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Archive for the ‘Online media’ Category

Paywall? What paywall?

I had forgotten that back in February I wrote a post about my new employer having a paywall going up as of April 1. If you have visited newstopic.net, you may have noticed there is no paywall. Don’t get my publisher started on the subject. This has been another episode you can file under “Tech companies always overpromise and underdeliver.” (Although who knew that paywall technology was something that took many months to implement?) We have a pool going among managers in the office on when the paywall will go up. We made the bets in the summer, and the most optimistic among us already have lost. I still expect to win: I bet on March 2014.

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Ken Doctor lists 10 ways the news industry will judge 2014. I agree with the list, but I’m focused on just one:

New strategies will be tested. We’re bound to get some sense of how the major strategies put into local markets this year are working. Think Advance’s Slim-Fast three-day-a-week home delivery plan is a good or bad idea? Let’s see — or least divine, since Advance is privately held — the results. How about Aaron Kushner’s major reinvestment in southern California? What’s the payoff in circulation, reader revenue, and advertising? As DFM’s Thunderdome rolls out for a full year, will it be a hit or a miss?”

I have about had my fill of debates about what is or isn’t going to work. I want some numbers. The three experiments Doctor cites above are among those too young at this point to judge. Paywalls, at many publications, are another. (At my own, a paywall is tentatively scheduled to go up next month. I’m not holding my breath.) Even after one year, you can’t declare success or failure — I recently heard a publisher tout the gains made by a new (less than a year old) advertising pricing strategy, but to this journalist’s eyes the numbers were front-loaded, with all the gain coming from new advertisers giving the new prices a spin and then not renewing, and I had to wonder what the second year is going to look like — but they are gaining age. Full-year results will be intriguing, second-year results will be when you start thinking about a trend.

It’s a painful thing, this waiting.

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The news coming out of a series of meetings that the new owner of the Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, had with the paper’s employees this week sounded both encouraging and discouraging to longtime news people like me.

It was encouraging because so much of it reinforced the values we have always been taught.

For instance, this was the first paragraph of the story by Post writers Paul Farhi and Craig Timberg about the meetings:

“Jeffrey P. Bezos had a simple bit of advice for the staff of the newspaper he’ll soon own: Put readers, not advertisers, first. Don’t write to impress each other. And above all, ‘Don’t be boring.’”

But what’s discouraging is just that: Almost everything that those listening to Bezos found worth repeating was so thoroughly familiar that it ought to have been unremarkable.

For instance, every bit of that Post paragraph above was pretty much from News Writing 101. Many reporters hate the idea that advertising is even IN the newspaper, so you hardly have to tell them not to put advertisers first, but getting a writer to think of his story from the perspective of a reader can take some work. And “Don’t be boring”? Get serious. That falls under the category of advice that my wife calls “Don’t shave the cat,” which means it’s advice you really shouldn’t need to hear in order to do the sensible thing. No editor ever chewed out a reporter for failing to load a story full of six-syllable words, math equations and technical explanations.

“What has been happening over the last several years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos said of seemingly never-ending cuts to news staff. “If every year we cut the newsroom a little more and a little more and a little more, we know where that ends.”

I have yet to hear anyone say otherwise, so while it’s nice to know that Bezos doesn’t think you can cut your way to prosperity, that thought by itself doesn’t mean he can get the revenue moving back in the right direction.

What the news industry hopes to see from Bezos eventually is a way for the business to thrive in the world of free and instant sharing on the Internet. The closest he got to that was this:

“Should it be as easy to buy the Washington Post as it is to buy diapers on Amazon? I think it should.”

Can’t argue with that. Many of the business practices at a great many newspapers are firmly rooted in the pre-Internet 20th century. But again, that’s hardly a novel realization. People have been talking about this in the industry for years, yet, just like the weather, no one does anything about it.

Then we get to a couple of things the Post reported Bezos saying that are just depressing to journalists.

