Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Craigslist and prostitution

"I'm shocked, SHOCKED to see that there's gambling going on in this establishment." -- From the movie, Casablanca
NEWS ITEM: IDAHO FALLS – A Pocatello woman running a "holiday special" advertisement on Craigslist was arrested for prostitution at the Red Lion on the Falls in Idaho Falls on Thursday.

Cassie K. Brown, 24, was charged with a misdemeanor after she tried to have sex with an undercover Idaho Falls police officer, Sgt. Phil Grimes said.

In a random check of eastern Idaho's Craigslist's directory, officers found a posting for adult services by women. The poster, identified only as "Ashley," was soliciting sex, according to the police report.

This is the second time in six months Idaho Falls officers have used Craigslist to make a prostitution arrest.
There’s no big secret why I have reasons to dislike Craigslist – it has taken millions of dollars of classified advertising from newspapers over the past decade-plus by providing its services for free. That’s fair – capitalism is all about building a better, and cheaper, mousetrap. But Craigslist is essentially an unmonitored classified advertising source that claims not to have to bother with niggling things that newspapers must deal with.

These niggling things include such trivial matters as not providing advertising for illegal services, or ads that ignore federal housing laws or promote rather obvious scams. In at least one case, a murder suspect met his victim via Craigslist.

Of course, the people who run Craigslist don’t wish ill on their customers and don’t openly promote prostitution, fraud or murder. They simply do little, if anything, to sift that sort of material from their sites.

Newspapers, on the other hand, train their ad takers and staffs to identify potential fraudulent or otherwise illegal activity on their classified sites and have policies against publishing them. Some occasionally slip through, but it’s a rare mistake, particularly compared with what can be found on Craigslist.

If you doubt, wander around any of the Craigslist sites under “casual encounters” in the personal ads section and ask yourself how many of these ads are either completely false or will lead to a paid hook-up.

Craigslist is here to stay and in many ways is admirable in its open, democratic approach to using the Internet. It found a chink in the armor of traditional newspapers and has exploited it – that’s entirely fair and how capitalism works. But it also hides behind the idea that “we just make the thing available, we’re not responsible for its content,” and that’s not how capitalism works. If you’re going to provide a product or service, you are accountable for it.

Congress and some states are looking into how to police the content on Craigslist and similar sites, though a solution isn’t imminent. More important, consumers need to understand what they’re getting into and act accordingly.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Editor & Publisher, RIP

Editor & Publisher, the leading periodical covering the newspaper industry for more than a century, has announced it is ceasing publication, and the reaction has been curious.

Steve Outing, a long-time columnist for E&P and an advocate for free online content, writes a blog post proclaiming that this was a day we all knew was coming. There are other criticisms of E&P that suggest it didn’t embrace the Internet as aggressively as it should have.

Really? E&P followed the business model that Outing and others have been promoting – produce unique content, put it online as quickly as possible, reject print as old-fashioned and unsustainable, and rely on advertising supported by traffic "driven" to the web site.

And yet, it failed. Perhaps its failure was unavoidable. A large share of E&P’s traditional revenue had been Help Wanted ads for the newspaper business. Like Craigslist has decimated the classified revenues of many local newspapers, online alternatives displaced E&P as the place to go to look for a job in the newspaper business. There can be no doubt that the loss of that revenue source was a major dagger in E&P’s heart.

Yet, there has been no better daily reporting of the newspaper business than that provided by E&P online. The print magazine has been a staple of American newsrooms for decades, but when it became available online for free, most of us eventually dropped our print subscriptions. I think it’s safe to say that a great majority of us would have gladly paid a reasonable fee for the online edition, but we were never asked.

No, instead E&P bought the line of folks like Outing and others who said that asking for money for online content was an anachronism no longer an option in this brave, new digital world. (Oddly and somewhat embarrassingly, when you visit Outing’s own blog site you’ll get a pop-up window asking for a voluntary donation. Steve, please, if your work is valuable, set a price and require payment, but don’t beg.)

Our industry needs the reporting provided by E&P, even though I’ve felt that in recent years it showed a bias toward the free-content business model in its reporting that I found grating and lacking in journalistic objectivity. But there is no alternative to E&P out there.

The magazine has been kind over the years to the Post Register, highlighted by an in-depth and very positive profile of our newspaper by Joe Strupp a couple of years ago. It’s been the only place to go for breaking news in our business, and much of the reporting in its monthly print edition has been significant. I fear, however, that it bought the traffic-is-king argument to its ultimate demise.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

HuffPo and the 'new journalism'

It turns out that there’s an online business model I overlooked in my last 10 years of searching and pondering. It goes something like this:
1. Attend a prestigious English university, assisted by an upbringing of comfort and privilege.

2. Move to the U.S. and throw yourself into right-wing politics in a very public way.

3. Marry a wealthy political activist who spends many millions of his own money to get elected to Congress.

4. When he discloses he’s bisexual, divorce him but keep his last name (and a good share of his money), because Stassinopoulos is so hard to pronounce.

5. Round up $30 million or so from friendly investors in startup capital to begin a web site. By this time, however, you’ll have become something of a liberal diva.

6. Use only free bloggers, other sites’ original content and lots of pictures of naked celebrities to populate the site. Popularize the acronym NSFW, or Not Suitable for Work, to save your viewers the embarrassment of being caught at their cubicle with Pamela Sue Anderson’s naked backside on their screen while the boss is looking over their shoulder. (Go so far as to create a link called “Celebrity Skin”.)

7. When asked if your site is profitable, dodge the question by saying things like, “We could be if we wanted to be.”

8. Make fun of people who dare suggest that web sites shouldn’t be able to post original content from other sources with impunity. Go on TV and radio whenever possible to do this, and make sure all of these appearances get top-of-page play on your own site.

9. Oh, and take your headline-writing style from the Enquirer and other tabloids, using lots of ALL CAPS and BOLD, RED fonts.
This, if course, is the business model for Huffington Post, one of the more successful Internet startups in recent history, so long as sustainable profits aren’t required to be considered successful. HuffPo has expanded into “local” portals for New York, Chicago, Denver, and, most recently, Los Angeles, largely by pilfering content from local newspapers (and the odd TV station) in those markets. No wonder Ms. Huffington thinks copyright laws are so 20th Century.

Judging by the web site’s own tracking of its visitors, its most popular material inevitably is the latest on the emerging Tiger Woods scandal, the latest photos of naked Hollywood starlets or the latest news on someone coming out as gay or bisexual. The serious political stuff gets relegated to the left side of the page and seems to be of less interest.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of this, so long as you don’t expect to be taken seriously as some kind of journalistic enterprise. Alas, Ms. Huffington appears to desire just that, appearing on all the right talk shows to give advice to everyone from the president to owners of major media companies.

OK, OK, I read it, for the same basic reason that I read The Onion – it’s fun and a little naughty. (At least The Onion comes up with its own material.) It does, however, attempt to create the façade of a certain respectability that’s only skin deep (bad pun, completely intended). However, anyone who thinks HuffPo is breaking new ground or is the new model for journalism needs to go just beyond the surface.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The bias of entertainment

“We absolutely have an incredible bias in the media, and that bias is not a political one that most of my friends on either end of the political spectrum might say that it is. It’s, in fact, a bias towards entertainment, and that entertainment can be a really good story or a really bad story. Anything that’s more complicated in-between usually is just hard for people to understand, and people in the media aren’t interested in covering that.”

--Marine Jonathon Kuniholm on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program, Nov. 10, 2009
Jonathon Kuniholm is an Iraq War veteran who lost his right arm below the elbow when his unit was attacked near the Euphrates River on New Year’s Day 2005. He now works with the Defense Department to improve the functionality and availability of prosthetic limbs.

His is a compelling and heroic story, but he finds that too often those who tell the story either get it wrong or over-simplify it in search of entertainment. While it’s easy to blame the American news consumer for wanting information delivered in simple, easy-to-digest nuggets for creating this Age of Entertainment, it falls to journalists to take the needed corrective action.

What we need to do is find a way to tell stories that are interesting and informative, entertaining and accurate, compelling and complete.

The thirst for stories is hardly a recent trend. Every civilization has placed a value on them, but we’ve never had so many efficient means to distribute them. It turns out that’s become a blessing and a curse.

It’s a curse because a lot of the stories that get told are warped, twisted, incomplete, over-simplified, shaded or otherwise not-completely-true versions of the actual facts. Kuniholm is right to note that the issue more often than not isn’t a political bias but a bias toward entertaining the information consumer. As the number of information sources continues to expand, the pressure to entertain becomes even greater.

Perhaps Americans will eventually grow weary of getting half, or less, of the story, or of only that which uplifts, outrages or, yes, entertains. But journalists have to get better at telling stories, because no one wants to read, hear or view a dry recitation of facts. Storytelling and journalism go hand in hand.

If anyone has a compelling story it’s Kuniholm, who not only has a Purple Heart, but has taken what could have been a tragic circumstance and made it his life’s work – to improve the lives of the thousands of Americans who have suffered the loss of a limb, the vast majority of whom are not veterans of the armed forces. That journalists have found it necessary to skew his story for entertainment value tells us how far we have to go.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Toward effective local Web advertising

The Internet is a gloriously efficient means of communicating. So far, however, it’s not a great tool for advertising on anything less than a global scale. This is one of its dirty little secrets.

