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Political Journalism in Transition—new book officially out

Political Journalism in Transition—Western Europe in a Comparative Perspective, a new book I’ve edited with Raymond Kuhn, is now officially out in the Reuters Institute book series published by I.B. Tauris.

Pol JourThe book is what it says on the tin—it takes stock of how political journalism operates today and how it has changed over the last decade in a range of different Western European countries.

The first chapter and index is available here, the book is for sale on Amazon here.

We are lucky to have in the book both great country case studies and a number of chapters dealing with cross-cutting themes.

In our introduction, Raymond and I make clear that there are several examples of both change and continuity in political journalism that are similar across most of Western Europe.

Continuity includes the enduring centrality of legacy media organizations like newspapers and broadcasters both in terms of (1) news production and (2) news dissemination, across both digital and non-digital platforms, as well as (3) the “legitimist” vision of political journalism which generally operates within a sphere of “legitimate controversy” that is marked out by electoral politics (and sometimes does not even fully include all of electoral politics as when elected representative of far-right and far-left populist parties are treated quite differently from more “mainstream” politicians).

Changes common across Western Europe includes an (1) accelerated news cycle (driven by 24-hour rolling television and increasingly social media), (2) a shifting balance of power between a reduced number of journalists producing more content for more platforms and an (3) increased number of communication professionals servicing top political actors, and of course the increased importance of digital media.

But though these are clear, shared trends, there are also pronounced, consequential, and enduring national differences, as shown by the countries analyzed in the book, where we have chapters on the specificities of political journalism in France (Raymond), Italy (Alessio Cornia), Germany (Carsten Reinemann and Philip Baugut), Denmark (Mark Blach-Ørsten), and the UK (Aeron Davis).

In terms of cross-cutting themes, we cover changes in coverage of the European Union (Oliver Baisnee), the role of public service broadcasting (Stephen Cushion), differences and similarities between political journalism in the United States and Western Europe (myself), long-term trends in political reporting (Andrea Umbricht and Frank Esser) as well as the evolution of international news coverage (Kevin Williams).

Throughout the book, we show that political journalism in Western Europe is characterized by similarity and differences as well as change and continuity, and most of our authors argue there is no underlying convergence on one “Western European” model of political journalism. Of the countries we cover, especially Italy continues to stand out from Northern Europe, but differences between the UK and for examples Germany and Denmark are also pronounced.

We hope the book will be useful for scholars and students interested in Western Europe in particular, but also more generally for an international audience interested in cross-national and cross-regional differences and similarities in the workings of political journalism, and in how it is changing in part due to internal professional dynamics, but also in response to changes in the media industry more broadly, and changes in our political systems.

Paper for “Transforming Audiences” in London

Below is the abstract of the paper Kim Christian Schrøder and I present at the Transforming Audiences conference in London.

Basically, we use data from the Reuters Institute Digital News survey to assess the relative importance of social media as sources of, ways of finding, and ways of engaging with news across eight developed democracies with, in a global perspective, high levels of internet use.

We show that television is still the most widely used and most important source of news, that the websites of legacy media are very important online, and that, though much of the population use social media like Facebook for social and other purposes, only a minority use these sites as ways of engaging in more participatory forms of news use, and that social networking sites are not generally considered particularly important sources of news, even by the younger cohorts.

Two key tables and full abstract below.

Sources of newsParticipating in news

The role of social media in the news information cycle—an eight-country comparative analysis

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Kim Christian Schrøder

The increasingly widespread use of social media like Facebook and Twitter is in the process of changing how news is produced, shared, and discussed. Studies of individual events, processes, and sites have led researchers to suggest that we are moving from a traditional “news cycle” dominated by journalists and professional sources to a more complex “information cycle” that integrates ordinary people in the ongoing construction and contestation of news (Chadwick, 2011), that new “participatory cultures”  increasingly complement existing consumer cultures (Jenkins et al 2006), and that the dichotomy between producers and users is being blurred by the rise of active “produsage” where social media users take the lead in content creation and dissemination (Bruns, 2007). But so far, we have had only a vague understanding of (a) how important social media are as sources of news and ways of finding news relative to other sources, (b) how widespread these new forms of more engaged news media use actually are, and (c) whether these developments are similar or different from country to country. Based on data from a cross-country online survey of news media use (the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013), we present a comparative analysis of the role of social media in the news information cycle in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, covering a range of developed democracies with historically different media systems but generally high levels of internet use. We show that television remains both the most widely used and most important source of news in all these countries, and that the websites of legacy news media organizations like broadcasters and newspapers are generally the most important online sources of news. We identify a set of similarities in terms of the growing importance of social media as part of the cross-media news habits of especially younger generations, but also important country-to-country differences in terms of how widespread especially the more active and participatory forms of media use are. Surprisingly, these differences do not correspond in any simple way to differences in levels of internet use, suggesting that more than mere availability shapes the role of social media in the news information cycle.

