Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘curmudgeons’

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.”

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »


I got a lot of problems with you people. Too many to list, actually, so some of the big ones:

Pack journalism. Washington, D.C., remains ground zero when making the case for too many people chasing the exact same story, but Newtown, Conn., is the most egregious example of what happens when a big story breaks anywhere else. Why? What was gained by having this many journalists in one place chasing exactly the same thing? Isn’t this why any news organization pays AP?

General unwillingness to challenge traditional beat and story structures. See my previous post and the links there to other sites for more detailed discussion. Staffs are smaller, the world is more linked and mobile than ever, so change is necessary – not just changing what you cover but how you cover it. In many newsrooms, everyone is preoccupied with an urgency to feed the beast. Consider whether you can let the beast go hungry a day or two a week so you can assess whether what you are spooning into it is worthwhile.

Related to the above: story quotas and related mandates. A couple of weeks ago I visited a small newspaper where I was told that staffers are required to file 8-12 stories a week, and that the company requires that the front page be all-local. Eight stories a week is not onerous, in my experience, but as a glance at that paper’s front page made clear, no one was exercising any quality control to ensure that the quota was being filled by solid, well reported stories that people would want to read – probably because the editors were more afraid of not having enough staff-bylined stories to fill the page. Quotas and mandates can have that effect: The staff goes on autopilot, and the product suffers. Manage for quality first.

Also related: general reluctance to engage the community. Our world is full of bloggers, social posting and sharing. Our news is not. Why isn’t that widely acknowledged as a failing?

News websites remain unnavigable. This morning my wife was trying to find something on the site of the local newspaper. Couldn’t do it. I went to Google and found it in seconds. She actually has a better sense of how news sites are organized than the average person because of her exposure to that structure through me – but it’s still a mystery to her. Sites have too many sections, and where stories are listed and how they are tagged may be entirely at the whim of whatever overworked staffer posts them to the website at night. At some sites there is little consistency, or logic. Stories on a race for U.S. Senate, a legislative story, a profile feature and a food story all are tagged as local news? Seriously? Why? Oh, looking at the rest of your stories, I see why: EVERYTHING by your staff is tagged as local news, apparently because your late editor doesn’t want to think about it. And you, the editor, never noticed because who the hell has the time to look at such things? There is a reason your website has a taxonomy in the first place, and it’s not just because the site designer is anal retentive, but if you are tagging everything the same you are nullifying it.

Related to the above: Too many news people have no sense at all of how the industry’s finances work. The next time you see an argument for how many reporters $1 million (or any amount) in paywall revenue could pay for, check to see whether the math includes benefits, insurance, office rent/mortgage, utilities, office supplies, staff expense reimbursement such as mileage … You get the point. You can’t fully participate in an argument over the future of your business if you are ignorant of the business end of the business.

A few grievances that are less about journalism than the practices in the revenue-generating end of the building:

The general unclickability of business transactions related to news websites. Have you tried to place an obituary lately? Or any kind of advertisement? It’s usually an experience straight out of 1990. It is hard to spend money with a newspaper. It’s like you walk up to the building with a wad of money in your hand and can’t find anyone who will extend a hand to take the money from you.

Related to the above: the willingness to charge online readers to read obituaries, which themselves are paid advertisements. Are we so absolutely desperate for any revenue stream at all that we won’t consider the long-term implications of what we are charging for? If you charge the public on the front end to place a type of ad that you know helps you build an audience, and then you charge the public on the back end for the ability to read all of those ads in one place, you are simply begging for someone else to engineer a faster, cheaper, easier way to distribute that kind of ad. There WILL be a craigslist for obituaries, and newspapers don’t seem to care.

That scratches the surface. Looking back over them, I detect some things in common: lack of imagination, too much adherence to tradition, failure to engage new technology, timidity. Happy Festivus. Now, on to the feats of strength …

Read Full Post »

Anyone remember when “disruptive innovation” was the focus of discussion about the future of the newspaper industry? It seems like ages ago, but it has been just six or seven years. A Nieman Journalism Lab interview with Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School has brought the phrase back in recent days. For those who don’t remember Newspaper Next, Mathew Ingram at Gigaom.com aptly summarizes the idea:

“One of the classic lessons from Christensen’s seminal book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ is that companies with a commanding lead in their field, whether it’s hard-drive makers or steel mills, are almost incapable of taking the steps that need to be taken to survive a technological and/or behavioral disruption — even when the danger of not doing so is blindingly obvious. In other words, even when a company can see quite clearly that a freight train is approaching or a cliff lies directly ahead, it is still almost impossible to step off the tracks or do anything other than stampede over the edge.”

For a few years, “innovation” got a big push, at least in newsrooms. Journalists, in fact, generally have done the most innovating in the business, making their news more mobile, more diverse in form.

But in the wake of the Great Recession and the ongoing slow recovery, many people in the business are focused on where they can find revenue, not on the main point Christensen had stressed, which Joshua Benton described for the Nieman Journalism Lab as:

“First, focus on the jobs that your customers are hiring you to do — and on new ones that you might be in a good position to do. Successful companies often value elements of their products that audiences don’t particularly care about; getting too much distance between those two perceptions leads to business failure.”

What is the job that people come to newspapers or any news source to get done? Ingram asks at Gigaom:

“Are readers suffering from a lack of paywalled content for which they can submit their credit cards? Probably not.”

