The Best of Curation

I love talking about the things I enjoy using. The emerging ecosystem in which a bunch of smart people curate long form journalism is definitely one of those things. The companies are called Instapaper, Longreads, Longform. I love the material they find for me and I’m in the debt of developers who wrote neat applications that help me manage my very own library of great stories.

My reading selection process for long articles (say above 2500 words) goes like this. It starts with installing the Read Later bookmarklet, developed by Instapaper, on all my internet browsers. When I stumble on something I have no time to dive into, I hit the ReadLater tab in the by browser’s bookmarks bar (below):

This causes the piece to be stored in the cloud. (There is another service/app of the same kind called Read it Later. I just got it this weekend and haven’t had much time to use it yet.)

Then, I loaded the Instapaper app on my iPhone and my iPad, it works just fine. The stories I don’t have time to read at work are now available on my two nomad devices for my daily commute, my chronic insomnia, after-dinner relaxation or long flights. Unsurprisingly, topics center around business stories, medias, tech; but they also extend to neurosciences, and in-depth profiles of creative people in a wide range of fields. In doing so, I have re-created my own serendipitous environment; as I open the app, I always find something interesting I put aside a couple of weeks earlier.

My second source of good stories is the Editor’s Pick on three long forms curation sites. Instapaper has it own Browse section and my two favorites are Longreads and Longform. There are two other such sites I use less often: The Browser and Give Me Something to Read. They’re all built on the same idea: a self-organized community of thousands people (see graph below) who pick up articles they like and put them on Twitter (and also on Facebook and Tumblr); the feeds are then re-aggregated and curated by the sites’ editors. The process looks like this :

This system combines the best of Twitter (gathering a community that selects relevant contents) with the final responsibility of human editors. Just as important, Read Later and Read It Later rely on hundreds of third party applications that use their APIs (a piece of code that allows apps to talk to each other).

Then two questions arise :
– Does this model benefit publishers ?
– What kind of business models can the aggregators hope for ?

To the first question, the answer is yes and no. From their respective sites, these companies play a referrer role as they send traffic back to the original publishers. But when it comes to apps for smartphones or mobiles, these services become value killers: their content is displayed in the apps without advertising. See screenshots from the iPhone Instapaper app below:

As for Read it Later application, it proposes (below) a web view and a reformatted text-view. No need to be a certified ergonomist to guess which one will be used the most:

For good measure, let’s say Apple is not the last entity to add features that kill value by removing ads; below the same NYT web page in normal and “Reader” mode:

For now, publishers don’t seem to care much about this type of value hijacking. The rationale is such apps are still limited to early adopters. In a study released last week, Read it Later said it recorded a total of 47 million “saves” between May and October 2011 (and 36% growth between the first and the last month.) Weirdly enough, most of the “saves” recorded involve tech-related stories from blogs such as LifeHacker, Gizmodo (both are part of Gawker Media) or TechCrunch. Long form journalism appears too small to be accounted for. Equally weird, when Read it Later gives a closer look at data coming from the New York Times, we see this:

Great writers indeed, but hardly long form journalism. We would have expected a predominance of long feature stories, we get columnists and tech writers instead.

Similarly, gets about 100,000 unique visitors a month, founder Mark Armstrong told me. For this last week, publishers altogether got 21,230 referrals form Longreads’ curated picks. Despite this modest volume, Longreads’ 40,000+ community of referrers is growing rapidly at the rate of a thousand every two weeks or so.

Let’s talk business model. The Longreads team includes former McCann Erickson creative director Joyce King Thomas (story in AdAge here). She seems more interested in good journalism rather than in loading the elegant Longreads with a Christmas tree of ads. In short, Longreads’ business future lies more in a membership system than in anything else — maybe some sponsorship, Armstrong acknowledges. The contents Longreads promotes through its links addresses a solvent audience, one that knows great journalism comes with a price and so do good tools to mine it. It shouldn’t be a problem to extract €10 or $20 a year, directly or via an app.

Having said that, I remain a bit skeptical of Longreads’ avoidance (for now) of the classic startup venture capital mechanism. Because barriers to entry into its type of business are low, Longreads ought to quickly build on its momentum and on the undisputed quality of its product. This means promotion and also technology to extend the reach of the service and to secure control of the distribution channel–and to make it more mainstream.

The Blogosphere’s Soft Corruption

The TechCrunch / Arrington saga is the perfect illustration for the stealthy corruption plaguing digital information. Skip this paragraph if you know the story. In a nutshell: on September 1st,  Michael Arrington, founder of the site TechCrunch, announced the launch of a venture fund (Fortune broke the story). Rather small token by Silicon Valley standards: $20 million (to put things in perspective, according to the National Venture Capital Association, 37 funds raised a total of $2.7 billion in Q2 2011, which gives an average of $72 million per fund). No big deal, except Arrington is also TechCrunch’s editor and he intends to continue writing about startups — startups his venture would fund. (To make things even weirder, one of the main contributors to the fund is AOL, TechCrunch’s owner since last year).

Even the most twisted ethicist would have detected a looming conflict of interest. Not Arrington. Because he is one of most arrogant pricks in this business. And because he lives elsewhere. He resides in the blogosphere, where the simplest ethical issues are distorted like space-time at the edge of the universe.
Back on Earth, a controversy erupted. The loudest shot was fired by Kara Swisher, the co-executive editor (along with Walter Mossberg) of All Things Digital, the Wall Street Journal Digital Technology site.

I can’t help but sharing with you the first graf of her 6:00am (Pacific) outburst:

Of course I have something to say about the news yesterday that AOL would be a key investor in a new early-stage venture fund being started by TechCrunch’s perpetually petulant editor Michael Arrington — with a big, fat and decidedly greasy assist from a panoply of Silicon Valley’s most powerful VC firms and angel investors.

As Alfred Hitchcock said, it starts with an earthquake and it’s getting worse. Then, she summed up :

In fact, the creation of a $20 million investment kitty that Arrington has dubbed CrunchFund is simply the formalization of a long-standing arrangement that has already been going on since he founded his popular tech blog.

Eventually, after a public, web-enhanced, dispute with his owner, Michael Arrington was fired. (On the matter, New York Times’ media columnist David Carr wrote the best piece, as usual, well-crafted and documented).

Now, here is why I find this subject interesting. Three things: the revolving door between journalism and industry; the blogosphere distortion field; the pervasive conflict of interest.

The switch. For one, I have nothing against switching from journalism to another kind of activity. In that respect, I disagree with most of my fellow journalists – especially those in France who like to believe journalism is an apostolate (both come with a vow of poverty.) Last week, I met a former London-based business reporter, who is now back in France; he is being offered a top communication job in a Fortune 500 company. He feared being marked with the seal of infamy and no longer allowed to come back as a journalist. I told him things have changed; after five years or so as a communication guy for a large conglomerate, a business news organization would be even more interested in hiring him because he would know his sector pretty well, and would be able to detect all the manipulation tricks of big corporate PR machines, which could be invaluable to his junior co-workers.

