Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Times it is a moving

The New York Times is on the move from here

to here

The company sold the old building for US$525 million whilst the new building has cost in the vicinity of US$850 million. But the project was a joint venture and the newspaper will only be occupying half the floor space.

The numbers are big, but the NYT Company has clearly hedged cleverly by joining with Forest City Ratner Companies and ING Real Estate bringing its share of the costs in at around $100 million.

Fairfax is currently moving its two metro mastheads for not dissimilar reasons: business integration, updating technology etc. The Age is in more or less the same situation as the NYT in that it has owned the building it occupies. However, unlike the old NYT building The Age is one of the worst eyesores in Melbourne.

Like David Dunlap I remember the sound of the presses starting up in the basement of that old building and shaking the foundations every evening. He makes it sound nostalgic, but there's a good reason why there aren't too many metro newspaper left printing papers on the same premises the editorial is produced.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The end of the world as they know it

The current issue of The Monthly carries the (reportedly) spiked Good Weekend feature on Wendi Deng as its cover story. And what a major disappointment it is. Spruiked as a yarn too spicy for Fairfax it turns out to be a rather drab rehash of the 2000 Wall Street Journal profile with some bland contributions from former classmates and colleagues at Star.

No wonder it was spiked by Good Weekend.

The Monthly also has a piece by Eric Beecher lamenting the threat to quality journalism brought about by commercial pressures generally and the internet specifically. Beecher writes,
"The reason that the internet isn't - and in my view can't be - the saviour of quality journalism is the vast expense of running a serious-minded editorial operation. In the US, it has been estimated that the newspaper industry spends US$7 billion each year on news and editorial operations. Translate that into the cost of running the journalism of a serious daily like The Age, The Australian or The Sydney Morning Herald, and you come up with figures like these: 400 editorial staff (say, $45 million); travel and international coverage ($8 million); news services, contributors and other costs ($4 million); support staff and overheads ($10 million). That's more than $60 million on pure journalism which, on the internet, would need to be recouped in advertising alone. Not a likely proposition."
This is too simplistic by far. $60 million in editorial budget is pretty steep. The Age has been south of $50 million for some time (of course this is still a large amount of money). And why does a digital strategy have to rely purely on display advertising? It's a big mistake to assume this.

So, what is Beecher really after? Is it protecting newspapers in their current form? Or is it safeguarding so called quality journalism? The paragraph quoted above seems to confuse the two.

If it's the latter then there are already examples of online only publications that are attempting to do quality journalism subsidised in one or other of the traditional ways: Slate, Salon, sp!ked, for example, and in Australia On Line Opinion, New Matilda, Smart Company and even Beecher's own Crikey - though not too many commentators would call Crikey "quality" journalism. Nevertheless, quality is a subjective term so we can stretch it in a lot of different directions.

The point is that the operational costs of traditional mass circulation daily newspapers are quite different from online publications. Unlike Beecher I do believe that it will be possible to produce high quality journalism profitably for digital publication.

I actually don't understand Beecher's fear of the commercial demands on journalism. It's always been this way. The Sulzbergers, Grahams and the Scott Trust are so rare as to be the exact exceptions that prove the commercial rule of journalism. Wishing for charities or benevolant billionaires to come riding to the rescue of quality newspapers seems delusional and even irresponsible.

Beecher has his own internet publication, but on a broad scale his message seems to be that it's all too hard to figure out so we should just get misty about the good old days.

He finishes his essay in The Monthly with a Rupert Murdoch quote from William Shawcross's 1983 biography:
'"All newspapers are run to make profits. Full stop. I don't run anything for respectability. The moment I do, I hope someone will come and fire me and get me out of the place - because that's not what newspapers are meant to be about." As we are now becoming all too aware.'
That final sentence seems to completely misunderstand Murdoch's point. Why should quality journalism, or newspapers, be about respectability? If afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is an ideal of quality journalism it stands considerably at odds with respectability.

That Murdoch quote was from 25 years ago. Here's one from last week:
"How do I see newspapers? You have the opportunity to make a difference. But any difference we make today is providing more choice. We've kept papers alive for years or part of them … took the losses for 15 years or more to develop franchises to give people alternatives.

We've done it with The Australian, The Times in London -- and no one can say that they're not today very, very fine newspapers."
These two positions are not inconsistent. The Times and The Australian are quality papers that strive to be profitable. The fact is they cost a lot of money to run. But respectability is not the issue.

So we come back to the core question around the cost of producing journalism. Are newspapers still the best or most efficient platform for this? And the answer is no.

