journalism

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.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Traffic Bubble

The new high tech-bubble might not be the one you’re thinking of. Measuring the bubble’s size and inner pressure of is a delicate exercise. For today, we’ll consider two sectors: social networks and online media — such as the Huffington Post acquired last week by AOL for a stunning $315m.

In the valuation game, social networks are in a league on their own. A month ago, Sharespost, the ghost-trading site for private companies, gave Facebook a valuation of $82.9bn (see this Bloomberg story). Now, for unknown reasons, the figure is back to $53bn. Twitter is said to be worth $5bn to $10bn, depending upon Facebook’s or Google’s competing appetites. Ordinary rules of arithmetics don’t apply when pondering the wisdom of such figures. To sort this out, let’s see if we can come up with other metrics.

With Facebook, investors buy size and dominance. 600m members all over the world; more than 60% of all web users; on some markets, a quarter of users’ internet time. Facebook is the nets’ biggest gravitational attractor, the web’s ultimate rizhome: sooner or later, most of the world’s sites will be connected to one or more of Facebook’s services.

The main danger lies in the usual toxins of success: arrogance, inability or unwillingness to   give more than lip service to users’ concerns and sensitivities, defiance of written and unwritten market rules. Facebook’s biggest threat is Facebook itself. But none of the above matters today and high expectations lead to a stunning valuation of $80 per member.

Is it excessive? Well, in october 2007, when Microsoft assigned a $15bn value to Facebook by investing $240m for a 1.6% slice, everyone mocked both the move and the number. At that time, each Facebook member carried a valuation of… $300, almost four times more than today’s — and the company was losing money.

In other words, Facebook looks (relatively) cheap today, especially since it is now profitable. On the operational side, though, Facebook’s ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) remains at around $3 per year and per member, quite high by internet standards.

Twitter’s ARPU is about one tenth of Facebook’s: $0.28 vs. $3.30. But the microblogging service carries a stunning valuation. If Facebook and Google are indeed about to wage a bidding war for the little bird and willing to cough up $8bn to $10bn, it could put a valuation of $50 to $60 on each of its 160m members (actual users are a fraction of that). For a company that doesn’t have a proven business model and  is hemorrhaging money, this feels ridiculously high. But Twitter’s simple yet extremely powerful medium could be a natural fit for Facebook and, to a lesser extent, for Google — as long as the search engine is able to get out of its current one-trick-pony situation.

The third strong player in the social network field is LinkedIn. The social network for professional is now preparing for its IPO (see story in DealBook and its SEC prospectus). Sharespost sets its value at $2.51bn. Each one of its 90m registered members carries a valuation of $28 and generates an ARPU of $2.00-$2.50. What investors are about to buy is a unique position in the professional social network sector, and a three digits annual growth rate which now threatens the highly lucrative business of jobs classifieds.

Is this a social network bubble? I’m not so sure. Thanks to its size, to its footprint on the internet, Facebook effectively bars anyone from getting into its own business. Twitter seems overvalued as a stand-alone business (no viable revenue stream), but not necessarily as complement to one of the web’s behemoths. And LinkedIn is likely to possess the greatest potential for growth.

If there is a bubble, it must lie in a collective hallucination over traffic and audience valuations. See what happened last week with the Huffington Post. The $315m acquisition by AOL puts a value of $13 per unique user, each bringing an ARPU about of $1.20. These numbers are in line with most news-related internet properties. (I already said what I think about the journalistic dimension of the Huffington Post; see Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters.)

The HuffPo is a digital sandcastle. Its three pillars are:
- Unabashed aggregation machine recycling roughly 300 stories a day from other medias;
- A modest amount of original production (largely drawn from newswires) that forms the kernel for a vast debating space involving thousands of unpaid bloggers (who now feel cheated and are about to create their virtual Tahir Square);
- A powerful and well-managed stream of celebrity stories, thanks to Arianna Huffington’s connections in Hollywood and in left-wing political circles. (See blogs by Alec Baldwin and by Bill Clinton’s former Labour Secretary Robert Reich).

