Airbrushing Online Newspaper Articles After the Fact

I’ve seen this on more than a few occasions and find it very disturbing.

So, the Washington Post published a story on its website, revised the story to omit details that appeared in the relevant piece, and yet did not disclose these facts to the Post’s online readers. Isn’t this a problem? There may well have been valid reasons for revising the story. Perhaps an editor thought the story got relevant facts wrong or concluded reference to the embezzlement scandal was unfair. Whatever the reason for the change, the Post should have disclosed that changes were made and that it had decided to excise information included in the original story.

[From The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Revising Web-based Newspaper Articles Without Informing Readers:]

It’s one thing to correct references or relevant facts but to materially change entire sections of an article is alarming and undermines the central argument that newspapers themselves make about why they are essential systems of record for society. The record of an event is only changing as the timeline plays out and new facts and arguments emerge, which may serve to invalidate previous reporting and in that case should be noted as new content, not airbrushing of already published content. At the very least a record of corrections should append each online story when necessary rather than flagrant material editing of content done “under the cover of darkness”.

Newspapers must recognize that the public trust they cherish is at risk whenever they rewrite an article that is already published online. This is no different than how the use of Photoshop has thrown into question the authenticity of online images, to which I cite a long history of image scandals that resulted from creative use of photo editing technology. I commented to my wife just over the weekend about the cover image on a fitness magazine she had, her comment back to me that “oh you can’t believe any cover on a magazine” revealed the extent to which pervasive mistrust of fashion and lifestyle media has taken hold. If newspapers wish to avoid the same condition they must revisit the policies and procedures by which they treat online content.

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The Newspaper Bailout

I don’t think anyone would deny that good journalism is both disciplined and increasingly not the domain of newspapers and broadcast media, but I find it interesting that the President would specifically latch on to the notion of a newspaper bailout by the Federal government as a potentially necessary step to combat the blogosphere.

“I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding,” he said.

[From Obama open to newspaper bailout bill – The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room]

If one is going to use fact checking and story context as the criteria for determining good journalism, then the traditional print and broadcast media are culpable.

Let’s start with what brought down Dan Rather, the fake Bush national guard stories (which were of course exposed by a blog) and move on to the impressively expanding NY Times corrections page, which featured perhaps the most ironic mother of all corrections, the Walter Cronkite obituary, but I thought the Charlton Heston obituary was even more noteworthy because the NY Times managed to not only get a raft of meaningful details wrong but also Heston’s name and age.

The supposedly platinum standard for journalism, the NY Times, which is subject to a growing number of blogs that track their errors, and I don’t hear the President complaining about the most linked to content in the NYTimes, the op-ed pages which feature the chronically error filled Krugman and Dowd columns… all opinion, intensely partisan opinion.

I could also go on and on about how editors at major newspapers tweak headlines and selectively edit stories to give them the inappropriate or partisan context, something the President himself acknowledged but pointed to only in reference to blogs. Take,. for example, the SF Chronicle’s coverage of the Mayo Clinic’s statements on President Obama’s healthcare bill, which the Chronicle used one quote praising a change in the Medicare payment policy as a proxy for overarching endorsement of the President’s plans, completely omitting the first half of the statement that said the proposals “failed to help create higher-quality, more affordable health care for patients, in fact it will do the opposite”.

When I emailed Ms. Lochhead about this she responded (promptly I should add) that “the dual Mayo references were thought to be confusing so the first was omitted. I agree this is misleading and I’m trying to get it fixed”. As of today that article has not been edited to reflect the entirety of the Mayo Clinic statement on the healthcare reform proposals.

In the final analysis I fail to see how the Federal government extending anything that could be construed as a bailout to newspaper companies could be considered appropriate or ethical. An independent media is certainly not ensured when the Federal government rescues media companies that are failing because of changes in consumer behavior and perhaps equally because of dismay and disgust at the partisan bias that newspapers and news magazines have displayed (I mean really, how many Time magazine covers featuring President Obama will they publish… I thought only Oprah Magazine could be counted on for such predictable covers?).

UPDATE: Today I learned that the Washington Post, the President’s hometown newspaper, ran 960 corrections in 2008 and still has a backlog of “hundreds, some dating to 2004″ in the queue… so much for the President’s claim that only the blogosphere lacks “serious fact checking”.

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Saving the New York Times, Or Not.

Mike is correct to assert that many U.S. and international newspapers are structurally impaired and should simply disband but the debate in newspapers has shifted away from print vs. digital to one focused on digital monetization. The data is what it is, newspaper websites continue to grow traffic by double digits yet the incremental increases, or more recently seen decreases, simply can’t cover the physical costs of the news gathering operation. Turns out that it’s no different in the blogosphere as well and TechCrunch’s conference revenue is not an exception, it’s the rule for all of the major professionally produce tech blog operations.