In 1997, Michael Dertouzos, now deceased but then the director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of technology, wrote that the Internet could lead to “computer-aided peace” by allowing disagreeing parties to work out their conflicts online, thereby eliminating or reducing the likelihood of shooting wars.

This obvious fallacy has nothing to do with advertising other than to illustrate that the people who know the most about the Internet's technological potential may not be best suited to create sustainable ways to use it.

Internet users don’t like advertising. When is the last time you actually clicked on an ad you found while surfing? For every Google that has been able to create enormous wealth by earning pennies per click, there are thousands of web startups that have come and gone – dozens here in eastern Idaho alone.

To the news business, nothing would be finer than making a reasonable return on Web advertising – if only you, our dear readers, would embrace it. Imagine how simple it would be to produce the Post Register online-only, sell gobs of advertising to it and forget about expensive and complex things like printing and delivering the paper.

That day is far, far off. (This will no doubt come some relief to our skilled press crews, our hundreds of carriers, and the bank that recently helped us buy a new press.)

There are two ways to make any real kind of money in online advertising:
1. Have a web site so inexpensive to operate and so globally popular that it can make money by generating a very small amount of revenue per view. Parenthetically, many of these sites are so popular because they use content that originates with – newspapers.

2. Develop ways to bring willing Internet users and advertisers together without resorting to pop-up ads, obnoxious Flash ads or other unwelcome obstacles to the Internet experience. When that happens, local advertisers will gladly pay for it.
The modest amount of advertising on the Post Register’s web site right now is a good value for those advertisers because it’s cheap and puts their message on hundreds of thousands of viewed pages a month. But it’s not effective enough for them to make it a major revenue source for us.

Yet. There is technology, unique to publishers that combine print and the Web, that we’ll be introducing to eastern Idaho in 2010 that may very well solve this problem. Like me, you’ve undoubtedly heard this sort of promise before, but you’ve not heard it from me. This time I think we may be onto something.

I apologize for teasing you with a TV phrase, but: Stay tuned.

Is the Web free-for-all beginning to end?

The free ride for Google and other news aggregators may finally be coming to an end, or at least coming upon a major roadblock.

News aggregators are web sites and services that send “bots” throughout the Internet looking for certain kinds of content, which then is used to create pages that do no more than link back to those stories. Go to a site like Yahoo! News or Google News and see if you can find a single story actually produced by Google or Yahoo!

The Post Register has long blocked this sort of aggregation (“theft" might be another word for it) for its site, because we’ve always believed that unique local content is our most valuable asset. But web sites without a pay wall can be scraped clean by automated bots.

But wait, you say, doesn’t that linking generate traffic to the originators’ web sites, thus creating the potential for ad revenue? The answer is yes, but not really. Unless the advertising is very narrowly targeted to very specific users, users don’t look at it. To make any real money in online advertising, a web site must generate many millions, not just hundreds of thousands, of visits per month, or it must focus on local users who are interested in local advertising. (I’ll deal with online advertising in local markets like eastern Idaho in a future column.)

At long last, some of the big guns in the media world are doing something about the aggregators. Here’s part of a story from Bloomberg online (and, no, quoting from a portion of a story while crediting the originator is not aggregating – it’s called “fair use”):
" ... executives at MediaNews Group, the nation's second-largest newspaper publisher, and A.H. Belo, publisher of The Dallas Morning News and Providence (R.I.) Journal, are planning to block Google's search engine from some content.

“MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton said Google News will be blocked from accessing some content when it erects pay walls at the Web sites of some of its Pennsylvania and California newspapers next year.”
This comes on the heels of the Associated Press’ announcement that it will begin suing anyone who uses the AP’s content without permission. The main target is Google, of course.

What many people don’t know is that, while the AP does produce a good deal of original content, much of what it distributes originates with its member news organizations – mostly newspapers. So, even papers like the Post Register that have long had a pay wall have found their content stolen, um, aggregated once it went into the AP network.

Perhaps the Internet free-for-all is finally coming to an end. We can only hope.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Contemplations on hyperbole

“This proposal of altering our federal government is of a most alarming nature! ... You ought to be watchful, jealous of your liberty; for, instead of securing your rights, you may lose them forever... I beg gentlemen to consider that a wrong step made now will plunge us into misery, and our republic will be lost, and tyranny must and will arise...”
No, this was not spoken by a member of the Tea Party Movement or a conservative politician railing against health care legislation. This was written by Patrick Henry about the proposed U.S. Constitution. Henry was most alarmed that the Constitution contained no Bill of Rights at the time and feared that it would create a central government with too much power.

The Anti-Federalists, as they were known then, included Henry, George Mason and other Revolutionary War figures. Thomas Paine, revered author of “Common Sense” – a key and particularly articulate argument for American independence published in 1776 – is considered by many scholars today as the original American political “liberal.” He, too, opposed the Constitution.

The anti-Federalists were a disparate bunch. Some thought the Constitution went too far, some thought it didn’t go far enough. What they shared were rhetorical skills and a tendency toward hyperbole.

“This will be a government of oppression,” wrote Melancton Smith.

George Clinton warned that the Constitution would place too much power in the hands of too few, who would “oppress and grind you.” He feared that “the science of government will become … too mysterious for you to understand and observe…” He also feared the Constitution would inevitably lead to a monarchy.

It would be a dangerous mistake to see too many similarities between the hyperbole of the 18th century and that of the 21st, other than these: It’s a well-worn rhetorical device, it usually has only a limited impact, and it demands that we look beyond it to the facts of the matter.

That rhetorical hyperbole has ancient roots – the word “hyperbole” is from the ancient Greek, after all – doesn’t mean that we should be sanguine about it. You might think that we would have made some progress over the centuries, after all.

There also might be a tendency to think, “well, despite all that nastiness back in the day, the Constitution worked out OK.” This, too, would be wrong and potentially dangerous. The examples of real harm done in the name of “the people” – from Joseph McCarthy to any of a thousand liberal and conservative bloggers that spew nonsense. Words do have consequences, often unintended.

Still and all, it is helpful to keep the current debates in context and realize that this has been going on for a long, long time. It would be great if we could improve on the process, even just a little.

Friday, November 20, 2009

So many words...

... and a cartoon says it better than I ever could. (Click on it to enlarge it to readable size.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Newspapers: A love story

I love newspapers. There, I said it.

Anyone who reads my column with any regularity at all will already know that. But as newspapers have struggled to go from one longstanding business model to a new one, I’ve thought long and hard about my chosen vocation.

I got my first newspaper byline in 1976 when I was 18 years old as a part-time sports writer for the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah. Six years later I would start my full-time reporting career there. I’d become infatuated with newspapers long before – I worked on the newspaper staff in both junior high and high school. I’ve been living and breathing newsprint and ink for nearly 40 of my 51 years. I confess that I still love to watch a mammoth press churn out 35,000 copies an hour of a quality local newspaper.

While I believe that newspapers contribute to the strength of our republic and are vital to our communities, I don’t believe either will collapse if newspapers as we know them disappear forever. I don’t believe that newspapers are so important that the government should take steps to ensure their survival. In fact, government meddling in the future of newspapers would do far more harm than good.

No, what it required is for people like me, who are passionate about newspapers and their role in America, to leverage that passion into the effort and imagination required to ensure that newspapers like the Post Register make the transition from the simple business model of the 20th century to whatever business models will allow us to thrive in the 21st. We’re going to do that.

There’s a lot of good news about newspapers, too much of which doesn’t get reported. Total print and online readership of newspapers is at an all-time high, including here at the Post Register. The differences between newspapers that adhere to sound journalistic principles and the broadcast and Internet news sources that don’t give journalism a second thought have never been more obvious. And, here’s something – as we approach Thanksgiving, advertising for that bellwether day is up over last year.

So, while we have yet to produce the perfect edition, the people at the Post Register and many thousands of others across the country who are equally passionate about newspapers are getting a lot of things right. Most of the original reporting in our country comes from newspapers. Local newspapers like the Post Register contain more local information in a day than our competitors produce in a week or more. And, we’re getting better and better at finding better ways to put that information into the hands of as many people as possible.

Call me Pollyanna, but that’s pretty exciting and encouraging stuff.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Citizen journalism unmasked

The theory behind citizen journalism isn't quite as absurd as, say, suggesting that we should get behind the idea of citizen surgery, but it's not as dissimilar as one might suspect.

Journalists aren't required to spend a decade or more in school or to pass strict tests to become practitioners of the vocation. For one thing, the eventual financial payoff is hardly worth it. But the idea that anyone with a cell phone or notepad can practice journalism is nearly as offensive to the real journalist as the idea that some quack with leeches can practice medicine is to the trained physician.

Yes, newspapers are often messy and chaotic places. Sterile environments they are not. But there is a combination of art and science that is practiced inside a good newspaper that requires training, commitment, experience, leadership and adherence to a code of conduct and ethics that is gospel to the journalist.

