Tuesday, May 25, 2010

10 years late

A revised version of this post was published in the Post Register May 30, 2010.

"It is time to stop giving our journalism away". ... giving readers free access to its content was "undermining the value of our journalism, undermining the value of the Times and undermining the perception that journalism and news has a value."
-James Harding, Times editor
Read more about the Times of London's new subscription plan (please, don't call it a pay wall), then review my arguments starting from 2002 why such plans are not only right but essential to journalism's future.

Harding said: "Everyone talks a great deal about the viral capabilities of the web. We're worried that viral capability wipes us out and actually what's much more important to us is that we create a sustainable economics for the future of journalism online."

He acknowledged the online charging plan represented "a big step" but said it was essential that the paper generated the resources needed to invest in reporting.

"What's at the heart of the Times and what's at the heart of good journalism everywhere is reporting and making sure you can continue to send people to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to the Gulf of Mexico, into the business world, covering sport. That kind of thing is absolutely essential and you cannot give that away," Harding added.

Now, read Patricia Handschiegel's salient reflections.

All together, and (to quote Arlo Guthrie), with FEELIN': "Well, duh!"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Facebook, Twitter and newspapers

A revised version of this post was published in the Post Register May 23, 2010.

Facebook now claims more than 400 million active users who spend a combined 950 years (nearly a millennium) on the site every month.

This is an average of 21 hours per month per user, or about 3 percent of the time available (the average month consists of 1,217 hours). More astonishing, a good share of Facebook “users” rarely go onto the site, which means that some hard-core users spend weeks at a time Facebooking.

And yet, Facebook has a problem: How to make money? It is attempting to mine deeply the personal information volunteered by its users, which is creating a growing concern among Facebookers over privacy, but that effort isn’t yet turning into dollars.

The big problem for Faceook and many other web sites is that precious few of their users ever bother to look at the advertising. So, Facebook faces the same problem that derailed MySpace and other social networks and free-access web sites -- where will the money come from? Traffic – even enormous, global, frequent traffic – doesn’t magically generate money.

These are astonishing numbers, but there is much left unsaid. For example, what percentage of "users" make up the majority of the time spent on the site? Using Facebook's own numbers, the "average user" is on Facebook three hours a month. I know people who do that every day. The implication is that many users are rarely on the site.

What percentage is active in the sense that they log on, but then become "lurkers" who just observe without really participating? My experience may not be "normal," but of my 112 carefully selected "friends" on Facebook, more than half never post anything. But, are they "active," in Facebook's definition?

Another question left unanswered is what percentage of Facebook users ever look at the advertising on the pages? My guess is: Basically zero. Facebook faces the same crossroad that derailed MySpace and other social networks -- where will the money come from?

There would seem to be a simple enough answer -- just charge users a modest subscription fee. Of course, when Facebook floats this trial balloon, users become apoplectic: "NOOOO! This must be free, and we shall both leave the network and riot in the streets if required to pay even a dime for this service over which we have become deeply obsessed!" This, of course, is Facebook's own fault, having taught its users that this service really ought to be free. It's, well, it's just crazy.

Twitter's issues run deeper still. While Facebook might be able to find 100 million people to pay a dollar per month for some sort of premium version of the network, no one will ever pay a penny for Twitter, which means its days are likely numbered, despite enormous user numbers.

What does any of this have to do with newspapers? Mostly, Facebook and Twitter have become useful promotional tools for more traditional media. Since launching a Facebook page a few months ago, the Post Register now has 600 Facebook "friends" (just click on the "Like" button on the Facebook link on the Post Register's home page and you, too, can be our friend!). When we add the daily post to our Facebook page highlighting the next day's print edition, it's set up to automatically send out a Twitter post, too.

Social networks also are helpful from time to time in making us aware of a potential story or fleshing out one that we're already working on. Beyond that, Facebook is a bit of a toy, and Twitter is a cheap toy, destined to play a minor role in the evolution of real journalism.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One night, three conversations

I recently had the great opportunity to spend an evening with a number of international journalists. I had the particular pleasure of talking at some length to three who couldn’t have been more different.

Wen Xian is the Washington D.C. bureau chief of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China. Having spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Hong Kong and few days in Guangzhou in 1979, I latched onto Wen early during the reception at the Sun Valley Inn and threw out a little of my poor Mandarin.

There is no arguing that the People’s Daily is a propaganda tool and that Wen is not a journalist in the traditional American notion of the word. Still, we developed an immediate rapport and launched into a discussion of China’s remarkable turnaround over the past three decades.

Perhaps reciting the party line, Wen was quick to name what he considered to be China’s No. 1 issue: Population growth. At any rate, I hope to correspond with Wen in the future. I admire the Chinese people and their government holds a lot of America’s growing debt, so we best learn to get along with them.

Next was Max Akerman, U.S. correspondent for Swiss National Public Radio. Akerman was so taken with my views on Idaho politics that we stepped outside the reception room for a quick interview (Kathleen shot the attached photo with her BlackBerry). We later shared a table at dinner and talked some more.

