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Jon Bernstein: Tweets, elites and the same old news agenda

Has new media reinvigorated democracy or throttled good journalism, asks Dr Natalie Fenton in her forthcoming book ‘New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in a Digital Age’.

And her answer? Well, the clue is in the title.

The book is not quite a pessimist’s charter, but nor does it side with the ‘utopian vision [of] everyone connected to everyone else, a non-hierarchical network of voices with equal, open and global access.’

Fenton and her team of researchers at Goldsmiths make two key observations. Firstly, that the mechanics of the journalist’s trade is suffering because of the desk-bound demands of new media – ‘iron cages’, they call them.

Secondly, new media rarely means new voices on the national stage because the ‘economics of news remains stacked against the newcomer’.

Fenton was on Radio 4’s The Media Show on Wednesday last week to expand on her thinking. Of the new media newsrooms her team studied in detail (BBC, The Guardian and the Manchester Evening News), she said:

“What you get is a vastly speeded up news environment, a huge expansion in space to fill but actually with less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism.

“There was a big concentration in ‘cut and paste’, administrative, desk-bound journalism largely because these journalists have to fill a vast amount of space, have no time to do it in. So what they do, is they either take PR copy or they take copy from other newsprint or other news broadcasts. So it’s a sort of creative cannibalisation.”

Clear echoes of Nick Davies and Flat Earth News here.

She was asked about the power of social networks to influence the news agenda. On the Jan Moir saga she said:

“[You] have to take account of who is saying what to whom. The who is actually a very small amount of people. Ten per cent of people who Twitter account for 90 per cent of the content.

“That 10 per cent is an elite. They are the likes of Stephen Fry with a celebrity status who can generate these millions of followers and therefore bring attention to a particular issue. Most people who are tweeting do not have that power.”

On the Twitter campaign against the Trafigura super-injunction, meanwhile, Fenton conceded that this was a good example of institutions being held to account:

“But on the whole what they are still doing is responding to agendas that are set by the mainstream news.

“You still have to remember that most people, most of the time get most of their news and information from mainstream news sources whether that’s online or not. So what’s going on in the mainstream is vitally important.”

A well-worked argument, forcefully put. But on elites and news agendas it rather depends where you look.

If you study established players like the BBC, the Guardian, and, yes, a venerable regional like the Manchester Evening News, you are likely to find established forms of interaction.

It’s true that many social media campaigns either take up a mainstream media cause – think Trafigura – or need the mainstream to mediate – think the secret filming of Alan Duncan.

Nevertheless, there are many other campaigns and activities below the radar that provide effective examples of reinvigorating democracy.

In this respect, think hyperlocal. Indeed one of the leading practitioners of the form, Will Perrin, took me to task for applying big media assumptions to ultra-local coverage. He wrote:

“Hyperlocal content is best looked at bottom up, generated not by an abstract, detached journalist, but by people on the ground who it affects. Seen from that angle the trad top down issues fall away – grassroots hyperlocal content is defined by its own creation.”

Again, it depends where you look. As with Davies’ widely acclaimed book, the research methodology might just point to a structural weaknesses.

(You can listen to the interview on the iPlayer. starts around 23 mins.)

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News and was recently appointed as deputy editor of New Statesman. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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Jon Bernstein to join New Statesman as deputy editor

Jon Bernstein, former multimedia editor at Channel 4 is to join the New Statesman as deputy editor, replacing Emily Mann.

Writing on his blog, Bernstein announced that from November 12 he will be joining the New Statesman as deputy editor.

“I’ll be working under Jason Cowley and alongside his very talented team. And I’m pretty excited about it,” said Bernstein.

Jon joined ITN in 2005 as editor of the Channel 4 FactCheck website. Prior to that he was editor-in-chief of the DirectGov website, then editor-in-chief at silicon.com.

He was a founding blogger on TheMediaBlog.co.uk and writes guest posts for the very blog you’re reading, the Journalism.co.uk Editors’ Blog.

More information:

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Jon Bernstein: 15 news men and women you should follow on Twitter

October 12th, 2009 | 10 Comments | Posted by in Social media and blogging

Naturally this is an entirely subjective list, but I’ve tried to inject some logic into it.

So it only includes individual, not group, feeds. I’ve also gone for social Twitterers rather than the Twitter-as-RSS brigade (you know who you are).

And, by and large, I’ve stuck to ‘mainstream’ news people rather than some niche news people, which obviously means excluding some great twitterers especially in the media and tech space. Oh, and it’s UK-only.

