Weird Porn and a Can of Beer for Free. A Protocol of Mathias Döpfner’s and Arianna Huffington’s Debate on the Future of Journalism

***UPDATED*** So, Arianna Huffington, founder of the influential Web site Huffington Post, and Mathias Döpfner, chairman of Germany’s leading newspaper publisher Axel Springer Verlag, were debating the future of journalism. Naturally, they clashed over hot button issues such as paid content. Go figure! Still, it’s a very pleasurable debate between two gifted orators with interesting accents and even more interesting metaphors and hence worth watching — and if you haven’t done so yet, here it is:

If you don’t have the time to watch the whole thing, or if you can’t stand the moderator, here’s the first part of my very rough minute-to-minute protocol. I’ll highlight some quotes that I thought were remarkable and add some little-qualified comments of my own:

00:00 — General confusion. That’s a good starting point for the debate, because, well, that’s how it is in the publishing industry these days.

06:10 — Asked whether the Huffington Post only aggregates or actually produces news, Arianna Huffington answers that they do both. That’s nothing new if you followed the case of Mayhill Fowler last year.

08:00 — Mathias Döpfer argues that printed media, too, tends to aggregate rather than to produce news (that is, newspapers, too, refer to other media sources and wire services, rather than getting all their news exclusively through investigative reporting). He also mentions the „reader-reporters“, or citizen journalists, that Bild, his bestselling tabloid, is employing:

The only difference between HuffPost and Axel Springer is: We are paying them.

12:56 — „Not paying people“ is a theme that will be discussed in more detail later on. As for now, Arianna Huffington highlights the importance of using citizen journalists and filtering sources such as Twitter and Facebook, especially when it comes to reporting from foreign countries with oppressive regimes (e.g. Iran, China), because

you can spin traditional journalists much more easily than you can spin thousands upon thousands of Twitter feeds and Facebook entries. (…) We shouldn’t just say that journalism will survive — it can actually improve and get better because of what is available right now!

14:45 — Arianna Huffington takes aim at Mathias Döpfner’s idea of bringing paid content back to the debate:

Unless you’re offering porn, and especially weird porn, or very specialized financial information, you are not going to succeed by putting your content behind (pay) walls. (…) You may be able to sustain this model of asking subscribers to pay for content for a little while, but in the long run it’s a model of the past.

This, of course, is brilliantly put, and a blurb that’s going to pop up in blog posts etc. all over the place, but I wonder if Arianna Huffington is correct. Aren’t there other cases of paid content that work? Isn’t there content worth paying for besides weird porn (no examples needed) and „very specialized financial information“ (e.g. the Wall Street Journal’s business and finance news)? What about the archive of the New York Times, where general interest pieces are free, but articles of specific historic relevance (say, Norman Podhoretz’s op-ed piece lashing out against Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in 1982) are only available if you pay a price that’s slightly higher than that of a Venti Latte? I mean, in the end it’s all going to be about whether your content is interesting, exclusive and not easy to emulate, right?

16:00 — Mathias Döpfner argues that people only care about six things anyways:

1) sports 2) games 3) regional environment 5) money/power 6) sex 7) crime.

Bold claims about human nature were not neccessarily what I expected but they’re very welcome nonetheless. However: Why does Mr. Döpfner not mention „beauty“ (as in: „Arts & Style“ or the „Feuilleton“-Section of his papers)? After all, insufficiantly verified sources claim that he studied literature and theatre and got his Ph.D. in musicology. Also, this seems to be a rather arbitrary list. What’s the difference between „sports“ and „games“? Does „regional environment“ mean local news? How does celebrity gossip (a beat some of Mr. Döpfner’s papers are famous for) fit in? Is celebrity gossip a mixture of money, power, sex, crime and regional environment? How does politics fit in? Are politics a mixture of money, power, games, crime and regional environment? BTW, if we’re now seriously discussing „porn“, why not „music“? I’m certainly paying for it and I know a lot of people that do, too. What about „literature“? People are paying the price of books for physically almost non-existent downloads on their e-readers. And wasn’t this debate supposed to be about news? I’m confused.

