’

What applies to the future of print media also applies to video, according to Benton. There, too, the focus should be on the interests of your specialized audience.

Vine targets a young audience that wants to laugh at six seconds-video’s, while This Week in Tech is the home for 100,000 people that want to view two hours a day video coverage about complex technological topics. Nowthisnews selects its news videos on their social-media potential. The starting point is the expected eagerness of people to share them on Facebook or Twitter.’

Back to the grand picture. What are the consequences of all these changes?

Benton does not hesitate. ‘Old media need to make their operations flat, their management and their journalism have to go back to basics. New media have to be networks, no pyramids. Their task is relatively easy: they have no past, they can immediately opt for an online strategy, or even better, for a mobile strategy.’

 

ProPublica

The next day we are at the heart of one of the most successful start-ups in journalism of our time. On Manhattan’s Lower Westside, overlooking the Hudson, we’re in the boardroom of Stephen Engelberg. He is the editor-in-chief of ProPublica, an online investigative site with the slogan Journalism in the Public Interest.

The discussion is about how to preserve the standards of great journalism in a time of drastic cuts? ProPublica became the first online magazine that won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism, the holy grail in that discipline for American journalists. A year later, ProPublica won the award again for a series about life on Wall Street.

Engelberg knows the answer.

‘You need sponsors,’ he says. ‘As many as possible. We try to attract more different sponsors to get a good spread. On the other hand we also try to share our content as much as possible with newspapers and networks.

Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica

Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica

ProPublica was founded in 2007 by Herb and Margo Sandler, the former bosses of The Golden West Financial Corporation. They have donated $10 million. Annually ProPublica has 34 full-time journalists on its staff who specialize in various areas of policy.

‘The average newspapers lose more than half of their budget on production and distribution, so they can spend just 50% on their editors,’ says Engelberg . ‘We can use 90% of our budget for our journalism. This enables us to hire the best professionals in various areas. ‘

The cooperation with other media is flourishing. The story that brought the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism was also published in The New York Times Magazine, but now ProPublica has been publishing in cooperation with 60 other media, including CBS’ 60 Minutes, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, CNN and The Washington Post.

‘That gives us a lot, especially goodwill, but also financially’, says Engelberg.

And what about the ambition to expand the circle of sponsors?

‘We are still depending to much on Herb and Margo,’ says Engelberg. ‘But we are taking steps.’ ProPublica is already receiving smaller amounts of money from the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Open Society Foundation of George Soros. It allows ProPublica to pay salaries to its professionals and thus to maintain its standard of quality. And what about the independence of ProPublica now that it is so financially dependent on the Sandlers?

‘They don’t get involved in anything,’ said Engelberg. ‘It is even stronger. Complete independence of our advertisers is our permanent pursuit, that’s also what Margo and Herb require from us.’

 

Dean Starkman, The Columbia Review of Journalism

Half an hour later we are back in front of a cluttered property in Midtown, close to Times Square.

Editor Dean Starkman of The Columbia Review of Journalism – a famous spin-off from Columbia University – apologizes immediately. ‘They have banned us from the university campus,’ he says. ‘Matter of priorities. I guess that our kind of critical media review is less in vogue nowadays. Universities are much more focussed on entrepreneurial journalism.’

That leads us straight to Starkman’s recent essay ‘Confidence Game’, about the loss of journalistic values due to entrepreneurial journalism and the visions of modern media gurus.

Starkman treats us with a southern kind of hospitality. He opens a big box of doughnuts, too big for our European stomachs. There is American coffee – the famous Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Then Starkman begins to talk. With twists and turns he arrives at his key message: encouraged by reckless journalistic innovators, for whom money is more important than the quality of content, publishers are retreating from investigative journalism.

Welcome with doughnuts - Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review

Welcome with doughnuts – Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review

‘Their argument is that the future belongs to individual journalists who focus directly on their audience,’ says Starkman. ‘These people underestimate the importance of institutions. These institutions were founded for good reason. An editorial office creates peer control that leads to checks and balances and to professional fact-checking.’