There was a time when journalism was practiced by ethically challenged and politically motivated hacks, made famous by this oft-misquoted piece of prose:
"The newspaper does everything for us.
It runs the police force and the banks,
commands the militia, controls the legislature,
baptizes the young, marries the foolish,
comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable,
buries the dead and roasts them afterward."
--Peter Finley Dunne, journalist, 1867-1936
It’s likely the only portion of that poem you’ve ever heard or read is the fifth line, which modern journalists still like to quote in all seriousness to describe part of what we see as our mission. We’d be less willing to quote it if we knew its original context, I suspect.

The irony is that the "journalism" produced by those newsrooms was read by far more people than the "cleaner" version we're trying to produce today. Are we being too timid?

Nowadays some folks fear or despise the “MSM” (mainstream media) as monolithic purveyors of political bias, and this has, at least in part, led to the rise of talk shows, blogs and television commentary posing as news. In truth, journalists have never established and aspired to higher standards. What some see as bias is more often something different but no less concerning: incompetence, laziness, poor training, and a dearth of resources – too few people trying to do too much.

One of the fears among people like me who have been part of the journalism vocation for many years is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average information consumer to differentiate between journalism and rubbish. Perhaps this fear is overblown. Is it possible that most people, when it comes to identifying organizations that aspire to produce only journalism that meets the highest standards, will “know it when they see it?”

Instead of causing confusion, the proliferation of bogus “news” sites on the Web should help us in distinguishing between journalism and whatever you want to call the ugliness of most the Internet. Nine years ago, Max Frankel, former editor of the New York Times, had it right:

“The Web has so far … not produced very good reporter robots or electronic editors. Nor has it figured out how to pay the costly humans needed to gather, interpret, write and package information in the coming world.”

Nothing about that has changed.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Readership, advertising and profits

By any measurement, print and online readership of newspapers in general and the Post Register in particular has never been greater.

Unlike most other media, newspaper readership is audited annually under strict standards. Those audits show the Post Register’s total paid print circulation is the same as it was in 2005. Total “paid circulation”, including print and online subscribers, is at an all-time high. But that tells only a portion of the story.

The Post Register owns or contributes to five major web sites: postregister.com, marketplace.com, idahohomefinder.com, kaango.com (our classified web site) and legacy.com (our obituary web site) attract 160,000 visitors and 943,000 page views a month. I’ll repeat here what I wrote in our company newsletter last week:

“Those are very healthy numbers that are up significantly from a year ago. Still, business is not exactly booming. Why? It’s not about readership or page views. It’s about turning readers and web surfers into profit. Quite simply, advertising is down, not readership. The economy is soft, people are holding onto their money and profits are off.

“But the engine of our business – paid readership – is strong as ever. This will provide the foundation for our eventual recovery.”

Like nearly every business here in eastern Idaho, the Post Register has reduced staffing and tightened its belt more than once. A recession requires businesses to make painful decisions and we’ve had to make our share. We’ll continue try to use the right mix of prudence and creativity as things inevitably begin to improve.

But we still believe in a fundamental premise – you are willing to pay a reasonable price for real local journalism, and you know the difference between journalism and the entertainment-tinged stuff that a lot of media outlets are trying to pass for journalism nowadays. The simple business model of the 20th century won’t work in the 21st, but there are successful business models waiting to be found.

There continues an elusive and, so far, only partially successful search for new business models. Revenues are down as the meat and potatoes of our business – retail and classified advertising – suffers through an unprecedented slump. For some of our competitors, this has been too much and they’ve disappeared. For others like us, it’s meant a pretty severe belt-tightening.

We continue to produce a newspaper that has more local news than any other half-dozen sources combined, and we’re doing it with a clean, modern design using state-of-the-art equipment. Prudent decision-making and continuing to put out the world’s best paper for eastern Idaho will see us through.

Manwhile, there remains no evidence, no reason to believe, no trends in the markets, to support the notion that news sites populated with content from citizen journalists and supported solely by already-stressed advertising dollars will provide that long-sought sustainable business model. No, none at all.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Journalism and rock and roll

Thursday morning I arrived at Idaho Falls City Hall for a scheduled meeting with newly re-elected Mayor Jared Furhiman when I ran into a loose gathering of 20 or so young people with painted faces who were protesting the cancellation of a hip-hop concert.

I stopped and talked to some of them for a moment and we exchanged ideas on musical tastes. The music I listened to when I was their age (and, which, I admit, I still listen to) was considered outrageous for its time – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper. To these young folks, those are just groups their parents listen to.

It’s not exactly clear why the concert featuring Insane Clown Posse was canceled, but certainly part of the reason was a visceral uneasiness among some adults in eastern Idaho. To his credit, Mayor Fuhriman met with a representative of the protesters, who came away feeling like she’d had a fair hearing. I called our newsroom to alert them to the protest and went inside to my meeting.

My time with the mayor was brief – I just introduced him to an acquaintance who had a proposal for the city – and I went back outside. There, a Post Register photographer and reporter were covering the event as they do – taking pictures and asking questions. Also present was a young TV journalist, but she was a little more proactive, suggesting to the young people that they should perhaps parade up and down the sidewalk and otherwise provide more provocative video.

In the larger scheme of things, this is a minor offense – in some small way inserting oneself into a news story. It won’t change the world. Of more interest to me was the fact that this young journalist seemed to think that this is how these things are done – do what it takes to get some good stuff to take back to the newsroom.

Once again, this is another example of the evolution of news coverage during the Age of Entertainment. It’s a pretty trivial example at that, but it’s one I observed personally. The fact that little thought was given to whether the journalist should attempt to direct events at the scene indicates that this may very well be how young television journalists are trained. Not to draw too broad a conclusion, but it’s at least concerning that this appears to be accepted practice among some schools of journalism and television newsrooms.

This is not an attempt to place print journalism above our brothers and sisters in other media. But one can’t help but wonder whether there is any debate going on in those newsrooms about how far a reporter should go when covering a story.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Averting our eyes

Put yourself in the place of an American media manager for just a moment.

Pollsters Rasmussen Reports say that 80 percent of Americans believe that the media over-covers sensational but inconsequential stories like the balloon boy fiasco. Only 11 percent disagree with that premise.

So far, so good. But Rasmussen also asked Americans if they had personally followed the balloon boy story. Sixty-eight percent answered “yes.”

So Americans don’t like it when the cable channels and tabloids provide 24/7 coverage of whatever the latest sensation is, but they sure as heck watch the same coverage. So, if you’re running a cable network or, say, a local newspaper, what should you do?

Welcome to the Age of Entertainment. You can understand why someone might observe America’s information consumption habits and conclude that we profess to be appalled that news coverage constantly focuses on the latest train wreck but we can’t, or won’t, avert our eyes.

This dilemma plays itself out every afternoon in the Post Register newsroom when we gather to decide what will go on the next day’s front page. Our local news editors provide a list of the best stories coming from our reporting staff while our wire editors review a list of the best material coming from the Associated Press and other national and world sources. Usually, two or three selections are obvious. Then the fun begins.

Would people prefer to read about the latest debates on health care or a quirky story about something stupid someone did somewhere? Do we put Afghanistan out front? How about the latest on H1N1? Or do we throw out what we call a “reader” story – something that’s a good read but has absolutely no real news value. Here’s what often happens when we do that – we get a handful of complaints from people who wonder why we’re trivializing our front page, but that story is one of the most popular of the day on our web site.

In fact, the celebrity news we put on page two every day very often is among the top-five most frequently read stories on our web site day in and day out.

Serious news consumers think we shouldn’t “pander” to people who want to read unimportant stories. It’s not that simple – we have to walk the line between putting out a product that people will actually pay to read without producing nothing but fluff. This is neither science nor art – we use a combination of the best reader data, our own instincts and experience and, yes, what we have to choose from on any particular day.

Most days I think we get it about right, but there’s always another day coming right at us.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journalism and a helium balloon

Today's breathless television and Internet coverage of a runaway helium balloon while a boy "took a nap" in the attic exposes, yet again, the difference between journalism and pointing a camera at something and calling it news.

Journalism is an ideal – the proposition that there is a vocation consisting of people who sift through information in search of facts, perspective, context and relevance. Too many people are trying “fix” that. No database, computer algorithm, smart phone or HD video camera can replace a trained and conscientious journalist.

The question for journalists and the communities they serve isn’t whether journalism is still relevant, or at least it shouldn’t be. The question for newspapers is how to evolve from a simple one-platform business model – news and advertising printed on newsprint and sold to readers – to a more complex multi-platform business model.

For most newspapers – particularly those like the Post Register that serve smaller, somewhat isolated and self-contained markets – print is still profitable and preferred. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be pursuing ways to make our information and advertising products more compelling and relevant and to offer it in various formats. We should and we are.

While it's essential to update the business, however, it's equally essential to do it without compromising the basic values that have made community journalism a vital part of American life. We provide our definition of journalism on our web site, where we have listed our standards, adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists:

“We believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and a contributor to democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Working at the Post Register means sharing a dedication to ethical behavior and striving to follow this code and the connected standards of practice.”