17:33 — Mathias Döpfner’s rhetorical comeback:

It’s simply wrong to think that in the web world everything has to be offered for free. (…) I have to admit that’s one of the most absurd theories I have heard. It’s a very late ideological outcome of web Communists, where you say: Only if everything is for free, it’s democratic. How absurd! Is it more democratic to go to a supermarket and get a can of beer for free? Yes, I would prefer it I have admit…

At this point the moderator interrupts. I hope somebody is scolding her for that on the Twitter wall. Mr. Döpfner keeps going:

…pay for beer or getting it for free? I think free is better. But whether it is a fundament for democracy? I would radically disagree.

Ms. Huffington looks amused. However, I can’t help but agree with Mr. Döpfner when he climaxes in the all-too-obvious question:

What is the business model for the future? (…) In the same year (2005) when you have launched the HuffPost, we have launched a newspaper in Poland. It was breaking even after two years and its profits are higher than your (alleged, b/c the HuffPost is not releasing any numbers) sales figures. (…) You have 2000 contributors, 2000 bloggers that are working for you for free. You don’t pay them. I mean, if we do that with our company the margin goes up to 80%. (…) I love it, it’s a great business model, but I don’t think that it’s sustainable. (…) For high quality content people are and will be willing to pay for. That’s my hope and my conviction.

20:58 — Arianna Huffington argues that there’s no way to present hard news in a way that is sufficiently exclusive to get people to pay for it. Rather, she’s argueing in favor of the „link economy“, hence, making your content embeddable and widely distributable and increasing your ad revenue by increasing traffic and reach:

Ubiquity, an advertising genius said, is the new exclusivity. If you want to get paid for your content, make sure it’s on as many sites as possible, all over the web. (…) Promiscuity may not be good in relationships, but it’s very good online and it pays.

22:30 — Mr. Döpfner doesn’t buy it. He starts saying… something. Ms. Huffington is pouring herself a drink. It sounds like that one scene in „Naked Gun“, when detective Frank Drebin does not switch off his mic before going to the bathroom. Is that a strategy of distracting listeners from Mr. Döpfner’s explanations? She’s so brilliant. But Mr. Döpfner can’t be outfoxed. Implying he might just have called Ms. Huffington a thief ensures getting her attention back to the debate:

Oh no, no, no, no, no! (…) The Huffington Post is absolutely meticulous about following copyright rules!

But is it really? And is Gawker, another successful news aggregating Web site? Arianna Huffington:

There hasn’t been a single, traditional newspaper provider who has come to us and said: This is something you shouldn’t have taken. (…) On the contrary! Every day we get hundreds of requests from traditional content providers to link to them, because we provide massive traffic to the stories that we link to.

25:50 — Next topic: Is opinion journalism going to replace straight-forward, unbiased reporting of facts? Mr. Döpfner launches into a rather philosophical excursion again:

The net is a neutral technological platform.

This claim is supposed to give proof to Mr. Döpfner’s optimism concerning the future of (unbiased) reporting, yet it sounds a little vague, too. Can technology be neutral? Doesn’t each platform favor certain forms of presentation? Earlier, I was challenging the notion that there are no long and slow narratives on the web, because I think it’s not helpful to talk in absolutes when we discuss such matters, and because I’m convinced there are examples for all kinds of narratives and ways of presenting content online. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t, in fact, narratives or modes of presentation that work better on certain technological platforms than others. Cheap example: If there are no pictures to a story, you won’t see it on television. So can TV be neutral? Can any technology? Anyway, I assume that’s not really the point here. The point is rather: paid content. So after argueing that the web increases and gives new channels of distribution to both, intelligence and stupidity, opinions and facts, Mathias Döpfner returns to the issue of paid content, argueing that paid content has been the rule rather than the exception for hundreds of years and that giving stuff away for free online is the „one big structural mistake that we’re going to correct“.

