The One Thing Newspapers Do Well…

Over the past decade, we’ve heard a lot of prognostications on newspaper’s place in the digital world, or perhaps their lack of said place.  Inevitably someone comes up with the statement “local newspapers do one thing well: covering local news you can’t get anywhere else.”

Over the past year or so, I can think of numerous occasions where I saw something, such as a car accident that tied up Route 146 for hours, which I’d have expected to find under the heading of “local coverage” only to find nothing.

Case in point, the other day I had to drive to Worcester after work, and along the eastbound side of Rt. 290 there were numerous small brush fires for about 5 miles, with police and fire personnel working them, along with major traffic jams.This was no small thing, and it was seen by thousands of Worcester residents, most of whom, like myself, would be wondering what happened?  Was it a peat fire?  Did a gas tanker spew gas along the road then burst into flames?  A bad prank by kids?

The Worcester Telegram website offered no answer. Plenty of AP stories from around the globe, but nothing on what was for many of us a major event for the day.  Great work, guys!

Here’s the thing: with all the cutbacks in newsrooms around the world, newspapers are now hard pressed to do the thing everyone says they do well, local news.  They’re short on bodies.  We forget that covering local news is actually very expensive versus running some puff off the wire.  What with having to actually get a reporter and a photographer in a car and all the way out to where the news is.  Wire service happens in the newsroom, making it quite convenient.

I have a news flash: if local papers don’t do local news, they’re valueless to the people they supposedly serve.

Death of Newspapers – RIP Editor and Publisher

When I worked in the Atex marketing department, we lived and died by what we could get published in Editor and Publisher.  The once vaunted trade journal was the place you wanted to get mentioned, the measure of your having “made it” in the print world.  Those days are now gone – from E&P themselves:

Editor & Publisher, the bible of the newspaper industry and a journalism institution that traces its origins back to 1884, is ceasing publication.

An announcement, made by parent company The Nielsen Co., was made Thursday morning as staffers were informed that E&P, in both print and online, was shutting down.

The expressions of surprise and outpouring of strong support for E&P that has followed across the Web — Editor & Publisher has even hit No. 4 as a Twitter trending topic — raises the notion that the publication might yet continue in some form.

Its sad to see an industry that was once so much a part of my life now unable to even sustain a trade journal.  In my youth, it was impossible to imagine a world without newspapers.  Increasingly, it is becoming hard to visualize a future with them…

I could ruminate for hours on the subject, but I think the point is already made.  Even the journal of the print publication industry can’t make print work and is looking for a way “continue in some form.”

A Few Coherent Thoughts on Murdoch Blocking Google

Yesterday Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corp, said that he was going to have Google blocked from all New Corp. websites.  That means something

From EditorandPublisher.com:

The Chairman of News Corp. said in an interview with Sky News Australia (reported here in MediaWeek U.K.) that once the newspapers get their paywalls, News Corp. plans to pull its content from the likes of Google and others.

Murdoch said: “We’d rather have fewer people come to the Web site and pay. Consumers shouldn’t have had free news all the time — I think we’ve been asleep. It costs us a lot of money to put together good newspapers and good content. No news Web sites anywhere in the world are making large amounts of money.”

Immediately the web went all a flutter, myself included, predicting that that Murdoch would rue the day.  Joe Mandese at Mediapost.com noted:

According to an analysis of Google-generated traffic released late Monday by Experian’s Hitwise service, Google and Google News currently account for more than 25% of the daily traffic to the Wall Street Journal‘s WSJ.com site.

That’s an awful lot of traffic to put at risk.  Now the other side of the coin is that Murdoch knows that showing tons of traffic low cost network ads begging them to Punch the Monkey or telling them they just won a lottery is the absolute path of least resistence.  You go there when you have nothing else to possibly do… Continue reading “A Few Coherent Thoughts on Murdoch Blocking Google”

Has the Public Library Killed Book Publishers?

As I was in the local public library picking up a little something to read on Saturday, I realized there was an interesting parallel between that and Internet file sharing.

What does the library do after all; it loans books for free to people.  The same books which both publishers and authors base their entire commercial livelihood.  Thus if the picture the music industry draws of the dire future for music if file sharing is allowed continue were really a concern, every book publisher and author in the country would have gone bankrupt long ago.

Instead, the public library is a place where publishers want their books to be.  They realize that by having them there, people will read them, then talk about them, thus causing other people to want to read them.  And some of those folks will actually buy the book…or even people who read the book at the library may decide they want to own a copy (yes, I have done this…).  Why would the recording industry or movie industry expect anything different for them?

In fact, many libraries also carry dvds of the same albums and movie which the recording industry is trying to protect, and loan them, for free…

Let’s here what you have to say on the issue…comment away!

