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Posts Tagged ‘brand/reputation’

Most days, being a good community newspaper is an exercise in neighborliness.

We like to find out about things people in the community have done, or are doing, that are interesting or to find the new businesses they have started. These are happy stories that help people feel connected to their neighbors.

When something tragic happens to someone in the community, we try when we can to bring that person’s life to light so it is not just a story of pain or statistics. These are not happy stories, but they also help people feel connected, and if they are done right they can help people mourn a loss or celebrate a legacy.

Sometimes, though, being a good community newspaper means sticking our necks out and risking what might become a costly fight over an important principle. That happened over the past two months.

The News-Topic found out in September that a civil lawsuit had been filed against the Caldwell County Board of Education and quickly settled. We wanted to tell you, the taxpayers of Caldwell County, who pay for the Caldwell County Schools, what it’s about and what the settlement was. But all sides in the lawsuit agreed to have the entire court file sealed by a judge.

Strictly speaking, this should almost never happen. State law in North Carolina presumes an overriding interest in the public knowing about the actions of their government agencies, including in court. On the topic of court settlements involving agencies and/or their employees and representatives, the law says this:

“Public records … shall include all settlement documents in any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions … in connection with or arising out of such agency’s official actions, duties or responsibilities, except in an action for medical malpractice against a hospital facility. No agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions, nor any counsel, insurance company or other representative acting on behalf of such agency, shall approve, accept or enter into any settlement of any such suit, arbitration or proceeding if the settlement provides that its terms and conditions shall be confidential, except in an action for medical malpractice against a hospital facility.”

That’s as clear as it could possibly be.

The school system is not a hospital facility, so there would not seem to be any room under the law for sealing this lawsuit or settlement.

Yet this lawsuit and settlement were sealed.

The law allows for a judge to make a determination that there is an interest for secrecy that overrides the presumption that settlements involving a government agency should be public. But we were unable to know whether that was true because the judge also sealed his order saying why the entire court file should be sealed.

That seems counterintuitive to me.

Court orders do not exist solely for other judges to read; they are there also to explain why a particular court document or file is not available to the public as the vast majority of other court documents are. Our court system belongs to the public, and the presumption under the law is that the public has a right to know what is going on in the courts and why.

All anyone could tell from what was publicly available in this particular court file was that a child was involved. That makes it more serious and more urgent for the public to know about, not less. We think the public wants to know what happened in the county’s schools, what the level of responsibility of the Caldwell County Schools was and what it cost the taxpayers to make this lawsuit go away.

The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled just last year that the law allows a student’s name to be redacted from any documents made public but does not allow sealing the entire file.

And so the News-Topic went to work to get everyone to follow the law and unseal the file and settlement.

If you have ever hired a lawyer, you know that this cost us money. If you have ever run a business, you realize that this is an unexpected expense that was not in our budget.

But there is a clear public interest here, laid out plainly in the state law quoted above — and also, ironically, in the settlement. Once it was unsealed, we found a paragraph acknowledging that the settlement could not preclude the school board, “as a public agency,” from legal requirements to “disclose the substantive terms of, or produce a copy of, a public record, or to comply with Open Meeting Laws.”

The News-Topic’s efforts on this case began just before National Newspaper Week, when newspapers across the country try to remind their communities of the vital civic role played by news organizations.

There have been several national stories over the past year about that, including one on a study showing that in communities where the only newspaper closed, the cost of government increased in comparison to communities that still had a newspaper. When no one is watching, eventually people start cutting corners, and the cost to taxpayers goes up.

This court case is as good a reminder as you could have of the things newspapers do on behalf of the public. There is literally no one else in the courthouse every week looking at what is happening in both civil and criminal courts other than the clerks, lawyers and judges — all of whom have their own jobs to do and their own interests to pursue.

When someone asks why they should pay for a newspaper when there are websites that provide some of that information for free, this is yet another answer.

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Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?

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Reading about attracting news audiences and revenue for online news sites has often been depressing. Even for someone who believes in the need for meeting the audience where it is and adapting to the needs of online and mobile news consumers, at times it has felt like the future was heading toward a world dominated by Buzzfeedy listicles and clickbait and Upworthy-worthy headlines, where all advertising revenue is forever lagging and all audiences are zephyrlike transients.

