2009: Desperate metaphors, desperate revenue
models, and the desperate need for better
was asked to give a speech this morning at a
journalism conference in Washington, DC sponsored
by the Federal Trade Commission. The topic, as it
so often seems to be these days, is what can be
done to save journalism? Since Rupert Murdoch was
scheduled to address the conference a little
before me, I thought this would be a good time to
take a look at Murdoch's increasingly bellicose
war against new media sites that aggregate the
news, the increasingly desperate revenue models
being discussed for online news, and what, in
fact, needs to be done to ensure that journalism
will not only survive, but thrive.
Desperate Times Lead to... Desperate Metaphors
Ever since we
decided to launch the Huffington Post, I've
talked about how the future of journalism will be
a hybrid future where traditional media players
embrace the ways of new media (including
transparency, interactivity, and immediacy) and
new media companies adopt the best practices of
old media (including fairness, accuracy, and
high-impact investigative journalism).
And with so many
traditional media companies adapting to the new
realities, it was ridiculous to engage in an us
vs. them, old media vs. new media argument.
Either/or was the wrong way to look at things.
But playing nice
has increasingly become a one-way street --
suddenly the air is filled with shrill,
nonsensical, and misplaced verbal assaults on
those in the new media.
in the old media have decided that it is, in
fact, an either/or game and that the best way to
save, if not journalism, at least themselves, is
by pointing fingers and calling names. It's a
tactic familiar to schoolyard inhabitants
everywhere: when all else fails, reach for the
nearest insult and throw it around
So now sites
that aggregate the news have become, in the words
of Rupert Murdoch and his team,
"tech tapeworms in the intestines of the
Internets," and, of course, thieves who
"steal all our copyright."
It's the news
industry equivalent of "your mama wears army
boots!" Although, not quite as persuasive.
industries, if your customers were leaving in
droves, you would try to figure out what to do to
get them back. Not in the media. They'd rather
accuse aggregators of stealing their content.
Of course, any
site can shut down the indexing of its content by
Google any time it wants with a simple
"disallow" in its robots.txt file. But
be careful what you wish for because as soon as
you do that, and start denying your content to
other sites that aggregate and link back to the
original source, you stand to lose a large part
of your traffic overnight. But as they say in
Australia: "Good on ya." Of course as
someone who cares deeply about the future of this
country, I'd say that having Glenn Beck not
searchable by Google is an entirely good thing.
But a good business move? Not so much.
removing your content from Google will somehow
keep it "exclusive" shows a fundamental
lack of understanding of the web and how it
works. As an experiment, Google the key terms
from any interesting story currently kept behind
a paywall, on the Wall Street Journal,
for instance. And imagine no News Corp. source
being included in the search results. You'd still
get dozens and dozens of links to other sources
-- including many of the biggest news sites --
writing about the story, riffing on it, quoting
from it, and commenting on the key facts in it.
So what are you going to do, try to make the case
that no one should be able to talk about or write
about or comment on or report on the stories you
make them pay for? It's a ridiculous notion.
I was recently
on a panel in Monaco with Mathias Döpfner, CEO
of the German publisher Axel Springer. He decided
to play a confusing metaphor game by comparing
news content to beer. "If it's your business
decision to offer beer cans for free, fine,"
he said. "But don't take our beer and offer
it for free."
This struck me
as a really bizarre metaphor. Information is
hardly the same thing as a product that can only
be consumed once by a single person. If you
consume a news story, you might be one of
millions. If you consume a beer, no one else can
So it's a false
metaphor. And if you start from a false premise,
you will inevitably be led to a false conclusion.
Or, to put it another way, if you chug-a-lug too
many of old media's metaphoric beers, you will
end up staggering down the street of illogical
thinking and banging into the lamp post of wrong
In his speech
this morning, Rupert Murdoch confused aggregation
with wholesale misappropriation. Wholesale
misappropriation is against the law -- and he has
legal redress against that already. Aggregation,
on the other hand, within the fair use exceptions
to copyright law is part of the web's DNA.
aggregation goes along with a tremendous amount
of original content including original reporting
and over 250 original blog posts a day. And we
love it when someone links to one of our posts,
or excerpts a small amount and links back to us.
understand the value of this and the way the link
economy operates. It's why HuffPost gets hundreds
of requests from news outlets asking us to
feature their material and link back to their
site. They understand that the web is not a
zero-sum game and that consumers love the freedom
to be able to follow where their interests -- and
the offshoots of a story -- take them.
