A tribute to Leon Redbone, a musician from another time

Like many other music fans, I was saddened to hear last week that Leon Redbone had died at the age of 69 — which isn’t really that old, in the grand scheme of things (I find that as I get older, my definition of old continues to increase). According to friends of the family, he had suffered from dementia for some time, which could be why he stopped performing in 2015. I saw him play in Toronto just two years earlier, at Hugh’s Room in The Junction, a lovely little bar/restaurant that itself seemed like something from another time, with a handful of tables grouped around a low stage in the corner.

Leon came out and sat in a chair with a small lamp beside him and a stool, and a young man accompanied him on piano as he ran through some of his favorites, like Shine On Harvest Moon, Walking Stick, and Marie. In between, he indulged in some classic Redbone patter, making jokes about himself and his music, starting and stopping songs multiple times to offer asides about this or that. After the show, I stopped him in the lobby where he was signing CDs to tell him how much I enjoyed his music, and he growled “Thank you very much” in that classic Redbone way. I didn’t want to bother him, but I’m really glad now that I took the time — those were his last filmed performances, and they appear in a short documentary about him that came out this year entitled “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

Every fan says this about their favorite musicians, but I’m pretty sure there was no one quite like Leon — he appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Toronto in the late 1960s, playing at various folk and jazz clubs. Word got around about this strange man with the unusual name, who played ancient blues and ragtime songs from the 1920s and 1930s, with the low growly voice and the amazing finger-picking style. I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, and he seemed like something from another time, with his riverboat-gambler style outfit, fedora and sunglasses, staring at the floor as he played the ancient hit “Champagne Charlie” (starts around 25:25 in the video below).

According to an article in the Oxford American — the most comprehensive piece I have ever read on a man who was pretty much a mystery, even to some of those who knew and played with him — Redbone’s mysterious style even drew the attention of Bob Dylan, who arrived unannounced at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto islands in 1972 because he wanted to meet Redbone. At the end of the day, Dylan and Redbone and Canadian folk superstar Gordon Lightfoot slipped away on a boat Dylan had rented. Folk star John Prine, who was also there, recounts the scene in the documentary that came out this year.

Even when he lived and played in Toronto, no one knew much about Redbone — whose real name was Dickran Gobalian (he was the son of Armenian parents who fled the genocide in that country). The Oxford American says one local musician remembers that whenever someone gave Redbone a lift home, he’d ask to be let out at an intersection in Forest Hill where there was a large apartment building, but the only time anyone saw him enter, he walked back out moments later and climbed into a cab. “Another time, recalls musician Michael Cooney, someone dropped Redbone at a hotel, and he went in the front door and came out the side door and went into the subway.”

In those days, the only way to reach Redbone was by phoning the pool hall by the subway stop at the corner of Bloor and Yonge Street and asking for Mr. Grunt, though the guys there also knew him as Sonny. Redbone was something of a shark, stalking the billiard table and sinking balls with graceful ferocity. A 1973 profile describes the way that, “Right foot back, pool cue resting emphatically on thumb and knuckle, he double-banks a red into the side pocket and prepares to make an eighty degree cut black.” Then he proclaims, “‘I don’t have a past. The past begins tomorrow.’”

No one — not even his wife and manager Beryl Handler, or his two daughters, Ashley (who runs a recording studio in New Haven, Conn.) and Blake — know how or when he taught himself to play guitar, or why he adopted the music of the 1920s and ’30s, or why he took the name Leon Redbone (Redbone was a term used to describe people of mixed race in the old South). He appears to have created this persona out of whole cloth and then stepped into it and embodied it for the rest of his life — even off-stage, behind the scenes, the persona was the same. “I spent an afternoon with him in a hotel room,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone, “and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

Redbone also deliberately resisted attempts to dig into his personal life or his history. All that mattered was the music. “Some people seem to believe that as soon as you perform on stage you lose your rights as a private citizen,” he complained. “They want to find out who I am, what I am, where I was born, how old I am—all this complete nonsense that belongs in a passport office.” When a radio interviewer mentioned that they had seen Redbone with his family in New York, he said that they “might’ve been a rental for the day.” In another interview, according to the Oxford American piece, he said: “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention. “I’m just a vehicle.”