Finally, I went crowdsourcing among a portion of the Twitterverse before I compiled this list, so some of the entries are the very excellent suggestions of others.

So in alphabetical order:

1. Benedict Brogan

aka: @benedictbrogan

who: chief political commentator, Daily Telegraph.

why: One of the best journo bloggers around comes to Twitter. News, gossip, analysis.

typical tweet: Consternation inside the BBC at decision to interview Martin McGuinness outside the Grand, I’m told.#lab09

2. Nicky Campbell

aka: @nickyaacampbell

who: presenter, BBC radio and TV.

why: Mix of news, radio behind-the-scenes and real life.

typical tweet: Shelagh says “I developed my lip gloss habit because of Penelope Pitstop”

3. Ruth Gledhill

aka: @ruthiegledhill

who: religion correspondent, The Times.

why: A glimpse into the world of a national newspaper correspondent.

typical tweet: About to welcome Bishop of London Richard Chartres to News International to talk on Hair Shirts and the Apocalypse.

4. Bryony Gordon

aka: @bryony-gordon

who: features writer, Daily Telegraph.

why: Not strictly news, but gets in by virtue of being very, very funny.

typical tweet: If i was a journalist on newsnight now, i’d take paxo up on his red socks. but that’s why i’m not on newsnight. or even a proper journalist.

5. Alison Gow

aka: @alisongow

who: executive editor, Liverpool Echo.

why: Life and times of a big regional paper.

typical tweet: Aaaw – baby’s first legal action! Letter received from the Rooney lawyers warning of court action if papers take pix of their new baby.

6. Krishnan Guru-Murthy

aka: @krishgm

who: presenter, Channel 4 News.

why: Good mix of news, conversation and newsroom gossip – even known to tweet from the studio.

typical tweet: Think we might lead on Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize…..or rather ‘why did Obama get the Nobel Peace Prize?’

7. Kevin Maguire

aka: @kevin_maguire

who: associate editor (politics), Daily Mirror.

why: Well-connected political journalist of the left, a rarity on Twitter. Fighting the good fight.

typical tweet: Ken Clarke’s huge breakfast bowl of prunes may do to him what Con policies would do to Britain.

8. Tim Marshall

aka: @ITwitius

who: foreign affairs editor, Sky News.

why: In his own words, “Insufferable know it all, or, informed commentator – you choose.”

typical tweet: Nobel Prize for best reaction to the Nobel Prize? The Taliban. AFP wire – Taliban condemns decision to award Nobel Peace Prize to Obama.

9. Cathy Newman

aka: @cathynewman

who: political correspondent, Channel 4 News.

why: Funny, gossipy tweets.

typical tweet: Blimey mandy was not happy about me asking why he called the sun a bunch of c****.

10. Victoria Raimes

aka: @victoriaraimes

who: news reporter, Edinburgh Evening News.

why: More life and times on a regional. Takes you right inside the newsroom.

typical tweet: Late shift. Not fair. All good stories gone. Unless any of you good people want to go and create one?

11. Marc Reeves

aka: @marcreeves

who: editor, The Birmingham Post.

why: Twitter-veteran, knows how it works.

typical tweet: Ok. If (and I mean IF) there was a Birmingham Post iPhone app, what would you want it to do?

12. Alan Rusbridger

aka: @arusbridger

who: editor, The Guardian.

why: Occasional, but insightful tweets.

typical tweet: Breaking news. Guardian gagged by a company in the High Court. We can’t tell you which company, or why. Er, that’s it.

13. Alex Thomson

aka: @alextomo

who: chief correspondent, Channel 4 News.

why: Tweets from Kabul to the More4 News studio and all points in between. Good mix of news and nonsense.

typical tweet: Cherry tomatoes on my desk now – still 73 left to eat.

14. Jo Wadsworth

aka: @jowadsworth

who: reporter, Brighton Argus.

why: Life as a local paper hack, warts and all.

typical tweet: Think I’ve managed to diffuse newsdesk/sub spat by singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”. Now they just hate me.

15. Paul Waugh

aka: @paulwaugh

who: deputy political editor, London Evening Standard

why: Gossipy and insightful in equal measure.

typical tweet: Given ‘Evening Standard’ is now a trending topic, can I say that I’ve never before had so much interest in my organ.

So that’s my list. A little politics-heavy, but there are not too many home affairs and foreign correspondents out there in the Twittersphere, which is a shame.