Amazingly, one of its staffers candidly exposed the Huffington Post’s M.O.

First, the aggregation process.

“All day long, [front page editors] receive emails from reporters, editors, publishers, publicists and flacks from organizations that include but are not limited to, the following: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, McClatchy Newspapers, the London Guardian, USA Today, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, C-SPAN, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, etc. Those emails all ask the same thing: Would you consider placing this content on The Huffington Post? The front page editors work each day to separate the wheat from the chaff, and get the most timely and interesting stuff on the web. (And depending on how specific the section you are working in, say Books or Entertainment, the sorts of sources expand dramatically.)”

Great. Most of the HuffPo’s editorial tinkering consists in repackaging the work of others, producing stand-alone stories whose only aim is generating comments and internal blogging. In effect, original publishers are giving the “aggrelooter” the rope it will use to hang them.

And then :

“All of the above — the original content that drives the entire business and the aggregation that sends readers out into the world of news and information — helps to build an architecture that enables thousands of other people to have a space to come and write and play and inform and start conversations. Those people are the Huffington Post bloggers — who flock to the site for a chance of being heard.

If you are, say, the communications director of NARAL, you get paid for your contribution to the Huffington Post… by NARAL, the organization that gives you a salary to disseminate your message.”

How naïve is this exposure of the Huffington Post’s ethics! Put another way, the HuffPo doesn’t mind propagating the “message” of lobbies such as the pro-choice NARAL organization presented as a blog! (It could have been worse, a Sarah Palin affiliate for instance).

What ailing AOL bought is vapor. About 35% of the HuffPo’s users come form Google. They land on cleverly optimized content: stories borrowed from other (and consenting) medias that mostly generate blogging and comments. This is the machine that drove 28m unique visitors in January, which makes the HuffPo close to the New York Times/Herald Tribune audience of 30m UV.  With one key difference: each viewer of the NYT websites yields an ARPU of $11, ten times more than the Arianna thing. Based on the HuffPo’s valuation, the NYT Digital would be worth billions. That’s a consolation.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Le Monde: a blueprint of a turnaround

The iconic French newspaper Le Monde is about to begin a new chapter of its complicated history. Last September, what remains France’s most influential paper changed hands (see previous Monday Note Le Monde’s escape velocity and story in NY Times’ DealBook).

Le Monde is now owned by a triumvirate: Xavier Niel, a telecom entrepreneur, provided the bulk of the €110m ($130m) injected in the venture; Matthieu Pigasse, head of Lazard France, and Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent fashion house. Now, as the paper prepares to replace its editor, the new owners’ turnaround operation faces tough challenges.

But, before we continue, a disclosure that might influence the way you read this column:

Over the last few days, I have been on the receiving end of feelers from both insiders and outsiders: they wanted to gauge my interest in Le Monde’s editor job. (None of these informal conversations directly involved the owners.) For reasons I’ll discuss towards the end of this note, I made it clear I wasn’t interested.

With this out of the way, let’s look two sets of problems at Le Monde: editorial and industrial.

The editorial one is a relatively minor. Le Monde prides itself in remaining the “Paper of Record”. Unfortunately, such posture encourages more arrogance than it spurs innovation or a burning desire to win. Le Monde’s morning e-mail sent to digital subscribers exemplifies this hauteur; it says: “Que dit Le Monde?” (What Does Le Monde Say?) ; it’s not “What’s in today’s paper”, “What we’ve got”, “What we scooped”, “Selected legwork”, or “You might like…” No. It is: “The State of the World according to Le Monde”.

Quite logically, we get headlines that pontificate about yesterday’s news (Le Monde is an afternoon paper, oddly enough). Rolling your eyes, you still buy it at your favorite kiosk hoping to find good reading material. Most of the time, you actually do. Le Monde still manages to retain a great editorial team, one able to produce and edit high-quality content. But such capability is no longer sufficient to keep (and preferably expand) its readership.

