Whither Investigative Journalism?

The “Special Sauce” for news media has always been investigative journalism, ala Woodward and Bernstein.  It’s what made myself and an entire generation of young writers want to get into journalism back in the 1970’s, each of us aching to bring the mighty low, to shine lights into dark places and in the process, make our names, too, household words.

Today, investigative journalism is a dying craft.  Dying not because there aren’t reporters willing to ask the tough questions, but because media itself has rolled over and become passive.  Somewhere in the 80’s and 90’s news switched from investigating controversy to reporting on press releases. 

Why is it dying?  

  • Mega-corporate ownership – Many of the owners of major media now are not primarily media companies per se (think of NBC as owned by GE), hence their primary goal isn’t news, it’s now earning profit for the corporation.  Is it possible the GE has muzzled the news? 
  • The economy – when things are down, it’s hard to justify putting a reporter on a special assignment for a day if it isn’t going to lead to a story right away.  The best investigative journalism often takes weeks or months.

I’m sure if I thought about it, I could come up with many other reasons.  One thing I can state with certainty is this: not only has the way we get our news changed, the very fabric of what our news is has changed.  And I am not at all convinced its a good thing.

In the vacuum that has been created, we’re now getting much more news “analysis” which is very easy to produce, very cost effective, and really comes down to us listening to someone else’s opinion.  Often those opinions come with agendas, be they right or left wing.  The funny thing is that if we really want analysis, we can get if via podcasts, vidcasts, blogs, etc. There is little that big media brings to the table here that can’t be found elsewhere.

At the end off the day, we all lose without investigative journalism.

Advice for Those New to New Media – Specialize

My father used to tell a story from his youth, growing up in the depression with my Grandmother and my Great Aunt Sue, the family matriarch and a woman whose strength  I never fully appreciated in my youth.  There were rules which Aunt Sue used to keep the family together, and one of those was “No Day Laborers.”

It was tough times in Dorchester, Ma during the Great Depression.  As it turned out, that rule worked quite well for the family.  It was also taken loosely to also banish “jack of all trades.”

What’s that got to do with new media?  Well, I see a lot of  “new media specialists” in twitter, on friendfeed, etc. these days.  It reminds me of the distant past when I started working on the web, I started as a webmaster (you haven’t heard that job description for a while, have you?).  You see, then the field was so new, it was the province of the generalist.  We had to know a little about everything, from server management, to installing code libraries, to writing and debugging scripts, SEO, SEM, community management, advertising, etc.  Each of those areas of knowledge now is its own particular specialty, with people who devote virtually all their time to thinking about it.  In that transition, the need for a real webmaster died. Continue reading “Advice for Those New to New Media – Specialize”

A Great Big Social Media Bubble

Over the past couple weeks we’re seeing a lot of folks coming around to the view I express last year: 

The thing that calls it all into question for me is the number of people who are generally ex-online marketing folks now using strange titles like “Social Media User Guru” or something equally ludicrous. It reminds me of a networking group I once attended that turned out to be a room full of sales people, each hoping to sell something, and none realizing there weren’t any real customers there.

As the astute Esteban Glas points out here, both Robert  Scoble and  Joel Mark Whitt decry that which Witt calls “Social Media Incest”.   As I have said many times before: when the when the communication in the medium is mostly about the medium, the medium has failed.

Continue reading “A Great Big Social Media Bubble”

TTAC Ten Worst Autos of 2008

You’d think it wouldn’t be hard this year to come up with a list of the ten worst autos, but indeed, with so many trying so hard, the folks at TheTruthAboutCars.com have had a real struggle. Yet they once again came through with a list that’s becoming a Christmas tradition for me…

 

TTAC’s Ten Worst Autos 2008:

The votes are cast. The polls are closed. And there’s no question which vehicles our Best and Brightest consider the TTAC’s Ten Worst Vehicles 2008. The good news: there are only two new “winners” this year. The bad news: there are only two new “winners” this year. In fact, eight of last year’s Ten Worst are still in production. Even more depressing: half of this year’s winners  have “won” TTAC’s Ten Worst three years running. How long can these turkeys hang on? Pass the cranberry sauce and read on.

