Some shifts in power visible in journalism today

Feb.
18
“To some degree they have achieved what Tim Russert of NBC News had when he was host of Meet the Press. Sitting down for an interview with Swisher and Mossberg is a thing you do to show that you are a serious player…”

Quick: How many shifts in power can you spot in this one report? From Reuters:

AllThingsD, the widely read technology blog run by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, has begun discussions with owner News Corp about extending or ending their partnership, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters. According to these sources, AllThingsD‘s contract with News Corp expires at the end of the year…

Sources said the website is receiving a lot of “inbound interest” from potential buyers parallel to its talks with News Corp. Among the names mentioned as having reached out to AllThingsD were Conde Nast, where Swisher recently signed to work as a contributing writer for Vanity Fair, and Hearst.

… While AllThingsD is recognized as the brainchild of Swisher and Mossberg, News Corp actually owns the website and its name. However, according to provisions in their contract, Swisher and Mossberg have approval authority over any sale, the first source said.

I count five power shifts. Now I’m not claiming that any of these are new this year, so don’t freak out! Several have been watchable trends since before Barack Obama ran for president. But they continue to alter what is possible for journalists, so it’s worth going over them one by one.

* Writers ascendant over publishers. Not completely. Just: relatively speaking. The brainchild of Swisher and Mossberg… Swisher and Mossberg have approval… It’s their franchise, not News Corp’s. AllThingsD is built around their talents as reporters, interviewers, reviewers and occasional breakers of news. Robert Cottrell, editor of The Browser, an aggregation site, put it this way in a recent essay for the Financial Times:

Think back to the days when print media ruled. Your basic unit of consumption was not the article, nor the writer, but the publication. You bought the publication in the hope or expectation that it would contain good writing. The publisher was the guarantor of quality.

Professional writers still see value in having publishers online, not so much as guarantors of quality, but because publishers pay for writing – or, increasingly, if they do not pay for it, they do at least publish it in a place where it will get read.

Readers, on the other hand, have less of a need for publishers. One striking trend I have noticed in the past five years is the way in which individual articles uncouple themselves from the places where they are first published, to lead their own lives across the internet, passed from hand to hand between readers.

Right: readers have less need of publishers. That is one reason writers are in the ascendant. Another is what my friend Clay Shirky said: “There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.” The internet does much of what publishers used to do: bring the goods to the users.

* Shifting modes of scarcity. Technology news isn’t scarce. The ability instantly to distribute technology news: that isn’t scarce. (The internet does it.) The capital required to begin providing technology news is extremely low, so that isn’t scarce. Genuine news is scarce. Talent and experience–and scoops, of course, which come from being well-sourced–are scarce. Kara Swisher, Walt Mossberg and their colleagues at AllThingsD are good at what they do. By now it is primarily this, not the fact that they did it under the banner of Dow Jones (owned by News Corp) that makes a difference. Even a 19 year-old kid can be a player in technology reporting if he has the (scarce) goods. And check out the way Mark Gurman is compensated:

Despite the fact that his work is only part-time, his pay check from 9to5Mac is not. Weintraub [his boss] tells us, “I have an unorthodox model where I give my writers ad space on their posts and on the homepage. For Mark in particular, it has been very successful because his exclusives get a lot of attention.”

How successful? Weintraub says he “makes enough money to buy a Tesla every year (he hasn’t…yet) with change left over.” Teslas generally sell for ~$100,000 a pop.

* The economics of human presence. AllThingsD began in 2003 as a conference. The site was created for people who could not be there. It grew from that to become a daily source of news and views. The conference is still the soul of the enterprise. Here it is, sold out in February, though it doesn’t happen until May. Speakers haven’t even been announced yet! News isn’t scarce, commentary isn’t scarce, but an opportunity to watch Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, think on stage? That is scarce; people will pay for it. The site boasts:

D is different from other conferences: no canned speeches, no marketing pitches, and no bull. Instead, creators and executive producers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher put the industry’s top players to the test during unscripted conversations about the impact digital technology will have on our lives now and in the future.

