Oh, to be the Economist

When newspaper people in the U.S. aren’t wishing they were the Wall Street Journal – “well, they can charge” – they aspire to be The Economist.

Dream on.

I just got email announcing The Economist Group’s latest financials.

* Operating profit up 26% to £56m
* Revenue up 17% to £313m
* Full year dividend of 97.3p per share, an increase of 8%
* The Economist’s worldwide circulation grew 6.4% to 1,390,780 (July-December 2008 ABC). It was named Magazine of the Year by Advertising Age and topped Adweek’s Hot List for the second year running
* Economist.com’s performance has been strong, driven by a strategy to make it a place for intelligent debate; advertising revenue is up 29% and page views 53%

The good news is that quality still sells.

The Economist is to the rest of the news industry as Apple is to Google. In What Would Google Do?, I argue that Apple is the unGoogle. It violates practically every one of the 40 rules I set out. But it succeeds. Why? It’s that good, uniquely good. There’s room for one such company, probably, in any industry – and that spot isn’t always filled (name me the Apple or The Economist of phone companies, airlines, cable companies, or retail).

In news, the Economist is the exception that proves the rules. It doesn’t have the individual voices and brands that succeed elsewhere on the internet; it has a single, institutional voice (but a charming one). In a sense, it’s a general-interest publication in the age of specialization (and every other general-interest product, from Time to the metro daily is failing). It has built a strong online product but it’s still not known for that; it’s a magazine (pardon me, newspaper) that still relies on and succeeds in print.

The problem for the rest of the industry is that they can’t all break the rules as The Economist does because they’re just not that good. You have to be great to the The Economist or Apple and if you fall short, you fall all the way. And staying great is constant work.

I was at The Economist’s offices in New York last week for lunch with editors. Don’t think that they are resting on their laurels. They, too, are trying to understand The Economist’s role on the new media age (my advice: they have just about the smartest crowd anywhere and I hope the company asks how that crowd can be empowered to connect, share, and create). But it’s a nice perch from which to be wondering what to do next. While other publications are looking for a limb to grab onto as they fall, The Economist is looking for the next higher branch.

Defending public as a journalistic doctrine

In a few countries around the world, we’ve seen a backlash against Google’s Streetview as somehow an invasion of privacy, even though what Google captures is the very definition of public: what can be seen in the open.

I wish that journalists would defend Google and its definition of public, for it matters to journalism.

See Peter Cashmore’s report on Streetview’s capturing of a crack in a building that collapsed today in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. Google captured what it thought was merely data but data turns out to be news.

When I was in Amsterdam for the Next09 conference, the Streetview controversy was in full bloom because Google’s oggling cars had just toured its streets (and canals?). Now I’d been told by German friends that Holland is different from the more closed societies in Europe, as folks leave their front windows and doors open, ashamed of and hiding nothing. Nonetheless the Dutch were hinky about Streetview, even journalists I met.

I argued with those Dutch journalists that if a city official were caught red-handed in the red-light district by a journalist’s camera – or a witness’ – there’s no difference if Google’s camera captures it. It’s public. It’s news. But if that politician is given the ability to quash Google’s photo, then it’s a short step to setting a precedent so a journalist’s photo could be quashed, on the basis that the private can occur in public.

No, public is public. We need that to be the case, for journalism and for society. We must protect the idea of public.

What is happening in Iran this week is public, no matter how much the despots try to make it private. See, too, this Guardian report in which a witness captured images of police allegedly roughing up and arresting citizens for demanding officers’ badge numbers and photographing them – for enforcing the doctrine of publicness with public officials.

Indeed, I’d say this doctrine should stretch to saying that everything a public official does is public – everything except matters of security. Thus Britain’s MPs would not be allowed to black out their spending of taxpayers’ money. Thus the default in American government would be transparency, making any official’s actions and information open and searchable. Thus anyone in Ft. Greene could scour Streetview to look for unsafe buildings.

What happens in public is the public’s – it’s ours.

Adding value in the new news ecosystem

How can and should news organizations and others add value to the new news ecosystem that is being used in the Iran story?

Or to put the question another way: The New York Times keeps talking about how expensive its Baghdad bureau is and what a fix we’d be in without it. Well, the essential truth in Iran is that no one has a Tehran bureau (or if they do, it has been rendered useless by government diktat). So we have no choice but to replace that bureau with the people, with witnesses empowered to share what they see.

The New York Times, the Guardian, and Andrew Sullivan, to name three, have been doing impressive work with their live blogs, sifting through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, trying to add as much context and as many caveats as they can. The live blog is print’s equivalent of live TV; it is the way to cover a story such as this: process journalism over product journalism.

But clearly, in that coverage of and by the people, we are experiencing severe filter failure, to use Clay Shirky’s term. Look at the hundreds of tweets that emerge every minute and at the overuse of the word “confirmed” on them, which is meaningless if you don’t know who’s doing the confirming. There’s no way to tell who’s who, who’s there, who’s telling the truth, who’s not.