You can simultaneously believe that not just journalism but locally oriented journalism is necessary for society but feel overwhelmed by skepticism about how many people out there have the same belief and will actively seek it in numbers that will support some kind of sustainable revenue model.

But recent weeks have brought some research to stoke your optimism.

The American Press Institute reported this week on a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about news-consumption habits:

“When asked to volunteer how they came to the news, people tend think less about the device than the news gathering source and the means of discovery (social media or search). Taken in combination, the findings suggest that people make conscious choices about where they get their news and how they get it, using whatever technology is convenient at the moment.”

The survey also found that people do notice what strengths different news organizations have, for instance turning to local TV sources (TV itself or a TV station’s website) for weather, traffic, crime, and health news, and newspaper sources for news about their local town or city, for news about arts and culture, and for news about schools and education.

And hasn’t that been one of the underlying hopes of traditional journalists, that our existing “brand” is more than our traditional medium or platform, that the public associates our news organization with the news we produce?

That’s what this survey indicates is the case – they seek us out for news, not just, as often is said, wait for any news that really is important to find them:

“Overall, for instance, social media is becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news — but hardly the only one, even for the youngest adults.

“… People across all generations are most likely to discover news by going directly to a news organization, rather than letting the news come to them.”

Super.

We can check off that part of how to survive the future.

That still leaves revenue, the front that has been the bleakest, where analog dollars turn to digital dimes, if that.

But Tony Haile, the CEO of data-analytics company Chartbeat, wrote in a column last week for time.com on research by his company that finds that audiences drawn to actual news may hold more value for advertisers than those on other sites because they pay attention to the page and linger longer. Why that matters:

“Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.”

And best of all, it may be that news organizations have undervalued their advertising slots that are lower on the digital page, especially below the “fold” where ads and content aren’t seen unless the viewer scrolls:

“Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content, not the cruft, is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.”

Pair this with the results of a study by the Pew Research Journalism Project that found that “People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter ‘sideways’” through social media and other referrels, as Andrew Beaujon wrote last week at Poynter.org.

The Pew report, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” said:

“In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors — those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked — spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral.

“… For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

This doesn’t suggest to me that all the time newsrooms spend now trying to engage audiences on Facebook, Twitter or other social sites is wasted or even that it should be cut back. It puts your news in front of audiences, including some people who are not regular readers or viewers. That exposure may be critical in building your brand in the minds of that portion of the audience.

That makes it up to you to be sure that what you have lured them to is news they find worthwhile enough that they come back on their own.

And that has always been the name of the game for survival in news.

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The past year has been a whirlwind.

I’m three weeks away from the anniversary of my arrival in Lenoir. By Jan. 21 I will have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88.

The change in my working life from 2012 to 2013 is reflected in part by what you don’t see. Before, I blogged an average of several times a week about news issues, new media and social media. In large part, that reflected my job at Media General – part of my role to was to track trends on things like that and point our newsrooms to what other news organizations were doing.

During 2013, WordPress tells me, my posting dropped to an average of two or three times a month.

Mostly that’s the result of the time-consuming role of running a small, resource-starved newsroom. At a place this small, the editor is not just the editor; he (or she) is also a reporter, tech support, obit clerk, calendar editor, photo editor, editorial page editor and sometimes handyman. If you want your reporters to be reporters, you have little choice but to sweep up those other roles.

Among my frustrations from my job hunt was that editors and publishers often seemed to think my time in the corporate news division of Media General actually was a detour out of news, that the 11-plus years there could only have dulled my instincts for supervising reporters or my willingness to pull long hours. My publisher here would say otherwise.

But one thing I can credit to my time in Media General is learning, by observing nearly two dozen newsrooms, from weeklies up to metro dailies, that when the resources are cut, you have to let something go. I had seen many examples of editors trying to keep doing the same with less. As busy as I am, I could be busier if I weren’t willing to embrace what’s “good enough” and move on to the next battle.

Which brings me to another change in my blog posts. In general, my posts now most often address what confronts me as the editor of a small-town newspaper, or they are personal observances. I haven’t taken time to rethink the “About” portion of the blog, so I blog less.