As for someone writing about startups, I find it perfectly understandable the desire to cross the Rubicon and to join or create a venture fund. Trying to detect what could be a great product or even the Next Big Thing, nurturing great teams of engineers, designers or marketers, is an enthralling occupation, which, in addition, is both intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding.

Unfortunately, Arrington doesn’t see things that way. He got drunk in a kind of power game, intoxicated with his supposed “make or break” power over startups. (By the way, I always found the alleged power of tech writers over the fate of a startup to be vastly overstated; unlike in the analog era, the disintermediated world allows every product to find its path to success – as long as it deserves one.)  Anyway: I do find the revolving door is a good thing. As long as the previous door has been properly locked.

Enter the blogosphere and its tolerance for conflicts of interest and — let’s use the word – soft corruption.

Ten years ago, Arrington’s case would have been a no-brainer. Neither for him or his employer. He would have simply been let go. Now, it seems to trigger a quarrel between Ancient and Modern, the former being – obviously – representatives of the old medias, the likes of the Swishers and the (David) Carrs and the latter being the tech blogosphere and is elastic value-system. Fine.

I’m not going to denigrate the blogosphere as a whole or TechCrunch itself, which harbors good reporters. Blogs are part of my daily media routine and, for the record, I’ll say many bloggers do a better job than presumed professional writers. Still, by construction, bloggers are more prone to serve third party agendas: many are penniless, young, untrained, unsupervised and their writing is unedited. A target of choice for manipulation.

A couple of years ago, I witness firsthand the blogosphere’s vulnerability. I was called by a non-profit organization to take a look at their digital strategy (I can’t be too specific, I’m still under NDA). The whole things was in the hands of a couple of communication agencies, which had detected a gold mine, loading the project with outrageously overpriced services. I pissed them off quite a bit by donning a bean-counter’s suit — which I found, in that case, enjoyable – and by suggesting many budget cuts. (When done, I quickly moved away from that fishy mission).
One of the promotional tools proposed by the flacks, was dubbed as “The Blogger Army”. In short, a few hundred bloggers worldwide, presented as “influencers” that would convey pre-packaged messages concocted by the communication agencies. The bloggers didn’t have to care about the product or its underlying value, they just had to cut and paste the material they were provided with. All of the above for a $100,000 budget paid to a firm specialized in deploying the “army” — including a couple of well-know “influencers”.
That very same year, as I dug a bit further, I realized how many bloggers are deluged with gifts from the tech industry and how, to that crowd, the notion of flashing a Visa card to pay for gadgetry was seen as utterly ridiculous…

In the information business, the conflict of interest is looming at every corner. All the time, someone is trying to buy you with something. It could be a product, “exclusive” access, the transcript of legal depositions, a heads-up to a report. Everything. The more vulnerable (or hungry, or ambitious) a writer is, the better target he’ll be for the corrupters. Years ago, as I was writing about Hollywood, a writer from The Los Angeles Times explained how an interview with an agent or a movie producer often ended up with a cajoling “… And what about you my friend, you must have a script buried somewhere, hmmm? Let’s discuss it someday…”

That’s why, when it comes to get an credible review of a tech product or service, I’ll trust Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology column much more than any blogger.  Mossberg is a seasoned professional (he’s 63) who had developed his craft well before the tech boom. He actually sharpened his claws covering the brutal automobile industry, as recounted is this 2004 Wired profile. Mossberg lives by his reputation of independence, that’s why the Wall Street Journal (and AllThingsD) consider him as an important asset – and pays him accordingly. I took him as an example because I’ve been reading his column since he started it in 1991 (I was then living in New York).

His 1000 words ethics statement is an example of what should be the standard in journalism. Many news organizations, newspapers, magazines, websites, have adopted similar codes. Are they foolproof? No, certainly not. But it is worth considering having one.

Politico’s Way

To cover American politics, Politico deploys an editorial staff of 150. This is more than any news organization in the United States for the same beat. It all started five years ago: a niche website launched by three seasoned political reporters who sharpened their claws in mainstream medias. As envisioned by John Harris, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Politico was to start with a kernel of 12 hardcore political reporters who would aggressively run after all the balls.

Four years later, as a new presidential campaign gears up, Politico owns the news cycle, from 4:30am to midnight, on all vectors: web, mobile, television and… print. And it does so in rapid-fire mode.

Last week, I chatted with Bill Nichols, Politico’s managing editor. Before Politico, he spent 24 years at USA Today. There, among the many items on his impressive résumé, he covered six presidential campaigns as well as the State Department. Bill was in Paris to deliver the inaugural lecture at the Journalism School of Sciences-Po where I happen to have a gig (highlight of the lecture summed up in French on His talk provided the students with a great start for their year; they were listening to a fifty-plus journalist who didn’t hesitate to leave the comfort of a great newspaper to jump into the unknown. Even in 2007, going after the Washington media establishment with a website was quite a bold move. Today, Nichols is obviously having a lot of fun — which is the best message to convey to a crowd of aspiring journalists.

The lessons to draw from Politico’s success are connected journalistic and business ones.

Politico has literally sliced and diced the news cycle with an array of dedicated products fitting all possible subjects, reading time and formats. Anyone serious in politics or government affairs will begin his day with a peek at the mobile version of the Politico Playbook. Described as ” Must-read briefing on what’s driving the day in Washington”, it is written by Mike Allen, the chief White House correspondent. The site features eight other “tip sheets”:

  • Huddle A play-by-play preview of the day’s congressional news
  • Pulse The latest in health care policy every weekday morning
  • Morning Money Political intelligence on the intersection of D.C. and Wall Street
  • Morning Score A pre-dawn guide to the permanent campaign
  • Morning Tech Daily download of technology news from D.C. and Silicon Valley
  • Morning Defense A daily briefing from inside D.C.’s national security apparatus
  • Morning Energy The one-stop source for energy and environment news
  • Influence Intelligence and analysis on lobbying

The idea is to hook the reader on the day’s “must-follow” items. Then, developing stories will be made available in all possible forms: stream of stories as the news dictate, a great deal of support through countless TV appearances (Politico maintains its own studio linked to all networks and all reporters are required to promote their work). Many times a day, breaking news, alerts, warnings are pushed on mobile. Then, to maximize the impact, top stories will be re-edited to feed the eponymous daily. It is published five days a week, only when congress in in session, and its 34,000 (free) copies are distributed at various strategic spots in DC.