Note the repeated word: Who. The greatest value a news organization can add to this new news ecosystem is to identify, curate, vet, and train people. Ideally, that needs to happen before the big story breaks. But it can even be done outside the country, as I saw CNN do this morning, talking with a Columbia University student from Iran, who knew who was real and was there from her network of family and friends. Of course, even if you know the people you’re listening to, it’s impossible to know whether everything they say is true unless you can verify it yourself. But that’s the point: You can’t.

So you need to have the best head start you can have. The larger the network of people a news organization can organize, the better shape it will be in when news breaks, the better it can filter the reports that come – whether from people in that network or in the larger network of people those people know. The more people in the network, the more who can go to the scene of news or research closer to it – the more you can ask for help.

Global Voices is an example of this infrastructure: someone who knows someone who knows someone, each able to judge what the next in the chain is saying.

I’ve also been arguing that for journalists, saying what you don’t know is becoming as important as saying what you know. That is all the more critical as misinformation and rumor can spread at the speed of information online. So I imagine a news organization creating a kind of anti-wiki – a dynamic, collaborative Snopes: a list of what we don’t know so we can see what is unconfirmed and so these things can be confirmed – so journalists can add journalism.

On Twitter right now, for example, I’m seeing a great deal about people being taken to embassies instead of hospitals. It is possible for journalists to call their diplomatic sources and confirm at least that, check that off. We need structure around that process.

See also the post below about YouTube holding unique information about the provenance of video. YouTube should not reveal identifiable information about those sources. But news organizations should be able to contact YouTube to help sift through them and find out least which videos came from Iran.

News organizations could also equip their networks of witnesses. Alive in Baghdad distributed cameras to people there. Today, that can be done so much less expensively – think Flip cameras. Bild in Germany sold 21,000 of equivalent devices in five weeks. Michael Rosenblum is planning to distribute 100 Flips in Gaza.

How else can and should news organizations add value and structure to this very disorganized and live new world of news?

The responsibility of knowledge in news

I tweeted a few minutes that I wish YouTube itself would be curating and featuring video from Iran because only it is in the position to know whether the video came from Iran and whether it is a duplicate. I said that YouTube has a responsibility in the news ecosystem. Andy Scheurer questioned that: responsibility? Good question. Isn’t YouTube just a host? Can’t it be agnostic as to interests? No, I don’t think so, because YouTube has unique knowledge it can add to inform the discussion (e.g., this video isn’t from Iran or it’s a year old or this video is unique from Iran today) and to not add that knowledge becomes irresponsible, no? YouTube can’t just make the information transparent so we can figure it out because it also has a moral responsibility to protect the identity of those who are putting themselves in danger by uploading the videos to inform the world. That means they are the only ones who can verify at least some information about the videos for our benefit. So shouldn’t they?

New Business Models for News Project

The New Business Models for News Project is now well underway at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Here’s the blog and below is the post explaining our work:

We at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism believe that the discussion about the future of journalism — as newspapers and other news organizations find their business rapidly eroding around them — needs to be informed by facts, figures, and business specifics. That is why we created the New Business Models for News Project.

The project is researching best practices in the business of journalism online, gathering new ideas and experiments in revenue for news. We will build complete business models to share with the industry and with the journalists, communities, entrepreneurs, technologists, and investors who will create the future of news.

The project is funded by the Knight and McCormick Foundations. Two earlier conferences leading up to the work of the project were funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The work of the project’s first phase will be presented at the Aspen Institute in August and will be shared, publicly and in progress, on this site.

Our work begins with the assumption that there will be a market demand for quality journalism, watchdogging those in power, and that the market will find a way to meet that demand. The question so many are asking is how. We will attempt to answer that by projecting the future of news in a metropolitan area, concentrating on four perspectives — hyperlocal, the new news organization, publicly supported journalism, and the framework to support this new news economy as a whole.

We will use as our model market a hypothetical top 25 metro area in the U.S. where the sole daily newspaper has ceased publication. In short: We are asking what will fill the void. We posit that no single company or product will do that. Instead, an ecosystem made up of many players operating under many models and motives will emerge. In all cases, we are agnostic as to who owns and operates these entities: legacy or new companies, large or small. In that context, we will examine:

* The optimal hyperlocal (town or neighborhood) blog or site. We will look at how to maximize revenue to such sites, whether they are run by sole proprietors, larger startups, or established media companies. This will include helping sites provide the best and most valuable service to local advertisers; establishing local networks of fellow hyperlocal sites to increase sales and revenue opportunities; larger metro-wide networks; and exploring other revenue opportunities, such as paid models and commerce. We will look at what these sites need to succeed, such as networks, promotion by aggregators, and technology.

