Tuesday, December 20, 2011

We're no Angry Birds, but ...

Having just finished Walter Isaacson’s unflinching biography of Steve Jobs, I’m reminded of the things I admired about the Apple co-founder and his lifelong rival, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Both Jobs and Gates essentially stole the software from Xerox that eventually became the windows-based operating systems for Job’s Apple and Macintosh lines and Gates’ Windows software suites. Beyond that, they took entirely different routes, with Jobs preferring tightly controlled end-to-end solutions, while Gates threw open the doors and let a thousand flowers blossom.
 The choice between Apple and its competitors is playing out again in the mobile and smart phone world, only this time Apple’s main competitor is Google and its Android system.
Also, once again, this is changing the game in journalism, which is always particularly challenging for small, independent newspapers like the Post Register that lack the resources of a major corporation.
Some of our more tech-savvy readers want to know when we’ll make our paper available via mobile applications designed specifically for the iPad and the Android-based tablets and smart phones made by everyone from Sony to Amazon. Now, you can read our newspaper online from virtually any device, but it can be clunky and awkward when using a smart phone or tablet, so specific applications are called for.
We’re taking a multi-faceted approach to pursuing this opportunity.
First, we’re working internally on converting our existing web site to HTML5 and changing its dimensions slightly. This makes the site more compatible with nearly any mobile device, though it’s not a perfect solution.
There are, of course, existing applications we can use to improve your user experience with the Post Register online, whether you’re using an Apple or an Android device. (Unfortunately, Blackberry, with its excellent tactile pull-down keyboard – my personal favorite smart phone – has fallen well behind in this race and is in danger of become irrelevant). We’re looking at the best Apple and Android applications that will best fit the needs of our readers.
Our target is to have all of this ready to unveil no later than early spring, 2012. At that point, we plan to have a wide variety of options available to our readers,the ultimate result being be that the savvy technology user will be able to choose between reading the Post Register in print, on a PC, on their iPhone, iPad, Kindle or any other Android-based tablet or smart phone, with attractive pricing based on the options selected.
Want to provide us your thoughts as we work through the options? Just drop a note to: rplothow@postregister.com. We know we can't compete with Angry Birds, but we want to be your go-to source for local information on any device.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Minimizing harm

One of the tenets we try to live by at the Post Register is to “minimize harm.”
Note that the objective isn’t to “do no harm.” We recognize that with every edition we are likely causing someone harm – the drunken driver whose name we publish, the crooked politician whose escapades are laid bare, etc. 

This is not a straightforward process. Deciding when a story goes over the line is a matter of great debate in our newsroom on many days. Sometimes our decisions aren’t unanimous. This is how good newsrooms populated by thoughtful and passionate people should function.

We were particularly tested this week with a unique and awkward circumstance the likes of which I don’t recall in more than three decades of being a journalist.

On Tuesday we published what appeared to be an innocuous story featuring the owner of a local game store who was succeeding despite these turbulent economic times. He readily agreed to an interview and we featured him and his business on our front page.
As soon as the story appeared, however, we were notified by a number of people that the business owner is a known sex offender who was convicted of lewd conduct with a child under 16 in 2004. We hadn’t known. If we had, we would not have done the story. Truthfully, we probably wouldn’t have done a story about the fact that a convicted sex offender owned a business that catered to young people, either.
Now, however, we faced a real quandary. We’ve told a story that clearly lacked important background information. The business owner had the opportunity to suggest that maybe we should find someone else to do a story on – surely he had to anticipate that his record would come out.
You might rightly ask why we didn’t conduct a more thorough background check on the man. The truth is, we don’t routinely check on the background of everyone we write about unless there is a compelling reason to do so. None of us thought to do so in this case.
Once we were notified of the man’s background we learned that neighbors of the man’s business had posted fliers in the area warning that a sex offender owned the business. The YMCA, only a block from the business, increased staffing for its child care center.
Had the man been working on the manufacturing line at a widget company, that would be one thing. We also know that some readers perceive – wrongly – that when we publish a story about a business that we are providing our tacit endorsement.
All that considered, and since the man was running a business that caters to young people, I felt we had no choice but to do a follow-up story – we couldn’t let the original story stand on its own. I wish there had been another way, but I remain convinced there wasn’t.
So we ran the follow-up the next day, detailing the man’s conviction and explaining that he had followed all the rules when establishing his business. Clearly, this man has been harmed by our report, though it’s completely accurate.
Judging by the handful of angry calls and emails we’ve received about the follow-up story, more than a few of our readers think we made a bad decision. I respect and understand that perspective.
Naturally, we take a few lessons from this, including the inclination to Google the names of more people who will be featured in our stories. Beyond that, it’s just the latest reminder that what we do affects the lives of a lot of people. But we already knew that.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reality-based reporting

