Archive for June, 2012

Times Herald-Record vs. am New York
Today is one of those days when you can look across the country and ask again, “What is the purpose of a newspaper’s front page?” On the most basic level, it’s for the biggest news of the day. On a practical level, though, the front-page treatment of the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act offers a stark example of different approaches to handling the big news of the day, and at this level the front page is either for what happened yesterday or it’s for what the big event is going to mean down the road.

If you look over today’s front pages at the Newseum (note that the pages change automatically, so after Friday June 29 you’ll see different pages than I’m referring to), it’s clear that most editors took the former approach. A sample of the headlines on this theme:

Court upholds health care law
Court upholds health mandate
Health care law stands
Health Law Survives
Obama’s health care law upheld
Court: Health care law passes muster
Top court upholds law
Landmark victory for health care law
Health reform survives
Health-care law upheld
Upheld 5-4

But this court decision did not come out Thursday night. It was shortly after 10 a.m. when it became the top item of discussion on every TV and radio news network and it exploded across the Internet. The kinds of people who buy newspapers do not live in caves. By the time the morning paper showed up, they already knew the law had been found constitutional, and they likely had heard tons of reaction and explanation.

Given all that, what purpose does the front page with headlines like those above hold? Perhaps it becomes a keepsake for them, something to file away in a box to pass on to the grandkids.

But if one of the purposes of the front page is to entice people to read, I don’t think the headlines trumpeting what the reader already knows do that. Especially for single-copy sales, the above headlines are not going to draw the occasional reader – the people who care about news but may not subscribe.

Scattered among the day’s pages you can find a notable minority with headlines that spun the news forward to answer the question, “What does this mean for me?” especially in the context of what your particular state now has to do – even papers that took the “yesterday’s news” approach generally answered this question in story or Q&A form, but if there was a headline addressing it, it was small – and a few that focused on analysis, such as the surprise role of Chief Justice John Roberts casting the decisive vote. Those would seem to be much more promising territory for finding things that the typical person would still want more information about.

We’ve been saying for years now that newspapers are competing for attention in an environment when people are saturated with breaking news, yet at times like this it seems we struggle not to fall back on old habits. Agree or disagree?

A post at Poynter.org has a compilation of some of the day’s more notable front pages if you are late in looking for them.

7/9/12 UPDATE: Sam Kirkland, a Dow Jones News Fund copy desk intern for the Tampa Bay Times, makes a similar point in a July 6 post at Poynter.org, saying that most of the headlines on the health care ruling may serve the role of scrapbook material but they didn’t make him want to read:

“… the louder a headline shouts, the less likely I am to read the story, because a story commanding a 120-point headline likely commanded my attention yesterday, when it was fresh.”

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Newspaper columnists always seem to remember that Thomas Jefferson once said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” What I’ve never seen in a newspaper are any of the other things Jefferson said about newspapers, such as:

“Advertisements … contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”

“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

I’m not the first to notice this (among others, in 2009 Jay Rosen discussed the first quote and why it is the only one you ever see in newspapers), but it came to mind today in a copyediting context (yet another columnist citing the first quote).

6/28/12 UPDATE: Googling that last quote led me to the full text of the letter that it came from, which included a suggestion for a better way to section a newspaper:

“Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first, Truths; the second, Probabilities; the third, Possibilities; the fourth, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The second would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The third and fourth should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.”

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Somehow I had missed the perfectly respectable, safe-for-work New York magazine story in 2009 about the porn industry’s Internet-driven woes and, allegedly, what the news industry could learn from them. Much thanks to JimRomenesko.com for helping me find it, because how often do people in mainstream journalism get a chance to learn about porn and be able to say with a straight face that it’s work-related research?

The quick summary: While porn initially benefitted from the Internet, over time the improving technology, bandwidth and cameras have meant that free or extremely cheap amateur video is blowing up the revenue stream.

