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.