Then, the Politico tone. As Bill Nichols acknowledges, Politico’s pitch is slightly more tabloidish than mainstream media. It doesn’t pontificate, nor does it endlessly circle around a subject. It reflects internal newsroom discussions and the talk of the town.  A few days ago, recounts Nichols, the editorial staff was discussing Republican Texas governor Rick Perry’s intellectual ability to run for the presidency; instead of going for a convoluted story loaded with nuances, Politico went straight with this headline: Is Rick Perry Dumb? This treatment was later supplemented by an informative 1600 words piece about Perry’s 2010 book “Fed Up!”, itself a great gift to his opponents. (To nail it, Politico published a Nine questions for Perry article listing subjects the candidate will have hard time eluding.)

That’s Politico’s way: aggressive, relentless, fun, witty, but also dedicated to providing in-depth, well-reported journalism. Last year, the New York Observer ran an interesting story on how The Atlantic (great magazine, along with an equally great site) was fighting back Politico on the Washington scene. David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media company, had this comment:

“It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world. Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly. (…) They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum. That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end.”

To which Jim VandeHei retorted

“People come to us because we break news, we are authoritative and we help readers understand how Washington really works. I think Bradley’s description is clearly motivated by business interests. That said, we take all competitors seriously.”

Business is important as well to Politico and its powerful backer, the Allbritton family. As a privately held company it does not disclose financial data. Even with its large staff of 200 in total, it is said to be profitable thanks to its multi-pronged product strategy:

–The web site had an audience of 4 million unique visitors last July, according to Comscore (it should triple during the 2012 campaign). This is rather small compared behemoth such as the Huffington Post or the NYTimes that are more into the 50 million UVs range. But the value extracted from each visitor is quite high.

– Around half of its revenue is coming from the newspaper which sells high premium ads. Thanks to the geographical concentration of the Washington elite, the paper does not cost too much to distribute and its pagination and printing costs are adjusted to the advertising load.

– Last November, Politico launched “Politico Pro”, an in-depth paid-for service focusing on three critical (and lobbying-intensive) issues: energy, technology and healthcare. The price is $2,500 per month (story in the Columbia Journalism Review). “Pro” relies on several dozens of reporters and editors integrated with the rest of the newsroom.

– Recently, Politico added an event department: get-togethers for the Happy Few with big political names, moderated by staffers. The guests don’t pay, but big sponsors do — happily it seems. Events will be organized not only in Washington but on the campaign trail as well.

– Last June, Politico announced an e-Book venture with Random House. The concept: quick accounts, 20,000 to 30,000 words (80-120 pages), of the 2012 campaign. Produced at little additional cost, promoted by the brand, these could be pure gravy.

Politico’s potential revenue pool is huge. According to the Center for Responsive  Politics, the 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington spent $3.51 billion (!!) in 2010. This is an affluent market, highly concentrated, both geographically and interests wise.

On the surface, Politico’s method of squeezing money from every slice of its market looks logical and reproducible. But its unique ecosystem makes Politico’s success difficult to replicate elsewhere.

It’s all about accountability

Compared to Anglo-Saxon journalism standards, French practices are regrettably lax. It doesn’t mean that France doesn’t have remarkable writers, editors or medias; but, too often, their practices are just sloppy. Here, journalists abuse anonymous quotes and are too cozy with their sources. Papers are insufficiently edited, reporters routinely go after a story with a pre-defined agenda – they know what they want to write and will twist facts, quotes and background accordingly.

In France, stories are never corrected. Or corrections can be used to further drill a point . If someone dares to exercise his legal “Droit de réponse” (the right to force the paper to publish a response to erroneous statements), he risks retribution. In 1984, as I was writing for Le Monde, some politician felt misrepresented and demanded a correction. My editor reacted:” Okay, we’ll publish his response. But we’ll append a “Six-bracket” that will make him cry…” He was referring to a small piece (typeface size: 6) appended below the response that usually blasts the righteous individual… That was my introduction to the ritual.

For the record, I’m not by any means putting myself above the crowd. I made my share of mistakes, I’ve not always acted in good faith and more… And, in management positions, I failed to go after the behaviors I just criticized – mostly by not hiring people eager to improve journalistic standards. The mistakes I made during my career still haunt me; we’ll see which ones resurface in this Monday Note’s Comments section…

The chain of command plays a key role in this collective failure, standards are set at the top. I know a couple of editors who encourage their reporters not to bother collecting the other side’s view on facts, as contradiction would impair the “mission”.
French editors have issued stupid rules such as the “journalism stops at the bedroom’s door”; read: beyond, it’s just muckraking. Sure thing. Except it encouraged the press to turn a blind eye on François Mitterrand’s morganatic family living in an opulent government-owned building and protected by a squad of dedicated gendarmes with their own rules. Or, until recently, French media chose to ignore that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was more a predator than a seducer. (Never wondered why DSK never go after female foreign correspondents? It’s because he knew they’d have reported any misbehavior, as opposed to France where her peers and her superiors will ask a harassed woman reporter to shut up). As for investigative reporting, it went down the drain a long time ago as police, magistrates and lawyers became extremely proficient at manipulating complacent reporters.

In 2009, Francois Dufour, the publisher and editor-in-chief of a successful set of publications for young readers (Mon Quotidien, see story in the New York Times), wrote a funny book titled: Are French Journalists Bad? (Les journalistes français sont-ils mauvais?) He didn’t answer the question directly, but the facts he presented were compelling.
French journalists are not genetically worse than others; it’s their culture, they are simply poorly trained and managed.
That year, I found myself involved in a debate with Dufour along with other journalists who had joined the cyber-zealots crowd. There, I got my first exposure to the “Permanent  correction” concept and to the “Publish first, check later and correct (PFCLC)” notion. Dufour and I took the same side, saying the ability to correct a story should not be a license to a kind of permanent approximation. After all, all-news medias have been around since the eighties; they always had the ability to permanently correct stories, but – even though they were far from perfect – they refrained from abusing the  PFCLC thing. (I don’t recall seeing a 7:00am news item airing rumors, unverified facts – at least to the best of the reporters’ ability – and issuing a correction an hour later).

The debate about the management of facts at “digital speed” is spurred by two important factors: the Distribution of responsibilities and the Merchant relationship.

1/  Along with social media comes the notion of distributed responsibility. As everyone reports what’s happening, no one will carry the full responsibility for it. In the event of a breaking or a developing news, when hundreds of people congregate around a Twitter feed hashtag, they don’t have – by definition – the safety net of someone with the role of deciding whether or not to publish (by asking basic questions, for instance). When everyone is in empowered to feed the echo chamber (sometimes with a pseudonym), no one is responsible.

