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.