And although the 2009 article indicates that what I guess you’d call porn industry officials felt they had some ideas for dealing with the downturn, a new article in The Atlantic indicates the problem continues unabated:

“What holds for journalism in this case holds for sex. In both cases, the competition is so broad that customers are likely to go elsewhere rather than pay. There are, obviously, exceptions in the case of newspapers — the Wall Street Journal has a profitable paywall, and the New York Times appears to be having some early success with its own.”

While I think there’s a certain amount of fun in the porn/journalism comparison, it’s a fundamentally flawed comparison. You will never find 12-year-old boys huddling in one friend’s room with the door closed to pass around a copy of the New York Times that one of them snuck from under his father’s mattress. Sex is a biological pursuit of primitive urges. Seeking out writing and information is an intellectual pursuit (partisan froth aside). Journalism may have a better chance of finding a niche of people willing to embrace paying for worthwhile presentation of worthwhile information. In other words, as The Atlantic’s article put it, I think people do have slightly higher standards for their news than for their porn. Slightly.

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Congratulations to Earl J. Wilkinson for his post on INMA’s The Earl Blog coining a new term (new to me, at least, even if you’ve heard it before) for the nearly mythical, not to say non-existent, kind of news story that takes forever to report and write but which hardly anyone actually reads: “Trekking Through Zimbabwe.” It’s no “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” but it will do.

Wilkinson’s post is about the new “ownership class” emerging in what once was the newspaper industry (he says it’s emerging as the newsmedia industry). He identifies two categories of these new owners: Owners who are doing everything in their power to repair the old model or invent a new model before the economic waves cover them up; owners who, evaluating the cost/benefit analysis of making those changes, are electing to divest and find more efficient ways to invest shareholder monies.

The post is an assessment of where the industry’s evolution is. It’s worth a read.

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UVa president Teresa Sullivan addresses students / Washington Post
The element that caught my eye from the outset in the uproar over the University of Virginia Board of Trustees forcing out the university president is the attention given in the trustees’ email exchanges to online education. Specifically, my attention was held one line quoted from a New York Times column by David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami”:

“What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.”

The rest of Brooks’ column is not nearly so hyperbolic – yes, hyperbolic. Most of what happened to the newspaper and magazine business could not possibly happen to higher education. The root of the disruption in print media is the exodus of advertising, which traditionally accounted for something around 80 percent of the industry’s revenue. Education has no remotely similar parallel, so instantly you eliminate 80 percent of the chance that the devastation that happened to newspapers and magazines will happen to higher education.

The remaining 20 percent, however, is what Brooks spends the bulk of his column on, and as far as that goes, he makes a good case, and here I would say the trustees simply jumped too far.

When industries are disrupted by technological innovation, as the trustees seem to fear is about to happen to higher education, it’s usually because the business’s leaders didn’t understand what their business really was. Railroads didn’t diversify into trucking because they thought their business was railroads, not moving freight; IBM passed over the chance to make personal computers because they thought their business was making and maintaining mainframes, not helping businesses increase productivity through technology.

Disruption (the oversimplified explanation) happens when someone comes up with something that meets a need that the existing business does not, and it provides it at a low enough cost that any flaws in the product don’t matter to the customer.

In the newspaper and magazine business, disruption hit on two sides: the advertiser side, and the reader side. A number of advertisers (especially those who placed classified ads in newspapers) have found that the free ad sites online, or the kind of targeted online promotions that are much less expensive than print ad campaigns, either meet their needs as well as or better than print ads, or else they are good enough and cost a lot less, freeing up money for other kinds of promotions. At the same time, a number of readers have found that the proliferation of free information online – of all kinds, not just news – fills their need for information or entertainment better than does paying for a limited bundle of information on paper.

