Category Archives: Good reads

Albion W. Small of the (early) Chicago School on problems facing social science and society

Re-reading secondary literature on the Chicago School of Sociology (not really a school, and not confined to Chicago, but there we are). Stumbled upon a great quote in Ken Plummer’s very good introduction to his four-volume The Chicago School: Critical Assessments.

It is from Albion W. Small, who founded the first department of sociology at Chicago in 1892 and chaired it for more than thirty years. He wrote, in his General Sociology (1905), that the “great problem” facing both social science and the public is:

The production of wealth in prodigious quantities, the machine like integration of the industries, the syndicated control of capital and the syndicated organization of labor, the conjunction of interests in production and the collision of interests in distribution, the widening chasms between luxury and poverty, the security of the economically strong and the insecurity of the economically weak, the domination of politics by pecuniary interests, the growth of capitalistic world politics, the absence of commanding moral authority, the well nigh universal instinct that there is something wrong in our social machinery and that society is gravitating toward a crisis, the thousand and one demands for reform,the futility and fractionality of most ameliorative programs – all these are making men wonder how long we can go in a fashion that no one quite understands and that everyone feels at liberty to condemn (Small, 1905: 119-120).

Ignore “the syndicated organization of labor” (which in the US at least increasingly seems a thing of the past), and add in (a) the move towards a post-traditional society which without having done away with past prejudices seems to have greater emphasis on fluid processes of identity formation and re-negotiation and (b) the proliferation of media and communication infrastructures, as well as the battle to control the right to profit from them and control them, and his manifesto seems to me to captures the analytical and substantial problems of our time as well as any.

The Guardian–millions of users, millions in losses

Tim de Lisle has written an excellent piece for Intelligent Life asking “Can the Guardian Survive?”–a question that, given the “soft power” this newspaper, with its millions and millions of online readers, seems to exercise across parts of the industry, has ramifications well beyond the British broadsheet market. (Alan Rusbridger, the editor, and Emily Bell, the former director of online content, are both frequent speakers at “future of journalism”-type conferences.)

de Lisle doesn’t answer the question–only time will tell–but there are plenty of warning signs in his article. Leave aside some occasionally excellent journalism, and look at the numbers.

In the financial year 2009-10, the national newspapers division of Guardian Media Group—which also includes the Observer, Britain’s oldest Sunday paper—lost £37m. The following year, it managed to cut costs by £26m, and still ended up losing £38m. In May, Rusbridger told me he was expecting a similar loss for 2011-12. So, for three years running, the Guardian has been losing £100,000 a day.

In fairness, of the three other broadsheets competing in the same national market, the Times and the Independent are also losing millions and reliant on their owners propping up the business. Only the market-leader, the Daily Telegraph, is actually producing a profit (£55 million last year).

In the article, de Lisle mentions some of the new sources of revenues being explored at the Guardian to push beyond sales and advertising–of course iPhone and iPad apps, also Master Classes, and the Guardian Open Weekend. There are also various forms of networks, that de Lisle doesn’t touch on, including Guardian Soulmates, professional networks etc, plus of course various forms of e-commerce, selling books, shoes, wines, etc. Fancy an air cooler? (See screenshot below.) The Guardian can help you, and as you enjoy the pleasant temperature, you are helping pay for Nick Davies’ next expose.

The Guardian is thus, like everyone else, trying to diversify their business. But de Lisle has talked to those who doubt the current strategy, with its emphasis on growing the freely available website, is going to work. Juan Señor, a media consultant I know from my work at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, says to de Lisle

“We are very concerned … that everybody looks at the Guardian’s success in terms of volume of traffic. That is not a measure of success, because you might as well get into pornography. … While I love the Guardian’s journalism at times, I just don’t think it’s sustainable. They’re announcing even more lay-offs, it’s a tragedy.”

And that is worth keeping in mind for those working to change news organizations elsewhere, who don’t have the kind of money in the bank that the Guardian can rely on (about £200 million at the last count–enough for five more years with losses like this).