It’s admittedly highfalutin, but what about that is no longer applicable, just because we can now deliver news and advertising on platforms other than print? The truth is that journalism is becoming the great differentiator between millions of nonsensical or opinion-based “information” sources and the comparative handful that adhere to sound ethical standards and that define news as the who, what when, where, why and how.

This isn’t to say that newspapers in print need to be protected at all costs. No, what needs to be protected at all costs is journalism, which can be provided through any number of platforms. But journalism is neither easy nor cheap, and it requires a commitment that few “content providers” are willing or able to make.

Journalism practiced by human beings isn’t a perfect process, but it’s better than all the rest.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Day two at Googleworld

To retain the sense of spontaneity, this post has not been edited -- it's essentially a stream-of-consciousness report as I wrote it from Building No. 40 at the Googleplex.

I'll be attempting to summarize, more or less in real time, the presentations from Day Two of the Media Technology Summit in Mountain View and Palo Alto. For a summary of yesterday's news, find the two posts below that refer to Google. Also, I'm tweeting over at Twitter -- look for the hashtag #mts.

As a reminder, the Media Technology Summit is an invitation-only (so why am I here?) conference organized by UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and hosted by our good friends at Google.

Personally, my first takeaway today is the potential of coveritlive as a real-time blog site to cover meetings and other events. An interesting concept (particularly if it's available only to subscribers).

Meanwhile, the Yahoo! presentation is interesting, but she's really talking about global numbers and issues. She wants to convince us that the issues for global and local markets face the same concerns, but I'm not there.

Sean Finnigan, who runs a global ad agency, says we should stop talking about click-through rates -- they are irrelevant. Hard to disagree there. When something approaches zero, it becomes irrelevant.

Here's an interesting perspective on how some new media folks see the world, in a sort of New Yorker's view of the world sort of way. Hilary Schneider, executive vice president of Yahoo!, says they want people to make Yahoo! the "centerpiece of their world."

Finally, we get to the session on business models, moderated by Spencer Ante of Business Week. Right off, he says that "legacy" publishers need to streamline their cost structures.

Marchall Van Alstyne, professor of economics at Boston University, delivers a presentation that everyone in the room seems to completely understand. Everyone, that is, except for me. I haven't a clue what he said. Give him a call if you're curious.

We move smoothly to Jeffrey Ulin, Haas School of Business, who argues that we don't, in fact, have a Long Tail phenomenon unfolding, but a "Wide Tail" phenomenon. I'm glad we got that cleared up.

OK, OK. I am not a smart man, but I know what a business model is. I've not heard a business model yet this morning. Fred Vogelstein of Wired Magazine is going to give it a shot. His topic is Twitter, which he says is a "revolutionary new platform" but not a new business. He thinks Facebook is more likely to be financially successful. Twitter, he says, is a platform; Facebook is a business model.

Here's something newspapers might be able to emulate -- self-serve advertising. Can we do that? Worth looking into. We're doing it in classifieds, of course, but how about display ads online and in print? Why not?

Final panelist on business models is Ellen Weiss, a name we all know from NPR. She has no PowerPoint. G' bless 'er. The NPR non-profit model has taken 35 years to build up. Essentially, she's saying it's not as easy at is looks. Contributors are "members", not just contributors of cash. "It's an inconceivable degree of loyalty."

NPR is facing a huge challenge as it decides whether to blow up its longstanding partnership with local stations by providing its content directly via download, live-streaming, iPhone apps, etc. She says it's easier to build a non-profit from the ground up than to try to convert a for-profit.

We now transition to the final panel, "Where Will News Come from in the Interactive Era?" Chi-Town Daily News founder Geoff Dougherty tells the story of how he drove his non-profit online daily newspaper "off the cliff." Now he knows how terribly difficult it is to make a non-profit work.

Lewis Dvorkin, founder and CEO of True/Slant. He's explaining what it is (uses entirely free-lance material). Hasn't talked business model yet. OK, well, his business model is: 1. Raise start-up capital. 2. Create the site and attract an audience. 3. Figure out the revenue stream. Sounds a little familiar. He raised $3 million and the burn rate will require new funding within a year. Five employees, everyone else is freelance.

Kevin Weston, New American Media, Director of Youth and New-Media projects. Gets grants and such. It's a great project that really doesn't present a lot of relevance to our situation. Spoke too soon -- he talks about creating a "square side" of the operation and the "cool side." Doesn't take much imagination to figure out what that means. I've been toying with that idea for years and done nothing.

Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the Portland Oregonian, brings us greetings from the "square side." Essentially, he says to stick to our values, do the hard work, get through the tough times and keep the faith. Amen.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inside the Google moat

Published in the Post Register Oct. 4, 2009.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – There was a gathering last week of a bunch of old-media troglodytes within the moats of the new media’s top kingdom – Google.

We filled an auditorium-style conference room in Building No. 40 of the “Googleplex”, a campus one speaker called “shiny.” We listened to folks from, yes, Google, but mostly elsewhere, including Microsoft, Salon, CNN, Yahoo and various academic circles.

Here’s one of the takeaways from the meetings: The sheer volume of information coming at us will continue to grow astronomically, but there are two fundamental challenges that must be met soon:

First, information consumers need more help managing what they receive.

Second, providers of information need to find a sustainable business model.

It should come as no surprise, but these are the big topics inside places like Google and Microsoft and the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism. The problem for news consumers isn’t access to information – it’s managing that information. Companies are feverishly working on building tools to help you do this.

The process of sifting through the information overload, vetting it for accuracy, putting it into perspective and disseminating it in a usable format already has a name, of course: journalism. What so many in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere are trying to do is create algorithms and computer code to replace the vital function already served, admittedly imperfectly, by human beings. But can we really expect to automate this process?

No, I think not.

As Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey wrote in his coverage of the conference:
“ … one Google executive, Bradley Horowitz, also acknowledged that consumers might be drowning in media, e-mail and the 'social stream.'

“So maybe, even in the age of Google, consumers are looking for someone to help cut through all the clutter to get at the important facts.

“Sounds to me like they're looking for a journalist.”
One speaker at the summit was Tara Hunt, a young woman who wrote a book called “The Whuffie Factor” (don’t ask), which is about social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Her basic point was, and I quote from her slide show: “If you can succeed in making your readers feel smarter, more in control, sexier, excited and more interesting themselves, then you will win.”

I am trying to figure out how to work that into a new marketing slogan for the Post Register.

One speaker defined news as “what happened.” This is a frightfully simplistic view that ignores the who, when, where, why and how.

The best line of the conference came from Blair Westlake, a vice president at Microsoft: “People associate the Internet with free like they associate deep fried with fatty." And therein lies the rub.

Live blogging today from the Googleplex

To retain the sense of spontaneity, this post has not been edited -- it's essentially a stream-of-consciousness report as I wrote it from Building No. 40 at the Googleplex.

I'm spending the day in Building No. 40 at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, attending the Media Technology Summit organized by UC-Berkeley. I'll be updating this blog through the day and provide a more coherent report in a few days.

Remember, Google didn't exist 11 years ago. It now owns a campus of 40+ buildings. We've already run into a bit of the Google paranoia. One of our attendees was snooping around the hall, opening and doors and such. Sure enough, security appeared from nowhere with, "May we help you?" If I don't come out of here (or if I have a far-away look in my eyes when I do), contact my wife and my attorney, not necessarily in that order.

For Twitterers out there, the hashtag for the conference is #mts, which will allow you to follow all the Tweets live during the conference -- looks like there may a dozen people tweeting using that hashtag.

The first speaker, John Temple, former editor and publisher of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, is telling the poignant story of the newspaper's death. So far, he's blaming on the newspaper's delay in embracing the Internet. Oddly, he's not talking about the fact that, as an eventual JOA market, Denver was clearly not going to support two major newspapers. The war with the Post resulted in slashed ad and circulation rates, which likely would have killed one of the papers even absent the Internet. It is clear to me, and several others with whom I spoke at lunch, that there were so many more factors than the emergence of the Internet that ultimately led to the Rocky's demise. It would be interesting to hear the perspective of Mark Contreras from E.W. Scripps, who is attending the conference.

It's an interesting, sad story, but Temple's conclusions strike me as all-too-familiar and easy -- the Rocky was to slow to adapt to the Internet, but there was precious little offered by way of real alternatives.

And now, we're off on gee-whiz technology that I'm not going to write about. If you're interested, go to Twitter and search the hashtag #mts.

It's mid-morning and we're hearing from Thomas Tague, vice president of Thomson-Reuters,talking about his project, Open Calais. It's essentially a way to automate the process of tagging stories (way, way over-simplified). What I find interesting is that he's operating under the assumption that, once a story is on the Internet, it's fair game to anyone to take it, post it, and tag it. Copyrights are so 20th century. That aside, this is a web-based product built by and for news organizations -- probably worth a look. Google the name and check out the web site.

Open Calais is free and seems to have some great potential in archiving, investigative journalism and indexing, at the very least. Best presentation of the morning session. Time for a break.

