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Archive for February, 2012


The crude yet brilliant online comic The Oatmeal had a recent strip related to online piracy – inspired by the artist’s frustrated attempts to find a legal source for a show he wanted to buy – that actually had a moral highly relevant to traditional media companies trying to make their way in the new-media world: If you put all your focus on control instead of what your customers want, your customers will go elsewhere for what they want.

I thought it was great, and I wanted to post about it here, but it gets a bit far from the ground I usually stick to – but then the universe once again came through for me and showed me Jim Romenesko’s item about a Forbes piece that excerpts a much, much, much longer New York Times Magazine story and got a huge amount of traffic online. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED! A journalist-level parallel!

From what Forbes writer Kashmir Hill sent Romenesko about her story on the Times story:

“Charles Duhigg’s piece is a masterful look at how Target gathers information about its customers and mines it to keep them loyal and better market to them. But as a writer who has covered the privacy beat for four years, what leaped out at me as the gold mine of the piece was the anecdote about Target data-mining its way into customers’ wombs so effectively that it picked up on a teen’s pregnancy before her father did. I ran with that anecdote and the sexy privacy issue Duhigg dug up — Target’s use of predictive analytics — distilling that from the larger piece for my privacy-interested audience. This is not a new or surprising practice in the world of online journalism – what has caught people’s attention is Forbes’ transparency. Thanks to our analytics being public, you can see the avalanche of social media love it triggered and the enviable million page views it garnered.”

So essentially, buried inside a nine-page story was a juicy nugget that had the potential to draw a huge audience. But that’s the thing – it was buried. And it had a dull headline, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” It’s information people would want, if only they knew it was there. Enter Hill:

“I suspect I drove a ton of traffic to the New York Times that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because they hadn’t sold their story quite as well as I did and didn’t create a short version of it that was easy to share and digest online. (Advice the NYT should consider is having their own bloggers tackle long pieces like this and chunk them up for the online crowd – a tactic the Wall Street Journal has effectively employed.)”

The difference between the comic strip and the Times/Forbes story is the artist knew what he wanted and the people who read the privacy story did not, but in both cases the originator of the content screwed up – in the comic strip, HBO made it impossible for the artist to find a legal source for “Game of Thrones” on DVD, limiting its audience to people willing to subscribe to the entire HBO universe; and the Times buried its best information in a story so long and dense that only its existing dedicated magazine customer base was likely to find it.

As journalists, we often don’t control a lot of business aspects of our industry, including whether our sites have paywalls or home delivery is available to everyone who wants it. But we are in charge of our own stories and photos — and making the best of it easy to find.

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You’ll spend 18 minutes very well if you watch the talk by Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” on the topic of what we learn by being wrong. In particular, it’s useful as a manager to remind yourself that different people see things differently, and your perspective might not be the best for understanding what’s going on. Or that events have changed beyond your plans, so you need to adjust. As a reporter or editor, you have to keep this in mind all the time so you don’t automatically ascribe motivations to people. As Schultz says, “It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.”

Her talk reminded me of the time I have most audibly been on the receiving end of someone assuming he was right and I was wrong. It was at the 2004 Republican National Convention, the night that Vice President Dick Cheney spoke, but the keynote speaker that night was a Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, whose speech rained fire and brimstone on the Democrats. I was there to serve as the editor for the Media General Washington Bureau staff covering the convention, and at some point as the fury of the speech became clear, the bureau chief, Marsha Mercer, looked and me, and I looked at her, and she said something like, “This is the lead, isn’t it?” There was no other way to see it, I thought. What Cheney eventually said that night was utterly expected. So Mercer wrote the story, I read it over, and I filed it. We packed up and headed out of the media area attached to Madison Square Garden, and my cellphone rang. A night editor at one of our papers was calling to ask, more or less, if we were out of our minds. “It’s the vice president’s night,” he said, and we simply should not have relegated the VP to the bottom half of the story. I wondered about it overnight and the next morning, when it was clear that almost everyone had done what that editor said we should have — led the story with Cheney’s speech. But for the next solid week, the only thing about the convention that got much discussion was Miller’s speech. I think you could make the case either way that night, but at that moment people making the different decisions felt just as sure that they made the right call and that the others were clearly wrong.

