Sunday, December 30, 2007

Free vs Free

Time Magazine's Justin Fox brings up the elephant in the room regarding the "stop making news free" argument:

News was already pretty close to free long before the Internet came along. It was free on TV, free on the radio, and effectively free in newspapers when you consider all the valuable stuff that came packaged with it for 25 or 50 cents, from comics to crosswords to classifieds to supermarket ads. And unlike, say, a song--which was free on the radio but worth spending money on to be able to play again and again whenever you wanted to hear it--a day-old newspaper was usually less than worthless.

It's an argument I've seen being made more and more recently, and one I believe holds true: Newspapers were never making their payrolls on issue sales. They were significantly undercharging in order to up the eyeballs on every page, so they could then turn around the and show advertisers huge numbers.

The problem today isn't that people don't want to pay for news--they barely payed for it to begin with. The problem now is one of advertising. Advertisers don't see the need to pay massive amounts anymore, when full-page ads and premium placements are a thing of the past. But even more than that, Newspapers and other media companies have ceded control of online advertising to Google, getting pennies where they used to get dollars. That is where the true crisis lies.

PS. Back from a break. Good to see you again

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Please keep this note within the family"

Looks like someone didn't heed the request in the first line, when a private memo from the CEO of alt-weekly chain Creative Loafing (ugh) got sent to journalism columnist Jim Romenesko. Whoops.

The memo addresses the New York Times story about the Reader layoffs (would he have written it had the firings not gotten national play?), but is also a good look into the mindset of a media-mogul wannabe in 2007, the worst possible year to try and become a player:

It also has the single worst and most confusing definition of "the long tail" theory I've ever read:
The online game is tied to the theory of the long tail where large internet based media companies (Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL) form the head of the tail and the end of the tail is the lonely blogger sitting in his or her underwear.

Exactly what is this the tail of?

And this is the guy that's going to save alternative weeklies, thanks to his understanding of the Internet?

"There is a chance that historians will examine this period in American history and wonder if journalism left the field."

The New York Times this week published a captivating essay that manages to hit on:

1) The layoffs at the Chicago Reader and how...

2) They have grave implications for the future of investigative reporting and how...

3) That's a bad thing for us as a democracy but how...

4) All is not lost.

Your milage may vary on that last point, especially when he trots out Rupert Murdoch as his proof, but the rest of it is pretty awesome and includes a nice hook into the continuing Chicago police torture cases and how the Reader's the only paper that truly cared--that is until they laid off the lead reporter on the story last week. A truly haunting line:

Google and Digg never made a phone call, never asked hard questions of public officials, never got an innocent man out of jail

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Thursday, December 6, 2007

It's all zombie bites these days

So Facebook has finally admitted that spying on its users as they travel the web--and then reporting back to all their friends--was not perhaps the best move they could have made. Of course, it's not the first time Facebook has made a decision that flies in the face of what its users want. The last time however, the introduction of the site's now-popular news feed and mini-feed, at least it seemed the company was trying to introduce something useful to is users. With Beacon, their "you rented Ice Castles on DVD and I'm telling everyone" application, users only factored into the equation as something to exploit, not something to help.

That's the problem with the kind of fantasy money that's being bandied about with Facebook--when you're supposedly worth $15 billion, the pressure is on to prove you can earn the title (if not the money). As a result, you've got to try and wring every last cent out of your users. The problem is that on a social networking site like Facebook, your users are all you've got. If you start treating them as little more than grist for the money mill, are they really going to keep coming back?

It's something to remember as every publication and media company tries to incorporate some aspect of social networking into their websites: are you doing this for the users, or are you doing this for you?

Let's give the last word to Fake Steve Jobs:

Thing is, nobody ever doubted that Facebook can do better. What's scary is the fact that they won't do better until people start to scream at them. It's the fact that it doesn't really seem to be in their nature to do the right thing. Their instinct, in fact, seems to be to do the wrong thing, and to keep doing it until they get caught. Even after they get caught, their instinct is to spin and fudge and brazen it out. No wonder the Borg has partnered with them. It's a match made in heaven. These guys are like Google, only their slogan isn't "Don't be evil" -- it's "Don't get caught."

Either that or they truly are a bunch of spoiled and scarily fucking clueless kids who honestly have no idea why people are upset about this, because they truly have no moral compass and they view this whole thing as just another pain in the ass hurdle to get over on the way to becoming rich. In which case, yeah, I'm, like, rilly rilly super glad that they're, like, gathering information on me?