CNN is laying off 50 journalists and replacing them with just regular folks called “iReporters,” who apparently will provide compelling and probing journalism for free.
In other news, Disney has announced that it will no longer pay people to make movies for its film division, relying instead on YouTube videos spliced together in random sequence. And, book publisher Random House will stop paying authors to write for them -- it will republish free blogs.
Those last two, of course, are false. They make as much sense, however, as CNN’s “all in” move toward citizen journalism. There’s a trend here, of course -- journalism produced by the people about the people.
It’s tempting to get all “the First Amendment, blah, blah, blah” about this, but that would make me sound like an ivory tower, out-of-touch dinosaur of an old-fashioned journalist. Instead, let’s turn to satirist Stephen Colbert, whose riff on CNN’s move is both funny and unsparing.
Announcing his new project, “me Reporters” (remember, he’s a satirist), he says, “Why buy the cow when you can have it shakily videotape its own milk for free?”
Using unpaid “iReporters,” Colbert suggests, is like an internship: “If you work for free, put in your time, and your work is good enough, maybe one day you could be laid off by CNN.”
Colbert sums up his piece on “me Reporters” thusly: “Bravo, CNN, for getting rid of all those pesky professionals. Hopefully this bold move will help you get rid of your remaining viewers.”
Really, you should see the whole thing.
No, even now I’m not going to launch into a sermon on the importance of real journalism, the obvious dangers of “citizen journalism,” or the various directions journalism is headed in this, the Age of Entertainment. I leave it to you dear reader, to draw your own conclusions. 

I will, however, make some predictions:

--This trend among legitimate and ostensible news organizations across the country will continue, if not increase in pace.

--For many people the changes will go unnoticed, as the line between YouTube “journalism” and the real thing has been obliterated for a lot of people. For an increasing number of the media, journalism is more closely related to reality TV than serious reporting of the news. This strategy appears to be highly profitable.

--There will be increasing instances of “news” that will turn out to be fiction, blatantly misleading or otherwise skewed by people who have a particular ax to grind or lack fundamental newsgathering skills. Whether this will compel a move away from citizen journalism remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, let’s just call it reality-based reporting.

Monday, November 28, 2011

SOPA is the wrong answer, but the question remains.

Backed and prodded by the motion picture industry, Congress is trying, once again, to allow content providers to protect themselves and build sustainable online business models.

Unfortunately, like other past attempts, the Stop Online Piracy Act goes too far, giving the government unnecessary and unhealthy control of the Internet and otherwise putting too much power in the hands of too few people and corporations.

What the law is trying to get at are web sites that enable or assist in copyright infringement. One would think this is a good and obvious objective, but the law is breathlessly being called censorship by a lot of organizations. As written, the law’s critics might have a point.
But something must be done. As it now stands, if someone streams a copyrighted movie (or allows it to be done) on his or her web site, the process of trying to stop the theft (after all, isn’t that really what it is?) is cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. In trying to streamline that process SOPA goes too far, giving the U.S. Department of Justice unnecessarily broad powers.
Some also convincingly argue that the law’s language circumvents the due process rights of the accused. Beyond that, there are compelling concerns that the bill has various technical flaws and is at odds with the fundamental architecture of the Internet.
So, SOPA isn’t the answer. But something needs to be done, and not every attempt to come to the aid of content providers can be seen as censorship. In the long run, the Internet will flourish if content providers, large and small, have free market incentives to produce content and make it available. That means they need to be able to make some money.
It’s not just Hollywood that has an interest in this. Newspapers like the Post Register have a stake in our country’s Internet laws.
The quality of content, more or less, often is proportionate to how much it costs to create. If a content provider – say, a newspaper – goes to significant expense to create some unique content (what we used to call “news”), it needs to have a way to earn that money back, plus a little (what we still call “profit”).
Advertising alone does not pay those sorts of bills. Subscriptions alone won’t do it, either (unless, of course, you have exceptionally high-quality or high-demand content – so far, only the pornography industry has succeeded there). Some kind of combined advertising/subscription model is the most likely.
Such a model, however, doesn’t work if anyone can take your content and post it for free as they wish. That’s what SOPA is trying to address. It’s the wrong answer, but the current situation isn’t sustainable.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Romenesko affair

Among journalists, Jim Romenesko's blog has been a go-to source for what's happening in our business, and there's been plenty to talk about.

This week, Romenesko resigned his post at the Poynter Institute about six weeks short of his previously announced his "semi-retirement." His crime was what appears to have been an increasing failure to use quotation marks when quoting directly from other sources, relying instead on the common practice of using links to imply the source. To many, the forced resignation was a spectacular over-reaction.