My main challenge during 2013 was setting expectations for the staff: The main point isn’t to fulfill a byline count but to make sure what you do is interesting to the reader. That has meant shooting down stories that the paper might have done before and sending others back for more work. It has meant learning to use social media to draw attention to stories since fewer people subscribe. We’ve begun getting a little video in as extras, but the emphasis has stayed on the writing.

The staff is smaller than it was in mid-2012, but this paper is better written now, I think it’s more interesting, and the number of local news items in print is about the same.

I could be wrong about our performance. We didn’t do well in the state press awards, and home subscriptions continue their years-long slide (though the most common reason given for canceling is free news online). But single-copy sales are stronger.

My biggest frustrations are things that are out of my control: the budget, and the ability of a paper this size, in this kind of market, to appeal to young talent.

In those, I am sure, I have plenty of company.

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As the editor of a small newspaper, I sometimes have a number of other roles to fill. Recently it has been business reporter following the bankruptcy process of one of this county’s major employers, Furniture Brands International.

Once it became obvious that the company would almost certainly end up in the hands of KPS Capital Partners, a private equity firm specializing in turnarounds, I read up on KPS and its approach.

Part of an interview with ABF Journal, a trade magazine, by KPS partner Michael Psaros about the keys to success in a turnaround continues to echo in my head:

“We’ll get there by actually understanding where our companies are making money in terms of the products they are selling and the customers they are selling to.”

As obvious the last point may seem to be, Psaros says it’s a point that seems to elude almost every management team KPS replaces. “It never ceases to amaze me that in almost every case, we ask the simple question: ‘Which products and customer relationships are profitable and which aren’t?’ And the answer winds up being: ‘We don’t know.’ I’m left to wonder, how can you run a company and not know this information?”

I read that and can’t help but wonder how newspaper owners would answer that question. We (newspapers) simultaneously tell the public we are selling them a package of information and/or entertainment even while we get most of our money from selling ads to businesses based on how many people are willing to buy that package from us. What’s our product in that equation, the paper or the audience? The customer relationships with readers are the reason we can build the customer relationships with advertisers, but the relationships with readers are not by themselves very profitable, or not profitable at all.

By the pricing strategies of major newspapers, you can tell that the owners still feel they are in the advertising business. They continue to sell subscriptions for a fraction of the cost of producing a copy of the newspaper. How much they are willing to subsidize a subscription amounts to the cost of raw material to assemble the product, which is the readership, that will be sold to advertisers. Any talk, then, of the quality of the news in the newspaper might be considered only so much branding because it doesn’t do anything to build the part of the business where the most money is made.

KPS says on its website that it would consider investing in “all industries except for high technology, financial services, telecommunications, broadcast media, real estate and natural resources (exploration).” Its emphasis is on industries that make things, where there are processes and supply chains that can be made more efficient, and tangible products that can be improved upon. Print and online news media are not in the “do not invest” list, but I can’t help but wonder.

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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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Not a journalist, believe it or not
I’m constantly amazed at the serendipity of the information I run across, two or three or four things in a day or two that seem related to a particular line of thinking I had. Here, thanks to Matthew Ingram of GigaOm, is a natural Part Two to my previous post.

Given my argument there, that advertising in newspapers is continuing a downward slide that paywalls, or anything else tried so far, will not stop, what then should journalists do? We’re in the content business, not the revenue business, so our ability to affect the bottom line is limited. But we can affect how our readers (aka, customers) think of our business, as a post at the confused of calcutta blog instructs. In fact, in a future ever more reliant on subscription revenue, which is dictated by declining advertising revenue, it is not optional. We MUST treat readers more as customers, engage them individually, draw them into conversation. If we see our role purely as SENDING OUT information, we doom ourselves.

From the blog:

“Ask yourself ‘Will the customer get a better product or service as a result of what I’m doing?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer return and trade with me again?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer recommend me to others?’ And again and again, ask yourself:

“Will this help build trust between the customer and the company?”

Journalists often don’t like thinking in terms of “customers.” It feels shady. Those of us who came to the work because we thought of ourselves first and foremost as writers think of our work as a product of our soul, so thinking of it as business is like we’re selling our bodies. That’s a conceit, and a luxury we can’t afford. If you want to be a starving artist, there is no end to the ways you can avoid helping any business make money.

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