2 / The absence of a merchant relationship also plays a significant role in the dilution of responsibility. In the digital cauldron, free is too often associated with a permission to be sloppy. A compulsive tweeter or blogger, propagating whatever s/he is able to grab, without any commercial relationship with readers, will feel no obligation whatsoever to quality. Being first becomes the main goal.
That is exactly the opposite for a newspaper, an online news organization, a TV or a radio network. Such organizations will (at least in theory) feel the obligation to respond to the trust that people are paying for – directly in the case of a paid-for service, or indirectly though advertising.

In the end, this is a matter of accountability. Having an entity, embodied by a group of people (an identifiable set of writers or editors), accountable for what is published or aired, is the best guarantee of acceptable standards. In the best cases, this accountability will apply to direct reporting. Or accountability will play a a key role in curating, in assessing the validity of third party contents coming from places unreachable by professionals.
One last thing, again, for the record. I was among the millions of people literally glued to live-blogging or Twitter feeds during major news events such as the Fukushima disaster, the Arab revolutions or the (less important) DSK affair. Therefore I’m NOT advocating some kind of regulation of the digital flow. For society, I’m still convinced its advantages far outweigh its drawbacks.

Losing value in the “Process”

Digital media zealots are confused: they mistake news activity for the health of the news business. Unfortunately, the two are not correlated. What they promote as a new kind of journalism carries almost no economic value. As great as they are from a user standpoint, live blogging / tweeting, crowdsourcing and hosting “experts” blogs bring very little money – if any, to the news organization that operates them. Advertising-wise and on a per page basis, these services yield only a fraction of what a premium content fetches. On some markets, a blog page will carry a CPM (Cost per Thousand page views) of one, while premium content will get 10 or 15 (euros or dollars). In net terms, the value can even be negative, as many such contents consume manpower in order to manage, moderate, curate or edit them.

More realistically, these contents also carry some indirect but worthy value: in a powerful way, they connect the brand to the user. Therefore, I still believe news organization should do more, no less of such coverage. But we should not blind ourselves: the economic value isn’t there. It lies in the genuine and unique added value of original journalism deployed by organizations of varying size and scope, ranging from traditional media painfully switching to the new world, to pure online players — all abiding by proven standards.

What’s behind the word standard is another area of disagreement with Jeff Jarvis, as he opposes the notion of standards to what he calls “process”, or “journalism in beta” (see his interesting post Product v. process journalism; The myth of perfection v. beta culture).  Personally, I’d rather stick to the quest for perfection rather than embrace the celebration of the “process”. The former is inherently more difficult to reach, more prone to the occasional ridicule (cf. the often quoted list of mishaps by large newspapers). As for the latter, it amounts to shielding behind the comfortable “We say this, but we are not sure; don’t worry, we’ll correct it over time”.

To some extent, such position condones mediocrity. It’s one thing to acknowledge live reporting or covering developing stories bear the risk of factual errors. But it is another to defend inaccuracies as a journalistic genre, as a French site did (until recently): it labeled its content with tags like “Verified”, “Readers’ info”, etc.

Approximation must remain accidental, it should not be advocated as a normal journalistic way.

In the digital world, the rise of the guesstimate is also a byproduct of the structure in which a professional reporter finds himself competing with the compulsive blogger or twitterer. Sometimes, the former will feel direct pressure from the latter (“Hey, Twitter is boiling with XY, could you quickly do something about it? — Not yet, I’m unable to verify… — Look pal, we need to do something, right?). Admittedly, such competition can be a good thing: we’ll never say enough how much the irruption of the reader benefited and stimulated the journalistic crowd.

Unfortunately, the craze of instant “churnalism” tends to accommodate all the trade’s deviances. Today, J-Schools consider following market demands and teaching the use of Twitter or live-blogging at the expense of learning more complex types of journalism. Twenty years ago, we were still hoping the trade of narrative writing could be taught in newsrooms populated with great editors, but this is no longer the case. Now, most of the 30-40 something who plunged into the live digital frenzy have already become unable to produce long form journalism. And the obsessive productivism of digital serfdom won’t make things better (as an illustration, see this tale of a burned-out AOL writer in Faster Times).

The business model will play an important role in solving this problem. Online organizations will soon realize there is little money to be made in “process-journalism”. But, as they find it is a formidable vector to drive traffic and to promote in-depth reporting, they will see it deserves careful strategizing.

Take Twitter. Its extraordinary growth makes it one of the most potent news referral engines. Two weeks ago, at the D9 conference, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo  (video here) released a stunning statistic: it took three years to send the first billion tweets; today, one billion tweets are send every six days.

No wonder many high profile journalists or writers enjoy tweeter audiences higher than many news organizations, or became a brand on their own, largely thanks to Twitter. The twice Pulitzer prize winner and NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has 1.1m followers, that is one third of the New York Times’ official Twitter accounts followers.  And Nobel Prize economist Paul Kurgman, who also writes for the New York Times, has more than 610,000 followers. Not bad for specialized writing.

In some cases, the journalist will have a larger Twitter audience that the section where he/she writes: again for the NY Times, the business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin has 20 times more followers (370,000) than Dealbook, the sub-site he edits. According to its CEO Arthur Sulzberger, a NY Times story is tweeted every four seconds, and all Times Twitter accounts have four times more followers that any other paper in America. Similarly, the tech writer Kara Swisher has 50 times more Twitter followers (757,000) that her employer, the WSJ tech site AllThingsD .

There are several ways to read this. One can marvel at the power of a personal branding that thrives to the mother ship’s benefit. Then, on the bean counter floor, someone else will object this stream of  tweets is an unmonetized waste of time. Others, at the traffic analytic desk, will retort Twitter’s incoming traffic represents a sizable part of the audience, and can therefore be measured in hard currency. Well… your pick.

Jazz Is not a Byproduct of Rap Music

Defining article as a “luxury or a byproduct” as Jeff Jarvis did last month, is like suggesting jazz is secondary to rap music, or saying literature is a Deluxe version of slamming. Reading Jarvis’ Buzz Machine blog is always interesting, often entertaining and more than occasionally grating. His May 28th blog post titled The article as luxury or byproduct reverberated across the media sphere – as provocative pieces are meant to, regardless of the argument’s actual connection with facts. Quite frankly, I didn’t pay attention to Jarvis’ latest taunt until the issue was raised in a conference I was invited to.

Let’s take a closer look – in a gracious and constructive manner.

What Jarvis said:

  • Tweeting and retweetting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.
  • Background can be done easily with links.
  • The article is: “An extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps”.
  • “An article can be a byproduct of the process”.

In fairness to the City University of New York journalism professor, he fell short of saying that articles are useless or dead (we can breathe a sigh of relief).

To support his position, Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado: the abundant stream-of-consciousness tweets provided raw material for good reporting. He also refers to the Arab Spring where legions of witnesses fed the social cauldron with an endless current of instant accounts, often supplementing the work of journalists.