“You have to figure out: How can we make the new thing? Because you have to acknowledge that the physical print business is in structural decline,” he said. “You can’t pretend that that’s not the case. You have to accept it and move forward. . . . The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was …”

If that’s the death knell, then we’re dead, baby, because journalists have been glorifying the past for decades – particularly at Pulitzer-winning metropolitan papers such as the Post.

“All businesses need to be forever young. . . . If your customer base ages with you as a company, you’re Woolworth’s.”

All I have to say about that is, welcome to Woolworth’s.

Actually, I’d rather end on a positive note, or as positive as any of Bezos’ comments struck me, which was this on what Bezos said his purchase of the Post shows about his outlook:

“If I thought it was hopeless I’d feel BAD for you guys. But I wouldn’t want to join you.”

So he’s an optimist. Which might just be the surest evidence possible that at heart he isn’t a journalist.

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When we were children and encountered a problem, we went to our parents, and they fixed it.

Parents can fix anything.

As we get older we take on more of our own problems, maybe asking advice. Well into adulthood, it’s hard to shake the urge to at least ask for advice when we come up against a really big problem.

Which leads me to the reaction to Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos buying the Washington Post.

I’ve seen this movie before, and I’m getting the serious feeling that everyone in the news industry is waiting for Dad to show up and Fix It.

As the old business model – using low prices for the product to build audience, then making all your money from advertising – began to unravel, no one in the business had a way to fix it.

I remember when Sam Zell first bought the Tribune papers in 2007, some people (not all, by a long shot) thought he might Fix It. He had made a ton of money, so he must know something about business, and maybe a fresh set of eyes and a less hidebound approach would work. Then he started breaking all the good china, stamping out his cigars in the carpeting and insulting his employees, and it was clear that making a ton of money in one business doesn’t necessarily translate into universal business genius. Then the economy imploded, and that was the end of that.

In 2012, Warren Buffett made a splash with a series of newspaper purchases, which has continued into this year, and there seemed to be a giant sigh of relief throughout the industry. The Oracle of Omaha is widely described as a genius, having made shrewd investments across various industries for decades, so surely he must see the way out of the mess we’re in, or once hip deep in the mess he WILL see it. He must have a plan, right? … Well, he has said repeatedly he does not, and so far Mr. Buffett has cut well over 100 jobs (including mine). If his team has created any new jobs or found a new way to increase revenue, I missed it.

Also in 2012, another very rich man, Aaron Kushner, set journalistic hearts aflutter by doubling down on the old print model, beefing up the Orange County Register’s news staff and cutting off free Internet access. The company claims it is having success, though circulation is flat. As I wrote recently, until someone produces numbers, the jury has to be considered out on that experiment.

Now comes Bezos. He made a bazillion dollars on the Internet! The Internet is at the heart of the industry’s problems, so he MUST be the man to turn this whole thing around. Alan Mutter, generally a sound, pragmatic voice on news-business topics, makes a case for it.

I sure hope so, because I’m getting tired of watching this movie, and I can no longer tell whether its title is “Waiting for Superman,” “Waiting for Godot” or “Waiting for Guffman.”

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Lord knows I want the Orange County Register’s print-centric business model to be successful. It is the model of simplicity: Beef up the content + charge for content = Profit!

But an article at The Guardian that asserts that model’s success doesn’t actually show any success, except in the area of spending more money.

The article sums up the paper’s approach since CEO Aaron Kushner took over Freedom Communications a year ago: Add more staff and pages, prioritize print over digital, erect a hard paywall. A quote from editor Ken Brusic perfectly captures the reasoning:

“Imagine it’s your daily coffee. Each time you put down your money the cup gets smaller and the brew gets weaker. That’s essentially what’s happened to American newspapers. We took things away from people and at the same time gave content away free on the web.”

