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Posts Tagged ‘curmudgeons’


Mark Potts’ description on his Recovering Journalist blog of the first glimpses he and Washington Post executives had 20 years ago of the coming media technology revolution reminds me of my own moment of realization on that topic.

It’s worth the time to read Mark’s post, but his tale revolves around this:

“Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word ‘multimedia.’”

It was just 1992, but what was described in that meeting in Japan is pretty much the online media environment we have now. As Mark describes it, Kaiser and others recognized the need to prepare for the technological tidal wave, but for all the effort put into it, things just petered out:

“The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.”

My moment of realization comes on a much smaller, more limited scale. In 1997, I told my reporters that we all needed to think of the newspaper’s website as a place to report breaking news because it put us on an even playing field with TV, but I remained skeptical of how much new effort needed to be directed online. But in June 2005, I attended a session at API in Reston, Va., with the unwieldy name “Cross-Platform Media Teams: Strategic Thinking for a Multi-Platform World,” and that changed everything for me. In particular, a presentation by Jeff Coles of USC’s Center for the Digital Future drove home the idea that the Internet was driving far-reaching changes in people’s behavior in the same way that the advent of television did. The trends indicated that even then, before the first iPhone launched the explosive growth in smartphones.

Which leads us in more recent years to the kind of scenes such as former Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Glader recently described from a trip on Amtrak:

“All of my neighbors were pecking away at Amazon Kindles or Apple iPads. In this container on rails, the microcosm of well-connected travelers showed what kind of ‘Star Trek’ world in which we are, or soon will be, living. … They flitted back and forth, like distracted youngsters, between email, news sites, books and video games like Angry Birds.”

Newsrooms already have been decimated by massive declines in advertising revenue. Often, the cuts in staffing make editors even more resistant to changing beats or organizational structures – we’ve lost so much, how can we do anything new when we can’t even do what we once thought was the bare minimum? But retrenchment is no way to keep up with a world that’s racing ahead of you.

(Thanks to Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman for pointing to both of these articles.)

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Stijn Debrouwere helps explain “the mess the news industry is in,” going over tangible examples of how the way people — primarily young people, but not just them — have changed the way they look for information and where they look. It’s a post solidly in the mainstream of examinations of industry disruption, which continue to be useful for helping traditional journalists look past their immediate source of distress: layoffs/buyouts and budget cuts (the latest example, from AdAge about a situation at the Washington Post). Those problems are just symptoms resulting from what Stijn calls the “death by nibbles.” He also does address the issue of what journalists should be doing, including stressing storytelling and personality; “joining the revolution” by considering alternate ways of distributing information, ways that you would not call journalism; become less boring (seriously, that is a huge issue); and “Do stuff that does still matter.”

5/8/12 UPDATE: It’s interesting to compare the above with what the CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Co. — which is seeing circulation gains — says are big ideas changing the media industry. One of the two he cited for content can, I think, wind up getting dismissed:

“Differentiate your content: Invest where you can be ‘the best in the world.’”

Don’t let “best in the world” send you off a cliff, particularly if you run a small newsroom. No one is saying a 20,000-circulation paper or small website needs to compete with the New York Times — or even the Deseret News. But what exactly is it your audience expects you to be best at? Probably not the food page. Town council coverage? Local youth sports? Much more likely. Put your efforts where they can make a difference.

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Read all about it
A frequently heard complaint about news online and the use of web metrics is that they might dumb down the news and reward sensational and short pieces over serious journalism. The Longform Blog would seem to be made specifically to fly in the face of any tendency toward short, unserious news: Every day it recommends four stories — non-fiction only, each 2,000 words or more. As explained in a second-anniversary post:

“There’s no Most Popular box to keep the numbers churning for particular stories, we don’t SEO the hell out of posts, and every piece we recommend spends roughly the same amount of time at the top of the homepage. In deciding what to click, all readers have to go on is who wrote an article, where it was published, when it came out, and what it’s very basically about.”

And so, out of the 2,805 articles recommended since the site went up two years, the editors have looked back and drawn conclusions about what really interests people who go out specifically in search of longform journalism:

“So, turns out that it doesn’t really matter what kind of content you’re talking about—video, pics, 5,000-word features—sex on the internet is still sex on the internet. Stories in the sex category were nine times as likely to end up among the year’s most read. Looking for an even more sure-fire way to make the list? Write a story about porn.”

Murder also rates very high.

On a much more encouraging note, the stats show that truly compelling narrative non-fiction has legs — or, in webspeak, I guess it has a long tail:

“Readers on Longform are more likely to send an older story to the most-read list than they are a new one…”

The moral? Maybe it’s pay attention to web metrics or don’t, it doesn’t seem to change what people want to read.

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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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