Tales of two newspapers, one rising, one falling

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 8.32.23 AMOn the East Coast, The Washington Post is in the midst of a revival that could return the storied newspaper to its former status as a serious competitor to The New York Times for national and international news. On the West Coast, the Orange County Register is rapidly sinking into the pit from which it had only recently crawled.

The two contrasting stories are told by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer, who writes about the Post in the early months of the Jeff Bezos era, and Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, who’s been all over Aaron Kushner since his arrival as the Register’s principal owner in 2012.

First the Post, which has been the subject of considerable fascination since Amazon founder Bezos announced last August (just a few days after John Henry said he would buy The Boston Globe) that he would purchase the paper from the Graham family for $250 million.

Bezos’ vision, as best as Meyer could discern (Bezos, as is his wont, did not give him an interview), is to leave the journalists alone and work on ways to expand the Post’s digital audience across a variety of platforms. Meyer describes a meeting that Bezos held in Seattle with executive editor Marty Baron and other top managers:

Baron says he came away from the weekend in Seattle with a clear sense of what the Post’s mission would be in the coming year: It had to have “a more expansive national vision” in order to achieve the ultimate goal of substantially growing its digital audience. Baron brought this directive back to the newsroom, and the editors set about building a plan for 2014, a year managing editor Kevin Merida dubbed “the year of ambition.” At one point in the budgeting process, Bezos even admonished the leadership for not thinking big enough. “I think that we had been in the mode of sort of watching our pennies,” Baron told me. “We were just being more cautious at the beginning so he came back with an indication that we should be more ambitious.”

Among the more perplexing moves (to me at least) that the Post has made under Bezos has been to cut deals with more than 100 daily papers across the country so that paid subscribers to those papers would receive free digital access to the Post as well. Locally, the papers include the Portland Press Herald as well as Digital First Media’s papers, such as The Sun of Lowell, The Berkshire Eagle and the New Haven Register.

Journalistically, it’s a good deal for subscribers, since they get free access to a high-quality national news source. But no money changes hands. So how is it any better for the Post than simply offering a free advertiser-supported website, as it did until instituting a metered paywall last year? Meyer tells me by email that “the reason they are doing this is for customer data. A logged in, regular user is a lot more data rich than someone who just happens across your site from time to time.” He adds:

Data is the key difference between this program and just having a free website. And another key difference to my mind is psychological. The readers of partner newspapers feel like they’re being given something that would otherwise not be free. This adds value in terms of how they view their subscriptions to their home newspapers. And also adds value in terms of how they view the Post’s content. My guess is they will use the service more as a result.

And as Meyer writes in his story, “Anyone interested in seeing how consumer data might be used in the hands of Jeff Bezos can go to Amazon.com and watch the company’s algorithms try to predict their desires.”

aaron-kushner-orange-county-register-financial-crisis.9842609.87The story Gustavo Arellano tells about Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register has become well-known in recent weeks, in large measure because of Arellano’s own coverage in the OC Weekly. Kushner has spent 2014 rapidly dismantling what he spent 2012 and 2013 building up.

As I wrote recently in The Huffington Post, it makes no sense to invest in growth unless you have enough money to wait and see how it plays out, which is clearly the case with Bezos at the Post and Henry at the Globe — and which now is clearly not the case with Kushner and the Register.

The Orange County meltdown was also the subject of an unusually nasty blog post earlier this month by Clay Shirky, who criticized Ryan Chittum of the CJR and Ken Doctor of Newsonomics and the Nieman Journalism Lab for overlooking the weaknesses in Kushner’s expansion. (Chittum and Doctor wrote detailed, thoughtful responses, and I’ve linked to both of them in the comments of a piece I wrote about the kerfuffle for WGBHNews.org.)

Arellano has gotten hold of some internal documents that make it clear that Kushner’s expansionary dreams were doomed from the start. He also paints a picture of a poisoned newsroom and offers lots of anonymous quotes to back it up.

“I wouldn’t say I got hoodwinked,” he quotes one former staff member as saying, “but it’s just another lesson of life: If it’s too good to be true, it is.”

I recently criticized Arellano for his overreliance on anonymous quotes, although I freely concede that I used them regularly when I was covering the media for The Boston Phoenix in the 1990s and the early ’00s. This time, he includes a clear explanation of why almost none of his sources would go on the record: fear of “reprisal or the endangerment of their buyout, which included a nondisclosure clause.” Given that, I think the story is stronger with the quotes than without.

