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Archive for July, 2014

From the day that Robyn Tomlin described to me what Digital First Media’s Thunderdome was going to be, I thought it sounded like a much bigger, broader, better-planned and better-financed version of what Media General (the pre-2012 version of the company, which still owned newspapers) had tried to do through Newsbank (the company’s intranet for sharing all of the company’s newspaper stories and photos) and its Interactive Media Division. We didn’t try to be a national news desk for the company’s newspapers, but we produced specialty pages, had a Washington bureau that tried to tailor stories to our markets, encouraged sharing of stories and reporting resources, and offered video, interactives and help with live chats and other online projects.

In Jim Brady’s Lessons learned from Project Thunderdome, the successes and problems he cites were, naturally, of a much larger scale, but they were parallel to Media General’s experiences. One paragraph in particular resonates with me:

One inadvertent lesson learned from Thunderdome was its service as a bellwether in surfacing who inside DFM was truly interested in culture change. Many DFM journalists worked collaboratively with Thunderdome to support DFM’s strategy and secure its future; others focused only on preserving their own futures. Centralization, in that regard, is an effective mousetrap in identifying who doesn’t want his cheese moved.

Every newsroom I worked with varied this way. At some, the top editor bought into what we were trying to do and encouraged the staff to work with us. At others, the top editor was at best indifferent, and there might be individuals in the newsroom who were enthusiastic while others would rather MG just go away and leave them alone. (The top editor at one newspaper literally never returned a single phone call from me. Not one.)

One of the lessons I learned early on in my time at Media General is no one seeks to become an editor at any level because they think someone else is better at what they do than they are. Making an argument about the time they will save that could be better devoted to better local coverage won’t fly with everyone because in the eyes of some editors, whatever is being done centrally is making the paper worse and they just can’t stand it — there were times that I sent out to MG’s papers a specialty features page using a design lifted straight from an award-winning designer in Tampa, and the features editors at some papers that used the package changed the design, often radically. Some editors even will argue in favor of duplicating reporting effort in order for their readers to see that the local paper “owns” the topic.

Brady also writes, “Never underestimate the technical challenges of centralization.” He means it in Thunderdome’s case in terms of producing online packages that will need to run across multiple content management systems, but in a broader sense it applies to anything you try to do across multiple newsrooms. The most-cited reason editors gave me for why they used an AP version of a story instead of the much better version produced by another MG paper was that AP stories flowed into their computer system at the press of a button, but the stories on MG’s own network had to be copied and pasted in (a system that itself was the lowest-common-denominator solution to creating the network in the late ’90s after MG had bought dozens of papers that all had different computer systems — some PCs, some Macs, some new, some old). And I see something similar in my current company, where the editors in North Carolina have talked about ways to work together more or at least share more, but there is no easy way to share plans or see what everyone else is doing. If your technology and workflow are developed for a silo, everyone then is stuck working in a silo.

You don’t have to be working at a national organization to gain useful insights from Brady’s piece. Anywhere you are trying to change the work culture, you’ll find parallels.

7/29/14 UPDATE: Steve Buttry offers tips for changing company culture in a post for INMA, and I think they relate directly to the kinds of situations described above. As the subhead for the post sums up, “To make true changes in the workplace culture, actual adjustments in work activities are required.” Brady didn’t elaborate on the newsrooms where he found resistance to what DFM was trying to do, but I’d be willing to bet the difference between those newsrooms and the ones where he found collaboration was the latter changed what they were doing to mesh with what DFM was doing from Thunderdome. I saw something like it in MG where, if a newsroom’s responsibilities for sharing news and photos were assigned to a single assistant editor, whose other duties didn’t change, there wasn’t a lot of sharing done, because it was an add-on to the editor’s “real” work, not a change in what that person was doing.

I have seen the principal at work in even a much more small-scale way when a newsroom gained a graphic artist (this was all the way back in the day when adding staff was possible). The newsroom hadn’t had one before, and the managers didn’t rework what editors and reporters were doing, so the result was the graphic artist was getting thrown assignments as an afterthought late in the workflow.