The late morning session features executives from Google, Microsoft and Piper Jaffray, blue-skying about the future of consumer-driven online technology. The upshot of this session is that the availability of content will continue to expand apace, but the challenge to the consumer is to manage it and the challenge to providers is the business model. Blair Westlake of Microsoft is particularly certain that journalism will survive and thrive and that people will be willing to pay for it in due time. He also came up with the best line of the morning: "People associate the Internet with free like they associate deep fried with fatty." Personally, I've always associated deep-fried with delicious.

Lunch was in the lovely Google courtyard, where we joined the employees under blue skies in 75-degree temperatures. I am disappointed to report, however, that there was no live music.

We're now learning about "The Whuffie Factor," and I suggest that if you really want to know what that means, try, um, Google. Our speaker, Tara Hunt, vaguely reminds me of Meghan McCain. Once again, we are being talked down to by a young person who finds journalism uncool and who assumes that we haven't a clue about that thing with the all the tubes, the "Internets". My favorite quote of hers, taken directly from her PPT: “If you can succeed in making your readers feel smarter, more in control, sexier, excited and more interesting themselves, then you will win.” As I've written elsewhere, I'm trying to figure out how to work that into a slogan for my newspaper.

And now we turn to Mikolaj Piskorski, a Harvard professor, who speaks remarkably quickly and well for a man who speaks English as a second language. He has a whole bunch of data about social networks and is very entertaining, but I'm not sure, at least yet, what to do with the data.

OK, here's something: Integrate your advertising with the content. Well, duh, but he makes the point in a way even I can understand. In other words, if your content is likely to attract women, don't try to sell a power saw on the page. Paired with the companion presentation by Bill Heil, it was really, really interesting but not necessarily helpful to a newspaper publisher in Idaho. If you want all of the research, Google Piskorski and Heil at Harvard Business School -- it'll be coming out next month.

In the Q&A the question is how to use social networking in our context, as journalists. The answer is, I think, that's not what these things were built for. Also, someone asks why Twitter can be valued at $1 billion. Harvard Prof. Piskorski simply says that it'll be hard for Twitter to "capture that value."

Next we have Krishna Bharat, principal scientist and founder of Google News. The summary of his short presentation: We want to distribute the news you generate and share with you a portion of the revenue we generate by doing so. Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.

I don't mean to sound snarky, but here's more snark: Lila King, a senior producer at CNN responsible for CNN's iReport, believes that the truth can be found by stitching together small pieces of a story from citizen journalists. You decide.

Daniel X. O'Neil, co-founder of EveryBlock.com. He seems a little angry and arrogant, in a charming kind of way. He has an interesting web site (just go look at it), but some simplistic ideas about what news is. "News," he says," is what happened." Who, what, when, where, why, and how is so yesterday.

Up next is Richard Gingras, CEO of Salon Media. He's very smart and straightforward, but, honestly, doesn't have a lot for me. It would be wrong to summarize his comments like this: Aw, don't worry about making money -- I gotta sugar-daddy.

Finally, the last speaker of the day before cocktails, dinner and a "conversation with Peter Chernin, former COO of News Corp." -- John Thornton, chairman of a new venture, The Texas Tribune. His basic premise: Capital "J" journalism -- the "iron core" -- has never been profitable, a fact that has been exposed by the "unbundling" of news by the Internet. He's entertaining and convincing but doesn't really have much data to back him up.

I suppose the issue for me is that the difference between a non-profit and a for-profit operation, aside from paying some taxes, isn't all that much money.

Late-night update: At dinner, in an off-the record "conversation" and brief Q&A, former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin evaded questions but left the indelible impression that he's very smart. He also talks very fast, but I think English is his primary language.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thanks, but no thanks, Sen. Kerry

Published May 7, 2009 in the Post Register.

A grim-faced Sen. John Kerry, as a prelude to hearings this week on the future of newspapers, suggested that newspapers are "an endangered species" and worried aloud that "the emerging news media" might be "more fragmented by interests and political partisanship."

He then chaired hearings featuring geniuses such as Arianna Huffington (whose online Huffington Post survives thanks to her personal financial largesse) to executives from Google, who profess that they only want to help.

The last thing the newspaper business needs is help from the government. Not only would government intervention eventually make things worse, but it would inevitably come with unacceptable strings attached. Newspapers are supposed to be the watchdogs of government, not a line item in its budget.

One of the things that has always bothered me about the BBC, which is considered the beacon of journalism in some circles, is that it is able to afford all those international bureaus and one of the world's most complete and sophisticated news Web sites because everyone in the United Kingdom must pay an annual fee of more than $200 per television set, all of which goes to fund "the Beeb." That generates about $7.5 billion a year (that's with a "b").

Just imagine if such a thing were attempted in the U.S. Idahoans are ostensibly outraged at the thought of increasing the gas tax by 2 cents a gallon. How would they feel about a $200 annual fee just to own a TV set?

To be fair, no one's proposing such a thing, but just the holding of hearings on the "future of newspapers" is enough to make my skin crawl.

First, as I've written on this page before, newspapers don't need a bailout or even a helping hand. The vast majority of community newspapers (those of fewer than 100,000 circulation) in the U.S. are comfortably profitable, even in this deepest of recessions.

Second, the last time the government stepped into our business was in 1970 with the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allowed competing newspapers in cities such as Seattle, Denver, Detroit, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and elsewhere to combine business operations while operating ostensibly competing newsrooms. In many of those cities, that move simply prolonged the inevitable closure of the weaker newspapers such as we've seen lately in Denver and Seattle.

Sen. Kerry, thanks, but no thanks. Newspapers are vital to the free flow of information, but we're not "too big to fail." We're figuring out how to adapt our business model in changing times, and we don't need the government's help to do it. The best things you can do for us is protect press freedoms and leave us alone.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Newspaper troglodytes

For some inexplicable (to me) reason, the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association invited J.D. Lasica to address us at this year's conference.

Lasica is clearly a bright man who spends a good share of his time typing away at his laptop and smartphone. I know this because after his session he sat 10 feet away from me, tapping away. He knows a lot about social networking and hashtags. He clearly subscribes to the theory that "if you can, you should."

I came away from his presentation feeling patronized, a sense that was compounded when I read some of his Twitter posts from the conference. He noted that he was the only one in the room using a laptop, clearly implying that anyone who didn't have his or her head buried in a notebook computer during a conference presentation is a troglodyte.

Of course, the real truth is that most of the people in the room were thumbing away on more discrete iPhones and BlackBerries, because laptops are distracting and, well, rude. It wasn't because, as he seemed to imply, that newspaper ad directors and publishers didn't receive word that laptops had been invented and actually could connect to the Internet via wireless network. We actually know that.

Lasica asked a series of questions about whether we'd heard about this web site or that one, and few hands went up. At least in my case, I didn't raise my hand because I felt that Lasica was being patronizing and wasn't interested in feedback, not because BugMeNot was new to me. BugMeNot is yesterday's news -- I've used it in old articles as an argument against site registration.

No, the truth is, from my perspective, that many of us found Lasica's presentation to be condescending and, in some ways, dangerous. For example, he made light of those old "journalism conventions," apparently like vetting the accuracy of information, using multiple sources, doing research and attempting to take an objective approach to covering the news. He clearly thinks it's ancient thinking to not encourage reporters to develop blogs and Twitter accounts to talk one-on-one to readers.

How old-fashioned it must sound to Lasica for journalists to hold to the idea that we don't want reporters discussing their personal biases and perspectives, one of those "journalism conventions" he so easily dismisses.

No, Mr. Lasica, the lack of raised hands and laptops at your presentation had nothing to do with your being in a room full of dummies. We just didn't want to play along with the game in which you've already declared winners and losers, and we don't need to be chained to our laptops to be aware of evolving technology.

Social networking, citizen involvement in news-gathering, facilitating the community dialog, pulling back the curtain on how the newspaper is created -- these are all good things in appropriate doses and as part of a strategy that respects and supports valid "journalism conventions" instead of supplanting them.

And, yes, newspaper publishers follow the trends in technology, but we try to understand how best to apply them sensibly and, sorry -- profitably -- in a sustainable business model. Folks like Lasica appear not to be concerned about such trivia.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Roger's rules of order on the Internet

These five basic standards of conduct may not guarantee financial success but will help avoid financial disaster and make the Internet a tool in our hands instead of our competitors'.

1. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I stole this from Zella Evans, the Post Register’s former Internet manager, and she had stolen it from a thousand others before her, going back at least to the Roman emperor Hadrian (who built his famous wall in northern Britain in a certain place instead of another because he decided to “exercise restraint” and go no farther in his conquests).

Newspapers began shoveling their content online, and then began creating content unique to the Web – all at no charge to the consumer – mostly because they could. Any thought to imagining the ultimate business model was shouted down by the majority of newspaper types who were convinced that charging for content online was old school, a remnant of dinosaur thinking that exposed the proponent as an unimaginative, stuck-in-the-(pick your pre-90s decade), unsophisticated troglodyte who would soon give way to the new generation of tech-savvy wunderkinds who didn’t need to have a business plan. This, I am shocked to report, was wrong. Shocked, I say.

