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.