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Posts Tagged ‘curmudgeons’


This is what it has come to: I can’t see an Oscar-winning movie without finding parallels in journalism’s changing landscape. In this case, while watching “The Artist” I was struck by the remark by the lead character, a star of silent film as talkies begin to sweep the movie industry, quoted in a newspaper that he would not do talkies because he was an artist. He dismissed the emerging technology of film as crass and lowbrow, less worthy of notice. The sentiment was very familiar; I’ve heard or read it a thousand times from traditional journalists about the idea of (pick any): blogging the news, aggregation, raw video, frequent (or sometimes any) web updates, Facebook, Twitter, engaging with reader comments, and probably a few that I can’t recall right now.

The at the end of “The Artist” you get, in the only spoken lines of the whole movie, why he really dismissed talkies. In case you haven’t seen it, without giving the whole thing away I will just say it came down to an ability. But the way he coped with that and adapted to the new medium was a different skill that had not been utilized by the silent films. He could act, but in the new world acting was not enough. But he had something else to add, and the combination worked.

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I wasn’t going to post anything on Michael Kinsley’s post about a Felix Salmon article on the New York Observer, which (the Kinsley piece) focuses on the issue of whether the quality of writing on the Web matters. But I keep talking to people about it. At least five people in the past 24 hours. So it seems worth pausing and posing this question: Whether or not Kinsley is serious (I’m pretty sure he’s joking, but don’t ask me to put money on it), might the point of the following sentence be true?

“Never did it occur to me, until I read Felix’s blog post, that it might be possible, without seeming insane, to argue that all aspects of good writing — accuracy, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what’s the difference between those two again?) — are all overrated.” (And yes, it says “all aspects … are all overrated.” Move on.)

You can read Salmon’s piece here, which may help in the details if you don’t get exactly what is meant by this from Salmon:

“When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.”

So the question raised here — again, whether or not Kinsley is serious — is how close is this to being correct? Undoubtedly, quality control in the media universe as described in the Salmon piece is lacking, but that quality is transitory anyway, as is the audience. If you as a publication are largely reliable, does it matter if you carry writers who really stink? In the online world, the Washington Post’s columnists and Cagle’s can appear side by side under the same set of links, and how many online reader really notice — or care — that the Post’s are better edited and cleaner? I don’t have answers to that yet.

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John Robinson fooled me. He started a post about the need for innovation with questions that seemed geared to curmudgeonly, 20th-century answers. For instance:

What would you do if:
* Half of your employees — including those in circulation — don’t subscribe?
* Half of your employees — including those in the newsroom — don’t read the paper (except for their own stories)?
* Half of your employees don’t subscribe to your e-newsletters?

I worked up a good, frothy dudgeon and was thinking to myself, “What has happened to John since he left newspapers that he is taking such a troglodyte approach?” — and then I got to the end of his post. So, spoiler alert, he was not writing in inverted-pyramid-style. It was more like pyramid-style. The end held the answers to my questions.

The “troglodyte” approach would be to require employees to subscribe and read (maybe quiz them, to test whether they really read), but, as John writes, a better idea is to ask your employees why: Why don’t they subscribe? Why don’t they read? If the only thing they read is the stories that carry their byline, then the only thing they care about is what was changed between writing and publishing, which means they don’t care about the content. If the reporters don’t care, why should anyone else? Ask them that. Ask what they SHOULD be writing about to make people read.

Related to this, Peter Osnos had an article in The Atlantic resurrecting the idea that aggregators should pay for the news they aggregate, which ignores the fact that no one pays the aggregators, except advertisers, which are not at current ad rates a source of revenue that would sustain news organizations. Paying for aggregation is an idea that traditional journalists love, but if most news organizations started charging with a hard paywall, almost all aggregators would stop looking and aggregating — just as most people do not subscribe.

