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News item: “Facebook is rolling out a new tool that allows its users to track their friends in real time.

“Flipping on the feature in the Facebook mobile app lets you share your general or specific location with friends.”

You’re at your favorite isolated getaway, finally alone. No squabbling family or demands from a boss or spouse. Stretched out on a chaise lounge in the sun, you close your eyes and doze off. You awake to the sound of nearby footsteps.

“HEY, there you are! Wake up, sleepy head!”

You blink and look up. Someone is silhouetted against the blue, perfect sky, but you’d know that head anywhere. “Oh, uh, Bill? Hey.”

“Hey! Having fun, right, relaxing in the sun.”

You’re still groggy. “Right,” you say, but you’re wondering what he’s doing here.

“Hey! I got an idea. Let’s head into town! I know just the spot! This area is practically my second home.”

Oh no, you think. Oh no oh no oh no. “I don’t know,” you say.

“Oh, come on! You’ll love it.” Bill pulls up a chair and sits, then reaches into your cooler and pops open a can.

“Help yourself,” you say. Bill misses your sarcasm. “Say, Bill, what brings you here?”

“My car. HA! Get it? My car brings me here!” Bill always laughs at his own jokes. “I slay me,” he says.

“Yeah, no I mean did you just happen to spot me as you were driving past on your way somewhere?” you ask. “The coincidence of it just struck me.”

“No coincidence, buddy, Facebook showed me you were here.” He holds up his phone, and you see a tiny version of your disembodied head at the center of the map on the screen.

“Oh, yeah,” you say, “Facebook.” You thought you had turned off the friend-finder feature. You reach into your pocket to check.

“Yeah. You know, I’m glad I checked it, because otherwise I probably would have just stayed home this weekend. Imagine that!”

You try not to look too startled.

“But then I looked, and I said to myself, ‘Now that’s a plan!’”

Your phone’s Facebook app shows you that the friend-finder app is indeed on. You toggle it to off. But then the icon slides back by itself. You slide it back. It won’t stay and slides back to on. “I think I need to reboot the phone,” you say.

“Tell you what!” Bill says. “I’ll go make a store run and be back lickety split! Then we can both start relaxing!”

You hold down the phone button to reboot it, nodding at Bill.

“You need anything?” Bill asks.

“No, I’m good.”

Bill walks to his car as your phone’s screen lights up again. You open Facebook. Friend-finder is still on. You toggle it to off – but it keeps sliding back. You sigh and start to contemplate the drive back home. Or – you get an idea – maybe a long-distance drive, to Palo Alto, Calif. You use your phone’s voice-recognition feature and ask it a question: “Where does Mark Zuckerberg live?”

Let’s be 100 percent clear about this: There is no survey that designated the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area, where I live, as one of the nation’s “most miserable cities,” no matter what you read on Facebook or in a newspaper or saw on the Charlotte TV news.

What did happen is that the Gallup polling organization and a company called Healthways – which sells its services to businesses looking for ways to decrease health costs while boosting performance – issued the 2014 version of an annual report that, among other things, ranked 189 metropolitan statistical areas based on a nationwide survey of more than 500,000 people, who were asked about their height and weight, how much they exercise, how many servings of fruits and vegetables they eat, whether they smoke, how much stress they think they are under and whether they have health insurance.

The pollsters plugged those answers into a formula and came up with a number expressing each area’s “overall well-being.”

Note that nowhere in the evaluation is any expression of miserableness.

If you look at the Gallup-Healthways site ranking the communities, you find stress on the positives, such as, “There are tangible policies that communities can adopt to actively cultivate and improve residents’ well-being.”

This is the most-negative thing that Gallup-Healthways said in its reporting:

“Huntington-Ashland also trailed all other metros in 2008, 2010, and 2011; its score of 58.1 in 2010 remains the lowest on record across five reporting periods spanning six years of data collection.”