Newspaper Tipping Point: Current Events

My 11 yo daughter called me while I was driving home last night, to ask me to pick up a newspaper so she could start her weekly current events assignment for school.  Without thinking, I told her “you don’t want a newspaper for that, you need to get the information of the web where it’s up to date.”

Now I’ve worked with newspapers on and off since my days atthe  University of Vermont, and I worked for Atex where we engineered newspaper publishing software for close to a decade.  My grandfather was a linotype operator.  For me to tell her that the print edition of newspapers weren’t the place to go for current events was a huge step.

The revelation: the print edition is all old news, yesterday’s news, in fact.

However, it was also particially incorrect.  She’s certainly be getting newspaper content for her current events brief.  It just won’t be from the print edition.

Strangely enough, I realized as I drove to the office today that the best way for her to put together her little weekly assignment would be to do the whole thing electronically.  That way she could link back to the original content, using only a summary so as not to violate copyright and run afoul of the AP and their army of revenue enhancement lawyers.  Now that would truly be a skill that all kids should be learning in school today.

So there it is, the point at which I realize I have no use save bird cage liner for the print edition…it is now as useful as would be one of those old linotype machines that were once state of the art in type setting.

News Has Always Been Free…

Image couresy of WSJ.com

I read an interesting post this morning by Michael Hickins on The Faster Times that posit that “Internet Isn’t Killing Papers, We Are“.  His basic premise: that the tech industry, and the web in particular with with the dotbomb era and sky high salaries and insane stock packages, inflated journalist salaries well beyond their regular levels.

Why? Because salaries had to be adjusted for the stock options that artificially inflated the potential compensation packages offered by the dot-com start-ups. How could Walgreen’s compete against Drugstore.com without compensating for the stock options that could make someone an instant millionaire? They couldn’t. The dot-com bubble burst threw some people out of work for a short period of time, but did nothing to bring salaries back into line.

So all of a sudden, in 2001, I went from making $45,000 for the print publication to $60,000 per year for the online version while working for the same publisher, Conde Nast. Not that I complained. At my last full-time position, I made $90,000 per year working as an editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise – and had reporters working for me who earned well above that. It’s public knowledge that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal earns over $1 million per year.

I posted the link via Twitter and was quickly reminded by Stephen Hadley that “…Most of my reporter friends who are losing their jobs aren’t overpaid. It’s just that the papers they work for no longer are able to sell advertising to support their staffs. Ad dollars are moving.”

That, to my mind is the crux of the matter. You will definitely spot other problems throughout the newspaper industry, but the real problem right now is ad revenue going away.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a myriad of other compounding issues here, such as circulation declines, outdated technology, Jurassic management, etc., and certainly those are all factors.  But the real problem comes down simply to a matter of dollars not coming in the doors.

Brian Carr pointed me towards the AnnArbor.com launch – a Michigan newspaper opened a new site, using 54  staff members. (according to their site masthead)  Ponder this: 54 newspaper folk took a couple months to launch a site using what appears to be a bog standard MoveableType installation.  Frankly, given part of a weekend and a 12 pack of Mountain Dew, I could have outdone them.  Seriously…

The big problem for journalists is this: even though Hickins may tell us that the web got us big salaries back in the day, the sad truth is this: the prevailing thought on the Internet today is that content is free.  As content originators, that means our work isn’t under valued, if FLAT OUT ISN’T VALUED.

Back in the day, I got $500 for a blog post.  Granted, those were some excellent blog posts, but right now I do basically the same thing for free.

Look at the fiasco a few weeks back when Chris Anderson, of Long Tail fame, and EIC of Wired Magazine lifted huge sections of wikipedia articles for his new book “Free: the Past and  Future of a Radical Price” (and yes, he’s talking about free content…). If a Wired Magazine editor can’t even manage to properly cite Wikipedia, what does that say for his view of the value of content?  Oh, right, I guess we should re-read the title of that book…

The real problem inherent in all of this is that after we’re done killing off all the reliable primary news sources, such as newspapers, television news, or even magazines, is that we’ll find we’re left with a gaping void.  The thought is that blogs will take over.  unfortunately, while blogs are generally interesting sources of commentary and opinion, I see very few that provide anything like news, and when and where they do it, they generally do not do it reliably.  You can’t count on today’s source to have good info, or any info, tomorrow, and you definitely should not expect extensive enough general coverage that will allow you to get a good picture of the world, or any small part of it for that particular piece of time.

Okay, I’m sure one of you is thinking now about the Iranian Election a few weeks ago, and how it broke on Twitter.  In fact, it would have broken on major news outlets as well, but it got bumped for the MJ Media Circus.  Even so, Twitter may be many things, but it’s not a reliable primary news source.  Yes, it may provide a lead here or there, but any good journalist knows, that’s just where the story starts…not where it ends.

