King Kaufman

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Where’d this blog go?

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So we were rollin’ along pretty good here, talking about the future of journalism with a little baseball mixed in, and then all of a sudden — stop.

What happened? I got co-opted by corporate America!

OK, what really happened is that I’m writing about the same stuff — not so much the baseball — at the Future of Journalism Blog on Open Salon. Katharine Mieszkowski and I started that blog about a month ago. We’re still feeling our way a little bit, but we’re pretty pleased so far.

Come on over and join us.

When I think of something else to write about here, you’ll see it here.

Written by King Kaufman

July 18th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

ViewPass: A backwards monetization idea

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Alan Mutter, the newspaper man turned Silicon Valley CEO who has a terrific blog about journalism called Newsosaur, came clean over the weekend about having been one of three parties who made a presentation to the hush-hush summit meeting of newspaper executives in Chicago last week.

Mutter writes that he has an idea to solve the problem discussed at the confab, how to monetize online content. His proposal, in partnership with fellow CEO type Ridgely Evers, is called ViewPass.

“ViewPass would consist of a simple, one-time registration system that would remember users as they moved among participating websites,” Mutter writes. “It would build a profile of individual users from demographic information supplied by them, as well as by tracking the content they viewed as they moved from site to site.

“Like many of the several monetization systems coming to market, ViewPass would support payments for individual articles, subscriptions and bundles of content.”

In other words, you register once, and that allows you to seamlessly pay for content in various package sizes, while the content providers collect information about you and your reading habits, which allows advertisers to better market to you.

Mutter again: “The system’s greatest value would be the data it assembled on each individual consumer, because the data would enable publishers to sell their advertising inventory at premium rates to advertisers seeking to target their messages to the most likely consumers.”

This is a great idea, except it’s exactly backwards and totally wrong.

Let me get this straight: I, faithful reader, am supposed to pay money for content I now get for free, and I have to let the publications harvest personal information so they can market to me?

Do I look stupid?

That personal information is an asset of mine that I am sometimes willing to sell, but not always. It is a thing that has value. Mutter says so himself: “The system’s greatest value would be the data it assembled on each individual consumer.”

If a publication thinks it would benefit from having that thing of value, it should make me an offer. I’m open for business.

The grocery store gives me discounts and coupons in exchange for information about my buying patterns so it can market effectively to me. It seems like a square deal, so I take it. I’m not saying my information’s worth millions. But it’s worth a little sumpn-sumpn. I’m certainly not going to pay you to take it from me.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this: When I have to register to read something, even if it’s otherwise free, I usually decline. It’s just not worth the effort. Never mind cash money, that effort alone is already a payment I’m not willing to make. Rare is the information I can’t get elsewhere without having to jump through some hoop.

And if I really can’t get it elsewhere and have to register, I always lie. Why? Because I don’t want to give away something, true information about myself, that I can sell, to an organization that I thought was going to provide me a service, but has now turned into a pain in my ass.

So the advertiser that gets my information from the publication that harvested it by making me register gets bad information and wastes its money by trying to sell me something that might be interesting to a 22-year-old who lives in Arizona.

But otherwise, yeah, great idea. I’m sure people will be lining up to go through the chore of registering. I’m sure the masses will be clamoring to give away personal information that other businesses pay them for, panting at the chance to pay for previously free content that they can get elsewhere pretty easily.

Thank goodness, journalism is saved.

Written by King Kaufman

June 8th, 2009 at 10:25 am

Newspapers: Shut up and charge already

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“I’m all for an antitrust exemption for newspapers so they can all get together and charge. And get their demise over with.”

I tweeted that the other day. Beau Dure of USA Today, who always asks good questions, wondered, via Facebook, “Did a newspaper delivery person knock over your mailbox or something?”

Are you kidding? The delivery person is one of the few people in the newspaper business who actually delivers something of value — a hunk of birdcage liner! Hey that’s pretty good. Only took me a week to think of it.

It’s just that I’m sick of all these panel discussions and secret meetings and statements of purpose about how newspapers are going to get readers to pay for their basic content online, and/or save the print product. It’s like this endless debate about a question that’s been settled. The answer: They’re not. Can we please move on?

Here’s the editor of the Wall Street Journal — which, unlike almost every other newspaper in the country, has content specialized and distinctive enough that people will pay to read it online — complaining about aggregators, especially Google.

“It’s certainly true that readers have been socialised — wrongly I believe — that much content should be free,” the Australian quotes Robert Thomson saying. He’s Australian too so he talks with Brit spelling. “And there is no doubt that’s in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. And they have little incentive to recognise the value they are trading on that’s created by others.”

Thomson says readers who click to a newspaper story from Google News think they’re reading Google News: “Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator. Therefore revenue that should be associated with the creator is not garnered.”

It sounds ridiculous to me, but when I tweeted about that, several online acquaintances, including Beau, said they’ve seen that phenomenon at work. So OK, I believe it. It happens.