32:20 — Arianna Huffington is making a case for consumer engagement. Rather than thinking that consumers exclusively go for low-brow content, publishers should give them a chance to become involved and „relate to news“, even to hard news:

How does Wikipedia do it? There’s clearly something that makes people want to participate, want to be engaged, and we can not ignore that.

Attempting to change people’s habits, e.g. trying to get them to consume more high-brow stuff, is hubristic and not realistic, Arianna Huffington argues. It’s not about forcing people, Mathias Döpfner replies, it’s about raising incentives. Also, you can’t just give people what they want (i.e.: no politics, because only about 50% of HuffPo readers and, according to Mr. Döpfner, less than 25% of Bild readers are interested in that), because

We believe that if you only do what the majority of your readers wants, you will not serve your consumer, because your consumer also wants to be surprised. That’s the function of journalism: that you are achieving that someone who is reading your product, or watching your product, is developing an interest in an area which he has never been interested in before. (…) Not because we are idealists and we want to change the world into a politically more interested place we are doing that (e.g. having reporters on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though that’s very expensive and of little concern to the majority of readers), we are doing it out of a very opportunistic business assumption. We can afford to do it, because we have a sustainable business model.

37:30 — Arianna Huffington replies:

Nobody is saying that we are against investigative journalism or reporting online that comes from paid reporters. We are doing it through the investigative fund and we are doing it through our own paid reporters. Should we be expanding it? Absolutely. We are going to. We are 4 1/2 years old, we have a long way to go.

39:00 — Mathias Döpfner:

If you have to pay your people to go into other countries to do investigative research your business model is dead immediately.

41:02 — Talking about the media crisis, Mathias Döpfner agrees with Arianna Huffington that it’s not about channels of distribution, but about the quality of content. They found someone new to blame: journalists!

I think that the crisis of media — the crisis particularly of traditional journalism — is a crisis of journalism. It’s not a crisis of new distribution channels, it’s a crisis because the brain people, the journalists, are not doing well enough, they’re not good enough.

OK, IMHO this threatens to become a little fishy. I’m wondering what the consequences of this observation are. Journalists suck, kick their lazy asses? Well, then we’ll just trade careers and become lawyers. Very bad lawyers, probably. And that’s not going to help anybody.

42:10 — Arianna Huffington specifies:

Many of them (i.e. „journalists“) are unfortunately selling their independence for access. And we saw that in the coverage of the financial meltdown in America. It was absolutely stunning how many highly paid business journalists missed the meltdown. They did not warn us, they continued to cheerlead. (…) So that’s really the kind of model that can be dramatically transformed online. Because even though you said — rightly — there are errors online, constantly, but they’re corrected much faster. Basically, transparency is the new credibility.

45:30 — Mathias Döpfner, back on the issue of paid content:

I (…) don’t think that in the web world we will ever have a paid-only model. I think we will have mixed offerings where parts of the content are for free and other parts are to be paid for and I think that is a process of ten years. We have new opportunities with the mobile devices, because on the mobile devices, people are used to paying — for a telephone call, nobody is saying: „Well, it’s a new, sexy device, I want to make my telephone calls for free.“ (…) And then it’s the decision of everybody whether he wants to have a very attractive game or a push service for exclusive news or whether he wants to have special interest content.

And here the argumentation goes full circle. Because, yes, Mathias Döpfner’s argument of habitual media consumption is convincing: People are used to be not paying for anything on the web, while people are used to be paying on their mobile phones. However, Arianna Huffington reminds us that there is probably no way of presenting content people would want to read on their cell phone (news, sports results) in a fashion exclusive enough to convince them not to use the services of multiple competitors who do not charge for the same kind of content.