English version of “The Best Media in the World–and why they are about to change”

Below is a magazine article I wrote for the Helsingin Sanomat that was published Sunday December 9. With permission from my editor, Laura Saarikoski, I’m posting the English original (my Finnish is not as good as it ought to be, and maybe others might find this easier too). The translation has been slightly shortened but below is what I wrote.

I’m from Denmark myself and claim no special insight in the qualitative dimensions of Finnish journalism. But looking at the institutional pre-conditions for journalism in place across the Nordic countries, my view is the region is blessed with some of the best media in the world in terms of (a) their capacity to produce news, (b) the diversity of provision, and (c) the reach and dissemination of news across the entire population. Things are not perfect, but they are in a comparatively good shape, an argument I’ve also made about the situation in Denmark.

They are also about to change, because the economic models, political compromises, and forms of journalistic practice that define the model are all under pressure. Beyond issues over journalistic quality (diversely defined, but generally in opposition to “churnalism” and mindless chasing of minor breaking news-items with very limited shelf-life) the current generation face at least a three-fold challenge to ensure that Nordic media of tomorrow are as good as, if not better than, the ones of today.

1) Can historically successful and diversified newspaper companies manage the transition to a new media environment in which they remain important but do not have the market power of yesterday? (Because of their (dwindling) subscriber base and ancillary business activities many Nordic newspaper companies are in a much better position to do so than for example US newspapers.)

2) Can the political compromise behind strong public service broadcasting be renewed for a new era of cross-platform public service media in a way that does not lead to PSBs crowding out private sector news providers and thus undermining the diversity of provision? (While still allowing PSBs the resources to compete with pay TV and global entertainment giants.)

3) Can a way forward be found that ensures news coverage not only of select part of national politics, business, and other public affairs, but also of regional and peripheral public affairs? (The region has a tradition of quite strong regional news media, the private ones are having a hard time reinventing themselves and the local PSB offerings are often merged into larger and larger regional services in danger of losing their local connection.)

The full magazine article is below the jump. If you want to know about my imaginary sister in Turku, you’ll have to read the whole thing… Continue reading

Journatic—a problem of by-lines or billions?

Sarah Koenig’s piece in last week’s This American Life on Journatic, a content provider that combines US-based editors and freelancers with Filipino writers and researchers to produce copious amounts of very cheap mostly local content for a variety of clients including Tribune Company newspapers, has produced quite a ruckus, with commentary on Poynter, by David Carr, a blog post by Koenig’s main source, Ryan Smith on the Guardian and much much more.

Much of the controversy focuses on Journatic’s use of fake by-lines—apparently, contributors would select an appropriately American-sounding name from a drop-down menu of options rather than publish under their own name. It is a powerful symbol of the de-skilling and commoditization of journalistic work that many reporters feel keenly as colleagues are laid off right, left, and center and both their profession and the industry that has sustained and constrained it seems in tailspin.

But as Mathew Ingram of GigaOm points out, outsourcing and automation are bound to be part of the news business’ future. It’s too easy to simply criticize this as “pink slime journalism” and wish for a better world in which good reporting is done by countless upstanding professionals with decent salaries, job security, and generous benefits.

As revenues continue to decline and users still expect (a) a package of news and (b) regular updates of news, the old model based on in-house production by staff correspondents is hard to sustain. Part of the discussion thus has to be about what to outsource and what to automate rather than whether to outsource and automate.

I’m sure a reporter going in person to cover budget negotiations at city hall is better than having someone do it in front on a screen on the basis of online documents and maybe a single phone call to a convenient source. But that doesn’t mean it is economically sustainable to have that reporter go to that meeting.