Let’s get this straight: I’m not going to join the collective glorification of approximate journalism. Like Jeff Jarvis (but on a smaller scale), I teach journalism. In doing so, I’m careful to remind aspiring reporters that live blogging or compulsive tweeting is not the essence of journalism, merely a tool – sometimes an incredibly efficient one – created by modern internet technology.

The article actually is the essence of journalism. And by no means a “byproduct of the process”.

Two and a half years ago, the Airbus landing in the Hudson became the poster-child for crowd-powered breaking news. Then, the only true visual document was a cell phone picture taken by a ferry passenger. Today, the same event would have been live-tweeted by a dozen of witnesses using all the digital nomad firepower you can think of, from hi-res pics to HD video. And, by the time the genuine reporters show up, all relevant material would have been broadcast to the entire world.
Then, if we follow the Jarvis Doctrine, any additional reporting – let alone narrative reconstruction – would become extraneous or useless. (OK, I’m slightly over the top here).

Still, this “extraneous or useless” byproduct is precisely when and where the real craft enters the media stage. For me, William Langewiesche’s 11,000 words article in Vanity Fair became one of the most compelling stories ever written about this spectacular event.

Similarly, tweets about the Arab revolution are great, but I’m still awaiting for an in-depth profile of Mohamed Bouazizi, the individual who set himself on fire, thus triggering a cluster of unprecedented civil unrest events in the region. Similarly, no social media flow can explain why Western diplomacy is so indulgent towards Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“Articles are no longer necessary for every event”, states Jarvis. As a matter of fact, I think exactly the opposite. Articles are more necessary than ever to understand and to correct excesses and mistakes resulting from an ever expanding flurry of instant coverage. The substitution from one genre, article, to the other, tweets and the like, can only be done in a marginal way. Daily newspapers become increasingly unable to deal with breaking news or developing  stories. Publishers’ heads remain deeply buried into the sand; they don’t see their costly publications scream their irrelevancy every morning when hitting the streets. They still haven’t come to terms with the need for bold moves such as really separating what belongs to digital media from what works best on paper. (Practically, this means transforming daily newspapers into biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.)

My biggest disagreement with Jarvis lies in his lack of appreciation for a story’s background. Don’t bother with the context, he said, just link to it:

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki), isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

Come on Jeff. You are way too smart to seriously believe what you’re saying. Or maybe you need clicks on the Buzz Machine to cash in on your AdSenses… You can’t ignore that  good journalistic coverage cannot exist without serious background. Are you suggesting background work ought to be subcontracted to third party providers?  On what criteria? What about the notion (outdated, I know) of accuracy, of fact-checking? Is this your vision of modern journalism?

Actually, Jarvis ‘piece doesn’t make any reference to the notion of journalistic sources. Weirdly enough, the most essential part of the reporting process – finding sources, determining who is reliable and who is not, who is genuine and who is manipulative – is completely absent from his pronouncements (not from his teaching, I hope).

The problem is not Jarvis’ views of journalism. He’s a talented provocateur who sometimes smokes his own exhaust. But punditry isn’t reporting or analysis. Still, his talks, books, multiple appearances and knack for self-promotion are quite influential with many young journalists. They shouldn’t be misled. It’s not because news organizations tend to spend less and less on original reporting or on expertise, that those assets ought to be declared unimportant. Also, it’s not because a growing proportion of journalists are actually unable to produce high value stories or articles that the genre is no longer needed. On these matters, Jarvis is reversing cause and effect.

Dangerous Blend

Last week, the Columbia School of Journalism released “The Story so Far (PDF here). For news zealots, this is tantamount to the Vatican publishing a sex manual. Still, this work is one of the best reports ever written on the state of modern journalism. Its authors, Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave and Lucas Graves, detail the effects of 15 years of making news available for free on the internet, and the consequences of unbundling news into morsels that lose their value in the social media whirlwind.  In this 143 pages paper, no complaints, no whining: just facts and insightful analysis of the current state of digital media. An absolute must-read.

Using observations and current examples, the report also ruffled feathers by laying out options for the future economics of online information.

In the most performing outlets such as the Huffington Post, more resources are allocated to audience valuation than to content creation. As the report explains, the giant news aggregator is built on a foundation of constant tracking what drives the most traffic; in audience numbers, it now rivals the New York Times:

Huffington Post also developed an ability to respond quickly to the data that it was getting on traffic and usage—something that is a crucial component of success in digital journalism. Indeed, data analysis has moved from being a required skill in media companies’ finance departments to being an essential part of the résumé for editors, writers and designers.

In many high-octane online newsrooms, the report continues, journalists are asked to keep an eye on dashboards tracking the real-time performances of stories and headlines. They get constant updates on what “clicks” and what doesn’t; everyone is encouraged to adjust their output accordingly. Inevitably, incentives set in, with bonuses tied to tracked performance.

Such obsession with traffic is fueled by the advertising culture that came to dominate the internet: revenue is directly tied to eyeballs, as media are mostly paid by CPM (cost per thousand viewers). The Columbia Journalism School indirectly challenges this system by quoting the remarkable work of Matt Shanahan, who runs Scout Analytics (see his blog here). Shanahan explains what happens on a mid-size newspaper web site: “fly-bys” (viewers who see one page and then go elsewhere) represent 75% of the visitors, versus only 4%  for true fans. But the most loyal group accounts for 56% page views. “Overall, each fan generated about 50 times more traffic per person than a fly-by”, says the report.

This shows how misguided current measurement systems are. Today’s obsession with the “Unique Visitor” metric drives the advertising market —and competition among news sites. Such fixation encourages an arms race in which, by all means necessary (games, fake URLs), news sites will shoot for an increase in their numbers of UVs and for the resulting ranking improvement. This is short-sighted: loyal readers—roughly the top 10% that will generate 80% of the page views —should be the measure of choice.

In this shallow numbers culture, the Chinese wall that prevents journalism from being influenced by advertising becomes porous. There lies the most controversial part of the Columbia report, as the authors were seen as not critical enough of the increasing news/advertising blending. (Why would they? These academics are meant to expose facts, best and the worse practices, not to defend a corporation).

And the facts speaks for themselves. “The Story So Far” documents the pathetic experience at the, a community site based on 72,000 freelance “writers” paid between $1 and $7.50 par thousand page views. Not only does the Examiner sell content against an editorial context (every media does that), but it will tailor its content to fit advertising needs. For example,  it encourages its contributors to write about animals in order to get Procter & Gamble’s pet foods ad campaign.