Enjoy the list in all it’s snarky goodness…

(Disclosure: TTAC is one the NameMedia Inc. premium sites, and I work with them.  That does not make the list any less funny…)

Branded Community or Sponsoring Niche Communities

Paul Gillin posted on a topic that I’ve been mulling over for the past few days: Branded Communities.  I’ve said it in the past and I will say it again here and now: why would you buy a build a branded community when you can rent one instead?

From Gillin’s post:

Pssst… is intended to bring fans of General Mills products closer to the company by inviting them into a members-only space where they can receive inside information, get coupons and samples and share their opinions about the company’s products. This is all the stuff that I preach organizations should do with branded communities. The site is produced in collaboration withGlobalPark, a company that manages online panels.

Pssst… is good in concept but bad in execution.

David Churbuck posted on the issue and asked one very pointed question:

Begs the question of who does a decent job with a branded community — aside from the usual product support forums, etc. — I can see some reasons for stumbling, but begs the question: who joins a community about bad yogurt?

The classic example would be Nike+ – where they’ve built a fairly successful brand community.   However, I  think a yogurt community might be a tough sell.

That said, building a branded community is a daunting task.  Potential issues:

  • Time to Market – do you have time for a 6-9 month dev cycle?
  • Core Competency – do you have people who can actually build and manage a community?
  • Expense – do you have a budget to build, and even more importantly, a budget to maintain a community?

At NameMedia, I work with Niche Community Sites, and we’ve been coming up with interesting ways to put companies and their brands in touch with the customers they want to reach, and we’ve got some compelling stories about new and innovative ways in which we’re doing this.  A couple brief examples:

It took Nike over 2 years to build their community.  We were able to get the Brother campaign up and running over night on Craftster.org.

Okay, this isn’t meant to end up sounding like an ad.  My point is that you can get real results fast working with Niche Communities and Niche Social Media.  While I’d love to tell you that NameMedia has the market cornered on creative sponsorship, there are a lot of other creative folks out there.

Or course, we’ve  got 20 million visits a month, over 30,000 conversations a day across our sites, in niches like outdoors, photography, technology, gardening, crafting, and astrology.  Our list of sites.

If you’d like to hear more about the creative campaigns we’re doing, get in touch with me or leave a comment here.  I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg and there are probably better folks than me to tell the story.

New Journalism in Action – Using Twitter as a Photoblog with the Iphone

The idea: to run a live Tweet stream from the varied events of the Sutton, Ma Chain of Lights, a celebration that happens at many different locations thoughout the town and its villages.  I used my Iphone with the Twitterlator Application that lets me post pictures direct to Twitter with pictures that I take on my phone uploaded right at that moment.  The tweets all contain the hashtag #suttoncol – short for Sutton Chain of Lights which make them searchable via the Twitter search function, formerly known as Summize.  You can check out the full tweet stream here.

Additionally we (my 9 year old daughter Mackenzie helped me with this) took photos at the events we attended with my Canon Power Shot A530 5 megapixel point and shoot camera.

Why Would You Bother: Sutton, like many small communities, doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the local paper, The Worcester Telegram, and substantially less from the television stations.  Even if they did send someone out to cover the events, they’d have gone to a single location, took a quick couple pictures, or did a quick standup talking to some happy kids, then they’d have been off to their next assignment.  Local events are naturals for crowd sourcing, and what better way to do it than live tweeting with a hashtag, posting a photo gallery, etc.

When I sat down last week to add pictures to the National Gallery and Gift Shop site to help publicize the event, I was surprised to find there were no pictures online anywhere from the Chain of Lights last year, save a few marketing shots by The Vaillancourt Folk Art Museum. Continue reading “New Journalism in Action – Using Twitter as a Photoblog with the Iphone”

PC Magazine To Kill Print Version

PC Magazine announced last week that their January issue would be the last issue they actually print, from then on, they’re a web-only publication.