An insistence on individually hand-crafted news stories will necessitate a wholesale move away from the kind of large-scale production we have grown accustomed to, and for all the dangers of churnalism, there is something to be said for having running coverage of many things, especially when combined with distinct, relevant, content. Cottage production works for the few, I don’t see how it will work for the many.

Koenig acknowledges this in her piece—Journatic CEO Brian Timpone gets the second to last words in the piece (full transcript here)

Brian Timpone: I would posit that it’s better to have somebody look at them than to have nobody look at them. You know what? Newspapers are firing people. Newspapers are struggling. They’re going bankrupt. We have a solution that helps solve the problem, right? Cutting staff is not the way to growth. But empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines– that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine. But at the end of the day, what’s a better solution?  … I mean do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea, I’m all ears.

Sarah Koenig: I don’t have a better idea.

And that’s the real problem. Commercial sustainability is not a sufficient, but may well be a necessary, condition for widespread quality news journalism. In that light, the billions of revenue lost as newspaper advertisement collapsed over the last decade in the US is a far bigger problem for journalism than fake by-lines. Managing that transition–which Journatic is but one symptom of–is the challenge at hand both for journalists and industry executives.

Ground Wars on the road (February round-up)

In the past three weeks, I’ve given my first three talks about Ground Wars, one at my launch here in Oxford at the Rothermere American Institute, one at Royal Holloway, and one at the University of  Westminster. It’s been good turnout and great discussions all around.

It’s been really interesting to see what people pick up and the directions the conversations take—the concept of “personalized political communication”, the instrumental use of people as media for political purposes through for example door-to-door canvassing has generally been well received, as has the notion that we need to pay more systematic attention to how such forms of campaign communication operate and how they complement and interact with other forms we already know much more about, most notably mass media and computer-mediated/online political communication.

One of the things that have been particularly good about talking about Ground Wars here in the UK is the range of different experiences people bring to the discussion. This has really brought out all the comparative questions the book raises, comparative between local and national, between points in time, and across countries. The discussions have been wide-ranging, from a student at Royal Holloway who won a seat in local government walking door-to-door with volunteers who talked about his experience, over faculty members who had canvassed from the 1970s onwards and talked about that, to people from India to Germany who could describe how things are done there.

Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done comparatively on personalized political communication, to what extent is it used, why and with what strategic objectives in mind, how is it organized and targeted, who are the people involved and their motivations, what are the differences in how well it works, the implications for democracy in different contexts and for different actors, and so on. Darren Lilleker (who has written a nice review of the book) has alerted me to one if his pieces that touch on some of this–and there are others. (One book I read and re-read while I worked on mine was Javier Auyero’s masterful study of Poor People’s Politics in the barrios of Buenos Aries.) There is much to be done here and I hope to begin some of that myself, having already dipped my toes in by doing a bit of fieldwork during the 2011 Danish general election.

Another area where it is also clear to me my work on personalized political communication can be extended is in terms of a more explicit and clearer analysis of the power relations between the staffers, volunteers, and part-timers involved in ground wars (relations that are also encoded into some of the various tools and technologies they rely on). Andy Chadwick rightly pushed me a bit on this point in the discussion at Royal Holloway, arguing that my argument is not always equally explicit about this. I’ve written elsewhere about what I call the “co-production of citizenship” in political campaigns, playing off Philip Howard’s notion of “managed citizenship”, and continue to think that the degree of control political operatives have over their surroundings is frequently overstated–but it is quite important to underline that the absence of complete hierarchical control over campaign assemblages and their environs should not be confused with the absence of power asymmetries, only as an indication that everyone involved have a degree of autonomy. Power in campaigns is, in short, about control, forcing people to act in certain ways, but it is not only about control–it is also enabling (nod here to Michel Foucault), about allowing people to become more active and effective citizens in certain ways. This is a theme I hope to explore more when I find the time to re-read my copius field notes from the time I spent on the campaign trail in 2008.

The fight goes on—from Arizona and Michigan to Super Tuesday

Mitt Romney won yesterday’s two primaries in Arizona and Michigan, but he didn’t win by enough to (re)establish a sense of inevitability around his candidacy. He has been the favourite for so long that everything but decisive victories ends up being framed as a bit of a disappointment.