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July 16, 2014, wreck in Lenoir
I’ve mentioned before that when I am coaching writers one of the main things I focus on is derived from advice that Ernest Hemingway gave to a young writer and described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. It involves making use of what you observe wherever you are reporting.

A few days ago I had a perfect example of the difference this can make in even routine reporting. There was a very bad head-on collision here in Lenoir, and the only reporter who was in the office at the time was our sports reporter. He and our photographer rushed out to the scene, got what was available and came back to the office. The reporter had not done news before and was nervous, which accounted for a few holes in what he first turned in, but he had the basics:

A two-car, head-on collision in front of the Gamewell fire department on Morganton Blvd. resulted in three fatalities on Wednesday evening.

According to Sgt. Dawson of the Highway Patrol, a witness stated that the vehicle traveling southwest on Morganton Blvd. was “driving at high speeds and recklessly.” The vehicle then collided head-on with a silver Lexus traveling northeast in the left lane of the two-lane road. The unidentified vehicle rolled down a hill into a ravine and was not visible due to tall bushes and weeds. The driver and two other passengers of the unidentified vehicle were pronounced dead on the scene.

The silver Lexus was left in the turning lane with the front end being unrecognizable. The street was littered with pieces from both cars as first responders investigated the scene. Police officers secured the area and directed traffic as about 10 citizens stood outside watching the horrific scene.

No further details of the incident were available at press time.

From here, we needed to draw out the rest of what he saw there. What is described above is a collision, then one car “rolled down a hill.” That’s not what happened. When cars collide at high speed, what happens? Use words that describe it. This is what we ended up with:

The Toyota caromed off and went down a steep bank roughly 20 feet deep and into a field of weeds so tall that the car couldn’t be seen from the road.

As for the car that didn’t go down the hill, we start with “the front end being unrecognizable.” What does that mean? How will the reader see “unrecognizable” in his or her head? It’s an abstract term, not a concrete one. You need to be concrete and visual. We also have the street “littered with pieces from both cars,” but listening to the photographer and reporter talk about it, and seeing a photo of the wrecked Lexus, made clear that we could do better:

The wreckage of the silver Lexus sat in the turning lane of Morganton Boulevard, the front end destroyed, the hood looking like a piece of crumpled paper. So much debris littered the street that Dawson and rescue crews could scarcely take a step without it crunching underfoot.

Finally, no official information was released on the occupants of the other car, but the reporter saw the rescue effort, so we had that to add:

At least two passengers were removed from the Lexus and taken away in ambulances, but no information was released about how many people were in the car or how badly they were hurt.

Outside the lines set up by Caldwell County sheriff’s deputies and Lenoir police, about 10 people stood watching the horrific scene.

Just making use of the details the reporter observed, not relying solely on what official sources had to say, turned a 5-inch news brief into a much more vivid, 9- or 10-inch story. It won’t win awards, but it surely engaged the readers’ imaginations much better than the original, and that’s the daily battle we face.

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Over a year ago I wrote that I soon would be posting about my experiences with a paywall. Sixteen months later, the paywall finally went up on the News-Topic’s site, so this is my first postcard.

This actually is the site’s second experience with a paywall. I was not here for the first, but I am told all hell broke loose from people angered that they could no longer get the site for free. There were about 200 paying subscribers (paid print circulation at the time was about 6,000) by the time the company switched website vendors in 2012 and the site became free again because the new vendor was not quite ready to handle a paywall. How unready it was apparently was a surprise.

Given that previous experience, folks were bracing for a similar round of trouble when the paywall went up again in mid-June, but there was barely a ripple of trouble, mostly questions from people wanting help registering online. We have eight or nine new online subscriptions so far. Our Web traffic has taken a slight dip, but nothing so far that looks significant, and it could be attributed to the slow news of the past few weeks, the pre- and post-July 4 summer holiday period. We’ll have to keep watching.

The talk this week focused on how to drive the traffic we have past the home page headlines so they have to pay. In other words, how much information beyond the headline goes on the home page. Whether the slow pace of new subscriptions is due to that is, to me, an open question, but what we put on the home page is a valid issue for us because our site’s analytics show that the home page remains the first stop for most of our users. It’s a local audience.