With regard to the resignation, I agree -- it was a spectacular over-reaction. With regard to how sourcing is handled on the Internet, I hope this is a watershed moment. There's no small irony in the fact that Romenesko's resignation comes the same week in which we learned that a Utah mayor has been publishing material on the Deseret News' "community journalism" site under a pen name (see my previous post for more outrage on that).

Romenesko worked at the Poynter Institute, as close to a think tank as there is in journalism. It's populated by experienced, smart, serious, thoughtful people. For those who want to dig into the guts of the Romenesko controversy, just Google his name and find a comfortable spot to rest with your laptop or other device of choice.

The larger issue is, what does journalism require of its adherents nowadays? To that, I answer; pretty much the same as it has for the past several generations. To me, it's more than a matter of ethics. It's a simple business proposition.

I've written about this ad nauseum on this blog and in the yellowing pages of the Post Register. The Age of Entertainment has not just blurred the lines between journalism and whatever else is going on in the name of journalism, it's obliterated them. Discerning facts from fiction is becoming increasingly difficult, if not darn near impossible.

Practitioners of journalism must differentiate themselves from the blogs, the talk shows and the rest. The only way to do that is to establish firm principles and unfailingly follow them. Romenesko, and most others who manage blogs that chiefly rely on aggregating other sources, haven't been hitting that standard. I wouldn't have known this about Romenesko's blog had it not for the reporting of the Columbia Journalism review. My own blog, this very one, includes a link to Romensko's work, and I've relied on it often. I'm supposed to be able to sniff this stuff out.

I don't know Jim Romenesko, but I know enough about him to be confident that he didn't need this job and his reputation will survive intact, which is easy for me to say from my seat well outside the fray. People who care about journalism need to take this as an opportunity to consider the fundamentals of our craft. We have plenty of issues to deal with, but none is more important than this one.

Newspapers will survive -- dare I say, thrive -- by holding fast to standards of journalism, even while embracing the new reporting techniques made possible by technology. If we do that, I cling to what may seem like the naive faith that thoughtful people will be drawn to our work. If they aren't, I fear greatly for all of us.

Journalism matters, and it has received a lot of black eyes lately. In the scheme of things, the Romenesko issue might seem pretty minor. It isn't. Our reporting and sourcing need to be more pristine than ever. The Internet hasn't made it less important -- just the opposite.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Another oxymoron is biting the dust

UPDATED 11/11/11:

The mayor of a significant Utah city has admitted that he's been writing stories about his town under a "pen name" and submitting them to the Deseret News' citizen journalism site, where they've been published. Mayor Mike Winder's response goes something like this (I've taken some license): "What? Ben Franklin did it. Alexander Hamilton did it."

Mr. mayor, look around. Does it look like the turn of the 19th century to you? Do you want to bring duels back, too? (That didn't work out so well for Hamilton.)

While the mayor should be censured for this behavior -- perhaps tossed out of office -- the real fault lies with the Deseret News, which shirked its journalistic responsibility by not only not vetting the mayor's submissions, but for encouraging such submissions in the first place. The mayor himself concluded that, with 2,000 contributors, there are probably "some holes in the Deseret Connect system." Ya think?

The Deseret News, it can be hoped, is learning what other newspapers have already discovered -- that new journalism needs to look a whole lot like the old journalism.

Five or six years ago, the new thing that was going to "save journalism" was the use of "citizen journalists." The idea was pretty simple -- recruit just plain folks in neighborhoods all across the market, give them some basic tools (maybe a spell-check program and a new e-mail address), and have them report on the important goings-on in their world.

Of course, a few immediate issues come to mind:

1. This presents a perfect opportunity for people, companies, organizations and causes to get their own word out there, unfiltered and unedited, under the guise of "community journalism." (Mayor Winder, the floor is yours.)

2. Since these community journalists are unpaid, they aren't exactly consistent in sending material to the mother ship for uploading and dissemination.

3. Even the most well-meaning citizen journalist lacks the training and experience to pursue the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of basic reporting. They lack the basic writing skills to put that information into coherent form. They are not committed to even the most fundamental set of journalism ethics and principles.

Otherwise, it's a great idea. Except it doesn't -- can't -- work. Some updates from the cutting edge of citizen journalism, reported by Tom Grubisich in a column on the blog Street Fight:

“You can’t depend on citizen journalists. I’ve got 12 reliable contributors from a community of 60,000. I’m the  mule, producing 80% of the editorial content. I’ve done 1,700 pieces in our two years, two months of existence, and my wife Jane has supplied a lot of the photos.” -- Patrick Boylan, Welles Park Bulldog (north Chicago)

We have NEVER had a ‘pro-am’ strategy. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free and think it unconscionable that moneyed enterprises like some huge corporations do. WSB is a professional, commercial news organization." --Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog

“All of our news content is original reporting and is paid for. We have paid freelance reporters in each town who have a specific beat. These are all veteran journalists." Mike Shapiro, Alternative Press, New Jersey