On weighty topics, The Guardian or The New York Times are just as solid as Le Monde, but they are also way more fun to read. By “fun to read” I mean these newspapers are more willing to assign valuable journalistic resources to subjects popular with readers but belittled by French journalists. (For more on what readers actually like, see a previous Monday Note: What do they read – actually ? ).

Again, dusting off this slightly austere and pretentious worldview is no big challenge; it only requires minor adjustments to the daily mix. And probably a bit of reorganization. Le Monde is notorious for its uneven workload distribution. On one extreme, we have toilers who feed the beast on a daily basis, always on the edge of burn-out; on the other, there are those who maintain a more epicurean approach to their job. Among the latter, some will have evidently to be let go; others will have to accept changes to their working conditions and contracts.

The industrial problem is far more critical. In the next few months, management will make decisions likely to seal the paper’s fate. These decisions will pave the way to a new era, or lead to extinction. (So far, the latter has been the unfortunate “natural” course: we’ll recall Le Monde was on the verge of bankruptcy last Summer).

The new shareholders — who define themselves as owners — were first viewed as saviors. Plenty of money, a strong industrial and financial track record for Xavier Niel and Mathieu Pigasse. As for the older Pierre Bergé (81), he was portrayed as the gentle philanthropist who arranged for Le Monde’s staff to retain a minority stake in the new capital structure. These idyllic feelings quickly evaporated as the paper’s management proved unable to present a well-thought-through strategic plan to their new bosses. After dawdling for a few months, the owners jumped to action, the hard way. Xavier Niel, the entrepreneur, lost patience and launched one of his former lieutenants on an expeditious cost-cutting operation. The gent — a French-Israeli entrepreneur — went after low-hanging fruits such as management perks, travel expenses and stationery (really!). In passing, as a way to squelch resistance, the new owners resorted to the classy expedient of leaking juicy details about the cost-cutting operations. They knew media reporters would parrot every bit of gossip without bothering with lowly fact-checking. Good old eighties tactics: publicly humiliating management.

Until then, people at Le Monde had only seen pictures of cost-killers; they got a rude wake-up call: gone is the era of passive shareholders and out-of-the-way board of directors. The general manager of the group was demoted two weeks ago, and the current editor has been stripped of its top attributions and is about to leave.

Now comes the hard part. The cost-killer is back in Israel but the really important decisions remain to be made.

#1 The printing plant. Le Monde still owns a cathedral that is both obsolete and costly to operate. The facility, controlled by the omnipotent Printer’s Union, is plagued by productions inefficiencies and loses its clients one after the other. The plant currently employs 300 people where 100 would be more than enough. That’s about €12m a year in potential savings. The choice is between injecting dozens of millions of euros to modernize the plant or closing it down. By any measure, this is a no-brainer: the plant has to be closed. Any Western publisher dreams of dumping his printing plant (many groups such as the Norwegian Schibsted no longer own any printing facility).

In Le Monde’s case, as part of the industry’s restructuring plan, the French government has set aside adequate funds and is ready to pick-up most of the tab. (For the long run, the Sarkozy administration wants to reduce the subsidies that accounts for 12% of the French dailies revenues but, in the interim, will provide financial support for transitions towards more durable structures.) This could free Le Monde to hand over its print job to the new facility built by Le Figaro eighteen months ago — one that begs for an accelerated amortization (see our story about Le Figaro’s strategy).

#2 The digital strategy. Last summer, investment bankers came up with the following valuations for the Groupe Le Monde: €10m for the newspaper itself, €30m for the magazines and €80m for its digital subsidiary, Le Monde Interactif (MIA). Problem is: 34% of MIA is owned by Lagardère Groupe, a diversified media company still in search of a viable digital strategy (despite numerous and costly acquisitions). The reason for this odd capital structure? The old guard at the newspaper was reluctant to fund Le Monde Interactif, which had to find external financing.