I happen to agree with that. The first instinct of publishers over at least the past 10 years (if not since the dawn of publishers) has been to cut payroll and expenses first, seek new revenue channels later — which is lunacy. I was in Media General’s corporate offices in the late 2000s when the economy began collapsing, and the company’s three metros went, among other cuts, from four racing writers to zero, two science writers to zero, full-time state capital staff eliminated except at the one paper actually located in a state capital, each newsroom collapsing to focus on “the franchise,” local news. You had the sense of medium-sized, hefty dailies with big ambitions shrinking their staff and ambitions to become oversized small dailies. But the prices stayed the same. I always wondered what would have happened had they offered readers a choice and laid out the economic realities, explained that advertising had collapsed and what that meant for staffing. What would the readers have chosen as their preferred way of handling the budgets? Maybe the same thing. We’ll never know for sure.

In Orange County, Kushner’s approach essentially is turning back the clock to experiment with the approach no one tried: Provide the content and see if you can make that work. The Guardian asserts that “as the paper prepares to celebrate the experiment’s first anniversary, it appears to be thriving.”

But the definition of “thriving” I’m familiar with wouldn’t seem to apply here:

“Home deliveries are flat, compared to a year ago, but circulation overall is sharply up if you include an expanded stable of 28 weekly newspapers.” I would not count them, because the rest of the article didn’t talk so much about beefing up the staff and content of the weeklies. “… Revenue is ahead of target, said Kushner, without elaborating. Annual figures are due to be published in September.”

Where is the skepticism we would bring to any other businessman? Kushner SAYS revenue is ahead of target. But what was his target? You double your staff in one year and make your paper so heavy that, as deputy editor of local news Rob Curley says, it could kill a cat, you incur gigantic expenditures. It’s really easy to ramp up spending. Ramping up revenue is a good deal harder. So what does the Register and its there’s-no-more-free-content approach charge readers for this giant, cat-killing package? Print or online, it costs just $1 a day. I would be shocked if that covers even the cost of the newsprint and ink the Register is using. The Register has been working to increase advertising, but with readers contributing just $1 a day, the idea that advertising has increased enough in just one year, especially coming out of a recession and in a national slump in advertising, for the venture to break even seems ludicrous.

If you were to tell me that Kushner expects to lose money for a while, build the product and its reputation, use that to bring in more advertisers and revenue streams, gradually increase the cost to readers, and eventually get it to where both the print and online products are sustained as primarily pay-for-content products supported by readers rather than advertisers, I could believe that.

Just don’t tell me it’s “thriving” right now and expect me to believe it without any numbers to prove it.

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In a world of dwindling newsroom resources, one of the harder questions is how much of your time and attention to place online. The view I tend to align with is that the future audience is going to be all-digital, and likely mostly mobile, so we need to make sure we are moving ourselves.

Then comes this new study that shows that when it comes to news consumption, a lot of what you put online may as well be wasted effort in comparison to how much use the print product gets: 92 percent of the consumption of news is on legacy platforms, only 8 percent on digital.

The temptation is to say that everyone should then devote 92 percent of their time and energy to the legacy platform. I know that’s too simplistic.

What if digital news consumption is relatively low because we just aren’t that good yet at grabbing digital users?

Or maybe the real message is to spend your online energies tailoring what you do present online to the on-the-run way that people use that medium, which in turn may mean there are things you are doing online now that you don’t really need to do, given how little use it is getting.

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Here’s a little secret of the legislative process: Absolutely every time a legislative body convenes, anywhere, some of its members introduce bills that they know stand not a snowball’s chance in Hades of seeing the light of day.

Why would they do that?

The bill may represent a dearly held belief. Sometimes it’s just to please some folks back home.

No matter the motivation, though, at some point the legislator or legislators in question knew or should have known that the measure was fatally flawed – either impractical, unpopular or flat-out illegal and/or unenforceable.