But what are these quality institutions today? Starkman: ‘Sometimes I’m jealous of the way media are organized in Europe. The BBC gets money from the government, because quality information is a public value. In the US we have nothing comparable. Private companies are the keepers of public values, and I think they can survive by using all kinds of cash-flow. You should try all systems. The New York Times introduced pay-walls last year and succeeded. I already hear my critics say: yeah, this model only works with premium media like The New York Times. But that ‘s not true. I know also a local newspaper in Iowa that succeeded. Why shouldn’t it work in more places? And there are other business models for the quality press. We got our public radio PBS, which is only partially funded by the government here. And you have the first-class investigative ProPublica that thrives on mainly one big sponsor. There is some optimism back in the industry. The panic is over.‘

The best practice for the future of journalism according to Starkman is the London-based paper The Guardian. He admires the stories on the journalistic crimes committed by the News Corporation and its boss Rupert Murdoch.

‘That story was written by traditional investigative journalists of the institute The Guardian. They got all the space and time for their research they needed. After publishing the story on paper the editorial staff catapulted the story onto the internet and into the world of social media. That led to new suggestions out of the public and to many interesting discussions. I think that the method bears a great future.’

 

Colleague Willem van Zeeland

Colleague Willem van Zeeland

Reddit

The entrance to the property of Reddit internet company (founded in 2005 in San Francisco) is well hidden. Between scaffolding and road debris we are pushing doors to reach the higher grounds of the eight-year-old start-up .

We meet community manager DAC. In everyday life she is called Marta Gossage.

The Reddit-website looks pretty chaotic. All possible areas of interest, from pets to hard-porn and other heart’s desires flash by. Registered users may vote on every post: positive or negative. So the inner circle determines the ranks and files.

The chaotic design is made by purpose, Gossage says: ‘Reddit is a medium that your mother will never understand, and that is exactly our intention.’

Reddit works like an eel trap. As a new visitor on the side you are seduced into finding the subject of your liking. Once there, the site provides you with new possibilities to dig deeper into your chosen item.

‘Users ask for more and more specialized information,’ says Erik Martin, the general manager. ‘Topics like news and sports are way too common. To us they are tremendously boring.’

The Reddit crew is still proud of its so-called Secret Santa campaign, an opportunity to give Christmas gifts in secret to the less fortunate via an internet tool. In 2010 approximately 18,000 reddit users spent one million dollars together.

The Dutch visitors are amazed by the success of Reddit mainly because the website that promotes itself as ‘the front page of the internet’ is not designed as a landmark of good taste.

‘You do not have to look well,’ says Martin. ‘It’s the algorithm behind our project that makes the difference. Who has the right algorithm, owns the future.’ 

 

Wilbert Mutsaers in front of the NYT building

Wilbert Mutsaers in front of the NYT building

Mark Thompson, The New York Times

The next day we pass through the gates of journalists’ heaven, located on Eighth Avenue: The New York Times. Thanks to our great moderator Lia Rosenbrand of APEP, we can share our thoughts with Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times Company.

Until this moment our experiences with managers on positions far away from every day journalism have been rather bad. The Brit Thompson, former head of the BBC, turns out to be a fine exception.

From the moment we sit down, he takes his time and proves an eloquent speaker as well as a good listener. ‘Our future can be described in three words,’ he says. ‘Global, social and video.’

About the global aspirations he says: ‘Once we were pondering deeply the question of what makes us unique in comparison with newspapers. The answer was simple: for us, there is no abroad, for us there are no foreign correspondents. Our country is the world. There is a lot of demand for international news but only few media can bring it. We can own the world market, because we can deliver.’

This strategy has already borne fruit. Thanks to internet subscribers from all over the world, The New York Times is read by almost 4 million people, 1.6 million of them newspaper readers and 2.2 million web users. The subscriptionrate has never been this high.

‘The only problem is that we earn much less with the ads on the web. So we have to compensate that loss with subscription fees. Our digital product yielded many new subscribers, but since the losses in advertisement we needed their payment. So we started our paywalls back in 2011.’

Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times

Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times

And those paywalls soon turned out to be a success. The newspaper now has 720,000 paying digital subscribers. Last year The New York Times announced that for the first time in history the revenues from subscriptions were higher than those of advertisements.

However, on balance the trend is downward. To turn the tide The New York Times invests in promising business verticals, such as home & garden and food & drink. The benchmark for starting a vertical is the potential to become a stand-alone operation. Thompson explains the strategy behind the cost cutting in recent years. ‘We have cut everywhere except in our newsroom,’ he says. ‘Even in our correspondent network we have never cut. On the contrary: we’re just going to invest more internationally. Our perspective for growth is mainly outside the U.S.’

