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A Nieman Lab article by Joshua Benton, “As giant platforms rise, local news is getting crushed,” captures many of the things I’ve been thinking about since coming to the News-Topic more than two and a half years ago, but I struggled all day to articulate it, beyond simply agreeing.

The underlying situation: The collapse of advertising in recent years, and the unwillingness of newspaper companies to be straight with readers about what they are actually paying for, led to the collapse of staff and features, the unbundling of the something-for-everyone package that newspapers grew over decades to become. That package of varied news, features, comics, puzzles and anything else you could think of grew in order to attract the most readers possible, thereby creating a juicy target for advertisers. When advertisers began peeling away, newspapers unilaterally dropped parts of the bundle, gambling they could hold onto more readers than each of those dropped parts attracted. (Personally, I would have tried asking readers to vote with their cash and pay for what they want rather than trying to convince them to keep paying for what I unilaterally decided without any input that they needed, but I’m a writer, so what do I know?)

What we have doubled down on is “the franchise,” local news. But what “local news” means varies. Some readers want the local high school sports to get blanket coverage, and they couldn’t care less about anything else — in fact once their own kids leave school they will lose interest even in local sports. Some just want features on local people and places. Name anything — someone wants it. But almost no one wants just exactly, and only, what the reduced staff produces, or can produce. Yet they can find a good bit of what they do want in various other places, here and there, mostly for free.

And so even the hardcore traditional readers, the ones so committed to local news that the industry has virtually staked its survival on them, question their commitment. Some peel away. Sometimes we get lucky and have a story that prompts a reader to call us and say that story convinced them to renew for another year.

The thing is, though, we could double or triple our readership and we still could be in trouble.

In the back of my head as I read Benton’s article was another, by Clay Shirky, that predicted the kicking out of the last leg keeping the stool standing, Sunday advertising inserts. Whether or not Shirky is right that they will collapse, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that inserts are in steep decline.

So where are we? “Everyone” says that local news is an inherent good, necessary for a functioning electorate and good governance. And yet is there a market for it? In big metro markets, it seems, maybe there is, if only because there are enough online eyeballs to be drawn. But in a town of 18,000? A county of 80,000? Or places with fewer yet?

What if where we are heading is a time when the survival of local journalism parallels the way that small markets first gained electricity, except instead of gaining something it’s the only way a small market can keep something? That is, either the government does it, or local residents agree it’s necessary and pool their resources.

Here in Caldwell County, for instance, the entire region was too sparsely populated to get privately held electric companies to extend electric service. To get power up into the hills, what is now Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. began when farmers got together and agreed, with help from the government, to help foot the cost themselves, collectively.

During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the “Tennessee Valley” — the name given to a multi-state region of 9 million people, failing farms and depleted forests — through one of the largest hydropower construction programs in history.

Caldwell County’s government already runs its own sort of news service. There is a local-access channel with regularly scheduled shows produced by a county-paid team, some of it CSPAN-style broadcasts of government meetings, some of it shows related to news, some of it features. The county public information officer routinely puts out not just press releases but ready-to-run news stories, not always quite what a mainstream news editor would OK but often as good, and they show up on news websites throughout western North Carolina.

There are also locally a couple of sites that fill, in a “good enough” kind of minimal way, local news needs, including a website and associated Facebook page devoted to police scanner traffic and a mom-and-pop startup site with almost no original reporting but every news release and public announcement in the area as well as aggregation of various stories from the web. OH, and free local obituaries!

A government news service, of course, produces news that the government approves. A startup site may survive, but financial results for such sites even in metro areas are mixed so far. I don’t know how many in rural areas have been tried or how they are doing. Even sites in metros that make enough to survive can collapse when one person gets a serious illness.

Could the solution be a cooperative news startup? It would be a membership model, like public radio. Unlike the daily paper, or news websites selling subscriptions, it would not be sold explicitly as a product but as a communal necessity. You wouldn’t pay for what you get every day but for what the existence of the news service means for the good of the community over the long run.

The difference between journalism now and electricity then, of course, is no one had electricity in the early 20th century, and everyone wanted it. It brought lights at night, fans to move the stifling summer air, power to pump water up a hill. In contrast, everyone now has had journalism, ample helpings of it, for many years. It brings both Watergate exposure and Kim Kardashian, bringing justice for some who are wrongfully imprisoned but also fame to despicable people. It’s an open question how many people, having never faced the kinds of things that people in authoritarian countries face when there is no independent press, believe journalism is something they need.

