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Opinionification = Commodification:

That's my take, anyway. Michael Kinsley looks at the business and editorial model of the new Newsweek. Characteristically amusing piece in TNR.

Kinsley walks through the many problems of the new, revamped Newsweek. How much of it looks like the old Newsweek, to start with.

But the essence of the critique is one that bedevils these kinds of magazines, as well as newspapers. Gathering news that consists of facts that are (a) facts someone wants badly enough to be willing, in principle, to pay for; and (b) facts that are sufficiently current and new that they have not already been priced into the information and so discounted in pricing power is expensive. And figuring out these days if there any hard facts that someone is willing to pay for, even if it does involve people getting out of the internet echo chamber and doing some hard research that might involve shoe leather - that's risky and expensive. About the only facts that fit those categories these days are in the areas of business and finance and economics, where people have money at stake.

So media organizations try to do two things at once.

First, they gravitate away from the high risk fact gathering activities - activities that are costly on the front end, and move toward the cheap business of writing opinion. It involves the exquisitely self-indulgent belief that professional journalists are good writers and that people will therefore want to read them over blogs and stuff like that. The business model problem with this is that opinion is cheap to produce - but it's widely available, easily produced, and frankly there are a lot of people out there who, if someone else supplies the facts, can produce pretty decent insights and prose, and will do it for free, at least if their day job is ... lawyer. Which is to say: opinionification = commodification. And commodity pricing will not pay the rent in Manhattan or DC or, these days apparently, LA, Seattle, Denver, or a lot of other places.

However one reads Jon Meachum's justifications for his strategy - Newsweek will be the Economist, it will be TNR, it will be the NYRB, etc. - at bottom it comes down to opinionification = commodification.

Second, then, if you are a newspaper or newsmagazine, you understand the commodity pricing problem, and if you think you can get away with it, you depend upon your past reputation and social capital, and assert that your opinions are not actually opinions, but facts - and then you will try to price them accordingly. We lapsed Mormons call this "chutzpah-pricing." And the way you do this is by putting them on the front page. You turn the newspaper into a magazine, but you try to price the opinions as facts and charge the fact-premium. This is the basic explanation of the front page of the New York Times, as it has gravitated to magazine-style analysis. (And so putting it in deep competition with its own Sunday Magazine, something that would annoy the heck out of me if I were Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati.)

But the NYT is one of a very small handful of papers that can play that game with a straight face; maybe the WP can, but not the LA Times, though it tried, and certainly not a newsmagazine. It can't try to premium price as facts, not when it is only appearing on a weekly basis anyway. Meachum appears to understand this, which is why he has pretty much given up on facts altogether and gone for the hyper-charged, hyperpuissant opinion model. He has to compete with newspapers as magazines, magazines as magazines, the internet as magazines, and without even the pretense of a budget by which to gather anything that can be premium priced. (I plan to put up the occasional post on media economics and business models. Sometimes about the US, and sometimes about media economics in the developing world, where I do a lot of pro bono work.):

Mark N. (www):
You briefly mention The Economist, and I think its success is what's driving some of these other magazines to think an opinion-led model can work. The Economist's covers are usually a provocative editorial position, like "Business in America -- Its Next Problem: Big Government" (two weeks ago) or its famous "Resign, Rumsfeld" cover following Abu Ghraib. I think it succeeds partly because of the focus on business and finance (as you point out, an area where people are willing to pay for information), but partly because it's not just editorializing on the basis of widely available facts, but is instead a deeply integrated reporting/investigating/analysis/opinion mix.

I'll have to agree with skepticism that Newsweek can pull something like that off, so I agree this isn't a very good model for them to follow. The space of political opinion, in particular, is far too saturated, and shallow op-ed based on the soundbytes of the week even more so.
6.7.2009 10:20pm
Kenneth Anderson:
Maybe I'll try to do a post down the road about the Economist. Interesting thoughts. You might say that the Economist is able to leverage its opinionating off the reputation and value added of the economics and business reporting. I do actually read the back pages of statistics, but I wonder how many people do. The Big Mac Index is one of the truly clever creations in the past twenty years of journalism.
6.7.2009 10:27pm
dmv (www):

And figuring out these days if there any hard facts that someone is willing to pay for, even if it does involve people getting out of the internet echo chamber and doing some hard research that might involve shoe leather. . . .