Karp on the future of print publishing

Publishing 2.0's Scott Karp returns from a lengthy hiatus with a great look at the changing landscape of print publishing but in a different way than you usually hear:
Most of the discussion about the future of print publishing and paid content centers on the content, which makes sense, but the content hasn’t really changed that much (despite the emergence of some new forms) — nor do I think the value of content has changed in the minds of content consumers, e.g. people who value journalism still value it — their numbers haven’t diminished as so many fear.

What’s changed radically is the value of DISTRIBUTION.

The whole thing's a good read, including the wonderful example of Fray, a literary quarterly that's returned to print.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Kidd vs Kindle

Cover designer Chip Kidd's short and sharp takedown of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader is worth a visit.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What is Google's core business?

Over the last few months, I've found myself in repeated conversations about Google (I guess living a few miles from their headquarters effects the gravitational pull) and they usually boil down to one core question: What is Google's core business?

"Search!" is the answer commonly spit out, it's the obvious one and the one that the standard narrative wants you to believe: Google is the leader in internet search, so that's gotta be it, right? But that's not it, hence the second question that comes up in conversation: How does Google make money?

The answer to that one is the answer to the first one as well: Google is an advertising company. Yes, it started in search, but search, maps, blogs, and everything else it does (and it does a lot) is secondary to ads, which bring in over $10 billion a year. For most of the Internet, Google is advertising.

So then comes the third question: Then why do they do so many other things? Rough Type's Nicholas Carr posits a very good answer:
Google’s protean appearance is not a reflection of its core business. Rather, it stems from the vast number of complements to its core business. Complements are, to put it simply, any products or services that tend be consumed together. Think hot dogs and mustard, or houses and mortgages. For Google, literally everything that happens on the Internet is a complement to its main business. The more things that people and companies do online, the more ads they see and the more money Google makes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Holy crap, someone's making sense!

Jaron Lanier can be excused for the white-boy dreadlocks after penning a hell of an op-ed for the New York Times.
There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising. One might ask what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated.

How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough.

And it just keeps getting better from there. Xerox this and stick it up around Mountain View.

What do you do when Al Qaeda understands the Internet better than the New York Times?

While the major media companies continue to wallow in the idea that Internet publishing can be a mass-audience game, a new study shows that Al Qaeda--yes, that Al Qaeda--fully understands the concept that Internet publishing is no longer about broadcasting, but instead narrowcasting. Take a page from the terrorists, folks, because that's the future of the industry (not the blowing-up part, but the different-audiences-want-different-things part, duh).

PS. Thanks to Paul M. Davis for the link!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kindling for the fire

Amazon took the wraps of their attempt to "improve" the book, the Kindle. It's an awkward looking device that seems to take its design cues from a misinterpretation of the iPod's--if it's white, it's simple--when it should have been looking at some of the more successful cell phone designs for creating the illusion of simplicity while offering just-in-time functionality. The result is a device that looks overly complicated and doesn't forefront its main use: reading. It's main competitor in the nonexistent market, Sony's Reader presents a much more elegant shell, even if it's still the answer to a problem that nobody seems to have.

It's also, for a book retailer, a surprisingly limited understanding of why people like books. In Amazon chief Jeff Bezos's open letter on Amazon's front page, he essentially defines a book as words you can hold. The Kindle takes that definition and runs with it, offering no individualized design, no color, no real visual cues that Moby Dick is different than the latest Harlequin romance. Everything's set in the same limited typefaces (though the typographer in me does appreciate that they're elegant), in the same monochrome way. Yikes.

The Kindle of course marks the latest folly in the attempt to give print its "iPod moment", the introduction of a piece of consumer electronics that would make people care about the written word again. Of course it's a search that already has an answer (the Internet, stupid), but it's also a search based on a false premise: Yes, the iPod made people care about music again, but it didn't do much for the music industry. If anything, the iPod was the music industry's "Internet moment": the final battle in a losing war. Searching out a device that will deal the final blow to your industry seems a bit counter-intuitive, if you ask me. Plus, walk around a college campus or wander through the business district of your city at lunchtime and you'll see that that device is already here and guess who made it.