Here is Whit Ayres, a Republican political operative, speaking to the Washington Post a few days before this week’s primaries—“if [Romney] wins Michigan by double digits, especially if combined with a double-digit Arizona win, then all the chatter will die down just like it did after Florida.”

But Romney didn’t win Michigan by double-digits, and the chatter hasn’t died down. Though Santorum lost both states, no one seems to really hold it against him.

Some part of this surely is about political journalists and rival candidates with a vested interest in keeping the “chatter” alive, but a larger part of it is arguably about the demonstrable and enduring unease with which many Republicans  regard Romney. He continues to win by pluralities rather than majorities (47.3% in Arizona, 41.1% in Michigan), keeping alive the “what-if” question: what if someone managed to rally the “not-Romney” vote?

It is not clear that the not-Romney vote is coalescing behind a single candidate. But the votes are there and many people are on the prowl for an alternative to Romney. A succession of revolving candidates have been cast for the role already–Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum. But the role isn’t necessarily Santorum’s to keep. Gingrich effectively didn’t content Arizona and Michigan, focusing instead on campaigning in the South, hoping for success on Super Tuesday. It is too early to write him off, and at the very least he will continue to siphon off a considerable number of votes, undermining Santorum’s challenge to Romney.

Romney has been the only constant in the primary, and he remains the favourite to capture the nomination, though at this point it is unlikely he’ll have it locked up anytime soon. Many people are still making up and changing the minds, so polls are tricky, but at this point, Real Clear Politics has Santorum ahead in Ohio and Gingrich ahead in Georgia, two of the most important states to vote on March 6. So get ready for some March madness, because this thing will go on for a while.

Moving towards Super Tuesday, Romney’s strategy is clear—focus on the economy when he makes his own pitch, leave it to his Super PAC “Restore our Future” to spend millions hammering Santorum and Gingrich with negative advertising while his various elite backers brief against them as unstable, not serious, unelectable etc, and count on his organizational strength to swing things his way. He is, as Amy Gardner writes in the Washington Post,

relying heavily on the methods that have served him well in past wins: a well-organized and well-financed ground operation, a heavy emphasis on early-voting recruitment, a growing list of endorsements, including from both establishment and tea-party leaders, and millions of dollars in TV advertisements.

Santorum and Gingrich are both making versions of the same basic pitch as they fight back—the message is that Romney is a closet liberal and a flip-flopper willing to say anything to win, the implication is “don’t trust him.” The suggestion is clear: vote for me instead, I’m a real conservative and I speak my mind and stick to my guns. For both of them things are complicated by the other’s presence and unwillingness to withdraw. Also, while both of them have enjoyed periodic fundraising boosts off debate performances or unexpected wins, they continue to be at a financial disadvantage (Romney and his allies outspent Santorum and his allies by about 2-1 in Michigan and by 12-1 in Arizona). With less money and less developed campaign organizations, they are more reliant on help from their respective Super PACs and outside backers (most notably Foster S. Friess for Santorum and Sheldon Adelson for Gingrich) than Romney is.

(Then there is “the third man” facing Romney, Ron Paul, who is plugging away in his own inimitable style. I’m dying for more inside intel on his campaign, its operations, resources, technologies, it seems like a bit of a libertarian counterpart to Howard Dean in 2004, an innovative campaign that may not win but could shape how politics is done by many others. The New York Times reports that Paul’s campaign is focusing on the caucus states, where the rules of the game means that even modest support can be translated into a significant number of delegates for the convention is a campaign plays its cards right.)

What does the prospect of a drawn-out nomination fight amongst the Republicans mean?

First of all, most commetators argue it helps Barack Obama because whoever emerges as his challenger will (a) have had to throw some red meat to a conservative Republican base out of sync with most Americans, stuff that can be turned against him in the general election and (b) have had to endure relentless negative advertising by his rivals, highlighting his each and every flaw, giving plenty of ammunition for Democrats to make their case in the fall.