That's ironic, because bloggers have done a far, far better job sifting through the documents related to Bush's torture policies to find the facts than any media outlet has done so far. Indeed, the NYT story today on the three e-mails sort of missed much of the point of the e-mails themselves, while bloggers all picked them apart.

Internet = distributed media in that sense. We don't have to rely on newspapers or magazines, with their production and print cycles, with their concern over space and column inches and advertising and marketing and and and....

Where direct access to the sources (where the sources are documentary at any rate) is available, the institutional media just tends to muddy the waters.

I'd suggest that what's sorely missing in the media is genuine criticism. I mean careful, thorough, unrelenting probing of sources, messages, media campaigns, etc. Just look at how close the media establishment is to the political elite. I'm not talking about any liberal or conservative bias. I'm talking about the unthinking regurgitation of whatever line is given to the media to spit out. Obviously there are exceptions. One institutional exception is McClatchy. They are one of the few news organizations left with any substantial credibility.

As for the rest, just get out of the way, media.

Incidentally, this also points to the power of governmental transparency. That's my hope for the future, anyway, because the current trend in the media is decidedly negative, and has been for a while now. The synergy of transparency plus distributed analysis is exciting. Of course, it turns out that transparency isn't really in the interest of those in power, so that's the obstacle, as it always has been. But then consider the power of the transparency theme in Obama's campaign. It resonates with people. He obviously has not lived up to it, much to my disappointment, but that transparency as a theme proved to be so powerful is, at least, encouraging. Because there comes a point where you can't keep saying you're committed to transparency without actually being transparent, at least not without losing your credibility entirely.
6.7.2009 10:35pm
Tim McDonald (mail):
Based on the operating losses and stock price of the NYT, unless a ultra-rich liberal savior comes along soon, the NYT is having a hard time making this work as a business model as well.

At this point, unless Soros decides he is willing to spend $100 million per year to promote liberal causes, or Obama repays the debt he owes the Times, there will be no NYT as we know it in another 12 months.
6.7.2009 10:37pm
Kenneth Anderson:
Another excellent post topic for down the road - how bad is the NYT's financial position? Re DMV comment: I would be very cautious in suggesting how much the blogosphere is able to do in going beyond the professional media in ferreting out new information. As the Times's media columnist David Carr has said, quite aptly, the blogosphere is good at "annotating the news," not discovering it whole. We are not better off if the professional media decide to abandon that function wholesale; we are even worse off if professional media decide to abandon that function but don't admit to it.
6.7.2009 11:04pm
Jay:
I'm not much of an Andrew Sullivan reader these days, but his description of The Economist as "a sort of Reader's Digest for the overclass" (paraphrase) pretty much nailed it.
6.7.2009 11:04pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
I know that the Economist is for the future, but...

It seems to be run on a very different model. Sure, it has some editorial content up front in the form of a number of fairly short opinion pieces, but the vast majority of the magazine contains an amazing amount of reporting around the world, and across business. I rarely read the opinion pieces, but rather start with the U.S. section, then jump to the back for the technology and science section, then the obituaries and book reviews, and then jump back to the front and read about the rest of the world, as well as parts of the world economy.

Sure, there are magazines out there that cover the rest of the world in more depth, but not at that level, which I find very helpful. I don't have the time or interest to read a paper on some 3rd world country, but can, and will, often read the short Economist articles on same. So, yes, maybe it can be seen as some sort of Reader's Digest, but that is just fine with me.

Newsweek doesn't seem to have much clue as to why the Economist is successful, and they are not.
6.7.2009 11:27pm
Careless:

Based on the operating losses and stock price of the NYT, unless a ultra-rich liberal savior comes along soon, the NYT is having a hard time making this work as a business model as well.

Did you miss Carlos Slim's investment in the Times earlier this year?
6.7.2009 11:35pm
Kanchou (www):
Speaking for myself, I read Economist mainly for its obituary.
6.7.2009 11:51pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
My thought on the Economist (I admit that my reading of it is mostly in the distant past, but quick glances suggest it hasn't changed much) is that there is a lot of opinion larded through the reporting of facts, and while the facts may be accurate, the opinion (and possibly the omissions, which are harder to detect) is obviously there.