Time to discuss the second goal: making good use of social media.

‘Sharing our information is the best marketing tool possible,’ says Thompson. ‘There is nothing more convincing than a dialogue by our public on our stories. Therefore, we decided to make an exemption from our paywalls in the area of social media. Via Twitter and Facebook you can reach our information for free.’

Video is ambition number three of The New York Times. ‘There is no medium with a better possibility of sharing than video,’ says Thompson. ‘Our only problem is that we have to set the bar high, just because we are The New York Times. For that reason we try to get the content of the best young video makers in this area. We also try to cover items that are too short for long documentaries, but still interesting for the great directors.’

Frans Klein at The New York Times

Frans Klein at The New York Times

In the short term, video is not expected to be a great money maker for The New York Times. Neither will the so called long-reads be, the beautifully crafted stories on the website, that explore the boundaries between documentary and magazine. One of the productions, Snowfall, about a group of skiers who take irresponsible risks, received so much praise for its artistic and journalistic quality that it has already turned into a verb: to snowfall. (http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/ # / ? part = tunnel -creek)

‘We do that for our image,’ says Thompson. ‘But also to explore the techniques of the future and to keep the skill of our journalism up to date.’

Later that week, we will meet Steve Duenes, the architect of Snowfall. He is the Graphics Director at The New York Times. The secret of Snowfall according to him is to be eager on print stories with a great visual potential. Duenes transfers those stories to the graphics department and then they’re trying to design a long-read. He shows us his latest marriage between print and documentary: a game of shark and minnow (http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/10/27/south-china-sea/).

After over an hour with Thompson, we ask the Briton a question of conscience. Is there a difference between managing the BBC and The New York Times?

‘Hardly,’ he says, laughing out loud. ‘The BBC may be publicly run and the NYT privately, bur both are large institutions with their corresponding dynamics. As a result, they look much alike. And the professionalism of our business and of our journalism is in both companies impeccable.’ 

The newsroom of The New York Times

The newsroom of The New York Times

 

Jeff Jarvis, CUNY

Our next appointment is a few steps down the street, at CUNY, the City University of New York, a coalition of state universities in New York City and the second largest state university in the US. This is where the guru of entrepreneurial journalism houses, Jeff Jarvis, professor and author of books like What would Google do?

Jarvis is a performer. We have not yet entered his office when he wipes the floor with our previous host. ‘Oh, have they really told you that paywalls work?’ he says, eyes twinkling. ‘How worrisome that The New York Times believes in its own fairytales. In the long term paywalls will not work. Because they make your most loyal visitors pay. You punish the ones you have to embrace. Anyway: the internet is supposed to be free.’

In a short time Jarvis offers us a chain of well-chosen aphorisms, his golden rules of the digital age.

‘Do what you do best, embed the rest.’

‘Young people are not disinterested, they are efficient. They’re not going to watch TV for 1.5 hours.‘

‘General-interest information is only possible for the biggest media organizations. The rest must choose a specialization.’

‘Choose only markets where you can dominate.’

‘The general public has little interest in big data, they need curated data.’

‘You can not do everything yourself, choose the right partners wherever you can.’

Just when we all start nodding, Jarvis looks us in the eye and continues his performance. ‘Oh, so you’re all working for television,’ he says. He picks up a thick red rod and walks to a flip board. ‘Well’, he says’, ‘I would like you to explain where television differs from other types of media.’

We answer like schoolboys do. Jarvis writes some of our suggestions on the blackboard. When is television the unbeatable medium?

Eyewitness, confrontations, emotion, convenience, the enforcement of impact and bringing people to action.

‘Stick only to these things,’ says Jarvis. Repeating his old message: ‘Do what you do best and embed the rest.’

At the end of the meeting, Jarvis takes us to his book sales department. We cannot leave the building without one or more of his works. They are not for free, by the way.

 

At Bloomberg Television. From left to right Dan Arnall, Marc Josten and Ted Fine

At Bloomberg Television. From left to right Dan Arnall, Marc Josten and Ted Fine

Bloomberg

As a journalist you may roam the world, but you’ll never again see an editorial office as luxurious as that of Bloomberg. Where the average editor’s workplace tends to be shabby these days, here the whole space is filled with contemporary art, splendid screens and state-of-the-art computers. Fresh fruit on display everywhere.

