Interesting Reads: Rise of the Paywall Press

Fascinating and well done piece at the Washington Monthly about how the trade press has prospered while general interest newspapers have floundered in covering the workings of government. Has the jaw-dropping fact that a publisher of trade economics letters (like the kind I used to shelve when I was a tech at the Library of Congress) sold for multiples of what either the Post or the Boston Globe sold (much less Newsweek).

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 2.22.56 PM
A subscription to Platt’s Oilgram, must read for the energy industry. It will set you back a cool, $21K, and you thought the NYTimes digital subscription was dear.

“Even with all its eyebrow-raising revenue schemes, an ascendant trade press is preferable to the only probable alternative, which is no press coverage at all (an increasingly common situation in many state capitals). And from my own experience and interviews I did for this story, I can say with confidence that trade press reporters are not brainwashed by the industries they cover or blind to the public responsibilities they have to find the truth and report it. No one I spoke to thought that a trade reporter held a distinct disadvantage over any other mainstream reporter to run down a great story and to have it make its way into the public consciousness. But the fact remains that on a day-to-day basis more and more information is flowing to Washington’s elite while less trickles out to the American public. And while trades vie zealously for a larger slice of that Washington Insider market, publications that appeal to a wider audience are either struggling to keep their lights on or leaving traditional reporting about government behind altogether.”

Although casting light on this digital transformation of the DC press as a sideline, the key point here is that general coverage of the workings of government–in the sense of that corny phrase “Who Will Tell The People?” is getting short changed. The trades are written for an audience of elites, they are specialized beyond the point of interest or context to non-insiders, and they are behind paywalls that require subscriptions in the thousands. But what they report on is how our government works, and what that means for policy and society.

I remember years ago something said by some op-ed writer (Frank Rich I think, but I can’t be certain) predicting a baleful era of all opinion all the time. The reason I think it was Rich, is it was pegged to somebody leaving starry heights of the Op-Ed page of the Times to go write for NYMag, and whether that was a “loss” to the Gray Lady.  Baloney, was the response. Opinion is easy, and if we think we are bathed in it 24/7 now just wait a few years. On the whole it’s not even that expensive, easy to cover and often empty. Actual reporting on the other hand, be it local, national or international, costs serious money, requires expertise and context, and takes risks (sometimes at enormous personal cost). That’s the dimension of journalism that nobody has figured out how to pay for generally. Interesting to think–thanks to this story (which has some real reporting in it, by the way)–that the trades have found a way to cover the government corner of this world, and to make it pay. Only rub, it’s just for the few.

Well worth reading the whole piece.

Journalists’ Words: Marty Baron at the Post aims to “enhance the overall reader experience”

Martin Baron, the recently installed executive editor of the Washington Post, now a bauble of Jeff Bezos, of course, has set his sights on improving the paper’s digital activity.  The Post embraced digital early: In the mid-90s, then publisher Don Graham took the web seriously and did  good work. But he did it as a separate unit, and in later years the governance and mission of digital, particularly when it was merged back into the paper seemed to foment such a mess that it became unfocused and lost ground. The paper’s not doing very well overall, either. Today’s site and related blogs aren’t much to write home about, and some of the Post’s stars in any format, like Ezra Klein, are leaving to do their own blogs. Digitally nimble is not an attribute of newspapers, or any big media, and the idea of a “start up” culture within it leaves me, a former news researcher there, scratching my head. But I wish them well. Baron did some similar things at the Boston Globe, his previous captaincy. Decent, if not amazing results. Presumably Bezos has a vision that this is only a small part of.

Here is Martin Baron’s full email tipped by Poynter Institute, a group that does professional development for journalism and also covers the industry.

To all:

As we put the final touches on the budget for 2014, I want to share our plans for a set of exciting initiatives. This will be a year of impressive investment in The Washington Post, with the primary goals of growth and digital transformation.

Recent announcements have offered a hint of what’s in the works.

We just announced that Adam Kushner, executive editor of the National Journal, will head a new digital initiative for online commentary and analysis. We now begin hiring for his team.

Before that, we announced that Fred Barbash would return to The Post from Reuters, where has been running White House and congressional coverage. He’ll head up an overnight staff to assure that readers have the most comprehensive, engaging reading experience when they wake up every morning.

We announced that Jim Tankersley, one of the best economics writers around, would lead a digital initiative, driven by data and narrative storytelling, that explains complex public policies and illuminates their human impact. We are hiring for that team while continuing our years of robust and enthusiastic investment in Wonkblog (and its most recent spinoff, KnowMore).