2. Produce content with value (what we used to call “news”) and quantify that value by asking a fair price for it.

Some newspaper executives have decided to ask consumers if they would be willing to pay for news online, and they are being told “no.” If I walked into a shoe store and was asked if I’d prefer to pay for my shoes or get them free, I’d look for the “Punk’d” cameras. I’d also assume that any shoes being provided for free are pretty lousy shoes.

3. Use sound principles of journalism as your Great Differentiator. Yes, anybody can start a blog. (Heck, I’ve got five myself.) But bloggers aren’t trying to run a business that feeds hundreds of employees and their families, is a good corporate citizen, and makes the place they live better. Journalism matters, and it will set us apart from the rest of the Internet world.

In due time, even young information consumers will grow tired of reading blather, innuendo, vitriol, misinformation and speculation disguising itself as news. Until they do, adhering to journalistic principles will serve us well among those who understand their importance.

4. Incessantly educate anyone who will pay attention, even for a moment, about the difference between what we do and the other 99.9 percent of Internet “content” providers. Talk to the Rotary Club. Start a blog. Write a column in your paper. Spam other journalists. Write for E&P, AJR, CJR – heck, write for Ladies Home Journal if they’ll let you. Say it like you mean it, and say it over and over and over again. We are journalists. That’s a good thing that hasn’t gone out of fashion.

5. Experiment with business models. The Internet has changed everything. Classified as a cash cow is gone forever. Some young people will never adopt the newspaper habit. While the fundamentals of how we practice journalism shouldn’t change, the ways we disseminate it have changed forever. We must embrace that and continue searching for sustainable business models. They will emerge, if not now, then eventually. Meanwhile, we need to reshape our existing business model to allow us to bridge the gap between the old, print-only days and the current and future multiple-platform days. But let’s start by reasserting the value of our news (and by making damn sure that we’re actually producing something of value -- unique and compelling local news).

Then, let’s try stuff that has any hope of providing us with sustainable profits, even if those profits are lower than what they used to be. Margins in the 25, 30, 35 or 40 percent range were obscene, anyway, and were probably earned because we weren’t investing adequately in our future. As we experiment, let’s get into the habit of quickly discarding things that don’t work and giving promising projects the adequate time and resources to succeed. And, let’s not fool ourselves into believing that some models are working when they’re not by arbitrarily and artificially allocating revenue to them that they didn’t earn. (You know what I’m talking about.)

NOTE: I paid a licensing fee for the rights to use the cartoons on this blog entry.

Friday, August 7, 2009

It wasn't too late to save newspapers in 2002 (now, it's too late for some)


Originally published in the April, 2002 issue of Presstime magazine (this is slightly expanded to its pre-edited version).

Newspapers are engaged in the single largest act of self-destruction in the storied history of the medium.

Unlike Ted Turner, whose infamous and obviously premature prediction of the death of our industry has become a source of grim satisfaction to newspaper publishers everywhere, I’m confident newspapers will be around for my great grandchildren to read. What’s at risk is the strength and reach of the industry that produces them.

Since the early 1990s, by misreading the impact of the Internet, by accepting as fact myths since debunked, newspapers have been engaged in devaluing their most valuable asset – local news content – with potentially cataclysmic results. The genie is well out of bottle, but it’s not too late to lasso it back home. To do it will take courage and unblinking commitment to a single, simple principle – value.

I’m not talking here about ethical values, human values or even journalistic values. I’m talking about the value of something as determined by the price consumers pay for it, a principle older than Adam Smith.

Many readers are already jumping ahead of me – consumers simply will not pay for content online, thereby placing its direct value (not subsidized by advertising) at zero, you are thinking. You’ll use research studies, actual experience or water cooler conversations to bolster this argument. My response is pretty simple – the experiment is flawed because the laboratory has been contaminated. The main contaminant is a decade-long online free-for-all based on the most damaging myth to emerge in the digital era – that the Internet changes everything. It doesn’t.
"…The ‘new economy’ appears less like a new economy than like an old economy that has access to a new technology,” writes Michael Porter for the Harvard Business Review. “Even the phrases ‘new economy’ and ‘old economy’ are rapidly losing their relevance, if they ever had any. The next stage in the Internet’s revolution will involve a shift in thinking from e-business to business, from e-strategy to strategy. Only by integrating the Internet into overall strategy will this powerful new technology become an equally powerful force for competitive advantage.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology once actually predicted that the Internet would essentially dissolve international boundaries and bring about “computer-aided peace.” How naïve that sounds post September 11.

Whatever permanent change the Internet brings to our world, it will be evolutionary, not sudden. Here’s why, as argued by W. Brian Arthur in the March 2002 issue of Business 2.0 magazine:
“As technologist John Seely Brown points out, something subtle happens to a technology when it achieves amenity: It disappears. We become absorbed into its world, and its bones don't stick out anymore. Thus, if we are driving a car at night, we are absorbed into car-world – we are aware we are driving, aware of the passing trees and fences, but not aware of the car as a technology. The car disappears.

"By this standard the Internet is somewhere around the get-out-and-get-under days of the Model T Ford. To access my bank account, I have to fire up my computer, and wait. Then dial in by modem, and wait. Then get a browser going, and wait. Then enter account numbers and passwords, and wait. All the time there exists a barely noticeable anxiousness that the process may hang up at any moment. The Web's interface remains comfortable to use: ill-fitted, unreliable, frustrating, slow, and lacking content when we get there. It has not disappeared, nor has it achieved amenity. It will take time for amenity technologies to become available and used. It took automobiles from about 1890 to the 1940s – half a century of development -- to reach amenity. Needed were paved roads, reliable brakes, ignition systems, safe tires, and a thousand other things.

“The information revolution is not radically different from previous revolutions. The Internet has had its boom and crash, and there is no reason to suppose that history will be negated: Full use of the technology will arrive eventually. It always has. But this will require that the technology become workable for the user, and that businesses re-architect themselves to make use of it. This will happen gradually during the next 10 to 20 years as the missing components of the technology's use structure are put in place. In this buildout, the technologies that will matter most, that will determine the pace, are the ones I am calling arrangements-of-use.

"If there is one difference with this revolution, however, it is that it won't end when we have blanketed the country with optical cable or have teraflop processors. Information technology morphs every 10 years or so, so that what we thought defined the information revolution – batch processing, desktop computing, Web-based interconnection – is continually superceded by something new. What lies ahead can never be fully foreseen. This means that we can expect more innovation in this buildout phase than with previous revolutions. But during the next few years, at least, what will drive the buildout is something at once silent and unremarkable: the quiet, inexorable interconnection of business and the slow appearance of Web-based services that digitization provides.”
When newspapers rushed to push their content online for free – out of fear, excitement, greed, whatever – they set an unreasonable expectation that high-quality content can be made available for free in perpetuity, a phenomenon that former New York Times Editor Max Frankel dubbed “Nirvana News.” What we’re either learning now or will learn eventually is that somebody’s got to pay for it.

Frankel put it this way: “The oft-heard promise of ‘free news’ is an oxymoron. Americans will get the journalism they pay for.”

There was a time, before the bursting of the dot-com balloon and at a time when venture capitalists were throwing money at digital startups with little concern for an odd little thing called “profit,” when the Internet was going to revolutionize every phase of our lives. At the same time, the newspaper industry became convinced – or it just plain panicked – that the Internet would certainly forever change our industry, and sooner, not later. While I agree that the Internet will, indeed, forever change newspapering, my argument is that it’ll be an evolutionary process over which we will have far more control than we once imagined.

Newspapers began a search for business models supported by ad revenue created by “eyeballs” attracted to their web sites. How to attract those eyeballs? With the content that people had been gladly paying for on our now shamefully old-fashioned printed newspapers, of course.

And so began the disastrous devaluation of the content of local newspapers. We’ve tried other models, from “push” technology to local guides to archive searches. These all may eventually become viable components in an Internet business model. But any model whose foundation is giving away our valuable content is fatally flawed.

During this time, newspapers have spent hundreds of millions – perhaps $1 billion or more – in various experiments. This isn’t all bad for an industry notoriously reluctant to invest in R & D. But it seems that we’re not learning much from this massive infusion of cash.

We must start by destroying the first two myths of digital newspapering:

Myth #1: Only large newspapers with large reporting staffs and a national reputation can create content unique enough to sell online.

I argue that the very opposite is true. The more local your newspaper, the more unique your content for your intended audience and the more likely it is to have a quantifiable value (in dollars and cents) to that audience. My newspaper, the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has the world’s most unique content, if you’re looking for news about eastern Idaho. From police logs to obituaries to investigative journalism to sports scores to who’s playing in what pub to how to tie a fly to snap up cutthroat trout to opinions on local issues, no other news organization in the world can compete with us when it comes to serving our intended audience. Our newsroom is larger than the local TV newsrooms combined. We have the second largest news staff in the state of Idaho. While that means nothing to someone in New York or Florida or California, it means everything to someone wanting news about eastern Idaho. If you don’t want news about eastern Idaho, well, I don’t really care about you as a potential reader, do I?

