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’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’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; 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

Profitable Long Form Journalism

Over the last month, I’ve been stuffing my iPad with books purchased online, long PDF files and other documents for later reading sessions. I’m waiting for the mind-blowing media applications, they’re still in the making. Several prototypes of French newspapers I have seen are quite promising. We have to be patient. This is just the start of the runway.

Compared to my computer, I realize I’m using the device in a different way. No mail (too clumsy), no writing, no twittering. Just reading stuff, the longer the better.

And I wonder: Can tablet computing be the missing link, the one that could rehabilitate (or rather introduce) long form reading in digital format — in a profitable way?

Let’s project ourselves two years from now. And let’s put the iPad aside for a while. It’s 2012. Tablets have become a cell-phone-like commodity, competition is strong. Aside of Apple, devices from Samsung or HTC running Android or god knows what operating systems are thriving. Standards for digital formats have emerged and e-books are heading toward a 25% market share in Europe and the United States. The digital publishing chain is running smoothly and efficiently with the following characteristics.

  • The old production and distribution system that was eating 65% to 70% of the retail price is now down to a 30% fee taken by publishing platforms. They get this 30% for putting the publications on their virtual shelves and for collecting the money.
  • These inventories are served by clever search and recommendation engines (not the Trabant-like system of the iTunes/iBooks store).
  • To reflect decreasing distribution costs when compared to physical books, e-books retail prices are down by at least 30%.
  • Authors also take advantage of the technological shift, they get higher royalties.
  • New formats have emerged; the old dichotomy between hardcover, priced at $25, and paper back, at $10, is gone, replaced a by a more diversified pricing structure.

Hence the question: What will the impact be on journalism and on the bottom line of media companies?

Before attempting an answer, let’s reframe this in the dual context of the current business situation and of the newscycle. Managing a newsroom within today’s constraints is a difficult exercise. In daily newspapers, physical editorial space (i.e. column inches) is scarce, making long pieces a hard-sell to the editor-in-chief. The web is more welcoming, although we all know that beyond a 600 words story, reader attention tends to fade — especially for younger audiences.

As for the newscycle, it accelerates and becomes increasingly complex, requiring more expertise and, in theory, more editorial resources — should editors decide to go below the surface. Take the debt crisis in Europe, for instance. The general framework is pretty simple: thirty years-old traders in shark-frenzy mode, going against sixty years-old politicians. The sharks prey on the politicians who have failed to build decent economic leadership since the introduction of the euro system (coins and banknotes entered in circulation January 1st 2002). More

The Oligarch to the dying press : “Nasdarovie!”

Coincidence.  At the same time as the Russian billionaire Alexandre Lebedev was finalizing the acquisition of the British paper The Independent, France-Soir was relaunched with great fanfare and money from another oligarch, Sergey Pugachyov.

It is not a coincidence, it is an emerging pattern. A terrible one. In which huge amounts of money of questionable origin will take over dying media.

These two papers are by no means comparable. The Independent remains a remarkable newspaper. France-Soir’s luster is long gone. A sorry procession of owners and editors, all promising the miraculous “nouvelle formule” (French term for redesign), were unable to revive the once popular evening daily. Each relaunch turned to be a new set of hospital robes for the terminally ill patient. Except this time: thanks to cash from Sergey Pugachyov – in fact his 25 years-old son Alexander – the robes are silk-made, the dressing gown is pashmina and everyone seems to want a piece it.

Ten days ago, I mingled among 300 others guests, sipping a glass of Champagne on the top of the Georges Pompidou Center a Renzo Piano-designed building at the heart of Paris. Fance-Soir was celebrating the latest in a series of rebirths. Take five or six, I lost count. And I don’t count on it. France-Soir is a living-dead paper. Fifty years ago, its daily print run was a million copies. It was down to 26,000 before the latest Russian defibrillation. Never mind, tonight, c’est la fête au village. The media crowd and its usual swarm of bottom-feeders are all here. TV moguls and politicians, former ministers are lining up to kiss the oligarch’s ring. As I asked a friend why in hell so many TV and radio hasbeens did show up, he reminded me that many had been enrolled to write snippets for the paper: “Would you give up €5000 or €10,000 a month to write the occasional 100 words?”.