If you like living in the middle of nowhere, you can get a great house really cheap

I find it endlessly fascinating how much amazingly cheap real estate there is if you look outside the major centres in North America. I would have assumed by now that the Internet would have enabled enough people to live anywhere and that house prices would have evened out, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Look at some of the prices for these amazing homes on Old House Dreams:

  • A 1910 home in Winfield, Kansas — four bedrooms and 2,700 square feet. Cost? $35,000. Does it need a little work? Sure. But still, you can’t even buy a half-decent car for $35,000
  • A six-bedroom Queen Anne-style home with over 4,000 square feet of space, in beautiful shape, in Altmar, New York. Cost? Just $107,000.

  • A five-bedroom, four-bathroom Civil War-era house with over 2,500 square feet of space on a four-acre piece of land in York, Pennsylvania. Cost? Only $195,000

  • Five bedrooms and almost 3,800 square feet of space in this extensively renovated 1903 Victorian beauty in Boykins, VA. Cost? Just $179,000

The list goes on and on. It’s sad to see people paying massive sums to live in tiny little houses in major cities when they could have a beautiful home like this on a huge piece of land out in the country. Admittedly, not everyone likes living in small towns, but how bad could it be? There are lots of health and personal benefits to living outside of major cities that would probably be worth the tradeoff. Obviously not everyone can work from anywhere, but with more and more jobs being done on the Internet, it’s probably getting more common.

The island of Capri, Axel Munthe and the Marchesa Luisa Casati

I love a good Internet rabbit hole as much as the next person (probably more), and I came across a great one recently while searching for information on the island of Capri in Italy. Since some friends and I were planning a trip there, I was looking up some of the sights to see, including the Villa San Michele, which was built by the Swedish doctor (at one time physician to Queen Victoria) and author Axel Munthe in the early 1900s.

The Wikipedia entry mentioned in passing that when he ran short of money, Munthe had to rent the villa “unwillingly” to the Marchesa Luisa Casati. Why unwillingly? So I looked up the Marchesa, who was described as “a muse and patron of the arts” and a legendary figure. According to her entry in Wikipedia, the Marchesa was known for “eccentricities that delighted European society for three decades” including her penchant for parading around with two cheetahs on a leash and “wearing live snakes as jewellery.”

From there, a Google search found an excerpt from a book that mentions her dispute with Axel Munthe over the villa. He apparently decided not to rent to her after learning about her behavior, but she came anyway and stayed for several months and drove him mad with her requests. Munthe designed the villa to be as open to the air as possible, but the Marchesa — who “was dressing herself entirely in black that summer” — ordered black curtains for every window. Guests often arrived to find her reclining naked on a black rug.

She also invited a wide range of guests to the villa, including some of the gay and lesbian artists who hung out on Capri at that time, and people like the Baron Jacques d’Adelsward-Fersen, described as a “self-styled diabolist” who liked to smoke opium with the Marchesa. A separate entry from the book describes her later setting up residence in Paris with her cheetah Anaxagoras and a pet cobra named Agamemnon, and mentions that after Anaxagoras passed away she had him replaced with a stuffed black panther that had a clockwork mechanism inside that made its eyes flash and the tail swing back and forth.

Not a happy ending to this story, unfortunately — Wikipedia says the Marchesa built up debts of more than $20 million (equal to $200 million today) and had to sell her possessions. She moved to one-bedroom flat in London and later died there of a heart attack in 1957, at the age of 76. According to Wikipedia, she was buried “wearing her black and leopard skin finery and a pair of false eyelashes,” along with one of her stuffed Pekinese dogs.