Getting back to the original theme here, I think now that we can see that news generation was a loss leader for newspapers.  It took a lot of effort to do it right, but it was something they could monetize through ad revenue.  Today, we need to forget about how content gets delivered, and remember that content generation is still a valuable and necessary product.  When we rediscover a proper way to monetize it, the world for journalist and everyone will be a better place.

Because none of us wants to work for free…

How NOT to Research a Story – USA Today

(Disclaimer: I work for Namemedia, Inc. who is one of the largest owners and resellers of domains in the world.  I don’t work in that end of the business, and I don’t speak for them.)

I picked up an interesting article today via David Churbuck’s Delicious.com feed, from USA Today with the salacious title “Cybersquatting’ crooks profit on marketers’ brand names.”

Now I hate cybersquatting, but I have to say this, which I said yesterday and have said ad nauseum over the years: your domain name is a business asset.  A corollary to that would be that you need to protect it, just as you would any business asset.

Simply put, if you’re planning to launch a new brand and you haven’t secured the appropriate domain names that are associated with that brand, you are a fool.  At the very least, you’ll be increasing the value of something you will most likely need to buy at some point.  So do your homework!

The thing that ticked me off about this article was the fact that it appearred as though the writer had written it right off a Marketing Association press release. It showed almost no thought about the issue, and in appearance, seemed to aim at driving home a single, shop worn idea: cybersquatting is bad.  Wow, hold the presses.

There are several other sides to this, none of which are considered, mentioned, or apparently, even though of.

  •  What happens when I own a domain and one of the big guys decides to create a new brand using the same name, such as yesterday’s example of Blatz.com.  Are we proposing that even with “prior art” I should reassign the domain to them, simply because I otherwise might be considered “cybersquatting?”
  • Is it not the companies responsibility to protect their own brand?  There is plenty of history with people setting up shopping sites under unused brand name inspired domains.
  • If you didn’t buy a particular domain, you cannot consider revenues made on that site “lost revenues” associated with your brand.
  • The assumption underlying this article is obvious, that sales made via third party shopping sites, etc. necessarily would have gone to the brand with which they might have appeared to be associated.  In my experience,  such sales are generally more casual impulse buys.  

Here’s the part that makes me really annoyed:

They drive people to a “squatted” site via e-mails or through paid search. Once they’ve led someone there, they hope to steal credit card information, spur clicks on ads to skim revenue from online ad networks or sell fake products, such as pharmaceuticals or pricey handbags.

Since when did USA Today decide it was a nepharious act to show advertising to people on your own website, in hopes that they might actually click on it?  Is that not THEIR OWN REVENUE MODEL?  Further, is not email or paid search also condsidered marketing?  Why would marketing one’s own website be considered “theft?”

Listen, I don’t cybersquat and I don’t condone it, but this article is simply ludicrous.  USA Today, stop phoning in your work…

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.

10 Things Every Journalist Should Know in 2009

…And every blogger as well.  From Journalism.co.uk via Brenda Christensen, a list of the skills every journalist should have.  

5. That churnalism is much easier to spot online. If you do this regularly, your readers are already on to you – merely re-writing press releases without bringing anything to the table no longer cuts it.

6. Google is your friend. But if you are not using advanced search techniques, you really have no idea what it is capable of.

7. You do not have to own, or even host, the technology to innovate in journalism and engage your readers. There is a plethora of free or cheap tools available online, so there is no excuse for not experimenting with them.

 

I’d add to the list one thing: that journalism doesn’t only happen at newspapers, or the established news channels.  It happens where ever you are, in whatever you write.  The world is changing for journalists.  You can be an innovator.

The Star Tribune Files Chapter 11

Via Editor and Publisher…with a pointer from Hart Van Denburg.

Less than two years after it was bought by a private equity group, the Star Tribune has filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But wait, there’s more…

In December, Harte told employees the “survival of the company” was at stake and asked labor unions to agree to $20 million in cuts by mid-January. Without those cuts, Harte said the newspaper could face bankruptcy.

The Star Tribune ranked as the nation’s 15th-largest paper last October, with weekday circulation of about 322,000 and Sunday circulation of almost 521,000. The paper has nearly 1,400 employees.

Here is why this is important news: less than a decade ago, we looked on The Star Tribune as one of the few papers, (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was another) that seemed to really “Get” the internet.  A real model for how a paper would move forward.

The problem is that even if you start moving in the right direction, if the financial folks aren’t, you’re sunk.  And obviously, like the Tribune Co., The Star Tribune managed to saddle themselves with massive debt at exactly the wrong time.

We knew things were getting bad for newspapers, but the economic problems of the country are particularly harsh on the most overleveraged.  I suspect we will see much more of this in the coming months.  Perhaps it’s time to start up the Newspaper Dead Pool.

For those at the ST, I hope you manage to power through.  I’ve always been a fan of your work, and look forward to more in the future.