Now, Le Monde faces a weird situation: a third of its most valuable asset is controlled by another company and, with each passing quarter, the price for that stake goes up. Any new management would have to make sure it reassumes full ownership of such a critically important business unit. The urgency could justify a bold arbitrage move such as selling the cultural weekly Telerama acquired years ago. No synergies whatsoever have emerged from that takeover — except siphoning cash from Telerama to the perennially money-losing daily.

Le Monde needs to regain control of its digital strategy both from a capital and a product aspect. Le Monde Interactif grew up feeling like the illegitimate offspring of a noble family. No wonder why it now fiercely defends its autonomy. With a dual ownership – largely played by MIA’s management for its own political ends – and a profitable operation, the digital arm of Le Monde operates in its own ways. Unfortunately, not for the best results. Editorially speaking, the site remains below the newspaper’s standards, and it doesn’t look good when compared to the Guardian Unlimited or the New York Times Digital. Its content is uneven (to say the least), often remotely related to the paper’s editorial treatments; many blogs are weak, and the entire interaction with readers is messy. In short, a platform with great potential, technically and financially strong, but one that calls for more discipline and a greater strategic editorial alignment with the flagship.

In addition, Le Monde Interactif prides itself with a rebellious online appendage: LePost.fr, a website targeted at young audiences. Originally designed as a kind of innovation lab, LePost in fact became a place for gossip and unverified stories (labelled as such!) — and for bleeding money (€2m operating costs for €200,00 revenue in 2009). This excrescence only needs to be sold or closed-down. (Its staff could be efficiently reassigned to beef up Le Monde’s  presence in social and participatory medias.)

Within five years, Le Monde will be read mostly on mobile devices – smartphones tablets – and supported by a mixture of free and paid-for contents. In the meantime, the newspaper will undoubtedly continue to lose some of its readers, even though a core audience, mature, educated and affluent, could slow down the process. The paper’s pricing/distribution therefore needs to be reassessed. It is likely that it could sustain significant price hikes without major readership erosion, probably coupled with distribution focused on major cities. At the same time, the weekend edition — a strong advertising vehicle — should be expanded.

There is no room for procrastination. Le Monde needs to act decisively to preserve its brand and editorial influence. It needs to reconsider its perimeter to address a critical issue: the Paper of Record is now challenged; it must morph into the Permanent Media of Record, online and offline. This requires a serious rethinking of asset allocation.

Why I felt I shouldn’t even think about the editor job:

1 / The editor’s job, as it is now defined, has been stripped of any influence on the company’s strategy. Such a job needs a say on essential matters such as the printing plant, or the way Le Monde controls its digital unit. We need to know the new owners will involve the editor in such matters. For their defense, most journalists are totally divorced from any kind of management culture. In my case, I don’t believe a media can be effectively managed solely by making decisions for the main editorial or the home page.

2 / The selection process is just terrible. First, candidates have to declare themselves publicly. Then, they are auditioned by a kind of ad hoc committee. Next, they are presented to the owners and to delegates from the newsroom. Finally, the appointee has to be approved by a majority of 60% of the staff. The result is the primary factor in picking a candidate will be his or her ability to get those staff votes. For the selection committee, using other criteria bears the risk of being discredited. Good luck with that.

The need to appoint an editor aligned with the newspaper’s core values is understandable. But, rather than electing an editor by popular vote, it would be much better to have a candidate: (a) probed and interviewed by a selection committee led by the board of directors — like in most companies — and, (b) approved by a board of trustees whose mandate is promoting the paper’s independence and integrity.

3 / There is no shortage of candidates inside and outside. The owners might prefer an outsider, which could further complicate the game. (The triumvirate is said to put a high priority on hiring a forty-something. Such focus is questionable: Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, 57 years old, is at the top of his game on all facets of the paper’s business.

Unfortunately, the process as it stands today carries a high risk of morphing into a bitter campaign. The bloodied winner will then face a gauntlet of frustrated apparatchiks only too eager to question his/her authority since, of course, the defeated candidates won’t leave. It can’t work that way. Especially for a media group facing such daunting challenges.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Two situations, two attitudes

Le Monde and The Daily Telegraph. Two leading newspapers. Last month, both had parallel experiences when dealing with government leaks. Two delicate situations, two reactions – or, at least, two postures.