As I said, colleges don’t have advertisers, so the reader end of the print media’s disruption is the only part that seems to have any parallel to what may be coming to higher education. The situation print media face is that what they provide may not be perceived as holding enough value for the reader that those people are willing to pay for it. A growing number of news sites are testing that, sometimes gingerly, setting up paywalls, usually offering full access for those buying a subscription and allowing everyone else a small number of free views a month before a payment is required. The essential choice for the reader is whether to pay for the site’s staff-produced content or just get by with all the free content available everywhere else. The value of that staff-produced content depends entirely on the perception of the reader. I like to quote one of my early editors on the value issue: She said she decided at the end of the day whether she had done good work by asking whether she would pay 50 cents for what’s in the next day’s paper. That can be a tough argument to make some days, which is why the Readership Institute in 2005 or so was making presentations about the importance of creating an “Experience” newspaper, the idea being that if you focused more attention on section fronts, specifically centerpieces, and creating buzz-worthy presentations, it could elevate the value of the overall newspaper beyond the sum of its parts, and if you did it consistently you created a role for yourself in a person’s daily routine that went beyond the simple gathering of information.

The value of a college degree, however, is a bit similar. To some extent, a person goes to college for the experience, and it’s not hard to get people to recall fondly the experience elements of college that made it rewarding. But people don’t go into hock for $50,000 for the experience of college, they do it because they perceive there is a long-term payoff, which supposedly is backed up by the market – in other words, someone will hire a graduate of the University of Virginia (just to stick to the subject at hand) because a degree from there is perceived by that employer as being worth more than a degree from other schools. Or, especially, from online schools.

Unless employers suddenly decide that online degrees are as valuable as any other degree, there is a market-driven value behind getting a degree from bricks-and-mortar colleges.

So what exactly where the UVa trustees getting at? They’re not talking so far, so it’s hard to say. On May 31, Rector Helen Dragas sent the vice rector, Mark Kington, the URL for a Wall Street Journal column about the “massively online open course” movement. According to Inside Higher Ed’s summary:

“The column argues that the MOOCs have the potential to change the cost structure in higher education, as long as institutions are willing to replace some in-person education with online education. ‘[I]n this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world — and do locally what it does best, person to person.’”
What that describes is outsourcing basic-level lecture classes – those where 200 students pile into a massive hall to hear a professor essentially talk at them, not with them, for an hour. Or, as the subhead on the Wall Street Journal column put it: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education.”

That would lower some labor costs for a college that didn’t need to hold its own lecture classes. It would be a revenue source for a college that offered online lectures by “star professors,” as Brooks called them.

There’s a certain revolutionary air in the idea that a course of study at one college could involve numerous lectures from places all over the world, and it probably would wind up meaning smaller faculties – though not, I suspect, an end to the rapid growth in administrative staff, which is the biggest upward pressure on college costs. Funny how that works.

Related reading: A post Wednesday on the Remaking the University blog has a good roundup of items related to what’s happening at the UVa.

(The Richmond Times-Dispatch as a PDF of the trustees’ emails.)

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I hesitate a little to dive into attempting an answer to the question from Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins, “How should a news curation team work?” As the comments on many of Steve’s posts the past couple of years make clear, use of terms such as “curation” invites debates that often boil down to semantics and people talking past each other, even agreeing at times on general practices but disagreeing at the edges like alien cultures trying for but not quite achieving mutual understanding. But I’ll wade in anyway.

The idea of news curation has always seemed to me just the continuing evolution of what has long been standard operating procedure. In the 1990s at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal during the summer, when a hurricane approached we usually had staff at the coast, and unless the storm was hitting point-blank where our staff was, the state editor (me) would blend staff reports with elements of several other wire stories, adding attribution where needed. As technology advanced and we all had access via the Internet to more news sources, we could blend in elements from more places. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, in addition to editing stories from Media General’s Washington reporters I supplied a one-column at-a-glance collection of highlights, a mix of my own reporting (whatever eye-catching protests were going on around the convention site), a detail or two lifted from advance copies of the night’s big speeches, and elements from wire services and the National Journal.

Technology now, though, opens a vastly wider world, including live conversations. Limiting your news gathering to a few wire services or mainstream news sources may be easier, but it leaves out a huge amount of perspective. All of this information of course is available for people to find on their own, but isn’t it a logical extension of the role of a journalist to help people sort through it? It’s the role of a journalist to say, “I can help you make sense of all this and point you to the best places for more.” Automatic tools can only do so much – Tweetdeck, Twitter search, Google alerts and the like can bring you a river of information, but it can be a torrent, or a swirling jumble. Human intervention to sort it, done right, is valuable.

