Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If Fox and HLN had rules

Fox News, like most of its cable competitors, is populated mostly by pundits and talking heads, not journalists.

Chris Wallace is one of the very few exceptions. Why he stays with an organization that has such a poor track record for journalism is another matter. Generally speaking, though, Wallace seems to try to do a decent job.

He recently picked up a lifetime achievement award for excellence in journalism from the Radio Television Digital News Association. No, I didn’t know there was such an organization, either.

It might come as a surprise to some that during his acceptance speech he encouraged his fellow journalists to stop focusing on getting things first.

“Play the long game,” he said. “Tell your audience we won’t always have it first, not because we aren’t covering the story, but precisely because we are covering the story."

Too many news organizations are so fascinated with the technology that allows us to immediately communicate with the world that they forget the first rule: Get it right. Wallace warned against focusing on speed over accuracy, which is particularly dangerous today because errors rarely get corrected.

“The Internet will always be first — I’m not talking right now about legitimate digital news organizations,” Wallace said. “You cannot compete with twitters, and bloggers and people that are writing in their pajamas living in their parents’ basement.”

Sadly, some actual news organizations behave as if they’re operating out of their parents’ basement dressed in their pajamas. They put out information without verifying its accuracy or checking for context. That results in a world that is much more poorly informed than it ought to be.

As I’ve written before, journalism demands more than regurgitating information overheard on a police scanner or picked up from a press release.

No news organization is uniformly perfect. Too few, however, have established standards and rules to guide them. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the formal standards that result in the output of our cable news channels like HLN, CNN, Fox and MSCNBC? Some possible examples:

1. When hiring women, make absolutely certain they are attractive and willing to wear short skirts.
2. Don’t worry about fact-checking. No one takes us seriously anyway.
3. At the end of the day, it’s all about ratings. You will be forgiven nearly anything if enough people watch your program.
4. Whatever you do, don’t go into too much detail. Our viewers aren’t bright enough to take in a lot of information in one sitting. This rule can be broken if the news event is particularly enticing, such as the kidnapping of a young girl or similar atrocity.
5. If you don’t have something compelling to say, just speak louder.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Smashing idols

“A contrarian zigs when others zag, but an iconoclast, derived from Greek, ‘smashes idols.’ The newspaper industry has erected two idols that must be smashed. The first is the notion that digital information must be free. The second is that the newspaper business can only be saved by digital solutions. Both are false.” – Eric Spitz, co-owner of the Orange County Register
Eric Spitz is not a newspaper guy. He’s a beer guy.

Prior to becoming co-owner of the Orange County Register, the 14th-largest newspaper in the U.S., his claim to fame was to help revive the Narrangasett Brewing Company, the official beer of the Boston Red Sox. So, naturally, he bought a newspaper.

He and co-owner, Aaron Kushner, were trend-starters. Coming out of other industries (Kushner was once in the greeting card business), they bought Freedom Newspapers and its Anaheim-based flagship from a family no longer interested in newspapers. We’ve since seen Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos snap up newspapers for similar reasons.

Perhaps this is what it takes to slap newspaper people upside the head sufficiently to waken them from their digital fantasy.

In the same Wall Street Journal column in which he made the above statement, he wrote:

“In the past 12 months we hired 350 people, built 25 new sections, revamped all of our weekly community papers (even making two of them into dailies) and launched a weekly set of magazines. Beginning in the first quarter of 2013 we have seen year-over-year increases in both subscription revenue and in advertising revenue. In other words, it's time to stop chasing the digital ghost.”

Spitz, the outsider, is astonished at the stupidity of newspapers that gave their news away for free online.

“How can a newspaper charge for its content when other competitors choose to give away their work?” he writes. “The old-fashioned way – by differentiating the content, boosting its quality, and making it essential to the community it serves.”

There’s no guarantee that Spitz is right. Predictions regarding the “legacy media” of newspapers, broadcast television and radio over the past 15 years or so have been consistently wrong. But there are some basic ideas that have worked within capitalism for a long time that can be summarized thusly: Charge a fair price for a product that people want. Spend less than you bring in.

As Spitz clearly understands, the Internet didn’t suspend the rules. He recognizes that online advertising has its place, but it has limitations.

“Just for fun,” he writes, “walk into a Starbucks and ask the first 10 people you see, ‘When was the last time you clicked on or even paid attention to a digital ad?’ The overwhelming majority will say ‘never’ or ‘not on purpose.’ ”

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jeff Bezos and WaPo

“Let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: The beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries reinvest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.” --James Fallows

Yes, yes, here we have Roger and his cup half full in all its splendor. It seems to me, however, that the recent buying trends of newspapers are the best thing to happen in our business in at least five years -- buyers taking newspapers private with the main motivation being something other than the expectation of high, unsustainable profits.

Obviously, any business must be profitable to survive. The rather obscene profits of the 20th century that transformed our business into a handful of publicly held conglomerates with shareholders demanding unsustainable 30-plus percent margins are forever a thing of the past. Reasonable, sustainable profits, on the other hand, are entirely achievable, even as the fundamental model has been destroyed and must be rebuilt.

Flawed as they were, the newspaper owners of a hundred years ago had similar motivations. In the case of WaPo, whose circulation has fallen by nearly 50 percent in 10 years, Bezos overpaid by a big number, even though the total accounts for about 1 percent of his net worth.

The emergence of people who believe in "reinvesting in the infrastructure of our public intelligence" is a positive turn of events. Seen in its best light, we have the recognition that local journalism -- and, in the case of the Boston Globe and Washington Post, regional and even global journalism -- is a fundamental foundation of a free society is, at the very least, encouraging.

Thirty years ago many of us were loudly complaining about the "corporatization" of newspapers and its negative effects on journalism. Instead of seeing the emergence of billionaires snapping up newspaper at bargain-basement prices as a bad thing, we should see it as a return to the days of more localized ownership by people who actually care about quality reporting and bringing local shoppers and sellers together.

Local journalism isn't out of the woods. Innovation needs to continue. No, it needs to accelerate. But newspaper managers haven't been sitting on their hands, as some like to claim. Innovation is happening apace. But innovation that weakens local journalism isn't progress.

Print is not as profitable as it once was, but it still generates nearly all the profits for local newspapers. The trend away from print and toward digital will continue, though there's plenty of evidence that it's slowing. There's very little danger that printing presses will be grinding to a halt any time soon. Instead, newspapers are running essentially parallel businesses in print and digital, despite real efforts to blend them.

My former employer, what was then called Thomson Newspapers, saw the downturn coming and sold its newspaper holdings more than a decade ago at exaggerated values. That company has gone on to make a lot of money in other businesses, headed by my former boss, once a reporter at the Canton Repository. Good for him and his company.

Now we see rich people buying newspapers as "trophies." Good for them and good for us.