Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How Huffington Post represents what's wrong with Internet "news"

Arianna Huffington clearly wants to be taken seriously. She is a regular on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, writes and speaks articulately and convincingly as a liberal advocate, and clearly has worked tirelessly on developing a highly successful web site with millions of monthly visits.

And yet, Huffington Post is the best example of what's so wrong with "news" on the Internet. How? Oh, let me count the ways:

1. Despite a clear desire to engage the political agenda in behalf of the left, her site is populated by soft-porn, celebrity gossip, posts that turn out to be misleading or just plain wrong, the use of tabloid-style headlines and News-of-the-Weird style material that gives the site a sordid, illicit feel. Indeed, HuffPost has done more than just about any other site to popularize the now-famous warning, "NSFW," or, "Not Suitable for Work."

You doubt me? As I write this, the version of the site represented by the screen shot attached to my post includes the following material:
* "Beautiful lingerie model makes naked World Cup pledge."
* "Relationship secrets for highly empathic people."
* "Vienna calls Jake a fame whore."
* "George Clooney's girlfriend dons thong in Lake Como."
There is more, of course, including an entire section devoted to "Celebrity Skin," which, well, you can figure it out. HuffPost very helpfully shows its most popular posts on the right side of its home page. On this particular morning, these are: Kristen Stewart's Awkward Letterman Appearance; TAKEDOWN: Taibbi Unleashes on Lara Logan After Rolling Stone Interview; PHOTOS: Beautiful Lingerie Model Makes Naked World Cup Pledge; Brooke Smith: Hello, I'm a Mac and I'm a PC; Marcus Clown: 11 of the Craziest Things about the Universe.

2. There is nearly no original reporting on the site. The material is either ripped off from other places (often TMZ or People Magazine, but also from legitimate online political magazines or newspapers), or it's opinion stuff written by celebrities or people selling a book (because, after all, Arianna proudly notes that she pays nearly no one for their work).

3. The site's headlines are often misleading and sometimes, in their haste to get something out, they get it horribly wrong, such as the time a couple of weeks ago that the site breathlessly implied that the 16-year-old American girl attempting to sale around the world had died in a horrible accident. When it became clear they over-reached, no correction or apology was forthcoming.

There's really nothing wrong with any of this of course, except that Huffington wants us to take her seriously. She likes to tout the site's visitation numbers, which clearly must be boosted by the site's being one part political commentary, three parts celebrity gossip, and three parts "NSFW." There is glorious tradition behind all of this, of course -- many of Britain's tabloids have long featured "Page Three Girls": Photos of topless women featured prominently on, yes, Page Three. But, then, no one accuses those rags of attempting to set the UK's political agenda (or do they?).

I don't have any particular quarrel with Ms. Huffington, and it turns out my 26-year-old son has something of a crush on her. But this combination of information, entertainment and titillation is yet another symptom of our Age of Entertainment that threatens to trivialize the news at a time when it's the last thing we need. I suppose I'll be accused of being curmudgeonly, of not keeping up with these glorious new times.

Too bad. It is what it is. Real reporting is going on elsewhere, mostly -- dare I say it? -- at your local newspaper.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What!? A salient comment!

In the little tête-à-tête over Alan Mutter on my previous blog post I enjoyed a little verbal sparring and was particularly pleased when an anonymous poster (I should outlaw anonymity on my own blog, but that's another issue for another day) submitted this delightfully salient comment:
"Talk is cheap and digital typing is even cheaper. The most constructive digital Chicken Little would be one who seeks out the best practices in the industry -- the ideas that are working. Yes, newspapers are on their way out in the long run. But journalism will live on. That should be the focus, rather than useless "woe is me" hand-wringing. Don't we understand that we're scaring away a whole generation of potential young journalists? And the digital detractors have blurred the difference between the structural problems of newspapers and the deep-deep recession. Amateurs"
While I may take issue with the statement that "newspapers are on their way out in the long run," (he certainly could be right, but I think newspapers have a long way to go before they're done), the writer puts his or her finger on my own frustrations over the digital/print debate among journalists, including:
  • All of us should be focusing on "seeking out the best practices in the industry -- ideas that are working." Too many, unfortunately, take the easy way out and resort to name-calling (oh, how it hurts to be called a "dinosaur") and self-righteous nose-thumbing.
  • " ... the digital detractors have blurred the difference between the structural problems of newspapers and the deep-deep recession." How is it that so few observers and members of the news business have missed this -- we're in the middle of the worst recession in three generations. While newspapers have systemic issues that need solving, a healthy economy would be a good start toward recovery.
Just in case it comes up again and I need a place to copy and paste a simple recipe for building a new sustainable business model for newspapers, here goes:

1. Differentiate yourself from all competitors by producing great local journalism and all the other stuff that makes up the fiber of a good local newspapers: calendars, letters to the editor, obituaries, anniversaries, sports scores, corporate engagement, dialog with readers and the community, choices for consumers between high-quality printing and a high-quality web site, adherence to ethical standards, and an unflinching focus on relevant and compelling reporting, writing and design.