But do those people matter? If you don’t even pay attention to whether you’re reading something on a newspaper’s Web site or on Google News, you’re not likely to become a paying customer of either. I don’t pay enough attention to “American Idol” to know which one of the recent finalists is Kris Allen and which one is Adam Lambert, so I’m not likely to buy either one’s next record. I don’t matter to them. I’m not the customer.

If that’s the future business model for newspapers — to get the people who are too dumb or inattentive to even know what they’re reading to pay for it — well, now you know why I’m ready for them to figure out that this matter has been settled. It’s like listening to someone who talks painfully slowly explaining something you already know.

I don’t know how slowly Thomson talks, but here’s some more from the Australian article:

“Thomson argued aggregators ‘need to be honest in their role as deliverers of other people’s content.’ And as those sites were exploiting the value of mainstream media content, ‘we have to be at least as clever as they are in understanding the value of our own content.’”

Exactly! He and others in our racket act like it’s some kind of vexing mystery, figuring out the value of something, in this case content. But it couldn’t be simpler: Put a price on it. That’s how you “understand the value” of your hooptie when you offer it for sale on Craigslist, right? If you ask for too much, nobody calls.

So, I wish newspapers would quit talking about this stuff and just start charging. They’ll quickly “understand the value” of their content, which, with rare exceptions like the Wall Street Journal, is something very much like zero, and then get to the real business at hand, which isn’t figuring out how to get people to pay for newspaper Web content, it’s how news organizations can generate enough revenue to do the important work they need to do.

Solutions to that problem almost certainly exist. The sooner the industry quits working over questions that have already been answered, the sooner we’ll find them.

Written by King Kaufman

June 6th, 2009 at 9:12 am

1904 blog post: Future of transportation

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The following blog post, dated May 25, 1904, was found on a vintage MacBook unearthed during a house renovation in Chicago.

Gentlemen,

Mr. Danville has been singing the praises of his new motor car to all who will listen, and conveying friends and neighbors through the streets on joy rides during recent pleasant weekends. I have taken such a journey myself and enjoyed it, so I trust no one encountering these words would think me a foe of progress.

But these automobiles are a grave threat to the American way of life and commerce. We must put the brakes, if you will, on this burgeoning phenomenon before it’s too late.

A pair of goggles, a set of gloves, and the turn of a crank make any man an engineer, a brakeman and a conductor rolled into one. Only there’s no need for a conductor because the ride is free. And therein lies the problem.

Flitting about the streets of town in a motor car is well and good. As mentioned, I enjoy it myself. But as cars grow more robust and better able to make intercity trips, a threat arises to the railroads, the backbone of our democracy. If you can take a car without paying a fare, why would you ever board a train?

Perhaps we take for granted the hard work the railroads do, but we shall miss them when they’ve disappeared, murdered at the hands of our fascination with our new toys, courtesy of Messrs. Olds, Ford et al. When the trains are gone who will do the dirty work of carrying the mails? The day I run into a Sunday driver delivering a sack of letters will be the day I’m confident that motor cars will contribute something positive to American life.

Until then, who will perform the needed drudgery of hauling freight or moving troops? Automobiles? The idea is laughable. Inconceivable.

The engineers and brakemen, mechanics and firemen of the railroads are highly trained professionals who perform services vital to our country’s existence. Their jobs are imperiled by the free ride of the motor car, which allows any nut with a scarf to man the throttle.

Thus is endangered our industry, our security, our very society. If motorcars are allowed to overtake the railroads, the United States of America will be a bit player on the world stage in the 20th century.

Written by King Kaufman

May 25th, 2009 at 8:37 am

Morley Safer attacks the vast blog wasteland

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Morley Safer made note of the newspaper crisis and took a swipe at the blogosphere this week as he accepted an award at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Receiving the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, named after the TV news pioneer, Safer said broadcasters get stories from newspapers and can’t replace the reporting the best of them do, according to the university’s account of the evening.

Then, Quinnipiac’s press release says, Safer added, “The blogosphere is no alternative, crammed as it is with the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard. Good journalism is structured and structure means responsibility.”

Morley Safer could have spent the last 45 years dining out on his landmark reporting from Vietnam, but he didn’t. He’s a giant in the field and, like most people in our business, I’m not fit to carry his bags.

But he’s wrong about this one.

And I’m going to give him a pass on the really ridiculous thing he’s quoted as saying: “I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery.” Let’s just assume that quip was just Safer being glib for the crowd, tossing off a clever line. Let’s credit him with not really equating the skills and training journalism requires with those needed to perform surgery. He must not think citizens can’t do journalism or that journalists aren’t citizens, right?

But the blogosphere is absolutely an alternative to newspapers. Or at least it can be. Or at least I think it can be. I only think so rather than knowing so because I don’t know what the blogosphere is, and I’m guessing Safer doesn’t either.

