Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What the Free Press layoffs exposed: their priorities, ignorance, and backwards-ness

Last week as we all know, not one, not two, but seven Winnipeg Free Press staff were laid off. That's seven folks from a relatively small town's “newspaper of record.”

I`m not writing this to weigh in on what I think of the Free Press layoffs. I`m writing to juxtapose two astounding viewpoints that are very telling of the current media environment in this town. On September 22, Dan Lett posted this on his Free Press-approved blog. The next day, September 23rd, the Free Press published a piece by a 3-week-old RRC CreComm-ling. One a middle-aged journalist who condescendingly faults readers for not paying up and reading for free, the other a 19-year old who only gave her own viewpoint (and was largely thrown under the bus for it) on what's wrong with media.

Funding high quality journalism

Let's start with Dan's piece. Dan is like the Free Press in the way he thinks, in fact, he is exactly like the Free Press. It goes like this: readers don't pay, so how do we pay for journalists to create more and more content with less and less revenue? The mistake here is thinking journalism in the 21st century must work exactly as it did in the 19th century. People (readers) must pay. Revenue from subscriptions, revenue from print advertising. If only online adverts generated as much as print adverts! Here, Dan says it better than I do:

I'll try one more time to make the fundamental point that everyone is missing: YOU CAN'T EARN ENOUGH MONEY RIGHT NOW OFF ONLINE CONTENT TO PAY FOR THE PRODUCTION OF ONLINE CONTENT.

But, Dan is wrong. It's not like the FreeP is the first news organization to face this problem. They have just failed spectacularly at adapting to it. Letting go of your Internet-savvy online editor isn't going to help. It's all very Darwinian. Let's trot around the Internet Machine to see.

We can start with a very successful print-online hybrids, Politico. According to Wikipedia, Politico was founded in 2007. Politico's circulation is limited to the DC area and is a sad 35 000 daily. And that daily is free. But they receive over 6 million unique visits per month to the website. I don't have to pay a dime to read it. Not only that, they're hiring, not laying off.

Mother Jones is another outlet that successfully merged print and online. They're not just producing remarkable content, but they have broken the biggest story of the current US Election cycle. And they're a 501(c)(3) non-profit. This is real, groundbreaking journalism, original, exclusive content. It must cost a lot to produce that. Somehow they are not only making enough money to pay great journalists, but succeeding wildly. They went online, get this, in 1993. When the Internet was like this (thank Dave for that). They went online knowing there was nothing there for them. And yet here they are now, producing some of the most compelling content in US media. You'd be crazy not to pay attention.

Furthermore, it only costs me $22 to subscribe for a year of print magazines to Mother Jones. By contrast, it costs me $12 a month to subscribe to the Winnipeg Free Press online. Which is half of what I pay just to access teh ent1re internetz every month.

There are solutions out there. To say you can't make a go at it and chastise readers in the process doesn't display how much we don't know, it shows how beholden some are in the newspaper industry to the good'ol days. Other successful online models include Truthdig which has received nods from the LA Press Club and Webby Awards, Townhall.com which existed entirely online until 2008 when they launched a tiny-circulation magazine.

Quality of content

This brings me to the “groundbreaking must-read” coverage the Winnipeg Free Press provides. The unquestioning support for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, sycophantic love for parking lots where apartments were supposed to be, and columnists telling readers that crime is just in your heads. All Jets, all winter.

Maybe this is why the StefSpeaks of the world don't read newspapers. Maybe if newspaper articles couldn't be condensed into 140 characters, she might be wide-eyed enough to scroll through one on her iPhone. But what's to be wide-eyed about recently?

On last Saturday's Free Press, BONO is on the front page!!! Let that sink in....BONO!!! Did U2 play here on Friday? No, of course not. Oh how great it would have been for Bono to announce the Jets are coming back! That happened A YEAR AGO! Sharing headline space with BONO!!! is a teaser for an architecture design competition. This is a Saturday paper? Seriously? In the bottom corner, is a tiny photo of Phil Sheegl, the only bit of actual journalism on the front page. And it's cast off to the bottom corner like an afterthought.

