So what if all the assumptions about ‘digital first’ have been wrong?

Wow! Here’s the abstract of a fascinating paper by two academics at the University of Texas at Austin:

Twenty years into US newspapers’ online ventures, many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment with digital offerings. Since readership is the foundation for subscription and advertising revenue, this study, through a longitudinal analysis of readership data (2007, 2011, and 2015) of 51 US newspapers, provides an up-to-date review on these newspapers’ online and print readership. Results indicated that the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups. In addition, these major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than a half of them have seen a decline since 2011. The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in these newspapers’ home markets. These findings raise questions about US newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and call for a critical re-examination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.

Dispatch from a vanished media universe

The New Yorker recently republished Calvin Trillin’s wonderful profile of R.W. ‘Johnny’ Apple, the famous New York Times journalist.


There is a consensus in the trade, I am pleased to report, that Johnny Apple—R. W. Apple, Jr., of the New York Times — is a lot easier to take now than he once was. Even Apple believes that. When I asked him not long ago about the paragraph in Gay Talese’s 1969 book on the Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” which presents him as a brash young eager beaver, he said it was, alas, “quite an accurate portrait,” although he doesn’t recall boasting in the newsroom that while covering the war in Vietnam he had personally killed a few Vietcong—the remark that, in Talese’s account, led an older reporter to say, “Women and children, I presume.” In speaking of those early days, Apple said, “I was desperate to prove myself.” You could argue, I suppose, that, in the words of a longtime colleague, “he doesn’t have to argue the case anymore.”

It’s long, but well worth a read. A report from a vanished media world.

Appeasing the crocodile

This morning’s Observer column:

Winston Churchill famously defined “appeasement” as “being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. By that definition, many of the world’s biggest news publishing organisations have been in the appeasement business for at least the past two years and the crocodile to which they have been sucking up is Facebook, the social networking giant.

The reason for this extraordinary self-abasement is simple: Facebook currently has more than 1.6 billion users worldwide, most of whom are very engaged with the service. Around half of them check their page every day, for example, and when they are online they spend significant amounts of time on the site or its smartphone app.

More significantly, research by the Pew Research Center revealed that these users increasingly get much of their news from their Facebook feeds. Accordingly, publishers started doing deals with Facebook to publish some (or all) of their content on it, with initially agreeable results in the shape of “referrals” – ie traffic to their own websites coming from the social network.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment…

Read on

Read before you retweet

This is really intriguing:

On June 4, the satirical news site the Science Post published a block of “lorem ipsum” text under a frightening headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people shared the post, some of them quite earnestly — an inadvertent example, perhaps, of life imitating comedy.

Now, as if it needed further proof, the satirical headline’s been validated once again: According to a new study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.

Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

It’s back to the future for Mashable

According to Politico, Mashable is undergoing a dramatic restructuring, not to mention what is sometimes called a ‘pivot’. What’s interesting is where the site is now (apparently) headed.

As for the new direction of the company, Cashmore [Mashable’s CEO] hinted at the importance and influence of advertisers, noting that now advertisers are no longer separate from the story and want to be “telling stories with us” and no longer “buying media” for an audience.

“Branded content is the business model for media going forward” Cashmore told staff. “It’s very, very clear that branded content is the future.”

Well, well. Spool back to the early days of broadcast radio, when nobody could figure out a business model for the thing. I mean to say, you spend all that money setting up a station and creating ‘content’ and every Tom, Dick and Harry who had a radio receiver cold listen to it for free. And then along came Proctor and Gamble, a soap company, with the idea that if you sponsored compelling content — like a dramatic serial — and associated your name and brand with it, then good things would happen. Thus was born the ‘soap opera’. And this is the wheel that Mashable seems to have re-invented!

What Trump’s ascendancy tells us about our media ecosystem

This morning’s Observer column:

One thing that baffles mainstream journalists like Kristof is the way in which Trump seems to be immune to the fact-checking beloved by American journalism. Some light on this has been thrown by Zeynep Tufekci, who is one of the most perceptive observers of social media around. She has been spending some time inside the Trump “Twittersphere” and her report suggests that it is largely an ecosystem of digital echo chambers.

Professor Tufekci has watched “Trump supporters affirm one another in their belief that white America is being sold out by secretly Muslim lawmakers, and that every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media.” Many of the Trump supporters she’s been following, “say that they no longer trust any big institutions, whether political parties or media outlets. Instead, they share personal stories that support their common narrative, which mixes falsehoods and facts – often ignored by these powerful institutions they now loathe – with the politics of racial resentment.”

For decades we’ve been wondering what the long-term impact of the internet would be on democratic politics. Looks like we’re beginning to find out.

Read on

Online comments and the polluted public sphere

From Engadget:

Now, clearly, not every comment or commenter is the same. But we’ve increasingly found ourselves turning off comments on stories that discuss topics of harassment, gender or race simply because so many of the replies are hateful, even threatening. Articles that mention Apple deteriorate into arguments of iOS vs Android, replete with grade-school name calling. Articles that don’t make mention of Samsung often include comments claiming that we are shills for Apple. Some commenters plain attack our writers or editors or other commenters. Some are outright threats. And that’s not even getting into the spam problem.

The thing is, we like having a comments section. It gives our readers a place to share their experiences, point out mistakes we’ve made, offer up different perspectives and provide more information. Our comments section can be an incredible place to visit, and we value that our readers take the time out of their day (often repeatedly) to participate. But we can’t take pride in a comment system that isn’t offering you the features you need to participate; that runs amok with racist, sexist or homophobic slurs and threats; or that takes joy in in-fighting and provoking fights.

A quality comments section should make it easy for users to contribute. A good comments section has users who feel a sense of duty and kinship, who act as a community. An exceptional comments section informs its readers, corrects authors and provides worthwhile insights in a polite and constructive manner.

This is not, by and large, what is happening in our comments section today. In order to reassess and push forward with a better system, we’re going to take a comment break…

And this from the Observer‘s Readers’ Editor:

Extreme points of view made it impossible to have any comprehensive online debate on race, immigration and Islam long before any moves were made to limit commentary.

While there is a general desire to open comments on as many subjects as possible, moderators are made aware in advance of opinion pieces that are likely to need careful handling.

Last weekend, after consultation, comments were delayed on several Observer articles, including Nick Cohen on becoming a Jew, Victoria Coren Mitchell on the Adam Johnson underage sex case and Barbara Ellen on Jamie Oliver’s advocacy of breastfeeding.

Comments opened once moderators were in place, but within minutes antisemites and Holocaust deniers were hounding Cohen, apologists for sex with teenagers were appearing in the Coren Mitchell thread and misogynists were busy insulting Ellen. It had to stop.