Sometimes, they don’t even file a bill; all they do is stand up and make a speech that includes phrases to please certain audiences but doesn’t mean anything. In fact, North Carolina is the source for one term for this: bunk, as in “That’s a lot of bunk.” It is said that in February 1820, as Congress was debating the Missouri Compromise, U.S. Rep. Felix Walker, who was from the Asheville area, rose to speak but assured his colleagues, “I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe,” and went on to deliver a speech that had absolutely nothing to do with anything under consideration. Bumcombe became bunkum became bunk.

Which brings us to the measure that made North Carolina a national punchline this week.

When I was the state editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, our state capital reporter routinely reported to me on certain, well, unusual pieces of legislation. One that springs to mind would have mandated that prison inmates sleep in shifts around the clock – you could use one bed for three inmates, so each prison could house three times as many inmates as it was intended to house. My response always was to ask whether the bill in question stood a chance of getting anywhere. The reporter would check around, and almost without fail the answer was no, the people in charge knew the measure was impractical, or nuts, so it wouldn’t even get to a committee debate, it would just disappear into the archives.

Back then, before Facebook and Twitter, that would have been the widespread response to House Joint Resolution 494. Introduced by Rowan County legislators, it appeared to be crafted to satisfy folks upset about an ACLU challenge of local governments starting their meetings with an overtly Christian prayer. What made it stand out, and what made it spread virally across the Internet, is that the proposal declares that the U.S. Constitution prohibition against government establishing an official religion doesn’t apply to anyone but Congress, so that “states, municipalities, or schools” would be free to do so.

Imagine, if you can, the free-for-all of a United States where individual towns or even schools can declare their own official religions. Want an officially Muslim town somewhere? A mini-Israel in the mountains up North? An officially Buddhist village in the Carolina coastal plain? And then after the next election cycle the official religion could change again? This kind of idea would make it possible. It has all kinds of unintended consequences.

Aside from that, though, even as the resolution itself states, the nation’s courts at every level have consistently interpreted the establishment clause as applying to everyone, not just Congress. So, passing anything to implement the idea would have zero legal effect. None.

In other words, the legislators expressed support for something that on its face would be unconstitutional – violating not just the U.S. Constitution but the state constitution as well. And that is where the stuff hit the fan and splattered across Facebook, Twitter and all the tubes of the Internet. “North Carolina is going Taliban,” the commentary suggested.

But here’s the other thing: Because the legislative sponsors introduced it as a resolution, they never really intended to try to make their idea the law of the state. A resolution is more like standing up on a box and declaring to the folks all around, “Here is what I think is a really good idea.” They were speaking to Buncombe.

John Hood of the conservative John Locke Foundation said as much in a column Friday: “A resolution is not a bill. A bill introduced is not a bill enacted. And a bill enacted is not necessarily a major policy change that will affect the everyday lives of North Carolinians.”

That’s what I kept trying to tell people when I saw them flipping out on Facebook.

And on Thursday, what I expected came to pass: The House leadership declared that the measure would never even come to a vote.

So ends another week in the sausage-making business.

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I recall once writing (although apparently it was before I migrated my blog to WordPress) that I was getting sick of the paywall debate and I wished someone would just pull the trigger and put up a hard paywall so we could get actual data and stop debating what might or might not happen. You know how people always say, “Be careful what you wish for …”? It seems I’m going to soon find out firsthand what a hard paywall does. As of April 1, actually.

While I have long been philosophically opposed to the idea of a paywall — with a possible exception made for metered paywalls — the early weeks of my tenure at the Lenoir News-Topic have weakened my resolve on the issue. I am told repeatedly that there is a noticeable drop in single-copy sales if the day’s big news goes up on the web before most people begin work. The circulation department reports that an increasing number of subscribers who refuse to renew their subscriptions say the reason is they can get it online for free.

Now, obviously we are not talking about a straight line. Even if you hold on to your circulation, it doesn’t mean larger advertisers won’t stop shifting more of their money out of newspapers, so you can hold or build circulation and wind up with less revenue. And although people are telling our circulation department that they won’t renew because they can get the news online, I’m not at all convinced they mean they are using our website. Our site, frankly, sucks. It sucks hard. It will give you a hickey if you use it too much. That is gradually being rectified, but the staff is so small that the progress is halting and low-priority.