This is the second-most-negative, and it involves our region and two others in the bottom 10:

“None of these metro areas are strangers to the bottom 10 list, with each community having appeared at least once on the list in a prior reporting period.”

That’s it. It’s not so bad, and it doesn’t come close to “miserable.” How could it when the 189th-ranked metro area’s overall score is barely 13 points lower than the top-ranked metro?

And if you study the individual scores in the separate categories of the survey, what killed the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area’s score was that too many people smoke and not enough people exercise regularly. In every other category, our scores were solidly in the middle of the pack, but in those two, our scores are pretty bad — we had the fourth-highest smoking rate and 12th-lowest exercise rate.

So where, you may wonder, did the term “most miserable cities” come about?

This is a tale of the Internet and the term “clickbait.” Companies that make most of their money from Internet advertising need to be able to get lots and lots of people to come to their sites because the advertiser pays based on how many people see the page that the ad is on. To do this, some sites write headlines that are at least somewhat misleading. In other words, they bait people into clicking the headline.

The “America’s most miserable cities” headline is one of those.

Whoever did it hoped that the reaction would be, “Oh my God! We live in (or know someone who lives in) one of America’s most miserable cities! I have to post this to Facebook!” Which then would be followed by lots and lots and lots more people clicking on the link to go to the site to see the list. Better yet, the headline also appears on a photo gallery, requiring people to click through all 10, which gooses the website’s statistics even more.

That “miserable” designation apparently originated at a website called 24/7 Wall St., and it spread far and wide via Yahoo!, among others (the one I saw on Facebook was on Yahoo!).

Until online advertisers decide that sheer volume of clicks is not a good measure of the value they get for their advertising dollar, you’ll probably keep seeing things like that.

But I can say this for sure: Any reporter or editor at any newspaper or TV station who picked up the “miserable” terminology without checking to see whether the word really appeared in the survey is a miserable excuse for a journalist.


If innovation is all about learning how to fail, the news business is innovating its butt off.

This morning brought the news that Digital First Media, which has been making the industry’s biggest, hardest, loudest pitches for transformation away from print-centered operations, is going to close its biggest innovation, Project Thunderdome, and may begin selling newspapers.

A number of the names attached to DFM’s digital push I first became aware of because of their work elsewhere, especially Jim Brady, Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins. Many of the things they have advocated have felt, on a gut level, like the right things to do to get to the future of the news business. They have demonstrated ways to build engagement online and build news audience online even as the decades-long decline in newspaper circulation, which long predated the Internet, continues and TV audiences erode.

The problem, as ever, is that while most people seem to agree that the future of news is digital and mobile, the “business” part of it doesn’t seem able to innovate or migrate its way as quickly as the news part can.

Now if DFM has faltered, as the innovative hyperlocal site TBD did before it, will others pull back?

Publishers have always been wary of venturing quickly into the digital realm without proof they can generate revenue there equal to what they lose by dropping print, so doesn’t this provide just one more excuse to slow down?

And because the Orange County Register’s efforts to boost business by reinvesting in the print product also appear to be going nowhere, the new mantra in news might just become, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

But when you know the beach is eroding under your feet, just standing there isn’t much of an option. I think we all have to keep looking at the kinds of things TBD, DFM and others have been trying, and pick the ones that make sense in our own newsrooms with the staff we have. Pick up the flag and keep marching forward.

UPDATE: Steve Buttry makes the argument that you can’t call Thunderdome a failure (or TBD either) because it was never given enough time to succeed. I think he’s correct, but I don’t think the folks who can put money into these kinds of things will examine the merits of his argument closely. I’m afraid the narrative that will be constructed from the outside will say that what was tried at Thunderdome, and TBD, clearly failed or the plug wouldn’t have been pulled.

On another topic, I also just read the post from Digital First CEO John Paton explaining today’s moves. It says, in part:

“In the past two years we have learned a tremendous amount from Project Thunderdome much like others that have come before it like our Ben Franklin Project.