From The New York Times:

 

It is the latest of several magazine publishers to drop a print edition, as advertising plummets and the cost of printing a paper version rises.

“The viability for us to continue to publish in print just isn’t there anymore,” Jason Young, chief executive of Ziff Davis, said in an interview.

While most magazines make their money mainly from print advertising, PC Magazine derives most of its profit from its Web site. More than 80 percent of the profit and about 70 percent of the revenue come from the digital business, Mr. Young said, and all of the writers and editors have been counted as part of the digital budget for two years.

 

There are only two surprises here, first that it took them so long to realize that online was the only viable medium for them, and that they continued to call themselves “news” got so little play to begin with.

I’ll leave the inevitable “if it’s online only, can you still have ‘magazine’ in the title” snark alone for the day.  The real news here is that some news is best delivered over the web, and Tech News is one of those things.  The long print cycle lead times ensured that by the time the magazine would turn up on your doorstep, the news content would be old and moldy, having been macerated to death by various blogs, news sites and forums.  The key factors for moving Tech News online:

 

  • Tech readers definitely have computers and high speed access to the web.
  • Tech news cycles move too fast for print.  Web news can be delivered in minutes or hours, while print is right for 3-6 week delivery.
  • Tech news in print demands the most costly of print, high quality glossy magazines.

 

In the end, doing tech in print now means deep analysis and rigourous testing (both of which PC Magazine has always excelled at).  Yet, those can be offered online, and with a richer presentation.  Back when I started editing Reel-Time.com I remember new writers would always ask “How many words do I have?” when we talked about their weekly columns.  I always had to laugh, the notion of specific column length being so “print-centric.” On the web, we are free to throw as many pixels as we need at an issue.

I believe we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg.  Those that can make the jump will start to make that jump quickly.  Notably, I expect to see trade journals become a relatively rare beast.  Ivory towered experts lecturing professionals about their profession is a thing of the past.  Instead, users will gravitate to profession-based niche social media.  The journals will slowly cease to exist, and the magazines that remain will be serving the less technical of the professions.

For all the talk, er, converstation, going on about Social Media, we really haven’t got there yet.  I think the next year will the telling time, when we see more application of the prime tenets towards the professional space.  Where as we may have proposed a network for surfers last year, which we might monetize someday, this year, we’ll be proposing a network of plumbers, which we’ll be monetizing starting day one.

Once again, we’ve had a “Genie is out of the bottle” moment, and things have again changed for print.  There’s a digital diaspora going on, and we’ve seen a steady wave of carpetbagging print journalists, so it only makes sense that the institutions themselves attempt to make the move.  It’s the publishing equivailent of breaking down the presses and moving them where the money is.

So, if you’re in print, think about this: how can you better leverage social media online now to allow you to make a transition later?

And one bit of information to remember: in the 1970s print still used Linotype machines for typesetting.  There were tons of highly skilled linotype operators out there setting type for everyone.  When the first Atex systems came along, they started to put those guys (my grandfather was a life-time linotype operator by the way) out of a job.  About a decade later, the job no longer existed anywhere.  

Are you a potential digital carpetbagger, or will you go the way of the linotype operator?

Kiss a Pig

Sometimes you really need to kiss a pig, and yes, that indeed, is me...on the right

Sometimes you really need to kiss a pig, and yes, that indeed, is me...on the right

 

Yes, sometimes it’s in our best interest to do something we don’t really want to do, to literally kiss the pig.  Nothing could better typify this than the great ad debate, that age old fight that occurs in media wherein the editorial staff seeks to maintain their supposed journalistic credibility by running a publication that is utterly advertising free, while the ad staff is running around trying to turn your hallowed publication into The Want Advertiser.