My point isn’t that Marsha and I were proved right, but that as an editor you have to remember that people have different perspectives, and even if your reporter has written a story completely opposite of how you think he or she should have, you have to understand why before you launch into a critique of what’s wrong with it.

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Around 10 years ago, when I found myself traveling several times a year to Washington, D.C., I joined the National Press Club, and I bought my dad a blue windbreaker with the club’s logo on it. After my dad died two years ago, the windbreaker came back to me, and in this mild winter I find myself wearing it a lot. Today at the convenience store near my office, the young man at the cash register looked at the gold logo and asked, “What’s the National Press Club?” I explained it is a group based in Washington for reporters and editors. “Oh, so you’re a reporter!” he said, almost beaming, and I could imagine him going home after work and saying, “You’ll never guess who came into the store today! A journalist! I see them on TV all the time, but I never thought I’d meet one.”

“No,” I said, “I’m an editor.”

His face fell. “Oh.”

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I wasn’t going to post anything on Michael Kinsley’s post about a Felix Salmon article on the New York Observer, which (the Kinsley piece) focuses on the issue of whether the quality of writing on the Web matters. But I keep talking to people about it. At least five people in the past 24 hours. So it seems worth pausing and posing this question: Whether or not Kinsley is serious (I’m pretty sure he’s joking, but don’t ask me to put money on it), might the point of the following sentence be true?

“Never did it occur to me, until I read Felix’s blog post, that it might be possible, without seeming insane, to argue that all aspects of good writing — accuracy, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what’s the difference between those two again?) — are all overrated.” (And yes, it says “all aspects … are all overrated.” Move on.)

You can read Salmon’s piece here, which may help in the details if you don’t get exactly what is meant by this from Salmon:

“When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.”

So the question raised here — again, whether or not Kinsley is serious — is how close is this to being correct? Undoubtedly, quality control in the media universe as described in the Salmon piece is lacking, but that quality is transitory anyway, as is the audience. If you as a publication are largely reliable, does it matter if you carry writers who really stink? In the online world, the Washington Post’s columnists and Cagle’s can appear side by side under the same set of links, and how many online reader really notice — or care — that the Post’s are better edited and cleaner? I don’t have answers to that yet.

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Journalists need reminders now and then to pay closer attention to the lazy language they pick up from official sources – especially police, bureaucrats and businesspeople, to name three very large groups that like words that are not perhaps what you would call conversational English. Let this from Bob Ingrassia at The Fast Horse Blog be your reminder for this month that when it comes to the language in your stories, in the words of Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley (in the clip above), “It should be more natural, brother, it should flow out.” If you wouldn’t say it in normal conversation with a friend, you might need to rethink what you’re writing or saying. Bob’s list of words or phrases to be banished and their conversational equivalents (and more are offered in the comments on his post):

fled on foot = ran away
high rate of speed = speeding
physical altercation = fight
verbal altercation = argument
reduce expenditures = cut costs
terminate employment = fire
reduction in service = layoff
blunt force trauma = injury
discharged the weapon = shot
transport the victim = take him/her
lower extremities = legs
officers observed = police saw
at this point in time = now
express concerns = complain
incendiary device = bomb
obtain information = ask or interview
deceased = dead
sexual relations = sex
roadway = road
fail to negotiate a curve = missed a curve
determine a course of action = consider options
vehicle = car or truck
citizen = person
individual = man or woman
commence = begin
emergency personnel = police, firefighters
utilize = use
complainant = victim
fatally injured = killed
motorist = driver
juvenile male/female = teen boy or girl
respond to the scene = arrive
precipitation = rain, snow
purchase = buy
intoxicated = drunk
controlled substances = drugs
appendages = arms, legs
contusion = bruise
head trauma = head injury
laceration = cut
provide leadership = lead
obstruct = block, get in the way
came to the conclusion that = decided, figured out
arrived at a decision = decided
reside = live

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