“We have explored, experimented but more importantly we have learned and have a much higher level of digital skills than we did before. And, best of all, a higher level of confidence in our digital abilities across our entire Company.

“Our skills in data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments are all the better for Project Thunderdome.

“But what once were fairly isolated skills located in one place are now skills shared by many in our Company. Where once initiatives, like Project Unbolt were led centrally, we now have divisions taking their own Digital First initiatives.”

In other words, Thunderdome was so successful that the company no longer needs it.

Project Unbolt, by the way, was announced Jan. 29. I guess that would make it the most successful digital initiative ever because it made itself obsolete in barely more than two months.

Maybe it’s not Orwellian of Paton to put it that way, but on a much smaller scale I have seen what happens when “successful” initiatives driven by corporate HQ suddenly end. Often, so does the success; what you thought was “buy in” was editors telling staff, “Just do it and get corporate off my butt, OK?” If that was the case at any DFM properties, it should be clear before long — probably in much less time than Thunderdome had to build these new skills and habits across DFM.

4/3/14 UPDATE: Good business perspective from Alan Mutter:

“In other words, the objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models, whatever they eventually may turn out to be.

It would be a mistake to view the failure at Digital First as a failure of digital publishing or a reason to stop trying to get it right.”

4/4/14 UPDATE: Great contribution of context by Mandy Jenkins, which among other things further points out the corporate babble of Paton’s statement about Thunderdome having been so successful. Among other things:

“Thunderdome never even got the chance to carry out even the beginnings of our goals. Many of our long-planned channels just started launching. We had a number of new revenue-generating products on the horizon. We had just started building our in-house product team.”

A rose is a rose is a rose.

But a rose is not a daisy or an iris or a pansy.

More is not less, and over is not under.

At least not yet.

The Associated Press hasn’t changed its mind on how journalists should use those words, but I wonder whether it’s only a matter of time.

This week the Associated Press changed a rule in the AP Stylebook. And the change was met with howls of disgust and outrage – mine. But I wasn’t the only one howling.

The rule in question governed the use of “more than” versus “over” when talking about quantity or volume. The rule has been essentially that you use “more than” for things you can count, and you use “over” for things that can be measured but not counted. For instance, “more than 12 items,” and “over a quart.”

But AP now says you don’t have to bother with the distinction anymore. Whatever works. It’s all good.

Why?

Because “it has become common usage.”

You know why it has become common usage? Because not enough people have bothered to learn what’s correct. That isn’t a good reason to lower your standards. It’s like the language equivalent of grade inflation — if no one can earn an A anymore, just lower the bar so what used to get a B grade is now worth an A.

One of the more amusing reactions to AP’s decision that “over” and “more than” were interchangeable came from Mike Shor on Twitter: “More than my dead body!”

Once upon a time, when you wanted to express the idea that something didn’t matter to you, you said, “I couldn’t care less.”

But it has been years since I heard anyone say that. What they say now is, “I could care less.”

Why would anyone say that? If you “could care less,” it means you care. If you care, it bothers you. It makes no sense to say that if you mean that it doesn’t bother you.

But because so many people now say it, it’s “common usage,” the same theory AP has used to say that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable.

And so it goes.

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass” said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” And that’s exactly how we get to this point.

There used to be a difference between the meanings of “composed” and “comprised.” But some people didn’t learn it, others couldn’t remember it, some of each didn’t bother to check before they used one of the words, and after a while the dictionary started listing both definitions as correct for each.

“Common usage” doesn’t make it right.

And no, I don’t propose that those who know the difference go around correcting everyone publicly when people use words incorrectly. But if the people who use words for a living give in to the incorrect uses, then what?

If enough people say blue and yellow are the same color, eventually the words for them will come to have the same meaning, but that will mean only that the words have lost their usefulness.

If we keep rounding the edges off of words because we let people who don’t bother to learn the correct definitions rewrite the definitions, all we will be left with eventually is, “Well, you knew what I meant.”

