By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Politicker

Another round in the paid-content debate

Having recently regaled us with the flawed tale of a community newspaper that refuses to publish its content online, New York Times media columnist David Carr is back — this time with a suggestion that what we need is “an iTunes for news.”

Carr’s thesis is that news organizations can no longer afford to give away their content. But, as he acknowledges in his lament about the arrested state of online advertising, they’re not giving it away — or, at least, they don’t mean to. Rather, they’re failing to sell enough advertising to pay for their journalism. That’s a problem, but it’s not the same problem.

Carr knows as well as anyone that a good deal of what you pay for when you buy a newspaper doesn’t contribute anything to the bottom line. You’re paying for paper, presses, maintenance to those presses, distribution and — yes — the salaries of some good, hard-working people who won’t be needed if and when we move into a Web-only environment.

Given that, news organizations should theoretically be able to come up with an online version that pays for itself, or even turns a profit, without charging for access. That’s what national and local television newscasts do, and the model worked even better some years ago, when those newscasts were deeper and meatier than they are today. That’s what National Public Radio and its affiliate stations do, raising money directly from listeners in the form of contributions and from corporations in the form of advertising — uh, sorry, “underwriting.”

The problem with online news today is threefold: (1) sites like Craigslist and have taken away much of the advertising that news orgs might have been able to sell; (2) the recession has halted the growth of online (and print) advertising; and (3) newspaper companies are staggering under so much debt that they need a rate of return that would be unrealistic even in a more favorable economic environment.

I’ve learned a lot over the past few years from Lisa Williams, who founded H2otown to cover her community of Watertown and now heads up Placeblogger to track community Web sites around the world. One of the most important is this: the future belongs to the small and the swift, and journalists — especially young journalists — ought to think of their careers the way tech workers do. Today’s journalists will probably live a rather nomadic existence, moving from start-up to start-up as we all try to figure out where the news business is going and where there might actually be money to be made.

Two cases in point.

Last week, a promising project whose goal was to expand into a network of 50 state-based sites, more or less went out of business, cutting back to just New York and New Jersey. The Massachusetts site is gone (though still up). Its blogger-journalist, Jeremy Jacobs, has taken a job at The Hill.

Politicker’s national managing editor, James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for the Boston Globe’s site, and who is himself a pioneering online journalist, is out of a job, although I can’t imagine he won’t get scooped up by someone very soon.

I’m not sure what happened. It could be that Politicker’s business model — getting advocacy groups (i.e., lobbyists) to buy ads in order to reach the intended audience of inside players — was not realistic. It could be that the model was brilliant but the timing was bad. In any case, the cycle of destruction and creation continues.

Because, this week, the long-anticipated makes its debut. Headed by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott, the site is aimed at covering international news at a time when most traditional news organizations are cutting back.

It’s hard to imagine a more heartening development in journalism. And, yes, David Carr would rightly point out that GlobalPost plans some subscription-based services.

In fact, there may be a place for some pay services in online journalism, although I suspect it will be rare. Carr cites the Wall Street Journal, but people will pay for the specialized financial information to which a Journal online subscription gives them access. Sorry, but the Times, good as it is, doesn’t offer that.

Likewise, some people will pay to have their favorite newspapers downloaded onto a device like the Amazon Kindle, a step up in convenience and readability in comparison to the typical laptop.

As we move rapidly into the post-newspaper era, we’re going to see all kinds of experiments — mostly free, some subscription-based, most of which will fail, a few of which will succeed and serve as models for the industry.

The one thing that won’t work — and I think Carr would acknowledge this if it were put to him directly — is the notion that newspapers as we have come to know them will somehow be able to charge for their everyday content. That horse left the barn 10 years ago, and it’s not coming back.

Photo (cc) by David Muir and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Big Dog barks

The good: He defined the issues more succinctly than anyone has managed all year — restoring the American Dream at home and restoring America’s image abroad. Vague, obviously, but more evocative than mere change for change’s sake.

The not-so-good: He made a compelling case against Bush, who, the last time I checked, isn’t running. Yes, he tied McCain to the Bush agenda, but he left the knots kind of loose.

A new source of Mass. political coverage

Did you know that Republican congressional candidate Nathan Bech wants U.S. Rep. John Olver to save the planet by not sending mail to constituents who don’t want it? Or that Watertown councilor Jonathan Hecht is running hard for a state rep’s seat? Or that former Ted Kennedy aide Melody Barnes has signed on with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign?