Which brings up the real question: who the hell wants this thing? Yes, we all know that print is a medium in flux, but is anyone really sitting around saying, "You know what would bring me back to paying for content? Another goddamn electronic device to lug around with me." Amazon seems to be betting that someone is, tying the Kindle to their own webstore and requiring all content downloaded to the machine to be authorized by Amazon (yet another misread from Apple's success). Sure it can read blogs, but only blogs approved by Amazon, not any old RSS feed you subscribe to. Sure it can read books, but only books you purchase from Amazon's store, not PDFs downloaded elsewhere or HTML loaded in through the many public-domain book projects. And yes, it can subscribe to magazines and newspapers (for money! once again! thank god!), but only the ones on Amazon's list, which means that you're stuck with the usual tired collection. It's the kind of overly-controlled, extremely-limited collection of the usual suspects that businesspeople think make sense because the numbers add up, but never actually works because even though most people make the same boring choices, they also like the possibility of choosing something new. The Kindle is another closed system in a world that's gone decidedly open.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

You got your good idea in my social network! You got your social network in my good idea!

So apparently someone at Google is reading Paul Davis' blog Is > Than because almost a month to a day after his post Social Media Needs Open Standards (which is a barn burner), does Google announce OpenSocial, a method for sharing social applications (and, as a result, content and data as well) across sites. This is the start of something much larger, the social web itself as a platform. Now if only someone could figure out how to make a living from it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Kiss the strength of the shield

Congress is currently kicking the tires on a shield law for journalists that offers a level of protection from prosecution at a federal level--something that's been absent until now. That it's going to be dead in the water due to a promised Bush veto makes a lot of the arguments for and against it moot (two second summation: it started decent and got watered down), but in the process of crafting the law, congress is defining what it means to be a journalist, a pracice that seems both feudal and incredibly dangerous. Why? Well let's take a look:
COVERED PERSON -- The term "covered person" means a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public...

OK, so far so good. They've got the bases covered more or less, and it's nice to see publishers in there too. But...

...for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood...


...or for substantial financial gain

Double yikes.

Tying journalism with the pay a person may get from their work seems like a tin-eared way of defining journalism at any level, let alone at the level of a federal shield law. Of course it's defined to cut out as many bloggers as possible, but the definition currently put forth also automatically cuts out protection of first-person narratives from whistleblowers, soldiers in the field, and other ground-level, primary-source (thus naturally amateur) material. And that's just skimming the surface! It cuts out most community newspapers and indie pubs who don't pay worth shit, any kind of volunteer-run publication, even freelancers who work other jobs (even if that other job is teaching about journalism). In other words, it cuts out many of the folks that help to create everything we know as journalism on a daily basis and it sets a legal precedent that could cause trouble for years to come.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

looking forward to death

I thought I should follow-up on the Chicago Reader saga I documented a couple months back. The new tabloid-sized Reader (made in Atlanta!) came out last week to decidedly mixed reviews from readers. Many complained that the diminished size lead to a diminished paper (though editors were quick to point out that there was the same amount of text in this issue, a slight-of-hand that didn't really address the issue at hand). One thing that didn't come up is how ugly the post-Chicago era started, Case in point:

I'm not sure what's going on with that masthead, but it couldn't be less generic if it tried. And the whole cover lacks the elegance of earlier issues of the Reader (even the ones after a panicked Time Out-induced redesign, which created an awkward false-front to the paper held together better than this). They say not to judge a book by its cover, but as consumers that's all we do. This cover won't sell (good thing it's free).
Saddled with a bad cover, what's inside needs all the help it can get. Unfortunately for the Reader, the editors in charge (all good people, let's note) have decided that the best thing to do is to leave the content undisturbed. As one editor explains in the comments:

I can tell you that so far every effort has been made to make sure the new format can accommodate the contents of the old Reader.

This same effort was made during the last Reader redesign, which clearly didn't save the already diminishing returns of the paper. Why a smart staff would not look at that last lesson learned and say, "Hey, maybe it's not HOW the information is presented, but the information itself" is beyond me. Instead, the editorial decision-makers at the reader continue to insist that their way is the best way, while corporate magazines like Time Out continue to chip away at their readership with truly innovative ways of presenting local content.
What the Reader needs isn't another redesign, or another cost-reducing change in format, but a low-level rethink of what it is and what service it provides to its readers. Unfortunately, that chance has most likely passed the Reader by (these new owners aren't going to do anything but what they already know), and as a result there's little to look forward to but the death of a once-great paper.

Friday, October 5, 2007

the social networks flameout dance

The always-sharp Paul Davis writes about the speed with which social networking sites are burning out, and diggs (pun intended) down to the core of what's needed if social networking is going to be anything more than a fad.
The only way I see these social networks as having any kind of lasting impact, the sort that could develop a legitimate social-networking media buffet with the credibility of a legitimized old-media powerhouse, is if the networks currently at the top (and the major ones to emerge) strive for some sort of shared standards of interoperability among platforms.