Swisher and Mossberg were smart to make the conference about the interviews, rather than speeches, panels or presentations. That way it is their presence, as well as Tim Cook’s or Marissa Mayer’s, that makes the event go. To some degree they have achieved what Tim Russert of NBC News had when he was host of Meet the Press. Sitting down for an interview with Swisher and Mossberg is a thing you do to show that you are a serious player. That’s the economics of human presence. Which is why the Atlantic, The Economist, the New York Times and the Washington Post (among others) are trying to make events part of their business model. There is no “save as” command for events.

* The renewed importance of voice. Kara Swisher is fast on her feet, witty and sarcastic, hyper-informed about the tech industry and she’ll try to cut you to pieces on Twitter if you challenge her, especially one of her scoops. Walt Mossberg is like a graybeard of tech, part of its institutional memory, someone who has seen it all and cannot easily be snowed. These personas are part of what they have to sell, and they emerge especially in conversation with industry leaders at their annual conference. If they were View from Nowhere journalists their franchise would not be nearly as strong as it is.

From Mossberg’s “ethics statement” on the AllThingsD site: “I am not an objective news reporter, and am not responsible for business coverage of technology companies. I am a subjective opinion columnist, a reviewer of consumer technology products and a commentator on technology issues.” From Swisher’s: “While I still intend to break news on this site, as with my previous print column, I will make subjective comments on the business and strategies of technology companies and issues.”

They know where the value lies.

* The rise of niche journalism. It’s not called “all things newsy,” or “all things business.” The business that Swisher and Mossberg built is about “digital technology meets consumer capitalism.” And that is all. This is the logic of niche jounalism. The writer Nicholas Carr summarized it five years ago:

A print newspaper provides an array of content—local stories, national and international reports, news analyses, editorials and opinion columns, photographs, sports scores, stock tables, TV listings, cartoons, and a variety of classified and display advertising—all bundled together into a single product. People subscribe to the bundle, or buy it at a newsstand, and advertisers pay to catch readers’ eyes as they thumb through the pages. The publisher’s goal is to make the entire package as attractive as possible to a broad set of readers and advertisers. The newspaper as a whole is what matters, and as a product it’s worth more than the sum of its parts.

When a newspaper moves online, the bundle falls apart. Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else.

“The bundle falls apart.” That’s a power shift. And it leads directly to: Sources said the website is receiving a lot of “inbound interest” from potential buyers…

21 Comments

  1. […] (Feb 2013): See Jay Rosen’s post about 5 power shifts in journalism for a 2013 […]

    • Pam Fine says:

      The platform may make the “bundle” less valuable but collections of digital niches– i.e. the WSJ, NYT, etc. — offer reporters and editors important platforms, brands and revenue sources.

  2. […] Some shifts in power visible in journalism today Right: readers have less need of publishers. That is one reason writers are in the ascendant. Another is what my friend Clay Shirky said: “There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.” The internet does much of what publishers used to do: bring the goods to the users. […]

  3. […] “Some shifts in power visible in journalism today,” Jay […]

  4. Tom Foremski says:

    Yes, reporters can be publishers but there is no instant distribution of news as you suggest. News stories still have to compete for attention and everything else on the web. Just because you have a news story doesn’t mean people will read it. Publishers still command attention because they provide the platform, and the marketing of that platform to readers.

    AllthingsD is an excellent publication. It’s unfortunate that Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg didn’t take the bold step back then, to leave WSJ to make AllThingsD their own, their fortunes would be made. Still, they make excellent salaries, Mr Mossberg’s is more than $500k and Ms Swisher’s probably similar, which is very good in a profession that has seen massive layoffs and frozen salaries for many years.

  5. Jay Rosen says:

    Thanks, Tom. That’s true. They could have been bolder.