Arellano writes:

In retrospect, it seems obvious Kushner set himself up for failure, like a Jenga tower depending on every precariously placed block. He installed himself as publisher despite having no previous newspaper experience. A hard paywall — his most controversial move — was erected to force readers to buy the print edition in an era when online content is king. To justify that, Kushner plunged into a hiring binge that saw the Register sign up hundreds of employees even though it didn’t have the revenue to pay them. To fund his vision, the sales department was tasked with selling all those points despite an industry-wide decline in print advertising during the past decade.

It’s a sad, ugly moment for a tale that began so optimistically. As for whether this will prove to be the end of the story — well, it sure looks that way, although Kushner insists he’s merely slowed down. After two years of hiring binges and layoffs, the launch and virtual folding of the Long Beach Register, and the inexplicably odd decision to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the mighty Times, Kushner is clearly down to his last chance — if that.

Bezos’ bucks may re-ignite Post-Times competition

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.

The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:

We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.

Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:

With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.

The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.

The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.

As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)

From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.

It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.

Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why is The Washington Post holding a live event in Boston?

WP Live

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In a well-appointed banquet hall at the Westin Boston Waterfront, a balding, disturbingly energetic man in a red bow tie is holding forth on baby boomers, technology and aging.

“We are not young, but we are youthful,” enthuses Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. A bit later: “And by the way, we never talk about the F-word when it comes to aging: fun!” Well, I suppose.

I had come to the Westin last Thursday for a program called “Booming Tech,” presented by The Washington Post as part of its Washington Post Live video series. I was less interested in the subject matter — how boomers getting along in years are enhancing their lives with digital technology — than I was in finding out what the Post was up to.

At a time when newspapers are scrambling to make money any way they can, Washington Post Live struck me as unusual and innovative. The two-hour-plus event, moderated by Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan (with an assist from Sacha Pfeiffer of Boston public radio station WBUR), featured panels on tech and entrepreneurship, a conversation with health-care expert (and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate) Don Berwick and a closing one-on-one between Jordan and humorist/curmudgeon P.J. O’Rourke, who was on hand to flog a new book. (Jordan: “Do you like your cell phone at least?” O’Rourke: “No.”)

So how does all this fit with the Post’s business strategy? I snagged Tim Condon, the Post’s director of new ventures and interim general manager of Washington Post Live, for some insight. (Earlier in the week, the Post had announced that former Bloomberg executive Robert Bierman would be taking over as the permanent general manager.)

Washington Post Live launched in 2011, well before Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos acquired the Post. The idea, Condon said, is to reach an “influential audience,” usually in Washington but occasionally outside the Beltway. He described the venture as both journalism and business, and said the Post hosts between 20 and 30 such events each year.

“The content that comes from these discussions are our journalism,” Condon said. And though the events are free, they are paid for by underwriters — in this case, the AARP, which was holding a national conference called Life@50+ next door at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Washington Post Live events are free and open to the public, and other news organizations are invited to cover them as well. The compare-and-contrast that comes to mind is the Post’s ill-conceived plan in 2009 to host $25,000 off-the-record salons with the paper’s journalists in publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home (a fiasco I wrote about at the time for The Guardian).

The Booming Tech event at the Westin featured, inevitably, its own hashtag (#techboomers). About 100 people were on hand, but many of them seemed younger than I — and I’ve been fending off AARP mailers for the better part of the past decade.

The proceedings were webcast live, and video highlights have been posted. A publication of some sort will follow, Jordan told the audience, after a second Booming Tech is held in San Diego on Sept. 4. The idea of the Post holding events far outside its circulation area would seem to line up well with its recent move to give subscribers of some other newspapers digital access to the Post; both aim to extend the power of Post content outside its traditional boundaries.

In his conversation with Jordan, P.J. O’Rourke insisted that he is “not a Luddite,” explaining: “A Luddite wants to destroy tech … I just want to point out that there will be tears before bedtime for a long time.”

As with so many news organizations, technology has led to a lot of tears at The Washington Post, transforming the paper from a highly profitable enterprise into a money-loser hoping that some of Bezos’ Amazon fairy dust will somehow rub off.

Washington Post Live is certainly not the answer to the Post’s woes, or to those of the news business in general. But it’s nevertheless an interesting idea that at least partly answers the question: “Where do we go from here?”

Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

Bezos voices skepticism on paywalls, advertising

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

Two quick takeaways from Jeff Bezos’ interview with The Washington Post, his first since announcing last month that he would purchase the paper for $250 million:

1. He sounds like an ink-stained wretch whining about The Huffington Post in denouncing the evils of aggregation, telling the Post’s Paul Fahri:

Even behind a paywall, Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, “Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free” from another site?