“I think the rubric of ‘citizen journalism’ has become outdated. A lot of the new activity is coming from people who have some kind of journalistic background. And they bring some of those core values to their efforts … The fact is that reporting is hard work and is rarely undertaken consistently by citizen-journalism volunteering on an episodic basis.” -- Jan Schaffer, New Voices

The exception appears to be AOL's massive venture, "Patch," which is attempting to repeat a Microsoft experiment of the 1990s called "Sidewalk" by creating hyperlocal sites throughout the country, coordinated from a main office. Now at 890 sites, Patch  is reducing ballooning costs by cutting back on freelancers, who back up multi-tasking editors. Each site also has a clutch of unpaid bloggers to provide "community flavor," Grubisich reports.

I've said it before -- citizen journalism isn't exactly like citizen rocket science, but not just anybody can "do" journalism, any more than any of us can fly to the moon. A better analogy might be teaching -- it takes four years of college and more years of experience, plus a good deal of hard work, to become a good teacher. Journalism is no different, except that a lot of journalists get paid less than teachers.

The Internet does a good many things, but it doesn't magically turn anyone with a computer into a journalist. The only hard thing to figure out is why that wasn't obvious from the start.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

World peace is next

The Post Register is partnering with the Eastern Idaho Entrepreneurial Center on a task so daunting that, should we succeed, we are contemplating taking on world peace as our next project.

Indeed, the name of the email group for this project is “whirledpeas” (“world peace,” get it?).

What could possibly be so fraught with peril? Essentially, EIEC’s assignment, in collaboration with our staff, is to find a business model for the Post Register that includes journalism, advertising, the Internet, people under the age of 35, and the potential for profit. So far, this combination has proven toxic. Our main attention will be to handheld devices.

“The brief history of the Internet,” writes British author and thinker John Lanchester, “is dominated by wishful thinking about turning internet traffic into revenue; companies that have managed to do it are vastly outnumbered by those who have learned the cruel new information era twist on ‘if you build it, they will come.’ The modern form of that now runs: ‘if you build it, they may well come, but only as long as it’s free.’ That is why, as Warren Buffett observed, the internet is probably a ‘net negative for capitalists’.”

Succinctly, here’s the problem:

1. With some exceptions, people pay precious little attention to most Internet advertising.

2. People under the age of 35 have grown up with the unfortunate and blatantly false assumption that real journalism can be delivered to their electronic devices for free.

3. Good journalism is expensive and can’t be done using “community journalists,” by rewriting press releases or by steam-of-consciousness blogging.

What you have here is a recipe for the ultimate disappearance of real journalism.

So far, there remains enough interest by readers and advertisers in the old-fashioned, printed-on-dead-trees form that it’s still profitable.

The Internet is the greatest, most efficient medium for exchanging data the world has ever seen, by an infinite factor. Unfortunately, as both Lanchester and Buffet make so clear, it’s not a great business tool. For every high-publicity success story, there are a thousand failures that go unnoticed.

Some newspapers have thrown in the towel when it comes to the Internet. In early 2011, the Newport (Rhode Island) Daily News set its annual price for print and online to $157, or a dollar a month above the print-only fee. But online-only access is $345 – a price that Publisher William Lucey III told Columbia University researchers “is more of a deterrent.” The amount was based on a scenario in which, “if everyone wanted only a digital product, this is what it would cost.”

Even Google loses money on every single venture (YouTube, owned by Google, loses $500 million a year), save one – targeted Internet advertising. This works not because Google’s ads are any better than others, but because there are, quite simply, so many of them. They scale on a global level – anything less than that doesn’t have the volume to work.

So newspapers have become hybrids, using the profits of print to subsidize experiments online. Based on current trends, at some point a good share of print readers will have quite literally died off, not to be replaced by the generation raised during the Age of Entertainment.

There are several potential outcomes:

1. Young readers will eventually migrate to print.

2. Young readers will be willing to pay some sort of reasonable but significant subscription fee for information provided by real journalism sources.

3. We will find a model that requires significantly less revenue to generate a profit than current models, and we’ll be able to generate enough revenue through a combination of advertising and subscriptions (or some heretofore unrecognized revenue source) to be sustainable.

4. Real journalism will become the realm of the non-profit and daily community newspapers will become a fond (or not so fond) memory.

To be clear, none of these scenarios is imminent. Predictions of the end of legacy media – newspapers, television and radio – have been wrong now for going on 20 years. They continue to be wrong. We’re talking about a transition that is likely to take anywhere from 10 to 25 years, maybe even longer.