Akerman’s main interest was the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the libertarian-style conservatism growing among Idahoans. Based in San Francisco, Akerman is accustomed to a more, um, progressive environment. He was looking forward to attending a campaign rally for Rex Rammell in Boise.

Perhaps the most interesting conversation of the evening, however, was with Makoto Kajiwara, senior staff writer for Nikkei newspaper, the Wall Street Journal of Japan (the equivalent of the “Dow Jones Industrial Average” in Japan is the “Nikkei”). We began chatting over drinks and continued over dinner.

Kajiwara was in Idaho pursuing a very specific story based on his theory that the residents of three U.S. states -- North and South Dakota and Idaho -- have the best outlook on life when compared to their expectations of economic improvement. In other words, people in these three states are happy despite having low expectations for making more money.

I haven’t investigated the data behind Kajiwara’s hypothesis, but I intend to. I’ll also be looking for his report in the next few weeks on Nikkei’s English-language web site and we’ll ask Nikkei for permission to reprint it.

Kajiwara lives in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, which he prefers to living in Tokyo. He says next year he’ll have to decide whether to continue his reporting career or making a little more money in Tokyo as an editor. We agreed that there’s nothing more satisfying for a journalist than being a reporter.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The latest on leveraging the value of journalism

Advertising Age has come up with a startling conclusion in a recent article on newspapers and "pay walls." (I hate the term "pay walls." A better term is "online subscriptions.")
"The newspapers that are going to have the best advantage instituting the pay walls are going to be the big national guys with differentiating editorial like The Wall Street Journal and some of the smaller guys that offer information that truly is not available in other media" (my emphasis), said Randy Novak, director of newspaper strategy at NSA Media, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Cos. that specializes in buying local print media. "The ones that are going to struggle, I think, are the ones that fall in between, if they don't provide something that can't be readily accessed elsewhere."
Heaven knows, I want to be neither snarky nor self-congratulatory, but ... here's what I wrote in 2002:
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.
I further concluded: "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?"

Advertising Age also reports a somewhat troubling trend -- newspapers double-counting their subscribers. Here's how it works: Both of the major newspaper circulation auditing companies (ABC and CAC) allow newspapers with a pay wall to essentially divide the monthly subscription cost into two parts -- one to cover the print subscription and the other for online access. Subscribers who essentially paid for one type of product (usually the print edition) are being counted twice -- once as a print subscriber and again as an online subscriber. That kind of counting has allowed the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin to report a 34 percent increase in total circulation. That's all well and good, but it doesn't really help advertisers decide where to spend their money, and that's the whole point behind audited circulation. For the record, the Post Register has qualified to do this for three years but we've chosen to report the numbers by category -- total print (between 22,000 and 25,000, depending on the day), print subscribers with an online password (about 6,000), and online only subscribers (about 550) -- rather than simply providing a consolidated number. To add to the confusion, there's another metric in play -- we get an average of 2,800 unique visits and 12,000 page views a day to our mostly subscriber-based web site, including verticals like Legacy (obituaries), Idahojobweek, Idahohomeweek, and Idahoautoweek.

Bend's circulation director does get this part right:
"The rationale of being able to use your website to increase your ad revenue through increased traffic simply has not proven accurate," said Keith Foutz, corporate circulation and operations director at Western Communications, which owns the Bulletin.
Not everyone is on board with this approach, of course. Most newspapers and newspaper companies are still holding out the hope that traffic will turn into ad dollars, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Instead, they should be building audience, which is a whole different thing. This is a distinction lost on many in the news business.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Newspapers and TV: An uneasy co-existence

This post was published in the Post Register May 11, 2010.

“I don’t know about you. I really don’t.”

This was part of an anonymous call on my voice mail this morning, one of hundreds we received about the lack of a TV Times section in Sunday’s edition. It was one of the nicer ones.

This was what we like to call a “test drop” – we drop a feature (often it’s a comic or columnist) without notice and gauge the reaction. So, first things first – the TV section will not only be back next Sunday, but we’ll be printing this week’s section tonight and putting it in Tuesday’s Post Register. And, now, for the second thing: What were we thinking?

We’ve been providing a TV section of one sort or another for a long time, and for that time – decades – it’s always been a money loser for us. Of course, we provide a lot of information that doesn’t directly earn money for us, so that’s not the only issue here.

The other issue – and it pains me a little to admit this – is that the Post Register’s main competition for advertising and local information is: You guessed, it, TV. While it’s a healthy and generally friendly competition that we are winning, it’s still a little irksome to us that we provide a service that benefits our competitors while costing us real money. It’s a great deal for the local TV stations and cable and satellite providers, and we don’t blame them a bit for taking full advantage of it.

When it’s all said and done, however, even that issue pales in comparison to what matters most – what do our readers want and expect? On that score, you’ve made it very clear. You want the TV Times back.