Blurring the line between advertising and editorial is becoming a standard practice on today’s internet. Invoking the rise of social medias, sites offer brands the ability to directly address their audience via sponsoring schemes. Managing more than 4 million comments a month, the Huffington Post has unsurprisingly become the grand master of the exercise, inviting brands to “engage in a conversation” with users while cashing in on who speaks to whom. The reports quotes Eric Hippeau, former CEO of the HuffPo:

Eric Hippeau calls this approach “turning your customers into publishers.” Advertisers, he says, will not only create content that will increase traffic, but this will represent “a great diversification of revenues” away from advertising sold by the page view. (…) He believes that once companies start interacting with the audience in this environment, they will be hooked.“Once a brand starts that process, they are not going to stop.This is a great benefit to the media companies.”

Similarly, Forbes provides all the digital tools to publish content in any form that fits the web.

This might startle journalists who expect strict separation between the editorial and business sides, but Lewis DVorkin [Forbes Chief Product Officer] sees this effort as a logical way to bring in advertisers who know they can create digital content elsewhere, through websites and email. Labeling the material as coming from advertisers helps inoculate the company from violating the church-state divide, DVorkin says, adding that Forbes’approach allows marketers not to be confined in the “ghetto” of freelance-written advertorial. The advertisers’material is not edited by Forbes and appears on line and in the magazine as “ForbesAdVoice.”(For the print edition, Dvorkin reads it for tone, but says he does no more than that.) The print AdVoice column—limited to one per issue—appears in the table of contents and may run next to a related story. An online column is featured near relevant editorial content.

DVorkin is a bit candid (or cynical, that is up to you) in defending the blending. In a 2010 post he advocated putting professional writers, contributors and marketers on the same level:

By taking to the Web, audience members with deep topic-specific expertise successfully took on quite a few professional journalists with far less knowledge. Marketers, experts in their own right, also became respected content providers in an increasingly information-obsessed society.

The Columbia report was criticized for not distancing itself enough from such practices, for taking for granted and acceptable the vanishing  “church vs. state” idea. Moreover, the authors suggest journalists ought to acquire more knowledge of the evolving economics of the trade. I think they are right on two counts: a) young journalists know too little about the business side of medias, they can’t turn a blind eye on the processes by which publishers will monetize their output; b) understanding such arcana will help in dealing with ethical issues: innocence won’t be a trap, or an excuse.

As digital medias unfold, as pure players gain more weight, ethics loose ground. Consider the current controversy surrounding Michael Arrington: the founder of TechCrunch was an angel investor before jumping into the publishing business. He actually disclosed it. Fine. But recently, he decided to resume his investment activity in tech companies and explained it in a disclosure post. Naturally, this choice triggered snappy comments from journalists who are bound by strict rules in the matter (neither the NY Times, nor The Wall Street Journal, nor Bloomberg would hire Arrington). Elegantly, in a post breezily tilted “The Tech Press: Screw Them All” Arrington spews venom, putting at his own conflicts of interest at the same level as the fact that a well-known tech reporter lives with a Google executive, or another with a Facebook consultant.

Arrington’s pretend amazement is not so amazing. The digital media has grown into a landscape in which journalism ethics are viewed as relics of the past. Today, any product can literally buy positive reviews in a blogosphere that, by being penniless, gets easily corrupted. When planning a product launch with their client, advertising agencies often suggest the deployment of a “blogger army” (that’s the official jargon) to spread the right message on blogs and social networks. In the tech world, “Influential Bloggers” often means “Influenced Bloggers”.

The Columbia School of Journalism report sheds an interesting light on where digital medias are heading.  Their economics are in such disarray that publishers are desperate for new revenue models. In this evolution, ethics are likely to suffer collateral damage. Rookies must understand this.

Lessons from the Bin Laden coverage

One after the other, the newscycles of momentous events keep reshaping the digital information landscape. The latest example of such alteration is the Bin Laden story, it just set a new reference point. For traditional media, this raises the pressure yet another notch; they must rethink everything: organizations and processes – as well as business strategies.

First, a quick recap of the Sunday May 1st events (all times Eastern Standard Time; add six hours for Western Europe and five hours for the UK):

4-4:30pm — 79 Navy Seals raid Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

7:24pm — A former Navy intelligence officer name Keith Urbahn, currently Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff (we all discovered the former Defense secretary indeed has one) shot this tweet:

In Washington’s political game, this is a way to say: We, too, are in the know, we maintain our own network of sources within the military.
Within one minute Keith Urbahn’s shout was retweeted 80 times. Including by New York Times’ media reporter Brian Stelter. Another minute later, the original tweet had multiplied by 300, triggering instant global speculation.

9:46pm — The White House communication staff on duty sends a three word “Get to work” email to the press corps. At the same time, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House official serial twitterer sends the following:

10:40pm – As Barack Obama is still working on his speech, and after frantic phone calls to verify the story, the Times’ national security team and its Washington bureau decide to run a one line mention of Bin Laden’s Death. Ten minutes later, the website shows this:

10:45pm – All three TV networks interrupt their programming and break the news.

11:30pm – President Obama speaks live from the White House. 56.5 million viewers watch his address.

12:45am (May 2nd) — The East Coast edition of the New York Times closes. It contains a 10 pages section titled “The Death of Bin Laden” (NYT’s editor Bill Keller decided to drop the “Mr.”).

Observation #1: Twitter is king. A well-connected, politically driven staffer leaks the news first. No one knew Keith Urbahn before (see his profile in New York Observer), but his Twitter ID gave him credibility; for his Twitter followers, his post immediately raised a red flag: Rummy’s aide would not compromise his boss by leaking false information.

Between the White House’s first cryptic alert and Barack Obama’s actual announcement, about 15 million tweets has been exchanged. The number comes from Social Flow, a social media optimization platform. See their remarkable visual reconstruction of the tweets’ spread (below is the interaction between Urbahn and Stelter):

Incidentally, beat reporters now need a new skill: they must master the microblogging service in the most professional of ways. Tweeter has now reached a new status: main alert feed – as long as (and that is a big “if”) a proper credibility index is used to qualify the source. Such capability is supposed to be the key differentiation between a pro and an amateur.

For efficiency, several journalists I know are now morphing their social presence into a series of well-organized feeds streams. The same applies to their propagating scoops or promoting stories.  A smart use (both social and professional) of Twitter should be taught in J-Schools.

Observation #2: As notions, “edition” and deadline are dead. A newspaper editor’s worst nightmare is breaking news landing on a Sunday night at closing time. Such conjunction of content and timing carries a high risk of irrelevancy — if missed, or of good-faith false information hitting the streets the next day — if inaccurate. We all have memories of too-close-to-call elections, rumors of a personality’s death, etc.

Newspapers took time to make their mind up on the question of deadlines and editions (and many have yet to cross that Rubicon). But the leaders of the pack took the straightforward option: dump everything on the internet, as fast as you can and without regard for closing deadlines.