That's not to say that the Economist is the only offender. Certainly the NYT, WP, etc., and the various weekly news magazines have the same problem in varying degrees. Of course they don't see it as a problem, because the editors tend to share the opinions of the reporters and copywriters, so unless the bias is too obvious to ignore, it's apparently not even detected.

Nor is this limited to the liberal media; many conservative media share the problem. I don't object to opinion; it's useful to gather other people's ideas on the issues; particularly as theirs may be better than mine, But I do wish that it could be separated from the factual news - sort of like how we let the President give his State of the Union speech without interruption, and then we criticise it.
6.7.2009 11:56pm
Dunstan:
If Newsweek's recent cover story on how Oprah's medical/health advice could kill people is any indication, I'm all in favor of the new direction.
6.8.2009 1:32am
Borealis (mail):
I didn't know Newsweek was still around. Are Time and U.S. News and World Report still around too? I thought they all were lost to the internet years ago.
6.8.2009 2:56am
Ricardo (mail):
My thought on the Economist (I admit that my reading of it is mostly in the distant past, but quick glances suggest it hasn't changed much) is that there is a lot of opinion larded through the reporting of facts, and while the facts may be accurate, the opinion (and possibly the omissions, which are harder to detect) is obviously there.

What I find valuable about the Economist is the mix of in-depth coverage and opinion. Most op-eds, even those written by highly informed people, are so superficial they aren't worth reading. The Economist has a niche market where they will take some "inside baseball" story about (for example) investment banking and then add a dose of opinion. Without the opinion, the article would be too dry for any non-investment banker to read while investment bankers would already know most of what's in the article and would skip it. The opinions make it valuable reading to people already in the know while the factual reporting makes it valuable to those of us who don't have an insider's view. It's a formula they clearly have mastered.

I'm very skeptical Newsweek can even approximate this model. Newsweek has been becoming more and more sensationalist and superficial over time -- hiring a bunch of op-ed hacks will only accelerate the trend.
6.8.2009 3:15am
Tek Jansen:
Given the number of comments about the Economist, we'll probably see your post sooner rather than later.

The obituary is always interesting, and I enjoy their opinion. But the reason I read the economist is that they find and report on interesting worldwide news (often with a slant) that I don't know where to find elsewhere. The BBC works well sometimes, but no American news outlet that I'm aware of provides the quality of worldwide reporting that Economist does.
6.8.2009 4:21am
5 a.m. post:
This is what passes as amusing nowadays? TNR is outclassed by this humor blog. If only there were some meta irony in this...
6.8.2009 5:15am
dsfsd (mail):
It seems to be run on a very different model. Sure, it has some editorial content up front in the form of a number of fairly short opinion pieces, but the vast majority of the magazine contains an amazing amount of reporting around the world, and across business. I rarely read the opinion pieces, but rather start with the U.S. section, then jump to the back for the technology and science section, then the obituaries and book reviews, and then jump back to the front and read about the rest of the world, as well as parts of the world economy. 好秘书 我爱皮肤 中国公文网
6.8.2009 5:26am
libertarian soldier (mail):
Another vote for the uniqueness of The Economist. I have subscribed to it for over 20 years, long after I dropped subscriptions to other magazines (of course, it always labels itself a newspaper). It does have a slant--classical liberal economics coupled with libertarian social views--but it is very rare when it mixes fact and opinion without making it clear.
6.8.2009 5:37am
Pro Natura (mail):
I second the opinions expressed above regarding the Economist. I suspect that two reasons the Economist can operate on so much higher a level than any US print news medium may be economic:

(1) I'm guessing that British journalists have a much less grandiose (and accurate) view of themselves than their US counterparts and are paid accordingly. I suspect that the Economist's stringers probably also are less well-payed than there US counterparts.

(2) Because of its high information-to-noise ratio the Economist has a very large, world wide distribution. The Econmist has successfully achieved globally what the NYT attempted to achieve nationally; economies of scale resulting from significant penetration of all important local markets.
6.8.2009 8:56am
BZ:
Prof. Anderson: I might prefer something along the lines of today's WaPo story on Truth/Slant, the essentially independent contractor news outlet, and the relationship of that business model to the new Newsweek.