    I was trying to say that writers had gained relative to publishers, but publishers still have many advantages.

  6. The shifts you describe are, indeed, good news for superstars in the “niche” categories that have universal, world-wide appeal.

    For the really, really good reporter who covers everything about the city police department–all the murders, all the intrigue–this model is not as useful. The reporter might be just as good as Mossberg. She might work more hours, under more dangerous conditions, and the information she digs out might be more important. It might be the difference between life and death for the people on her beat.

    But no way she’s ever making $500k and no way her branded blog ever gets page views like Mossberg’s or Klein’s. The potential just readers aren’t there–even in LA or NYC. And police/crime reporting is some of the most read stuff in the paper. Pity the guy with the city council beat.

    (And try to picture, if you will, a “conference” built around interviews of the police brass and, say, the local drug lords. THAT might draw–but who would agree to be interviewed?)

    Do you think the natural metrics of your power shifts might tend to draw talent to where it’s most needed? Or is something else happening?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      You’re absolutely right about the “really, really good reporter who covers everything about the city police department.” The trends described here do not help her out at all.

      There is nothing about the systematic shifts I wrote about in this post that draws talent to “where it is most needed,” if we mean by that “what communities need so that every member can be informed about public things at a basic level.”

      Only a subsidy system can do that. And only a minority of journalists can do what Swisher and Mossberg are doing. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Excellent point, Edward.

  7. […] industry you’re trying to break into. If that’s a new subject for you, I recommend this blog post by NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen as an […]

  8. Markham says:

    I think the big shift in power in the media world is the one from the publisher/author/journalist in favour of the audience. The audience now determines the news agenda, they determine where and when the pivot happens in a story, etc. The journalists (to a large extent, we’re not talking in absolute terms here), follow the audience’s lead, by listening to the real-time feedback they get and by feeding off the direct connection they can now have with the news consumer, who can be in a postion of greater knowledge than the journalists, or in a position to help them change/refine their story.

  9. Donald says:

    Tech is a special animal.

    Readers of tech news very often depend on this stuff for their livelihoods. In a world where innovation gives an advantage only for a moment, they have to seize developments and deploy products based on them within days.

    They are also responsible for the care and security of IT installations worth hundreds and millions of dollars. Company values depend on their decisions; so does the direction taken by new technology development. This is true all the way from the top IT sites in the world to the small business trying to stay afloat in a global economy.

    They are highly incented to be active, skeptical readers, so they make All Things D into a hot property and spend a lot of money on what they learn there.

    We draw conclusions about the broader world of writers and readers only at our peril.

  10. […] Some shifts in power visible in journalism today » Pressthink […]

  11. John Whoa says:

    Jay, you’ve reached self-parody. I remember all through the Bush years the excited discussion of how the president was end-running around the press. Obama now does it tenfold, and when Politico notices they get blackballed (they’re obviously right wing bias journalism partisans). No comment. No notice. No interest. Moving on to this pressing issue of Walt Mossberg’s corrupt tech reporting, in which his access to companies like Apple (and the price of that access) is blithely ignored. Just pathetic. You’re a professor, right? And you embody that tradition of cloistered ignorance.

  12. […] il racconto e a portarlo su nuove tracce stilistiche, fortemente riconoscibili (si veda sul tema «Some shift in power visible in journalism today» di Jay Rosen, sul valore della visibilità e il rapporto tra autore e editore). Probabilmente […]

  13. […] of the story and to taking on new stylistic tracks that are immediately recognizable (see “Some shift in power visible in journalism today” by Jay Rosen, about the value of the visibility and the relationship between author and […]

  14. […] all of us can be technology bloggers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg (the subjects of his article), but their story highlights how niche journalism is developing well beyond the traditional […]

  15. […] all of us can be technology bloggers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg (the subjects of his article), but their story highlights how niche journalism is developing well beyond the traditional […]