Editorial independence and the Wall Street Journal

WSJ has a strong Q & A with Murdoch where he let's fly at some unlikely targets. When questioned on his reputation for interfering with or influencing editorial direction he takes a swipe at the Daily Telegraph and its editor.
"WSJ: There seems to be other examples. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney a few weeks ago devoted most of its front page to your announcement that News Corp. would reduce its carbon emissions. The company logo was in the headline and there was an editorial that suggested you were a visionary.

"Mr. Murdoch: [Laughter] I don't know anything about that. And we sure didn't do that in the Post, which I'm closest to, hardly got them to notice it. Actually, it's interesting. It caused huge excitement among our staff in Australia and in Hollywood. And a fair bit in London. New York was pretty cynical.

"WSJ: Isn't this shilling for News Corp?

"Mr. Murdoch: That is, absolutely. Shouldn't be. That's bad.

"WSJ: The editor told us he was proud of it.

"Mr. Murdoch: They're all crazy greenies over there …"
Crazy greenie is not quite the way I'd describe Penbo. Still, there's no denying he's caught the bug.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Journalistic failure in the Woolmer case

Mark Lawson makes the point that the early coverage of the Bob Woolmer case will live forever on the web as evidence of journalistic failure and historical untruths. And it's not just material published online.

"Should the BBC retract the edition of Panorama that stated authoritatively that Woolmer was poisoned, or simply pretend that the show was never broadcast?", he asks.

But the bigger problem is what he calls "a growing impatience with fact".

"These problems have occurred because of significant changes in both the speed and the durability of journalism."

It's still possible to find much of what was written about Bob Woolmer as a murder victim. There are interviews with an early "suspect" and reams of scandalous insinuation about the Pakistani players.

But how much old fashioned investigative research could have unearthed this mistake far sooner?

As the Sunday Times reported on June 3:
"Woolmer was found dead in his room at the Pegasus hotel in Kingston on March 18, the day after Pakistan lost to Ireland in the World Cup. There were traces of vomit but no bruises on his neck and no sign of a struggle.

"[Jamaican patholigist] Seshaiah said after his initial autopsy that the cause of death was inconclusive. When he reexamined the body, he decided Woolmer’s death was the result of “asphyxiation as a result of manual strangulation”, pointing to bruises in tissues of the neck.

"Despite the initial uncertainty, his findings were enough to convince police. [Investigating officer] Shields stated he was “100% certain” that Woolmer had been strangled to death.

"The police decided against carrying out a second postmortem, and sources close to the investigation later claimed “significant” levels of herbicide had been found in Woolmer’s body, suggesting he had been poisoned.

"It was only when the postmortem report and photos were examined by Dr Nat Carey, the British pathologist, that the investigation began to fall apart. Carey concluded it was more likely that the bruising in Woolmer’s neck was the result of the postmortem itself."
Last week I was at a dinner in Melbourne with the British pathologist Sir James Underwood who was visiting Australia on a lecture tour. According to Professor Underwood much of the general evidence that ultimately led to the conclusion Woolmer's death was not murder had been reported in the media. In other words, there were clues in the public domain that led experts to suspected problems with the murder conclusion well before Dr Carey was asked to report on the case.

Professor Underwood says it was evident in those first reports: "There were traces of vomit but no bruises on his neck and no sign of a struggle."

It seems that Woolmer had been on some medication - which would have been on his medical record - but despite this, subsequent confusion over the toxicology results of the autopsy can still be attributed to false positives that pathologists say are not uncommon post-mortem. A good pathologist would be on guard against those sorts of misleading clues.

It's easy to be judgemental given the scale of the stuff-up in the Woolmer case, but from a journalistic point of view you have to wonder why none of the news organisations reporting the story sought expert pathology advice? It was already being discussed amongst British pathologists, some of whom had doubts. They would presumably have been willing to air these about an international investigation.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Death, Sex & Money

Michael Young's "Death, Sex & Money: Life inside a Newspaper" carries a blurb from The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter FitzSimons on the front cover describing it as "Compelling reading", which is not so surprising when you find Fitzy described adoringly as the "legendary Peter FitzSimons" on P.79.

It's a quick read with some entertaining anecdotes about the characters - mostly unnamed and mostly from The Sydney Morning Herald - who populate Australian newspaper newsrooms.

However, it's somewhat backward looking. It reeks of nostalgia for the glory days of print.

But that's OK. Pre-internet newspapers were something to behold. Of course they still have a place, but that place is changing radically.