For the Bin Laden story, most big news organizations produced vast amounts of articles as their physical paper were being re-edited. By the time the updated edition hit the street, its had content been posted on the net, but every story had also been continuously updated and augmented.  Did it affect newsstand sales? Early data show this isn’t the case. Sales always rise, no matter how more up-to-date the publication website is. With high impact news, analyzing reader reactions shows people still enjoy the physical paper’s broad view — and, for those special occasions, there is the “collector’s item” feeling.

The fading notion of edition raises two questions: How should newspapers strategize their differentiation from the social wave?  And how could such evolution impact business strategies?

The answer to the first question lies in the ability to validate and confirm a piece of breaking news, followed by injecting exclusive coverage and expertise to the mix. For example, a national security specialist and a regional bureau will bring unparalleled added value.  This 2300 words  roundup story in the NY Times was assembled and filed in the hours following Obama’s speech; it carries no less than eight bylines, three seniors writers and five contributing reporters. Very few news organizations have the resources and the internal leadership to quickly deploy such journalistic firepower. For news organization,  survival rests on their ability to retain editorial capabilities, as opposed to succumbing to the aggregation temptation.

The coverage of Fukushima’s disaster provides another example of the increasing newscycle-deadline disconnect. I noticed every roundup story was indexed to the Tokyo bureau’s ability to produce articles – sometimes-sizable ones – in real time, not on a fixed newspaper production schedule.

Business wise, as many consider paid-for options to supplement the ailing advertising-model, the notion of paid-for editions also needs serious rethinking. Readers now expect live coverage, plus recap stories in a timely basis. Planning a commercial activity based on the sale of a single electronic edition becomes increasingly irrelevant. Readers might  prefer buying inexpensive access (preferably on a monthly basis, from a publisher’s perspective) to a sort of business class-equivalent content (I’m referring to Information Architects‘ Oliver Reichenstein’s analysis here). Alternatively, the most technologically advanced news organizations will develop hourly updated ePapers, encapsulated in an attractive layout. The Wall Street Journal provides a good example: on the iPad, it provides both a regular “As Printed” edition and a “Now” one.

Magazines are also likely to revisit the closed “edition”. No wonder Condé Nast plans to rethink its iPad strategy. As a longtime reader of Wired and Vanity Fair, I will stop purchasing issues online; not only do such editions download in the most painstaking of ways (with entire library vanishing with no reason), but I no longer see the added value it carries compared to the plain paper subscriptions coupled to an occasional look at their websites. (On this, readers actually voted with their feet.)

The way most news organizations are handling big news such as the Bin Laden killing or Japan’s tragedy is reassuring: these outfits demonstrate an ability to master social media as well as a will to cater to readers’ new needs. For once, editorial seems to evolve at a faster pace than the business side.

Bob Woodward: how many page views?

The legendary journalist was in Paris last week, promoting (“flogging”) his last book: “Obama’s Wars“. (Large excerpts in the Washington Post here). It was the standard book tour: TV and radio appearances; a well-timed cover story in Le Monde Magazine; same quotes, same anecdotes everywhere.
Still, I was curious. After all, he’s one of my heroes. In the 70′s, I was in high school when the Watergate story flared up. Later, thanks to Alan Pakula’s movie, All the President’s Men, I got a kick out of American journalism, out of the grandeur and power of large newspapers, of deadline fevers and of news folklore.

Almost forty years after Watergate, I was curious to see how the Net Generation, hooked on Twitter and Facebook, perceived Bob Woodward. To find out, I sat among 300 students in the amphitheater at the Sciences Po University in Paris.  Sciences Po is one of the most elitist and selective French universities with ties to several foreign colleges. Its curriculum includes a master in journalism (where I happen to have a small gig teaching professional blogging).

As expected, Woodward was really “on” – especially for those of us new to his stump speech. At 68, the trade still makes him tick.  He gleefully enjoys going after what people are trying to hide, “peeling the onion” as he puts it. He likes to tell how he showed up at a US general’s home at 8pm who greeted him by a loud “You! Are you still doing this shit?” Obviously, Woodward still does and still loves it. (A compilation of Woodward’s thoughts on journalism is available on, well worth your reading time).

© Hugo Passarello Luna

Bob Woodward is the embodiment of a disappearing form of journalism: source-based reporting as opposed to today’s echo-chamber news streams. His motto: Real stuff does not grow on the internet; it still comes from human sources who won’t expose themselves on Facebook or Twitter. As Woodward likes to recall, real journalism still depends on carefully planned and doggedly performed legwork. This results in a stronger position to get at the decisive facts. See this excerpt from the Poynter conference:

“In the case of Bush or Obama, I sent them long memos and said, ‘this is what I understand happened. What do you want to respond to?’ I remember sending Bush a 21-page memo. … The next day, Condoleezza Rice called me and said, ‘The president read it, I read it, and you’re going to write this book and these stories for the Post whether you talked to the president or not.’ I said, ‘Of course I am.’ She said, ‘He’ll see you tomorrow.’ ”

For students, even though Woodward stands by an idealistic (and ideal) view of journalism, such talk is both refreshing and invigorating.  Still, one J-school student tries to bring him down to today’s realities: “You say ‘go after sources, do the legwork’… But our future lies more in a desk job… In your view, how should we handle this reality?” Woodward’s answer was as expected:  a) get an iPad (for mobility – Woodward is known to be fond of it, unlike this self-depreciating Washington Post commercial would suggest); b) a great story always find its way and you should not be deterred to go for sources and original reporting. And no editor-in-chief will be insensitive to a great subject.

Touching but slightly out of touch.

The aspiring journalists deferentially listening to Woodward face an uncertain future, to say the least. Their world is likely to be productivity-obsessed. In journalism, stats are increasingly likely to define trends. See USA Today’s alleged intention to tie reporters’ bonuses to page views. This is yet another step in the current fashion now defining online journalism  (below is a slide from the infamous AOL Way Memo leaked by Business Insider):

The quest for profitability is not a bad thing in itself. Even Woodward believes that, to be free of influence, media should be a profitable business and not a subsidized one (even a non-profit organization like ProPublica). But linking part of reporters’ salary to traffic will corrupt journalism in many ways.

- First, it will accentuate the imbalance in news coverage. We all know the recipe: celebrity coverage (preferably prurient) and sports drive traffic; not politics or foreign affairs.

- Second, traffic-based compensation will deter young journalists from going after the most complex, difficult beats. Why try explaining what’s really going on at the Fukushima nuclear plant, or digging through the arcana of E.U. policy (even though it shapes the life of 450m people) if, two desks away, your colleague will make more money by recycling celeb gossip?