Plus, let's be
honest, many of those complaining the loudest are
working both sides of the street. Take, for
example, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Just look at
the sites News Corp. owns, as TechDirt.com
recently did, and you will see example after
example after example of the pot calling the
kettle black. And aggregating its content.
Street Journal has a tech section that's
nothing more than a parasite -- uh, I mean,
aggregator -- of outside content.
a Politics Buzztracker that bloodsucks -- uh, I
mean aggregates and links to -- stories from a
variety of different sources, including the NY
Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC
AllThingsD has a
section called Voices that not only aggregates
headlines, but also takes a nice chunk of text --
and puts the links out at the bottom of the
News Corp. also owns IGN, which has a variety of
web properties, including the Rotten Tomatoes
movie review aggregation site -- which is
entirely made up of movie reviews pulled together
from other places. Did someone say
having your aggregation cake and bitching about
others eating a slice too.
That's why I
could only roll my eyes when the Wall Street
Journal's Robert Thomson wagged his finger
at Google, and complained that it
"encourages promiscuity" among news
Let's be honest, while promiscuity is not good in
relationships, it's great for those looking for
news and information. Trying to deny news
consumers as wide a range of options and
viewpoints as possible seems shortsighted -- and
ultimately self-defeating. This is a Golden Age
for news consumers who can surf the net, use
search engines, access the best stories from
around the world, and be able to comment,
interact, and form communities. The value of
having the world of information at your
fingertips is beyond dispute.
So it's time for
traditional media companies to stop whining and
face the fact that far too many of them, lulled
by a lack of competition and years of pretax
profits of 20 percent or more, put cash flow
above journalism and badly misread the web when
it arrived on the scene. The focus was on
consolidation, cost-cutting, and pleasing Wall
Street -- not modernization and pleasing their
They were asleep
at the wheel, missed the writing on the wall, let
the train leave the station, let the ship sail --
pick your metaphor -- and quickly found
themselves on the wrong side of the disruptive
innovation the Internet and new media represent.
And now they want to call timeout, ask for a
do-over, start changing the rules, lobby the
government to bail them out, and attack the new
media for being... well, new. And different. And
transformational. Suddenly it's all about
thievery and parasites and intestines.
Get real, you
guys. The world has changed. Here are some facts
culled from one of the most popular anthems to
the impact of technology on our world, a video
originally put together by a math teacher, Karl
Did you know
that newspaper circulation is down 7 million over
the last 25 years while unique readership of
online news is up 34 million in the last 5 years?
Did you know
newspaper advertising fell nearly 19 percent this
year while web advertising is up 9 percent and
mobile advertising is up 18 percent?
Did you know
that more video was uploaded to YouTube in the
last 2 months than if ABC, CBS, and NBC had been
airing all-new content every minute of every day
And did you know
that we have access to more than 1 trillion web
pages, 100,000 iPhone apps, and send more text
messages a day than there are people on the
planet? And Rupert Murdoch still thinks
aggregators are the problem?
We're not in
Kansas anymore, Toto. And some things are better
while some things, for the moment, are worse in
terms of upheaval and especially the painful loss
of jobs. But this is unarguably a Brave New Media
World. And there is no use living in digital
superhighway is a busy thoroughfare and there's
going to be some road kill along the way. But
only among those who insist on merging into
traffic riding a horse and buggy.
Desperate Times Lead To... Desperate Revenue
every day now, we hear about a new initiative
designed to "harness digital media" and
"get people to pay for their news on the
The big buzz
last week was about News Corp.'s fantasies of
breaking up with Google and tying the knot with
Microsoft, giving its heart -- and all its
content -- to Bing. I'll gladly wager my share of
the Huffington Post that this ain't gonna happen.
charge-for-content crowd seems to change
strategies as often as Lindsay Lohan switches
meds. First paywalls were going to be the answer.
