J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Archive for August, 2008

Starving Bloggers

Posted by chanders on August 22, 2008

Rate Cuts at Gawker Media (Radar Online)

Paying For Reporting, Paying For Conversation (Me)

Off to a wedding … have a nice weekend. Don’t let The Capitalism eat you.

(thanks for the link, Gawker)

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My Methodology

Posted by chanders on August 21, 2008

A reader suggested it might be useful for me to mention on this blog how I have come to some of my conclusions; what my methods have been, in other words. So I’ve put up a permanent page with a basic description of my methodology.

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Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: Beyond the Numbers

Posted by chanders on August 21, 2008

Philly.com in 2000, before the KRD centralization.

Philly.com in 2000, before the KRD centralization.

A couple of good questions about my previous post in the comments. A Cassel argues “KR’s managers were hardly geniuses, but blaming them for the disaster that’s overtaken their former empire is like blaming the lifeguards on Sri Lankan beaches for the tsunami deaths. What happened was, and is, bigger than all of us.” Paul B adds that “Your argument that the decline of the Philadelphia newspapers was due in large part to chain ownership is unconvincing. There are enough non-chain newspapers out there (Washington DC, St Petersburg, Buffalo come to mind) that would make it possible to analyze if being part of a major chain affected financial performance during the past few years.”

Let me say first off: I’m not an expert on newspaper finances or ownership economics. Nor am I an expert on Philly newspapers under the Knight-Ridder regime. Probably a lot of people reading this post know a lot more about this than I do (especially ex-PNI employees) so if you have insights, please continue to share them! If I’m an expert in anything, it’s in journalistic work and the relationship between the work of institutionalized (read: ‘professional’) and non-institutionalized (read: ‘blogger’) journalists.

That said — my fieldwork this summer and some basic poking around has convinced me that there were two aspects to the end of the K-R tenure that were particularly disastrous in Philly, and probably elsewhere. The first problematic aspect of the public / chain ownership model? The relentless focus on the quarterly bottom-line to the exclusion of a long term plan.  In October 2000 the New York Times wrote this:

“By almost any business measure, the Knight Ridder newspapers in Philadelphia would be deemed a success. Since 1995, profit margins at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News have more than doubled, reaching close to 19 percent after years of single-digit doldrums. Good? Absolutely. Good enough? Not for long. For 2001, the target margin is 21 percent. And now there is talk about 5 percent budget cuts at the papers, if not more. Anxiety is as plentiful as oxygen in The Inquirer’s newsroom.”

And regardless of the merits of those strategies, they just didn’t seem to me to promote a long-term plan for dealing with profound and fundamental change.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism 2007 report on the “State of the Media” summed it up this way:

Now, there has been a new turn in the debates over ownership. Starting in 2005 and accelerating in 2006, there have begun to be questions not only from journalists but now from corporate managers and investors about whether the dominant model of media ownership, the public corporation, is still preferred. And the questions are no longer simply moral ones … The one thing that can be said with certainty — to a much greater degree than was true a few years ago — is that the notion that a diverse public corporation is best suited to have the wherewithal, resources and experience to manage the future of media is no longer gospel. The concept of the media conglomerate, in that sense, has been put into play.

Second problematic aspect? I have two words for you. Or maybe four. Market Leader. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about this one– Real Cities. Now, I really don’t have an interest in revisiting the Knight Ridder Digital battles of 2002, and from what I can tell there was a lot of ink spilled on this in the professional press at the time (they’re still fighting about it on Romensko!) But from everything I’ve seen this summer, the move to standardize the local web site design and management in San Jose, while there may have been a business logic to it,  was an absolute disaster in terms of promoting and encouraging the kind of journalistic work that newspapers needed to do to make the transition online. Without going into a lot of detail here, I have pretty good ethnographic evidence that the Philly.com, Inquirer, and even the very small Daily News online staff were doing things on the web in 1999 that they are just now starting to do again in 2008. In an online journalism world where the local initiative is king and where you need a small, flexible staff that can operate quickly, with a high degree of independence … well, the years 2001-2005 are lost years as best as I can tell.

Let’s end with a riddle. How did Philly.com do this in 1997, and what happened between then and now?

Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 1 Comment »

Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: By the Numbers

Posted by chanders on August 19, 2008

UPDATE (8/21/2008): I’ve added a second post, “Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: Beyond the Numbers,” that tries to make the case for the relationship between the Internet, public chain ownership, and the current state of journalism. Prime evidence? Philly.com’s series, “Blackhawk Down,” published online in 1997. The prime culprit? The Real Cities initiative.

I’m starting the next chapter in my dissertation, the one that’s mostly economic. One of my major findings while I was at the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com relates to the “precarity” of most of current journalistic work– what Wikipedia defines as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. The term has been specifically applied to either intermittent work or, more generally, a confluence of intermittent work and precarious existence.” Many employees, both at the Philadelphia newspapers but also obviously bloggers and freelance writers as well, expressed feelings like: how empty their newsrooms were, fears that they could be laid off at any moment, worries that “some guy in Bangkok could do the job that I do.”

One of the things I’m trying to document early on is the actual economic state of the newspaper industry in Philadelphia. The above graphic represents a polynomial trend line of Philly newspaper revenues, circulation, and employment figures, from 1984 until 2005/6 (when the papers were bought by Brian Tierney and Philadelphia Media Holdings). As Microsoft puts it, “a polynomial trend line is a curved line that is used when data fluctuates. It is useful, for example, for analyzing gains and losses over a large data set.”