- Third, prioritizing revenue over relevancy will inevitably impact newsrooms resource allocation. Already, as the Gannett blog reported last year, USA Today has 27 reporters covering all forms of entertainment against 5 reporters covering the United States Congress and 4 in their investigation department. This says a lot about where journalism is heading. Should most news organizations decide to follow USA Today’s path, not only future Woodwards will end up making less than reporters treating lighter subjects, but they will soon become an extinct species. More

Bloggers, publishers and the Apple lockdown

Bloggers like simplicity. They view themselves as computer industry geniuses, as the embodiment of a fantasied future, vectors for all forms of intellectual life, culture, news, entertainment… Bloggers believe in a world where traditional publishing will soon meet a well-deserved death.

Last week, this Manichaean worldview reached a paroxysm: many self-proclaimed digital pundits were celebrating Apple’s move to lock the tablet business down, at the expense of the ever-caricatured “old media”. I’m of course referring to Cupertino’s new policy on subscriptions.

This “us vs. them” is both exasperating and completely misguided.

Last Thursday in London, I attended an INMA conference on tablets strategies — focused on dealing with Apple new rules. About fifty people, all of them using at least one Apple device, all of them eager to make their contents available on the iPad and the iPhone — as long as it is economically tolerable.

For traditional media, the transition to digital boils down to a simple equation. The industry needs to mutate from a business models that used to generate a revenue of 100, to a new one that will only yield 30 — while preserving its core product features and values.

Today’s problem is not one media versus another, it’s the future of journalism — it’s finding the best possible way to finance the gathering and the processing of independent, reliable, and original information. This is emphatically not the blogosphere’s mission statement.

We all agree: for anyone, the no-intermediary ability to reach a global audience is an exhilarating revolution. And, for old-fashion journalism, it’s been the most beneficial kick in the butt ever. Having said this, I don’t buy into the widespread delusion that legions of bloggers, compulsive twitterers or facebookers amount to a replacement for traditional journalism. No question: these new the tools accelerate the news cycle in a stunning fashion — as we can see today with Libyan tentative to cut the internet off, something the Egyptian government did with frightening efficiency ten days earlier. Social networks and microblogging services helpfully supplement the work of journalists when those are no longer able to do their job. But they can’t replace professional reporting. The echo chamber’s sound volume should not be confused with journalism’s unique combination of skills and resources.

Reporting is a métier. No one could become a decent magistrate after reading a couple of law books. In a similar way, good journalism can’t happen without training and experience. Nothing is trivial: handling sources, avoiding manipulation, watching out for ethical traps, managing the distance from facts, and their context…

Without five major newspapers lining up dozens of editors and foreign affairs specialists able to redact and contextualize the Wikileaks trove, the “cablegate” would still be a 300 million words useless swamp –  while still putting at risk the life of hundreds of people. (If you want to grasp the complexity of the operation, read Open Secret, War and American Diplomacy published by the New York Times, or the symmetrical Guardian account Wikileaks, Inside Julian Assange War on Secrecy.)

Blogging zealots will object: Julian Assange could have used the vast powers of crowdsourcing to retrieve and analyze the assembled material. Sure thing. Just consider how the “collective wisdom” would have handled cables pertaining to Middle East politics. Assange knew what he was doing when he decided to work with professional news organizations.

Similarly, consider last week’s investigative piece in the NY Times. It uncovers Google’s strange blindness to JC Penney “black hat” practices. The NY Times described some of the cheating used to unnaturally push a company or a product towards the top of ordinary, “unsponsored” search results. Such an exposé is the product of painstaking journalistic legwork. It didn’t come from the many blogs covering the search business.

This isn’t an exception, it is the rule: talented as they may be, bloggers can’t provide this type of service to society.

How does this relates to the business model of news? One word: Costs. Maintaining and nurturing competencies in a large newsroom costs millions…. which have yet to materialize in digital media. In the transition to the new internet-based world, the failure of advertising and of paid-for models both threaten to make digital journalism insolvent.

Which brings us back to Apple subscription policy. Why were my colleagues at the INMA conference so upset?

Five reasons

#1  The introduction of the iPad led publishers to believe that Steve’s tablet could — finally — be the magic trick to get readers to pay for news. They’re not so sure now.

#2  As we discussed in a previous Monday Note (see Apple’s bet on publishing), subscription is the model of choice for digital publishing, as it is for most of the content industry.

#3  Arguing that publishers who pay 40%-50% in printing and distribution costs should be elated to see Apple charging “only” 30% fee is ludicrous. For one, the true number is 39% here in Europe after taking in account the Luxembourg VAT. Secondly, readers expect (rightfully so) a big discount over the price they used to pay at their newsstand. A lower price tag combined with advertising yielding a third or a fifth of the dead-tree model would call for a platform costing no more than 10%-12%.
For that matter, I totally agree with James McQuivey’s analysis published by PaidContent who says the cost structure of a digital platform should be closer to the credit card processing business (McQuivey, a Forrester analyst, predicts distribution platforms fees falling below the 10% mark at some point).
A 30% rate could be acceptable for managing complex applications such as games that requires sophisticated development tools and technical approval; but not for contents-based apps such as newspapers.
No one says Apple should have left a backdoor for digital subscriptions open, but the Cupertino guys should probably consider a more flexible approach based on real costs.

#4 The same blogosphere misconception applies to the collection of customer data. Many digital pundits praise Apple’s Opt-In for allowing the release of customer data, arguing that medias are responsible for the deluging mailboxes with unwanted mail. That, again, is nonsense. A newspaper or a magazine subscriber costs as much as $300 to recruit. Does anyone really believe that a subscription department will try to squeeze a few dollars per record by leasing its precious database ? Of course not.

And by the way, I find quite funny to see such idea propagated by those who lay socially naked on Facebook, enjoy sharing their breakfast menu on Twitter or flock into email sucking engines such as Groupon.

#5  The least acceptable part of Apple subscription policy is the impossibility for a publisher to propose a cheaper subscription elsewhere. This is probably the most legally challengeable aspect of the newer terms of service. It goes against one of the most basic laws of retail: prices reflect the cost of the distribution platform. The Korean convenience store open 24/7 is more expensive than WalMart.
In itself, this restriction could be the main motive for publishers to quietly exit an overly constraining App Store.

At last week’s INMA conference in London, most the people I spoke with were considering alternatives to Apple’s lockdown. Others solutions are emerging. The most obvious ones rely on HTML5. Today, a set of pages and UI functionalities reproducing the deepest iOS features (such as GPS or sensors management) can be downloaded with a single http request and allow 15 or 20 megabytes of offline reading — sufficient for a digital publication with no video. Of course, such wizardry is still in its infancy and development requires a great deal of tinkering, but it’s improving fast.
There is no such thing as a durable lockdown in the internet world.