Isn't that telling of the Winnipeg Free Press' priorities? Fawning over a year-old concert and the dream-that-would-have-been Jets announcement? Why the hell should I pay for that? Kicking the scandal du jour off to the corner in the process. Pssh, who cares about fire hall-gate? It's complicated, you have to read stuff. Bono's face sells papers, not Phil Sheegl's! Subscribers pay for year-old recollections from Mark Chipman, not for actual CONTENT, right?

Fast forward to Monday's paper. Front page: good samaritan bus driver. Hey, nothing wrong with that. The rest? What rest? The effectiveness of laptops in schools? What home builders like in the SW corner of Winnipeg? A sustainability project....

Do you want to know what's up for tomorrow's Free Press? Courtesy of Paul Samyn's editor's bulletin:

  • Geoff Kirbyson will tell us why Winnipeggers are happy, even though the Jets aren't playing and the Bombers suck.
  • Gerald Flood tells us about his subarctic holiday.
  • Doug Spiers' contest idea for the soon-to-be-obsolete Blue Boxes.
  • Something about the NHL lockout.
  • Allison Gilmour interviews a food writer from Regina.

In other words: THERE IS NO NEWS! Is this the kind of professional journalism only trained journalists can do? This is what professional journalists get paid to do? This is why I should pay attention? You're going to blame me, and StefSpeaks, for not wanting to pay, for flipping through our Twitter feeds? I won't even be through my first sip of coffee tomorrow before I'm done with the Free Press.

Is it any wonder the money pit keeps dwindling? What is worth paying for here? Where's the hard-hitting, effective journalism? The FreeP's got 99 problems, and fluff ain't one.

Independent media does what the big boys won't 

Enter independent media. Enter “citizen journalism.” The most remarkable thing about the Age of the Internet as it relates to journalism, is the rise of independent media. The independents seem to care more than the major broadsheets about journalism. They've taken things into their own hands, with their own passion, and their own hearts. And that's precisely what makes their products so compelling.

Democracy Now! started in the mid-90s on radio, but only exploded in popularity recently. What's their business model? Listener support. You like their news, you like their program? Donate. And with the topics they tackle, it's no wonder the program is successful. They've got one hour. They aren't spending time on what Bono did a year ago. It's all relevant, all the time. Their survival depends on must-listen content, not advertising revenue.

That program, by the way, is an hour long with two very brief breaks. Can StefSpeaks sit through that? Maybe she only leads us to believe she has ADD in her column, but DN! isn't counting on people like her tuning in, they're counting on people like me spreading the word about how great it is, how you have to listen. Long-format interviews, they hold debates on air sometimes, they have foreign correspondents. They have journalists who believe to the death in what they do. They don't buy the government's press releases or millionaires' smiling faces.

Hey, that rhymes!

While I'm on this subject, let me try to turn you on to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), another non-profit that does absolutely stunning work. They're non-profit as well. They have done incredible stuff that no other mainstream outlet has dared to do: investigate the US drone strike civilian death toll. (Notice what it says at the top of that piece...”Support our work - share this article.”) They won an Amnesty International award for digital media two years in a row.

One thing that separates the independents from the mainstream, is their willingness to work with others. Check out the list of partners TBIJ has: BBC, Chanel 4, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, and Le Monde. Same goes for DN! They regularly have (my favourite) Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian (who rose to prominence squarely on online content), and Jeremy Scahill of The Nation. They had Chris Hayes of MSNBC on the other week. When Wikileaks launched CableGate, doing the work journalists are supposed to do, they farmed out the source material to journalists who cared around the world to disseminate it and put it into context.

