Monday, July 19, 2010

iPad app declares war on newspapers. Hunh?

What am I missing here? Just read this post on TechCrunch about how former Google and Bing engineers have started a company called Hawthorne Labs, which has created an iPad app called APOLLO that's supposed to crawl the Web and deliver personalized news to build a genuine Newspaper of the Future™, and thus “deliver the final blow to the newspaper industry”.

If they deliver the final blow to the newspaper industry, I suppose they'll be able to crawl only broadcast sites? Rumour and inuendo from bloggers who comment on news published by ... who? Who do they think produces news? I guess they could gather links to magazine and wire service sites. They haven't declared they want to nail shut their coffins.

I repeat: What am I missing here?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

$1 billion sale ends Canwest newspaper bankruptcy

A $1 billion deal selling the Canwest chain of newspapers closed the bankruptcy chapter in the chain's history yesterday, putting former tabloid mogul and National Post publisher Paul Godfrey at the helm of the largest English newspaper chain in Canada.

A committee of holders of senior subordinated notes led by Godfrey have a 45 percent equity stake in the newly-minted Postmedia Network Canada.

The chain, born in 1904 when William Southam created Southam Inc. after buying The Hamilton Spectator, The Calgary Herald, The Edmonton Journal, The Ottawa Citizen and The Vancouver Province, among others, eventually included the majority of Canada's large metro dailies, including The Montreal Gazette. Southam sold the chain in 1996 for 2.1 billion to Conrad Black's Hollinger International, which also acquired many of the Canadian print holdings of Thomson Newspapers.

Hollinger sold the papers and the Southam Newspapers name to Canwest in 2000, which had an eye on integrating the small market papers with its Global TV holdings. That never happened.

Struggling with a massive debt load after the acquisition, Canwest sold many of the small market newspapers to Torstar, Transcontinental Media and Osprey Media and created Canwest News Service in 2003 from the large market newspapers, but that only delayed bankruptcy.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Revisiting 'content farms'

The Nieman Journalism Lab's Week in Review quoted something I wrote here last week on how newspapers can beat content farms at their own game by learning how to use algorithms as Demand Media does to find out what people want to read about.

I'd agreed with what Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Fry had told The Wrap, saying that the main problem with the Demand Media business model is that "people seeking information will have their time wasted reading crummy content produced for spiders, not readers.”

The problem with "demand" content is that it's poor quality content and doesn't build loyalty to the sites that use it. So I suggested newspapers can beat the content farms at their own game by using the business model to produce quality content created for readers.

The Neiman Journalism Lab's roundup countered my musing with an argument from Harvard prof Ethan Zuckerman, who said dictating content based on search would be a bad way to run a newspaper: “You’d give up the critical ability to push topics and parts of the world that readers might not be interested in, but need to know about to be an engaged, informed citizen.”

He's right. We still need to tell people about things they don't yet know they need to know. Breaking news, investigative journalism, consumer reports, scientific breakthroughs, analysis of the impact environmental degradation and industrial agricultural practices are having on our lives ... all these fall outside what an algorithm will likely discover from web searches.

But clearly, if we aren't also providing them with timely access to information about the things they are searching for, we won't have an engaged audience that considers us a destination - which is precisely how we CAN beat content farms at their own game. Poorly written content won't inspire people to return or spend very much time reading it.

But if news organizations aren't drawing people in with solid, well-written information about the things they are searching for - and doing it better than the content farms - then:

1) we won't be able to get the other "important" information in front of them in a timely manner, because even if we publish it they won't be on our sites to see it, and
2) they will turn to us only during moments of crisis for "important" information and we can't build a business model on that.

News organizations shouldn't abandon our mandate to beat the content farms at their own game. But we can adapt -- learn to use technology to keep a finger on the pulse of what people want to know about -- in order to become a destination that can still tell them about what they need to know about, and fulfill our mandate.

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The end of The Canadian Press as we know it?

Concentration of media ownership in Canada is about to get even tighter. The Canadian Press, a cooperative of Canadian newspapers that have shared stories since World War I, is poised to become a for-profit news agency owned by CTVglobemedia (owner of the Globe&Mail), Torstar (owner of The Toronto Star) and Gesca (owner of Montreal's La Presse).