And on the commodification issue, is one of the elements in this question whether the "facts" were foundational (i.e., sufficient for others to build on top of)? Not many people are willing to build positions on top of unsupported opinion, but opinion based on information sufficient for someone to serially evaluate the opinion's worth is much more valuable.

The reason I ask you, is that this is the venerable Big Mama Rag standard, which seems to fit the deterioration of the media business model, and which you, on this blog, are uniquely suited to mull over.
6.8.2009 9:06am
[insert here] delenda est:
Five points:
1) Not even the NYT can't get away with it, otherwise TimesSelect would have survived. No-one values their opinions that much.
2) No-one is going to make money trying to emulate the Economist. Newsweek is history.
3) I agree that newspapers could survive by delivering expensive hard-to-get facts. Finance is one area where you can't just rock up, you need a) a fancy education and b) fancy contacts. Hence the major finance papers charge a lot of money for online access and get away with it.
4) I disagree that they will so survive. The BBC will, and a few papers here and there. Mostly those that localise aggressively. Otherwise the overwhelming trend is to opinion over fact and see point 1, down that road lies not commodification but extinction.
5) Why dismiss bloggers? See Michael Totten and Michael Yon for better reporting on the war(s) than any major paper. See calculatedrisk, or Arnold Kling for better reporting on the financial crisis, see volokh.com or OJ or a number of others for better legal reporting, and lets not go into political reporting...
6.8.2009 9:37am
rosetta's stones:
Well, Meachum's a good guy, and I give him credit for stepping into the arena here. The 3 news magazines have been worthless twaddle for some years now, and he's courageously stepping in and attempting to leverage one of their brand names to build something constructive. I think the key is that brand name, however, because opinion is a commodity these days, and his magazine's opinion bears little weight without that name, and becomes lost in the flooded commodities market.
6.8.2009 9:40am
Jon Roscoe (mail):
BZ - Great point. What's necessarily lost if we continue the model of:

Obnoxious, Biased NYT supported mainly by huge leftist donors, pretending (attempting sometimes) to present the 'first blush' news of the cycle, and then SMEs like here, and on radio, picking in to pieces. I pay for the Weekly Standard, I'd certainly pay for this, Rush, Glenn, and maybe 3-4 others if I had to - maybe per click?

Or, as I say, not at all - just continue the model as is. Won't that adversarial relationship work for a good long while?
6.8.2009 9:46am
Just an Observer:
I, for one, won't pay for Newsweek's opinions. But that is not an example of Newsweek's major business problem, which is that I don't pay to read the very valuable factual reporting by, say, Michael Isikoff. I don't pay because I don't have to.

I would be willing to pay a reasonable price for such reporting online. But the larger problem is that the universe of individuals who are willing to pay for reporting is not large enough to comprise a mass audience. The market is confined primarily to institutional special interests -- corporations, law firms, government agencies, lobbyists, etc. Such are the traditional customers of publishers who are traditionally subscription based and expensive (National Journal, Congressional Quarterly, etc.).
6.8.2009 9:47am
Mike_K (mail) (www):
The Economist is useful for its world wide coverage but the US section slants left and is of less interest to me. Of course, I Know enough to recognize that so the rest may have slant that I don't recognize. George Freidman's Stratfor.com has come along for those willing to pay for information rather than opinion. There is probably room for more in the major newspapers and news magazines have ruined their brand with leftist opinion so they are probably too late for such a model. I contribute to both Totten and Yon so, here again, is the pay for information model that seems to be working for them.

At least Newsweek was always the news magazine that leaned left so it has lost less than Time which had a different reputation 50 years ago.
6.8.2009 10:50am
Ursus (mail):
The economist is lefty trash, and is only successful because it's supported by internationalists of varying capacities
6.8.2009 10:57am
jj08 (mail):
This would explain why more journalists are asking for a Federal bailout - or at least not objecting to becoming even more of a lapdog press than they already are (if that is possible).
6.8.2009 11:32am
B Dubya (mail):
I see TARP money going to bolster the flagging fortunes of the fellow travellers at the NYT, Times Mag, Newsweek, and any other underperforming progressive rag left out there.
If any of you listened to Obama when he spoke at the Washington Press Club last month, you heard that promise made, even if not explicitly made.
If Government Motors, why not Pravda (NYT), or Izvestia (Newsweek)? It will be more of your taxes to support the left narrative, into the bright workers future...the very same one that the Soviets delivered to the Russians. Oh, wait. The Soviets DIDN'T deliver the worker's paradise, they went TU. My bad.
6.8.2009 11:33am
Eric R. (mail):
I had been a devout reader of the Economist for 15 years, and finally cancelled in 2002, primarily because they seem to be infected with Europe's primary problem -- irrational hatred of Jews and Israel.