Meanwhile, what to do? We hope to have the answer by the end of the winter term at Brigham Young University-Idaho and Idaho State University, whose students provide the resources for EIEC. If we’re successful, expect the end to all world conflict within six months of that.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Uriah Heep and the Internet

"In a city cut off from all news from the outside, there were more newspapers being published than ever -- thirty-six or more -- and representing every shade of political opinion. Hungry for news of almost any kind, Parisians now read newspapers as they walked down the streets. Yet at the same time there seemed even less faith that much of anything published could be trusted for accuracy."
--David McCullough in his book, "The Greater Journey," writing about the siege of Paris, 1870-71
The Internet siege of the 21st Century bears marked resemblance to the siege of Paris by the Prussians, without the need to eat rats to survive the lack of food. Information surrounds us, permeates our environment, is read as we walk the streets. Yet, perhaps even more than in the Paris of 1870, the information we take in is often wholly unreliable, drawn through filters that provide only a small portion of the total and, worse still, often either completely false or at least skewed in one direction or another.

In a way, such easy access to information is worse than having none at all. Emails containing every manner of falsehood are forwarded without thought to the original source as if anything found on our computers is true. More often than not, it isn't.

As McCullough points out, there's nothing particularly new about this phenomenon, except for the the ubiquity of the perfidy. It's not just the fault of bloggers, political hacks or fake experts. The "news" media, in their attempt to get it first or lure increasingly distracted consumers, think nothing of putting garbage in front of us.

Discerning the waste stream from legitimate news is no easy task. I've written and spoken about this until my acquaintances have taken to rolling their eyes -- "there he goes again." But this is one of those issues that requires repetition, if for no other reason than to make the point in as many ways as possible.

It's to the point that our first assumption should be that anything we read or hear is wrong, because those are the odds.

"We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know because they have never deceived us," wrote English author Samuel Johnson -- in the middle of the 18th century! Worse yet, we seek to confirm our own biases instead of challenging them. This is called confirmatory bias and, again, it's hardly a new thing.

In some cases this is a conscious choice, but more often it happens more subtly, and no one is exempt from it. Charles Dickens' character Uriah Heep in his book David Copperfield is the quintessential example of this, as everything he experiences becomes a confirmation of the biases that came out of his humble upbringing. We all have something of Uriah Heep in our character.

The difference today is that there are so many sources so easily available that confirming our biases has become all too easy. Without constant, conscious effort, it's likely only to get worse.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

DVRS and TV advertising

Nearly one-third of American voters say they didn’t watch “live” TV in the last week.

We’re not talking about the broadcasting of live events. We’re talking about TV programming as it is aired by the various networks.

In other words, 31 percent of voters surveyed in recent research said they essentially watch all their TV from a digital video recorder at a time of their choosing instead of when the shows are originally broadcast. If you make the logical assumption that this means most of these folks aren’t watching the commercials, you’d be right.

Eighty-eight percent of DVR owners say they skip commercials all or at least three-quarters of the time. Another 7 percent say it’s about half the time. That’s a total of 95 percent of DVR owners. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed own a DVR, which is how you get to a total of 31 percent who basically do all their TV watching from a digital recorder.

It gets worse. People between 18 and 44 years of age spend more time watching video content via DVRs, DVDs, computers, live streaming or mobile devices (11.7 hours a week) than they do watching “live” TV (6.5 hours). People of all ages say they are watching less live TV this year than last year.

The purpose of the survey was to help political parties and candidates decide how to reach voters with their message.

"People live very complex lives with media coming to them from many sources, and the big take-away here is that advertisers need to communicate in any way they can to the audience that matters to them," Matt Rosenberg, vice president of Internet marketing company SAY Media, told National Public Radio.

TV ads – particularly political ones – aren’t going away soon. For one thing, people don’t necessarily need to see that ad on live TV to eventually hear its message. Particularly nasty or compelling ads end up on YouTube and elsewhere, so they are seen one way or the other.

"It is one of the chief things that reporters love to cover, which is the television ad war," said Kenneth Goldstein, head of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, told NPR. "So you get an added buzz after that."

Of course, we ink-stained wretches in the print/online business aren’t above wondering out loud how results like this translate to the broader TV-viewing audience. Are local audiences tuning out TV commercials as much as we think?

It’s hard to say for certain, but the logical conclusion is that commercials on live TV are not as valuable as they were even five years ago. It’s another example of how the fragmentation of the media is changing the whole playing field.

Monday, September 26, 2011

If only they could do something about it ...

If we want to know about the weather, television is the place we turn.

Traffic? We turn on the radio.

But if our interests run to community events, crime, taxes, arts and culture, social services or zoning and development, the local newspaper is where we go.

This information is part of the latest survey by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Of the 16 topics surveyed by Pew, respondents were most likely to rely on local newspapers for 11 of them (and newspapers tied with the Internet or television on four others). In addition to weather, TV was the top choice for breaking news.