I initially intended to feature 25 Twitterers from media land, but was rather underwhelmed by what I found. Many seemed to miss the opportunities on offer.

Anyway, who have I overlooked and who’s on the list that shouldn’t be? Leave a comment below or via @jon_bernstein.

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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Jon Bernstein: Where now for accountability journalism?

Clay Shirky believes the demise of most newspapers to be inevitable, not a recessionary blip but a structural certainty. The long-term, digital future is bright but the short-to-medium term outlook is bleak for our news media.

Who, he asks, is going to pick up the mantle of accountability journalism? Shirky, New York University professor and one of the most insightful voices on digital media and its impact on news journalism, paints the following picture.

The newspaper is unsustainable for two broad reasons. First, as an advertising-supported business it has overcharged and under delivered.

This was all very well when it was the only show in town but once its recruitment business got monstered by Monster and its classifieds delisted in favour of Craigslist, the party was clearly coming to an end.

Secondly, he says, the newspaper always lacked coherence.

While people remain interested in expert editorial judgement and serendipity, they are not thirsting for the ‘single omnibus publication’. The future is content unbundled, often delivered by members of the audience disseminating links via social media.

And why is this bad news for anyone except the proprietor, the publishing magnate and the benefactor?

Because, says Shirky, it leaves a vacuum where once newspapers acted as a bulwark against the excesses of commercial and political classes. In place of accountability you have ‘casual, endemic, civic corruption’.

Shirky believes new models will eventually fill that vacuum but not soon enough to replace the old, decaying model.

And where will these new forms come from? Broadly through commercially viable alternatives to the newspaper; through organisations funded by donation, endowments or taxes; and through social production, aka the crowd.

It is the latter two where we are starting to see some interesting ideas emerge. And here are a few places – from either side of the Atlantic – you may want to look to see what the future of accountability journalism may look like:

Propublica:

An independent, non-profit newsroom, ProPublica boasts the ‘largest news staff in American journalism devoted solely to investigative reporting’. Thirty-two working journalists to be precise.

Supported entirely by philanthropy, it offers the fruit of its labour free of charge – and it either self-publishes or hands it over to large media outlets.

ProPublica also has a ‘distributed reporting’ unit, which aims to draw on the energies and expertise of the pro-am crowd. It’s headed up by Amanda Michel, formerly of Huffington Post’s OffTheBus.

Huff Po, meanwhile, has its own Investigative Fund while the Center for Investigative Reporting pre-dates ProPublica by a three decades.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Coming soon, the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) gets to work in November and will open for business in 2010.

The model is production house, not publisher and, unlike ProPublica, it intends to sell stories into magazines and newspapers. It will be led by Iain Overton, formerly of More4 News (and an ex-colleague).

BIJ’s was created by the people at the Centre for Investigative Journalism and it will also draw on the recently launched Investigations Fund. It is able to get off the ground thanks to a £2m endowment from the David and Elaine Potter Foundation.

Spot.us:

Pioneers of ‘community funded reporting’, Spot.us has a very Web 2.0 business model.

Users of the site create news tips inspired by specific issues they are interested in that have yet to be reported. Spot.us journalists turn those tips into story pitches and small donations  (increments of $20) are sought before the investigation is undertaken. The finished piece is freely available to anyone, big or small, to republish.

Only if a news organisation wants the story on an exclusive basis must it pay, in this case at least 50 per cent of the cost of the investigation.

Help Me Investigate:

Brainchild of Paul Bradshaw, a senior lecturer in online journalism at Birmingham City University, this is another example social production.

Launched with an initial focus on Birmingham, Help Me Investigate describes itself as ‘a community of curious people, and a set of tools to help those people find each other, and get answers’.

Recently completed investigations have sought discover why a new bus company is allowed run a service on the same route and same number but at a higher price; which Birmingham streets are issued with the most parking tickets; and how much Birmingham council spends on PR.

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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Jon Bernstein: Five innovations in news journalism, thanks to the web

What has the web ever done for journalism, except skewer its business model and return freelance rates to levels not seen since the early 90s?

Well, not much, apart from reinvent the form.

Amidst the doom of gloom in our industry it is easy to lose sight of how the web has transformed the way we tell stories, provide context and analysis, and cover live events.

This is arguably the most creative period in news journalism since movable type – new forms, new applications and new execution. Newspapers are embracing video and audio, radio stations do pictures, and TV has gone blogging.