Reading about attracting news audiences and revenue for online news sites has often been depressing. Even for someone who believes in the need for meeting the audience where it is and adapting to the needs of online and mobile news consumers, at times it has felt like the future was heading toward a world dominated by Buzzfeedy listicles and clickbait and Upworthy-worthy headlines, where all advertising revenue is forever lagging and all audiences are zephyrlike transients.

You can simultaneously believe that not just journalism but locally oriented journalism is necessary for society but feel overwhelmed by skepticism about how many people out there have the same belief and will actively seek it in numbers that will support some kind of sustainable revenue model.

But recent weeks have brought some research to stoke your optimism.

The American Press Institute reported this week on a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about news-consumption habits:

“When asked to volunteer how they came to the news, people tend think less about the device than the news gathering source and the means of discovery (social media or search). Taken in combination, the findings suggest that people make conscious choices about where they get their news and how they get it, using whatever technology is convenient at the moment.”

The survey also found that people do notice what strengths different news organizations have, for instance turning to local TV sources (TV itself or a TV station’s website) for weather, traffic, crime, and health news, and newspaper sources for news about their local town or city, for news about arts and culture, and for news about schools and education.

And hasn’t that been one of the underlying hopes of traditional journalists, that our existing “brand” is more than our traditional medium or platform, that the public associates our news organization with the news we produce?

That’s what this survey indicates is the case – they seek us out for news, not just, as often is said, wait for any news that really is important to find them:

“Overall, for instance, social media is becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news — but hardly the only one, even for the youngest adults.

“… People across all generations are most likely to discover news by going directly to a news organization, rather than letting the news come to them.”

Super.

We can check off that part of how to survive the future.

That still leaves revenue, the front that has been the bleakest, where analog dollars turn to digital dimes, if that.

But Tony Haile, the CEO of data-analytics company Chartbeat, wrote in a column last week for time.com on research by his company that finds that audiences drawn to actual news may hold more value for advertisers than those on other sites because they pay attention to the page and linger longer. Why that matters:

“Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.”

And best of all, it may be that news organizations have undervalued their advertising slots that are lower on the digital page, especially below the “fold” where ads and content aren’t seen unless the viewer scrolls:

“Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content, not the cruft, is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.”

Pair this with the results of a study by the Pew Research Journalism Project that found that “People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter ‘sideways’” through social media and other referrels, as Andrew Beaujon wrote last week at Poynter.org.

The Pew report, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” said:

“In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors — those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked — spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral.

“… For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

This doesn’t suggest to me that all the time newsrooms spend now trying to engage audiences on Facebook, Twitter or other social sites is wasted or even that it should be cut back. It puts your news in front of audiences, including some people who are not regular readers or viewers. That exposure may be critical in building your brand in the minds of that portion of the audience.

That makes it up to you to be sure that what you have lured them to is news they find worthwhile enough that they come back on their own.

And that has always been the name of the game for survival in news.

Now just a cotton-pickin’ minute here.

Do you mean to tell me that someone is trying to move Mayberry out of North Carolina to some spot way up North?

Uh-uh, naw sir, that won’t do. That won’t do ay-tall.

The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that the town of Danville, Indiana, is planning a two-day “Mayberry in the Midwest” festival in May. The idea apparently sprang from a Mayberry-themed restaurant in the town.

Now, you might not have been able to tell it from the accents of many of the people populating Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show” – the mayor, the lady druggist, Barney, Aunt Bee, Otis, the chorus director and any member of the state police who passed through town, to name a few – but Mayberry was set in North Carolina, not central Indiana barely more than a hop, a skip and a jump from the home of the Indy 500, where the cars may all keep turning left but look more like cigars than anything in a dealership’s stock.