The current focus on paywalls and how to grow the online subscription business helps the business survive, and it might even be considered an innovation if the purpose is to change the industry from one relying on cheaply acquiring an audience in order to sell lots of advertising to one that relies on creating a product that people are willing to pay to acquire — but it doesn’t serve customers. Continuing to provide the public with the same information we’ve always provided them isn’t an innovation. There has to be more.

Look at the way people use technology – and how rapidly that technology is moving. Ask yourself whether the way you do business makes sense in that world. What is the job people come to you to get done?

Christensen sounds a warning that innovation focused on customers can’t be put off for long:

“Even as the disruption is getting more and more steam in the marketplace, the core business persists, and is really quite profitable for a very long time. Then, when the disruption gets good enough to address the needs of your customers, very quickly, all of a sudden, you go off the cliff.”

10/26 UPDATE — More on the ways people use technology:

“This year, the amount of time consumers spent using mobile devices—excluding talk time—will grow 51.9% to an average 82 minutes per day, up from just 34 minutes in 2010, eMarketer estimates.

“… Time spent with print media will drop to an average 38 minutes per day this year, eMarketer estimates, down from an average 44 minutes per day in 2011. Newspapers will see a drop to an average 22 minutes per day this year, while time spent with print magazines will fall to 16 minutes per day.”

Read Full Post »

from the Nieman Journalism Lab
A friend who is a web editor asked on Facebook what her journalist friends think of the news that the new owner of the Orange County Register is going all-in on a print-first approach to news.

My initial response was that it was “goofy.” After letting the idea simmer for a few hours, I can substantially amend my response.

First, I applaud the reasoning being used, as explained by editor Ken Brusic:

“The new owners have decided that the way they want to proceed with a business model is to really move from solely an advertising-based newspaper model to a subscriber-based one, and in order to accomplish that — basically, what we need if we’re going to charge more — is more quality in the newspaper.”

This is no small thing. Moving to a subscriber-based model means you believe you can make money primarily from the content you produce, not from finding advertisers who want to reach your subscriber base. Beefing up the staff, then, is just putting your money where your mouth is – the exact opposite of putting up a paywall while also cutting staff and/or pay.

That said, I still think there are limitations to the model. If the beefed-up Register succeeds, I tend to think it eventually will become a niche product for a high-information demographic. If smartly marketed – and keeping a free website for breaking news and pushes to the paper or an all-subscription site is a part of that – it would not be resigning itself to a forever aging and shrinking demographic, but it almost certainly would find itself with a small one: older than average, wealthier than average, better-informed than average. Not a bad demographic to have, for outside promotional events and whatever advertisers might remain, but not a mass-circulation base.

The main reason for that I think is entirely outside the control of the Register, or any news organization, as I summarized elsewhere in a completely different context on Wednesday:

“As Jeff Cole of the Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future has put it, the ongoing changes (facing the news industry) are not just technological but behavioral and comprehensive, of the same order as the changes that followed the advent of television, and anyone seeking to lead a business affected by them has to understand that.”

When my grandfather was a young man, it was an absolute given that if you read a newspaper, you did it after work. By the time my father started dating a pretty, young features writer at the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal, that was no longer a given. By the time I worked a summer internship at The Phoenix (Ariz.) Gazette, that was one of the few afternoon papers left in the country, and it was on its last legs.

Why the change? Were the morning papers that much better? In some cases they may have been, but that wouldn’t explain a nationwide phenomenon, so no. The change came about purely because of changes in people’s lives. It began to make more sense to people to read a morning paper. Their afternoons maybe became busier and busier, or the evening TV news filled their information needs better than a P.M. paper because the TV news was more up to date. Whatever the reason, it was less a vote on the afternoon paper than a symptom of larger trends in society.

Similarly, newspapers today are not facing financial trouble because they are “giving away” their content online – or, if you believe that is a genuine problem, not solely or even mainly because of it. Morning newspaper circulation had been in decline before most people ever heard of the World Wide Web. The advent of the Web, then the high-speed Web, then the mobile Web merely accelerated the trend and added on the burden of advertisers having new options for reaching people.

The decline of the printed newspaper can be seen as merely part of a continuum of change in how people choose to get information, and there’s no reason to think the change is stopping where it is now. And if that is the correct view, then restricting your information to print – even a high-quality, smartly marketed product – is swimming against the tide. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a living at it, but you are planting yourself squarely where the majority of people have decided they don’t want to be. You might be able to entice some to visit, those few who highly value what you have to offer, but the day will come that you are not and never will be a mass product again. Maybe that isn’t so important to you, and maybe journalism will be better served this way, but just understand where it is you are going.

Another excerpt from what I wrote in a different context Wednesday:

“The biggest obstacle our industry faces is not the tools, which are ever-changing and seemingly ever more powerful and diverse, but whether those leading the newsrooms can accept the necessity of change, even painful change, and find ways to adapt – without letting others keep focused on what is lost and how things used to be. The pace of change, and the related challenges, isn’t likely to let up.”

The reactions my web editor friend has gotten to her post are (as of this writing) largely from the “focused on what is lost and how things used to be” end of the spectrum. There is no Ghost Dance for newspapers. What’s past is past. You can celebrate it, but you can’t bring it back.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »