Sunday, January 24, 2010

SUNDAY FUNNIES: Mahler's Symphony Of Phony Stats...Jennifer Steinhauer Quotes Same Friend For 16 Years...NYT Secret Paywall Strategy Revealed!

Last Sunday, we reported Frank Bruni's tweet about the brilliance of that day's NYT front page. Turns out he was a week too soon -- it's today's front page that deserves special mention.

Yet again, war correspondent C.J. Chivers and his longtime photographer, Tyler Hicks, deliver a small gem of journalism from Afghanistan, this time the story of a soldier who somehow managed to escape death despite stepping on an explosive trap set by the Taliban.

Three-time Pulitzer winner Walt Bogdanich unleashes his moral outrage on an "accidental" death at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, from a computer error that misdirected a radiation machine, and assesses the widespread dangers of radiation in medicine.

Political reporters Jeff Zeleny and Peter Baker scoop the competition with news of President Obama's plan to reunite his campaign team for the midterm election fight.

Yet again, Caribbean correspondent Marc Lacey stays ahead of the pack with a report from Haiti on the destruction of the country's cultural landmarks in the recent earthquake.

And perhaps the biggest surprise: an insightful, inspiring profile by Greg Bishop of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, the jolly fat man whose rookie season has resulted in his team's stunning run-up to a possible Super Bowl slot.

It's a front page so full and amazing that there's almost no need for the Sunday Funnies!

Almost.

***

There's a rather robust correction in the paper today, pulling back a bit from the hyperbole of Jonathan Mahler's wet kiss on best-selling novelist James Patterson's gold-plated tuchas:

An article on Page 32 this weekend about the writer James Patterson refers incorrectly to his share of the publishing market. Since 2006, Mr. Patterson has written one out of every 17 hardcover novels — not hardcover books — bought in the United States.

Big difference! Given that the mistake appears in the second paragraph of the magazine's cover story, seems like a pretty serious slip.

But how about the more significant error: the lack of attribution for the statement itself, and the likelihood that it's a purely invented number provided to Mahler by the Patterson publicity machine.

The story "reports" that 14 million Patterson books were sold worldwide in 2009. Hardcover? Paperback? We're not told. The source of that statistic? Not given.

The reason we can't verify these numbers, or that they're virtually meaningless and likely false, is that the publishing industry is notoriously secretive about sales figures. Aside from the occasional round number offered by publishers to support the supposition that its latest book is a hit, publishers never give out specific numbers of books sold -- it's a closely-held trade secret that even services like Nielsen's BookScan don't quite get right.

As for the Patterson stat, it's inconceivable that the NYT could ever verify a numerical estimate like that. While it's not impossible to believe that it's true -- Patterson does publish multiple best-selling titles a year -- there's no way to know if it is.

It seems a bit out of character for a reporter like Mahler, a respected nonfiction author, to toss in that sort of press release hyperbole into his lede. It seemed there mostly to justify lumping Patterson into that standard storyline -- "Very-Successful-Person, Inc." -- that has been a NYT Magazine staple for years.

***

Remember that funny, clever De Gustibus column by Jennifer Steinhauer in the Dining section last Wednesday, about kids and snacks? As with all NYT trend stories -- the trend this time being increased snacking by children, and how parents handle it -- it depended on a supply of quotes in support of a reporter's thesis.

That meant finding some parents to interview. And for Steinhauer, that meant calling up her old pal Sean O'Neill.

"I began to wonder how other parents see all this extracurricular eating, so I asked around a bit," Steinhauer wrote. "Apparently, I am not the only one being driven crazy." Steinhauer then went into the quote from O'Neill:

“It has all just gotten out of hand,” said Sean O’Neill, an illustrator and father of two in Chicago. Mr. O’Neill wonders why snacks must be served at every sporting event, even those taking place at 10 a.m. or an hour before lunch.

“The kids are playing baseball, they are covered in Chicago Park District dirt and then they eat a handful of fruit bites,” he said. “It’s pretty disgusting.”


It turns out Steinhauer had interviewed O'Neill before. Long before.

O'Neill and his wife, Jennifer Farrington, are old friends of Steinhauer's -- so much so that she had quoted them in two previous NYT stories, back in the mid-1990s.

Steinhauer first turned to O'Neill and Farrington for a quote on June 26, 1994, for a story on weddings. O'Neill described how he and his new wife used used tomato cans for centerpieces at their recent nuptials. "I didn't include the price of the tomato cans" in the cost of her wedding, Farrington told Steinhauer, "because we used them for sauce, anyway."

Less than a year later, the couple turned up in another Steinhauer story -- this one about couples and their fights over money. Here's Farrington and O'Neill, again:

"I would spend my last dollar on a pair of $110 shoes," said Ms. Farrington, a school teacher. "Whereas Sean would look at a pair of shoes that he could afford and think about it for four months."

