Bloody-minded zigging-not-zagging

Last Friday night on the way back from a pretty disappointing Nouvelle Vague gig at the Roundhouse a Times subscription ad caught my eye. It was offering free delivery before 7am seven days a week to anyone living inside the M25. Of a newspaper. You know, those big, floppy paper things that everyone says won’t be around much longer?

I said to my wife “you know, if the Guardian offered that, I’d subscribe like a shot.” And she said “knowing you, you’ll have signed up to the Times by the end of the weekend, just because it’s new.”

She knows me so well. So, from next Sunday, I’ll be getting the Times delivered to my house for the grand total of 8 quid a week. No contract, and I can change my options online at any time. If I want just one paper a week, I can get it. If I want to suspend for several weeks, I can. And, as has been said many, many times before, that’s a week’s worth of newspapers for the price of four tall Starbucks lattes.

Now, before this turns into a commercial for what is still a newspaper owned by Big Bad Murdoch, I should just say that I can’t understand why the Guardian has never offered this. It’s been discussed endlessly internally, and for the life of me I can’t recall anyone giving me a single good reason why they shouldn’t do this in my five years there. It’s not going to save the newspaper industry, but surely there are, say, 20,000 people living within the M25 who’d be willing to sign up to receive the paper? At least at the weekends?

Also, worth adding that the Times make a big deal of their “clubs” when you sign up. You get free membership of their Culture or Travel clubs, and I admit to glazing over when they rolled off the list of benefits. But it took up at least a third of my phone call with them.

We shall see. But (as I’ve said here before) I already spend much more on magazine subscriptions in a year than I do on the BBC licence fee. I like the feel of print-on-paper with my breakfast. Try as I might, clicking on a website while I munch on porridge or toast has just never done it for me. I admit to being quite excited that, from next week, a crisp newspaper will be on my doorstep every morning. It makes me feel like a grownup, to be frank (the delivery bit, mind, not the Times bit. The Guardian is a much more grown-up newspaper).

When Google’s scale means only Google can do it

This morning’s Google News is that they’re preparing a micropayments system for online publishers. Actually, it’s a payment system that’s going to be used to take cash from users in return for granting access to various online publications (read URLs, presumably), and most people who know what they’re talking about know that subscriptions is a better model than micropayments, so this is in fact a subscriptions system that can do micropayments. But just as newspaper journalists say “Twitter” when they mean “social media”, online commentators say “micropayments” when they mean “The End of Free.” ‘Twas ever thus.

Anyway, the thing that struck me about this story is that, technically, anyone could have done this at any time in the last decade. eMeta had a technology that did exactly this and which is still in use in some places (it did power 4oD’s payments system, for example, before the archive was opened up and went free).

So this isn’t a technology story – it’s a reach story. What will make this work, if it does work, is Google’s scale. The newspaper industry is never going to get itself together to build something cooperatively. The laughable idea that the British government might do it is barely worthy of a mention but is definitely worth a chuckle.

No, the only way a system like this might work is if it’s put in front of enough users all at once in something like a coherent, planned way. And, I would argue, only Google can do this. Maybe Facebook, one day, but Facebook’s never going to be about monetising attention flow the way Google does.

So, what does this suggest as to the health of the online competitive space, when a key revenue platform which could underpin the future of online publishing might rely on the business planning of a single corporate entity? A while ago, we were all pretty exercised by the idea that Microsoft might control DRM and thus be the gatekeeper to the world’s digital content. That didn’t happen, perhaps thanks to a combination of YouTube, Apple, the MP3 format and self-publishing. But if, in this disaggregated world, only one company can operate at commercial scale, we’ve got a bit of a problem, have we not?

Guardian education story FAIL

Guardian education story FAIL, originally uploaded by lloydshep.

I was going to post something over the weekend about how Richard Desmond’s chamberpot of a business was now actively toxic to UK citizens, what with commemorating the death of Jade Goody before it happened and manipulating some of the most tragic teenagers on the planet to sell a few extra issues in Scotland. But there’s something even more insidiously awful about the Guardian’s front page this morning.