In the television department the staff has arranged a rich buffet especially for us.

From the beginning Ted Fine and Daniel Arnall of Bloomberg Television are clear about the raison d’être of their operation. Bloomberg Television is more or less a hobby of owner Michael Bloomberg. Real money he earns with terminals that carry the latest financial information. A subscription to such a computer costs $26,000 per year. It is a blockbuster. Because those terminals are a must-have for the need-to-know category in the world of money, there are 320,000 subscribers worldwide.

Inside Bloomberg

Inside Bloomberg

It explains the extraordinary wealth. It also explains why Michael Bloomberg can afford a TV station as a hobby. Still, there is room for real journalism on Bloomberg Television, as Fine explains.

‘We focus on the big financial stories. The agenda of the financial world is a leading factor in our programming, but between those borders we are able to make our independent editorial considerations.’

So the owner never interferes with the content? ‘Let me be very honest,’ says Fine. ‘Sometimes a story is launched just because Michael wants it.’

 

NowThis News

Encouraged by Josh Benton from Nieman Lab, Lia Rosenbrand got us a last-minute meeting at start-up NowThis News.

When we enter the only half-decorated, brand-new building in SoHo, our partners are hardly prepared.

Fortunately the business case of NowThis News is quite a simple one. How do you get news as effectively as possible on your mobile phone with all kinds of sharing tools for social media?

‘The news in your pocket’, is the slogan. The initiative is only eighteen months old and came from the founder of The Huffington Post. The company employs forty people.

‘Everywhere you see nowadays young people with a cell phone,’ says managing director Katharine Zaleski. ‘They use their phone as if it was a computer, not to make calls anymore. Our big question was: how can we transfer a news service into a mobile news service?’

We take a tour of the office. There is even a television studio. All with one goal: to manage the mobile and social media in a way that gets young people hooked.

 

Politico

After a scenic drive on Amtrak through Delaware and Baltimore, we finally arrive in Washington. Our destination is one of the most important online initiatives in journalism of the last decade: Politico.

The editorial office is located in Arlington, in an anonymous building across the Potomac. The editorial garden is large and typically American. Everybody on the phone. Talking, not texting.

‘We have over the years grown from ten to three hundred staff,’ says editor-at-large Bill Nichols. In 2007 Politico started as an online newspaper specialized in news from the Senate and Congress. A number of ambitious editors of the Washington Post took the initiative together with a venture capitalist.

At Politico

At Politico

The online newspaper immediately attracted a huge readership. The call from political circles for a printed newspaper, anachronistic as it was, became increasingly louder.

‘And that printed version came’, says Nichols. ‘We now have nearly 40,000 subscribers, and the benefit of the paper edition is that the ads are more productive than online.’

In recent years Politico has focused mainly on verticals.

Major policy areas such as care and defense are tracked by journalists and professionals who specialize in those sectors. Throughout the day they bring updates with the important news. ‘In the evening our subscribers to the verticals get information about what will be on the political agenda the next day,’ he says. ‘And at the end of each day they will get a summary of all that happened that day.’

Like the Bloomberg terminal, Politico attracts its supporters from the corridors of power: lobbyists, politicians. They become part of a web with indispensable information.

‘Verticals are lucrative for us,’ says Nichols. ‘The vertical on health costs thousands of dollars and we already have over three thousand subscribers.’

The readers of Politico are often its sponsors. Does this not endanger editorial independence? Nichols: ‘We’re on the sharp edge between content and advertising. Sometimes we’re crossing that line.’

Politico is one of the most financially healthy new media organizations. The frontline of journalism moves in a more commercial direction here. At the same time Politico is much less dependent on funders than for example ProPublica. Yet that Manhattan-based investigative platform has a more firmly anchored journalistic independence.

Waiting for our flight back to the Netherlands, at Washington Dulles International Airport, we begin collecting the lessons we have learned about the future of journalism. Unaware yet that three months later – as the finishing touches are put on this report – we would still be busy digesting these lessons.

Marc Josten, February 2014

Steve Duenes (NYT) and Willem van Zeeland at the NYT department which made Snowfall

Steve Duenes (NYT) and Willem van Zeeland at the NYT department which made Snowfall