You’re likely to have your own suggestions, and favourites. But here are five of the best:

1. Interactive infographics

Broadcast news was quick to adopt the graphic as a means of explaining complex issues or, more prosaically, make the most of a picture-challenged story. The web has taken the best examples from newspapers, magazines and TV and given them a twist – interactivity. Now you can interrogate the data, slice and dice it at will. Two of the best practitioners of the art can be found in the US – the New York Times and South Florida’s Sun Sentinel.

2. Crowdsourcing

From crime mapping to a pictorial memorial to the victims of post-election Iran to joint investigations, the crowd is proving a potent force in journalism. It took the web to provide the environment for a real-time collaboration and ad hoc groups are brought together by dint of interest, expertise, geography or some combination of all three. Not all crowdsourcing projects run smooth but the power of the crowd will continue to surprise.

3. The podcast

Just as cheap video cameras and YouTube democratised the moving image, so the podcast has made audio publishers of us all. Some podcasts mirror radio almost exactly in format, down to the commercial breaks at the top, middle and end of the show. Others break the rules. As Erik Qualman notes in his new book Socialnomics, today’s podcasters are taking liberties with advertising models (building in sponsorship) and with length of transmission (“If a podcast only has 16 minutes of news-worthy items, then why waste … time trying to fill the slot with sub-par content?”).

4. Over-by-over

A completely original approach to sports reporting, only possible on a real-time platform. Like Sky’s Soccer Saturday – where a bunch of ex-pros watch matches you can’t see and offer semi-coherent banter – over-by-over and ball-by-ball cricket and football commentaries shouldn’t work, but they do. And it’s not just the application, it’s the execution. The commentaries are knowing, not fawning, conversational and participatory. Over-by-over is CoveritLive and Twitter‘s (child-like) elder sibling.

5. The blog

The blog and the conventional news article are entirely separate forms, as any publisher who has tried to fob the user off by sticking the word ‘blog’ at the top of a standard story template will tell you. The blog allows you to tell stories in a different way, deconstructing the inverted pyramid and addressing the who, what, why, when, where and how as appropriate. Breaking news has become a narrative – early lines followed by more detail, reaction, photos, analysis, video, comment and fact checking in no defined order. It’s a collaborative work in progress. News is becoming atomised on the web and the blog is the platform on which it is happening.

I’ve named five but there are bound to be others. What have I missed?

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at jonbernstein.wordpress.com.

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Journalism Daily: Alex Brummer on the economic crisis, BBC director-general’s email and a shout-out to freelancers

September 9th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism Daily

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Jon Bernstein: Sorry Guido, the BBC did for Duncan

Three high-profile political figures mired in controversy, two thrown out of their jobs, one suffering a humiliating demotion – all thanks to internet activists of differing political hues from green to darkest blue.

Hang your heads in shame video-sting victim Alan Duncan, and Smeargate’s Derek Draper and Damian McBride. Take a bow Tim Montgomerie, Guido Fawkes, and Heydon Prowse.

But was it really the web wot done it? I’m not so sure.

Or at least I don’t think the web could have done it without the traditional media, television news and newspapers in particular.

Clearly this is at odds with Guido’s reading of the situation.

Writing on his blog this morning yesterday Paul Staines (for it is he) asks who forced Alan Duncan from his role as shadow leader of the House of Commons.

Not Tory leader David Cameron, that’s for sure. Rather it was the unlikely pairing of Tim Montgomerie and Heydon Prowse, ‘the blogosphere’s shepherd of the Tory grassroots and the angry young man with a video-cam’.

Of Prowse, who filmed Duncan on the terrace talking of ‘rations’ in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Guido notes:

“Heydon Prowse, who is he? He just destroyed the career of a greasy pole climbing Westminster slitherer. No house-trained political nous, no insight, in fact a little naive. He still did it.”

And Guido is in no doubt what this means in the wider context:

“The news is now disintermediated.”

The same applies, apparently, to the sacking of Damian McBride and Derek Draper, both prime ministerial advisors in their time. McBride and Draper were outed for their parts in a plot to use a pseudo-activist blog to spread rumours about various high-profile Tories.

The emails incriminating the two men found their way to Guido/Staines, and were in turn picked up by the media.

(Ironically, the site was meant to be the left’s answer to right-wing blogosphere attack-dogs, Guido among them.)

This week saw the story take another twist. Would-be smear victim Nadine Dorries MP carried out a threat to sue Draper and McBride and enlisted the help of Guido and fellow blogger Tory Bear to be servers of writs.

No one is doubting the origin of both stories, nor the journalistic craft in exposing the men at the heart of them. But it took the mainstream media to push these events into the public consciousness, into the mainstream.

