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

Cashing in on stolen contents

For publishers: How much money is lost because of stolen contents? Of that, how much can be realistically reclaimed? Before getting into numbers, an overview.

In recent weeks, I’ve gained a first-hand media perspective on anti-piracy technology. The technology is Attributor’s, and the media is Agence France-Presse, one of the big three global newswires along with AP and Reuters. (Disclosure: I produced recently a 15,000 words report for AFP covering its strategy and its future. I’m no longer working for AFP but I keep close links with this news company).

Every day, AFP sends about 400 news items to Attributor – a fraction of its daily production. These items are then matched against a set of web sites, both subscribers and non subscribers of the newswire’s services. Using a simple interface, Attributor ranks the sites by their propensity to reuse contents. For regular clients, the system shows how stories are used, what percentage is utilized and if they are properly credited or even linked. For non-clients if offers a great way to track down stolen content and to make the distinction between minor abuses, honest mistakes and systematic infringement, since the data are viewed from statistical and time-related angles.

For obvious reasons, I can’t disclose the medias I’ve been reviewing in detail. Let’s simply say that results are stunning. AFP material is widespread. To make it short, there are three types of abuses of copyrighted material.

- The first one is insufficient attribution by a client. Typically, a journalist puts his or her byline on a story largely taken from a newswire. On most cases, the byline will be reduced to initials along with “avec agence” (with newswire) mention, like this one for instance where the borrowed text form AFP is automatically highlighted….

For this piece, we can safely say that “M.D.’s” input was minimal and it would have been nicer to simply put the mention “AFP” at the bottom of this cut & paste performance. (It that particular case, the newswire story is itself an explicit recycling of a scoop by Le Figaro, a typical illustration of the Internet’s endless content loop). From a legal perspective, there is no particular issue. It’s only an ethical matter.

Another case involves misuse of contents by bloggers. In most case, bloggers have no clues about the meaning and use of copyright. And big medias who host them don’t really help. Typically, a young an passionate blogger “covering” his beat will simply take in good faith an entire AFP (or AP or Reuters) story and paste it on his blog, this time with a proper attribution. Except that he has no right whatsoever to do so. I’ve seen one big French site, whose boss loathes the AFP, ending up with 60% of its content illegally “borrowed” from the AFP (confronted with facts, the site has made serious efforts to correct the situation). Hypocritically, many sites shield themselves behind the fine print of the term of services buried deep in their site reminding bloggers not to steal copyrighted content. Fact is, most of them, including big medias, do not properly educate their legally challenged blogging contributors. More

Young readers: already hooked on subsidies

I love my country. Among many things, I enjoy its business attitude. In the media sector, it is an unabashed mixture of entrepreneurship, bold risk-taking and fearless independence. You can’t spend a week here without someone telling you : “Hey, you know what? We’re about to send some of our journalists, paid by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to train bloggers in Middle East. Isn’t that great ?” (Yeah, indeed — you just received a €14,000 invoice from the state health insurance administration, they recalculated the cost of your health coverage for the past year).
Another one: “We are going to launch a new version of our mega-site, built on CMS x.” (The guy mentions an horrendously expensive proprietary Content Management System)”. You ask : “… Huh, why not using free tools, instead? You hire a couple of engineers, create your own specs, schedule a year of successive upgrades, and you’ll get great results, no?”. The answer is ironclad: “Bah, it’s all government money, you know…  It is part of the Press Modernization Fund… And we’ll even be able to finance the iPhone App from the same moneybag…”

As we speak, there is a big debate at the newly created Syndicat de la Presse Indépendante en Ligne (Spiil). This professional body of online news publishers, is pondering whether to accept subsidies. Pragmatists say big medias have been taking subsidies for decades. Now, the big guys spend huge sums of public money to upgrade their sites and they compete with us. Purists disagree: No way, we are not going to replicate the old MSM (Main Stream Media) behavior. Well, most of those pure players are struggling to balance their P&L while doing good journalism. Now way, I’ll lecture them one way or the other.

Yep, I love France’s profligate attempts to keep its press alive. No country spends more money to preserve the freedom and the plurality of its press: €1.2bn in 2008 (taking into account all forms of aid); that is 12% of the sector’s total revenue. (Just picture the US government coughing up about $8-10bn a year to help its newspapers and magazines industry!). And the percentage is likely to go up: new programs were announced this year (see Media acquisition, the French way) and press revenues are eroding. Between 2003 and 2007, French subsidies rose by 71% versus +21% in Sweden. For added perspective, Swedish readership is three times higher than in France and, as a result, proportionally five times less subsidized. More

The Death of the MSM

You probably heard of Fake Steve Jobs, Dan Lyons, the former Forbes writer. He’s built a justified reputation for using his blog to do a kind of Steve Jobs pastiche, by turns analytical, satirical, occasionally vulgar and, yes, insulting every possible target in the Valley and in the MSM (Mainstream Media).