On September 13th, Le Monde proclaimed it was filing suit against the French government for illegally investigating a leak reaching one of its reporters. Technically speaking, this is a lawsuit is “against X” (John Doe in the US), targeting an unknown person or organization.

The backdrop is both titillating and significant. We have the Liliane Bettencourt case (the L’Oréal empire heiress). One revelation after another, the affaire became a huge embarrassment for Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. Eric Woerth, a prominent cabinet minister, is at the heart of a web of conflicts of interests, all defended by a pathetic string of non-denial denials and outright fabrications. As the  Budget minister and as the chief fundraiser of Sarkozy’s UMP party, Woerth was in charge of Liliane Bettencourt’s tax situation while simultaneously collecting her donations for Sarkozy’s electoral machine. Still at the same time, to add another layer of recklessness (or cynicism), Woerth’s wife was working for Liliane Bettencourt’s main financial advisor, Patrice de Maistre, whom Eric Woerth got the Légion d’Honneur for, and who is suspected of helping Bettencourt evade taxes and break foreign bank account regulations. More

Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters

News aggregators have grown into all shapes and forms. Some are truly helping the producers of original content but others simply amount to mere electronic ransack.

My daily media routine starts on Techmeme. It is a pure aggregator — actually an aggrefilter, as coined by Dan Farber, at the time editor-in-chief of Cnet, who recommended it. This little site combines simple concept and sophisticated execution. As shown in its “Leaderboard”, it crawls a hundred sources and applies a clever algorithm using 600 parameters. More importantly, it adds a human editing layer. In this Read Write Web interview, Techmeme’s founder Gabe Riviera recently discussed his views on the importance of human editing, how it allowed him to fine-tune the his site’s content. The result is one of the most useful ways of monitoring the tech sector. And, since Gabe Riviera also launched Mediagazer last year, I use it to watch the media space. (Another iteration of the concept, Memeorandum, aggregates political news; for reasons I don’t quite understand yet, it doesn’t work as well as the two others.)

Techmeme and Mediagazer benefit the news outlets they mention. Story excerpts are short enough to avoid being self-sufficient and the hierarchical structure works. (Self-sufficient excerpts result in the aggregator not sending back traffic to the source — I’ll come to that later.) These twin sites are definitely among the best of their kind, resulting in a sound six persons business, not the next Google News but doing OK financially.

In fact, in their very own fields, Techmeme are Mediagazer are more useful than Google News. By crawling through so many sources, with the sole help of a powerful (but aging) algorithm, Google News ends up lacking finesse, precision and selectiveness. It’s a pure product of the engineering culture the search giant is built on, where obsessive hardcore binary thinking sweeps away words like “nuance”, “refinement”, “gradation”.

At the other end of the aggregator spectrum, we have The Huffington Post, one of the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.

In France, where true journalism is in a state of exhaustion, everybody wants to make “Un Huffington Post à la Française“. The dream hardly comes from the best and the brightest. No, the fantasy agitates click-freaks building “traffic machines” on the generous losses their investors are willing to put up with. So, in spite of the red ink, why do they yearn for their Huffington Post so much? One word: Numbers. As recalled in Newsonomics story, in one year, the HuffPo doubled its audience. And now, the HuffPo is nibbling at the NYTimes.com’s ankle: 13m unique visitors/month (Nielsen) vs. 19m for the Times. The HuffPo is a privately-held company with abundant funding and therefore does not release financial numbers. Revenues are said to be in the $15m range, and profitability is “near”…, this according to fascinated bloggers who kissed the HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau’s ring. More

What do they read — actually?

Unlike their dead tree ancestors, online publications provide an interesting view on what readers actually like. Most news sites have Most E-mailed, Most Viewed and Most Blogged or Most Commented lists. Some even propose Editor’s Picks. For today, I’ll share non-statistical findings, influenced, needless to say, by my personal reading habits.