This is huge - a turning point for CP, which was abandoned by CanWest three years ago and more recently, last year, by Sun Media, which started the QMI Agency as its own news service.

It's also inevitable.

The triumvirate of buyers includes two players - the Southam newspaper chain (now owned by CanWest) and Torstar - who experimented with sharing news production back in the late '80s, with an eye to dropping CP. Southam insiders wanted to pull out of CP and start its own news service long before the Southam newspaper chain was bought by Hollinger (Conrad Black's media enterprise) and later by CanWest. The cooperative contract called for Southam to feed its news stories to CP and pay CP to use the CP feed. Southam felt like it was paying for the privilege of providing the majority of the stories. That sentiment never changed and CanWest pulled out in 2007.

If the deal goes through, it means Canadians will have even fewer sources to turn to for a different take on news - the majority will come from three sources: CP, QMI or CBC. I wonder how this will impact CP's distribution of stories from the Associated Press, a cooperative of American news media.

Yet even before the defections CP was struggling and this may be the only way it can survive. CP had to get permission from Ottawa to delay some payments for its pension plans last year because the plans were running a $34.4 million deficit.

The turmoil in the news industry may be about to get even rockier.

Go here for analysis from the Canadian Journalism Project.

'Demand' content isn't the problem

"Demand" content isn't the problem. It's the execution.

The era of "demand" content is upon us, and news organizations need to take note. Newsrooms can learn a lesson from companies using algorithms to find out what people are searching for, and then write about it.

Most criticism of Demand Media and Associated Content and their ilk devolves to calling them "content farms" that are to journalists what factories are to Chinese workers. Can "content farms" kill real journalism? Sure. If all you can get for an article is what you usually get paid for 15 minutes worth of work, you're going to spend only 15 minutes writing it. Which may or may not provide enough time to check more than one source, discern whether the source is full of BS, or write something captivating enough to hold your reader.

But discerning readers can tell the difference between churned out, formula-written copy and in-depth reporting. "Demand" journalism isn't the problem. It's the execution. Content derived from non-original research that results from formula writing can't inspire or hold readers' interest. The holy grail for content websites is to increase engagement - the amount of time spent on the site. and repeat visits "Demand" content doesn't tend to encourage a return to the site and readers don't spend as long reading it as they do on better-written and more engaging content. Well-researched, captivating content keeps a reader online and clicking for "more" longer.

The bigger problem is that search engines serve the pablum first.

“What bugs me is that this stuff essentially games Google to show up high in search results, making it more likely that people seeking information will have their time wasted reading crummy content produced for spiders, not readers,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Fry told The Wrap in an article posted yesterday. “That makes search worse for all of us.”

It will also have an impact on whether talented people become journalists or decide to do something else that will actually earn them a living. The squeeze is on freelancers, in particular, by websites such as, where freelancers are asked to bid on projects for which clients are frequently unwilling to pay more than $1 for a 400-word article. That comes to a fraction of a cent per word. Essentially they're looking for "writers" to find an article someone else wrote on the topic they want for their website and rewrite it just enough to fool plagiarism software.

The other trend is aspiring writers getting sucked into writing for free for "exposure." While it's true you can't sell your work unless you already have bylines to show as samples, this trend goes much further, in that some sites suite as Suite 101 have enslaved small armies of writers and pay a pittance of pennies only if what you wrote gets clicked and displays an ad. You could starve writing for Suite 101.

Derek Finkle launched Canadian Writers Group to combat that trend, representing freelancers to magazines to get them better rates than they could ostensibly negotiate for themselves. A recent article by the Ryerson Review of Journalism that talks about his battle lamented how magazine rates have been at $1 a word now for decades. Of course, he takes a cut. Because a lot of people are really terrible at negotiating, he might have a solid business model.

But freelancers now being paid pennies per word would love to get $1 a word.

What's needed is for newsrooms to adapt to the demand model and use it to produce quality content that will blow the content farms out of the water.