Archive for the 'Rant' Category

27
Oct
08

Future of newspapers (or how I ate myself to extinction)

Michael Rosenblum — advocate of video for newspapers — asks a familiar question today: What is a newspaper?

It isn’t a new question. In the past decade it has been asked with increasing frequency. These days those voicing the query often have a note of desperation in their voices.

Rosenblum has some ideas, but they are largely familiar recommendations. However, some still need to be restated.

Treat the web like it’s own publishing medium. This is so true it’s hard to believe any in newspapers would need to have that repeated. But they do. That means not simply converting your print product to online bits then calling it a day. It also means using the strengths of the new media toward typical newspaper ends, e.g. informing the public and selling ads.

He offers a few ideas of his own on his this might be accomplished. 1. Hire out newspaper photography/video crews to shoot weddings. 2. Use those same folks to make advertorial content for big advertisers (Bloomies is having a sale, let’s treat it like a story, then we can charge them for the work and possibly making residual ad dollars as well). 3. Rather than simply have newspaper movie reviewers, set up an online hub where the viewing public can join the fun.

Newspapers with wedding photographers might actually work. However, local movie reviewers or their newspaper employers might be better off cutting a deal with Rotten Tomatoes then trying to compete with the many well-known and well-established online movie sites. Of course, most papers have already showed themselves as very poor hands when it comes to such cooperation.

As for doing video advertorials, that might work if the newspaper folks can a) do a better job than an advertising firm hired by the store, and b) deliver viewers. At least on the web the paper could manage CPMs for something like that in the same way they do pure advertising.

Of course, the problem then becomes that papers with dwindling staff would tend to focus heavily on things they can monetize better. There goes the coverage of local politics unless someone is screwing somebody else. Plus, they might tend to under-report stories about those institutions paying them for advertorials.

There is no doubt newspapers need to reinvent what they are and how they do it. Likewise, there are tons of things they could be doing to try and gain online viewers and marginal income. A first step is focusing on core audiences and realistic untapped sources of revenue. Instead of creating monolithic sites that regurgitate the print product online, can they manage niche sites that focus on narrow interests held by an avid group of readers? Can they escape the compulsion to try and be everything to everyone in order to focus more tightly on their own UNIQUE and COMPELLING content? The rub is that with every layoff and buyout retrenching newspapers further remove themselves (both in manpower and brainpower) from the ability to do anything more than what they do now. In classic fashion they are returning to the bunkers to wait the war out.

Given the aversion to change by newspaper publishers and their print readers it is likely too late for many to make the radical changes needed to thrive in the new world.

The real question for many newspapers isn’t whether they will discover the magic formula for success. It is whether there will be anyone left once the air raid sirens stop howling. The way things are going at the moment, what we may see — at some point in the future — is the emaciated survivors blinking at unfamiliar bright sunlight and recounting tales reminiscent of the Donner party.

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16
Aug
08

Fear and Loathing in the newspaper business

I’m no Hunter S. but …

There was failure in almost every direction, growing all the time. Not just across the publicly held chains, but up the gray ladies and down the suburban dailies all around the country. . . . You couldn’t strike sparks anywhere, even banging a rock on a hard place. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was wrong, that we were losing. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable doom from the forces of new and modern. Not just in a mean or commercial sense; we were better than that. We felt our energy simply needed to prevail. Without us, who would watch the animals, who would check the cages. Would anyone care if we didn’t? Would anyone notice if we were gone? Or is it all about Brittney’s panty-less crotch, her shaved-head madness, oh those poor children, those poor, poor children. Rachel’s lament as entertainment; Rachel’s lament covered by the National Enquirer . . . But there seemed no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. They had all the momentum; they were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. We were about to be swept beneath it. . . .

08
Aug
08

Print first, think later

Buzzmachine takes note today of the new tack ordered at the ailing Philadelphia Inquirer. Put everything in print first. That will shore up the falling subscriptions at the financially free-falling newspaper.