So what can those top 50 writers learn from Arrington’s business model? Well, they’d better enjoy throwing conferences. Arrington said only 10 to 20 percent of of TechCrunch’s revenue comes from normal advertising on the website, while 50 percent comes from conferences. (Yes, I know these parts don’t add up to 100 percent.)

[From Michael Arrington’s plan to save The New York Times: The best writers should quit | VentureBeat]

I wrote about the 100 year flood that newspapers are facing and my conclusion, which I believe still holds, is that newspapers have to abandon their category and create something new that combines hyperlocal information services, create new advertising units, aggressively pursue syndication, and move into video as a natural compliment to text.

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The 100 Year Flood for Newspapers

If you are at all interested in the economics of online newspaper efforts, by all means read Martin Langeveld’s detailed look at how the numbers stack up. Really good stuff.

Daily print is not a long-term sustainable model, and forward-looking newspapers, rather than exploring an online paywall, should explore transitioning to a once- or twice-weekly frequency, focusing their print efforts on a weekend edition distributed Friday. (Explore my prior musings about this for more.)

[From Paying for online news: Sorry, but the math just doesn’t work. » Nieman Journalism Lab]

There is a core tension that exists between print and digital newspaper operations. The print guys say “hey we should be charging a subscription for digital just like we do for print” and the digital folks say “hey if we stay free we will continue our impressive traffic growth and make up what we are losing by not charging a subscription with advertising.”

Both are wrong.

Let’s start with the print side. It is self evident that conversion rates for print to digital subscription are nowhere near where they need to be to grow a sustainable digital newspaper off subscriptions that mirror the print side. As Langevald’s analysis points out with crystal clarity, it’s a money loser from day one there is no data to suggest a remarkable and unforeseen turn of events.

Now for the digital argument. In a post I wrote last year, I laid out why display advertising on newspaper websites was failing when viewed through the lens provided by print advertising products. It’s simply not scaling only a handful of newspapers have national brands that translate into the ads that networks deliver and even then the unit economics suck.

I don’t have an answer and anyone who lays out a neat 3 point plan for saving newspapers simply doesn’t understand the complexity or cost structure of this industry. This is why I am so pessimistic about the prospects for newspapers, but I do believe that going hyperlocal, everything from news coverage to local business resources, is a reasonable strategy for online newspapers to pursue. I also have a view that simply delivering the product of journalism online as it is done in print is outdated and untenable. Newspapers should therefore evolve to being more like information services than newspapers but what that means is subject to a lot of interpretation and the underlying revenue model is not something I have clarity on. One thing at a time!

Contrary to conventional wisdom, now is a great time to be developing solutions for the media vertical but only if your business model is built on a performance based revenue model. Newspapers in particular, but certainly not newspapers alone, are desperate for solutions that deliver better monetization of digital products and while they are in no position to pay heavily upfront, they do have an audience that they are willing to expose in order to find something new that works for them.

While I am pessimistic about transforming newspapers I am not pessimistic about the opportunity presented. We will see more newspapers bankruptcies and shutdowns over the course of the next couple of years and in their place new community portals and news services will rise. It’s important to recognize that there are newspapers, a mechanism for delivering news, and journalism, the former is in the throws of transformative disruption at the hands of technology while the latter has survived through countless technology disruptions.

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Newspapers are Dying, Get Over It

The Seattle P-I went web only today, ending a 146 year run as a print newspaper. What is the key lesson to learn today? If anything it is that the current newspaper business model is unsustainable and building an online presence with the goal of supporting the print business is a loser, it prolongs death like amputating a leg one inch at a time.

I really like what Hearst is planning for the web Seattle P-I:

The new operation will be more than a newspaper online, Steven Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, said. The so-called “community platform” will feature breaking news, columns from prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers and links to other journalistic outlets.

Imagine where they would be today if they started this process with a clean break from pint 2 or 3 years ago? This shift, from newspaper to information service, is as paradigm shifting as search was to web directory (think Yahoo vs. Google).

Newspapers have dealt with the technology shift by cutting costs rather than remaking their business, that much is clear as it has been said repeatedly over the years. Why has this taken so long to happen? Simply because business resists killing off the historical core business until well after it has become obsolete; it’s why Western Union run a telegram business until 2006, a full 26 years from when the revenues of telegrams were eclipsed by the money transfer business, it’s real business.

What Hearst is doing with the P-I is reinventing the newspaper to once again become local. I don’t need the SF Chronicle to read AP wire service reports or what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan today, I need the Chronicle to cover the local city council meeting where an increase in garbage rates was proposed and by “cover” I don’t mean sending a reporter down to the meeting to write 500 words on it either.

