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Archive for April, 2014

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?”

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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.

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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.”

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