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Posts Tagged ‘bad practices’


I regret to inform all my friends in news, and family so inclined, that whatever soul I had left is gone. Starting Jan. 1 I will be the publisher of the Lenoir News-Topic.

At a company announcement, an editor friend said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

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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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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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The goat must be fed
In the 16 months since I came to the News-Topic, I have had the basic idea rumbling around my head for a post on the disconnect I see between posts about digital storytelling tools and the reality of small-town journalism, which accounts for the great majority of news organizations in the U.S. But I never had the time to pull my thoughts together.

Now the Duke Reporters Lab has helped do a lot of the heavy lifting for me with a study showing that there is a “significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots – particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.”

I object to the word “willing” in that sentence. It may be the case in many places that there is active resistance to using data and digital tools, but I have not seen that at many of the small newsrooms I visited in my previous job or in this one. The spirit is willing at places like this, but the flesh is exhausted.

The study finds newsroom leaders citing “budget, time and people as their biggest constraints” but “also revealed deeper issues – part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.”

In the case of my organization – print circulation approximately 5,000-6,000 – I can tell you the issue is approximately 95 percent one of time and people. My news staff, including me, totals six people, one of them dedicated full-time to local sports. There is no clerk to compile our extensive events listings or obituaries. I am expected to have an all-local front page in the print product, and I have my own set of standards for what I will accept out front (and while the bar is lower than it might be at a major metro, it largely is set higher than “incremental” news). Three of my four writers have less than two years’ experience. And no matter whether I find some events very newsworthy, there are longstanding community expectations for coverage of certain things, and skipping them carries stiff costs in community relations. With all of that, I find that getting my minimum number of local stories worthy of A1 takes about all the staff time that can be managed.

I can recognize that digital storytelling is worthy in its own right, not just “bells and whistles,” and still say there is precious little room here for “difficult trade-offs” in coverage.

That’s the 95 percent obstacle. The 5 percent is primarily infrastructure and, to at least some extent, technical understanding. Simply put, our CMS seems terrible – it’s locked down, limited, balky and not at all user-friendly. But it’s possible we are wrong, since no one here has ever been able to get formal training for it. Whatever we know how to do is based on our knowledge of other CMSes each of us has used (I at other companies, and my staff at their school papers) or the bare-bones “this is how you post a story” knowledge that the existing reporting staff provided me when I arrived here.

This is not to say we don’t talk about the website, our online audience or how to engage readers online. We are active in social media, almost everyone on the staff has shot and posted video, and we have interactions with readers online. We do more online now than this newsroom ever has. We WANT to keep doing more, and I WILL keep looking for ways to do it.

But as the Duke report says: The goat must be fed. Everything else has to come later.

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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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A rose is a rose is a rose.

But a rose is not a daisy or an iris or a pansy.

More is not less, and over is not under.

At least not yet.

The Associated Press hasn’t changed its mind on how journalists should use those words, but I wonder whether it’s only a matter of time.

This week the Associated Press changed a rule in the AP Stylebook. And the change was met with howls of disgust and outrage – mine. But I wasn’t the only one howling.

The rule in question governed the use of “more than” versus “over” when talking about quantity or volume. The rule has been essentially that you use “more than” for things you can count, and you use “over” for things that can be measured but not counted. For instance, “more than 12 items,” and “over a quart.”

But AP now says you don’t have to bother with the distinction anymore. Whatever works. It’s all good.

Why?

Because “it has become common usage.”

You know why it has become common usage? Because not enough people have bothered to learn what’s correct. That isn’t a good reason to lower your standards. It’s like the language equivalent of grade inflation — if no one can earn an A anymore, just lower the bar so what used to get a B grade is now worth an A.

One of the more amusing reactions to AP’s decision that “over” and “more than” were interchangeable came from Mike Shor on Twitter: “More than my dead body!”

Once upon a time, when you wanted to express the idea that something didn’t matter to you, you said, “I couldn’t care less.”

But it has been years since I heard anyone say that. What they say now is, “I could care less.”

Why would anyone say that? If you “could care less,” it means you care. If you care, it bothers you. It makes no sense to say that if you mean that it doesn’t bother you.

But because so many people now say it, it’s “common usage,” the same theory AP has used to say that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable.

And so it goes.

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass” said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” And that’s exactly how we get to this point.

There used to be a difference between the meanings of “composed” and “comprised.” But some people didn’t learn it, others couldn’t remember it, some of each didn’t bother to check before they used one of the words, and after a while the dictionary started listing both definitions as correct for each.

“Common usage” doesn’t make it right.

And no, I don’t propose that those who know the difference go around correcting everyone publicly when people use words incorrectly. But if the people who use words for a living give in to the incorrect uses, then what?

If enough people say blue and yellow are the same color, eventually the words for them will come to have the same meaning, but that will mean only that the words have lost their usefulness.

If we keep rounding the edges off of words because we let people who don’t bother to learn the correct definitions rewrite the definitions, all we will be left with eventually is, “Well, you knew what I meant.”

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Nieman Media Lab’s article about media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” struck me because ever since my move less than three months ago to become editor of a small newspaper in northwest North Carolina, I almost never see anything on Tweetdeck. As a result, I feel extremely cut off from the up-to-date flow of new information on news industry developments from sources I have followed, in some cases, almost as long as Twitter has existed.

At the same time, my current job feels almost entirely linear, and I can’t say my previous job with Media General in Richmond, Va., did. Day to day, hour to hour, I am too busy to monitor the river of tweets. I literally cannot carve out the time. So Rushkoff’s description of what he means by “present shock” resonates — I have spent hours doing nothing but watching what comes in, following it, evaluating it and deciding what was worth following further and spreading, devoting some small amount of time to thinking farther ahead about the longer-term implications — it was, after all, part of my job to think ahead, but connecting “right now” to the next few hours was not so much part of it.

Of course I think my situation illustrates part of the stratification of the industry: Editors at papers with small staffs are too occupied with the immediate needs of today’s paper and the next few days’ papers to follow the commentary on what is likely coming down the line.

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