And it took the attentions of the mainstream media to effect the sackings and demotion.

On the day it broke, the Duncan story led the BBC 10 o’clock News and featured prominently on other channels. In the ensuing 48 hours it spawned dozens of national press stories – the Daily Star went for ‘Dumb and Duncan’, The Mirror for ‘Duncan Donut’, others were more po-faced – as well as leader comments, opinion pieces and letters.

The coverage continued into the weekend and despite Duncan’s very swift apology and Cameron’s initial willingness to draw a line under events (“Alan made a bad mistake. He has acknowledged that, he has apologised and withdrawn the remarks.”) the drip, drip of media focus eventually forced the Tory leader to act.

It was a similar pattern with Smeargate.

Would PM Gordon Brown and Cameron have acted if these had remained just web stories? Not in 2009.

Is the news disintermediated? Not yet. Instead we have a symbiotic – if dysfunctional – relationship between the blogosphere and the traditional media.

The latter fears and dismisses the former in equal measure, but increasingly relies on it to take the temperature of various constituent parts of society and, yes, to source stories. Guido is such a good conduit through which to leak precisely because the media reads him.

The former, meanwhile, is disparaging about the latter (sometimes for good reason) but nonetheless needs it to vindicate its journalistic endeavours.

A final twist to the Alan Duncan story. Heydon Prowse offered Guido first refusal on his secret video recording back in June. Guido turned it down. “D’oh!” he later wrote in a confessional blog post.

Guido always has the good grace to admit when he’s goofed, as he did earlier this year over James Purnell’s fictitious leadership bid.

Will he accept with equally good grace that the mainstream media were a vital ingredient in the sackings and demotion of McBride, Draper and Duncan?

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at jonbernstein.wordpress.com.

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Journalism Daily: Sub-editing for online, new role for Heat editor and more on MPs’ expenses

September 4th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism Daily

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Jon Bernstein: A telling tale of the twittercrat who wasn’t

September 4th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Comment, Online Journalism

So the government is not seeking another Twittercrat after all, ‘someone (…) paid to teach the [it] how to use social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Bebo’.

On one level this is a shame. Take this from the very web 2.0 Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Using the microblogging site Twitter, it announced earlier this week:

“@foreignoffice: Opium cultivation, production and prices are down according to @UNODC report http://bit.ly/qjGVm #afghanistan

As Guido politely asks on his blog:

“Why, if you are trying to eradicate supply in Afghanistan, proudly boast that opium supplies are cheaper?”

Perhaps Whitehall really could do with a deputy to help the Twittercrat-in-chief (aka the director of digital engagement, aka Andrew Stott) to knock the troops into shape.

But that’s not going to happen. In fact, what’s more interesting is to follow the story – how it got out there and how the Cabinet Office went online – with mixed results – to rebut those original claims.

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, the Daily Telegraph (‘Whitehall expands “Twittercrat” empire‘); Daily Mail (‘Ministers seek £120000-a-year ‘Twittercrat’ to help them communicate on the internet’); Daily Express (‘The Twittercrat on £118,000 a year – and you’re paying’); and a trade journal called Public Journal (‘Now they want a deputy Twittercrat‘); all carried very similar stories about the government’s supposed appointment of a director of digital engagment.

The only problem was that many of the points of fact in all four weren’t true. In its rebuttal statement, the Cabinet Office met each claim head on:

1. The job title is wrong
2. The details of the job description are wrong
3. Claims that the vacancy is for a ‘spin doctor’ are wrong
4. Details of reporting lines are wrong
5. Claims that digital engagement is all about pushing government messages on Facebook are wrong

Got that? It’s all wrong, although the circa £120,000 remuneration (including pension and bonuses) is not challenged.

To be fair to the papers, the job ad on which they were basing their copy lacked clarity. With its calls to ’embrace’, ‘re-engineer’, ‘extend’ and ‘engage’, the technocratic language is certainly open to some interpretation.

Nevertheless, there were some obvious inaccuracies, not least the job title, worthy of correction. As yet, scanning the print and online versions of these publications, no corrections have been made.

Meanwhile out on the web, the Cabinet Office was doing its bit to get its message across. It floated it out on social networks and the blogosphere. Meanwhile, former cabinet office minister Tom Watson (a Twitter veteran) put this out:

“@tom_watson Old media have problem with the word ‘digital’ when added (or not) to ‘engagement’. Cabinet Office fightback: http://bit.ly/12pI0S

It carried a link to the Cabinet Office statement and was retweeted half a dozen or more times to be seen be many thousands of followers. Thanks to the network effect that underpins social tools like Twitter, word was getting out.