* The new news organization. Even after a market loses its daily paper, we believe there is an opportunity for a new news organization to be reconstituted around key journalistic roles serving the metro-area. We will project the scale of such an enterprise: its audience and revenue yielding its resources and functions: reporting, aggregation/curation, perhaps organizing the broader community and its news efforts. How many employees can a profitable, journalism-centered business support and what can and should they do? What is its relationship with other players in the ecosystem?

* Publicly supported journalism. We do not believe that any single savior– foundation, government, device, or massive public contribution — will rescue an existing news organization as it operates today from the crush of the market. But we do believe that publicly supported journalism — that is, from individuals, foundations, and perhaps companies — can play a role in this model city’s news ecosystem. This could take the form of a local Pro Publica or of crowdsourced funding through a platform such as Spot.US or of an expansion of public broadcasting’s role. The key question we will answer is what level of support will likely be available — projecting from current efforts locally — and what those resources could provide.

* The ecosystem’s framework. We will examine the supporting infrastructure this ecosystem will likely need, bringing together independent players to reach critical mass so they can recognize greater market value (in, for example, advertising networks and in mutual promotion) and greater efficiency (in, for example, technology platforms, the ability to create collaborative projects, training in journalism and sales, search-engine optimization…). Once again, we are agnostic to ownership: These functions could come from a single company (which is how we will present the model); they also could be provided by a legacy player or they could be offered by various players. To quote Mark Potts at one of our CUNY conferences, “You may want to be small, but to succeed at being small, you probably have to be part of something big.”

In addition, the project will gather and also propose a catalog of revenue models, working with those who are building systems to support paid content; interviewing local advertisers to learn more about their needs; talking with sites in the U.S. and elsewhere to learn what is working and not working for them; examining the possibilities for more unusual revenue streams such as e-commerce.

After this work is well underway and after the Aspen report in August, we plan to extend the project’s work to examine more business models, such as national and international content exchanges; interest-based sites and networks;

The project is headed at CUNY by Prof. Jeff Jarvis, head of the interactive program. Peter Hauck is project director, working with Jennifer McFadden, business analyst; business researchers Kate Albert, Gary Frangipane, Noah Xifr, Darshan Dedhia, Frank DiBartolo, and Senem Coskun of Baruch’s Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship at the Zicklin School of Business; and reporters Matthew Sollars and Damian Ghigliotty, both graduates of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. We are grateful to the Field Center’s Edward Rogoff and Monica Dean for their support. We are also happy to tell you that Jeff Mignon and Nancy Wang of Mignon Media are also working with us.

‘No longer the province of elites’

In a Guardian interview, UK PM Gordon Brown says that the internet changes foreign affairs forever:

He described the internet era as “more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution”. “For centuries, individuals have been learning how to live with their next-door neighbours,” he added.

“Now, uniquely, we’re having to learn to live with people who we don’t know.

“People have now got the ability to speak to each other across continents, to join with each other in communities that are not based simply on territory, streets, but networks; and you’ve got the possibility of people building alliances right across the world.”

This, he said, has huge implications. “That flow of information means that foreign policy can never be the same again.

“You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.

“Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

Neither government nor business nor education.

User economy v. consumer economy

I’m fascinated with the services that are popping up in Italy – and now, I see, in the U.S. – enabling people to rent instead of buy things and to rent out the things they have: to share, in short.

The Washington Post writes about Zilock.com, Rent-instead.com, Chegg.com for textbooks, and Babyplays.com for toys (well-sanitized, one hopes). Not to mention the ultimate in sharing things, Zipcar.

I take a tour around my house and it’s hard to come up with a long list of things I’d only want to rent and no longer need to buy – tools, mainly, because I’m a klutz and try to avoid all handyman chores (whenever I tell people who know me that I’m using a chainsaw, they shudder at the thought). But I can imagine things I might not buy but would want to rent: a great digital camera or video camera, for example.

So I don’t see this phenom as a major force in the economy. I think we’re more likely to see sharing brought to assets like office space and equipment. Still, it’s just one more case of innovation yielding efficiency instead of growth.

Here’s the Post on these services:

Zilock.com came about like this: In the fall of 2007, a couple of friends in France were trying to hang something up on a wall and didn’t have a drill. They thought about buying one but somehow calculated that a drill is used only an average of 12 minutes in a lifetime. It made no sense to buy one, they argued.

“We were thinking about all of the drills lying around the building or the block and we had no access to it. We thought there are so many ways you can sell your things online but no way to borrow things,” Boudier said.

The peer-to-peer renting Web site first launched in France and Belgium. Once it took off, the founders expanded to the United Kingdom and the United States. Boudier, who is the U.S. general manager, said there are now 100,000 items for rent just in America. Not only are there drills up for grabs but infant car seats, camping gear, and digital cameras. “We are offering new ways for people to save and make money,” he said.