The story the Guardian is reporting is this: the education editor, Polly Curtis, has seen draft plans for a shake-up of the primary school curriculum undertaken by Sir Jim Rose, the former Ofsted chief. I haven’t seen the plans, obviously, but the drift of Polly’s report seems to be that Rose is proposing to make two rather fundamental changes: trimming down the 13 standalone subject areas into six “learning areas”; and giving teachers and schools some concrete choices about which options to teach in class. In history, for instance, schools could choose to teach either the Victorians or the Second World War.

Now, if you know anyone at all who teaches, they’ll probably tell you that the single thing the government could do to improve things would be to give teachers and schools a bit more leeway to tailor teaching to the circumstances of their schools and their classrooms (David Hepworth has a nice post on this today). So a more fluid platform on which to hang subjects, together with some options to pick and choose, seems like an eminently sensible course.

Oh, and the Rose plans apparently recommend that children should be given some teaching on “digital media” – on self-publishing, on shared knowledge, on the changing shape of how we talk, share and learn in the new digital sphere.

So what pithy concept has the Guardian chosen to illustrate this move towards a more flexible curriculum, which acknowledges that the way children consume knowledge has changed utterly in the last decade? “Kids to be taught Twitter, and Second World War no longer compulsory.”

How does this help human understanding? How does this disingenuous attempt to grab some attention on the newsstand help children, teachers or parents? Why is a supposedly intellectual institution like the Guardian succumbing to sub-Daily Mail posturing? What on earth happened here?

Well, we know what happened, of course. A front-page team and a news editor and a reporter took an interesting story. And they juiced it. They juiced it so much that a story about one thing became a story about something else. And in the process they managed to make Jim Rose – a highly-respected, experienced educationalist – look like a dad at a wedding playing with the cool kids by associating his work with Twitter, which for many is the poster child for feckless technical twiddling and twaddle.

The Express-Dunblane stuff was unconscionable, nasty and even evil. But this is intellectually ridiculous and socially poisonous. When a newspaper changes the weave of a story deliberately to gain attention – and when that newspaper is the poster-child for independent British journalism – all our arguments about the centrality of journalism and its importance are in danger of being seen as flimsy attempts to prop up a discredited profession. This is shoddy, vicious and cynical.

Shirky on micropayments

The threat from micropayments isn’t that they will come to pass. The threat is that talking about them will waste our time, and now is not the time to be wasting time. The internet really is a revolution for the media ecology, and the changes it is forcing on existing models are large. What matters at newspapers and magazines isn’t publishing, it’s reporting. We should be talking about new models for employing reporters rather than resuscitating old models for employing publishers; the more time we waste fantasizing about magic solutions for the latter problem, the less time we have to figure out real solutions to the former one.

This concept of “wasting our time” is an important one, I think, and Clay’s right to focus on the heart of the matter – “new models for employing reporters.” Personally, I think this answer is subscription not micropayment (in other words, the conversations about micropayments are precisely incorrect).

I posted this via web and the content originally came from Lloyd’s posterous

Does it matter who owns newspapers?

So, the Evening Standard is being sold to a Russian oligarch, while the NY Times is in hock to a man who became rich on a Mexican telecoms monopoly granted to him by a personal friend. Hmm. So, does it matter who owns newspapers? Particularly newspapers like the Times which take it upon themselves to represent all that is best about print journalism?

Over the decades, owners have used newspapers to pursue their own agendas, but most often they have used newspapers to confer a degree of respectability. It’s probably worth a great deal to “businessmen” whose sources of income are questionable at best to be seen as part of an intellectual and moral establishment. Personally, I stopped thinking of the Standard as a newspaper in about 1985, but the Times is another matter. This is what it printed about Carlos Slim in 2007:

But the momentous scale is not the most galling aspect of Mr. Slim’s riches. There’s the issue of theft.

Like many a robber baron — or Russian oligarch, or Enron executive — Mr. Slim calls to mind the words of Honoré de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Mr. Slim’s sin, if not technically criminal, is like that of Rockefeller, the sin of the monopolist.

In 1990, the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sold his friend Mr. Slim the Mexican national phone company, Telmex, along with a de facto commitment to maintain its monopoly for years. Then it awarded Telmex the only nationwide cellphone license.

That was an Opinion piece, not a News piece. Try justifying another piece like that now.