Yowza is right. Can you imagine?

Friday, September 28, 2007

hyperlocalism in a way that is both local and hyper

Discussions abound still about the move towards "hyperlocalism" by corporate newspaper chains, the irony of laser-focused local coverage apparently entirely lost on a corporate boardroom that has never seen some of the cities they're dictating changes in.

Meanwhile, as it always does, true innovation in real local coverage comes from--guess who--locals that give a shit about their communities, not about making stockholders happy. A wonderful example of truly hyper localism was referenced today by Gapers Block (a great example of ground-up localism at a slightly-less hyper level): The Marshfield Tattler.

You've got to love any site that begins reports with phrases like, "I haven't had a chance to write about the new family down the street," or, "Yesterday afternoon, I ran into Jesse on the street. I hadn't seen him for a while" (that entry under the title "Guess Who Got the Microwave?"). It's truly what's important to the author about her community, from events to people, to the routine. It's a chance to see her world through her eyes. It's not "real" journalism, but it's a hell of a lot more interesting than most of the hyperlocal examples being trotted out by big business and it lets' you know a lot more about the community to boot.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Is content truly free now?

Publishing 2.0's Scott Karp has a brilliant analysis of the concept of "free" content that stands most of the conventional wisdom on its ear. His argument--and I'd have to say that it's ringing pretty true with me--is that of course content isn't free: we pay for internet access, we pay for computers, etc. The problem is that by and large we won't pay twice, once for distribution and once for content. You only pay once to have a magazine brought to your door, not a second time to open it--why would we expect something different from the Internet? Of course in the digital age, you're paying someone else for distribution. And therein lies the problem.
Everyone is thinking about the shift in the economics of content in terms of paying for content, but what publishers are really facing is a shift in the economics of distribution. We’re still paying for a bundle of information to be delivered to our homes — it’s just that now that bundle is traveling via fiber optic cable rather than newsprint.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Content, paid and otherwise

With the New York Times announcing that their idiotic TimesSelect subscription service is finally coming to a close, the web has been filled with the pronouncement that paid content has finally and absolutely been proven impossible to pull off. I think that's a false assessment of the situation, since TImesSelect--a service that essentially just put their opinion writers behind a toll booth--was a poor decision to begin with. In addition, it overlooks (as, let's face it, these things always do) the fact that niche journalism has been able to and continues to be able to pull off paid content (Josh Hooten's excellent being an example that springs immediately to mind).

All that said, Jeff Jarvis, who I often find to have drunk a little too much of the Kool-Aid, does raise a good point that's often overlooked in the whole print vs. digital debate when he says:
Don’t let anyone tell you that this is bad for the content business. It’s only good sense. Having worked in the magazine business, I saw this even at the dawn of the internet: As I said above, a magazine has to pay up to $30-40 in marketing costs to acquire subscribers; it can pay up to $5-7 to print and distribute a copy of a glossy magazine; it has high editorial costs. Add that up, and a magazine can find itself in the hole $60 or more per subscriber in the first year of a subscription. And they get as little as $1 per issue in subscription revenue. Yet clearly, a magazine can make money because that subscriber’s value to advertisers is much greater.

It’s the relationship that is valuable. It’s the relationship that is profitable, not the control of the content or the distribution.

Well said and exactly right: The amounts spent on acquiring readers for print publications is huge, and it's much simpler online where good content can act as your best marketing tool. Toss in the actual physical cost to print (not write) and distribute and you've got even more money on the table. Take all that out of the equation and you begin to make up the losses due to the lower cost of online advertising.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

All your base are belong to Craigslist

One of the major factors pointed to in the death of alternative weeklies like the Chicago Reader, along with the stagnation of the traditional newspaper industry, is the decimation of the classified advertising market courtesy of Craigslist. Craigslist, the story goes, offers classifieds for free, while the newspapers charge for theirs. It was a good racket too, the story continues, with newspapers bringing in millions from their classified sections--but now that it's offered for free, newspapers can't compete.

On one level that's true, but having used Craigslist for the first time to sell off some of the Punk Planet office's less desirable objects (a vacuum? some old filing cabinets?) this week, I can tell you that the true power of Craigslist is not simply in the price of the ad: it's the simplicity in placing it and the speed in which it gets answered.