47:24 — Mathias Döpfner, still on the issue of paid content, and back on the beer:

If we stick with the example of the beer can in the supermarket: (…) If it’s your business decision to offer the beer cans for free, fine, but my only request would be: Please brew your beer yourself and don’t take our beer and offer it for free.

49:25 — Arianna Huffington doesn’t like the beer metaphor. Her final statement to Mathias Döpfner:

I predict that in a couple of years a) you’re going to have a blog and b) you’re going to recognize that the future is free.

And with that, they’re off to the bar. Or wherever it is, that people are going to after heated debates these days. Their offices, maybe, continuing to fight all kinds of crises. It’s been an inspiring debate, and as these things go, they leave you craving for more once they end.

Here are the ten things I’m going to memorize:

  1. The future is going to be digital. Digital is not bad per se.
  2. Digital is pretty good, actually. As of now, it just doesn’t pay, compared to newspaper revenues.
  3. Content matters, but quality content is expensive.
  4. HuffPo & Axel Springer both are dedicated to (increasing) quality content.
  5. Don’t trade independence for access!
  6. „Ubiquity is the new exclusivity“ and „transparency is the new credibility“. (Or maybe that just sounds cool.)
  7. Human nature and consumer habits are probably more complex than one would think.
  8. If all media is going to become hyper-personalized, nobody is going to be surprised any more.
  9. Mobile phones may open up new business models, if only for habitual reasons.
  10. One should use more beer metaphors and allude to „weird porn“ more liberally.

10 Kommentare zu „Weird Porn and a Can of Beer for Free. A Protocol of Mathias Döpfner’s and Arianna Huffington’s Debate on the Future of Journalism“

  1. Vielen Dank für die Nutzbarmachung:)
    Es soll übrigens tatsächlich so sein, dass Springer gut zahlt. Sie werden ihre Gründe dafür haben, nichtsdestotrotz ist die Lohnzahlungsmentalität dieser 2.0-Verleger natürlich tatsächlich nicht nachhaltig (das ist das erste Mal, dass ich dieses Wort verwende). Zunächst füllt sich das Konto und dann springen nach und nach die guten Leute ab. Das geht so lange gut, wie sich neue Deppen finden und schließlich hat man ein recht leeres Blog.

  2. Neben Lohn geht es ja auch Profitabilität des ganzen Medienangebots. Ubiquity usw. hin oder her, aber wenn ein Firefox-Update / Adblock-Programm ausreicht, um das Netz von Werbebannern zu bereinigen, dann macht mich ein Businessmodell, das ausschließlich auf Werbung setzt, ein wenig skeptisch.

  3. Danke auch von mir für die Zusammenfassung. Damit bestätigst du deine These, dass es sehr wohl Menschen gibt, die im Netz bereit sind, lange Texte zu schreiben und es auch solche gibt, die bereit sind, diese langen Texte zu lesen. Ich habe deine Aufarbeitung wohl mehr genossen, als es mit der puren Aufzeichnung der Fall gewesen wäre.

    Was den Teil um die mobile devices und den paid content angeht, da habe ich neulich was ebenso provokantes wie interessantes in der FTD gelesen, wo der Autor meinte, die Verlagshäuser müssten die Hoheit über die Produktions- und Konsumkette zurückerobern und nicht den Verkauf von Devices Apple, Amazon et al. überlassen. Ergo, wenn die HuffPo Geld machen will mit ihren Inhalten, sollen sie ein entsprechendes Lesegerät auf den Markt bringen. Überlegenswert, sage ich.

  4. OK, die Financial Times meldet jetzt verbindlich:

    Britain’s The Times newspaper will start to charge consumers for its online content early next year, just six months after owner Rupert Murdoch said he believed readers would pay for what they currently get for free.

    Mehr hier. (Kostenfrei, wie man in Zukunft vielleicht dazu sagen muss?!) Wir werden sehen, wie das funktioniert.

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