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What’s wrong with news companies? Do they have a strategy for surviving past the age of print? Why aren’t they executing it? Why do they only cut expenses? Why don’t the billionaires build the digital news business model?

The questions have been asked for so long that they grow tiresome.

After Ken Doctor’s recent piece on whether newspaper companies are even trying to build a sustainable digital business model, I had a Facebook discussion with a friend who has a digitally based job with a television station. He said, in part:

“Big Media print organization wont last much longer. If warren buffet cant figure out a business model for you – who will? My guess is they will milk as much as they can until it isnt profitable any more and then the papers will have to buy the rights back to their names. My advice would be just to start a blog, hire some stringers per piece and get a good, small digital sales team together.”

And that’s what so many people say, in a nutshell. Chuck the paper now, the legacy costs as well as the legacy revenue, and just go whole hog into digital.

That might seem like a slam dunk to those in the digital business, but it makes a giant assumption: that the people running news companies are primarily interested in journalism.

I have argued increasingly what is implied in Doctor’s new article for Nieman Lab, that those running the news business by and large are not in it to serve the community, which is why there is not great concern with making sure there is a future news model that works.

The idea of retooling and refocusing, of giving up some — or, to be more accurate, most of — your current revenue to build a currently less profitable kind of business that has more legs, so that local journalism survives matters only if what is of top importance to you is local journalism. If you don’t care about journalism, if you are first and foremost a business person, your decisions are based on current revenue. Why would you cut your profit on purpose to pursue a theory that may, possibly, bring you more money in 20 years than your current path is likely to bring? That’s 20 years away — and it’s a theory.

Take my friend’s example, Warren Buffett. People keep pointing to him and saying he hasn’t “figured out” a business model. But look back at his statements. He never said he would reinvent the industry. What he has said is that if someone else finds something that actually works, he would evaluate it, but in the meantime he thinks small, locally focused papers can be profitable for some time.

And that’s what made Buffett a billionaire — looking for places where there is money to be made with minimal investment. He isn’t a venture capitalist.

We keep waiting for someone with deep pockets to rescue journalism. Charles Foster Kane existed only in the movies, but even there he was losing $1 million a year.

News people will not stop feeling screwed around by the people on the business side until there are no more business people left, and they will have left because there was no more money to be made.

When journalists move on from newspapers, it feels different. It’s personal. It’s more than a career shift and a mindset change.

When business people leave newspapers, they don’t change careers, they just move on to the next job. It isn’t personal. It’s ledgers, assets, liabilities and margins — money in, money out.

That’s why it feels like such a betrayal to journalists, and why journalists never seem to understand why everyone seems only to want to break their hearts.

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My company’s group of NC papers is migrating to a new CMS. I’m the lead for my paper. Within the setup questionnaire that started the process, there was an option for a free “day pass” for non-subscribers. I checked that box. Why not? Let a curious non-reader in. Maybe, best-case scenario, you gain a reader. Worst-case, someone who never reads you leaves that incremental revenue associated with the online ads that displayed with that person’s visit.

Later, I was told, nope, can’t do that. Nothing free is allowed.

How about $1? The iTunes 99 cents? Nope, it’s less than the charges that would be associated with the payment system.

So what is the one-day charge? $5. Read again: FIVE. DOLLARS.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I said.

I have been fortunate in my career that I have had multiple bosses who tolerate being spoken to that way.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I repeated. “Who would pay that?”

Still, my objections aside, that’s the plan. Come Aug. 7, at the latest, that’s the cost. Also the cost for a full week. The hope, if not the theory, is people will choose a week — and not, as I maintain, just give up.

I likened it to erecting an admission gate at Sears and saying you couldn’t come in unless you paid $5. I can walk through Sears or any retail store in this country, peruse the wares, pick them up, wack fellow customers in the arm with them, etc., without paying a dime and without any horribly overt ads confronting me.

I lost this argument.

Meanwhile, a free startup website that we had passed in social engagement has switched to a more aggegration-based strategy and has passed us in at least some measures, though it has less actual news content than it did before (its content is entirely social, press release or spot news the poster comes upon). But it’s free. I’m told, by those in the business, its ad rates mean it can’t possibly be making any money. But I’m told, by people in the community, that it’s intending to hire staff.

I don’t know yet who wins that argument.