The end result?
A tight(ish) circle of digitally savvy Westminster, Whitehall and media folk and their associates got the message. But beyond that? Probably not quite far enough.

One of the great promises of the internet even in its pre-web 2.0 days was disintermediation, the notion that you can cut out the middle man.

It is an attractive proposition for everyone, from those seeking cheaper car insurance to celebrities keen to protect or repair their reputation to government departments wanting to go over the head of the fourth estate.

As we’ve seen in the recent past, for example in the case of singer Chris Brown, things don’t always turn out how you hope.

As so it is with the Cabinet Office’s attempts to right some wrongs. You and I know there’s more to the Twittercrat story than first thought, but most readers of the Telegraph, Mail and Express probably do not.

A story about outlandish salaries and civil service dilettantism is grist to the mill for those three papers – it plays to their agenda.

But as yet the average reader of all three is still expecting a £120k Twittercrat to head to a Facebook page near them soon.

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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Jon Bernstein: Free is just another cover price

August 27th, 2009 | 10 Comments | Posted by in Comment, Newspapers

Apocryphal perhaps, but the story has it that Rupert Murdoch always wanted to charge for thelondonpaper.

When News International’s big boss was shown a dummy copy prior to the September 2006 launch, he apparently declared that the paper would easily justify a 10p cover price.

James Seddon, a member of thelondonpaper launch team, who recounts the tale on this blog, concludes:

“If he didn’t get ‘free’ then, it’s no surprise he dropped the paper when times were tough.”

Given Murdoch’s current fixation with finding a way to generate revenue online, it would be tempting not only to conflate thelondonpaper decision with a general trend towards paid-for content, but also to assume the paper’s demise sounds the death knell for freesheets.

So let’s be clear about a few things:

  • thelondonpaper didn’t fail because it was free
  • it didn’t lose £12.9 million in a year because it was free
  • a 10p cover charge would not have saved it
  • its free-to-view website isn’t closing because it’s a threat to Rupert Murdoch’s paid-for plans.

Oh, and:

  • the freesheet isn’t dead

All newspapers, and the bulk of broadcast media around the world, adopt an ad-funded business model.

In some cases advertising subsidises the cost of production and the consumer pays a competitive price.

In other cases advertising covers those costs completely and the consumer gets to read, watch or listen gratis.

In both cases the advertiser is paying for the eyeballs and the reader, viewer or listener gets content for a fraction (or none) of the real running costs of the media business.

Rather than two distinct models, there’s a continuous line that runs from commercial radio, trade publications and freesheets to subscription satellite channels, consumer magazines and national newspapers.

Whether the content is free or has a nominal price attached is something of a moot point.

As web strategist Jeff Sonderman argued earlier this summer “newspaper folk haven’t actually charged for content since the 1830s.”

It was during that decade that subscribers stopped bearing the full cost of putting the paper together. Typically, says Sonderman, newspaper prices fell from six cents to one cent.

At a stroke, access to newspapers was no longer limited to those who could afford the luxury. He notes:

“For about 180 years, the retail price of a newspaper has never reflected the total cost of assembling and producing it. Any paper that tried to charge such a price (6x more) would lose circulation and be undercut by correctly priced competing papers.”

Murdoch’s 10p cover charge wouldn’t have saved thelondonpaper. It certainly wouldn’t have paid for production costs and circulation would not have justified a 500,000 print run.

So, thelondonpaper isn’t closing because the model was flawed, but because News International either couldn’t make it work in the current economic climate or was unwilling to give a paper, still in its infancy, the time it needed to become commercially viable.

Or, as David Prosser neatly put it in last Friday’s Independent:

“The surprise with thelondonpaper is that it has survived this long, especially as the title was launched for no real commercial reason other than to get up the noses of Daily Mail & General Trust, owner of Metro and London Lite.”

This is not the end of the freesheet even if it feels that way right now.

Certainly, London Lite could fold. After all, it too was launched for tactical reasons – a spoiler in a spiralling tit-for-tat between DMGT and News International.

Having effectively achieved those ends, its owners may conclude there’s little point in London Lite overstaying its welcome and queering the pitch for its stablemates.

But if London Lite does go, commuters beware – you’ll still be playing dodge the Metro/City AM/Shortcuts/Sport vendor for some time yet.

After all, free is just another cover price.

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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