Let’s start with the New York Times (surprise). Over the Most E-Mailed in the Past 30 Days we have 25 stories distributed as follows:

- Opinion: 11 articles. This label encompasses a wide spectrum, starting with high caliber in-house contributors such as Economics Nobel Prize Paul Krugman: see his Now That’s Rich piece criticizing the defense of tax cuts by conservative politicians. Amazingly, since August 23rd, his column has stayed on the chart and generated a stream of 523 comments. In this one-month selection, Paul Krugman has no less than four columns in the top 25, which is pretty remarkable since he doesn’t exactly belong to the Lady Gaga kind of beat.

This Most E-Mailed segment includes serious Op-Ed contributors such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who wrote How to End the Great Recession, but also a column by best-selling author John Grisham, titled Boxers, Briefs and Books, in which he recounts how he became a writer. I can’t resist giving you his lead paragraph:

I WASN’T always a lawyer or a novelist, and I’ve had my share of hard, dead-end jobs. I earned my first steady paycheck watering rose bushes at a nursery for a dollar an hour. I was in my early teens, but the man who owned the nursery saw potential, and he promoted me to his fence crew. For $1.50 an hour, I labored like a grown man as we laid mile after mile of chain-link fence. There was no future in this, and I shall never mention it again in writing.

- Technology: 5 articles. Your brain on computers is among the most shared, especially the outdoor account of a group of neuroscientists wandering the Colorado River as they try to disconnect themselves from the information overflow. Others liked pieces include lighter subjects: Photos on the Web That Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live, or Your Own Hot Spot, and Cheap. The relative weight of tech stories is tied to the nature of the medium. Readers who take the paper version of the Times probably read less nerdy stuff. (Historically, the New York Times has always been quite good at covering technology — this “education” of readers undoubtedly played a significant role in the NYTimes.com’s success on the web).

- Health & Science: 3 articles. Restoring good study habits for your kids, the unpleasant comeback of bedbugs in New York and Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia.

- Magazine: 2 articles. One story on the lives of grownups who stay with their parents: What Is It About 20-Somethings?, and one on neurolinguistics: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

- Business: 2. But Will It Make You Happy? (How you spend has a greater effect on your happiness than how much you spend, researchers say). And a rather stern piece on Housing that Fades as a Mean to Build Wealth. More

The newswire quandary

Questions: should newswire agencies serve consumers – directly? And, to a broader extent, how does the current information shift impact the agencies’ future? Two recent events lead me to explore these questions in today’s Monday Note. The first one is rather significant: last week, Associated Press announced a deal with Google allowing the search engine to republish its newswire stories. And the second was the admission by the new CEO of Agence France-Presse that he was indeed willing to join the B2C fray.

Before going further, a bit of disclosure. About a year ago, the previous AFP CEO  asked me to evaluate the newswire agency’s strategy. I interviewed countless people, insiders and outsiders — especially AFP customers. Early this year, I handed my report to the CEO who, in turn, forwarded it to the union representatives (the unofficial agency co-managers). Consistent with their unabated propensity to relieve themselves on their doorsteps, the unions leaked the report to everyone around them, they even made it downloadable. (Expecting their reaction, I had carefully redacted every piece of data that could have been of interest to the competition.) Needless to say, my report was blasted by unions, with truckloads of personal attacks targeting my past, my career, my connections, my supposed agenda. Again, this is part of the French news agency’s folklore. Since then, the CEO who ordered the report has resigned — he was clearly at odds with the unions –  was replaced by the former head of the national TV archives whose primary mission, given by the Culture minister, was avoiding any conflict with the unions (in other words, give them what they want, elections are two years down the road). Why the Culture minister, you ask? Because he oversees the Agency, which draws 40% of its revenue from the government. (The new CEO was picked by president Sarkozy within the minutes of his predecessor’s resignation.)

With this out of the way, let’s go back to the issue of newswires going after the consumer market. Should they do it?