(Parenthetically, why is it that we can support such a large news staff? Because we enjoy the dual revenue streams of advertising and subscriptions. This is what sets us apart from broadcast news and printed shoppers, and it’s vital that we not lose that distinction in the digital environment.)

My newspaper is hardly unique. Nearly every daily newspaper in North America outside of a metro market can make the same claim. So why are you giving that unique local content away on the Internet when you expect people to pay for it after you print it on dead trees with ink that rubs off on the reader’s hands?

Metros are another story – their competitive environment is dramatically different from those of small and mid-sized dailies, and they face different challenges. For many metros, a paid model probably won’t work, at least today.

Myth #2: The Internet environment is unique. Internet users simply won’t pay for content.

Of course they won’t if they don’t have to. Our industry’s research data on paying for online content will remain flawed until we get serious about ending this devaluation plague by stopping the give-away. We’ve trained Internet users to believe that the Internet is supposed to be free. Imagine that.

Some newspapers have dipped their toes in the water and immediately retreated when visits to their sites plummeted after requiring a fee for access, or even upon insisting on registration. They fear losing ad revenue based on “hits.” It’s the wrong model – abandon it now. Do we have the patience to blend the Internet into our industry over the long term, or must we demand some kind of quantifiable result now? If it’s the latter, the war may be lost.

The effect of scarcity on value is another misunderstood issue in developing an Internet strategy. Scarcity increases the value of anything. Disney understands this – every so often it pulls off the shelves one its classics (Cinderella, most recently). Do they want to stop making money on Cinderella? No, Disney recognizes that it’s sometimes important to forego short-term profits to protect long-term profits by managing the value of its “content”, if you will. The value of scarcity applies to numbered art prints, even Pez containers, for crying out loud.

You argue that newspaper content can’t be compared to such things. Why not? Do you or do you not produce content that can be found nowhere else? If you don’t, I agree – you’re in real trouble. If you do, or if you don’t but you can, you need to establish a value and stick with it, regardless of how you eventually get your content to the consumer. When you put it on your web site for all the world to see for free, you’ve eliminated scarcity as a value driver.

The local newspaper industry stands alone as the mass medium that daily purveys local news and information of such a quality that it commands a price. We are on the verge of giving away the business value of that news. Unless we stop soon, the genie will be so far gone from the bottle that there will be no getting it back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The inequality of information

Among the news in journalism circles last week was that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation will begin charging a fee for access to all its web sites in 2010.

Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal has been charging for access for as long as the Post Register has – about 10 years. Nearly all of its other sites – from Fox News to News of the World – have been free.

Murdoch makes a number of accurate and important observations about the reason for charging an online fee, albeit about 10 years late. Among other things, he said:
"Quality journalism is not cheap. The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free.”
Check.
He said that there could be a need for furious litigation to prevent stories and photographs being copied elsewhere: "We'll be asserting our copyright at every point."
Check.
"We're certainly satisfied that we can produce significant revenues from the sale of digital delivery of newspaper content."
Check.

The issue for Murdoch and anyone else aspiring to charge for online content is to create something of value. In the news business, that means producing journalism of credibility and substance.

Good journalism has value. That value can be converted into revenue, because people will pay a reasonable fee for a service or product they value. If people won’t pay for good journalism, it’s either because they’ve been led to believe that a quality product can be free forever (the falsity of which is becoming increasingly clear), or they believe that enough revenue can be generated indirectly through advertising to support high-quality online journalism (it can’t, at least so far).

If you want a pizza, you’ll happily drop $15 or so to buy it. If you need gas, you’ll pay the $3 a gallon to get it (though perhaps not happily). Information works the same way. It takes a well-trained, well-managed and well-focused group of journalists to produce a quality news product. If the product is any good, it’s worth a fair price. If it’s lousy, it should be free. Quality news for free is a myth, and after a long run that fairy tale is starting to be put to rest.

So, congratulations to Rupert Murdoch for seeing the light. He’s just the latest of many in the news business to recognize that there is no free lunch, that good journalism must – and, I’m confident, will – be supported by people who can differentiate between just another blog and information that has been vetted through sound journalistic principles.

Some will scoff at the notion that journalism still matters, if it ever did. But most of us still understand that not all information is created equal.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Internet, underpants, and everything

NOTE: This was originally written in 2005. I've updated it regularly with new thoughts, data, and quotations. The gist of the column remains unchanged. Should it eventually require a complete rewrite I'll re-post it as a new piece. Latest update: March, 2010.

The Internet is different, don't you see;
It's the place where information wants to be free!
-- Original rhyming couplet by Roger Plothow
A warped look at where newspapers and the Internet stand more than a decade after we met, staring awkwardly across the dance floor.

What the geniuses are saying
“At established media companies, the web sucks up a lot of staff, management interest and money with little to show for it. Skyrocketing eyeball numbers are great, but when there is no meaningful revenue attached to it, it's a parasite. As long as aggregators can take all that work for free and sell search ads - the only type that are working - the environment will not improve. Readers won't pay and advertisers won't pay. Hardly a business model.” -- Anonymous comment on the New York Observer web site

“You’re never going to get the traffic that really matters. So it’s a traffic thing, but also, how do you monetize the traffic that you have? It’s impossible.” --Publisher with Condé Nast

Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, says Barry Diller, the media and technology executive whose company runs the Ask.com search engine and the Match.com dating service. It’s “mythology” to view the Internet as a system of free communications. "It is not free, and it is not going to be," he said.

“Traffic growth simply doesn't matter. Period. What matters is revenue.” --Andrew Schmitt, Nyquist Capital
The answers remain elusive
There's a classic South Park episode starring the Underpants Gnomes in which the gnomes steal underpants and collect them in huge quantities, under the assumption that having a large quantity of anything somehow magically results in profits. This is how newspapers have treated the notion of web traffic. (Interestingly, some folks now think Twitter is following the same business model.)

There is no indication that the elusive sustainable online business model for newspapers of our size is ready to show itself. Newspapers and other local web sites are using no fewer than a dozen advertising alternatives, from horizontal and vertical banner ads to paid search contextual advertising to interstitial and video ads. Those same web sites are using nearly as many different ways to charge for advertising – pay-per-click, flat fees, etc.

Most ad managers for newspapers that have free access sites acknowledge that revenue growth either slowed or stopped altogether. In most cases, this includes an allocation of print classified revenue, and it doesn’t take into account (because it can’t be calculated) whether the newspaper has lost both circulation and print ad revenue by putting its news content online for free.

Many also have signed agreements with regional or national companies to vertically integrate their online advertising and/or news content. This is making big money for the aggregators (Google, Yahoo, Monster, etc.) but precious little for individual small newspapers. It makes a little more sense for larger newspaper companies that can aggregate the revenue. Only recently have the producers of this news -- the Associated Press, Rupert Murdoch, and others -- begun questioning whether Google is a good partner.

The Internet currently accounts for about 8 to 10 percent of total global advertising spending, or about $40 billion out of $450 billion. That percentage is growing every year, of course, but it remains a small fraction of the total and the growth rate is shrinking (theses numbers are aggregates of various studies). It’s likely that the percentage is smaller – much smaller – in isolated markets like ours where opportunities for aggregating revenue for contextual searches and banner ads on global sites are nearly non-existent.

Where we are

For starters, we’ve not been static and our web site isn’t inconsequential. We get 3,100 unique user sessions a weekday on postregister.com, which help account for more than 900,000 page views per month, when all of our various sites are combined (including classified, obituaries, real estate and Marketplace).

Before going on, allow me to note -- traffic numbers don't mean very much. They're notoriously unreliable and they don't translate directly into advertising dollars, particularly in small markets. In her blog "Daily Patricia," Patricia Handschiegel draws a smart distinction between traffic and audience:
"What a lot of companies are secretly finding out is that traffic does not mean there is an audience, and that at the end of the day, the audience is where the value is. Boasting giant page views and unique visitors means very little when those you are driving to the site are not sticking around, using it or returning."
Our continuing strategy, dating back to 1999, is predicated on the premise that by giving away their local news content online, newspapers are sacrificing the engine – paid circulation – that drives sustainable profitability. Only time will tell if that’s a sound position. If it’s not, the implication is that paid circulation ultimately will become a fond memory, no longer a component of the newspaper business model. Our secondary premise is that it’s much easier for us to go from paid to free than the other direction. If the time comes that free access is the clear business model, we can make the switch literally in 24 hours.

We are not entirely alone in our strategy. Only 50 or so American dailies use a pay wall today, but more than half our considering that strategy, many saying they will go to some sort of paid subscription within six months. More important, consumers are starting to warm to the idea of paying a reasonable fee for access to information they consider both unique and important, particularly from newspapers, according to fresh research by Boston Consulting Group.

Here's a particularly intriguing story out of Newport, Rhode Island, from Newsweek:
Spooky things began to happen this summer in the yachting mecca of Newport, R.I., shortly after the Newport Daily News hurled caution to the wind and began charging a $345 subscription fee for its online news—$200 more than for the print edition.