That said, when I get to the specific questions Steve and Mandy ask – “How should we …?” – I find myself reminded of and answering instead a different question, one I saw recently on Twitter (I thought it was raised by Stijn Debrouwere, but at the moment I can’t find it – if someone out there has curated it already, please point me to it), which essentially was this: Why after years of people talking about all these ideas for remaking news is it taking so long for anyone to do much with them? As much as anything, I think it’s just the daily crush – you run around like crazy trying to keep up with everything that you already have to do, and you want to try these new things people are talking about … but you look up and suddenly you have already been at your desk nine hours or more. “Maybe this weekend,” you think. Of all the newsrooms I have visited over the past 11 years, there were only a few where suggestions for new things to try online met with resistance to the idea itself; usually it was more a matter of “where will the time come from?” There are exceptions – where the boss makes it a priority to try new things, which means being willing to drop some of the old, new things get done.

Most of the time, you learn things that are truly new by doing them, and something else then occurs to you, so you try it, and on and on, not because someone showed or told you what you should do – if there were a great mass of people out there who knew all about doing this thing, it wouldn’t be new, would it? So assuming you are among the vast majority of journalists or soon-to-be-journalists who have no actual experience curating the news on the fly, and you have no concrete answers to the “How” questions, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I believe that at some point, good curation will be a key ingredient of any successful news organization. So go ahead, answer them.

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Photo from Dec. 28, 1983, Arizona Republic
Going through a huge box of my mother’s papers — personal, financial and some of her newspaper clips — I came across a column she wrote for the Arizona Republic in 1983 (under the byline Gail Tabor) claiming to be the person who first made a dessert that became popular among Ohio State fans, Buckeye Balls, which are peanut-butter balls dipped in chocolate with just a circle uncovered on the top so they look like buckeyes. A portion of the clipping was torn, and the whole was too long to fit on my flatbed scanner, so I’m typing in the text below. Note that if you try making them, the key in the recipe is “6 or more tablespoons peanut butter.” You start with six, then keep adding peanut butter to taste.

The story about where popular Buckeye balls started

By Gail Tabor

It is time, Ohio State fans, that you hear the truth about your favorite nibbling food, the Buckeye Ball. (A buckeye, for those who need explanation, looks somewhat like a bloated chestnut.)

Had it not been for me, you wouldn’t have the pleasure of gorging on those mouth-watering, chocolate-covered peanut-butter-flavored morsels.

As is so often the case concerning valuable and coveted items, the recipe was claimed by a conniving woman from Oklahoma. She fibbed and said it was hers, after promising me under oath that she would never let that recipe out of her hands.

Not only was she a dishonest purloiner, she instilled in me a deep distrust of everybody from Oklahoma, a fault that stays with me to this day.

It all began in 1964, when I married a rabid Ohio State fan whose idea of fun was sitting in the rain and snow watching football games. Oh, those memories: Finding the seat, wrapping sock-and-boot-clad feet and legs first in plastic, then in a layer of newspapers, and covering everything with a blanket. You didn’t dare move an inch the rest of the game for fear of disturbing the wrappings and letting in the cold air.

Christmas of that year, my mother brought us some candy. I begged her for the recipe, which she gladly shared. (Actually, you can say the whole thing started with her.)

When I was ready to start dipping the small balls of batter, I didn’t get the first one completely covered. I held it up on the toothpick and said to then-husband, “Hey, it looks like a buckeye.”

Thus it was christened. We gave batches away to friends, and they fell in love.

“How did you make them?” they would beg. But I was selfish and refused to part with the information. I wanted to be the only one in the world to have the secret of making candy-lovers happy.

In 1971, ex-husband graduated and we moved from Ohio. Before we left, the wife of a man who studied with my ex, and who was also graduating, pestered me unmercifully for the recipe.