On Craigslist, there's no registration process, you simply write the ad, plug in your e-mail address, and you're essentially done. Because they're not attempting to monetize the process there's no need to collect any more information than that. And once you're done your ad is live immediately--not next week, in the Reader's case, and not tomorrow, as in a daily paper's situation--and it's responded to immediately. I had sold off that old vacuum cleaner approximately five minutes after placing the ad. The filing cabinets took about 15. (Interestingly, the one thing that has yet to sell is a CD player, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the state of the music industry right now.)

That's what's killed print classifieds--the ease and speed of Craigslist. Free factors in for sure, but it's not the thing that keeps people coming back, ease of use and speed of sale is.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

More on the Reader and the myth of "hyperlocalism"

So the new owners of the Chicago Reader, Creative Loafing (ugh), have announced that the entire production of the paper is moving to Atlanta. The entire Reader production staff, along with its award-winning art director, will be out on the streets within six weeks. Additional rumors have the paper's printing being outsourced from long-time printer Newsweb in Chicago all the way out to North Carolina, where it will be trucked 14 hours cross-country. Once they're through, it's a safe bet that a good amount of the editorial will be produced out-of-town as well--after all, you don't have to live in a place to review a movie, right?

These moves away from Chicago by a company that claims to be "pioneering the opportunities offered by convergent print, web, and new media applications" (ugh) underscores why my bullshit detector goes up every time I hear someone talking about "hyperlocalism" as the savior of newspapers.

Hyperlocalism--for the three of you that don't already know--is the latest buzzword for locally-focused content that's combined with community-driven content. When you hear the investment brokers and money handlers talk about it, they always dredge up the example of junior-high school sports scores--traditional newspapers can't dedicate the space to print them, they say, even though plenty of parents want to know them. That junior-high sports scores have no real bearing on anyone's life (junior-high schoolers notwithstanding), and that real local news doesn't ever seem to register in analysis hasn't stopped the hyperlocalism bandwagon from picking up steam.

But there's always the question of production: Who's driving that wagon? In typical "convergence" fashion, it's big media companies, silicon valley startups, and cheerleaders from among the technoscenti. There's often not a damn local (let alone a hyper one) among them. And so hyperlocalism is bound to fail the same way the Creative Loafing (ugh) run Reader is bound to fail: "Local" is a word that still means something--you can't replicate it from 1,500 miles away, no matter how much money you spend.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chicago Reader, RIP

So the venerable Chicago alt-weekly announced today that it's been sold to a Tampa-based alt-weekly publisher with the unfortunate name of Creative Loafing. That the new owners have entered a market much larger than their largest holdings (Tampa? Sarasota? Jesus...) seems like a bit of a kick in the sack for the Reader, which has been kicked quite a few times already.

Once the end-all be-all for what was young and happening in Chicago, as well as one of the flag bearers for high-quality (if, let's face it, sometimes quite boring) alt-journalism in the country, the Reader has been on a slow, painful slide from the top for years now. It was a slide started by the introduction of "The Red Papers," competing commuter rags introduced by the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times (who started their Red Streak for no reason other than to toss something in front of the oncoming onslaught of the Trib's Red Eye). The Red Papers undercut the Reader's ad rates and promised a much larger circulation (and, good god, much worse writing). The entrance of Time Out Chicago further stretched the ad market as well as took the legs out of the Reader's editorial coverage, offering a more readable look at the goings-on in the city (the Reader's attempt to freshen up before TOC's arrival, an odd and confusing redesign, didn't help matters from the start).

But the biggest nail in the Reader's coffin--and the nail being driven into all the other alt-weeklies in the country--was Craigslist. Back when I worked at the Reader (in the production department, which I think it's now safe to say I tried to unionize during my two years of employment) the classifieds commanded the largest and most labor-intensive section of the entire paper. It had an entire floor of sales reps and production on the section would have its own night. It brought in millions of dollars a year--dollars that were then able to be spent on "real" journalism elsewhere in the paper. It was the lifeblood of the paper, as it is for many alternative weeklies around the country.

The Reader even adapted to the Internet quickly--their online classifieds were the go-to page for apartments and jobs in the city for years. But they charged for those listings, and they found it impossible to compete with the Craigslist juggernaut (and frankly, how could they?). The classifieds slowly shrank, the final insult being the awkward incorporation of the entire classifieds section into two different parts of the paper. What was once a four-section paper suddenly became three--I'm sure the new owners will fold it all down to one soon enough.

