Tag Archives: News

Final nail in my newspaper’s coffin

I canceled my newspaper subscription today. I’ve subscribed to the Boston Globe for over 17 years without interruption. The role the newspaper plays in my life has changed in some significant ways. For example, I have no idea when the paper stopped publishing stock quotes. Sometime in the late 1990s I began consuming that data online. Virtually the same story applies to out of town sports scores, election results, and weather. In fact, the newspaper is no longer a significant source of news. My typical 15 minutes in the morning with the paper would be a scan of the Op-Ed page, the obituaries, sports (for background pieces on the local teams), and the puzzles. The bulk of that 15 minutes would be spent on the crossword.

Let’s do the math. A lot’s been said about the deteriorating business model of print journalism, but let’s take a look at the value proposition made to the consumer. In my case, with the exception of the crossword, I can get everything online and I get it fresher with access to voices from all over the globe. (Online crosswords don’t do it for me, but some of the Facebook word games are downright addictive and make a fine substitute.) I’m down from spending about 30 minutes with the daily paper a decade ago to 15 minutes. Home delivery costs approximately $40/month. That’s not much, but it’s much more than what I pay for the sports package or the movie package on cable, and I spend far more time with Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sports Center. Netflix with Roku and PlayStation 3 access is only $20/month. Time spent and value received from broadband and 3G services are similar.

There’s not much news here. Every media consumer gets the math, and many took action long before me. Here’s the thing… I’m old-fashioned. I like reading the paper with my morning coffee and Corn Flakes. While many consider reading at the morning table rude, it’s somewhat more sociable than hunkering down behind a laptop screen, and you can share the paper much more easily than a laptop.

The newspapers counter that all that “free” content on the Web costs money to produce, and much of it is the product of the print team’s labors. Kill the newspaper and there’s no free online content. Agreed. So here’s my proposal. Rather than sell individual subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, I would be happy to pay single monthly fee for all the news I consume online. That fee is shared proportionally among all the publishers whose sites I regularly visit. This could be added to my broadband bill or charged separately. The news outlets already know how much I’m willing to pay for decent journalism.

So why did I take action today? I’d like to say that something like anticipation of Apple’s tablet announcement was the spur. Or maybe the latest rev of the Kindle caught my eye. But it’s none of those. The driver delivering the paper has decided he no longer wants to deliver the paper to my door. He just tosses it on the driveway. Winters are cold here in New England, and I like my neighbors just enough not to subject them to the daily sight of me marching out for the paper in my PJs. It turns out that $40/month is exactly my limit – remove just one more feature from the offering and I’m gone. How many other newspaper subscribers are at that point?

Maybe now I’ll get through the Economist and the New Yorker every week while waiting on my tablet.

What is news?

Iranian protestor

An image of an Iranian protestor posted to Flickr this week

This week’s events in Iran remind me, perhaps too much, of the Tiananmen Square protests twenty years ago. People coming together peacefully to rally against oppression, whether in Selma, Johannesburg, or Berlin brings hope. Knowing how Tiananmen, Prague, and Myanmar ended brings dread.

Optimists say the world has changed. While tyrants can restrict the activities of CNN and the New York Times, they can’t block Twitter, SMS, YouTube, and Facebook as easily. The truth will get out. People can be called to action and know they will outnumber their oppressors. I hope they are prescient, but in this case the tyrants will prevail — at least in the short run, and people will continue to be injured and killed.

Ahmadinejad is about the worst the world has to offer. He will cling to power and he will be as ruthless as a cornered rat when confronted. People are already being killed by his and the clerics’ thugs, the basij. These people with their 15th century worldviews don’t understand Twitter, and they certainly don’t fear it. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube might get the word out, but they can’t block the bullets. We will know more about what happens in Tehran in 2009 than we know about what happened in Tiananmen in 1989, but it’s not going to change the outcome.

The Economist summed up the old media v. new media coverage of the events in Tehran quite well. No flowery speech about how the face of politics is forever changed by Web 2.0 techologies. Just the facts.

[The] much-ballyhooed Twitter swiftly degraded into pointlessness. By deluging threads like Iranelection with cries of support for the protesters, Americans and Britons rendered the site almost useless as a source of information—something that Iran’s government had tried and failed to do. Even at its best the site gave a partial, one-sided view of events. Both Twitter and YouTube are hobbled as sources of news by their clumsy search engines.

It’s ironic that the same week China has begun stepping up its censorship efforts. PCs can only be sold in the People’s Republic with government controlled web filters.

The software, which manufacturers must install on all new PCs starting July 1, would allow the government to regularly update computers with an ever-changing list of banned Web sites.
The rules, issued last month, ratchet up Internet restrictions that are already among the most stringent in the world. China regularly blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, and the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.

And just this week, Google agreed to further restrictions on the information it serves up to the Chinese people.

Google caved. Dell, Lenovo, and company caved. They cannot be blamed. As publicly traded companies they have a fiduciary responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, not a mandate to make the world a freer place. Our 401Ks contribute to the problem today, but not as much as many liberals complain. In the end places like Iran and China will have to open up and allow the freer exchange of ideas. Otherwise the best and the brightest will continue to bring their innovations to freer countries. Look at how many Silicon Valley start ups are started by immigrants to the US. Look at the wealth they create. Wealth that keeps the US the dominant economic power. If China and Iran want to continue to be economic and technological followerers, they are on the right path. Otherwise they have to open up their miserable political systems.

So what is news? If CNN can’t get there first, but Twitter and YouTube are too clunky to disseminate information quickly and efficiently, what models will emerge? Large news organizations will have to take on the task of organizing the world’s tweets and mobile videos. It will require new business models and new infrastructures. The traditional satellite feed will diminish in importance.

It’s a good time to be a software designer for the media industry. We still have our fiduciary responsibilities, but we can build the tools to help the world become a freer place.

Media consolidation as a fix?

Traditional media is in trouble. Newspapers have been struggling for sometime, having failed to acknowledge and then address the threat of the Internet — more accurately, the threat of Criagslist. Broadcasters are hurting because their top advertisers, the automobile and financial services sectors are hurting.

It’s in no one’s best interests to see newspapers disappear, and local news cut back. That is a given, and there are no quick fixes. Brian Lowry proposes an interesting, and admittedly partial solution in Variety. I’m usually reticent about relaxing the rules for this generation’s robber barons, but some careful relaxation of the ownership rules can go a ways to helping traditional media get back on its feet without completely killling local news gathering. The alternatives Lowry cites are far worse than the threat of increased consolidation.

Without some kind of action, more broadcasters, newspapers and magazines are going to die off. Local news coverage — the essence of public service, however quaint and dated that might sound — has already been seriously compromised, as TV and print cut back on newsgathering resources. Other creative methods to pare costs have assumed almost Orwellian dimensions, from outsourcing editing functions to Mumbai (there’s nothing quite like having copy editors 8,000 miles away from the city council meeting) to “citizen journalism,” often little more than code for stations that lack the manpower to cover their communities tapping amateur video to fill the void.

It’s a well thought out, well presented piece. Read it in its entirety if you have a chance.

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