The Future of the Bundle

This week marks the beginning of Economic Principals’ thirteenth year as an online outlet instead of a newspaper column. EP’s proprietor was in a stock-taking mood. What’s been happening to the news business since he changed stands?

I turned to newsman Felix Salmon’s five-part online series to find out. Dense with links, nearly all of them worth looking at, Content Economics has appeared at intervals February 2013-February 2014 on the Reuters website. That took most of a morning. I read it again in the afternoon.

Salmon, for those who don’t know him (he is Felix to everyone else), is billed as the “finance blogger” at Reuters.  In fact, he is more than that — a sophisticated, well-sourced columnist who produces between three and six substantial items a week – a chatterbox Allan Sloan. Salmon is a star of the new online journalism, along with Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglasias, Megan McArdle, Nate Silver and many others not in my field.

Salmon’s series is labeled “content” economics, but it struck me that mainly he was working hard to understand what was happening to the business of news. Mindshare is a considerably broader topic.   David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times, recently allowed that, thanks to the advent of a new golden age of television, he was spending more and more time watching one thing or another – everything from House of Cards to Modern Family to True Detective to the Academy Award ceremonies – at the expense of print.

“My once beloved magazines sit in a forlorn pile, patiently waiting for their turn in front of my eyes.  Television now meets many of the needs that pile previously satisfied.” And books? They, too, remain on standby, Carr wrote.  There were just too many good stories to watch, at home, on the airplane, even in the little cabin in the woods

Salmon broke things down this way:

Part 1, Advertising: Advertising is the traditional mainstay of the news business, and advertising dollars go where people spend their time. Some 67 percent of ad dollars are still spent on TV or print, Salmon says. His first piece is accompanied by a wonderful chart from the Nielsen rating service – the average viewer spends 145 hours a month watching television, and another 12.5 hours watching time-shifted TV; a little more than five hours with DVDs/Blu-ray,Blu-ray another five each with Internet video and mobile phones, 6 hours and a fraction with games, 29 and a half hours online with a computer. “TV is still the monster, the elephant,” Salmon writes.  “For all the talk of cord-cutting, Americans have clearly voted that, given the choice, they’d much rather have TV than broadband Internet.”  The legacy networks still rule the roost, but even small cable channels have much bigger audiences and revenue streams than websites other that Facebook, Google or Yahoo.  A strong preference for the couch over the breakfast table explains why so many people get their news from Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Fox News – and vice versa.

Part 2, Payments:  Little did I realize when I would occasionally come across Amanda Palmer dressed as a bride, painted all white, and posed motionless as a statue on a soapbox in Harvard Square, that one day she would be explaining in a TED talk the business model that she and Economic Principals share. With her it was a wink for a coin, a subtle motion and some eye contact for a dollar bill; she does considerably better than that today with her crowd-funded cabaret/punk rock band. But the idea is the same: “the art of asking,” she calls it.  Some private privilege, some public good, in exchange for a subscription: in the same fashion, ur-blogger Andrew Sullivan raises something like a million-dollar annual budget for The Dish. Ppeople used to think in terms of micropayments to enterprising sites, Salmon writes: huge numbers of people paying negligible sums, but the model never took off. Instead, “the sheer size of the Internet enabled the opposite to happen…. Smallish numbers of people to pay modest amounts of money, which can add up to just as much in total.”

Part 3, Costs: This is mostly about legacy enterprises.  Salmon draws a sharp sharp contrast between Jeff Bezos’ strategy for stabilizing the value of The Washington Post as opposed to the desperate measures being take to turn Forbes magazine into a lightly edited confederation of bloggers in order to sell it. And Part 4: Scale: Salmon dwells on the logic of digital startups, content-management systems and all that. Both topics are interesting, certainly, but for some other day.

It’s in Part 5, News that Salmon returns to the world I inhabit. Again, the anticipated way of doing things failed to materialize:  the “Daily Me” (although I think Salmon gives short shrift to the wonders of syndication feeds.)  Instead, Facebook and Twitter turned millions of readers into aggregators, with their Likes and Re-Tweets and Favs.  “Now everybody is a journalist,” he says, “or at least a contributor to other people’s newsfeeds.” That certainly strikes a bell. I came across My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish and Poor thanks to an email notification from a friend’s Facebook newsfeed. He discovered it on Jim Romenesko’s  curated journalism website. Published originally by The Atlantic, it was picked up by The Browser and sent further around round the world. It was the best thing I read all week.

Salmon’s not quite done, I think.  He needs to write one more solid post, about what he calls “the bundle” – the professionally-gathered, carefully-edited, thoughtfully-limited news report (bounded, that is, for whatever medium through which it is received).  This he sees as having been greatly disrupted by social media.

For centuries, news has been based on a broadcasting paradigm: a small group of journalists creates a product — a self-contained news bundle — which is then consumed by a very large group of viewers or readers or listeners. Various different bundles competed for your attention: you might get your news from The New York Times, or The Economist, or NPR, or the NBC Nightly News, or Newsweek, or any of a thousand other outlets. In any case, the atomic unit of news, from the consumer’s perspective, was the bundle, not the story. Any given individual would get her news from only a handful of outlets in any given week — quite frequently, only one or two.

But in fact there is no reason to think this has changed. Two of the richest news organizations dominated the story of the missing Malaysian airliner with repeated scoops (The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News); The New York Times announced a less expensive edition for digital phones; and so on. Gradually a hierarchy will reconstitute itself. This time it will include Bloomberg, Reuters, the BBC, The Guardian and others.

But for the second week in a row, no one provided better context or deeper insight into the Ukraine story than Johnson’s Russia List.  Payment-supported websites will be an important part of the future, too.

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