You’ll recall I criticized the New York Times’ bosses and one of their writers, Brad Stone, in a July 2009 Monday Note titled “Brilliant insights at the NYT”. In it, as a NYT fan, I worried about the quality of reporting, concerned with the superficiality of Silicon Valley coverage, bemoaning the formulaic cut-and-past jog of quoting anal-ysts and other “usual suspects”.

Well, read this Fake Steve Jobs piece. There, Dan Lyons gives another example of the MSM missing key information, the OfferPal scams, and insights, how game companies “game” users and how social networks can put an end to such practices. For short, the scammers are companies such as OfferPal tempting on-line game users with offers for more weapons or more lives while sending a stealth tentacle into their wallets by tricking them into expensive subscription “deals”.
The NYT’s problem is it wrote a fairly positive article on the new Virtual Goods Economy while totally missing the ongoing scams controversy. See Silicon Watcher’s overview here.

Fake Steve Jobs is worth adding to your list of RSS feeds (Google Reader is a good way to manage those). Lately, Dan Lyons wrote another tart and insightful analysis of big company (IBM in this case) PR practices here. Enjoy! —

The hype(r) local digital journalism

Everybody wants to go local. Internet-wise, it sounds like the new flavor of the month week. Going local is a digital and idealistic version of Mao Zedong’s “hundred flowers blossom”. (The Chinese dictator did actually encourage the expression of dissenting opinions; this turned out to have unpleasant consequences for those who took Dear Leader to his word). So, fine. Let’s see thousands of European and US cities generate a flurry of local websites covering city councils, local controversies, urban planning, etc. Every committed citizen will be able to monitor the community’s pulse just by clicking on a URL; it will be easy and efficient to launch (or to join) grassroots campaigns against the construction of an ugly overpass or for the clean-up a hazardous landfill. All of this is real.

As I write this, I listen to NYU professor Clair Shirky’s lecture delivered last September at the Harvard University Shorentsein Center (transcript and Video here). Always brilliant and convincing, Shirky revisited the 1992 pedophile priests scandal in Boston, one that was heavily covered by the Boston Globe, but died out due to a lack of resonance in the public. Evidently, today, things would have reverberated very differently.  So, yes, there is a useful future for local digital media.

Having said this, allow me to express a slightly skeptical view.

First, people tend to celebrate the hyperlocal web for the wrong reasons, that is the depletion of local coverage by traditional media. Last Thursday, I was at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston (UK) for its 12th Digital Editors Network. There, the British news agency Press Association presented a “Public Service Reporting” project. The PA would recruit legions of citizen journalists, they would be asked to comply with the agency’s ethics standards as they report on local issues. As for now, the PA is building several pilots and is looking for funding. Tony Johnston, The PA’s training chief who presented the case, stated its ambition: a network of 500 to 800 journalists costing £15m to £18m a year (€17-20m, $24-29m). In a preamble, he explained that the British newspapers’ shrinking local coverage paved the way to such an initiative (details in here).

Well. There are two ways of considering such move. One is to say: Great, community members take over the coverage that matters to them, they use all available tools: social network, live blogging, Flip-camera produced videos, to give local stuff the exposure it needs.
Another view is this: Doing local journalism is as complicated as any other kind of reporting. Poring over local financial records requires the same amount of time, dedication and expertise as digging into a national political party’s finances. Yes, citizen-like journalists will do fine reporting on “lighter” issues such as the state of schools or of the sewage system. But uncovering and preventing what really matters, such as the misuse of public funding, rigged bidding procedures for large projects and so on is a very different story.

More broadly, a professional journalist is required to avoid take sides in doing his or her job. Leaving such coverage to self-appointed journalists is opening the pandora’s box to all kinds of agenda-driven reporting. More

The French Edgar Hoover and “his” media dependents

Picture this in today’s American media: an Edgar Hoover-like chief of a major police agency cozying up to veteran reporters of Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker. To these cronies, the chief feeds dirty information, unverified gossip, unproven suspicion of corruption of X or Z, all of it “dug up” by federal investigators paid with taxpayers’ money. In return, the happy recipients share the loot with their handlers. And if they don’t, they quote “anonymous sources”.

This is exactly what happened in France, up to Yves Bertrand’s 2004 retirement. For 12 years, he was the director of a special branch of the French police (les Renseignements Généraux — General Intelligence). His carefully maintained and amazingly chatty notebooks have been subpoenaed in a recent slander case involving former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

A book published last week, “Les Carnets noirs de la République“, pores over 2000 pages of the Gallic Hoover’s notebooks. The deciphering was done by Patrick Rougelet, a former deputy of this special branch who was fired when he began to investigate his boss’ financial dealings (don’t do that).

