Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Black Week for Print - October 27th to November 2nd, 2008

Many people are writing that last week was the worst week for Print Media since the Great Depression, as judged by layoffs, results and sea change shifts in reading habits. In many respects they're not wrong.

The front page of the IHT was dominated today by an article speaking about a similar paradigm shift in U.S elections, one that was turned upside down and 'truly became bottom up instead of top down'.

Speaking of the election, and the same can be said of media in the 21st century, the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections 'leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. This year we went to warp speed.'


I've spoken of tipping points for the NYT Company and it is at one right now, because of this warp speed year.

A part of the Black Week for Print narrative was Gawker announcing rumoured sales of (on Sunday 2nd November) by the NYT Company to reduce its debt and help it go private.
(BTW, all those people who took exception to my recent analysis of really ought to go and read the derogatory comments about posted on Gawker and elsewhere.)

I finally realised what the difference is between a blog and a non MSM news site like Gawker.

A good blog - hopefully this one - speculates on the future, using a platform of what I call 'conditional information' - things that might be true, things that might happen. Sites like HuffPo, Gawker etc rely often on reporting rumours without sources or verifiable fact checking. Nothing wrong with that, provided the reader knows what he or she is getting.

What you're getting at this blog is nothing more than informed speculation. It's what MSM calls opinion, and that the NYT hasn't an official editorial definition of what a blog is or should do tells you all you need to know about just what trouble they are in.

I had blogged several times on the dismantling of the NYT Company and the possibility of it being taken private well before actual rumours hit sites like Gawker.

I'll come back to this so-called Black Week to see if it's as black as everyone says it is.

For now, my personal point of view is that print has DEMAND side problems, not from READERS, but from ADVERTISERS who are losing faith in print as a viable option. I remain convinced that there is a demand for print from the reader, but what papers like the NYT and the IHT are SUPPLYING is not what (enough valueable) readers want.

The NYT Company Annual report of 2007 complained of audience fragementation.

OK. So what's the big effing problem?

Of course there is audience fragmentation, so having a single monolithic entity, be it on print, or online, as the NYT has, is clearly not a very smart idea as the middle ground CONSENSUS about what the intelligent mass market reader WANTS is over. Get it?

When I speak of dismantling the NYT Company, yes, I am talking about selling some assets to reduce debt, and going private wouldn't be a bad idea either.

However, what really needs to be dismantled and built from the ground up is the NYT newspaper and brands within the NYTMG stable, including the IHT.

Now naturally, with a million circulation and over two thirds of the company's revenues coming from the NYTMG, I wouldn't be doing that in a hasty or ill-considered manner.

However, I would be thinking about how the NTY Company can sit atop a framgmented audience and stop pursuing a strategy that seems to think that the NYT newspaper can somehow hold together that fragmentation.

It can't, for reasons of the audience's various, framgmented, age, income, interests, political affiliations and other things too many to get into right now.

The NYT Company needs to strip out its core brand values and apply them to other brands, new ones or existing ones, that cater to various audience splinters, some of which will be highly profitable in print as well as online.

It conspicuously failed to do this with which serious Net Heads haven't looked at since they closed their AOL account about 9 years ago.

On this historic day, I'll leave you with this article from The Economist to think about.

Oct 30th 2008
Skewed news reporting is taken as a sign of a dysfunctional media. In fact, it may be a sign of healthy competition

BARACK OBAMA recently told a writer for the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE that he was convinced he might be two or three percentage points better off in the polls for the American presidential election if Fox News, aright-leaning television station, did not exist. Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice-president, has made hay railing against the bias of the "liberal media". Allegations of partial news reporting are common in American politics. But few stop to ask what leads to differences in the way the news is reported. Bias can be thought of as a supply-side phenomenon that arises from ideology. Owners' or employees' political views will determine how a newspaper or channel slants its coverage of a piece of news. But this does not square with the assumption that readers and viewers value accuracy. If so, then competition should hurt media outlets that systematically distort the news (in any direction). The brouhaha about bias in America, as free a media market as any, suggests something else is going on. The key to understanding why bias flourishes in a competitive market may lie in thinking more clearly about what readers actually want.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer, two Harvard economists,argued in an influential paper*[1] that it may be naive to think that people care about accuracy alone. Instead, they modelled the consequences of assuming that newspaper readers also like to have their beliefs confirmed by what they read. As long as readers have different beliefs, the Mullainathan-Shleifer model suggests that competition, far from driving biased reporting out of the market, would encourage newspapers to cater to the biases of different segments of the reading public.

A more recent paper**[2] by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro,two economists at the University of Chicago's business school, set out to test this proposition. To do so, they first needed a way to measure the political slant of American news coverage. Their solution was rather imaginative. The researchers ran computer programs that analysed debates in Congress and identified phrases that were disproportionately used by Republicans or Democrats. The list of frequent Democratic phrases, for example,included "estate tax". While talking about the same issue, Republicans tended to use the phrase "death tax". (This is not just coincidence. MrGentzkow and Mr Shapiro quote an anonymous Republican staffer as saying that the party machine trained members to say "death tax", because"'estate tax' sounds like it hits only the wealthy but 'death tax' sounds like it hits everyone".) Having identified partisan phrases, the academics then analysed the news coverage of more than 400 American newspapers to see how often they cropped up in reporting. This gave them a precise measure of "slant", showing the extent to which the news coverage in these papers tended to use politically charged phrases.
Mr Gentzkow and Mr Shapiro then needed to assess the political beliefs of different newspapers' readerships, which they did using data on the share of votes in each newspaper's market that went to President Bush in the 2004 presidential elections, and information on how likely people in different parts of that market were to contribute to entities allied to either Democrats or Republicans. The researchers were now able to look at the relationships between circulation, slant, and people's political views.First, they measured whether a newspaper's circulation responded to the match between its slant and its readers' views. Not surprisingly, they found that more "Republican" newspapers had relatively higher circulations in more "Republican" zip codes. But their calculations of the degree to which circulation responded to political beliefs also allowed them to do something more interesting: to calculate what degree of slant would be most profitable for each newspaper in their sample to adopt, given the political make-up of the market it covered. They compared this profit-maximising slant to their measure of the actual slant of each newspaper's coverage. They found a striking congruence between the two. Newspapers tended,on average, to locate themselves neither to the right nor to the left of the level of slant that Mr Gentzkow and Mr Shapiro reckon would maximise their profits. And for good commercial reasons: their model showed that even a minor deviation from this "ideal" level of slant would hurt profits through a sizeable loss of circulation.

Showing that newspapers have a political slant that is economically rational does not necessarily answer the question of whether ownership or demand determines bias. Here, the academics are helped by the fact that large media companies may own several newspapers, often in markets that are politically very different. This allowed them to test whether the slants of newspapers with the same owner were more strongly correlated than those of two newspapers picked at random. They found that this was not so: owners exerted a negligible influence on slant.

Readers' political views explained about a fifth of measured slant,while ownership explained virtually none.None of this is particularly helpful to seekers of the unvarnished truth. These conscientious sorts still have to find the time to readlots of newspapers to get an unbiased picture of the world. But by serving demand from a variety of political niches, competition does allow for different points of view to be represented. After all, just as Mrs Palin does not spend her time condemning Fox News, Mr Obama is unlikely to have too many complaints about the NEW YORK TIMES.
* "The Market for News", American Economic Review (September 2005).
**"What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers" (May2007)[3]-----[1]

See this article with graphics and related items at


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