2. Ask a fair price for this product, whether it's delivered in print or online.

3. Experiment, assess, adopt or discard, repeat.

4. Hire well, set clear expectations, pay attention to everything going on everywhere, have a plan that is subject to constant revision, and make regular, small changes that result in revolutionary change over time.

5. Meanwhile, ya gotta bring in more money than you spend.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Alan Mutter's persistent whining gets annoying

Last fall I had the great pleasure of attending a "Media Technology Summit" at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Our host was former journalist and continuing blogger, Alan Mutter, from whom I wrangled the invitation. I mention this because I'm going to spend the rest of this post trashing Mr. Mutter, and I want to start by acknowledging that conference and Alan's hard work in putting in together.

On the other hand ...

Alan Mutter is pretty good at identifying what the newspaper business doesn't do very well. He's really terrible at offering constructive solutions, and therein lies the rub. If you're going to complain, at least have the spine to suggest alternatives to the strategies (or lack of them) you're complaining about.

Not only that, but he likes to use broad, industry-wide statistics to paint a broad, industry-wide bleak picture. This is misleading. As I've said before, of the 1,400 or so daily newspapers in the U.S., the vast majority are regional and local dailies that remain profitable and reasonably healthy. The failing newspapers that get all the headlines (and that tend to drive the statistics) are generally from metro areas.
But allow me to be more specific. Below are some excerpts from one of Mutter's recent blog posts. My response follows in bold face.

" ...  newspaper and magazine sales in the first quarter dropped respectively 9.7% and 3.9% at the same time television expenditures advanced 10.5%, Internet rose 7.5% and radio gained 6.0%."
 At the Post Register, total revenue is tracking to increase by nearly 2 percent in 2010. Several key areas are up solidly, in particular pre-prints (those ad fliers that fill up your Sunday paper), which are up 4.5 percent.
"While auto manufacturers and dealers on average increased their ad budgets by 18.6% in the first quarter of the year, automotive classified at newspapers fell 16.0% in the same period. The over-all market data is from Kantar Media, the ad-tracking company formerly known as TNS. The newspaper data is from the Newspaper Association of America."
Well, NAA didn't ask us. Classified remains significantly under what it generated four or five years ago, but we're running about 5 percent behind prior year in 2010. The truth is, and Mutter knows this, classified advertising at newspapers will never be what it was as the Internet takes a bigger and bigger chunk. Part of finding a sustainable new business model is acknowledging that.
"While newspaper publishers have been able to boost the battered profitability and beleaguered share prices of their companies by cutting deeply into headcount and news hole, these short-term expedients are no substitute for forward-looking strategies to create innovative print and digital products to revitalize their audiences and attract fresh ad dollars. No business ever cut its way to success. Newspapers won’t either."
Here, Mutter resorts to business cliches and general nonsense. Of course, newspapers have cut expenses, including headcounts, during this terrible recession. Of course, we understand that it's a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. We also know that it's downright shameful to not mind your mama.

Mutter succeeds another complainer-with-no-solutions, Steve Outing, as a regular columnist for the resurrected Editor & Publisher magazine. Mutter and Outing seem to fit comfortably with E&P's tough love approach to writing about journalism -- they all seem committed to covering what they clearly see as the inexorable slow death of newspapers, instead of telling the complete story of what I believe will be a resurgence of our business. We want no Pollyannas here, but one-sided pessimism isn't real journalism, either.

Publishers and staffs at 1,400 daily newspapers are working harder and smarter than ever to rejigger our business model into something more sustainable. Mutter isn't helping by reiterating the obvious issues without joining us in working on potential solutions. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why are U.S. papers so stubborn?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, instead of free access to real news sites, the future of online journalism is likely to include a higher reliance on subscriber revenue, with less of the total coming from advertising.

There's new evidence to support this notion. In western Europe and the U.K., where newspapers stopped at the edge of the information-wants-to-be-free cliff while American papers were plunging right on over, newspapers haven't suffered nearly as much from the recession as their American counterparts. Why? Ahem.
"...U.S. newspapers’ extraordinarily high reliance on advertising, rather than sales of copies or subscriptions. In 2008, advertising contributed 87 percent of newspapers’ revenues in the United States, compared with 53 percent in Germany, 50 percent in Britain and 35 percent in Japan."
As reported in the New York Times (no subscription required, for now):
"After a plunge in advertising, many U.S. newspapers have raised cover prices, so this percentage has surely fallen since 2008. But efforts to correct this balance are complicated by the fact that most U.S. newspapers’ Web sites still rely entirely on advertising, giving away most content free."
To be fair, there are other factors involved here, including heavy government subsidies for newspapers in Italy and France and a European newspaper readership rate about 50 percent higher than in the U.S. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is starting a study to look at improving the climate for U.S. newspapers. The only early suggestion that makes any sense is to strengthen U.S. copyright laws to put a stop to the outright thievery going on among Internet web sites using original reporting coming from ... newspapers.