And so it is that the once-mighty Reader is absorbed by a C-list alt-weekly chain, not even good enough for a New Times buyout, let alone a purchase by the Tribune. The owners I'm sure were well compensated, but those that work the long, thankless hours at the paper now face very uncertain futures. It's hard being an object lesson, as every other underpaid employee at a weekly is watching to see what happens to them, and I'm sure they will weather this storm just as poorly as you can imagine (my thoughts go out to each and every one of them).

Sunday, June 24, 2007

boom, with a view

Punk Planet magazine ended this week. It was the thing I worked on my entire adult life. It was the thing that I built from nothing with my bare hands. It was the thing that taught me everything I know about journalism, about business, and about how those two things can sometimes work together. It was the thing that allowed me to tell stories I never could have dreamed possible. And it was the thing that broke my heart, here, at the end of times.

It's been a hard week--it's much easier to write about these sorts of things when it's not about you--but it's been one full of reflection. While it's too close still to really begin to dissect the whys and hows of it all, I will say this: We held a magazine that was seemingly destined to fail together for 13 years; we committed acts of journalism far beyond what our budget, and often our skills, should have been capable of; and we put every ounce of our selves into all 80 issues. What more can a person ask for, ultimately?

Friday, June 15, 2007

all the ads shit to print

Publishing 2.0 has a very good analysis today of the New York Times ad numbers and how print ads are down by double-digits year-to-year and while web ads are up, they're not up up.

It's an astounding analysis when you really dig through the numbers, and it paints a pretty clear picture that while things are down in print ad-wise and things are up on the web ad-wise, the two don't come close to balancing out. According to Scott Karp's read on the numbers, print ad sales in May 2006 vs May 2007 declined by $19 million while online ad revenue rose by only $3 million (a 21.4% jump, but still).

Those numbers don't spell an easy future for the Times, or for anyone looking to make a painless transition from print to web. Sure, I'd give my right eye for that $3 million in ad revenues, but they've got to be digging through a lot of couch cushions trying to locate the $16 million they just lost.

NOTE: I'm not used to reading numbers in the millions (oh independent publishing!), and thusly an earlier version of this post erroneously reported the numbers wrong. It also included a funny joke about interns and coffee.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

what will we do when the money runs out?

Venerable and influential publisher McSweeneys this week announced that they're broke. Stuck with massive debt from the PGW meltdown--the same disaster that sent Soft Skull to Winton, Shoemaker & Co (hi Richard)--McSweeneys has taken the move made famous by Top Shelf Comix and appealed directly to their readership to purchase backstock.

I have to say that I was surprised when I heard the news--McSweeneys puts out a public air of such confidence that I'd never expect them to write a letter like this. Which means it's really drastic.

Having had to write a letter like that myself, I can say it's not an easy one to write. It's humbling--you hate to admit that there's trouble--and, more importantly, you know that it's a one-shot deal--you can't do something like this twice--so you've got to make sure that this is really the time you need to throw out that hail-Mary pass. If you've established trust with your readers (and if anyone has, it's McSweeneys), it'll work to get you out of debt, but it's a temporary fix. Appeals to your readers can't be a business plan. Speaking from experience, if you don't have the next step lined up, the money's going to run out again before you know it. Here's hoping they do.

The McSweeneys letter is another sign that the trouble that befell magazine distribution in 2005/06 (though we're all still seeing the effects still today) is creeping into books at a time when the industry is truly vulnerable. And the letter is also a sign that even the most respected are on shaky footing indeed.

I wish them the best over there. The world would be a worse place without their amazingly quirky books to look for on the shelves. Support them if you can, and hope they've got Plan B ready to roll.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

A funny thing happened on the way to monetization

So in light of the comments in the post below, I've decided to put my money where my mouth (er... fingers) is (er... are) and have signed up for an AdSense account to see just how the future of revenue streams on the Internet works. (I recognize and accept that that last sentence made me sound like your great aunt who just signed up for "the hotmail.")

So far, the sign-up server was down for an hour and a half and, after signing up, it takes one to three days to have your site approved, neither of which seem particularly cutting-edge or user-savvy, so I'm going to chalk one up into the skeptical column for now.

I don't expect to make any money off this site, by the way, this is more for the experiment/learning experience of actually serving these ads than it is the ¢72 that I stand to make from it. Because while I, like Whitney, firmly believe that children are our future, the rest of the world seems to point to Google instead.

Friday, June 8, 2007

10 things minus the big one = a bankrupt future

An interesting blog post has been making the rounds lately 10 Obvious Things About the Future of Newspapers You Need to Get Through Your Head. The author makes some good points--specifically around the fact that it's neither Google's nor Craig List's fault that newspapers are suffering right now.