Hearst recognizes that printing a newspaper is not the business that the P-I is in, it is delivering information and if that is in the digital form only it should not matter. If the content is being created by the P-I or by people in the community who then use the P-I brand and channel to deliver it, then that’s a win all around.

Lastly, e-readers like the Kindle are beginning to emerge as a truly portable digital delivery mechanism through which publications can deliver a “copy” much like they did in the print era. We shall see how prominent this becomes but if the experience of my non-geek wife with her Kindle is any indication, the future is bright.

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Newspapers Run Ad Campaign to Promote Newspapers

I don’t think any informed people who comment on this industry are saying newspapers are dead because people are not consuming their products, print or otherwise. I have written many posts about the fact that they continue to grow their online product at a rapid clip but suffer from a business model that translates poorly to online.

But the 100 million people who read a newspaper the day after the Super Bowl outnumbered the TV audience for the game, the group said in an advertisement that appeared Monday in more than 300 daily newspapers, including The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

[From Newspapers fight negative perceptions in new ads – Yahoo! Philippines News]

It may make the newspaper industry feel good to congratulate itself on being a dominant media source but that will do little to resolve the business model conflict, a cost structure imbalance, organized labor issues, and their ongoing competitive issue with Google News.

Lastly, newspapers have been making a lot of hay recently about printing extra runs of commemorative daily issues, such as with the recent inauguration. They promote this as evidence of the importance of newspapers but in the long run this is simply unimportant, it’s like finding money on the street… you can spend it but you can’t live on it.

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Newspapers Grow Web Traffic, Still Going Bankrupt

Nielsen reports that newspaper web traffic grew 16% in December. Great news, but it doesn’t matter what their traffic is, the underlying advertising model is broken and it won’t heal itself.

200901271457.jpg

I wrote about this phenomena back in June last year and NOTHING has changed. More web traffic won’t close the revenue gap to offline and it certainly won’t be enough to sustain newspapers across the country. More significantly, if you look at the traffic spread in just the top 10 on Nielsen’s list, you start to get a picture for how difficult it is for a non-major media market newspaper to grow traffic.

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer up for sale

As I offered in my predictions post, 2009 will be devastating for newspapers. We will see big newspapers liquidated and it is not wildly speculative to suggest that a major city will find itself without a daily newspaper this year.

Hearst Corp. put Seattle’s oldest newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, up for sale Friday, saying that if it can’t find a buyer in the next 60 days, the paper will close or continue to exist only on the Internet.

[From Seattle Post-Intelligencer up for sale]

Newspapers and the Web

You may be wondering why I post so many items about newspapers and the web. Simply put, this is one of the most fascinating business stories of this decade, about how an industry that even today generates a significant percentage of original online content continues to frustrate itself through a reflexive tendency to want to control the medium through which content is delivered to audience.

Shafer’s piece does an admirable job of covering the history up to the web and how newspapers tried and failed over and over to achieve a digital business that represented their existing business model and industry values. I suppose you could make the case that Hollywood has been fighting a similar losing battle and that should be informative to the newspaper industry.

But that’s not the case, and I think I know why: From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.

[From How the newspaper industry tried to invent the Web but failed. – By Jack Shafer – Slate Magazine]

In the final equation this is also about how a fragile an industry’s business model can be. What works for newspapers in print doesn’t work to the same contribution level online.

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Tribune Co Bankruptcy UPDATED: Black Monday — Tribune Co. Files for Bankruptcy

I looked back at what I wrote when Zell first announced the deal to buy the Tribune Company. I was cautious at the time to not offer an opinion about the sanity of a newspaper company at that time, instead focusing on the fact that the guy staked the entire deal with $315m of his own money, quite a small amount of the $8b the total deal was worth. So basically, Zell won’t “lose billions” on this because he didn’t have billions at risk.

Clearly the bankruptcy is focused not on stemming cash bleed out but restructuring the big pile of debt they have on top of them. The ESOP will lose but apparently the pension fund is overfunded so it’s starting to look like an airline bankruptcy.

Tribune chief Zell has released a statement: “Over the last year, we have made significant progress internally on transitioning Tribune into an entrepreneurial company that pursues innovation and stronger ways of serving our customers. Unfortunately, at the same time, factors beyond our control have created a perfect storm — a precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy coupled with a credit crisis that makes it extremely difficult to support our debt.”

[From UPDATED: Black Monday — Tribune Co. Files for Bankruptcy ]

I do find it curious that when a newspaper goes bankrupt everyone blames the economy, but when a car company is facing bankruptcy the universal truth is that it’s because they make crappy products. The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the case of car companies it’s because of product and inability to finance purchase issues, and in the case of newspapers it’s because they have gone out of their way to alienate so many segments of the market that they have no base of support, which when compounded by plummeting advertising rates and high labor costs, it all adds up to a big stinking pile of structural problems.

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