The Best Media Writing of the Week

Times Gets Readers to Pay for 'Terrible' Website, Fortune Gets Forbes' Goat

Forbes Claims Fortune Report Is Designed to Disrupt Business at 'Its Most Formidable Competitor'

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The week began with The New York Times winning applause for getting readers to pay for access to its website in unexpectedly large-ish numbers, almost unthinkable when it erected its much-derided paywall four months ago. By Wednesday, the media mob swerved again, to conclude that -- monetization or no -- said website looks like shit. That still amounts to a pretty good week in today's media business (all the better if you consider that Demand Media, the content farm that 's pretty much the antithesis of the Times, saw its stock price basejump to new lows).

So is the Times back? Seth Mnookin thinks so. In publishing his generally positive evaluation of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s reign over his company, New York magazine fuels the argument that an Old Gray Lady who desperately needed a hot cash injection from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim as recently as 2009 has begun to figure out some things, including the universally vexing question of how the hell to get people to pay for online content.

So far, Mr. Mnookin reported, the paper has monetized 400,000 readers in half a hockey season, beating the believed-to-be year-one target of 300,000. (The news caused paywall naysayer Felix Salmon to eat some crow, presumably with a nice Sancerre.) While Mr. Mnookin's piece may be a premature victory lap for some, evenhanded looks the at the Times are few and far between, with bitching and moaning about its business model (and weak media columns by certain of its very senior editors) drowning out the good done by the paper's meaningful footprint of journalists, one of the few left:

The bottom line for the paywall is more than the bottom line: The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice. And if that does indeed end up being the case, there's one unlikely person who deserves most of the credit: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.

Then everyone started passing around a comic called "This is Why Your Newspaper is Dying" and stumbled upon a post from last week by Andy Rutledge. Mr. Rutledge, who runs a Plano, Texas, design shop, argues that the design of many major news websites, simply, sucks.

Using The Times, but also CNN and the BBC, he annotates the shambolic layouts and confused navigation that , basically, try to cram too many headlines in too small a space, to say nothing of the clutter of modules pointing to other sites, video players and ads. Wrote Mr. Rutledge:

It is hard to believe that the Times, or any other similar publication, actually cares about the news when they treat it with this sort of indignity. Worse, the design makes it quite hard and often frustrating to simply scan the news and find stories that one might be interested in. As a news reader, I want to be able to scan headlines and logically find news I'm interested in reading. And by logically, I mean according to clear, usable, undistracted organization and filtering.

If his mock redesign of The Times's politics were an apartment it would be featured in Dwell, it's so clean and spacious. But ...

Nieman Journalism Lab's Joshua Benton offloaded a common-sense response: Mr. Rutledge's design, while elegant, doesn't really solve contemporary news organization's complexity issues. A newspaper or magazine is no longer filling up a predetermined space based on ad pages; it has infinite space for all manner of content.

News design thinking like Mr. Rutledge's merely requires that you lop off a big chunk of headlines, headlines that someone somewhere wants to read. It's a sacrifice of a prolificacy, rather than an attempt figure out a way flow all that stuff through in manner that 's readable, both foregrounding the most important news of the day and surfacing good but less obvious stuff:

No one has figured out a way to present lots and lots of constantly updated information in a way that (a) is beautiful, (b) is effective at story discovery, and (c) privileges editorial control.. While there are no doubt lots of pages on or any other news site that could use a once-over, the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems. Smart ( people think about these problems. And their solutions require more than a nice slab-serif typeface and some white space.

Fortune's Katie Benner got hold of some documents hinting at the dire straits over at competitor Forbes -- and, no, we're talking about Mark Knopfler noodling with investor Roger McNamee's band. Turns out Forbes Media went into "technical default on some $90 million of revolving credit" that forced a restructuring of the business and some rejiggering by its lenders. Basically the investment made by Elevation Partners -- featuring Mr. McNamee and Bono -- hasn't fared well, as Ms. Benner writes:

Elevation invested in Forbes Media based on rosy 2006 projections that looked downright absurd by 2008. When it bought into Forbes, Elevation believed that the value of its stake would rise sharply, but was clearly worried about being able to exit the deal. So Elevation's contract includes a "put" option giving it the right to force Forbes to buy back the 45% stake at fair market value anytime between Aug. 4, 2011, and Aug. 3, 2016, according to a footnote in Forbes's 2010 financial statement. (In a twist that could prove lucky for Forbes, it has a "call" option to force Elevation to sell back its stake at fair market value anytime after Aug. 4, 2011. If the company's value does not rise above what Elevation paid in 2006, Forbes could buy back the stake and stick Elevation with a loss.)

Steve Forbes responded to the Fortune article, which hit just as the Forbes board was meeting, with a staff memo claiming the piece was published "with the clear intention of disrupting the business of its most formidable competitor,"the New York Post reported today.

You should also check out The Oatmeal's hilarious "The State of the Web" for summer 2011.

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