The Ingram Family — A Year In Review

The Ingram Family — A Year in Review

I would like to start off by apologizing to all the devoted readers of the annual Ingram Family Christmas Letter (you know who you are) who may have noticed that they didn’t get one this year. That’s because I — as the sole editor and publisher of said letter — decided to hold the presses for some breaking news: Namely, the New Year’s Eve wedding of our oldest daughter, Caitlin Lee. If you have any complaints about this decision, please forward them to this address: youredeadtome@mathewingram.com.

Describing Caitlin’s wedding as breaking news might be a bit of an exaggeration — after all, we knew that it was coming ever since they got engaged last November. We were all overjoyed at this news, because her fiance turned husband Wade is a terrific guy, a fellow nurse who fits Caitlin to a T and is also a great co-parent to my favourite grandson, a Border Collie named Kip who joined their family in 2017. The three of them took some amazing engagement photos in the fall.

Caitlin and Wade met after a mutual friend introduced them, and we all knew they were fated to be together when Caitlin started a quote from Lord of the Rings about potatoes, and Wade completed it with “boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.”

The couple planned the entire wedding themselves (with some valuable and much-appreciated advice from their parents, of course) and it went off without a hitch. It was held at a historic paper mill turned boutique hotel in St. Catherines, Ontario called the Stone Mill Inn that has a big sweeping staircase where they took most of their pictures. Also, by a weird twist of fate, Caitlin’s dress came from the Rebecca Ingram line, because that’s the designer’s daughter’s name.

It was a great party, and a great way to ring in the new year, with friends and family all gathered in a cozy hotel away from the polar vortex outside. Zoe and Meaghan were gorgeous as bridesmaids, Becky looked fantastic and made a great speech that included some of her mother Edie’s memories of when she first met Caitlin as an baby, and Caitlin and I danced to a recording of me playing and singing Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” which was a real treat. I even managed to make it through without crying like a baby.

I also managed to make it through the night in a standing position despite having about nine shots of Don Julio tequila with a variety of friends and family members, something that may come as a surprise to those of you who know that I rarely drink!

As I said in my speech, Becky and I are delighted to have added Wade to our family because he is clearly head-over-heels in love with Caitlin and they make such a great couple. I like him so much that I’m prepared to overlook minor flaws in his personality, such as the fact that he drinks tea instead of coffee, occasionally pronounces the word “milk” as “malk,” and likes musicals and country music, both of which I have an aversion to.

Even if you exclude the wedding, we had a pretty great year, all things considered. We started as we almost always do, with great food and winter-type festivities with friends in Buckhorn, including an unusual sport called Snow Frisbee, which I think Barb and Lori invented. In early February, I made a quick trip to Paris and stayed in a lovely little hotel near the Boulevard St. Germain, where I indulged in two of my favorite Parisian things: A coffee at Les Deux Magots Cafe (where philosophers like Sartre used to hang out) and a “croque monsieur” — basically a ham and cheese sandwich made of French toast — near the Louvre.

We also made our usual trip to Ottawa to skate on the canal for Winterlude, but there was a heat wave and the ice was almost unusable, it was so slushy. So we just walked around and got Beaver Tails and hot chocolate and poutine and tried to pretend that it was winter.

In March, Becky and I joined her brother Dave and his wife Jenn and some friends on a cruise to San Juan, St. Maarten and St. Kitts. It was a great ship with lots of features and great food, and we did a bunch of trips including a hike around the old fort in San Juan, a catamaran snorkel tour in St. Maarten and a glass-bottom kayak trip in St. Kitts. Unfortunately, many of the places we saw were later destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

In April, we made our annual trip to Italy for the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and this time after the conference we took a few days and went to Turin, which is in the north. I was invited by my friend Anna Masera, who runs the journalism school at the university there, to speak to her class and then she took us on a tour of the city — including a trip to the famous Cafe Bicerin, where they invented the delicious coffee and chocolate drink of the same name.

