Archive for May, 2011

Someday I’m not going to feel the need to react to tales like that from Poynter’s Romenesko about a journalism professor whose admission that he went without a newspaper subscription for a while enraged a newspaper columnist. The columnist’s objection, in summary:

“A journalism department chairman who can’t be bothered to actually subscribe to a daily newspaper? How do you think your students might one day actually get paid for their work?”

If every journalist in the world subscribed to a newspaper, that wouldn’t keep them all employed, nor would it convince all the non-journalists around them that they ought to subscribe too. Most importantly, if newpaper circulations rebounded to what they were 10 years ago, that wouldn’t necessarily convince advertisers to put all the money back in newspapers that they have diverted elsewhere, and it definitely would never recapture the classified advertising that has flown forever to such places as Monster.com and craigslist. (Hey, journalists, do any of you still pick up Editor & Publisher if you need to look for another job, or do you go to journalismjobs.com?) The news business has an advertising problem, not a paid-circulation problem. At current industry subscription rates, if you lose circulation but your advertising grows 25 percent, you’re in high cotton; but if you have a 50 percent increase in circulation but a 50 percent drop in advertising, you are headed for layoffs.

News people can’t worry about advertising problems. What we can and should think about is the larger issue represented by the professor’s decision to go without a paper for a while: changes in society in how people get information. If a newspaper (or TV news show) is no longer seen as vital, why is that? Is that our fault, or largely a change in technology and lifestyles? If part of it is our fault — how we present the news, the kind of news we present, the topics we don’t present — then is it fixable?

UPDATE: The Nieman Journalism Lab checks in on Newport (R.I.) Daily News, which appears to be having success charging for online access — but note that the company’s goal is not to make online news a self-sustaining enterprise but to prop up print circulation, and from there the task remains selling advertising.

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CNN.com’s headline says these are 10 fascinating Facebook facts, but only one truly qualifies as fascinating to me: Among people under 35, 36 percent admit to “tweeting, texting and checking Facebook after sex.” An excuse not to cuddle? Or talk?

But as a group, the 10 facts provide an interesting snapshot of some of the ways people, especially the young-adult demographic, use Facebook, currently the key social-media tool for newsrooms.

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Joplin before and after
Jot this idea down in case a disaster ever levels your city: Use Google Streetview to get a “before” scene of anyplace in town. The above from Joplin, Mo. (pros take note: the “after” photo by a citizen-journalist).

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Lt. Schwenk
In a nearly 112-years-overdue, story-length correction, James Barron of the New York Times uncovers an impressive amount of detail about numerous errors the Times and others made in accounts of one man’s life, including in his obituary, and the mystery surrounding some of the facts in those accounts. But the real mystery to me is this: Why is this story more engaging than almost anything else I’ve seen in the Times in recent times? Is it merely the lure of a mystery? Or is it the look into the kind of details about a person’s life that we don’t usually get in the typical story — that I would have read all the way through a story about a modern person if it were like this?

The Bristol Herald-Courier has been treading some similar ground recently with stories about unsolved murders (the first was about a nurse’s death in Chilhowie, Va., and just this past weekend there was a three-parter, Outlaws or Inlaws). Murder mysteries have proven appeal, but is it the mystery or the people that draws an audience?

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Ben LaMothe poses a question on the 10,000 Words blog about engaging your audience on social-media channels, and I can’t help but notice it’s basically the same question that applies to any medium:

“Why people should follow you, read your updates, add you as a Fan or Friend, or care at all about your existence online? What’s in it for them?”

The key part: What’s in it for them?

What I always tell writers they need to answer up high in a story: Why should the reader care? It’s the same thing. If you don’t give people a reason to pay attention to you, they won’t pay attention. What do you have to offer that’s relevant to the people in your target audience? “News” is a category of answers to the question, not a sufficient answer in itself.