As I write this late Monday morning, we’ve had more than 1,000 calls taking us to task for our “test drop.” Most of the calls are reasonably polite, while others are, well, less so. You’ve told us in no uncertain terms that the TV Times is part of what you expect in the Post Register, so it’s back.

We apologize to those of you whose routines have been seriously disrupted by our experiment. We’re grateful that we’re an important part of your life and we’re really sorry for not meeting your expectations on this one.

Some of you who called wanted to know who the dummy was who decided to give this test a try. I did it. So, don’t blame the nice folks who have been taking your calls. I did it, and I’m bringing the section back. Now.

Oh, and to our friends in the TV business: You're welcome.

UPDATE: By the end of the day Monday, we'd received nearly 2,000 calls. In my 30 years in the business, I've never seen nearly so many calls on a single issue.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Gone too soon: A remembrance of mom on Mother's Day, 2010

Excerpts from my eulogy for mom, 2007:

Lenora Dean Damron Plothow, May 21, 1937-November 22, 2007

Mom spent months in the hospital during high school being treated for tuberculosis. There is no doubt that this experience informed her outlook for the rest of her life. It gave her patience, empathy, and a desire to reach out to others. Her involvement in nearly every good cause was no affectation -- it was as much a part of her as the twinkle in her eye and the kindness in her voice.

In the mid-Sixties, dad was branch president for a woefully small group of Mormons in Logansport, Indiana. After spending all day Sunday at the church, which in those days was either a small, pink house or, later, a used Baptist church, we would stop at the Sycamore frozen custard stand for nickel cups of ice cream. When I asked mom many years later why we shopped on Sunday back then, she seriously responded that “the rules were different in those days.”

We grew up with homemade bread. Mom started this to save money, but she continued it when we complained about the low quality of “boughten” bread. Before the microwave, we learned patience by waiting for frozen homemade bread to thaw so we could make toast. We grew up with homemade jams and jellies, grape juice, stewed tomatoes and fruits, and bottled cherries. We usually ignored the cherries and drank the juice. With all due respect to other great cooks, mom made the world’s greatest apple pie featuring a crust that was so spectacular that it could be eaten without accompaniment.

Mom was well known for putting her own twist on books she would read to us as children and later, to her grandchildren. While most of you grew up with "Green Eggs and Ham” and the “Cat in the Hat,” we were raised with “Greens Eggs and Sausage” and the “Cat in the Spectacles.” This habit so infuriated Phil, the “serious one,” that he’s either still in therapy over it, or he ought to be. It’s very likely that it was during a reading session with mom, when she was making a reasonably good book even better by altering its contents as she went along, that I concluded that it might be fun to be a journalist.

She had an unwavering sense of personal values but refused to impose them on others. As a teenager I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine. One edition featured a mildly risqué picture on its cover and when mom saw it in the bedroom I shared with Phil and Harrison, she said to me, “Just don’t let Phillip see it.”

Mom had a deliriously wicked and silly sense of humor. One Fourth-of-July afternoon years ago she began reading stories of her ancestors, who were inevitably desperately poor and always in dire straits. The stories eventually become so pitiful and depressing that she began giggling, and within minutes we were all making up even more depressing stories and laughing until the tears came. Part of the Plothow lore is the story of mom pelting us with wet diapers -- not fresh out of the washer but fresh off the baby. She could hold her own with governors, senators and other uppity types, be she was at home sharing increasingly outlandish stories from the sofa of her living room and giggling all the while. She had the gift of being able to see and appreciate the most bizarre aspects of life and, when given the choice between laughing and crying, almost always chose the former.

Mom was a Big Deal well beyond her family. She was Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University). She was president twice for Mountain Plains Adult Education Association, Provo Education Foundation chair and a member of numerous boards and committees. She received the Reed Smoot Community Service Award from the Provo and Orem Chamber of Commerce. For two years she was chair of the local Red Cross Chapter board and was an 18-year volunteer for PTA and served as the Utah State president for two years.

She had an unwavering and simple faith. Once I was driving a car-full of us on a dirt road in the mountains when we got a flat tire and I had a bit of a meltdown when I couldn’t figure out how to use the jack, or something silly like that. While I was acting foolishly, mom said a simple prayer, fully expecting that would take care of it. Five minutes later, a couple of students from what we then called Utah Technical College (where both mom and dad worked) came by and in no time our crisis was over. It wasn’t exactly like being saved by the Three Nephites, but mom knew what had happened and we knew not to question it.

Mom was a pitiful fair-weather BYU football fan. When they were winning, it wasn’t by enough. When they were losing, well, it was more than she could bear. It’s the only time she showed her uncharitable side, and it was scary. Whether BYU was ahead by six touchdowns or behind by the same number, during a game she could often be heard to mutter: “Well, can you believe they did that?”

To her nearly two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she was just grandma, the source of unreserved love and support, whose playfulness and innate decency will give them, and all who knew her well, a lifelong knowledge that they had been touched by someone truly special.