From Turin we took the train to Cinque Terre, a string of five picturesque old fishing villages that cling to the hillside in what’s called the Italian Riviera. We stayed in a tiny room at the top of a staircase that had about a hundred steps, a room with a balcony from which we could see the whole coastline.

In addition to some great restaurants — we ate one night on the parapet of an old fort from the Middle Ages looking out over the sea — there are hiking trails between each of the villages. Normally you can hike the entire route, but several of the trails were closed due to rock slides when we were there, so we hiked from Vernazza (the second village) west to Monterosso, which took about two hours but was ridiculously picturesque.

Then we took a train to the far eastern village of Riomaggiore, walked around there a bit, took the train back west to the next village of Manarola and did some sightseeing, then took the train to Corniglia and had a bite to eat before hiking the hillside trail back to Vernazza, which took another two hours or so. We got in just in time to see the sun set.

We got back home just in time for torrential rains to cause widespread flooding in Ontario, which brought the level of the lake at our cottage up about four feet higher than normal. We were okay because the cottage is elevated, but others were not so fortunate. I took a trip around in my kayak and paddled right up to the doors of some cottages. I also rented a kayak and paddled over to the Toronto Islands, most of which were closed due to flooding.

June brought with it the first Ingram-family wedding: The marriage of my niece Lindsay to her husband Keenan Viau, which took place at a nature reserve north of Toronto, where they were married under a wooden bower in the forest by Keenan’s father. It was a lovely wedding, and much fun was had by all.

The summer brought with it some good news — lovely sunsets and many coffee-cruise boat rides with my mom and Becky, as well as plenty of beach and kayaking and bonfire time. But it also brought some bad news, as I was laid off from my job with Fortune magazine. On the upside, I had the summer off, so I bought five tons of river rock and spent a couple of months using it to build up the bank that got washed away by the flood.

We also rented the same cottage on Lake Muskoka we did last year with Becky’s family, and spent a great week near Bala swimming and playing board games and just generally laying around in the sun and water. One night it was so clear and warm that I paddled my kayak over to the legendary Kee to Bala concert hall, which is right on the water.

Then we visited our friends on Go Home Lake, where we had our annual French toast breakfast on the dock, among other things. We also went for a great canoe trip, which I had pictures of until I rolled my kayak in the rapids and lost my phone 🙂

In August, Becky and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary by spending the weekend at Bartlett Lodge, a quaint little resort in Algonquin Park that is reachable only by boat. We rented a lovely little suite in a cabin on the property and went for an epic four-hour hike on one of the nearby trails — one that involved a lot of sliding around in mud, unfortunately, since it poured rain after we started out. We decided it was a metaphor for marriage! On the upside, once we got back tired and muddy and cold from our hike, we had a nice hot shower and an amazing gourmet meal waiting for us in the lodge, so it wasn’t all bad.

As if we hadn’t had enough of a workout, we then went on a three-day canoe trip with our friends Marc and Kris and Sandra, with two 350-metre or so portages from lake to lake. Along the way, we took some time to watch the total eclipse of the sun from our canoes and kayak, which seemed like a very Canadian thing to do. It rained one day, but the other days were beautiful and we did some great star-watching from the rock face near our campsite.

September was unusually warm for some reason — close to 30 degrees Celsius — which made for some great beach time after a cool and wet summer. Luckily, our friend Anna Masera chose that time to come for a visit from Italy, so we had a beautiful few days of kayaking and hiking and sunsets. She saw a bald eagle up close, and had a loon pop up right beside her kayak, so I feel like she is part Canadian now.

In October I made a quick trip to Munich for a web conference, where I saw as much of the city as I could in a few days, and was quite impressed. From there it was down to New York to meet the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, where I accepted a job as chief digital writer, which I was pretty excited about. Columbia has a great journalism school, and CJR is a great magazine all about the issues that interest me most about the evolution of media.