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cat news
All right, so maybe it won’t be robot editors who take our jobs. Instead it might be the readers themselves who become their own news editors, creating their own personalized news product every day, or as often as they want news. That’s the vision of Ben Huh, creator of the Cheezburger network of sites, best known for the funny photos of cats with the funnier captions. In a Seattle Times article, it doesn’t sound like a radical departure from the direction things on the Web already are going:

“His plan is to create an open-source platform that people could use to be ‘amateur editors,’ designing and managing their own blend of online news sources and advertising. If there’s enough interest he’d like to develop it as a public tool like blogging platform WordPress.org.

“The end product sounds like a portal creation tool along the lines of Netvibes.com, a site that lets users customize a personal home page with widgets and news feeds.”

5/24/2011 UPDATE: ReadWriteWeb has further details, including a wireframes mockup of what Huh has in mind.

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Weekly Dig
Newspaper design consultant Charles Apple rounds up how various newspapers played stories about predictions of the Rapture. For comics fans (like me) it’s hard to beat the front (above) of the Weekly Dig from Boston, depicting Jesus as Marvel Comics’ world-destroying Galactus confronting an Avengers-style group of various other deities. It’s an alt-weekly, so they have the kind of freedom to play around like that.

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Thanks to Matthew Ingram of GigaOm for transparency and the work compiling a debate conducted via Twitter about news stories offering links to source material. That news stories should provide links is a given for many, like Matthew, but it’s not a universal view. I think it’s the ideal (as Matthew writes, doing readers a service “by making stories as complete as possible and by providing them with links to further information instead of making them hunt through Google for it” — which also makes sure they don’t find misinformation via Google), but I struggle, given the limitations of the content-management systems I’m familiar with, with the idea of where in the process the links get inserted and by whom, especially if it’s to be the norm for all staff-generated stories. The Web “staff” at most news sites are not enough to handle the volume, and as noted by Patrick LaForge in the Twitter debate, it doesn’t fit neatly into the reporting and writing process. Which is probably how we arrive at the current state of affairs: Stories deemed to be important and of high reader interest get the attention needed to build the Web extras, including links to outside material, but the typical story is linkless. (Another job for the robots?)

5/20/2011 UPDATE: More on this subject, from Publish2.

5/21/2011 UPDATE: I confess I am still catching up on much of the online debate on this topic (more here, with good discussion in comments) and have no idea yet what initially brought this boiling back up as a major topic this week. It seems to me that, while it might be helpful as Scott Karp at Publish2 suggests to adopt technology that favors Web-first publication and easy importing of that work into a print editorial system, and while those such as Doc Searls are correct in saying there remains some (ever declining, in my experience) curmudgeon resistance to the idea of linking out, the larger problem is trying to turn the Titanic. A daily newspaper of any size, especially if it is part of a larger integrated media company, simply has so many moving parts (human, mechanical and technological) that we all might recognize exactly what we wish we could do, but it’s like being in the left lane of the expressway at rush hour when you realize, as your passengers give you instructions on five separate topics, that there’s an exit just ahead that would take you to a much better route home. It’s a direct descendant of the much older issue that used to be the big eternal issue occupying newsrooms, which is balancing the desire for really excellent writing against the need to meet deadline (a saying I always heard goes something like, “Good writing is a fine thing, but we have a newspaper to put out”).

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Poseidon Adventure
Just a brief note: The last of the management involved in the TBD.com experiment has left the site.

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visualization of the bin Laden death tweets

Brian Solis reflects on the spread of news about Osama bin Laden’s death and, from there, launches into a brief history of media on the Web. (I’m not exaggerating much; the title is “The End of the Destination Web and the Revival of the Information Economy.”) Not only is it chock full of information, it’s chock full of visuals, such as the above, which has nothing to do with the fertilization of a human egg.

You may wonder about some of his statements or observations — probably about where he switches from what has gone before to what is going on now (or needs to be, for media organizations that hope to survive). But it’s a useful read for journalists as a reminder of the wider information world and its continued movement.

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