These are just a few of the tidbits you can glean at, which slipped quietly into view in mid-June. The goal of the Politicker project is to provide intensive coverage of state and local politics, combining original reporting with blogging on what other media outlets are saying.

I mentioned Politicker earlier this year when James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for, left to become the national managing editor. So far, Politicker has set up shop in about 15 states, according to the list under “PolitickerMA Partners.” The goal is to launch a Politicker site in all 50 states.

In an instant-message conversation with my Reinventing the News students this past spring, Pindell said Politicker’s revenue base will likely be issue-oriented ads aimed at the political and public-policy community in Massachusetts. Smart move. It doesn’t strike me that anyone is going to read Politicker other than serious political junkies. The mass media are giving way to many little niches, and Politicker aims to occupy one of those niches.

Politicker reminds me of a slicker, which Pindell ran during the 2004 primary season, and which no longer exists. (Politicker appears to have acquired the name, as it now forwards to Pindell’s earlier project became briefly famous for sponsoring a contest to find a wife for Dennis Kucinich, who was then single. It was great fun, though Elizabeth Harper, the woman whom the congressman later married, was not one of the contestants.

Another similarity to PoliticsNH is the presence of an anonymous columnist. At PolitickerMA, the nom de opinion is “Wally Edge.” In a story in the New York Times back in February, Politicker founder Robert Sommer (who’s also publisher of the New York Observer) described the undercover columnists who are being turned loose in each state as “the secret sauce,” and could include lobbyists, political consultants and former officeholders. Edge’s views seem benign enough so far, but I’m skeptical about this innovation. I’d rather such insiders be identified so we know their associations and potential conflicts.

PolitickerMA’s staff reporter is Jeremy Jacobs, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism who has worked for The Hill, among other places.

An early fan of PolitickerMA is Bay Windows editor Laura Kiritsy, who writes that the site “has already provided me with hours of late-night, on-deadline procrastinating thrills.” Kiritsy especially likes the lists of best and worst Massachusetts campaigns, which are pretty amusing.

Oddly enough, there are no RSS feeds [correction below] at PolitickerMA, though you can sign up for a daily e-mail.

As the news-media landscape morphs into something totally new, PolitickerMA is the sort of project that’s worth keeping a close eye on.

Neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald provides the kind of small-bore coverage that is Politicker’s purview, especially as they shrink their staffs.

State House News Service does a good job of covering the Legislature, but it charges high subscription fees and is aimed mostly at media and political professionals.

Blue Mass Group rounds a lot of political news, but it’s partisan and almost wholly dependent on what its members can find in other media.

Politicker is exciting because it suggests a possible way out of the morass in which journalism finds itself these days. If it succeeds, it will occupy a sweet spot between full-service news organizations, which are shrinking, and citizen journalism, which is important but which does not meet the need for a reliable, edited news report.

And it gives young journalists who wish to cover politics some reason to hope that they’ll be able to make a living at it.

Correction: Robert David Sullivan has found an RSS feed. I was deceived by the lack of an RSS symbol in Firefox.

The nothing primary II

Well, that’s what I ended up going with when I wrote my Guardian column last night. Clinton did really well, so there’s no reason for her to get out. But she didn’t win by the huge margin she needed to change the dynamic of the race. And on (and on) we go.

And about that closing

John King of CNN said a little while ago that the Obama campaign had sent out an e-mail showing that Hillary Clinton’s closing closely paralleled a line John Edwards had used. Please note: It doesn’t matter. But the Clinton campaign never should have started down this road.

Politicker’s “secret sauce”

The New York Times explains what is all about. The idea is to provide each of the 50 states with its own political-news site combining blogging with more traditional forms of journalism. New Jersey’s site, more fully developed than the rest at this point, will be the model.

Politicker is the project that recently snared political blogger James Pindell to be its national managing editor. Sounds interesting, but I’m not sure what to make of this:

Most states will be covered by one or two reporters, one editor working on contract from inside the state, and an undetermined number of bloggers. The editors — who will remain anonymous, and will include lawyers, lobbyists and former officeholders — are the “secret sauce,” Mr. Sommer said.

Sommer is Robert Sommer, president of the Observer Media Group, which owns Politicker.

“Secret sauce” is the reason I don’t order Big Macs, and I’m not so sure I’m going to like it in my political news, either. Anonymous lobbyists? How is that a good idea?

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