As a matter or fact, I would. I did. A few days before the party, a well-connected media socialite called. “You known, I can introduce you to Pugachyov… They are still looking for an editor”. I replied, a bit tersely perhaps: “…Look: a) This paper is dead-meat; b) I’ve been contacted a year ago by a headhunter working for your guy and I already said no; c) I don’t do such things. I can’t work for an oligarch. That’s beyond my moral boundaries, even if I consider them pretty fluid”…

Nothing to be proud of. I simply enjoy the luxury of still being able to pick the people I want to work with. And I do not have a overwhelming amount of respect for the old farts, many of them fairly wealthy, queueing to kiss the young tsar’s ring for a consulting or journalistic fee.

Editorial Chinese Wall (Made in Russia)

Editorial Chinese Wall (Made in Russia)

Coincidence, take II. On the very morning the new France-Soir hit the street, president Sarkozy was awarding a République’s official distinction to the paper’s general manager, Christiane Vulvert. Bad timing from a PR standpoint, one that reveals an interesting connection between the French executive branch and the paper’s owners (see this excellent piece in Le Monde).

In a nutshell: First, Mrs Vulvert is a former general manager of the Centre National du Cinéma, the munificent French taxpayer subsidies pipeline dedicated to the French movie industry’s welfare. She’s part of the (French) nomenklatura. Second, the €20m Mr Pugachyov Sr. is pouring into France-Soir is small token compared to real deal. One of his key businesses (aside from real estate, pharmaceuticals or mining companies) is a modern shipyard that could be a perfect fit to built the four Mistral-class helicopter-carriers that France hopes to sell Russia. Nothing related of course. Even though, according to Le Monde, the “Dossier France-Soir” is followed by a close Sarkozy advisor (his press secretary was at the launch party). Very unlikely to see France-Soir becoming a strong critic of the French government.

These complicated circumvolutions actually buy very little influence. France-Soir version 6.0 or 7.0 remains a crappy paper. The cost of the Centre Pompidou party would have been better invested in a nice design, to say nothing of the editorial team. Two days after the relaunch, the paper published a supposed exclusive of a French pop star bathing in Saint-Barth. An unbroken chain of sloppy writing, editing and fact-checking led to the publication of a four year-old photograph; the journalistic environment was so lightweight that nobody knew how or cared enough to double-check the picture.

Instead of the half-million circulation its promoters tout, even with the editorial breadth and depth provided by former TV stars, France-Soir, will soon be back to a a tenth of that. More

Managing the magazine component of newspapers

This is the second part of a series about the evolution of print media. Part I here.

A few years ago, the founder of the French daily Liberation was asked what he would do if he had unlimited resources to run his paper: “I would do a magazine everyday”, he said. During the late 80′s, “Libé”, as it was called, stood at the forefront of the transition from a traditional daily newspaper to a magazine-like concept, with long pieces, narrative journalism, reportages… Later in 1994, Libé launched a daily full-page featuring an in-depth profile including a photograph specifically shot for the occasion. It was a brilliant magazine-style piece, done under a demanding editor who did not hesitate to rewrite the story to give it rhythm, breadth and, sometimes, fun. (Usually, in France, dailies don’t get that much editing.) Amazingly, even though it has lost some of its luster, a feature that largely inspired the competition still survives 16 years later.

Magazine writing is still an appealing attribute for a daily paper. Just take a quick poll among your friends: the most notable articles they’ll recall from a newspaper will be magazine-like treatments. From a pure editorial perspective, the “magazinification” of dailies make more sense than ever. Breaking news and even developing stories have been captured by the web and by the mobile internet. In itself, this shift would justify a massive resource reallocation in favor of digital medias.

Having said that, does it make an economic sense to maintain the large editorial operation needed to produce every single day a product closer to a weekly or even a monthly magazine? To what extent do we need to reconsider the journalistic morphing that appeared a smart move ten or fifteen years ago? More