Then it was micro-payments. Then per article
purchases. Then day passes.
editor of the London Times and a member
of Team Murdoch, recently said that he preferred
the idea of charging for 24-hour access to his
paper's website over the use of micro-payments,
which he fears could lead to newspapers, and I
quote, "writing a lot more about Britney
Spears and a lot less about Tamils in northern
Sri Lanka." For those of you up on Britney
but not on the Tamils, they were on the losing
side of the Sri Lankan civil war.
In any case,
only 3 percent of consumers say they prefer the
micro-payment method. But, hey, who cares what
they prefer... they are only consumers!
Harding is a really nice, really smart guy and
Times Online is a really great site, but,
seriously, on what grounds would a reader decide
that on any particular day instead of surfing
around the web, clicking on the stories they find
interesting, snacking, sampling, and moving on --
or digging deeper by following a link -- they are
going to purchase a 24-hour pass to every bit of
content on just one single site? Is it because,
of course you fool, Tuesdays at the Times
are always so much newsier than everywhere else?
Or will readers save their money until Thursdays
and pay for The Sun because they have
more boobs and bottoms that day? I mean, Tamils
in Sri Lanka.
Stephen Brill's Journalism Online reportedly has
16 different payment schemes that it plans to
offer its member publishers. Nieman Lab recently
listed six payment models that Brill has
trademarked, and that news publishers can employ.
High activity Pay Points (a metered model);
Selected Content Pay Points (a partial paywall);
Time-based Pay Points (charging for new content
only); Enhanced Service Pay Points (charging for
special features); Market Access Pay Points
(charges based on a users location); and Preview
Activity Pay Points (allowing previewing of paid
In other words,
it's payment made simple!
Or take the New
York Times. A quick search of headlines in
the business press shows that in the summer of
2009 it was, "New York Times Company CEO
Confirms Likelihood of Paywall for NYT
Content by Autumn." By September that had
become: "New York Times Paywall
Decision to Be 'Gut Call.' By November it had
become: "New York Times Paywall
Decision Coming Within Weeks."
It amazes me
that Murdoch and Brill and the Paywall Team at
the Times continue to believe that
people are prepared to pay for news online --
despite the recent survey showing that 80 percent
of U.S. news consumers say they "wouldn't
bother" to read news and magazines online if
the content were no longer free.
Sure, free news
content is not a perfect system but it's a lot
like what Churchill said about democracy: it
"is the worst form of government except all
the others that have been tried." That's the
reality. Free content is not without problems.
But it's here to stay, and publishers need to
come to terms with that and figure out how to
make it work for them.
And all across
the country, passionate entrepreneurs are doing
just that, experimenting with new and creative
revenue models. TechDirt.com is monetizing its
engaged and highly informed community by turning
them into focus-groups-for-hire. ProPublica is
using a not-for-profit model to produce impact
investigative journalism. And there are many
different powerful local journalism models,
including Voice of San Diego, which supports its
award-winning local journalism with a combination
of advertising and public radio-style
contributions from foundations and users.
The new paths to
success are still being charted -- and much
remains uncertain. But this much is clear: we
can't use an analog map and expect to find our
way in a digital word.
Desperate Times Desperately Call For Better
Here is what we
must not forget: our current media culture (with
a few honorable exceptions) failed to serve the
public interest by missing the two biggest
stories of our time -- the run-up to the war in
Iraq and the financial meltdown. In both
instances, there were plenty of people who got it
right, who saw what was coming and warned about
it, but they weren't given much of a voice or
were drowned out by the thumping sound of
journalists walking in lockstep.
As a result,
we've had far too many autopsies of what went
wrong and not enough biopsies of what was about
to go wrong. Many important stories have died on
the front pages of newspapers. Online media, on
the other hand, are particularly well-suited to
obsessively follow a story until it breaks
through the static. When new media journalists
decide that something matters, they chomp down
hard and refuse to let go. They're the true pit
bulls of reporting.