There followed a 14-year hiatus on Farrington, until she turned up again under Steinhauer's name in a page-one story last October 30, about scary Halloween costumes. Farrington has since become the president of the Chicago Children's Museum, and her policy about restricting employees' costumes seemed worthy of note by Steinhauer:

Some other institutions have taken a similar approach. The Chicago Children’s Museum has imposed costume restrictions on employees for several years. Jennifer Farrington, the museum’s president, said the restrictions had “emerged out of talks about diversity and stereotypes.”

We contacted Steinhauer about her use of her pals in those NYT stories, and she immediately came clean.

"Guilty as charged," Steinhauer pleasantly responded to our questions via email. She noted that she'd disclosed her friendship with Farrington to the editor of the Halloween story, who'd approved it.

"I completely forgot about those stories back from when I was a clerk," Steinhauer added.

By the way, we're not against interviewing friends for stories like this. We're just in favor of having fun, catching people doing it! Sorry, Jennifer. We really did like the story.

***

We haven't said anything yet about the NYT's paywall announcement this week. It took us several days to wade through the endless muck of speculation.

Now, here's ours!

Much has been said about the mystery of how this proposal will make money for the NYT. It's true. The plan allows too many shortcuts into the system -- through social media sites, Google, and various hacking methods -- for it to result in a massive influx of cash from web users.

But we're thinking that may be exactly the point.

One of the plan's central promises that any home-delivery subscriber -- including people who only get the "Weekender" plan -- will continue to get complete free access to nytimes.com, and the paper's voluminous achivers.

Our theory: the NYT's unstated goal is to use the metered paywall as an inducement to sell more home delivery subscriptions.

One of the hardest-hit areas in the NYT revenue stream in recent months has been in its subscriber base -- the paper reported a 7.3% dropoff in weekday circulation in 2009, only partly offset by price increases. That marked dropoff has proven very costly to a paper that still generates the majority of its income from advertising and subscriptions to its print edition.

So, why not try to force web users -- who, up until now, have avoided paying for a print subscription because the website is free -- to pony up for a print subscription and keep getting full web access?

Current home-delivery rates include an introductory weekday-only price of $3.10 a week, or roughly $160 a year -- which isn't much more than a web subscription is likely to cost. Why not sign up for home delivery, and get unlimited web as a bonus?

No plans have yet been offered, of course, but we're willing to bet the NYT will be offering print/web bundle subscriptions that sell precisely what we're describing -- and as a means to manipulate as many NYT web readers as possible to cross back over to print.

A significant boost in NYT print subscriptions could substantially bolster the NYT's revenues, especially if enhanced circulation and demos let the paper to jack up its print advertising prices next year -- perhaps, if all goes well, at the same time as a general economic rebound.

We don't know what the NYT is thinking, but it wouldn't surprise us if Janet Robinson, Martin Nisenholtz, Scott Heekin-Canedy and the rest of the planning team sees the paywall as a neat marketing trick for the print edition -- and the best, fastest way to generate more cash flow to a newspaper that still, for all its commitment to web excellence, still counts on the power of print for its daily sustenance.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interviewing a friend to puff up their business isn't a good thing. Interviewing a friend who has insight into something like snacks seems a-okay to me. Is she supposed to go to some kids soccer game and find some random mom? That's seems less biased on the face of it, but is it? The reporter doesn't have time to get a feeling for the random mom's sanity. The random mom might be a raging loon who's one step away from losing her children to Child Protective Services because of her starvation diet.

One advantage to using friends and acquaintances for unbiased opinion is that reporters can know something about their background and their temperament. If a normally sane, grounded individual is becoming cheesed-off by the relentless snackery, well that's worth noting.

Duane Williams said...

Why would advertisers pay more for online NYT readers simply because they get the print edition as well, if the same ads were to appear in both places? It is extremely anti-environmental of the NYT to seek its fortunes in a process that is hugely more wasteful of energy than online delivery. It's even worse if they insist that their online readers also get the wasteful print edition.

Anonymous said...

That $3.10 a week is the introductory half price rate. It's only good for 12 weeks, as I recall.

TV by the Numbers said...

I agree it's unlikely they expect to make much money from the pay wall, but there could be a variety of other reasons for the move (and why wait so long to implement it?).

- potential for increased web CPMs from perceived higher quality website traffic

- PR benefit of "we're not giving our content away"

I can't imagine it drives much if any increase in paper subscription rates.

Nrbelex said...

I think it's unlikely that the NYT's plan for the paywall is to increase print subscribers. For one thing, internet readership of the Times is certainly more geographically widespread than the dead trees version. It seems if people were to now subscribe from all over the U.S., the cost of printing and distributing would be higher per paper than it is already. Delivering to the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska seems like a long-run money loser rather than a long term business strategy.