“This sense from the public that newspapers are a place where they can turn to for information on a wide range of local topics, more so than other sources, confirms findings from other Pew Research Center studies, particularly a report on which news organizations tend to break new information in local news reporting conducted in Baltimore and research on what news is available from different sources produced as part of the State of the News Media 2006 report,” the study concluded.

The younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to rely more on the Internet than more traditional information sources. No surprise there. Among all age groups, however, the Internet was a distant second to newspapers in terms of use and value.

Interestingly, these young information consumers believe they are turning to web-only sources when they seek news online. What they likely don’t know is that most news – including that found online – originates with newspapers (this was the finding of another Pew survey a few years ago).

To be fair, the survey also shows that more Americans watch TV news than read newspapers. However, they rely on TV for just a handful of topics – weather being at the top of the list. People who are serious about specific types of news, from crime to culture and most things in-between, are most likely to be newspaper readers.

There’s nothing particularly startling about any of these findings, unless you’ve been listening to those who continue to say that newspapers are dead or dying (though that drumbeat seems to be growing fainter).

One portion of the study offers a particular challenge to all media – nearly half of all adults, the survey found, use some type of mobile device to get some of their local news and information. Weather, again, is the most common, but nearly a third use a mobile device to find local businesses or restaurants and a quarter use one to get local news.

The challenge is this – how do information providers support this trend and still stay in business?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Big Lie is alive and well

"Since the MS press has its' (sic) feet forever planted in the corner of the unions they aren't about to throw gasoline on the fire of union thuggery. I have however seen reports of the Washington ruckus on the FNC - no surprise there - as they generally report all the news no matter who it impacts." Post on Sept. 11, 2011, on the Post Register's message board regarding reporting on illegal activities of union members at the Longview, Washington grain terminal 

"All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods." Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

No, I am not comparing the person who posted on the Post Register's web site to Adolph Hitler. I am noting, however, that the strategies they employ are strikingly similar. In the case of the Post Register poster, I'm quite sure the use of the strategy is completely incidental. It's become so commonplace to buy into and pass along the latest Big Lie that we don't even recognize when it's being done.

In this case, there are two Big Lies. The first is that there was precious little reporting on the outrageous actions by union members in Longview. It's simply not so -- all major news outlets covered it thoroughly, led by the newspapers in the Longview area.

The second is that the "mainstream media" (who are these people, anyway?) are so in lockstep with unions that they'll never report on them negatively. This is utter nonsense that lacks any shred of evidence. This Big Lie is perpetuated mostly by people who have heard it from elsewhere and chosen to believe it because it conforms nicely to their world view.

I did a series of searches on the Longview story. Most of the coverage started with local newspapers and was picked up by the Associated Press. Reuters did its own reporting on the story, as did a number of regional TV stations and Oregon Public Broadcasting. From there, every major national/world news outlet picked up it, save two: NBC and CNN. Ironically, however, that "liberal" bastion, MSNBC, had the story.

To be fair, the story did not appear in the Post Register. I think this was an oversight, but we simply don't publish much national and world news -- that's not what we're about. You want to know what's happening in eastern Idaho, we're all over it. Elsewhere, there are myriad other sources that do a far better job. That tendency will only increase in the future.

The Internet is the perfect place for spreading Big Lies among the intellectually lazy. On the other hand, for those willing to do a little effort (and who understand how to use search engines and select credible information sources), the Internet can kill any Big Lie.

The question is, do we want to know the truth or simply live within our version of reality? It's a damn good thing Hitler didn't have the Internet.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Here we go again

Most newspapers have a Facebook page, and many use the page to post news updates.

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why.

This issue goes way back to the start of the Internet. In those days, newspapers were in the enviable position of having a 100 percent paid readership that provided roughly 20 percent of their revenue. Enter the Internet, and newspapers managers panicked, creating web sites and dumping that precious news on the sites for free.
It’s an old story now – most newspapers have some sort of online subscription model nowadays, but it took 15 years to get there. Incredibly, some newspapers are now making the same mistake with Facebook.

I was reminded of this today when one of the Post Register’s Facebook friends asked for a news update about smoke in the air. I have “Liked” all of the Idaho newspapers with Facebook pages, and I’m astounded at how many of them use this social medium to deliver news updates.

What’s the upside to the newspaper? The implied message is, “Don’t subscribe to our newspaper; just ‘like’ our Facebook page and we’ll keep you up to date on breaking news.”

That’s just as crazy as giving their news away on their own home pages. Why is it that newspapers are so likely to fumble with new technology?

Many of us jumped on the Groupon bandwagon when it was the latest great thing, even though it was our competitor and brought nothing to our table. The same was true of deals with Google, Yahoo, Monster and other online operations that scared us to death. Rather than competing, we made like President Obama and cut a deal.

Most of those deals turned out to be very bad for newspapers and very good for the “partners.” Some are now openly speculating that Groupon is headed for big trouble. Still, newspapers swoon with every new suitor. 