The sad truth, however, is that American newspapers may already have all the copyright protection they need, if they'll just use it. The Times writes:
"But the need for stronger copyright protection remains unclear. So far, newspapers have moved only halfheartedly to defend their copyrights online under existing legislation, because they have been held in thrall to the idea that giving away their content would make new revenue appear. Fortunately, this is now being reconsidered."
I've also written before about an earlier study of European newspapers finding that 80 percent of them had found a way to make money through subscriptions in one way or another -- and that was four years ago. Meanwhile, most U.S. papers stubbornly clung to the wrong-headed theory that advertising can be our sole revenue source, continuing to buy into the hippie-like mantra that "information wants to be free." NO, IT DOESN'T. Cheapskates and freeloaders want information to be free.

The formula is pretty simple:
1. Produce real, relevant, compelling and unique journalism.
2. Ask readers for a fair price.
3. Block other sites from using your journalism without a fee.
4. If they do it anyway, sue them.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Audience versus traffic: A parable

Let’s consider the arcane world of Internet traffic versus Internet audience.

Come on, stay with me here. What we at the Post Register aim to achieve is attracting an online audience to complement our print readership. Most web sites are still stuck on “driving traffic,” whatever that means.

I hope to simplify this with a parable.

Let's say you're a singer. You're reasonably well-known around town but no one's heard of you elsewhere. You'd like to make a little money and become better known.

So, you set up in a nice city park and start to play. You don't open your guitar case so people can toss in a quarter or a dollar -- people are used to hearing music in the park for free, after all. Over time, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walk by, some glancing over as they pass; a handful stops and listens for a moment before moving on.

You've agreed with a local guitar store to put a sign next to you advertising the store, and you'll get a nickel for everyone who comes in and says they saw your sign and a dollar for each of those people who buys a guitar. Over a year's time you earn $2.75.

At the end of each evening, you've entertained some folks and probably had a nice time, but you're no closer to paying your bills. You do this every night for a year, and you're still no closer. In fact, you've spent time that could have been used in more profitable pursuits. It's entirely possible that you've hurt your own opportunity to record and sell some CDs because everyone in town knows they can go to the park and hear you for free. Probably not, though, since you haven't really honed your craft enough to cause someone to spend money listening to your music.

That's traffic.

Your girlfriend, meanwhile, has practiced hard and long, developing a repertoire of original songs, plus some covers of classics. She's got a small backup band of good musicians. They don't have aspirations to travel the globe, but they do want to supplement their day-job income with a little money on the side.

So, they rent a small venue and, having developed a local following over the years, sell some tickets and put on a show. They even sign up a restaurant as a co-sponsor, which helps defray some of the cost. The restaurant hands out coupons at the door for a free appetizer. A couple hundred people show up, paying 10 bucks apiece, and it's a great show.

During intermission, some merchandise is sold, including snacks and drinks, and she gets a cut. She clears several hundred dollars, each band member gets $150, and everyone goes home happy. She can't make a living this way, but she can earn a little spending money. And, who knows, maybe one day she'll catch on and she'll be able to quit her nine-to-five.

That's audience.

One is a potential business model, one is not.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pro-am content: Why it doesn't work

I have written several times about why journalism matters, even in a business sense. My favorite blogger, Patricia Handschiegel, takes a different look at the same issue in a recent blog, referring to this illusory desire to use "citizen journalists" as "pro-am" content.

As usual, Patricia puts the issue in a context and language that non-journalists can appreciate and understand and, also as usual, she's absolutely correct. Stuff on the Internet is about 99 percent nonsense. Some folks, even in the newspaper business, have championed the idea of using the eyes and ears of the public to produce, um, content. Among the myriad issues of this approach:
1. Journalism is more than "what." It's also "who, where, when, why, how" and vetting for accuracy and context. It's follow-up and connecting the dots and asking hard questions. All of that takes experience, training and adherence to ethical guidelines.

2. Even if the "content" is basically accurate, it's no panacea -- it takes time and people to prepare it for "publication," unless it goes out raw.

3. Unvetted, web content can be used to market, manipulate or simply spread nonsense and lies. That describes, as I said, 99 percent of the Web today.
So, whether you call it citizen journalism or pro-am content generation, it's a bad idea.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Subscribers in the driver's seat

In the past five years, the percentage of the Post Register’s total revenue directly provided by you, the subscriber, has nearly doubled, from 10 percent to just under 20 percent.