Second, there is the question of whether we risk a “politics of tedium” where people get fed up with the protracted fight and some lose interest before the general election. The 2008 primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton arguably served to energize much of the Democratic Party’s base and helped Obama built the campaign he led into the general election. It is less clear that the 2012 Republican Primaries will provide the eventual nominee with the same organizational and activist momentum–look at the turnout so far, for example, which is not particularly impressive. A couple of states have had higher turnout in the 2012 Republican Primaries than they had in 2008, but most have about the same or even less–not impressive, considering that this race is much more open and closely fought and that the number of registered voters has grown since last time.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

Can Santorum capitalize on his Feb 7 victories?

So Rick Santorum swept Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri on Tuesday, and now all and sundry are scrambling to catch up on what that means and what his prospects are moving forward. Clearly the result took many (including me) by surprise.

There hasn’t been much coverage of his operation on the ground, and I don’t have any inside leads on this, so I’d be happy to hear from people who knows something about his campaign.

So far, he has operated with a pretty bare-bones organization compared to Romney or even Gingrich and hasn’t raised nearly as much money for his campaign or for outside groups supporting him as his rivals have.

Now his people are putting it out that he will be building a national organization. They have to say that. The hard thing is actually doing it. It will be interesting to see how they go about it and whether they succeed.

Here are some elements worth watching–

  1. Can Santorum expand his base amongst wealthy conservative donors? So far, one man, Foster Friess seems to have been his major financial supporter (but not on a Sheldon Adelson scale). More money is bound to come in now, but how much, and from whom?
  2. Will various Tea Party-type groups find Santorum more appealing than Gingrich and start rallying around him? These activists have in the past months been supposed to be coalescing behind a number of various candidates, including Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and now Santorum. Will they or won’t they? And will they ultimately matter much? (A recent article in the National Journal argues that the movement is in decline.)
  3. How much will the support of many social conservative activists and groups help Santorum–in terms of endorsements and raising money, but also in terms of positioning himself and building an organization? Various parts of the Christian Right have played a central role in many previous Republican primary campaigns, and Santorum will have to hope they will this time too–because they sure don’t like Romney (who only got three votes at a meeting in January where Santorum with 57 votes secured the backing of a number of Evangelical conservative groups).

As said, there has been little coverage of Santorum’s campaign and its organization so far. To capitalize on his February 7 victories, he will need to build an operation on the ground (and his campaign is well aware of this). It will be interesting to see what they can cobble together on such short notice and how well it will work as we approach Super Tuesday.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore from Flickr)

What We Don’t Know About the Business of Digital Journalism

“The Story So Far”, an interesting new report by Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave, and Lucas Graves published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, presents a great tour d’horizon of the business of online news in the U.S. I’d warmly recommend reading it, it is well-written and wide-ranging, and deals with a whole host of important question facing the commercial media organizations that are such important parts of most national media systems and, despite their decline in recent years, continue to fund most accountability journalism around the world.

The report’s treatment of the increasingly explicit link between the cost of reporting, the traffic it attracts, and the revenue it generates will be rather chilling reading for many journalists and editors (see chapter nine). A concrete example: I spent a couple of hours reading the report, and a couple more writing this–even if we place the result in the lowest-ranking category used by AOL for “revenue managment”, this post would still have to generate 7,000 page views to be worth commissioning for $25. Let’s just say it is a good thing I have other incentives.

The subtitle of the report is “What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism”, with the proviso inserted in the introduction, that the study is restricted “mostly to the U.S. market.” “Entirely” would be more precise here, and that is a problem, not only for the international reader, but also for people who want to understand the situation in the U.S.

The thing is that we know an awful lot more about developments in the business of journalism, digital and analogue, in the U.S. than anywhere else, and that much of the conversation around the future of journalism remains focused on what takes place in the states—in the U.S. because this is understandably the main concern and because most of those taking part in the conversation do not seem to know much about how things are done elsewhere, in other countries, because comparative conversations are all too often limited to “us vs. the U.S.” and rarely expanded into more meaningful cross-national discussions of countries with similar size markets, market structures, and historical legacies.

This is not Grueskin, Seave, and Graves’ fault, and it takes nothing away from the valuable work they have done in researching and writing this report. But the dearth of comparative analysis is constraining both intellectual attempts to understand what is going on, and arguably also the ability of industry people and policymakers to make informed decisions about how to react to current changes in the industry. As the great comparativist Seymore Martin Lipset wrote in his book American Exceptionalism, “to know only one country is to know no country”–a point I’ve reiterated elsewhere.

