February 19, 2013

http://pressthink.org/2013/02/some-shifts-in-power-visible-in-journalism-today/

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“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 something 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 notable trends since before Barack Obama was 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 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.

Which is one reason writers are in the ascendant over publishers. 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.

* 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 remains crucial to 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 something 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.

* 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 market 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…

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