Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fellowship of the Wrong: The Game

The Lawyers Guns & Money blog has been posting a bit the last few days on what they are calling the Fantasy New York Times Columnist game.
So what if we could fire everyone at the Times and start over? Let’s play that game. What would it look like? Who would you keep? I want to establish a vague metric, Value over Replacement Columnist. I’m assuming what one wants in a Times columnist is an original thinker with consistently interesting things to say who also works hard at their job. You want someone people are going to talk about, brands that are interesting and provide added value to the paper. You want high VORC from your columnists.
This is a fun game, one that would be interesting to play in Australia. I would be interested to see Andrew Elder have a lash at this one, for instance. For those not into fantasy sports, VORC is a piss-take on VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), the iconic statistic that defines the relatively new field of sabermetrics that has revolutionised baseball and was popularised in the book/movie Moneyball. Are there any generalist columnists at the Fairfax, News, Text Media, ABC etc who are more valuable to keep than replacing them with other candidates who are more qualified in their chosen fields? I doubt it, especially in the political arena. What is the metric similar to On-Base Percentage, which underpinned Moneyball, that could be dreamed up to measure Aussie columnist output? I bet Andrew would have a field day with this concept.

But seriously, I'm with David Watkins of LGM in questioning the structure of the game in the first place. The problem with all these papers' editorial cadres is that they have this policy of tenure which is completely out of sync with the rest of modern society. It is pretty bloody hard to get struck off the register of Very Serious People who say very serious things in major newspapers, no matter how stupid the things you say get. There is no marking to market, as economists would say, by either the columnists or their bosses. You have to be carted out of the Fellowship of the Wrong in a pine box, effectively - and no, Glenn Milne wasn't pushed out, he left of his own accord. You can expand slightly the roster of VSPs, but the market has spoken on this issue and found the whole idea of op-ed pages in newspapers to be boring and useless, which is part of why newspapers are dying.

Meanwhile in Australia, this game that Erik Loomis and the LGM crew are playing has already been run and "won" by Morrie Schwarz with the launch of the Saturday Paper, as Margaret Simons details in the Guardian.
Only now, he says, with the media business in crisis, does he spy the opportunity. First, many of the best Australian journalists have been made redundant from the mainstream publishers and are eager for work. Second, the decline of the big publishers has, he believes, left a hole in the market for the intelligent, committed reader.
“I have thought long and hard about what a newspaper is actually for, its core purpose” he says. “We will ditch anything extraneous.”
There will be no cats up trees, no minor crime and very little sport in the Saturday Paper. Rather, each week about 30,000 words of serious, polished writing on politics and culture will be printed and delivered to newsagents and the homes of subscribers in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. 
He has organised a stable of about 20 freelancers – a list heavy with the recently redundant senior Fairfax journalists – to write for him.
The paper is also employing four full-time journalists, including one in Canberra.
I have not read the Saturday Paper nor even held one in my hands, so this is not a review of the finished product. My thoughts do not just lead back to the decision by Schwarz to even contemplate launching a newspaper in the first place: this is understandable, he has the money (made in boring real estate) to burn a la Graeme Wood and wants to feel like a Big Manly Man as is the trend these days. Whatever VORC-like metrics he used to pick his roster - I suspect it was just "who has Fairfax fired in the last 12 months and will work cheap" - it is still just the same old same old from where I'm sitting, in terms of personnel and format. Just as Wood ultimately got sick of the fish John B. Fairfax rejected at The Global Mail, Schwarz's patience will only last as long as (a) his money, and (b) his acceptance of the fact that he is funding the retirement packages of unimaginative employees who don't need it and arguably don't deserve it.

What I have been wondering is what the hell these journalists think they are doing in exchanging one doomed father figure for another. Are none of them the least bit entrepreneurial? Do none of them see the same opportunity that Schwarz sees, and have the contacts to get funding to launch something themselves so that they have power over their own destiny? I will link again now to my article from 2012 beseeching these spurned lizards to emulate Alan Kohler and devour the rotting corpse which used to feed them - a piece which I believed in at the time but is looking more and more Pollyanna-ish as regards the Fairfax journo mindset as time goes on.

As someone said to me on Twitter during the week (can't find the tweet), it probably has something to do with the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial at Fairfax. I can say from watching various of them over the years (and then becoming one) that it takes a particular type of journo to make the transition from lilywhite lizard to capitalism-tainted publisher. You have to have a vision of creating something out of nothing, a vehicle that you are driving to great heights, whereas most journos are happy to sit safely in the passenger seat and enjoy the scenery from inside the brand jalopy. It took a group of business journos in Kohler, Gottliebsen and Bartholomeusz to take the chance in starting Business Spectator and business journo Stephen Mayne to found Crikey, though you could point to Mia Freedman or Eric Beecher as others who didn't require direct exposure to naked capitalism to fuel their ambitions.

This is getting rather long, but please stay with me as I return to the topic of the Schwarz-o-jigger. I suppose my main problem with the Saturday Paper is that it is not disruptive in any way. There is not actually a market opportunity here for this model, much as Schwarz might claim there is. Stripping out everything but the op-ed pages leaves you with opinion, and everyone has got one of those already. If you want to have your own opinion validated, there is an entire Internet for free out there which can do that.

To make money out of publishing opinion or long-form reporting, you have to have multiple revenue streams or engage in the cult of personality. As in the discussion over at LGM about the NYT, part of the appeal of having a relatively small stable of op-ed writers is syndication, an option which is not open to Schwarz. The other interesting (to me) element of that discussion is the statement that the reason the likes of David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Ross Douthat et al keep their jobs despite arguably low quality of output is that they have name recognition and their own demographic. Which name brand journalists are writing for the Saturday Paper? Perhaps more importantly, who actually has a big enough name to make it worth Schwarz's money to poach? I'd reckon you could only talk about Andrew Bolt and perhaps Tim Blair who fit that description, with maybe Laurie Oakes for gravitas. Bolt and Blair are trolls, of course, but that is a valuable role in itself because you need a constant flow of new and returning traffic for a new publishing venture to succeed.

On that note: where, I ask in vain, are the leftwing trollumnists who might actually fit in at a leftist rag and make commercial sense to pay big bucks, or even any bucks at all? A progressive version of Bolt is something this country sorely needs. Leftism in the mass media can be so priggish in these grey-suited times. Less Tony Jones, more Doug Anthony All Stars is what I'm talking about. There is more than enough material for someone like that to work with under an Abbott government. Such a beast would have to have the stomach to actually take on the likes of Bolt and Blair head on, occasionally. This is something that lilywhite journalists in this country are traditionally loath to do, as they don't like being soiled with the grime of close combat. Someone will have to emerge from some online fight club to fight those battles, as they will be dirty.

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