However, what he leaves out is how all of these changes effect the financial landscape for publishers (buried in the comments the author admits as much when he says that web ads haven't replaced the income lost from print ads) and, until that answer can be as simply and effectively stated as the rest of his list, well, the list is a bit moot.

I've said it other places but the problem with this transition from print to web isn't the skillsets of reporters, isn't whether or not RSS feeds are valid, isn't a 60-second newscycle, but instead how all this stuff gets PAID FOR. And nobody has a good answer for this. I'm convinced it's possible--I mean, hell, simply cutting out the paper and printing cost alone helps get you part of the way there--but until there's a solid solution, lists like these only treat the symptoms, not the disease.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Cross-posting for eye-crossing times

On a site less focused than this one, I began a list of indie magazine titles that are shutting down, leaving the newsstand, going on hiatus, etc... etc... In addition to being terribly depressing, it seems relevant to this site as well and I thought I'd include a link. Join in the discussion over there: You Will Know Indepedent Publishing by the Trail of Dead

How is it that someone's name I'd never heard of before a few weeks ago is suddenly everywhere?

The wires report:
Wary of possible editorial meddling by the Australian newspaper tycoon following his $5 billion bid, the union hired a company to seek other suitors for the nation's leading business newspaper.
Ron Burkle, a supermarket magnate who's tried to buy the Los Angeles Times and other papers, confirmed yesterday he is considering a bid through his buyout firm Yucaipa.

Seriously, I didn't know this dude from Adam a month ago, and suddenly he's Captain Ubiquitous. And really, those that are worried about the editorial integrity of the Wall Street Journal (the what to the who now?) should probably not look to this dude as a saviour. He's bought up a bunch of car magazines and just failed in his bid to buy Maxim. And, as if that's not enough, he's also fighting against the first amendment.


Last year, he had his employees buy stacks of copies of the Los Angeles Business Journal to keep people from reading an article about his divorce in the newspaper. His spokesman said he was trying to protect his child.

Yep, that's the guy for the job. But man, how psyched were the LA Business Journal publishers that day--"Dude, we've sold out EVERYWHERE!"

Friday, May 18, 2007

Acquisitions (part three)

Ron Burkle is on a buying spree. Advertising Age reports:

The auction for Dennis Publishing's Maxim, Blender and Stuff is shaping up as a showdown between two oversize personalities, ex-Wenner Media veteran Kent Brownridge and supermarket king turned media magnate Ron Burkle.

Burkle's getting it. His pockets are deep and his will is strong. Christ.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Acquisitions and the future of indie publishing (part two)

Speaking of shitty...

Grocery magnate billionare Ron Burkle, who owns magazine distributor Source Interlink (who in turn bought long-time distro IPD a little while back) just bought a pile of magazines from Primedia, a publisher of mainly auto magazines and hobbiest titles (they even have more than one equestrian magazine!). Which would be strange in and of itself (do we really want distros owning publishers??) if Burkle wasn't also the same dude that tried to buy the remnants of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain last year.

You don't go from wanting to own a piece of the Knight legacy to wanting to own Arabian Horse World magazine without a few extra plans in the background. And, as it turns out, rumors are swirling (scroll down) he's also looking to buy American Media, Inc. publishers of such grand titles as the Star tabloid, and a pile of health magazines. I wouldn't be surprised if he moves beyond that, putting together a portfolio of titles to launch him as a player in the big-mag publishing game.

So what's it mean? Well it means that boring mainstream titles are being bought out by a creepy dude for unknown reasons, which is scary in and of itself. And it means that one of the big two mag distributors in the country will all of a suddent have a large number of wholy owned titles in its midst, which is ethically questionable in more ways than I can count.

But it means something more too: Source Interlink has just been named the exclusive magazine distributor for Borders (meaning they'll now just deal with one distro instead of the apparently overwhelming two they had before), which has many a publisher a little worried about the possibility of favoritism, vertical integration, predatory pricing and all sorts of other nasty stuff. Because lord knows the newsstand needed to get even more unfavorable to publishers brave enough to stick it out.

One last note: I am not a business reporter and can't even begin to get my head around Burkle's entire list of holdings which include a $100 million chunk of Puff Daddy's clothing company and a "former Beanie Baby promotion agency" (WTF??). All I know is that the dude's got a whole lot of money and can flush it away for a loooooong time if he wants to compete with the big boys in this game, which tends to mean that he's going to win. And we're going to lose.