A proposal raised at another paper in the company is that there should be only headlines and photos because people see enough of the story on the home page and don’t dive in to read. That analysis may be correct, but the solution that was chosen seems wrong to me. First, it puts a heavy premium on good Web headlines, and newsrooms our size don’t have reliably good headline writers. Second, the behavior that practice seeks to stop is not limited to the website. At any newspaper rack, some people walk up, look in the window, read what they want and walk away. Worse, at a newspaper stack inside a convenience store, they pick up the paper, turn it over, read a lot more and then don’t buy it. There always will be window-shoppers who don’t become buyers.

No, the trick as always is figuring out how much information is needed to make a person want to read more. A headline alone — or headline and photo alone — usually won’t do it, especially with a feature. You need some text from the story. How much might vary, but it shouldn’t give away so much information that clicking on the link to read the whole story will leave the person feeling that he/she wasted time because all the really important information was on the home page.

This is not a question unique to the Web. The same basic issues apply to writing teasers on A1 for stories appearing inside the paper. That’s all you’re doing on a website homepage if your goal is to drive readers past that page. Entice the reader with factual information, but leave questions hanging. Don’t overpromise or mislead. This is a writing skill. Use your writer’s instincts.

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For the past four years, I have wondered why there has been no equivalent of Craigslist for obituaries. The question was sparked by a post by Steve Buttry in 2010, but it wasn’t until my mother’s death in May 2012 that I learned myself how truly awful – and expensive – the newspaper-based obituary system is. Submitting obituaries is, in many cases, cumbersome and emotionally taxing, exactly the opposite of what people who are placing obituaries need, and the cost of a single obituary in larger newspapers is equivalent to what I spend on my credit card in an entire month.

The difficulty and cost of placing obituaries is pretty much equivalent of some of the reasons people migrated away from newspaper classified ads years ago to free or cheap online listings (and why journalists themselves shifted their own job ads from the expensive Editor & Publisher, which used to be the go-to place to look for a job, to the relatively cheap journalismjobs.com).

Why, I have wondered, had that not happened with obituaries?

Part of it, I am sure, is that having a print obituary still has some emotional value to people. They can hold it, put it in a scrap book, frame it. It’s a tangible link to someone who is no longer there.

Perhaps a bigger part is that people grew up with newspapers being considered the place to announce births, engagements, marriages and deaths. There are people in the city where I live now who have told me that if it weren’t for their desire to see who died, they wouldn’t buy the paper anymore, and I doubt that I am the only editor who has been told such a thing.

Despite all that, I wondered why there was not a cheap online alternative to obituaries.

And then last week, the people behind The Memorial Post sent me a link to a video explaining their cheap online alternative to obituaries. The site itself is not actually functional yet (it has only the video and a field to sign up for email updates), so I can’t say whether it’s as easy as the video makes it appear, but the video paints a picture of a potential Craigslist for obituaries – a site that could siphon away yet another revenue category from newspapers.

An online-only obituary site might not appeal to traditional print readers, but it may seem perfectly reasonable to those raised on the Internet.

My newspaper is in a mostly rural, conservative, very traditional area, yet our website’s metrics tell me that the people coming to our site online may be part of the audience that would be willing to go to an online-only obituary alternative.

More than 60 percent of our online readers are under 35, according to Google Analytics, and only 11 percent are 55 or older.

Our online obituaries have more pageviews than any other page but the homepage, accounting for nearly 15 percent of overall pageviews – and our obits are not fancy, consisting only of the text of each obit, no photos.

In other words, for someone who gets information primarily online, our obits are not a satisfying reader experience.

We are a small publication, so our charge for obituaries is not much more than The Memorial Post’s, but if the Post’s online reader experience lives up to what its video promotes, it is the kind of thing that has serious potential going forward, as fewer of the people placing obituaries will have ever had the newspaper habit.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, ‏@TheMemorialPost says, “We are on schedule for mid-August and the U/X will be unparalleled”

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