Independent media did happen to arise in Winnipeg. The Great Canadian Talk Show did, and like others in the field, slowly but steadily grew a significant audience. The purpose of the show was to look deep into issues, not give the glance-over. To give long-format interviews. To include everyone, from the Free Press and the Sun, to ChrisD, to anyone who raised a decent point on the blogosphere. Instead of listening to the criticisms launched at mainstream practices, the former editor of the Free Press engaged in a campaign to shut it down, by lying, by smearing the work of people like me, by smearing the reputation of beloved station manager Rick. She also lied to the National Post about it.

Totally becoming of a journalist. I mean, professional journalist. This also emphasizes what the priorities are at the Free Press. Holding their reputation, making sure their buddies and business partners are happy. Totally becoming of professional journalism. And not one Free Press journalist spoke out about this injustice or wrote about it. Totally becoming of professional journalism.

One size does not fit all

Between that event, Dan Lett's “are readers so dumb they don't get that you have to pay?” tone, the “we train citizen journalists” program, and the recent layoffs, the Winnipeg Free Press clearly cultivates a culture of dictatorship. One paper rules all. One outlet rules all. All your subscribe are belong to us.

That era is gone. The era where I can subscribe to one source of news, and gladly pay for it, is gone. It's not about one place anymore.

The Internet is the ultimate Darwinian model for news content. The best stuff goes to the top. This is why Mother Jones, why Democracy Now! And why Politico are successful. They are successful because they produce content, because they believe in journalism, because they are adaptive, because they know they have to change their game in today's world. They think outside the box, how to deliver content, how to obtain it, how to spread it. The Free Press is thinking about black and red lines.

In that sense, Dan's music analogy is very apt. It is about turntables and iTunes. The Free Press turfed those who knew how iTunes worked. But John White doesn't only know how iTunes works, he knows what Spotify is (this whole paragraph is a metaphor), and he knows it's a joke we pretend it doesn't exist. Dan bemoans the fall of physical mediums and the artist's revenue that automatically came with it, but doesn't bother to find out how a pipsqueak indie nobody like Amanda Palmer makes Universal look like amateurs. By cultivating an audience, by only caring about her fans. By devoting herself entirely to her product. By finding new ways to get that product to her fans, no matter what. The old guarde and others are bitter, jealous of that.

Readers of the Free Press might be less hostile to the layoff situation if it looked like the paper was moving forward. Instead, we're talked down to by a senior columnist after some promising, forward-thinking staff are let go. That's followed up by a column from a 19 year old who hasn't yet had the realization that Twitter is niche. That's followed up with the promise of a super-exciting column about recycling boxes from Doug Spiers tomorrow. Through the cracks of the mainstream, some very persistent weeds have survived to show us all that it can be done.

And I'm out here in the DIY world of blog-land, watching the dandelions grow.


Gordon Arnold said...

Besides the problems correctly identified here, there is a serious problem with the FP ad department, which is still struggling to come to grips with the concept of moveable type, nevermind rotary presses or the newer offset printing processes. They sell some ads for the website, but not nearly enough. This is so, I would suggest, because they do not have a grasp of the potential. The ad department and the marketing department share a mindset which says all they have to do is shout "Go Jets Go" loud enough and long enough, and people will buy the paper because the Free Press is "the official newspaper of the Winnipeg Jets." Sorry guys. The public wants more from its newspaper and more from its website than that. By the way, on Facebook you will learn the Free Press laid off another editor last night, this one with thirty some years at the paper. But you won't read about that in the Free Press. It's on Facebook.

Wendy Sawatzky said...

Neither Politico nor Mother Jones' websites survive on their own earnings.

Politico's revenues comes primarily from the newspaper -- premium-cost ads and readers who pay $200-$600 per year for print subscriptions (that's more than 50% of revenues) and PoliticoPro members who pay $2500 per month for specialized online services (see articles on this on the Guardian and CJR).

Mother Jones' revenue comes from membership (32%) and donations (51%), according to the latest available annual report.

These publications need readers to pay as much as the Freeps does.

reedsolomon.matr1x at gmail.com said...

very well said.