Andy Griffith, of course, grew up in Mount Airy and based the fictional Mayberry in great part on his hometown. There has long been a Snappy Lunch there, just like in the show, and you might recall the frequent references in the TV show to the nearby town of Mount Pilot and notice on a map that Mount Airy is very near Pilot Mountain. Mount Airy, in turn, has been a top attraction for fans of the TV show and long ago adopted Mayberry as its alter ago. It hosts an annual Mayberry Days festival, and the actress who played Thelma Lou moved to Mount Airy a few years ago to escape California and settle in to a place where people make her feel like family.

Considering all this, you just have to ask yourself two questions. One: Do the good people of Danville, Indiana, think folks don’t remember that the show was set in North Carolina and won’t notice the decided lack of any Andy-like way of talking in those parts? That hardly seems likely.

Now, what would all those folks up in Indiana think if we down here tried to take up one of their better-known attractions and make like it was ours? Maybe the “World’s Largest Ball of Paint” in Alexandria, or the Giant Lady’s Leg Sundial in Lake Village.

They might not like it one bit, and who could blame them?

No, right is right, Mayberry belongs in North Carolina, and anyone who knows anything about Mayberry knows exactly what Danville, Indiana, has to do to make this here sitchyayshun right.

Nip it. Nip it in the bud.

“The paper is mainly full of bad news.”

A reader, or maybe by now it’s more accurate to call her a former reader, included that in a letter this week. News, as defined by what most news organizations write about, was at the very bottom of the list of things she wants in a newspaper. (“Ziggy” was at the top.)

It’s a complaint that editors have heard at times literally for decades. It’s not true, though. Just looking through the past week’s front pages of my paper (which is published Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday):

Last Sunday had a story about a young boy who appears to be recovering from a near-fatal blood infection.

Tuesday had a story alerting readers of the coming Red Dress Dance to benefit the Wig Bank, one of the community’s many great charities.

Wednesday had a feature about John Hawkins, who plans to step down as director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum at the end of the year.

Thursday had a picture of children playing in the snow, and a promotional teaser about a feature on the sports page on the county’s high school runner of the year.

Friday had a feature about a man who puts together giant jigsaw puzzles.

We try as much as we can to present a mix, reflecting to some extent the variety of daily life in this community.

I don’t think it’s a majority view, but there definitely is a certain segment of the population who would rather the paper be filled only with positive news.

But that would not seem to be what most people want. Go to any newspaper in the country and ask to see the best-selling and worst-selling papers of the past year, and check the website metrics, and you’ll be able to tell. I have a list of ours, and the worst-selling papers almost all were dominated by feel-good stories: the first day of school, the fiddler’s convention, a feature on a man living atop a mountain who has a lot of weather-watching instruments, a feature on a retiree, a festival preview, a positive business news story – on and on.

The top-selling papers by far, and the top website headlines, have been anything involving a killing or anything involving the bankruptcy of Furniture Brands International, one of the largest local employers.

You might argue that the high interest in bad news indicates that people like prurient news, kind of the print version of reality TV, but that’s not how I see it at all.

One thing that makes bad news inherently more attractive as reading material is that it’s more dramatic, which makes it more interesting.

And sometimes there certainly is a “there but for the grace of God go I” element at play. Stories of lives upended grab people and engage their emotions. Often, people call the News-Topic wanting to offer help to people whose tragedies have been told in the paper.

But mostly, I think people are looking for things to talk about. When they get together with friends or coworkers, someone is going to say, “Hey, did you hear about,” and launch into the most interesting thing that person has heard or read recently, and there is always a lot more to talk about when something bad happens than when something good happens.

“Did you hear? All of the planes coming to Charlotte yesterday landed safely.”

By definition, news is something unusual or unexpected. You expect your house not to burn down. You expect to arrive safely at your destination. You expect not to lose your job because the company is going out of business. You expect all these things because that’s what almost always happens, and it’s unusual when it doesn’t.

That’s why if any newspaper, TV station or website focused on local news ever makes a lot of money reporting nothing but good news it will be one of the biggest news stories of the year.

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