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Actress Jayne Mansfield, right, feels the belly of pregnant reporter Gail Tabor in 1965 in Columbus, Ohio.

Actress Jayne Mansfield, right, feels the belly of pregnant reporter Gail Tabor in 1965 in Columbus, Ohio.


My dead mother is more successful on the Internet than I am. It happened Thursday.

She had a little help.

But that doesn’t lessen my bemusement. It only seems to show how capricious the online audience is and how difficult it can be for a writer to be heard in the digital cacophony of the Internet.

I should explain.

I’m a second-generation journalist. My mother, Gail Tabor, was a reporter for the Citizen-Journal in Columbus, Ohio, when she met my father, Steve Lucas, who was pursuing a PhD in business at Ohio State.

She kept reporting right up through her pregnancy with me. She left reporting when she had me, but 12 or 15 years later, after her divorce and a move to Phoenix, Arizona, she got a job at the Arizona Republic. She worked as a features reporter, fashion editor, gossip columnist and news reporter, in roughly that order, until being forced into early retirement in the mid-1990s.

At the time she left the newspaper, the Internet was barely a thing most people had even heard of, and like most people she didn’t own a computer.

A few years after she retired, I took a job in Richmond, Virginia, that among other things called for me to be a daily advocate to the company’s newspaper editors for adopting various “new media” practices – video, blogs, social media, and on and on. As part of that work, I started a blog nearly 10 years ago devoted to those things.

The original blog was behind a company firewall and couldn’t be viewed by the larger world of the Internet, but in 2011 I migrated it here to WordPress.

Despite my clearly brilliant insights, however, the blog has never gained much of an audience – except for one post in 2012 that called for media companies (including but not limited to newspapers) to recognize that the people who produce their “content” are their most valuable commodity and need to be paid like it. That post drew a favorable comment on Steve Buttry’s blog, which got it noticed and linked to by All Things D, and traffic to my blog spiked to an all-time high. Nothing else I wrote ever came close to achieving that kind of audience. (Despite that post’s popularity, no one ever adopted my recommendation. Journalists, and content-providers in general, remain paid like dirt.)

Earlier in 2012, my mother died. Among her things were a good many of her newspaper stories and columns. One was a column she wrote in 1983 about a candy treat called Buckeye balls, which are rolled peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate, but not totally covered in chocolate so they look like Ohio buckeye nuts. Making Buckeye balls was a fall tradition for my family, usually done on the day of the Ohio State-Michigan game.

I loved that column and typed it, in its entirety, into a post on my blog.

Over time, that post became the second-best-read item on my blog. Pretty much every day, at least a couple of people searched the Internet for “buckeye balls,” “buckeye candies” or some variation and followed a link to that post.

And then on Thursday a slideshow online called United States of Food: Official State Foods mentioned “buckeye candies” in its Ohio entry and linked to my mother’s column on my blog.

The traffic blew away my previous one-day record. So now my mother, who never blogged a day in her life, has both the best-read post on my blog and the biggest single-day audience. If it were anyone but Mom, I’d be upset.

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This is a follow-up to the previous post and was written to run in the News-Topic.

It takes a special kind of jerk to respond to a young person’s exuberance with bitter cynicism and bile.

That would be the kind of person who, seeing a young boy cheerfully walking along with a helium balloon, pulls out something sharp. Best to pop the balloon and make the child cry – after all, life is hard, and you better get used to it.

There is a financial writer named Felix Salmon who is one of those people. He works for a website called Fusion, and last week he wrote an article with the headline To all the young journalists asking for advice …. From the way the article starts, I take it that Salmon regularly receives email from young reporters asking for tips on how to get into the business, or into Fusion itself, and saying how much they would like to talk about it over coffee if they could. That’s the kind of thing that the job-networking website LinkedIn and other places that give job-hunting advice recommend that you try to do – reach out to someone working someplace that you would like to work, ask for advice, try to meet for coffee.

Salmon illustrates two pitfalls of that strategy. One is that the advice is now so widespread that anyone a young job-hunter may contact might just be tired of all the unsolicited attention and requests for advice and coffee. The other is that the person you email out of the clear blue may be a bitter, old fart who’s more likely to insult you than to try to help.

Salmon’s “advice” was discouraging, to say the least. Not only that, it was contradictory.

“In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse,” he wrote, immediately after a paragraph that ended, “I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen. I also think that some of today’s fast-growing digital companies are going to become the media behemoths of tomorrow, making their owners extremely rich in the process.”