2. Despite his  skepticism about paywalls in the age of aggregation, Bezos is not ready to embrace the idea of free content supported by advertising. “I’m skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece,” he said. Good thing: newspaper ad revenues are in the midst of a stunning decline, as this chart demonstrates.

So, if paywalls aren’t the answer and neither is advertising, what will work? Relentless experimentation, combined with time, resources and patience. That’s what the Amazon.com founder brings to the table.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.

Crowdsourcing the pain of transcribing audio

The trouble with recording interviews is that you have to transcribe them. So after one of my forays to New Haven last week, where I interviewed people in connection with a book I’m working on about community news sites, I had a ton of audio and the unpleasant task of translating it all to text.

I decided to crowdsource the task through an Amazon.com service called Mechanical Turk. More about that in a moment. But first I want to explain my reluctance to try it.

I think the results are better when I do it myself. I have to listen carefully, which helps me seal the best stuff inside my leaky brain. I know what we were taking about, which means that I’m not flummoxed by names and unusual phrases, as any transcriber would be. And because I have an idea of how I’ll use the material, I can decide on the spot what to transcribe verbatim, what to paraphrase and what to leave out altogether. So I knew I could potentially be giving up a lot by turning the task over to others.

Some years ago I used a transcription service near Harvard Square when time was of the essence and when, most important, someone else was paying the bill. This time, faced with many hours of work, I decided to take advice given me last fall by Zach Seward and try MTurk. Seward, then with the Nieman Journalism Lab, told me that lab director Joshua Benton had used it to transcribe this talk by New York University’s Clay Shirky. I was impressed.

I posted a query on Twitter, and several people responded by sending me a link to an online guide by Andy Baio. I decided to try it with two interviews — a 65-minute recording with New Haven Independent founder and editor Paul Bass, made on his reasonably quiet back deck, and a 35-minute conversation with New Haven alderman Michael Jones, at an outdoor café on a busy street.

My first step was to go through the cumbersome process of converting my Olympus recorder’s WMA files to MP3s, and then dividing those MP3s into five-minute chunks so that a number of different people could apply themselves to the task. By the time I got around to doing the second interview, I had stumbled upon EasyWMA, a $10 utility that took the pain out of conversion, and had finally taught myself enough about Audacity, a free audio editor, so that I could painlessly produce five-minute bits.

I was surprised by how quickly the crowd swarmed over my files — in less than a day, I had everything I needed. Unfortunately, the quality was extremely uneven. Some of the mistakes were bizarre or unintentionally hilarious. How “state of Connecticut” became “state of Kentuckian” is one I’ll never figure out. And here’s a choice excerpt from my conversation with Bass. First, the MTurk version:

They had a Sunocompass call with WBR few weeks ago to get the advice, how the membership strives. The taste and ever didn’t undership strives because I felt that if the widely suceessful they might get thirty to fourty thousand dollars.

Now, what he really said:

They had us on a conference call with WBUR few weeks ago to get advice on how to do membership drives. In the past I hadn’t done membership drives, because I felt that if they’re wildly suceessful they might get you to $30,000 or $40,000.

Following Baio’s advice, I’d set a price of $2 per five-minute excerpt. You have the option of rejecting unusually bad work, refusing to pay and letting someone else take a crack at it. I decided to accept everyone’s work, including the person who produced what you see above. But I blocked two people (including the one I just cited), so that if I use the service again, they won’t have a chance to work on my stuff.

Overall, I paid $41.80*, $3.80 of which went to Amazon, the remainder to the folks who actually did the work.

Between file conversion and preparation, downloading transcribed interviews, listening to everything again and cleaning up the transcripts, I don’t know how much time I saved. Not much, probably. Yesterday I transcribed two interviews myself, and I thought the results were much better.

On the other hand, I purposely chose my Bass interview for MTurk because it was long and he talks very quickly. It was also an unusually substantive conversation, and I knew there wasn’t much I wanted to leave out. Most of the transcribers did an OK job.

My bottom line is that, in the future, I would probably reserve MTurk for situations in which I have good audio quality and need a full verbatim transcript. Even knowing that I’ll have to do a fair amount of retyping, it’s still better than starting from scratch.

But if I’m producing normal interview notes, I’ll handle it myself.

*Addendum: Jack Shafer of Slate told me the price I cited doesn’t mean much without comparing it to the price of a professional transcription service. So I contacted a good one and was told it would cost about $140 an hour — or about $230, nearly six times as much as what I paid. That’s a huge mark-up. On the other hands, the results would have been more usable.

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.