On my first day, I took the train from New York to Washington to sit in on the Senate and Congressional hearings into Facebook, Google and Twitter and how the platforms were used by Russian troll factories to spread misinformation during the U.S. election.

After that it was pretty much just a countdown to the wedding of the century. Becky and I went to Kingston to see Elton John with Becky’s brother and sister-in-law, which was hugely fun. And we saw Zoe perform in a play called Concord Floral at the University of Kingston, where she is now in her second year taking psychology and drama.

We did some other fun things too, like going for a Beaver Tail and a skate down by Ontario Place one December night, and visiting the Christmas market at the Distillery District. We even got some skating in on the pond at The Farm between Christmas and New Years, because the temperature went down to around minus 20 Celsius — so it turned out to be a short skate. And I got to play with my Christmas present, an awesome “vacuum syphon” coffee maker just like the ones they used to use back in the 1800s. I love it because it looks like something Jules Verne would have used.

And then we had the nuptials of Caitlin and Wade to cap off a great year, and now we are into 2018! Hope you and yours had a great 2017 as well, and that 2018 will be even better. You can reach me at mathew@mathewingram.com and Becky is rebecca@theingrams.ca, we are both on Facebook and you can see all of these photos as a Flickr slideshow if you want to. Happy New Year from the Ingrams!

A Little Personal News…

I’m excited to to announce that I’m joining the Columbia Journalism Review as chief digital writer, focusing primarily on the power of platforms like Facebook and Google (and Twitter and Snapchat) and what that means for media.

Digital and social networks have become the central distribution system for news for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. And that power — much of which is hidden from view, fuelled by mysterious algorithms — has profound implications for both media and society as a whole.

I’ve been a fan of the CJR ever since I was a young journalism student in Toronto — which was longer ago than I care to remember — and I’ve been impressed with what Kyle Pope has done in his time as editor of the magazine and the site, including a renewed focus on the web and the impact of digital media.

I’m also a huge fan of what my friend Emily Bell is doing with the Tow Center at Columbia, and I hope that we can find ways to work together to explore and understand what is happening to journalism and media. Or at least maybe get a cup of tea and commiserate 🙂

All joking aside, this is a dark time for journalism in many ways — but it is also a fascinating time, as the ground continues to shift beneath us, and even some of the bedrock assumptions underlying the industry are being questioned.

Journalism has arguably never been more important than it is right now, but the media landscape has also never been more fractured, more volatile and more under pressure — both financially and otherwise — than it is now, and much of the pressure is coming from Facebook and Google.

I hope to explore the impact of those forces in a variety of ways at CJR, and I hope that you will come with me on that journey and help me to explore and understand it.

Facebook Is Doing its Best to Outrun the Threat of Government Regulation

You can tell how much a specific issue has gotten under Mark Zuckerberg’s skin by the amount of effort he puts into his response. Some things get just a small mention, some get a press release, some get a 6,000-word blog post — and some get the Facebook equivalent of a full-court press. Zuckerberg’s video address on Thursday afternoon, in which he tried to address concerns about Russian election interference via Facebook ads, definitely falls into the latter category.

The Facebook CEO is clearly trying to get out in front of this issue, in a way he hasn’t with anything other than maybe the fake news brouhaha, and for the same reason: Because he’s afraid of what Congress might do if he doesn’t pre-empt their actions with his own remedies.

To that end, his video address offered what Zuckerberg described as transparency around the so-called “dark ads” that political operatives (including those working for Donald Trump during his campaign, using tools like Cambridge Analytica) love to use in an attempt to target specific groups and individuals on the platform.

In a nutshell, advertisers will have to disclose all of their ads on their Facebook pages so anyone can see them, and Facebook is turning over details of Russian involvement to the intelligence committees looking into that country’s attempts to influence the election.

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity [and] I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for,” said Zuckerberg, who also posted the text of his remarks to Facebook. “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”

The moves announced by Zuckerberg seem like admirable steps aimed at bringing shadowy political advertising into the light, and an offering that many Facebook critics have been calling for. Some congratulated Zuckerberg for finally listening to their demands for more clarity and transparency.