I propose, as I have in the past, that part of the problem is that we’re afraid to be seen as old-fashioned if we don’t embrace every new technology or online-based product that comes down the pike. Rather than allowing ourselves to be smeared as technophobes, we abandon common sense and hop in bed with every enemy that emerges from the shadows. Many of us are still sending reporters out with video cameras to post online video versions of stories – lousy ones, at that.

Technology has disrupted the newspaper business model in a big way. The huge profits of the second half of the 20th Century are gone forever. But the core of the model still works – do local news and advertising better than anyone else, demand a fair price for your product, run an efficient, imaginative business, and you’ll succeed.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

AP's uncertain future at the PR

In these tumultuous times in the newspaper business, some transitions happen seemingly overnight, while others take a little more time.

We’re about to embark on the latter. We think.

Nearly all of the national and world news you read in the Post Register comes from the Associated Press, a non-profit cooperative of member newspapers and the largest collection of fine journalists on the planet. Some AP articles originate with the association’s staff journalists, while many others come from member newspapers.

One of the jolting changes in the news business has been the availability of national and world news for free on the Internet and cable TV. Community newspapers like the Post Register, once the main sources of local, national and world news, have found that their role has changed. That change boils down to one word: local.

We are best in the world at providing news and advertising information about eastern Idaho. As a source for national and world news, we’re way down the list and dropping.

This focus on local shows itself on our front page, which is dominated nearly every day by local news generated by our reporters and photographers or from other newspapers in our region with whom we have a story-sharing agreement. News from the Associated Press is increasingly relegated to inside pages.

While the AP continues to be an impeccable source of journalism, we’re frustrated by its slow pace of change, particularly in how it charges for its services. With a little more than a year left on our current contract, we’re going to figure out whether we – and our readers – can live without the AP.

This doesn’t mean we’ll abandon national and world news and sports. There are other sources available to us, particularly the worldwide news company, Reuters. We’ll have to cobble together other sources for sports and some other types of information, but we think it can be done. We looked seriously at this option a couple of years ago and found that alternative sources to the AP were lacking. We think that has changed.

If we can do it, we’ll take the money we save and invest it in local newsgathering. That feels like a win-win deal to us.

 We’re also considering other changes, like moving all our local news content (except for sports, features and opinion) into the A section. Barring a major event outside our readership area, our front page would be entirely local every day, and the rest of the front section would contain local news.

We have a little more than a year to make a final decision, but we wanted you to know what we’re thinking. We’ll keep you posted.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Troglodytes unite

I have been accused, rather often, of being a media troglodyte.

I protest. The argument has gone that printed media are inferior to the digital form for any number of reasons. It's old-fashioned. It's slow. It requires dead trees. It is favored among the old and decrepit. These are all true. They are also essentially irrelevant.

The greater issue is, what is the best way to learn, to become informed, to be engaged? Smart media managers say they are "agnostic" when it comes to the particular medium they want to use. What they mean is that anyone who still clings to print is a troglodyte.

As a newspaper publisher, I find many things about digital distribution quite enticing. The most compelling is that it's extraordinarily cheap. Many of us in the newspaper business, despite our reputations to the contrary, would love nothing more than to shed our images as ink-stained wretches and go all in when it comes to new media.

For better or worse, the Internet business models stink and, it turns out, printed media are still pretty darned effective -- both as a business and as a way to convey information. We now have some academic support.

Three doctoral candidates at the University of Oregon, people clearly way smarter (and younger) than I, have concluded that people who use new media tend to ignore their multimedia aspects. Moreover, they found that "...print subjects remembered more news stories than online subjects and suggest that the
development of dynamic online story forms in the past decade have had little effect toward making them more impressionable than print stories."

In other words, all of the effort we've all made toward utilizing the many bells and whistles of new technology are of less import than we had thought. I am not making this up.

In a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Mass Communication and Journalism, researchers Arthur D. Santana, Randall Livingstone and Yoon Cho. This research does nothing to counter studies that have shown that more people now get their news from the Internet than print, a process that took a mere 15 years.

However, the Oregon smarties cited research concluding that "print newsreaders remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders. Part of why online readers tend to scan stories while print readers tend to be more methodical might be explained by research that found newspapers offer news stories with more depth and breadth than online stories."

Not only are print sources more extensive, but Internet sources are "more opinionated" than print sources, they report.

There is nothing inherently superior to one medium over another, of course, and that's the point. The mere fact that information is distributed using the latest technology doesn't automatically make it inferior or superior to other methods. The current bias seems to be that the last 15 years portend the next 15. That isn't necessarily so.