“We’re returning to Oklahoma, and you will still be the only one over here who knows how to make them,” she said. “I promise I’ll never tell anyone else. Please, please, please,” she said, or words to that effect. All I know is, she pledged a solemn oath to keep her mouth shut. I relented.

Dates get fuzzy in retrospect, but it may have been 1973 when a visit was paid to Columbus during football season. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the local newspaper and saw an entire story on Buckeye balls. How in the world, I wondered, did somebody else figure them out?

“Well,” said a friend, “I didn’t want to tell you because I knew you would be furious. But (woman from Oklahoma) sent in the recipe to the Ohio State alumni magazine, under her name.”

Furious is an understatement. I felt deceived, betrayed, put-upon, hornswoggled and just plain enraged. I swore revenge.

That took a back seat. In the confusion during and following divorce and resettlement, the Buckeye ball donnybrook was forgotten until it came time to make them again. Every year, for 17 years, it has been a tradition in my house to make the delicacy on the day of the Ohio State-Michigan game. And every year my children, who have heard the story a million times, would help me make the balls and dip them in chocolate, saying all the while, “Mom, why in the world did you trust that woman?”

This year, I was in Columbus on assignment when the big day rolled around. While Ohio State and Michigan were slugging it out, I met a friend for lunch and moaned over another tradition going down the drain. This year, the making of Buckeye balls would be delayed a week.

“Gail,” my friend said, “this whole state has gone crazy over Buckeye balls. I think you ought to find some way to tell the real story about how they got started.”

So now you know. Today, and forevermore, as the scrumptious little bites disappear into eager mouths, bow to the West and give thanks to the woman in Phoenix (certainly not Oklahoma) who made such joy possible.

As one matures, one grows out of childish shortcomings like selfishness, so here is my original Buckeye ball recipe, for all the world to see. (But if you think I’m going to share my secret recipe for West Virginia Christmas pickles, you’re crazy.)

Buckeye Balls

4 pounds powdered sugar
1 pound butter
6 or more tablespoons peanut butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
12 ounces chocolate chips
1 block canning wax

Combine first four ingredients, adding a bit of milk if necessary. Rolls into small balls. Melt chocolate chips and canning wax in top of double boiler. Make sure chocolate and wax are mixed well so wax doesn’t rise to the top. With toothpick, dip the balls into the chocolate, but do not cover completely. Chill in refrigerator. After chocolate is hardened, store candy in plastic bags in freezer.

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One of my great frustrations in recent years has been that as news organizations have tried to cope with advertising declines, almost everyone — both readers and journalists — have seemed relatively ignorant about the revenue and cost structure of the typical newspaper. Readers and journalists complain that the more you cut, you make the paper less worth picking up, which is true, but at the same time if you raise the price they complain about that too. Often the companies’ woes are portrayed as the result of greedy bosses trying to pad profits, a stereotype that perhaps was closer to the truth in the ’80s, but in the current economy even nonprofit-owned newspapers are struggling. Given all that, why not tell readers exactly what it costs to put out the paper and what percentage of that they are actually paying? Finally, someone has: the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in a letter explaining a doubling of the cost of buying a paper. That paper, unlike most large papers in the U.S., keeps all of its content behind a paywall to protect its paid circulation, which seems to have worked — but as the letter explains, since subscription payments do not cover much of the cost of producing the paper, that hasn’t insulated it from trouble:

“Despite all of these efforts, our advertising, like most newspapers, has continued to decline. Even though advertisers tell us they get good results from advertising with us, they have far more options on where to advertise today. With this loss in ad revenues, and by maintaining our circulation and news reporting, we have seen our profits dwindle to unsustainable levels. … In the future, we will have to rely more heavily on revenue from readers and subscribers.”

That kind of frank discussion of the business side is going to be vital going forward. People may understand that you get what you pay for, but since the news industry has for so long sold them subsidized products, people need a whole new education about what exactly they are paying for.

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