I count 73 blogs at the New York Times, for example. The guy who writes this one just won a Nobel Prize and was a finalist for a Pulitzer, neither of which they just hand out to random bloggers. Is Paul Krugman part of the “blogosphere” that’s “no alternative” to print newspapers?

A blog is a format. That’s all it is. It’s a way to organize words. The words themselves can be brilliant shining diamonds or they can be a load of cow patties. There’s no reason why the universe of online writers can’t perform the same functions the universe of newspaper writers has.

It’s simply a matter of someone coming up with a business model that works. I believe some people are going to do that. I also believe those people aren’t going to be journalists, they’re going to be business people. Which is why it’s funny that everybody’s having all these panel discussions about what the future of journalism is going to be and filling the panel with journalists.

We don’t know. We just do our thing. Other people figure out how to make a business out of it. A journalist didn’t invent the linotype machine, you know. Or the TV camera, for that matter.

“Good journalism is structured and structure means responsibility,” Safer said. I’m not sure what he meant by that. I would guess he’s talking about the structure of editorial oversight at newspapers, the editors who vet reporters and help shape their beats and their copy.

Again, there’s no reason that couldn’t happen at online-only publications. It happens now. But even if we’re talking about the blogosphere as Safer envisions it — you will now picture a basement and a lone figure in his underwear, typing — there is responsibility.

The bloggers who write well, tell the truth and have important things to say find an audience, and a large, engaged, intelligent readership is a better and tougher editor than the best, toughest editor who ever edited.

Sure, the Internet turns everybody into a publisher and that makes us all subject to “the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard,” in Safer’s words.

It’s called freedom of speech. Safer might want to take a gander at that First Amendment the award he just picked up was named after. It gets a mention. Safer’s a standard-bearer for a profession that champions freedom of speech. It’s strange to see it bother him so when other people get to use it.

“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” goes A.J. Liebling’s famous quote. That’s no longer true. That’s a good thing.

The blogosphere is no more tainted by the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard than public speaking is tainted by the ravings and manipulations of every wingnut with a loud voice. We don’t discount what Martin Luther King Jr. said just because some dude got in front of a microphone in Connecticut one day and said journalists are like surgeons.

The public square has given us all manner of crackpots for hundreds of years. It also gave us Lincoln.

Written by King Kaufman

May 24th, 2009 at 12:53 am

Newport Daily News strategy: Extort customers

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The Newport Daily News, in Rhode Island, made some daily news outside of Newport this week by announcing that it was putting its Web site behind a pay wall.

That’s a link to a story about it on WRNI radio’s Web site. The actual editorial announcing the new policy is, well, behind the pay wall. Cost you five bucks to read it.

“It’s pretty exciting to be ahead of the curve on this,” assistant publisher William F. Lucey III is quoted saying in the piece. At first blush that might sound odd because it’s hardly a new idea for a newspaper to charge for Web content. But the Newport Daily News really is exploring a new business model for this grand profession.

The newspaper as protection racket.

If you live in Newport and you want to get the paper delivered, it’s $145 for the year. If you want the paper and the Web site, which has been redesigned and now includes the entire print edition in a format that mimics print, it’s $245.

OK, fair enough. Added value. You pay more for two things than for one. Wouldn’t be interesting to me as a customer but good luck, all the best.

But if you want to read the Web site without getting the print edition, it’s $345 for the year.

“You’ve got a real nice house there,” the Newport Daily News is saying to its subscribers. “I’d hate to see it littered up with paper every day. Know what I’m saying? A hundred bucks a year will keep your front yard niiiiiice and tidy. Get me?”

And they say newspapers are doomed. I have seen the future of the newspaper business. It’s extortion.

Written by King Kaufman

May 21st, 2009 at 1:04 pm

King Kaufman’s funeral

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I was interviewed on the Sirius Radio show “Under_Score With Sarah Meehan” Wednesday. Meehan’s a Canadian sports broadcaster who until recently co-hosted a radio and TV show called “Drive This!”

She said she wanted to talk to me on the first week of her new show after reading my farewell column, in which I’d talked about how these are exciting times, what with this whole new paradigm in journalism thing going on. She said she’d become a fan of the column in the previous few months because of my interest in some of the social issues that surround the games. “Under_Score” seems to view the sports world through a similar lens.

Meehan was exceedingly kind in her introduction of me — so kind that I joked that I felt like I was attending my own funeral. I wish I could say I lived up to my billing over the next 15 minutes or so, but I don’t think I did. Whenever I get done talking on the radio I always find myself hoping Hemingway’s iceberg theory had kicked in. I had all kinds of interesting thoughts going on there, and you should have somehow understood them by hearing the tip of the iceberg, the few dumb things I actually said.

Here’s a link to an MP3 of the interview, and here’s one to it on iTunes. And here’s the “Under_Score” page on the Hardcore Sports Web site. Check out the show. It sounds pretty good.

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May 13th, 2009 at 11:22 pm