News consumed in print is "more impressionable" than information found on the Internet. The researchers found that "online newspapers are apt to give fewer cues about the news story’s importance, thus giving readers more control over story selection. In this way, part of the agenda-setting function of the newspaper is lost in the online version. Online readers are apt to acquire less information about national, international and political events than print newsreaders because of the lack of salience cues; they generally are not being told what to read via story placement and prominence — an enduring feature of the print product." In fact, “...  what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation."

Of course, none of this suggests that either newspapers or readers should forsake the Internet. That would be stupid. However, as the Oregon researchers conclude, "The implications of the research should inform the resource priorities of newspapers as they continue to undergo sweeping changes in the readership habits of their print and online audience."

In other words, let's not rush toward embracing technology because it's there. Let's use it where it makes sense, but let's not be so quick to abandon methods that work.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Information junk food and bubble filters

It’s entirely possible that the more you use the Internet, the less you’ll really know about the world.
What happens over time is that algorithms used by Google, Facebook and other applications set up a “filter bubble” that constricts what you see online. In short, these applications keep track of what you search or talk about and start limiting what you see based on your use of the application.
Yahoo News does it. Some large newspaper web sites are doing it. Over time, this is shrinking your world.
At a recent Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, speaker Eli Pariser referred to this phenomenon as the emergence of “filter bubbles.”
When you use Google and other search engines, your results may differ vastly from those of others Googling the very same thing. What’s happening is that Google is filtering your results based on your previous searches.
Yahoo News uses 57 -- 57! -- different pieces of information to determine how it responds to your queries. These include everything from your previous searches to what kind of computer you use and where you live.
“This moves us very quickly toward a world where the Internet shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not necessarily what we need to see,” said Pariser.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said it more bluntly: “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”
In the world of filter bubbles, “You don’t decide what gets in, and, more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out,” Pariser says. “Instead of a balanced information diet, you can end up surrounded by information junk food.”
“What we’re seeing is more of a passing of the torch, from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones. The thing is that the algorithmic ones don’t have the kind of embedded ethics that the editors did.”
This happens despite our best efforts to avoid it. You may think you’re really digging through the Internet in search of answers and information. But your search is only as good as the algorithm that drives it, and those algorithms are keeping you in a box.
One of the most valuable and enjoyable parts of consuming information -- from newspapers, magazines, television, books, and, yes, the Internet -- is a sense of serendipity. We often learn things we hadn’t set out to search for. That is largely lost on the Internet, despite the sense of the Internet's vastness.
“We need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility (followed by newspaper editors before the Internet) into the code that they’re writing,” said Pariser, to a standing ovation.
(Thanks to reader Robert Wright for alerting me to this presentation.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Criticizing journalism, one cartoon panel at a time

Eight or nine years ago, Brooke Gladstone interviewed me for her National Public Radio show, "On the Media."

Back then, the Post Register was one of a handful of daily newspapers in the U.S. charging for access to its online content, and this was her topic. I must have been boring or lacked insight, because the segment never aired, so far as I know. It’s moot, of course, because nowadays most small newspapers charge in one way or another for online access to their news.

Gladstone has written a new book, “The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media,” (W.W. Norton, $23.95) and it’s getting a lot of buzz. Well, “written” is too strong a word. It’s essentially a comic book, or “graphic” book, consisting mostly of pages of cartoons by Josh Neufeld and cartoon bubbles with commentary by Gladstone. Presumably she did this to attract a broader audience – people who don’t like to read, in other words.

This is an important segment of our population, so Gladstone gets kudos there. However, the book is neither profound nor important on a larger scale. That said, she makes some relevant points – not that I agree with all of them.

For example, she suggests that objective journalism is an impossible goal and should be thrown over in favor of transparency and disclosure. 

“The question isn’t whether (journalists) hold opinions, but whether they suppress those opinions – to the extent they can – when they do their work,” she writes in one particularly eloquent cartoon bubble.

Here, of course, she states the obvious. No one believes that journalists are automatons devoid of opinion or life experience that colors their world view. But just because pure objectivity can’t be achieved doesn’t mean that we should dump it as the ideal. Truth is, we should strive to be objective AND be utterly transparent in our process.
The ideal of objectivity came about as a business decision, not an ethical one, as Gladstone points out. Early in our country’s history, newspapers openly supported one agenda or another. Eventually, however, publishers learned they could sell more papers by providing a product that appealed to the broadest possible audience. It was well into the 20th century before this became an ethical ideal.

Gladstone uses up a good share of her cartoon panels trying to make the point that “media” is a plural noun and that there can be no monolithic “mainstream media” that wields powerful, coordinated influence. This would seem to be slap-yourself-on-the-forehead obvious, but perhaps it takes seeing it in graphical form to drive home the point.

If you have some time between dinner and bed time one evening and hate the idea of tracking footnotes, grab up the book and give it a read. Meanwhile, I’m going to drop her an email to suggest that I’m available to revisit the paid content issue.