But as of April 1, we’ll start to get answers. Maybe subscription renewals will climb, or at least level off. Maybe people will start to tell us all the things that are missing from our site, which will prompt a discussion on the resources needed to get that done every day. I somehow doubt people will say that. I think they will continue saying they are getting their news online for free, even though they will not be able to get our site for free.

But at least we’ll have our answer, the one I have wished for. I hope I won’t again be thinking I should have been more careful what I wished for.

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fbomb
After Day 15 of my time as a small-town newspaper editor, I can confirm and amplify what I had always heard and believed: The smaller the staff, the more the paper reflects the editor’s personality. This paper will never be wholly Guy Lucas, unless Paxton cuts everything to the point that I’m the only one left, but I can look at it now, hold it alongside what it was before I got here and see my reflection. It also forces me to admit what I had believed before about papers this size and had hesitated to predict about myself: The stronger the editor’s personality and drive, the faster the change is visible. I wouldn’t say that unless former co-workers had not repeatedly teased me on Facebook, and I don’t say it to brag. Good or bad, who I am is out there, running full throttle and replacing my newsroom’s previous model of a swear jar with just swears. I yell, I exude, I cheer. When I can, I have a lot of fun. I hope it spills over and it’s not just me having fun, so that maybe especially with my new hires (one who started today, one still to be found) a little bug infects them, and they get the idea that being a little outrageous is what an editor ought to be.

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Catching up on some long-neglected reading, I just finished an interview with actor Frank Langella in the September issue of Esquire. At one point, writer Scott Raab asks Langella about his role as the vampire in the 1979 movie “Dracula,” saying, “Did you drag that around like a stone?” Langella answers that he didn’t in his head, but he acknowledges that the role probably cost him some other opportunities. That by itself is something we are used to thinking about actors, that one corny role or a movie that flops will hurt the actor’s career. Thinking of Langella’s career now — think particularly of “Frost/Nixon,” “The Box,” last year’s “Robot & Frank” — it seems crazy to think he lost roles in the early ’80s just because he played a vampire in 1979. You wonder how many of those producers or casting directors who passed him over would now, in hindsight, wish they had rethought it.

But then I thought of my own recent experience looking for a job. In the two months after I was laid off, I must have applied for nearly 40 jobs; none seemed like a stretch. I got just four phone interviews, three of which led to in-person interviews. But those four had two significant questions in common. The gist of the first was whether I was concerned that it had been nearly 12 years since I directly supervised reporters. My inner reaction roughly was, “What? Seriously?” The gist of the second was that my corporate job must have paid me significantly better than the job I was interviewing for, so how low could I go? My inner reaction wasn’t much different than it was to the first, because although it was a corporate job, it was still in news — the pay wasn’t as good as they assumed.

These publishers and editors were doing the same thing as those Hollywood producers — looking at the last thing I had done and extrapolating from that the entirety of what I then was capable of and expected. Given the common gravity with which the questions were asked all four times, I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that a number of people who never even called me had the same questions, presumed the answers and wrote me off. In fact, during my almost 12 years in a corporate news division, I had seen some situations where publishers simply wrote off potential hires without so much as an interview because they assumed, based on where the editors had last worked, that the editors wanted more money than the publishers were willing to pay.

Now that I am back supervising reporters again, I can confidently say what I believed before: If you were ever any good at supervising reporters, then it’s like riding a bike. You just don’t forget how to do it. As for the pay, obviously I was always fully aware, as a longtime reporter and editor, that the industry’s standard pay is awful.

Now, as I am trying to make a new hire I am trying to be sure I am not repeating the mistakes of those who interviewed me.

How about you? Next time you are reviewing applications, assess what you are assessing. When you place an application in your “No” pile, why did you put it there?

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