We hear lots and
lots of talk these days about saving newspapers
-- Congressional anti-trust exemptions, perhaps?
-- but we mustn't forget: the state of newspapers
is not the same thing as the state of journalism.
As much as I love newspapers -- and fully expect
them to survive -- the future of journalism is
not dependent on the future of newspapers.
future of journalism is to be found, at least
partly, in the rapidly growing number of people
who connect with the news in a whole new way.
News is no
longer something we passively take in. We now
engage with news, react to news and share news.
It's become something around which we gather,
connect and converse. We all are part of the
evolution of a story now -- expanding it with
comments and links to relevant information,
adding facts and differing points of view.
In short, the
news has become social. And it will become even
more community-powered: stories will be
collaboratively produced by editors and the
community. And conversations, opinion, and reader
reactions will be seamlessly integrated into the
We saw the power
of citizen journalism during the uprising earlier
this year in Iran. People tweeting from
demonstrations and uploading video of brutal
violence taken with their camera phones were able
to tell a story, in real-time, and circumvent the
efforts of the regime to control the media and
the flow of information.
In fact, the new
paradigm was illustrated perfectly by the New
York Times, which covered the story both in
the old way and the new way. The former came by
way of executive editor Bill Keller who was in
Tehran for the election. Three days after the
fraudulent vote, and well after the street
protests had been revved up and hundreds of
videos had been uploaded and thousands of tweets
had been posted, he reported: "With this
election, Mr. Khamenei and [Mr. Ahmadinejad]
appear to have neutralized for now the reform
forces that they saw as a threat to their power,
political analysts said."
Uh, not exactly.
At the same
time, the Times also ran an aggregation
blog by Robert Mackey that was, like the terrific
one our national editor Nico Pitney did on
HuffPost, a 24/7 nerve center of updates, video
and tweets -- largely by citizen journalists.
journalists can play a key role in investigative
journalism. At the Huffington Post, they help
shape our stories in multiple ways -- from
whistleblowing to combing through thousands of
pages of bills and government documents to being
part of our Bearing Witness 2.0 project, finding
great stories from across the country that put
flesh and blood on the statistics and
consequences of our economic crisis.
And yet the
contributions of citizen journalists, bloggers,
and others who aren't paid to cover the news are
constantly mocked and derided by the critics of
new media who clearly don't understand that
technology has enabled millions of consumers to
shift their focus from passive observation to
active participation -- from couch potato to
self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets,
updating your Facebook page, editing photos,
uploading videos, and making music are just a few
of the active entertainment options now
available. But when the data began to show a
significant shift in consumer habits, traditional
media responded by belittling web journalism.
The same people
who never question why consumers would sit on a
couch and watch TV for 8 hours straight can't
understand why someone would find it rewarding to
weigh in on the issues -- great and small -- that
interest them. For free. They don't understand
the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free,
who maintain their own blogs for free, who
Twitter for free, who constantly refresh and
update their Facebook page for free, who want to
help tell the stories of what is happening in
their lives and in their communities... for free.
Huffington Post, and at the Huffington Post
Investigative Fund, we deeply value the role of
professional reporters and editors, and have
dozens of them on payroll. And we think the value
of editors will only increase as the constant
stream of information coming at us continues to
swell -- making trusted guides and curators more
and more essential to keeping us from being swept
But there is no
denying that thousands and thousands of other
people want in on the process and have much to
contribute to it. And that number will only
continue to grow. To deride the value of their
contributions is to completely misunderstand the
world we live in.
And the sooner
we all embrace that world, the sooner we'll be
able to stop the name calling, put aside the
increasingly desperate metaphors and increasingly
desperate revenue models, and focus on what
really matters: ensuring that in the future,
journalism will not only survive, but be
strengthened and thrive.
es cofundadora y editora en jefe de The Huffington Post. Este es su discurso en la reunión
sobre periodismo e internet convocada en
Washington por la Federal Trade Commission el
pasado 1 de diciembre de 2009.