Unfortunately, there is not one answer to this question. It depends on each company’s customer base, on its shareholder structure, and on its financial health. Historically, newswire agencies justify their existence with their unique ability to provide breaking news, in depth-reporting, on a global scale. In order to do this, they maintain a network of bureaus and correspondents all over the world, with the ability to collect and process huge amounts of text, photo and video on a round the clock basis. All the four major agencies — Associated Press, Reuters, AFP and Bloomberg — are truly amazing news gathering machines with large staffs of highly dedicated newspeople at the frontline of the information.

With the advent of instant and ubiquitous information, the dominance – and even the relevance – of the “Big Three” (Bloomberg is marginally in the general news segment) is now seriously challenged. Newsrooms wonder: does it make sense to pay high subscription fees to newswire services increasingly undermined by the global information overflow? More

Le Monde on The Brink

Within two weeks, the French newspaper Le Monde will run out of cash. By this Monday at noon, candidates to the takeover of the most prestigious French daily will have disclosed their offers. By June 28, the staff will vote and make the final decision for the fate of the 66 years-old paper.

More importantly, the newspaper’s independence will be under severe pressure.

Le Monde is the textbook example of the evolution of French press over the last years:

  • A steady erosion in readership.
  • A lack of budget discipline, made worse by loose governance.
  • The core newsroom’s reluctance to support the digital strategy
  • The collective certainty the “brand” was too beautiful to fail and that a deep-pocketed philanthropist will inevitably show up at the right time to save the company.
  • An difficulty to invest into the future, to test new ideas, to built prototypes, to coopt key talent or to invest in decisive technologies.
  • A bottomless investment in the heavy-industry part of the supply chain, in costly printing facilities.
  • An excessive reliance on public subsidies which account for about 10% of the industry’s entire revenue. Compared to Sweden, French newspapers have 3 times less readers, but each one gets 5 times more subsidies.

To a large extent, these characteristics are shared by most French newspapers. This could explain the dire situation of the Gallic press. As of today, four major properties are on the block, or urgently looking for saviors:

  • Le Monde seeks at least €100m (for a first round).
  • Le Parisien, a popular daily, is for sale; although quite good from an editorial perspective, it is not profitable and its family ownership wants to refocus on sports-related assets.
  • La Tribune, the n°2 business daily, is looking for a majority investor.
  • Liberation is also facing a  cash stress.

Le Monde’s situation is by far the most critical and the most emblematic. Here are the key elements : In 2009, the Groupe Le Monde had a revenue of €390m, an operating profit of €2.2m, and a net loss of €25 m. It is crumbling under €100m in debt, the result of a failed acquisition strategy. Its arcane shareholder structure includes Lagardère Group for 17%; the Spanish group Prisa (owner of El Pais) for 15%; the newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur for 5%; its staff for 22% and various other entities for the rest. Its main assets are : The daily Le Monde and its weekly magazine; Le Monde Interactif (including Le Monde.fr); three other magazines; and a printing plant. Over the last three years, it looked like this:

Over the last fifteen years, Le Monde’s management proved unable to come up with a cogent strategy. The group tried to expand into the regional press and into the magazine sectors without any coherence behind such moves. The only tangible achievement was the creation of Le Monde Interactif, this against most of an internet-adverse newsroom. In fact, Le Monde’s digital unit had to handle 34% of its ownership to the Lagardère Group in order to get sufficient funding. More

The Search World Is Flat

How does Google’s unchallenged domination of Search shape the way we retrieve information? Does Google flatten global knowledge?
I look around, I see my kids relying on Wikipedia, I watch my journalist students work. I can’t help but wonder: Does Google impose a framework on our cognitive processes, on the way we search for and use information?

Two weeks ago, at an INMA conference in Oxford, I met Monica Bulger, an Education PhD, she was giving a speech covering the notion of cognitive containers associated with devices such as the iPad (see her blog). Then, at a dinner at Exeter College, in a room right out of a Harry Potter movie set, she discussed her work at the University of California Santa Barbara where she investigated her students’ use of Web searches.