For all its journalistic successes and its millions of users, the Guardian continues to double down on a all-or-nothing strategy that so far has resulted in millions and millions in loses. Wish them well. They need it. Think twice before imitating them. They are heading down a dangerous path.

Good read – 02 14 12 (Piano Media), with 02 16 12 update

(Updated Feb 16 with reply below from Piano Media)

As is clear to anyone following the news industry, charging for online news is back in fashion as more and more commercial news organizations experiment with different pay models–metered models, freemium, paywalls. Experiments abound.

One initiative that has attracted a fair amount of attention is Piano Media, which started in Slovakia and has now expanded to Slovenia.

The idea is simple–create one common platform for people to pay for content and then try to amass all or most quality content in the country/language in question on that platform leaving users with a choice between quality and payment and whatever is outside the system. The US-based Christian Science Monitor, which, burdened by unsustainable operating losses stopped printing its daily edition in 2009, calls it “a model to  save newspapers.”

There are skeptics and critics too, of course–to quote from the same CSM story:

Some say a national paywall could violate antitrust laws. In the United States, proposals that the major papers go behind a paywall simultaneously have sometimes been discredited on those grounds.

Robert Levine, author of “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back,” says any collective effort would be resisted by major Internet businesses such as Google and that they might try to block it with antitrust legislation.

The anti-trust concerns would arguably apply in much of Europe too. (I’d be interested to hear from lawyers who know more about market regulation or from people who know about the situation on the ground in the two countries concerned.) It will be interesting to see if current experiments in Slovakia and Slovenia will be challenged as monopolies or for price-fixing.

Because whatever way you look at it, that is what Piano Media is meant to allow–it offers a way of giving back some market power to publishers who fear they have lost the ability to price their products on a generously supplied market for online “content.” And indeed in Slovakia, where Piano Media started, they are just now testing just how much power they have gotten back–jacking up subscription prices by 25% , as reported by Andrew Phelps at Nieman Labs.

(Robert Andrews at PaidContent has followed the story, his articles on Piano Media are here.)

UPDATE: David Brauchli from Piano Media wrote to me Feb 16 in response to the piece, with his permission, I’m copying in the relevant parts below:

We had our lawyers in Slovakia check with the anti-trust/monopolies office in SK and of course in SI before we launched in either country. It wouldn’t make sense to launch a business that was sure to run afoul of the monopoly authorities. Suffice it to say the business model complies.
We really run a payment system and the competition is still intact among the papers. That’s due to our unique chronological meter which measures how long and what type of content the reader consumes. Content is weighted according to type and that’s weighed against how long a reader spends on the site. So if a reader simply clicks through and then out of an article, the publisher isn’t compensated. Likewise, if a reader spends all his time on the discussion forums then the publisher again receives little compensation. However, if a reader spends a lot of time looking at, listening to or reading something which the publisher has spent a lot of time and effort creating, he is rewarded. What that means is superior journalism is rewarded. It also is a better system than micro payments which reward publishers simply for click-throughs, which really don’t benefit anyone except advertisers.
Thanks to David for the update. It would be interesting to hear from people with legal expertise in other countries about what the model he describes would look like in other jurisdictions.

Good read – 12 11 11

For those really interested in understanding the Occupy Movement, check out Occupy Research, where people involved are trying to make sense of themselves and provide a counterweight to the ceaseless and often distant commentary. Here’s a brief piece about the effort from Shareable.

Good read – 07 18 11

Everything everywhere seems to be about News Corporation and its assorted scandals-important, though I find myself wondering if audiences outside of Britain care nearly as much about this as editors, journalists, and media commentators around the world do.

This good read is in a different realm and one I just wanted to highlight as all the attention is elsewhere–It’s Alan D. Mutter again, who puts it straight in this great blog post (see especially his figure at the end, the rapid contraction of the print classified market represents about $15 billion out of the $21 billion newspaper revenues have declined by in the US from 2000 to 2010)–Newspapers remain, first and foremost, well, papers.

“Fifteen years after the commercial debut of the Internet, publishers on average still depend on print advertising and circulation for 90% of their revenues. Stop the presses and newspaper companies are out of business. It’s just that simple.”