Here is what the memo from the Inquirer managing editor says:

Colleagues – Beginning today, we are adopting an Inquirer first policy for our signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews of all sorts. What that means is that we won’t post those stories online until they’re in print.

This isn’t about the rush to be first, as some commenters at Buzzmachine have suggested. This is about establishing a clear policy that the dead trees edition trumps all. Problem with those blanket statements is that they tend to stand in the way of a thoughtful decision-making process.

Here is what might be a better policy to establish — we will determine, beginning with the assignment of every story, whether it would work best in print, with photos, as video, including graphics or any combination of those things. We will likewise decide, as each story nears completion whether it should break first in print, online or in some other fashion. We won’t put print ahead of online or vice versa because putting the audience and the story first will eventually serve us better than any arbitrary decision-making process.

By simply deciding paper comes first, they are betting they can help themselves by forcing people to buy the paper in order to get the story. Parents eat their own children, story at 11. (Me, I love it when TV does that. I always stay tuned.) First they better hope their “investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews” are very, very compelling. Else-wise, would-be readers will simply shrug and look at something else. Evidence also is this is a pretty bad time for them to be making such a gamble. If they are wrong they are likely gone.

You would think the “brains” at newspapers would be past this type of thinking at this point. But I just had a long conversation with a long-time newspaper man at my place who still thinks we just need to wait out this “perfect storm.” Once classified comes back and the real estate market turns around then those with the patience to weather this little “down-turn” will be sitting pretty. Yeah, that’s a good plan, too.

07
Aug
08

Bad news, good news, bad news

First the bad news: Advertisers are deserting newspapers at an alarming rate. Not just classified advertisers, but also those who have traditionally bought display ads.

The good news? The advertisers fleeing newspapers are going online. Many newspapers have relatively popular online sites. Thus they have the potential to get that migrating advertising. Sure those ads don’t bring in as much revenue as they did in print. But it’s better than nothing, right?

Now the really bad news: Newspapers aren’t getting that advertising. In fact, they are getting less of it now than they did before (After some promise two years ago, stats from local media researcher Borrell Associates show that newspapers’ share of the local online market is now 27.4 percent, down from 35.9 percent in 2006, even as the total segment has seen 57.2 percent gains last year). Why? There reasons are numerous and highly dismaying. The following are from a July 30 post by paidcontent.org.

1. Newspaper advertising sales teams either can’t or won’t sell online. “Unfortunately, salespeople and media buyers, who in most cases rely on commissions, have a reason to dislike online ads because of the lower dollar amounts online brings to the table,” according to the paidcontent piece.
2. “When newspapers do sell ads on their sites,” the paidcontent post goes on, “they typically look for larger marketers to buy banner ads. But much of the growth in online ad spend is being driven by small, local businesses like pizza places and plumbers who want to attract customers looking for area services. And since search is key to attracting those local customers, that’s why internet companies like Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Local.com have taken a 53.3 percent share of local online ad sales.”

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20
Jul
08

We don’t do soy at this newspaper

I was watching the Tour De France the other day. Mike’s Hard Lemonade is a major sponsor of the coverage on VS. They have a commercial where an employee, Joey, shows off his drawing for a new version of their product. Mike’s Hard double-caffeinated soy lemonade. The boss is walking by when Joey proudly displays his conception of the new product.

“Joey, what you got there,” he asks. Joey hands him the paper. He crumples it and throws it at Joey. “We don’t do soy.”

After seeing the ad, I couldn’t help but think : That place seems a lot like some newspapers at which I’ve worked.

As Jeff Jarvis notes at his blog, the old guard at newspapers has made a fine art out of killing innovation from within. Which is really bad now that innovation from without is killing newspapers.

Steve Yelvington echoes this in a post titled — What drives away young, talented journalists:

We have an acute need to adapt journalism — and especially newspapers — to the societal changes brought by new technology, and to do that, we need the energy, optimism and willingness to try something new that comes with being young.But Northwestern University’s Vickey Williams observes:

“My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks.”