In other words, despite all the positive things he sees going on, his takeaway on the world of journalism is “Life stinks and then you die.”

Way to be a Debbie Downer, Felix.

Journalism is changing, which is true of a great many occupations – and always has been. Do you see any businesses around here that sell horse-drawn carts? That used to be one way to make a living. When cars came along, carts and buggies went away. But even cars aren’t constant. A couple of years ago I did an interview at a business that used to be a car dealership – for the Hudson Motor Car Co., a brand of car that most people now have never heard of. Remember when furniture companies started moving jobs to Asia? They’re never coming back, everyone said. Now a number of those jobs are coming back. Things change.

A lot of the upheaval affecting journalism and news organizations is related to the Internet. But the Internet is not a monolithic force. Things change there too. Remember Friendster? Probably not. It was Facebook before there was a Facebook. It got replaced by MySpace, which got replaced by Facebook.

How does the Internet come into your house? It used to be that the only way anyone got online was with a modem that dialed a phone number. Companies that made those modems have had to either quickly adapt as technology changes or go out of business.

Dell Computers built a production plant near Winston-Salem 10 or 15 years ago to make desktop computers – and within a few years it was obsolete because people started buying laptops instead.

Things change. What’s important is what you want to do. What do you like? What sort of work makes you feel creative or productive and fulfilled? In the case of those young people writing to Salmon, it is writing and reporting – telling stories. The technology of doing that is changing, so the details of doing the work is changing. The revenue of some parts of the business, such as newspapers, has declined, and maybe will keep declining – or it might stop. The things that make the work appeal to certain people haven’t changed that much. No one ever got into writing for the money.

Better advice was once given by David Carr, a prominent reporter for the New York Times who died Thursday:

“Being a journalist, I never feel bad talking to journalism students because it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. That’s not gonna retire your loans as quickly as it should, and it’s not going to turn you into a person who’s worried about what kind of car they should buy, but that’s kind of as it should be. I mean, it beats working.”

That’s the kind of advice young people deserve to hear.

UPDATE: Another good one to read on this topic. Sample: “I was disappointed about how I had been taken in by someone projecting his own feelings of discouragement onto a group of people younger than himself.”

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I haven’t met Dylan Howlett, but I hope I will because his recent blog post, Advice for Felix Salmon: Stop giving advice, is very well written. In case you don’t have time right now to go read it (find the time eventually, please) or the piece it refers to, here’s a summary:

Salmon wrote an article, To all the young journalists asking for advice …, not only discouraging anyone from trying to pursue a career in journalism but insulting them for thinking of it. Howlett responded smartly and hilariously, calling out Salmon’s bitterness and the massive gaps in his argument.

Howlett aptly sums up why I stay in this business. It’s true that after I was laid off in 2012, I looked for an exit ramp to something else. My thoughts at the time were not as dark as Salmon expresses, but they were in that general path.

But my previous job in journalism wasn’t very rewarding, emotionally. The one I have now is. No surprise, I now work directly with reporters and their writing and do a fair amount of writing of my own. And you know what? It’s nice to be in love. It’s true of people and it’s true of whatever you do.

Also, this, from Salmon: “And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.”

That reminds me of this: For more than 20 years, I worked for Media General. When I started, the company’s stock was trading somewhere in the $20- to $30-a-share range. At one point in the early 2000s it got to over $70 a share. But then much of the media world started getting “disrupted,” and the stock dropped. A few years ago it got down to around $1 a share. Along the way, a lot of people decided it was never going to get any better — prodded by some stock analysts who predicted the company was doomed — and they dumped all their stock. Today it’s trading for over $15. Obviously, $70 a share was ridiculous, but so was $1. Yes, Media General is now a TV company with no newspapers, but that’s the point: Who saw that coming? A point that Salmon, oddly enough, makes unintentionally by pointing out developments in journalism that came out of nowhere.

There’s a saying related to stock trading: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Salmon, despite his financial-reporting background, seems to believe otherwise — which is all the more puzzling, given that he admits “I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.”

That pretty much sums up the career of almost everyone I have ever met.

Here’s my advice: If you fall in love, follow your heart.

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Sometimes I just want a big, heavy stick to hit people in the head with. I’d call it my “You didn’t invent this” stick.