There’s a catch to Facebook’s offering though, and it’s contained in the term “political ads.” How exactly does Zuckerberg plan to define that term? Some ads might be obvious because they include political topics or personalities. But one of the key aspects of Facebook’s business is that almost anything can function as an ad, including news stories (fake or otherwise). And Russian operatives likely made use of all of these tools and more.

In fact, in a recent report, Facebook’s own security team spelled out some of the many ways in which it suspects government actors of various kinds manipulated the platform to try and influence the outcome of the US election.

“We identified malicious actors on Facebook who, via inauthentic accounts, actively engaged across the political spectrum, with the apparent intent of increasing tensions between supporters of these groups and fracturing their supportive base.”

Zuckerberg may be hoping that his newfound interest in transparency will assuage those who are looking to regulate Facebook’s behavior, but if so his hope is likely to be in vain.

Matt Stoller is an influential political analyst who works for a group called Open Markets Institute (the group was formerly part of the New America Foundation, but left after what its founder alleges was pressure from Google). Stoller clearly believes that Facebook should be subject to government regulatory oversight on a number of fronts — including areas related to political advertising.

Stoller isn’t alone. Brianna Wu, who gained a high profile online after being targeted for harassment during the “Gamergate” uproar, is running for Congress in Massachusetts, and says she is in favor of regulation for Facebook as well. “Facebook has far too much power to not be regulated the way traditional media is. It’s anticompetitive to give them a legal out,” she said on Twitter. And sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has been asking for more transparency from Facebook for some time, said: “I’d been calling for this for many years—but key point here is that Facebook, actually one person, can arbitrarily decide to do this or not.”

So where does this leave Zuckerberg and Facebook? Running hard to try and catch a ship that may already have sailed — a ship whose ultimate destination is regulatory oversight of the network in some form or another. And political advertising is likely just the tip of a very large iceberg.

The Personal Always Wins Over the Institutional When it Comes to Social Media

Not surprisingly, given the topic, a recent piece at BuzzFeed about the high-profile tweeting habits of two NBC staffers has sparked a wide range of responses, most of them snarky. There’s nothing Media Twitter loves (or loves to hate) more than an article that is all about Media Twitter.

A lot of the criticism came from those who believe that Bradd Jaffy (an editor and writer with NBC News) and Kyle Griffin (a producer with MSNBC) are doing one or both of these two bad things:

1) Taking material from their employer and using it to bolster their own Twitter followings, and/or

2) Using content from other news outlets to do the same thing, without adding any kind of insight or commentary apart from maybe an emoji.

From the story: “Critics — many of them other reporters — see it as as drafting off the success of someone else’s tweets. They see Griffin or Jaffy’s emojis as ways of adding their own brand on top of someone making or breaking actual news while adding very little value of their own.”

I don’t see much truth in this kind of criticism, to be honest. Many of those I’ve seen slamming Jaffy and Griffin for doing this (and Yashar Ali, who is quoted praising the two) do something very similar themselves, but haven’t gotten the same kind of following and are likely jealous.

Also, to journalists who spend every waking moment checking the newswire (i.e., Twitter) and know every nuance of every story, Jaffy and Griffin may not be seen as adding much, or be seen as drafting off the work of others. But at however small a level, they are providing a service to readers, and they promote the work of the journalists they link to. That’s good enough for me.


The part that interests me the most is the criticism that they are taking content from NBC and using it without permission in a way that benefits their Twitter brand. As a number of others have pointed out, the fact that some of this criticism comes from within NBC itself just reinforces how behind the curve much of that organization still is.

This kind of pushback reminds me of when I was promoting the idea of social media platforms like Twitter as a tool for journalism, as the first social-media editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto. The same kind of arguments were made — and that was almost 10 years ago.