First, the phones stopped ringing in the paper's circulation department. Fewer subscribers were canceling home delivery of the paper, something they had been doing in droves when they knew they could get the same product for free at NewportDailyNews.com. "Those calls have stopped," William F. Lucey III, assistant publisher and general manager, told NEWSWEEK.

But something even stranger happened: after the Web site put up a pay wall for nearly all its content, readers would brave driving rainstorms to go out and buy the newspaper. Since then, newsstand sales of the Newport Daily News have jumped by 200 copies a day. For a paper with a daily circulation of 13,000, that's a significant gain, especially since, in an era in which most papers are seeing steep declines in readership, even holding steady is a success; an increase is a triumph. "The fact that weather hasn't been fantastic makes me believe that the pay wall has had an effect," Lucey says. "We think that more people are buying the paper now that they can't get it for free online."
In Western Europe 80 percent of newspapers charge for online access one way or another, and that was in late 2007 before the more recent trend toward pay walls picked up steam. This comes from a paper written by Valerie-Anne Bleyen and Leo Van Hove at Free University of Brussells (irony noted). They wrote:
"When analysing the strategies of the 82 Western European newspapers in our dataset, we find — on a first level — that 19.5 percent of the sites are completely free, while 80.5 percent of the newspapers try to monetise (part of) their online content in direct ways. Within this second category, 28.8 percent offer only a charged–for PDF version, while 71.2 percent try to generate revenue sources in other ways (too)."
And Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, concludes a great piece in a May, 2007 column for the Wall Street Journal with this summation:
“It is time for newspapers to reconsider the ultimate costs and consequences of free news.” He begins his piece by observing what we’ve been saying since 1999: “One has to wonder how many of the newspaper industry's current problems are self-inflicted. Take free news. News has become ubiquitous, free, and as a result, a commodity. Anytime you are trying to sell something that becomes a commodity, you have lost much of the value in providing that product or service.”
(Perhaps not coincidentally, Hussman runs a family-owned newspaper that defeated Gannett in a head-to-head battle for Little Rock.)

And, of course, back to my new favorite blogger, Daily Patricia, who continues to make too much sense to attract a lot of attention:
"Just because so many in business have been foolish enough to give away product that costs money to make does not mean that the monetization models that have existed, thrived and survived on platforms for decades are suddenly broken. There’s plenty of proof of this."

One need only look at Google News to understand the flip-side of this problem for us. Because so many newspapers provide their online news product for free, Google News is able to aggregate it, generate huge traffic numbers and turn contextual searches in to dollars. Meanwhile, it doesn’t generate a single piece of unique content. We’ve done all the work.

This notion seems to just now be dawning on our business’ top executives, despite the fact that not feeding the aggregators has been one of our stated reasons for having a pay wall since 2001. The bandwagon is getting a little crowded.

Advertising that has driven newspapers, radio and television for decades doesn’t seem to work online – Internet users resent the interruption far more than do newspaper readers. In fact, newspaper research still indicates that readers consider advertising content of equal value to the news – there is no other medium that can make that claim. There’s no newspaper equivalent of the DVR, but there is an online equivalent (my computer is like most – it has a program that blocks pop-up ads). So, while billions of dollars are being spent globally on Internet advertising, only the large aggregators are making real money. Local web sites have not settled on a workable advertising model.

Newspaper advertising is different than that for other media. The aforementioned Hussman agrees: “It turns out that a Web site is a very different medium from a newspaper. While consumers often find pop-up ads a distraction and banner ads as more clutter, readers often seek out the advertising in newspapers.”

For independent newspaper companies like ours in isolated but healthy markets, the Internet’s impact will evolve over a generation or more. In some ways this is trickier than dealing with a sudden shift – we must manage the process of change, gaining expertise in new media without reducing our expertise in print (the “fiber media”), particularly since print will likely provide the majority of our revenue and profit for the foreseeable future. Pick your metaphor – we’re walking a precarious path with one foot in the analog world and the other in the digital one.

Newspapers in large markets replete with free-access general news web sites are at the highest risk and are suffering the most from online competitors and shifts in readership habits. This isn’t to say it hasn’t affected us – it has and it will. But we’re in an enviable and strong position and must learn to adapt as the market demands it – not before and certainly not after.

Tim Rutten, media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, summarizes the likely future pretty well:
“Look, there are going to be newspapers around for a very long time, but the successful ones are going to be hybrid news organizations in which there's some sort of amalgam of print and online presentation of the news. It's clear that there are going to be some things we will continue to do best in print, some things we're going to do for our readers online on a 24-hour basis.”
What to do now?
One of the strategies that has not been pursued aggressively enough by our industry is differentiation. As unfiltered “information” expands online, we can offer added value by applying proven journalistic standards to how we operate on the Internet. Our value will be enhanced as we maintain our position as a credible source of information. We can’t be too local, but we must practice journalism.

There's no arguing that the Internet has removed a major obstacle to local newspaper competitors. But delivery was never our main ace in the hole -- it has been, and is more now than ever, journalism. Citizen journalism is an interesting idea but not the basis for a business model. Real, passionate, local, expertly practiced journalism differentiates us from our rivals, from TV web sites to those coming from someone's basement.

Differentiation is not just a journalistic issue. “We've had a lot of scams off of Craigslist,” said Detective Gretchen Ellis, Tacoma Police Department, talking about the recent infamous case in which a Craigslist ad led to the complete ransacking of a vacant house. “We've had prostitution things happen, rental scams, fraudulent activity. In this case, it appeared the items were going to be given away, but they were not.” This presents us with a tremendous advertising opportunity – there is still a place for trained human intervention. Of course, then there’s more tragic case of the Craigstlist killer.

There’s a growing theory that newspaper web sites aren’t necessarily about advertising revenue but should be used simply to draw younger readership to the newspa… um, the news thingy. This assumes that instead of cannibalizing the newspaper’s circulation, it enhances it. There is some data to suggest this is true, but it remains an unproven idea. Others promote an online-first strategy, which might make sense for newspapers and magazines seeking a national or global audience, but there's no evidence to support that approach for regional or local newspapers.

It’s telling that one of most intelligent recent comments about our business comes not from a publisher or journalist but investment banker Jonathon Knee:
“You have to focus on your competitive advantage, which is local. When the smoke clears, the local newspaper, which may not be the sexiest part of the newspaper industry but is overwhelmingly the largest and most profitable part of the industry, will be a smaller and more-focused enterprise whose activities will be directed to those areas where their local presence gives them competitive advantage and they will continue to generate as a result better profits than the supersexy businesses in the media industry asking for government or nonprofit help like movies and music.”

Why we should embrace online circulation

John Gottschalk recently retired as chairman and CEO of the Omaha World-Herald, a partially employee-owned newspaper (with some sister papers in the company) that enjoys one of the highest market penetrations in the country. His advice on the paid versus free issue:
“We are, de facto, the originators of most of the news in our region. Our franchise is unique. Regardless of distribution channel, relevant, timely and valuable content is the arbiter of the free or paid question.

“If a newspaper publishes a lot of easily available, non-exclusive material from other sources, and in general, a mediocre report for its readers; it will be difficult for readers to find sufficient value in that content to sustain their patronage. When they quit reading, the newspaper platform loses its power as the best medium for advertisers.

“Content is king in my book – regardless of distribution channel. It escapes me why anyone would allow the use of valuable, exclusive, costly, unique and presumably credible content by some other organization that will just beat you over the head with it as a free enhancement to its advertising platform.

“Giving content away is bound to shrink market dominance and ultimately lead to the loss of uniqueness that sustains the readership needed to stay in business. Our business is, after all, advertising distribution, and it requires the presence of a significant number of ‘consumers.’ It is the unique content and character of a newspaper’s report that enables the success of the advertising platform.”
A bold look at traffic
Most people still think it’s important to drive traffic and the money will eventually, magically follow, even though there’s no evidence to support that theory after a decade of online news experimentation. However, there’s increasing agreement that we’d like to turn back the clock 10 years and charge for access as part of an online business model. Alan Mutter has called the free online content model newspapers’ “original sin”.

As part of a value-added ad package bundled around print, online advertising for us and our clients potentially has some modest benefit. Otherwise, there may not be much. So, let’s maintain a web presence, reduce our investment of time and other resources, and put out a damn good paper that reaches the broadest possible market.

The key is this: If we don’t put out a “newspaper” regardless of the medium on which it ultimately gets “delivered” that contains compelling, necessary, unique information that local readers need to have, none of our strategies will matter. Content (news and information, including advertising), is, indeed, king.

And finally…
Industry pundits, all of whom have been at least partially wrong right from the start, need to begin each analysis with this acknowledgment: Newspapers of 100,000 circulation and smaller are almost always a different matter than the 100 or so (out of 1,400 total) that serve larger markets. Like most smaller newspapers, the Post Register produces more local content in a day than our broadcast and print competitors produce in a week. We have the largest newsroom in our half of the state. We are the best in the world at covering eastern Idaho, and we ought to act like it. That’s what sets us apart from any other medium and what sets 1,300 other local newspapers apart from their competitors. For heaven’s sake, apply a simple value principle to what you do.