Dr. Bulger took 150 graduate and undergraduate students and asked them to write a 1 to 2 pages recommendation for the use of computers in the classroom (she verified that the question was not already treated in Wikipedia). They had 50 minutes to complete the assignment.

The goal of the experiment was ‘to disprove the fact that information is simply a matter of access, and after that, everything else is easy. I wanted to show the highly sophisticated cognitive process taking place. No matter how sophisticated machines are, research still requires a bit of work’.

Among here findings (details here):

— Students who bring academic experience to an online research task are more likely to succeed than those with technical expertise alone: ‘Without the essential literacy skills of gauging credibility and synthesizing materials to form and communicate an understanding, the ease of information access afforded by the online environment does not matter’.

— The highest performing students use copy/paste to organize their thoughts. Copy/paste is usually seen as a plagiarism tool rather than as an organizing one. But in the experiment, students with the highest academic background used copy/paste to collect phrases from various references and later built their text around it.

— Younger students tend to be more opinionated than their elders; they begin to write  their essay after only seeing 5 URLs, and they extract sources mostly to support their beliefs. Those with deeper background (graduates) gathered much more information (15-20 URLs) before beginning the writing process.

Google is the source. Logically, students should have gone to the ERIC database; the Education Resources Information Center, is the reference for texts about education and teaching. Although rather frustrating, according to Monica Bulger, ERIC should have been the first source on the subject. Instead, 98% of the students flocked to Google. More

The Oxymoronic Citizen Journalism

Let’s fire a few missiles at politically correct ideas such as “Digital media makes all of us journalists”, “citizens will soon displace professional reporters”, and so on. That’s nonsense (I have more explicit words in mind). Does it means public input in news should be kept at bay? Certainly not. Quite the contrary, actually. Newsrooms have a challenge on their hands, they need to get better at handling such input.

First, would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t. You would not trust a citizen dentist either for your cavities. Or even a people’s car repairman. Then, for information, why in hell would we accept practices we wouldn’t even contemplate for our health (OK, big issue), or for our washing machine?
Fact is, with the advent of digital media, the very notion of rigor and accuracy has become more… fuzzy, more analog. As I said here many times, we are now facing three types of news: the Commodity one (everyone gets the same account of the oil spill in Louisiana or the deadly unrest in Thailand); Mashup news (the more it buzzes, the better it works); and the Quality Niche, that tries to defend its standards. The first two are expanding and the third is getting to look like a Zant currant, (Raisin sec in French): good, tasty, but tiny and dry. And produced in small quantities.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a remarkable piece about fact checking at the New Yorker. In a loving and witty rendition, the author, John McPhee, details how an army of minutiae-obsessed researchers will spend days to check the smallest assertions in order to remove even the palest shadow of doubt. (I’m linking to the PDF file, hoping Condé Nast’s legal department will forgive this copyright infringement in view of my heartfelt homage; this article really deserves to be dissected in journalism schools).

A few years back, this colleague showed me a mail exchange he had with a sub-editor at a major US daily about a long feature story of his. Its original submission triggered a long email with dozens of questions about every aspect of the story: “Who says this? Could you add a source of this data? Isn’t there a contradiction between this figure and the other in paragraph six? Can you be more specific on this and that? It went on an on. The story was actually seen as a good one; the painstaking editing, checking and challenging process was merely standard procedure.

Who has the luxury of applying such treatment to news material, nowadays? No one, almost. Only some “Zant currant” news organizations are still holding firm on such a practice. Which leads us to my point: journalism is a profession; it comes with standards, techniques, and a certain level of demand, from the author and his/her editors.

These notions collide with the new information chain: Algorithm => Search => Filtering => Aggregation => Mashup => Social Feedback (i.e.: commenting, sharing, tweeting, blogging…).
We’ve been through the hardcore part (fact-based reporting, checking, sourcing, editing). Now, let’s sort out the new jargon.

Algorithm: it has become the main underlying engine for digital information consumption.  Think about Google News traffic: 3.7 billion people exposed per week, according to GeographicalMedia . More