The thinking then was that the Globe itself needed to get all of the attention, and so only the institutional account should be tweeting the news. In part, this was because some editors were concerned that individual writers would get larger brands than the paper, and then take all those followers with them when they left (which is in fact exactly what happened in many cases).

That kind of fear may be understandable, but still futile. The fact is that in almost every case, a personal account on Twitter — even a bad one, or one that adds no more original content than an emoji — is always going to be more engaging and more effective than an institutional one. Social media is called that because it is designed to be social, and no one wants to be social with a faceless institutional brand.

If it is smart, NBC will give Jaffy and Griffin whatever leeway they need, and build whatever it can around them while they are still around. The more it tries to control them and their tweeting, the less effective they will be.

Source: This Is Probably The Only Story You Didn’t Hear About First From Bradd Jaffy And Kyle Griffin

Facebook’s Support for Subscriptions Is a Double-Edged Sword

Campbell Brown, the former NBC and CNN broadcaster who is now Facebook’s head of news partnerships, confirmed in a speech at a digital publishing conference that the social network plans to roll out support for subscriptions as part of its mobile Instant Articles platform.

There have been multiple reports that the company was working on such a plan, including a recent piece by Digiday that quoted a number of sources, but Brown’s speech is the first official confirmation. She said testing of the new feature will begin in October.

This plan is likely to cause at least some cheering in media land, because a number of publishers have been clamoring for paywall support from Facebook, and criticizing the lackluster performance of the existing Instant Articles format when it comes to generating revenue.

As with most things involving Facebook, however, this deal sounds like a classic Faustian bargain.

According to Brown, subscriptions will work this way: If a publisher chooses to implement support for a paywall, readers will get 10 articles for free — in much the same way they do with the New York Times’ “metered” access plan. After that, they will be prompted to sign up for a subscription. If they already have one, Facebook says it will make it easy for them to log in.

And what about the revenue — will there be some kind of sharing plan, where Facebook takes a percentage, the way Apple does with its 30%? The company isn’t saying, but it seems likely that there will be, although perhaps not to begin with.

Update: In a statement on Wednesday, Brown said “Quality journalism costs money to produce, and we want to make sure it can thrive on Facebook. As part of our test to allow publishers in Instant Articles to implement a paywall, they will link to their own websites to process subscriptions and keep 100% of the revenue.” 

Brown also said the social network would give publishers control over all of the reader and subscription data involved in the process, which is also likely to come as good news to many. At least they don’t have to hand all of that over to Facebook as well as all of their content. But that doesn’t mean this deal is something media companies should leap at.


The context to this offer, as a number of people have pointed out, is that Facebook is taking some sustained fire for its dominance of the advertising industry (along with Google), with the News Media Alliance arguing its members should be exempted from antitrust laws so that they can present a combined front in bargaining with the digital giants. I wrote about that idea in a previous post.

Not only that, but a number of publishers — including the New York Times, an early partner — have talked openly about how Instant Articles has proven to be a bit of a bust revenue-wise. Some have turned their back on the platform completely, despite Facebook’s attempts to improve things.

But the bottom line with this subscription offering is the same as it has been with Instant Articles and Facebook video and half a dozen other things the social networking behemoth has come up with: They are fundamentally designed to benefit Facebook, and to centralise control in its hands, and to generate as much content as possible. Any benefits they provide to media companies are ancillary at best.

If you connect your subscription plan to Facebook, will you get increased reach? Probably. Will it help you drive some new sign-ups? Perhaps. But it’s important to remember that the entity in control of every aspect of that relationship is Facebook, not you — Facebook decides who sees what and when, what it looks like, how it functions, and how much revenue you will get.

In other words, you are working on land that has been given to you by a feudal lord, and that rarely ends well.

Newspaper Group’s Hope for Antitrust Exemption Is a Hail Mary Pass

The news came by way of a softball pitch of a story from the New York Times: The News Media Alliance — a group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America — says it plans to ask Congress for a special exemption from antitrust regulations. Why? So that its members can work together to negotiate with Google and Facebook for better terms.