We also have announced some staff additions to The Fix blog and our politics strike force, key elements of our online political coverage. We have some more hiring to do. Altogether, our staff of politics reporters will grow by five early this year.

Along with the new writers we’ve introduced for Reliable Source, Helena Andrews and Emily Heil, we’re giving it a strong digital presence. That includes adding a staffer to produce Reliable Source video.

That is just a start.

We are hiring writers to author “verticals” on a wide array of subjects. These blogs will both deepen our reporting in The Post’s traditional areas of concentration and broaden the range of subjects we cover. Last year, we added highly popular blogs such as The Switch and GovBeat, complementing other policy-oriented blogs like WorldViews and Wonkblog. Some of our current blogs will get additional writers, enhancing our national and world report, and all of them will work with an expanded staff of photo editors and data visualization specialists. We’re hiring now for the additional graphics and photo staffers.

We also will embark on a long-planned site redesign that should improve load speeds and navigation while enhancing the overall reader experience. That will involve new hires. The Universal News Desk also will add to its staff to make sure that we are doing everything possible to engage readers when they come to the site.

Beyond the new overnight crew, we will create a breaking-news desk that will operate from 8 a.m. until midnight. Reporting to Justin Bank, it will position us to jump on the most captivating stories of the day at lightning speed.

Print is in the picture, too.

This spring, we will introduce an expanded Sunday magazine, bigger in dimension and in the number of pages, with a new design and a range of new features. This spring also will see us introduce a Sunday Style & Arts section that makes a forceful and elegant statement about our strengths in those areas.

You can tell that there is a lot going on. And there’s more than I mentioned. We can’t talk about everything just yet.

This is a news organization of extraordinary achievement. It is home to journalists of immense talent and dedication. With these initiatives, we can all look forward to a future of great promise.


Post Photo
As the Post once was, when print wasn’t just “in the picture,” but the whole ball game. Dustin Hoffman, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and Robert Redford. The actors played the investigative duo in “All The President’s Men” and were on site to soak up the atmosphere and research their roles.

Thoughtful Words: Can Journalism Survive on a Non-Profit Basis

As traditional journalism (meaning: newspapers) fade away, one rescue scheme is to convert them into non-profits. Oops, they are already “non-profits” under an ordinary definition of that term, I guess I mean “not for profits,” that is, charities.

There’s been some interesting research (by foundations) about what’s going on and whether it’s viable. Reporting out of NPQ, Ruth McCambridge gives a thoughtful round up, with links to reports from Pew and Knight, two foundations who have been involved with this issue.

“…[An] excellent recent Pew study, “Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System,” looked at 172 nonprofit news sites and found that many of these organizations still relied to a fairly significant extent on only a few sources, including grant funding from a foundation or major donor.

Now, the Knight Foundation is preparing to publish another study, titled “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability.” This report, scheduled for release in October, has made a bit of a breakthrough in that it shows patterns of revenue by type of operation, along with other comparative data. As one participant in the roundtable said, this type of information is like gold to those struggling to make sense of an emerging enterprise model.

The journalism groups that attended and were under discussion had annual budgets that were as small as $165,000 (Oakland Local) and as large as $10 million (ProPublica and Center for Investigative Reporting). They were divided generally into three categories—national, statewide, and local—with a few outliers, like NPQ, that addressed particular communities of interest, and more established groups, like NPR. But most were fairly new, and primarily online, publishers. Some engaged heavily in investigative work, but these seemed to be organizations with larger capital investments from individuals or foundations. A number of foundations were also represented, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Later in the same piece, an interesting observation on how the results of investigative journalism might now be “chunked.”

So, the traditional method of doing an investigative project is to work, work, work, work, work, gestate, gestate, gestate, give birth to this big thing when it comes out, and then go take a nap, right? That’s fine, but what you’re seeing more and more of, and partly out of the same necessity, is the rolling investigation kind of thing. The work is not less important, and you don’t do less. The impact isn’t different in the end. But you’re breaking this into pieces as you go along, and there’s a sustained constant hit.

Crudely put, the Internet makes what once were “scoops” into a “beat.” (Although Watergate was surely a “beat” and a rolling investigation.) Still, does point out (the obvious) that the rhythm of reporting is changed wholesale by digital media, print newsrooms no longer scale in the “supply chain” as the chunks aren’t daily, but instantaneous. And the “desks” that have to be staffed, are feeding twitter streams, not the next day’s first print edition.

McCambridge quotes Michael Maness, Knight’s Foundation (big funder of new journalism) saying (journalists at least) not become “addicted to the continuous now.” That horse has left the stable, however.

Tombstone Daily Epitaph
The now very apt title of an Arizona paper (scan of an 1889 front page).

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