Taking Apart the Times Meter, Re-Forming Journalism and Bret Easton Ellis on Sheen

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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Normal people usually get excited when they're given something for free. Not us media writers. We're never more giddy than when someone makes us pay for something, as the flood-the-zone coverage of the New York Times' paywall announcement attests. This news, of course, was long in the making, but what took just about everyone by surprise was one detail: the relatively large amount the Old Gray Lady is charging to get past her new and rather complicated digital gates. While some balked at the price and screamed about the death of media, others quickly got to thinking about paywall loopholes and wondered about how heavy-linking bloggers would deal with the gated content. At its heart, though, this is a business story and the two best analyses came from Reuters' Felix Salmon and Nieman's Ken Doctor.

After some back-of-the envelope calculating , Mr. Salmon, an economics blogger who's also a trenchant writer on content models, panned the move:

Emily Bell [director for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia] reckons that the number of people who'll even hit the paywall in the first place is only about 5% of the NYT's 33 million or so unique visitors. That's 1.6 million people -- compare the 1.3 million people who already subscribe to the paper on Sundays. The former is not a perfect superset of the latter, of course, but there's a big overlap; let's say that realistically the NYT is going after a universe of no more than 800,000 people that it's going to ask to subscribe. And let's be generous and say that 15% of them do so, paying an average of $200 per year apiece. That's extra revenues of $24 million per year.

$24 million is a minuscule amount for the New York Times company as a whole; it's dwarfed not only by total revenues but even by those total digital advertising revenues of more than $300 million a year. This is what counts as a major strategic move within the NYT?

Mr. Doctor was a bit more wait-and-see. He outlined a number of challenges that The Times digital subscription effort must meet if it's to succeed. Here's one of them:

Test Three: Keep the bumpers coming back

We know that the vast majority of visitors won't reach the 20-article-view level and won't bump into the fence. They are fodder for advertising, and a slim few will become more regular users over time. Then, there's that small percentage -- one to three percent -- who do pay for digital-only subscriptions, in addition, of course to the print subscribers who will now get "all-access" (Prego: It's in there!) included at no extra charge. It's the bumpers -- those who do run into the fence and don't pay up -- who are the big concern of the Times.

If they are bumping, they're consuming a significant number of pages per month. They're news readers. So figuring out their behavior after they bump is key.

Do they use another browser or account to get more articles? Do they go off to competitive national/global news sites? Which ones? Do they come back the following month and bump again? Or do they say "forget the Times -- I'm going elsewhere" and mean it?

This is the group that offers the Times the greatest potential of new digital customers, on the upside, and would be terrible to lose, on the downside. And there's lots of nuance involved in getting them inside the tent: Targeted special introductory offers, assuming the bumpers can be well-identified, should take advantage of the flexibility of digital marketing, for instance.

Whither paid journalism is not the only question perplexing journalism these days. There's also a lot handwringing going on over the question of form. The Economist's generally excellent and underrated Babbage blog delivered a thoughtful and refreshingly sedate missive from the ever frenzied South By Southwest. The topic was, not surprisingly, the future of journalism, with an eye on how the container of the news story can be changed. The post examines a few different notions, including this:

Another idea, still in its infancy, is finding ways to tailor the story to the reader byproviding different levels of detail. In an ideal world, your web browser, news aggregator or search engine would know how much you already know about the protests in Egypt, and show you only what's new to you. Since our software is not quite that clever yet, the next best thing is to make it easy for the readers themselves to pick how much background they need. Mother Jones made a rough attempt at this with its topic pages for various countries during the recent Arab protests: each page starts out with the absolute basics (eg, "Egypt is a large, mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country"), but you can skip past those to more detail, finally ending up in a blow-by-blow stream of the latest events in chronological order. The pages are frankly too overloaded with information, but by reversing the traditional order of news and context, they make it much easier to get the background on the story, while still relatively easy to get the latest news too.

Tina Brown hiring Bret Easton Ellis to write about Charlie Sheen for Newsweek is, to my mind, the sort of thing that will justify of the Daily Beast merger. I argued a long time ago that newsweeklies -- specifically, Time -- should voluntarily devolve themselves a bit, hop down from the ramparts of journalism and get more celebrities and big-name authors -- mass fiction writers and the like -- to weigh in on news and pop culture. While Ellis is no Stephen King on the fame-meter, he retains enough of a, um, sheen from his 1980s stardom that his apology for Mr. Sheen pops with a nice, icky thoughtfulness. Here, you think, is a guy who knows a little bit about media-fueled disintegration. (As an aside, I've been rereading "Less Than Zero." As with teenage suicide, don't do it.)

It's thrilling watching someone call out the solemnity of the celebrity interview, and Sheen is loudly calling it out as the sham it is. He's raw and lucid and intense: the most fascinating person wandering through the culture. (No, guys, it's not Colin Firth or David Fincher or Bruno Mars or super-Empire Tiger Woods.) We're not used to these kinds of interviews. It's coming off almost as performance art and we've never seen anything like it -- because he's not apologizing. It's an irresistible spectacle. We've never seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing -- even in Sheen's evasions there's a truthful playfulness that makes Tiger's mea culpa press conference look like something manufactured by Nicholas Sparks.

First there was recent New York magazine look into the romance between Garance Dore and Scott "The Sartorialist" Schuman. Now we have a documentary on Bill Cunningham, the legendary New York Times lensman. For whatever reason, street-style shooters are having their moment. All in all, that's a good thing because these subjects are, without fail, fascinating. Take Mr. Cunningham. For someone even tangentially related to the fashion industry, he leads a life that is ascetic: he's a thin, elusive man who lives in a room in midtown Manhattan that's jammed with negatives. He dresses in tatters. Tom Scocca, reviewing the film for Capital New York, does a wonderful job intimating at the strangeness of the subject while leaving the reader thirsting for more.

"If you don't take money," Bill Cunningham says, "they can't tell you what to do, kid." Out of privation comes self-made privilege. He is better -- more stylishly -- dressed in his uniform of worn bright blue blue sweater or smock, khakis, and cheap poncho mended with tape than, say, Michael Kors in unvarying jeans and a blazer. He says it is essential to keep returning to Paris, because it "educates the eye." He sits in an unimpressive sidewalk cafe, taking heart pills from a New York Times office envelope. All he wants from anyone is to take his or her picture.

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