According to the story in the Times (which is a member of the Alliance and supports the lobbying effort) the group’s plan isn’t just about the fight for digital territory, it’s about the endurance of “quality journalism,” which the paper says is “expensive to produce, and under economic pressure as never before” from fake news that gets promoted by Facebook.

If you feel a twinge of something when you read that, you’re not alone. The first thing I thought was “So quality journalism only comes from the members of the News Media Alliance?” That’s some excessive hubris you’ve got there, folks.

This sense of entitlement is at the core of what the NMA is proposing. In effect, it is suggesting that mainstream newspaper companies are the only entities capable of producing quality journalism, and therefore they deserve a get-out-of-jail-free card so they can engage in what amounts to collusion. And they are hoping Congress will see Google and Facebook as the enemy.

Here’s a thought: What if these newspaper companies had spent a little more time trying to compete over the past decade or so, instead of relying on their historic market control to keep their profits rolling in? What if more had tried to improve their websites and their mobile versions, so that users wouldn’t install ad blockers, or turn to other solutions like Facebook Instant Articles?

Every single competitive threat the newspaper industry has faced, from Craigslist to Facebook, has been visible long before it decimated the industry’s profits, and most of the newspapers in the NMA did little or nothing to deal with them until it was too late.

Would Facebook and Google have become just as dominant in the advertising business if that had happened? Probably. But only because they can offer demographic targeting that no newspaper has even tried to produce, let alone succeeded at producing. And in Google’s case, it controls much of the “programmatic” or automated ad bidding market, which has driven prices down.

As Ben Thompson noted in an essay on the topic for his subscription newsletter Stratechery (which I encourage you to subscribe to), the case made by the NMA’s David Chavern is based on a myth: The group argues that it needs help negotiating with Google and Facebook so that it can repair the damage done to its quality journalism business. But quality journalism has never actually been a business.

“The truth is that newspapers made money in the past not by providing societal value, but by having quasi-monopolistic control of print advertising in their geographic area; the societal value was a bonus. Thus, when Chavern complains that “today’s internet distribution systems distort the flow of economic value derived from good reporting”, he is in fact conflating societal value with economic value; the latter does not exist and has never existed.

And yet, this is the classic argument from the industry — that they need to be protected because they are are only ones capable of producing that socially valuable journalism. The Alliance’s counsel, Jonathan Kanter, said that “we’re not just talking about widgets, we’re talking about news, and news is crucial for a democratic society.”

Okay, so let’s assume the group’s journalism is crucial for democracy. And what are the newspapers asking for? They want better terms from Google and Facebook, i.e. more ad revenue — but they also want support for subscriptions. In other words, paywalls. So this product that is crucial for democracy is only delivered to people who can afford to pay, and all of the revenue from that flows to a private company’s bottom line.

This is the kind of thing that drives Thompson to refer (correctly, I think) to what he calls the “suffocating sense of entitlement and delusion” that flows throughout the NMA’s proposal, which “expects someone — anyone! — to give journalists money simply because they are important.”

Realistically speaking, there’s approximately zero chance that Congress is going to exempt the NMA from antitrust rules (although the group may also be hoping that bringing up the subject gets regulators interested in looking at Google and Facebook and their advertising duopoly). But even if it did, it’s unlikely that collective bargaining would help the news industry where it counts.

The reality is that even if newspapers have a monopoly on quality journalism — which is a stretch — they no longer have the monopoly their business was based on, which is the control over advertising. And that’s because they don’t control the distribution of their content, and never will.

It certainly won’t be easy, but there are ways for newspaper companies to compete in this environment, and they don’t involve illegal collusion in an attempt to extort more ad revenue from Google and Facebook. That’s a Hail Mary pass that has little or no hope of succeeding, and likely wouldn’t help the industry much even if it did succeed.