Get to the basics: Whether or not your site has a paywall or a metered paywall, it’s important to ask what people will pay for and what will make them keep coming back. The same things that make your site worth aggregating are the things that make someone consider subscribing, so in the end whether you go the free model or the paywall model you hit the same capitalist question: Is it worth it?

And you can’t change what people want to read. Among the gathering evidence: a Washington Post story.

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Required reading from Steve ButtryRequired reading from Steve Buttry in response to a traditionalist writing in CJR (my categorization). Key summary:

“I bow to no one in my love for the good old days of journalism. But everyone trying to take journalism back to the good old days should understand some basic truths:

–You won’t find the future by retreating to the past.
–Whatever comes next in journalism can’t and shouldn’t be built to replace either the best or worst of current or historic journalism. You build the future on the technology and opportunities of the future in the context of the future.
–Watchdog reporting performed by professional journalists is absolutely part of journalism’s future, and I don’t know anyone discussing the future of journalism who doesn’t plan and hope for a successful future for professional watchdog reporting.
–Journalism of the past doesn’t look as strong on closer examination as it does through your nostalgic filter.”

I won’t rehash the details of Steve’s rebuttal, but as I plowed through the CJR article, “Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus,” I was struck that much of the article seemed based on misunderstandings or semantics. Perhaps the points made over the years by the “future of news” (abbreviated as FON) “gurus” are a Rorschach test and I also am seeing in them what I want to see.

Where writer Dean Starkman sees the FON arguing that news inherently has no value, I have been reading “news is a commodity” as an argument that much of the daily stuff we fill the paper with needs to be rethought – not the investigative journalism that Starkman rightly praises but the long, formulaic, blow-by-blow accounts of city council meetings and court hearings that few people read. In coaching writers all over the Southeast, I have found that the 25-inch process story containing six inches of news is far too common, and there are similar examples of little-noticed copy coming from throughout many newsrooms. It’s not that ALL news has no value, but how much of what you are producing is the kind of thing people actually will subscribe for? Are you the only one covering this story or just one of at least a handful writing essentially the same story? Evaluate it.

Where Starkman sees a push for “reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way,” that favors spontaneity over “traditional methods of story organization, fact-checking, and copyediting” and “formal style and narrative forms,” I see a call for simply being less hidebound, trying to see whether a traditional news story actually is the best form for conveying the information you have gathered.

The comparison of the “gurus” to hippies just leaves me a bit floored, but it does illustrate that on this point, at least, he is correct: There is a culture gap.

But the real kicker is that the conclusion of Starkman’s piece indicates to me at least that while he disagrees mightily with all the things he imagines the FON crowd is saying – and if they were really saying those things, in many specifics I’d have to agree with him – he basically agrees with the practical thrust of what I think they actually have been saying. (It’s a long article, so after you start reading and get the flavor of it if you get to where you think you just can’t click through all nine pages, just click 8 and read from there.)

I’ll end on Starkman’s optimistic ending:
“Rebuilding or shoring up institutions is going to take some new, new thinking, but it can be done. In the words of that original media guru, Marshall McLuhan: ‘There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.’”

12/5/11 UPDATE: Clay Shirky himself has weighed in:

“Like a Yeats of the newspaper world, Starkman yearns for the restoration of a culture considerably purer than the actual newspaper business has ever been. Reading Confidence Game, you’d never know that most papers are not like the NY Times, that most of what appears in their pages is syndicated, that sports is often better represented on the masthead than hard news. You’d never know that more American papers printed today will include a horoscope than international news. You’d never know that newspapers are institutions where grown men and women are assigned to write stories about dogs catching frisbees.

“Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread. We need to support the people who cover hard news, but when you see a metro daily for a town of 100,000 that employs only six such reporters (just 10% of the masthead, much less total staff), saving the entire edifice just to support that handful looks a lot harder than just finding new ways to support them directly.”