Here is one comment at Yelvington:

The change, if you can call it that, I’ve seen at many newspapers is really, really slow. It hasn’t been resistance from veterans as it is institutional. Changes have to be researched, discussed, forgotten about, discussed more then implemented in small, small steps. Sllllllloow change must be a relic of being a monopoly. Meanwhile, the business continues to not-so-slowly lose money and readers.

Innovation at one place I worked was an almost five year process that ended with almost nothing being changed. Almost a year after we began with formal meetings intended to result in real change we sat down for the final session at which all the ideas and proposed initiatives were brought up for discussion. Every one was shot down. Blogs — don’t need ’em. Changing coverage priorities — you can’t take that away from my department. Ramping up to a 24-hour news operation — I guess, as long as none of my people has to come in earlier or go home later.

Afterward, people in the newsroom went back to talking about how newspapers are just in a down cycle and will bounce back, or they lamented that newspapers ever got involved with the internet at all. Little was learned and only slightly more got changed.

I say once again: I have met the enemy and he is us.

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10
Jul
08

Newspapers and Disruptive Innovation

A few years back a well known internet guru stopped at my newspaper. During conversation he mentioned he was on his way back from a third trip to Harvard University where he had been interviewed for a developing study on the future of newspapers. I’m not going to name names for fear of getting anyone — including myself — in trouble.

The study was being done, I believe, by the business school. One professor there, Clayton Christensen, has made his reputation on theories and practices involving disruptive innovation, the type of invention (social or individual) that slips in under the radar and eventually changes entire industries. The Harvard group had applied their methodologies backwards to railroads, passenger shipping, and mainframe computers. Now they were trying to apply them forward with newspapers.

In our conversation this new media guru said the Harvard guys believed the crossroads for newspapers would come in 3-5 years. By crossroads, he explained, they meant the place where declining readership and revenue intersected with rising costs, essentially making the business of printing a newspaper both unprofitable and unsustainable. He said they believed newspapers were approaching a table-top threshold, where their slightly declining revenue streams and readership rolls would suddenly go off the edge into steep and unstoppable falls.

That conversation occurred in 2006.

Various groups at Harvard have been looking at newspapers for years. In 2002, Professor Clark Gilbert did his doctoral research on how newspapers had failed to meet the challenge of disruptive technology presented by the internet and as a result had already lost the web war.

Gilbert noted that unlike previous industries destroyed by disruptive innovation, newspapers were fully aware the internet posed a challenge or threat. Yet recognizing and responding to the threat didn’t help.

“Threat had motivated action, but it was resulting in an aggressive replication of the newspaper business. Newspapers had spent a ton of money, with little to show for it. In an effort to defend their core market from attack, newspaper companies were missing the new emerging market altogether,” Gilbert said.

“This paradox can be summarized: absent a sense of threat, response to disruptive opportunities is inadequate; but with threat, the fully funded response is too rigid.”

Christensen, the guru of disruptive innovation thinking, explained In his seminal work, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” why big companies and industries are regularly blindsided by circumstances and competitors that they often don’t deem worthy of their attention until those innovators are eating their stodgy, old counterparts’ lunch.

It wasn’t a happy book. One reviewer said of it: “Ultimately, though, Dilemma concludes there’s not much established companies can do to change their fate. Big-company executives are trapped in a doom cycle. For them, reading Dilemma is as comforting as learning the physics propelling a giant asteroid that’s heading for Earth.”

A few years ago Christensen wrote a follow-up called “The Innovator’s Solution.” He saw it as a kind of penance for the negativity of the first book. He hoped to find the lessons that could be applied to business practices from the entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes off of disruptive innovation.

The crux of the book? The reviewer writes:

One conclusion is that a huge part of innovation comes from looking at a problem the right way. Customers don’t really buy a product, Christensen and Raynor write — they hire a product to do something for them. The authors cite a classic example from a fellow Harvard prof: People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.

From there, the authors write, the key is to innovate around “circumstances” — why someone buys something — not around products or customers.