Aquisitions and the future of indie publishing (part one)

So today across my desk comes news of two different acquisitions from two very different sides of the publishing world. I'll break this into two parts, one for each acquisition.

First off is news that Soft Skull Press--a venerable and fiercely indie (though, let's admit, a tad flakey) book publisher--was just bought up by newcomer Winton, Shoemaker & Co. LLC. The company, according to Publisher's Weekly has been on a bit of a buying binge lately, having bought Counterpoint Press last week and Shoemaker & Hoard earlier in the year (one would assume that's when the Shoemaker entered the company's name--unless chairman Charlie Winton was just incredibly prescient in naming the business to begin with. Though with the whole mess changing its name to Counterpoint LLC in June anyway, so I guess this whole naming discussion is moot come then).

News of the sale isn't that shocking--Soft Skull has a history of shaky financing and the bankruptcy of indie distributor PGW's parent company earlier this year dealt a blow that many feared was going to be mortal--but it still means one less truly indie publisher out there to hold the torch and signals what could be a growing trend of indies finding cover as the book industry continues its downward spiral. In other words, it's kinda shitty news for a shitty time.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

When they outsource your job, who writes the article about it?

CNN today posts a head-throbbing story about outsourcing local news reporting to India.

James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the two-year-old Web site, acknowledged it sounds strange to have journalists in India cover news in this wealthy city just outside Los Angeles.

But he said it can be done from afar now that weekly Pasadena City Council meetings can be watched over the Internet. And he said the idea makes business sense because of India's lower labor costs.

"I think it could be a significant way to increase the quality of journalism on the local level without the expense that is a major problem for local publications," said the 51-year-old Pasadena native. "Whether you're at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you're still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview."

You can toss a dart at that quote and hit something problematic. City council meetings? Really? It's too expensive to cover them?I mean seriously, now we've got to outsource the kinds of jobs the unpaid interns used to get?

Of course, the idea isn't new. And, of course, it comes from the business press. And of course, it means that things will only get worse.

This is not the first time media jobs have been shipped to India.

The British news agency Reuters runs an operation in the technology capital of Bangalore that churns out Wall Street stories based on news releases.

And with that we appear to be at the logical end of the illogical moves that have happened as journalism becomes just another job: First you capitulate to the advertisers by rewriting their press releases as news stories; once you've done that, it's not long before you realize you can pay someone overseas cents on the dollar to do the same thing. Worthless news stories begets news reporting that's worth less.

(found via Crooks & Liars)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Rupert Murdoch can't go long

The New York Times today interviews Rupert Murdoch about what he would change with the Wall Street Journal. The lead complaint?

“I’m sometimes frustrated by the long stories,” he said, adding that he rarely gets around to finishing some articles.

That's the man you want heading up your organization: a man with vision.

PC world editor walks, publisher demands favorable treatment to advertizers

Wired news reports that the editor-in-cheif of PC World magazine, Harry McCracken walked off the job on Wednesday after being told to pull an story called "Ten Things We Hate about Apple" by the magazine's CEO Colin Crawford. Reports Kim Zitter:

The source didn't know the specifics of what was in the story Crawford wanted to kill but said it was nothing new. "It was supposed to be light fare, just really innocuous stuff. The same kinds of things people have said about Apple before -- things that teased Steve Jobs," he said.

Apparently teasing is a no-go zone in big-business publishing now--it scares away advertisers, a group so fragile that even the gentlest poke (I mean, really, how much teeth could that story have had) will send them scurrying to the hills.

It gets worse though. In Zitter's original report, it was also written that Crawford had requested that reviews of advertisers' products not be so negative--a trend that seems to be spreading throughout the publishing industry, from computers to indie records. As a result magazines are quickly becoming 120-page collections of press releases instead of actual, you know, magazines.

Since the original report, there's been some clarification, mainly on the question of whether PC Word is giving its advertisers favorable reviews. Zitter again:

With regard to whether or not Crawford addressed the issue of asking editors to tone down their negative reviews of vendors, the source said, "He denided that he would ever ask editors to tone down the coverage, but at the same time he said he wants the marketing people to have input on our processes."

So that really clears everything up, right? Giving "the marketing people" "input" is tantamount to allowing the Dell Dude (god, remember him) to write the reviews. And, to me, seems even worse that just flat-out saying write favorable reviews.

All in all it's the latest in a parade of examples of the suits stepping into the newsroom to explain to editors and writers how to do their job by, essentially, changing the long-standing rules of what the job is in the first place.