When I worked in print, the editorial staff barely deigned to acknowledge the existentence of the advertising (in fact, most editorial content management systems in print media do not show the ads, only the blocked out holes where ads will go) while the advertising team referred derisively to the actual content of the paper as the “News Hole” (making the purveryors of such “newsholes”).

In some ways, things have been worse for online media, especially niche media.  Online, many of us were able to build out our sites without the benefit of advertising, channeling the Field of Dreams mantra “build it and they will come.”

Unfortunately, many of us found that we were simply too small to attract the advertisers we wanted.  We found the endemic advertisers with in our niches were generally too small to foot the bill for what we wanted.  In the end, many of us found we either had to sell or buy, that owning a single site wasn’t enough.

In the past few days I’ve seen a miraculous transformation on Reel-time, the site that I started with.  The site finally hit the radar of the NameMedia sales team, and all of a sudden, I’m finding there’s a lot of interest in what turns out to be a huge reservior of potential page views.

The funny thing is that they’re now talking with people who would never have returned a phone call from Reel-Time a year ago.  If we’d even bothered to make the call.

So, in the long run I’ve learned the big secret of publishing: you’ve got to love advertising, and in particular your ad sales guys.

Monitor shifts from print to Web-based strategy

Monitor shifts from print to Web-based strategy.

Wow – read the post before this first.  Then read this.  Here’s where we’re going, folks.  This is earth shattering.

The Christian Science Monitor plans major changes in April 2009 that are expected to make it the first newspaper with a national audience to shift from a daily print format to an online publication that is updated continuously each day.

The changes at the Monitor will include enhancing the content on CSMonitor.com, starting weekly print and daily e-mail editions, and discontinuing the current daily print format.

No more daily print for the Monitor – now that is certainly a transitive moment.

Update: 10/29 Alan Mutter at Relections of a Newsosaur had this:

The Monitor also is under pressure to trim by two-thirds the $12 million annual subsidy it now receives from its patron, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston. 

So, abandoning print is a good call for the Monitor, which intends to put the bulk of its resources in the future into an upgraded website and a slick, weekly magazine.

But a paperless strategy likely would not succeed at most general-circulation newspapers, which have no charitable endowments and draw the better part of 90% of their revenues from advertising in the print product. 

Media Ethics and Political Affiliations

Watching the Twitter streams of the newly minted gurus of Social Media, I’m often surprised by how little many of the experts actually know about traditional media. In fact, I’m surprised by how many of us actually have bought the “journalistic ethics” and “media bias” lines we see so often.

One of the giants of the Social Media, who I’m not gonna call out here, the other day expressed dismay that the Boston Globe had made an endorsement of Senator Barack Obama for President.  Actually, I’d say we ought to express dismay, as a long time reader of the Boston Globe, that they hadn’t endorsed him before the  convention, as there was never any doubt as to which direction they’d swing.

Bruce Carlson covers the issue wonderfully with his podcast “My History Can Beat Up Your Politics” in the episode entitled “Objectivity in the Media (Re-Run)“:

If the fact that Greeley ran for congress while being an editor seems shocking, it was not so at the time. His rival Raymond was the chairman of the republican national committee and ran Lincoln’s re-eleciton, all while remaining editor of the NY Times. Later in the century both names associated with tabloid journalism -Pulitizer and Hearst would both serve in congress at different times, with Hearst also running for New York governor and new york city mayors, both realizing they had more power in ink than in office as one vote of hundreds.

The reality here is that we really didn’t see a lot of “journalistic ethics” in the pre-Watergate era.  Prior to the Woodward and Bernstein days, the newspapers really walked a line in which they simply didn’t want to be called out by the competition for having published a story that was incorrect.  Editors actually cared about taking the time to get things right.

In some ways we’re surprised today to think of the New York Times as a mouthpiece for the Democratic party or that perhaps the Washington Times is carrying water for the Republicans. We shouldn’t be, the media has almost always been associated directly with the political parties.