One of the most delightful chapters exposes the relationships between this police branch and the Who’s Who of French investigative journalism. The hooverish Yves Bertrand weaved close relationships with people at dailies such as Le Monde or Libération, and weeklies such as l’Express, Le Point, Marianne, to name but a few. In those organizations, regular correspondents — the book calls them “the perfused” –  traded information on a regular basis. Yves Bertrand also fed the French PR goddess, Anne Méaux (today, she advises French billionnaire François Pinault, but also Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Banque Lazard). If that wasn’t enough, Frédéric Ploquin, one of Bertrand’s correspondent, had the nerve to be the interviewer for the self-justifying book, Ce que je n’ai pas dit dans mes carnets, published by the former skunk-police chief. Ploquin, the self-appointed “Grand Reporter”, works for Marianne, probably the most sermonizing French weekly (how come a newsroom can tolerate such a living journalistic accident remains a mystery to me).

Yves Bertrand’s former perfused are genuinely annoyed by this unpleasant coming out. But they are numerous and quite active. Actually, a good indicator of their penetration is the scarce number of reviews the book has got in the French medias. Omerta is an Italian vocable it seemed…

Yves Bertrand's calligraphy: About the Dassault dynasty (aircraft maker, media): "Father and son, people side, penny pincher and fond of blondes"


The End of Walled Gardens

If there is one side of Scandinavian medias’ strategy I find particularly convincing, it is their ability to cooperate as much as they can, and to compete on what matters most, that is the product, the user experience, the reader. To describe this, Americans, the world’s best neologists, invented the world “coopetition”, cooperation + competition. This is exactly the kind of attitude that should prevail in these difficult times. And, to a larger extent, the burgeoning world of online medias would be well advised to get rid of their antiquated close-to-the-vest thinking. Time to tear down some walls.
Many medias are, or will be integrated into hybrid models — with digital and paper products blended together. Therefore, distinctions by news vectors are pointless. Let’s consider four sectors where cooperation among competing entities will be critical in the coming years :

Advertising. Whether it is measured in inches, centimeters or pixels, newspapers or websites don’t sell ad space in the most optimized way. Commercial brands and their surrogates, the media buying agencies, keep increasing the pressure on medias to get higher discounts; in a country such as France (which roughly reflects the global marketplace), the net revenue per page sold went down 20% in the last twelve months. Even though French papers and magazines depend less on advertising for their survival than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts do, it’s a matter of concern.
There is no room for finger-pointing here: media buying people are doing their job, which is getting the best bang for their client’s buck. But medias can team up and propose (or impose) advertising packages based on socio-demographic structures, for instance. To a large extent, Rolex or Mercedes-Benz don’t give a damn whether they are favoring media X or Y as long as they are sure to reach the affluent people who might turn into customers. Or Nestlé’s baby food brands looking for child-rearing couples.

Logistics. When I’m traveling to New York, I’m always stunned to see half-empty delivery trucks emblazoned with the name of prominent newspapers, criss-crossing the city, sometimes twice a day (early and late edition). At the same time, I feel sorry for French publishers who have to deal with a distribution system so inefficient that it ends up with one point of sales for 2100 inhabitants versus Norway’s one for 360 people (no wonder why Norway’s rate of readership is four time higher than France’s). Up there, a cross-brands cooperation makes it economically viable to distribute newspapers in the most northern village during winter. In Paris, finding an open newsstand on a Saturday afternoon is an achievement. More

Rotten Apples in the Reviews Barrel

A few weeks ago, professional blogger Kevin Dixie received a strange proposition: a US‑based company offered to buy from him 30,000 reviews for a new iPhone application at $1 per review. Positive reviews, needless to say. Moreover, the marketing company proposed to extend the deal for 30 applications, about 10 to 20 times a month. A huge potential windfall for Kevin Dixie — who declined the offer. This British entrepreneur living in France created two specialized consumer products reviews sites: FuelMyblog, and its recent offspring launched in September.

In both cases, the idea is the the same: a casual blogger from the network writes whatever review he or she wants to in exchange for a free product. The item can be an electronic appliance worth a few dozens of dollars (sterling pounds actually, the company is UK based) or it can be a trip worth a thousand dollars. The brand pays FuelMyBlog 25£ ($40) per review, that’s how Dixie makes its money. (The process also results in those brands getting higher Google pageranks). With the explosion of the iPhone applications business, Dixie decided to roll out a dedicated site based on the same idea: the blogger purchases the app, tests it, writes a review and FuelMyApp reimburses him for the price of the application via its PayPal account. More