Despite his sentimental attachment to print, Young does explore some of the questions for newspapers around the challenges of the digital age. Sort of:
"The print product will retain one distinct advantage over the internet - credibility - and while such credibility remains, the traditional media will continue to influence and form public opinion."
The problem here, of course, is that he confuses the whole of the internet with specific elements of media discourse.

A recurring theme through the book is that the internet is not to be trusted. By which he means that not all the information one finds on the internet is trustworthy or reliable. This is a bit of a straw man and really only exposes Young and the many Australian newspaper editors he quotes as uncomfortable and somewhat lost in a digital environment.

He asks: "Who will survive in this competitive environment?"
"Different media groups argue their specific corners. Tabloids argue that they will survive because they understand exactly what their readership wants from the net and are well placed to deliver infotainment and celebrity news with short snappy news headlines. This, they say, is what they are good at, and they can easily adapt their content to the cyber-environment. Broadsheet editors see this as a flawed rationale. The net, they argue, is already saturated with this world of infotainment and instant gratification, and that tabloids are simply repeating ad nauseam what is already available on the net in bucket-loads. The way forward, they argue, is to use the multiple technology platforms to deliver quality journalism and content in various guises, each developed to fit the medium that carries the message. This is the view of Fairfax."
Young is clearly a broadsheet kind of guy, but his analysis of this brave new world towards which Fairfax editors are charging is lacking in any economic context or feel for the culture of the web and it's digital extensions. It's all a little too corporate and anodyne.

News Ltd, of course, is a different beast.
"The Australian takes a contrary view and sees middle-brow newspapers such as those published by Fairfax as most vulnerable because of what it describes as the group's move towards 'fridge-door' journalism that confuses infotainment with news. The Australian claims that its own core value of editorial quality is the model that will endure. But The Australian, although sporting a strong web site, seems bereft of a strategy that embraces the inclusive new media landscape and its weakness lies in its mission, as a national newspaper, of trying to be all things to all people."
Note the reference to "inclusive new media landscape". Unfortunately, it's easy to write but more difficult to actually explain this concept in the context of current major Australian news sites. And Young doesn't really try.
"The malaise that afflicts The Australian is one that has permeated through the organisation from the top down in the parent group's slow uptake of the net's benefits. Les Hinton, Murdoch's trusted lieutenant who runs News Corp's British newspapers (the very newspapers that lectured News Limited's Australian executives on how best to tackle the net), said in an interview with Media Guardian that News Corp failed to understand how the web works and is still trying to develop a way to make money out of the web."
I don't think this is an accurate reading of News and its attitude towards online publishing. It's also an inaccurate reference to a video conference that took place on the evening of July 17 last year.

On P.179 Young writes:
"In mid-2006 Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun, and Robert Thompson, editor of The Times (whose site is far more sober than that of the Sun), addressed a key group of Australian news executives by video from London. The thirty-two executives gathered in a television conference room in Sydney to hear Wade and Thompson extol the virtues of their web sites. Every editor of every Murdoch Australian paper attended this lesson in global communications."
I was at that meeting, and Young's account is wrong on a number of points:
  • Les Hinton didn't lecture anyone. After initial introductions he sat quietly in the background while Rebekah Wade and Robert Thompson spoke. And they didn't lecture anyone, either.
  • Wade and Thompson didn't extol the virtues of their web sites. On the contrary there was a frank and open discussion about the specific challenges all were facing in terms of newsroom management, production operations and the effects of the new environment on the journalism their newspapers produced.
  • The meeting was not attended by every News Ltd editor but only by the metropolitan newspaper editors and online editors.
Young's book is a useful addition to the literature on Australian newspapers, specifically as they adjust to the changing dynamics of media useage. It is, though, limited by its reliance on anecdote and observation and the author's lack of familiarity with the online world. The style of reportage that works so well for journalism feels somewhat inadequate as a format for a permanent record of major media institutions in the midst of radical social, technological and economic change.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Journalism in the digital age

This year's WAN conference is in Cape Town, and the Editors Weblog is reporting some of the sessions. Unfortunately, as is the nature of these things, the coverage is a bit superficial. Stephen Brook at The Guardian's Organ Grinder is doing a good job, but there's nothing like being there. Last year's conference in Moscow was the same - still, as an attendee I can testify it was both professionally valuable and mighty good fun. That's what it's all about.

Here's a snippet from the session on user generated content. This is the pointy end, as far as I'm concerned. And it's interesting to see who's in the vanguard.