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Clay Shirky has produced another piece of what should be required reading for journalists, this time arguing the benefits of different news organizations trying many different things to either raise new revenue or reduce the cost of reporting. Much of the argument repeats the plain-English explanation of the economic underpinnings of the news industry and why those underpinnings no longer make the sense they did decades ago, but it bears repeating because of the many who still focus only on what the newsroom has lost and on so-called buzzwords that don’t fit traditional notions of journalism. Shirky rounds it up aptly:

“If we adopt the radical view that what seems to be happening is actually happening, then a crisis in reporting isn’t something that might take place in the future. A 30% reduction in newsroom staff, with more to come, means this is the crisis, right now. Any way of creating news that gets cost below income, however odd, is a good way, and any way that doesn’t, however hallowed, is bad.

“Having one kind of institution do most of the reporting for most communities in the US seemed like a great idea right up until it seemed like a single point of failure. As that failure spreads, the news ecosystem isn’t just getting more chaotic, we need it to be more chaotic, because we need multiple competing approaches. It isn’t newspapers we should be worrying about, but news, and there are many more ways of getting and reporting the news that we haven’t tried than that we have.”

7/11/2011 UPDATE: The Economist has an interesting series of stories on the evolution of the news industry. Particularly interesting is the installment Coming Full Circle, which argues that the Internet, “by undermining the mass media’s business models, that technology is in many ways returning the industry to the more vibrant, freewheeling and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era.”

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As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I can sympathize with those who don’t like the use of “brand” in journalism conversations because it originated in marketing and advertising. The same applies to other words that have come into common use, such as engagement. But the world of journalism and all media has changed, so new words are needed. Got a better word to replace any of the ones you hate? Pitch it out there. Complaining about the existing word doesn’t help if you don’t have a better alternative. The buzzwords gained traction not because of an evil plot but because they are accurate, as Steve Buttry explains in greater detail than I could.

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Following last week’s tempest over the word “branding” in journalism, Steve Buttry has written up something that would be hard for anyone to argue against: tips for how to develop a brand as a journalist (call it a reputation, if branding makes you uncomfortable). Key point for why the term “brand” should cease to bother anyone:

“The opposite of brand is generic. And no one looking for a job wants to be generic, unless your strategy is to land a low-paying job.”

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Dear Leslie:
I was set to say I was sorry that you chose Gene Weingarten to ask about building a personal brand because, instead of a helpful answer, he supplied a curmudgeonly rant attacking what he imagines the word “brand” represents, which appears to be everything evil in the world of journalism. I also assumed it was partly your own fault for not realizing ahead of time that such a response certainly is consistent with Weingarten’s “brand.” How wrong I was. As your paper, published on Steve Buttry’s blog, makes perfectly clear, you knew his reputation well, even if you didn’t anticipate his exact reaction. As you note, Weingarten “certainly qualifies as a recognizable brand and reaps the benefits that come with textbook brand equity,” even if he himself refuses to recognize how those terms are now commonly used. You even appear to know Weingarten better than he knows himself, pointing out that interaction is the new-media currency, that “Interaction is a hallmark of the Weingarten brand,” and “he was an early adopter of interactive web technologies and fully embraces Twitter.”

I was all set to sit down here and rant myself. But everything I was going to say appears to be in your paper. Excellent work.

Also well worth reading is Steve Buttry’s own take on branding.

I can sympathize with those who don’t like the use of “brand” in journalism conversations because it originated in marketing and advertising. It still makes me a little uncomfortable, but I recognize it is in common use. There’s a better chance of getting people to stop saying, “I could care less,” than of stopping the use of “brand.” The language evolves, and as media changes so too does the language involved. What’s important is the idea and the application. If you get hung up on specific words, you will spend all your time just ranting. But maybe that isn’t the end of the world. Maybe it actually helps you. Maybe it’s your brand.

UPDATE: I had looked earlier for this example from last year of Weingarten’s take on the new media landscape, just stumbled across it.

UPDATE: Dammit. I like to think I’m original, but Google brings this post with the same title and basically the same point: “the word ‘brand,’ really boils down to one thing: the expectation your fans/friends/consumers have about you.”