The above data– which is not that easy to come by–  is obtained from two places. The circulation and revenue figures are part of a dataset compiled by researchers at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI) for an upcoming book by Prof. Eli Noam, Media Ownership and Concentration in America. The employment numbers are very rough estimates compiled through publicly reported information in major newspapers; for example, when Knight-Ridder cut newspaper staff by 10%. For at least a decade, between 1984 and 1995, I have very few numbers. These numbers are ESTIMATES, at best. They might, in fact, be totally wrong. I want to emphasize that no one at Knight-Ridder or PMH has given me access to any of this data …  it’s entirely obtained from outside sources. That’s why I represented the numbers as a trend line, rather than as a strict year-by-year graph. (I obviously scaled the data so it could all be one one graph. A circulation of 400,000 equals, on this chart, a staff of 400). I also want to note  that the data only covers Philly newspapers under Knight-Ridder, not under it’s current ownership (though there’s plenty of bad news there, too).

That said, the numbers are obtained from documentary sources, and I’ll stand behind them until I hear otherwise. What does this show? A few broad trends are pretty obvious. First, employment at the Inquirer boomed throughout the 1980s and 1990s (hard on the death of the afternoon daily the Philadelphia Bulletin) even as circulation numbers began a slow decline. Then, in 2000, employment began to plummet (in 8 years, the newsroom at the Inky was half the size it was in 2000). Circulation and employment numbers at the Daily News, on the other hand, saw more of a gradual but steady decrease throught this time period, until they stabilized in 2005/6.

Revenues, on the other hand, tell a different story. It’s pretty clear that, throughout the course of this dataset, profit margins at PNI (the name for the Philly subdivision under Knight-Ridder) were anywhere between 9% (in 1995) and as high as the upper teens to low 20%’s by the early 2000’s. So … even while circulation and staff were dropping, and even as the challenge posed by the world wide web loomed on the horizon, profits got bigger and bigger. This, to me, is the real tragedy of public chain ownership of local newspapers in the 1990’s. Not the decline in journalistic quality, which was arguably real (to a degree) or the effects of media concentration (whose ultimate effects are still unclear), but a failure to plan ahead and prepare for a Internet future that a lot of people knew was coming. They were so focused on the quarterly bottom line that they failed to realize that the long-term bottom line was where they were really at risk. The choice wouldn’t be between 9% and 29% proift margins, but would be between profits and no profits at all.

Posted in Fieldwork | 15 Comments »

Adding Nuance to the Journalist / Blogger Relationship

Posted by chanders on August 18, 2008

I’ve finished the first (very rough) draft of a chapter for my dissertation. Actually, it probably won’t be a chapter– probably, it will be an appendix. But it still feels like an accomplishment of some sort.

Here’s an abstract. If anyone would like to see the whole thing, feel free to email me.

In most of the writing about the relationship between journalism and blogging, one fact has become something of a commonplace.  Journalists report,  bloggers comment on that original reporting. Blogs are, in the words of Robert Niles, a “parasitic medium.” (Niles 2007) As Murley and Roberts document [pdf], bloggers in 2006 engaged in original reporting in only 6 percent of the time, and this number fell to five percent when only “political bloggers” were included in their sample.

If we examine this relationship from the within the newsroom, however, a slightly different story emerges. Based on my research in Philadelphia this summer, I argue that the diffusion of a story– centered around the  arrest of four Philadelphia homeowners– shows us that, while the causal arrow between journalist = reporting and blogger = commentary is generally accurate, the actual process is far more complex than often acknowledged.

In this paper, I offer what I believe to be the first newsroom-based account of the manner in which a news story “diffuses” across a variety of digital media spheres. Over the two week period around which this paper revolves, I watched how a simple story about the arrest and detention of four Philadelphia homeowners moved from activist websites, to the alternative press, to the inner pages of the Philadelphia Daily News, the city’s daily tabloid newspaper, to major national blogs and—almost, but not quite—to the front cover of the aforementioned tabloid. My methods during this time period can be placed into three general categories—primitive “network analysis” (i.e., using the online search engine Technorati and newspapers’ own web statistics to document how stories about the arrests linked to other stories); second, qualitative content analysis of the ways these different stories were framed; and finally, observation of the meetings and decision-making processes of journalists and bloggers themselves, often in real time.

My central findings can be summarized as follows: an activist-journalism site broke the Francisville story, but this fact only problematives the notion of “breaking news” in an era of omnipresent media. Contending activist groups used journalistic criteria to draw boundary lines between them. An alt-weekly and a daily tabloid were the key media during the diffusion of the story. Blogs add context and reframing to reported stories, often by linking back to their own previous coverage. Individual journalistic authority often matters as much, if not more, than institutional authority. Bridge bloggers played a major role in moving the arrest story from local to national blogs. Institutional journalistic culture can play a key role in the diffusion of a news item. The concept of the “freelancer” further calls into question the division between blogger and journalist.

NB: Niles writes in the comments below that he’s actually argued the opposite– that blogs are NOT a parasitic medium.  That’s correct, and my statement above was a misrepresntation of his more complex argument, which you can read in full here.

Posted in Fieldwork | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

“About Me” Page Updated

Posted by chanders on August 12, 2008

I’ve now updated the “about me” page on this blog to include my CV and academic bio given that I’m now officially looking for a job. Will the narcissism ever end?

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Faux-Twittering the Latest Memo from The Philly Inquirer

Posted by chanders on August 8, 2008

Background from Poynter, Jeff Jarvis, and Yelvington.

Now, I don’t twitter. But if I did, this is what I’d say about these developments based on my current research (remember, 140 character limit!):

A line in sand. No AJC model for us. Less immediate impact than you think. Sharpen the newsroom divide, or rationalize their relationship?

LATER: Admitting that my own take is somewhat … ah, obscure, Ryan Sholin does us a fantastic service and interviews Inquirer online editor Chris Krewson.

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