In many ways, the American experience is exceptional, and one should be careful in understanding developments elsewhere through this lens. Let me give just three examples of factors rightly highlighted by Grueskin, Seave, and Graves as important in understanding the development of digital journalism in the U.S., and illustrate how things look different in much of Western Europe.

1. Sales versus advertising income

“Even before the Internet, subscription revenue didn’t amount to much for most news organizations,” the authors write. This is true in the U.S., but certainly not in much of Northern Europe, where home-delivered subscriptions have been an important, often dominant, form of newspaper use, and where the revenues generated have been very considerable. Consider the national differences illustrated by the following figure, taken from The Changing Business of Journalism and its Implications for Democracy, a book I co-edited with David Levy.

While American newspapers generated less than 20% of their revenues from sales in 2008, many European newspapers generated closer to 50%, much of this from subscriptions (in particular in Germany and the Nordic countries).

Many European newspaper readers have had a different relationship with their newspaper than their American counterparts, a relationship built on (often quite expensive) subscriptions and long-term loyalty.

More comparative research might help us understand whether this historical legacy can help them build different models as they move to online and mobile platforms, and whether it means people perceive the issue of online payments differently.

2. Newspaper competition

Grueskin, Seave, and Graves also explain why American newspaper came to be so dependent on advertisements: “The monopoly or oligopoly that most metropolitan news organizations enjoyed by the last quarter of the 20th Century meant they could charge high rates to advertisers, even if their audiences had shrunk.”

From the 1970s onwards, fewer and fewer American newspapers faced direct competition in their local markets, and national distribution was quite limited. Again, this is very different in much of Europe where national distribution is often more developed.

I live in Oxford in the United Kingdom, which is in most respects far from an ordinary place, but can serve as an illustration here: this town of about 150,000 people is served not only by the local Oxford Mail (6 days a week) and Oxford Times (weekly), plus various local advertising freesheets, but also by the whole range of nationally distributed British papers—The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, and the newly-launched compact title simply called the i. And no doubt several titles more that I’ve forgotten here. Most of these offer subscriptions for Oxford residents. All of them are available at newsstands.

The upshot of this is that many European media markets have historically been more competitive than their American counterparts at the national level, and the news organizations that operate in them have been more used to dealing with competition than their American counterparts. The Oxford Eagle published in Oxford, Mississippi (U.S.) does not need to worry all that much about print competition. The Oxford Mail published in Oxford, Oxfordshire (UK), has had to content with numerous other print titles for decades.

Again, more comparative research is needed to help us understand if this legacy makes any difference in how news organizations compete for audience attention and advertising revenues and how they try to stay relevant to their readers.

3. Charging for online content

I suspect the report’s chapter on paywalls will be read with particular interest, for the obvious reason that everyone in the news industry wants to know if it is indeed feasible to charge for general interest news online and on mobile platforms.

As the authors rightly point out, the track record in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is less than inspiring so far. While the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times remain well-known exceptions, few newspapers have built significant revenue streams from online sales. The decision to make content available for free online (to market the print product and in the hope that audiences and advertising revenues would eventually grow to cover costs) is now widely seen as the “original sin” of the business of digital journalism.

While the free model certainly does seem to be dominant not only in the U.S., but also around the Western world and beyond, here too more comparative research might help us understand developments in the business of digital journalism.

To take just one example from my native region, Scandinavia—the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, which has the highest print circulation in the country (over 300,000 copies), has for years operated a system by which most basic breaking news is free, but where people need to sign up for a special online premium subscription to get access to long-form and unique content on the website. In 2010, the newspaper reported that 115,000 people paid about $4.5 a month for this (several more specialized and more expensive subscriptions are also offered for people interested in particular topics)–see more in English here.

If the self-reported figures are reliable, this should generate north of $6 million a year in sales revenues—not a fortune, but not trivial either. Has this drastically undermined the total audience of Aftonbladet.se, and thus its ability to be “part of the conversation” and generate online advertising revenues?

