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Media Reporters’ Online News Hindsight: ‘It Was Stupid For Newspapers To Give Away Their Sh*t For Free’

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Portfolio.com’s Jeff Bercovici spoke about the challenges of covering the media world at last night’s Gelf Magazine Media Circus event in Brooklyn.

Last night was Gelf Magazine‘s inaugural Media Circus speaking series event, and we headed to Brooklyn’s JLA Studios to hear a trio of media reporters — Portfolio.com media blogger Jeff Bercovici, author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Seth Mnookin, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan — gab about the craft. Despite its rather, ahem, familiar name, the event did what it promised to, which was examine how the media industry “covers and consumes itself,” particularly in a down economy, according to organizer and Gelf staffer Michael Gluckstadt.

Bercovici was first to step up to the mic, discussing some of the reporting challenges specific to the media beat. The media world is a small one, he pointed out, populated by peers who know the full range of a reporter’s tricks. “The people you write about are other journalists,” Bercovici said. “They’re extremely media-savvy. They will actually give me quotes in the third person, like ‘he said.’” Finding another journalism job after holding one in which you cover media can be daunting, according to Bercovici. “You’re also often writing [about] people you could potentially write for, or you used to,” he said. “It raises the conflict of interest possibility to a whole new level.” The toughest part of Bercovici’s job, he opined, is that he covers a shrinking sector, which can be demoralizing. “With every passing week, there is less industry to cover,” he said. “It’s just getting depressing. Reading these stories and writing these stories — it just affects your view.” In these challenging times for the media business, Bercovici emphasized that the balance between sensitivity and objectivity is crucial. “You have to be careful to control your tone,” he said. “You have to restrain yourself from sounding gleeful. We have a tendency to do a dance because we got the scoop — especially for bloggers — but these are our friends and colleagues losing their jobs.”


Next up was Mnookin, who brought up various possibilities for that elusive media business model we’ve all been hoping for. The problem with paying for online content right now, he said, is that it’s simply too complicated a process, requiring full names, addresses and credit card numbers from users and readers who’ve up to this point not had to provide personal info to get their online read on. “In order to pay for online content, there’s an incredible amount of friction,” he said. In contrast, there’s no friction for an iPhone application or for a Kindle, he pointed out, as each requires a minimum amount of information in order to pay, and people do do it. To overcome this, Mnookin advised magazines and newspapers to collaborate to make buying content easier. “The problem is that we’ve also been trained to not pay for anything online,” he said. “We should shift to devices, like Kindle, because we’ve been trained to pay for information there. It’s so easy to buy content there, you don’t even think about it. I’ve paid $9.99 for a book on Kindle so many times, and then in the morning said, ‘What the f*ck did I do?’”

Mnookin considered some version of a micropayment model to be a potentially workable solution, but Bercovici differed. “It disincentivizes people from reading stories,” he said of micropayments. “If you know every time you read a story it costs three cents, you’re going to read fewer stories.” Instead, Bercovici suggested media companies should be shifting toward a pay solution more in keeping with a gaming model. “It could turn reading newspapers into a game, where you get points for reading through to the end of the story.” Foursquare, anyone?

Nolan was the final act, suggesting that the recession could actually help the print media industry, albeit in a “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” sort of way. “It’s like you’re an alcoholic, and you say you don’t have a problem, and you’re drinking every day, and then you start to do coke,” he said. “And then two days later you’re in rehab and you’re quitting everything. This recession could be like the coke for print media.” Nolan agreed with Mnookin, asserting that free news was a bad idea right from the start. “In retrospect, it was really stupid for newspapers to give away all their shit for free on the Internet,” he said. “People will pay when they — people not like us, people who don’t work in media — notice that they can’t get the same quality news anymore. Content is not meant to be free; the mistake was to make it free.” Paging Chris Anderson!

But we live in a capitalist system, Mnookin asserted, and undoing the damage of that mistake is going to take serious behavioral reprogramming among online content consumers (read: virtually everyone you know, if you’re reading this). “If we believe that we need newspapers, then we need to support them,” Mnookin said. “So — not to make a naked plea for our industry, but — if this is something people want to keep, then they need to show that in their behavior.”

Megan Stride

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