No matter how rational they were on other matters, when it came to the Middle East, they were infected with the virulent and even genocidal anti-Semitism of the European elites.

To them, the only good Jew is a dead one, no matter how many Gideon Rachmans they employ.

By the way, this is a magazine that endorsed Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008, so why anybody would consider this magazine anything other than left-wing is beyond me.

By the way, the blogfather Mr. Reynolds himself has noted the leftward drift of the Economist over the years. He also mentioned that he took a trial subscription to the Financial Times (which many Economist readers also read) and quickly dropped it, due to its sloppy reporting and left-wing bias.
6.8.2009 11:34am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
KA: We lapsed Mormons call this "chutzpah-pricing."

Is this in fact a common usage among Mormons, lapsed or otherwise?

If so, how did this yiddishism enter "Mormon" culture?
6.8.2009 12:43pm
Kenneth Anderson:
Joke! Joke!
6.8.2009 1:00pm
Thomass (mail):
Careless:

"Did you miss Carlos Slim's investment in the Times earlier this year?"

No, but I don't see it as a great sign for the NYTimes. Carlos seems to have a pattern of investing in companies that still go under. He must have terms worked out with the borrowers such that he can still profit even if they fail... in which case, he is probably not so much a benefactor / interested in their survival.
6.8.2009 1:14pm
martinned (mail) (www):

Brooks Lyman:

That's not to say that the Economist is the only offender. (...) Nor is this limited to the liberal media.



Ursus:
The economist is lefty trash, and is only successful because it's supported by internationalists of varying capacities


Eric R.:
I had been a devout reader of the Economist for 15 years, and finally cancelled in 2002, primarily because they seem to be infected with Europe's primary problem -- irrational hatred of Jews and Israel.

No matter how rational they were on other matters, when it came to the Middle East, they were infected with the virulent and even genocidal anti-Semitism of the European elites.

To them, the only good Jew is a dead one, no matter how many Gideon Rachmans they employ.

By the way, this is a magazine that endorsed Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008, so why anybody would consider this magazine anything other than left-wing is beyond me.

By the way, the blogfather Mr. Reynolds himself has noted the leftward drift of the Economist over the years. He also mentioned that he took a trial subscription to the Financial Times (which many Economist readers also read) and quickly dropped it, due to its sloppy reporting and left-wing bias.

Let me see if I've got this straight, for future reference. The Economist is part of the left-wing MSM? Really?

As much as I like it, I'd read it more often if it wasn't so predictably conservative and pro-US.
6.8.2009 3:17pm
martinned (mail) (www):
O, and BTW, Gideon Rachman now writes an excellent column in the Financial Times, Europe's only pan-continental newspaper.
6.8.2009 3:18pm
Loyola:
Thinking back to when I read Time magazine in the 1970s, I think I liked reading it because it made me feel smart. I felt smarter than the average guy.

That feeling of being smarter, more well informed than the average Joe, I now get from reading blogs. It's the same feeling.
6.8.2009 3:43pm
wm13:
I suspect that the Economist is unique, and that Newsweek can't use the same model. Just for starters, let me note that the Economist has cachet, and people think that you are smart if they see you reading it, which no one will ever think about Newsweek. Meanwhile, magazines like The New Republic, the Weekly Standard, etc., have one big problem: they aren't profitable. Newsweek's re-making seems like one last self-indulgence by the inmates before the asylum shuts down for lack of funds.

When the last mainstream media reporter is strangled with the bowels of the last mainline clergyman . . . .
6.8.2009 5:20pm
Desiderius:
wm13,

"When the last mainstream media reporter is strangled with the bowels of the last mainline clergyman . . . ."

Oddly enough, my mainline clergyman is pretty damn good. Left, but in a liberal and reflective/charitable way, which is (was?) awfully rare. Meacham strikes me as the same sort of guy. Perhaps there's hope yet.
6.9.2009 12:00am

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