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Ad Age interviewed Jill Abramson on Thursday after she was named to be the next executive editor of the New York Times, and to me the most instructive of all of her comments were in the answer to the very first question listed: “What did you learn during your six-month stint last year diving deep into the online side?” Read it for yourself, but in summary the key things I see there are: She realized that the Times has been slow to get rolling online in the morning; editors at the Times remained so print-centric that they held back stories that were ready to go only because they wanted better play in print than they would get on that particular day; and the only competition that the Times traditionally had taken note of each night, when comparing what stories others were using, were the Washington Post and perhaps (so she says) the Wall Street Journal, but Politico, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, among others, needed to be in the mix.

Pointing this out is not to indict the Times. Remove the proper nouns and each of Abramson’s realizations probably has a parallel in pretty much any traditional newsroom, print or broadcast, across the country. If you don’t have any of them in your own newsroom, it’s probably a relatively recent development. How early each day (and how often) is your site breaking its own news rather than relying on wires or news culled from other sites? If you don’t have room in the next day’s paper or on the next broadcast for a story, do you hold it back entirely? If you hold it, how long are you willing to keep holding it to get the play you want? Do you ever put something on the website when you know the story is being held back from your traditional platform? What competitors do you keep track of? (Wrong answer: “This is such a small market, we don’t have any competitors.” You may not have competition for ads and professional competition for news, but everyone has competition of some kind for attention and local information, even if just personal blogs. If you don’t know who/what those are, you are missing your competition.)

To that I would add another set of questions. Abramson’s interview with Ad Age apparently didn’t touch on social media, but here also — although there are individual exceptions in the newsroom — the Times, like many traditional newsrooms, tends to lag. Until less than two weeks ago, for instance, the main Times account on Twitter was an automated feed. What does your newsroom do on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc.)? Is there a single designated person, or do a number of people in the newsroom do it? Do you just send out links to your stories, or do you have exchanges with people?

It’s good to recognize how the Internet has changed the news cycle (your deadlines) and the news ecosystem (your competition), but unless you also have changed how you think about your audience and your approach to your audience, you still have a few steps to go.

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Someday I’m not going to feel the need to react to tales like that from Poynter’s Romenesko about a journalism professor whose admission that he went without a newspaper subscription for a while enraged a newspaper columnist. The columnist’s objection, in summary:

“A journalism department chairman who can’t be bothered to actually subscribe to a daily newspaper? How do you think your students might one day actually get paid for their work?”

If every journalist in the world subscribed to a newspaper, that wouldn’t keep them all employed, nor would it convince all the non-journalists around them that they ought to subscribe too. Most importantly, if newpaper circulations rebounded to what they were 10 years ago, that wouldn’t necessarily convince advertisers to put all the money back in newspapers that they have diverted elsewhere, and it definitely would never recapture the classified advertising that has flown forever to such places as Monster.com and craigslist. (Hey, journalists, do any of you still pick up Editor & Publisher if you need to look for another job, or do you go to journalismjobs.com?) The news business has an advertising problem, not a paid-circulation problem. At current industry subscription rates, if you lose circulation but your advertising grows 25 percent, you’re in high cotton; but if you have a 50 percent increase in circulation but a 50 percent drop in advertising, you are headed for layoffs.

News people can’t worry about advertising problems. What we can and should think about is the larger issue represented by the professor’s decision to go without a paper for a while: changes in society in how people get information. If a newspaper (or TV news show) is no longer seen as vital, why is that? Is that our fault, or largely a change in technology and lifestyles? If part of it is our fault — how we present the news, the kind of news we present, the topics we don’t present — then is it fixable?

UPDATE: The Nieman Journalism Lab checks in on Newport (R.I.) Daily News, which appears to be having success charging for online access — but note that the company’s goal is not to make online news a self-sustaining enterprise but to prop up print circulation, and from there the task remains selling advertising.

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