This all comes up because of the ongoing bruhaha over Jessica DaSilva and her blogging about plans to blow up the Tampa Trib newsroom. She has been hit with a shit-storm of criticism about being naive, unintelligent or unsuited for work as a journalist. Much of the noise is the same type I heard a few years ago when discussing things like the Harvard study mentioned above. The circumstances are the problem, so rather than innovate around them, lets figure out how can we eliminate them.  And if we can’t eliminate the circumstances, let’s kill those who are a) talking about them or b) suggesting that we embrace and innovate around them.

I was encouraged in the last week or so to see real conversation on multiple fronts regarding how newspapers and journalism will survive within the emerging circumstances. Besides Buzzmachine, good conversations were occurring at Mindy McAdams blog, and many others (like Nick Eaton’s where he is giving readers a first-hand look at the process for change at The Spokesman-Review). It seemed to show that finally newspaper execs are starting to act like they understand that radical change must happen. To me it seems a little late, but there are apparently still lots of journos who want to adopt a wait-and-see stance or believe that our industry can somehow turn back the clock on the rest of the world (and not get steamrolled to oblivion in the process).

Those Harvard business types, the ones who predicted not only what would happen to our industry but when, they say those voices insisting on the status quo are the biggest problem for established industries facing disruptive innovation. The circumstances may be bad (really bad), but it is the curmudgeons who will insure they kill us.

So here we stand (or perhaps we are already falling and don’t even know it yet). The newspaper industry (and its millions of employees) are either tripping on the brink or already over the edge. There is no point complaining about the cliff. There is no help in not looking over. We won’t be saved by denying the inevitable. What we need now is to invent wings.

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14
Jun
08

I have met the enemy … you know the rest

Seems AP is taking a page from the RIAA in challenging web sites that excerpt their articles. They are filing take down notices with blog sites they deem to be violating their copyright. Naturally, many bloggers are up in arms. There are a couple of issues here for me, not the least of which is the concept of an old-style media business trying to fight the future by trying to prevent it from happening. But first, a couple of stories.

Almost every day, during my years as a reporter, I or one of my colleagues were asked to do a “localization.” That meant we would take a national story that indicated a trend and get a local angle on it. Most often, that national slant came via an AP article. Sometimes we didn’t cite AP at all, but I guess that was OK because we were subscribers. I hated doing stories like this.

During my days as a photo editor I was party to a different AP practice. We would frequently be called and asked to provide a photo to AP, often at the request of another member newspaper. We knew that other member was most often a nearby competitor and we seeded our photos with outs to indicate such nearby rags were NOT permitted to use our work. Heck, if they wanted photos they could have sent their own people. But an AP editor would call one of our top editors and then we would be told to cough up the picture(s). When we complained because the competing newspaper hijacked our image, AP told us they couldn’t do anything. When we complained because the picture carried an AP credit, they said: tough. You see, AP has a policy of replacing the credit on every image it sends across the wires with its own. That isn’t a copyright violation, apparently, because we are subscribers and the contract compels us to regularly drop trou and grab our ankles at the Associated Press’ request.

Long story short, borrowing without credit is a typical newspaper/AP business practice. Which makes their complaint more than a little hypocritical.

But their position is also idiotic. Quoting an AP article can help bring an audience to AP. Slapping down those who draw attention to AP won’t help bring an audience (at least a happy one) to AP. Given the place old-style organizations like AP are currently occupying, chasing away an audience doesn’t seem prudent.

But as Jeff Jarvis points out, the whole concept of AP may have passed it usefulness. In the old days AP was the distribution network for articles. Sure they wrote some of their own, but most of their business was passing articles around from member newspapers. That they took credit for them even though they didn’t create them wasn’t considered a big deal because otherwise none of us could get those articles to fill our pages.

Today the internet not only does that distribution job better, it can allow users to go to the source rather than accept a bastardized and borrowed AP version. Jarvis rightly says it is always better to go to the source. And with the internet anyone can set up a network that allows sharing of those articles that come directly from the source.

AP apparently doesn’t get it. They seem intent on gouging our their eyes and cutting off their tongue in the hope of saving face. Good luck with that. And good riddance.