In other words, subscription revenue has grown at a much faster rate than advertising revenue during that time. Since the beginning of the recession, advertising revenue has actually fallen while subscription revenue has continued to grow.

What does it mean? There are at least two possibilities:
1. It represents a trend, in which paid circulation plays an increasingly important role in the evolving newspaper business model.

2. It’s a short –term phenomenon brought on by a recession that caused retail advertisers – every newspaper’s bread and butter – to reduce spending, while paid readership stayed steady or grew.
The truth, of course, probably can be found somewhere in-between.

The tried and true business model for print newspapers relied on advertising to subsidize the costs of printing and delivering the newspaper. While this is still so, the subscription component of total revenue has become far more than an afterthought, at least at the Post Register.

This isn’t true everywhere. Particularly in larger markets, newspapers are experimenting with free-distribution products and most big-market papers don’t charge for access to their web sites, which generally have much of the same information as the print editions.

Most newspaper markets, however, are more similar to eastern Idaho than to Los Angeles or New York – they are served by one dominant regional newspaper that is the essential provider of news and advertising in the market. In those markets, revenue generated by both print and online subscriptions could become increasingly important as the business model changes.

Newspapers have seen some pretty significant reductions in revenue in a couple of key areas: classified advertising, which has been fragmented by web sites like Craigslist and other regional sites, and traditional retail advertising from large chain stores. While some of this revenue will come back, some of it won’t. In markets like ours, that probably means two things:

First, newspapers will have to learn how to operate on lower profit margins than those of the 20th century. We’re certainly not alone there.

Second, we’ll have to continue producing a product so good that readers are willing to pay a reasonable price for it, whether they read it in print or online. Over time this source of revenue coming directly from the reader will likely become more important, and that means we’d better be good.

Most “experts” now agree that an online news business model based solely on advertising won’t work. The next step might be recognizing that a revenue model that relies more heavily than ever on subscriptions is increasingly likely.

Friday, June 4, 2010

My favorite LTE

Published in the Post Register last week, this may be my all-time favorite letter to the editor:
A great money-savings idea has just occurred to me! Instead of the "test delete" on the TV Times, can you try a "test-delete" on Roger Plothow for a while? Maybe send him on an unpaid vacation or something.

After this "test-delete," we'll see how many upset subscribers call in. I'm thinking it will be pretty quiet.

Keep up the good work! (Word count: 121)


Idaho Falls

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is Post Talk a bomb?

This is the first draft of a column published June 6, 2010 in the Post Register.

One of the more interesting but occasionally distasteful responsibilities I’ve taken on in the brave new world of online journalism is moderating the Post Register’s Post Talk feature.

For the uninitiated, Post Talk is the place on the Post Register’s web site where readers can comment on stories. Unlike most sites, we’ve had a longstanding policy of requiring participants to be registered users of the site (meaning they either are Post Register print subscribers who have requested a password at no additional charge, or they are online-only subscribers). We also require them to include their full name and city of residence on each post.

The theory behind this was to encourage a level of articulation and civility not found on sites that allow anonymous posting. Beyond that, I personally delete posts that don't meet my admittedly ambiguous standards, and I have sometimes outright banned some users, at least for a time.

Alas, this approach has not delivered the desired result. While we have many “lurkers” (people who read Post Talk but do not post themselves), there are fewer than a dozen active participants. While these “threads” (a series of posts about the same article) usually start on topic, they almost inevitably become a duel of verbal firebombs lobbed between individuals who align their opponents into particular political camps.

It gets pretty personal, with the use of well-worn but still-popular rhetorical devices, particularly hyperbole, cacophony (the use of harsh-sounding words) and, that old favorite, the ad hominen attack or, more simply, implied guilt by association.

To be honest, it’s discouraging. There is much heat and precious little light. If I were to apply the same standard that we have for printed letters to the editor, which is not a high threshold, I’d probably delete more than half the posts. But I try to give a little more leeway online, since readers and participants have to make a reasonable effort to get to that section of the web site.

Journalism web sites across the country are reconsidering the rules governing how people can post comments. Most still allow unmoderated and anonymous posting, but many are considering policies similar to ours. Unfortunately, if our experience is any indication, that won’t solve the problem.

The purpose in allowing readers to post comments is to encourage dialog and interactivity. Occasionally, we learn that a story or column contains a factual error or otherwise requires attention. Sometimes -- increasingly rarely, it seems -- someone posts an insightful or clever comment. Mostly, though, it’s pretty unenlightening stuff.

As it stands, Post Talk isn’t accomplishing our desired objective of facilitating meaningful interaction among readers and between readers and the newspaper. Instead of a forum, it seems we’ve created a gladiator ring.