I would use it when I heard some (usually younger) person lamenting some condition of humankind that strikes him as a revelation, as though he found the New World, when all he really is doing is describing to you the exact same thing you went through a decade or two earlier – because everyone goes through it.

I felt a need for such a stick when reading what a couple of people who have worked in online media companies recently had to say about how the Internet has really gone downhill since back in the day when it was a simply fabulous way to get information.

“I began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast,” David Sessions wrote in an essay in late August on Patrolmag.com that reads like the lament of a late-career curmudgeon (and I won’t even get started on the issue of whether you can describe seven years as a career). “… By then, the internet had already provided me an outlet for various creative pursuits for years, and I saw nothing but the opportunity to escape some of traditional journalism’s worst constraints.”

In an interview in May at a conference called New York Ideas, Choire Sicha – who all of five long years ago co-founded The Awl, a popular current-events and culture blog – was less specific about his “early” Internet use, but the implication of all he said was that once upon a time, the Internet did nothing but bring untold riches of powerful writing to his digital doorstep. There was no end of interesting things to read.

Alas, no more.

“I do not read a lot of things anymore,” Sicha said. “A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that.”

Sessions felt no better, but there’s a funny thing about his description of so much that is wrong with the Internet:

“Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether (or) not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of ‘content’ gushing out of your feeds.”

You could take that description and swap most of it out with what people said back in the ‘80s and ’90s about pack journalism and the push for short news stories and splashy graphics in American newspapers, especially those owned by Gannett or any others influenced by USA Today, which itself was influenced by how information was presented on television.

It takes a narrow scope to believe that some Golden Age of Reading began on the Internet, or that the evolution or devolution of reading habits didn’t begin until the past five years instead of, if you could go back and ask your great-great-grandparents, a hundred years ago, or further back yet.

What Sicha and Sessions said was true, but in a larger sense it has always been true, and there is an old saying for it: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

You didn’t invent this experience, I want to yell at them, though I would also point out that each of them had a hand in inventing the current, digital incarnation of the handbasket. Neither of them appears to recognize this.

Sessions, in fact, seems to need a double-whack with a stick.

“I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his lament about how unsettled he is by changes in how people use Internet media, “so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade.”

Let’s be clear about this: The media platforms being discussed here may be different, but the unsettled nature of change is eternal and recognizes no boundaries, whether physical or digital. Before the unsettling change of digital news came the unsettling change of the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable TV news, which came after the unsettling change of the country’s once-dominant afternoon newspapers either switching to morning delivery or going out of business after losing out to morning papers, which coincided with the disappearance of two-newspaper cities, none of which were the first of the unsettling changes.

The problem isn’t that, as Sicha said and Sessions echoed, “something’s wrong” with the Internet. There is something wrong, though: humans. We are the reason we can’t have nice things.

Afternoon papers went away because people’s schedules changed, and morning papers then seemed more convenient. People’s schedules kept changing, and print circulation began declining for decades before the Internet arrived because even morning papers eventually came to be seen by some as not convenient – there was no time to read anymore, and the pile of unread papers was both a bother and a reminder that once upon a time there was a thing called leisure that involved reading. When the Internet came along, and especially when it moved onto phones, that became more convenient still. But what many people have decided they want that mobile Internet for is time-wasting, mindless crap to fill the minutes-long gaps in their day or to relieve their stress, something to distract them, not something to make them think, so that’s the kind of thing that becomes profitable.

“People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking,” Sicha said. “So we’re bored, we’re looking at our phones. We’re lonely, we’re looking at our phones. And so whatever weird portal you’re going through, then you’re clicking through to things from there.”

And this isn’t the first time that happened. In the early days of television, some thought that TV would be the way to bring fine arts to the masses. Go to your TV now and find an opera or Broadway play. I’ll wait.

Think the Internet will get better someday? In 1961, FCC chairman Newton N. Minow called television programming a “vast wasteland” – and that was four years before “My Mother the Car.” Television had yet to sink to the era of the Kardashians and “Fear Factor.”

“Something’s wrong”? Only us. We say we want to eat healthy vegetables, but we’ll go for the candy when no one is looking. Seeing that, the folks who make money off what we like will constantly pivot. If you see something you like, buy it, or tomorrow it may be gone.

“The only thing that is constant is change,” a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus wrote about 2,500 years ago, probably right after someone complained that reading on papyrus just doesn’t deliver the same tactile pleasure as reading from a leather scroll.

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