Not if one compares daily unique visitors to the second and third-most circulated Swedish newspapers, the broadsheet Dagens Nyheter (dn.se) and the tabloid Expressen (ds.se) or to the public service television broadcaster Sverige Television (svt.se), as can be seen from the above Google Trends graph—Aftonbladet is, despite having charged for premium content for years, by far the most popular news website in Sweden, a country that has a quite competitive national media market with several newspaper titles, a well-funded public service broadcaster, and several commercial television channels.

According to a press release from Schibsted (the Norwegian media conglomerate that owns 91% of Aftonbladet), the newspaper generated almost 20% of its revenues from online operations in 2010. This is in itself an impressive figure, and even more promising because a growing part of this comes from online sales.

How does Aftonbladet, which is neither particularly specialized nor particularly localized, get away with this model (which is increasingly being replicated by others, like the Danish broadsheet Berlingske)? Nobody knows for sure, but again, more comparative research beyond the exceptional case of the U.S. should help us understand what is going on.

* * *

None of this—the international variations in the historical importance of sales and subscription revenues, in how competitive newspaper markets in particular have been, and in how news organizations have tried to monetize content online—take anything away from the value of the Grueskin, Seave, and Graves report.

But it all underlines that “The Story So Far” is an American story, and that there is a lot we still don’t know about the business of digital journalism, including how the spread of new digital information and communication technologies impacts commercial news organizations with different historically inherited business models, operating in different contexts, and who have pursued different online strategies.

These are important questions, not only for the journalists and others directly impacted by the upheaval of the news industry, but for all citizens in the democracies that have developed hand-in-hand with the mass media for the better parts of a century, and thus also for social scientists who have an obligation to understand what is an ongoing and potentially profound transformation in how we govern ourselves.

Full disclosure: I graduated from the Columbia Journalism School, and Lucas Graves is a good friend.

Good read – 05 10 11

Twenty years ago, W. Russell Neuman wrote, in the opening pages of his The Future of the Mass Audience

“[Print, broadcasting, and telephony media companies] currently enjoys a highly profitable tradition of business practice. The market boundaries between these sectors are based on a series of evolved social conventions for the repertoire of media appropriate for each category of human communication. A single integrated electronic system for high-quality video, audio, and printed output will make such artificial barriers less meaningful. As a result, each corporation in these fields will soon face three or four times the previous number of determined and well-financed competitors for its business, a prospect about as welcome as an invasion of Vandals and Visigoths.” (p. x)

“The hero of the piece is communications technology, or at least its increasing capacity to enhance communications and empower the individual to control the communications process. There is no villain per se. There are, however, social, economic, and political forces that threaten to constrain, to limit, and perhaps to prevent the new technology’s potential for intellectual diversity and openness. But if there are to be heroes, powerful oppositions are required for a true test of their mettle.” (p. 5)

And tested they have been…

Activism vs. Slacktivism recap

Back in March, I made a guest appearance via a recorded presentation at a debate on “Activism vs. Slacktivism” organized by Fairsay.

The videos from the debate are up now, including my own aesthetically-challenged home-recorded contribution.

I thought the discussion was quite encouraging, partially because the cyber-optimism vs. cyber-pessimism polemic that seems to generate so much heat but relatively little light was largely absent, and partially because this absence did not equate a dearth of self-criticism and meaningful disagreement amongst these practitioners and observers of internet-assisted activism.

There are dozens of valuable nuggets scattered throughout the videos, from Naomi McAuliffe from Amnesty talking about how the organization has used Shell’s own social media marketing strategy against them to raise some pertinent questions about their business practices, over Eric Lee from Labourstart.org discussing how a company had left one union he had worked with flat-footed when it actually responded to an email-writing campaign by sending back a rebuttal it took the union weeks to respond to, and to basically every one of the speakers underlining the basic point that digital tools are precisely that—tools.

Tools are integral to what we do, and shape what we can do and how easily, and encourage us to see the world and our place in it in certain ways. They are important, worthy of careful attention, and each should be considered in its own terms—not all uses of technology equals inconsequential “clicktivism”, nor does the use of this or that new app or gadget magically propel one towards the promised land, and all effective acts of technologically augmented activism have to start from the first principles of activism—what do you want to achieve, who do hope to mobilize, what can you—together—do to change the world?