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Posts Tagged ‘future’


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

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

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

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For every situation we face, there are choices with bad outcomes and other corresponding choices with good outcomes. We tell ourselves this all the time.

If a choice turned out to be a bad one, we feel sure that if we had made a different choice, what happened would have been a better result.

But life is more complicated. You can make a choice that turns out to be a mistake, but if you had it to do over there might be more than one choice, and it’s not a given that there is always a choice that brings the result you desire, or that the correct choice is easy to recognize. All of the choices might have outcomes you don’t like – a giant series of chutes that all ultimately feed into a single, spiral slide downward to the same destination, or to a variety of slides and destinations, all of them bad.

That’s where I’m left when thinking about Jack Shafer’s much-shared column in Politico about a paper by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas and published in the journal Journalism Practice.

“The paper cracks open the watchworks of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust,” Shafer writes. “The key to the newspaper future might reside in its past and not in smartphones, iPads and VR. ‘Digital first,’ the authors claim, has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Shafer contends that the newspaper industry “should have stuck with its strengths—the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from—instead of chasing the online chimera.”

I’m generally sympathetic to the argument, but I have trouble seeing how simply not putting content on the web would have done much more than slow the bleed of readers because it assumes news from traditional sources is competing with other news for readers’ attention, not with the larger ecosystem of things that are available to occupy readers’ time, which skyrocketed in number and especially convenience due to the mobile web.

The larger problem for the argument posed by Shafer, who is only the latest to make it, is that the ultimate problem for news is not the bleed of readers leaving print but the bleed of advertisers. As Jim Brady noted in a tweet, “There’s a reason you can put 50 cents in a newspaper machine and take ALL OF THEM. That wasn’t where real revenue was.”

To this day, the Charlotte Observer loses money, when comparing what the subscriber pays to the cost of paper, ink and gasoline, on every paper it delivers to my town. The Observer does it to preserve the size of its print audience, which helps it prop up advertising rates.

Advertising has left print faster than print’s audience has, not because print didn’t serve advertisers’ needs but because online offers shinier, cheaper, easier-to-measure and easier-to-target options in a vastly larger array of attention-getting offerings, even if the measures are bots and smoke and the audiences are diffuse. Put news behind a digital Great Wall of China and it wouldn’t change that.

Defending the idea that print would have been better off keeping the web at arm’s length depends on believing that the departure of advertisers especially not only would have been a great deal less than it has been but also that advertising revenues would – and perhaps still could, if only there were more paywalls – level out at a higher level than they are at now.

You have to consider the possibility that if the newspaper industry had done as Shafer wishes it had, today its overall circulation might be – might be – somewhat higher than it is now, but free online options other than news still would have peeled away many casual subscribers; advertising still would be a fraction of what it once was, which would have driven both staff and content cuts, which would further have driven away readers; and there still would be no end in sight to revenue declines; that the chute might be less steep, but it still would lead the same direction.

Furthermore, there’s also the issue addressed by Steve Buttry that Shafer, Chyi and Tenenboim look at what the news industry has done online and conclude the industry actually strongly pursued a digital strategy, while those like Buttry and Brady who have advocated for a digital-first approach feel the industry pursued less-than-half-hearted measures that were doomed from the start.

“The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made,” Buttry writes, “was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.”

A few, in that view, have actually approached the digital-first chute, including the former Digital First Media that Buttry and Brady worked for.

Buttry again: “When I worked at Digital First, I described our company’s name as an aspiration, rather than an achievement. I applaud our former CEO John Paton and our former Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady for leading us further and faster down the digital path than any other newspaper company. But that barely took us to the outskirts of digital experimentation.”

In other words, most who have even approached the true digital-first chute jumped off, and even those still on it have not yet ridden it all the way. We don’t know where it would end up.

Buttry, Brady and others who see things as they do might still be proven wrong about where that chute goes, but there is less evidence that they are wrong than that Shafer is.

UPDATE: Another view, by Matthew Ingram writing in Fortune:

“As tempting as it is to re-imagine history, however, it’s a virtual certainty that even if most newspapers had focused more of their resources on print and less on digital, the outcome would have been more or less identical.”

AND THIS: A good summary of the debate online from Poynter.

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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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The Facebook tease from Poynter said, “This study suggests some lingering sentiment that millennials feel digital news ought to be available for free.”

But the actual post by Rick Edmonds, Millennials will pay for content, but news not high on their list, did not say that. The headline of the post is accurate. As the post says, millennials are willing to pay for content that they enjoy spending time with. For some, that includes news, but for many it does not.

Why this would surprise anyone is beyond me. News, no matter the form it is delivered in, has had a declining share of the public’s attention as the types of media and availability of various categories of content have expanded over the decades. You used to get a newspaper as a matter of course because after work you read a book, a magazine or a newspaper. There was not much else to do. When radio came along, there was something else to do. When TV came along, there were more things to do. When cable TV came along, there were a lot more things to do. It just keeps going.

News is a niche. We can argue all day that it shouldn’t be, that awareness of what is going on in the world is a basic element necessary for citizens of a democracy, but people have freedom of choice. They can drink Coca-Cola instead of water even if the dentist says it gives them cavities and their doctor says they are verging on diabetes. No one can stop them. If they choose to limit their exposure to stories that they consider to be downers, what can we do? We can “dumb down” or fun-up the news, but why dilute our niche?

Rather than worry about what part of the audience we have lost because they were never really that interested in the news, maybe we should worry about the part that has stuck around, including among the portion of the population that is youngest and most digitally oriented, and has a hunger for news. Give those people something that is worthwhile.

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What’s wrong with news companies? Do they have a strategy for surviving past the age of print? Why aren’t they executing it? Why do they only cut expenses? Why don’t the billionaires build the digital news business model?

The questions have been asked for so long that they grow tiresome.

After Ken Doctor’s recent piece on whether newspaper companies are even trying to build a sustainable digital business model, I had a Facebook discussion with a friend who has a digitally based job with a television station. He said, in part:

“Big Media print organization wont last much longer. If warren buffet cant figure out a business model for you – who will? My guess is they will milk as much as they can until it isnt profitable any more and then the papers will have to buy the rights back to their names. My advice would be just to start a blog, hire some stringers per piece and get a good, small digital sales team together.”

And that’s what so many people say, in a nutshell. Chuck the paper now, the legacy costs as well as the legacy revenue, and just go whole hog into digital.

That might seem like a slam dunk to those in the digital business, but it makes a giant assumption: that the people running news companies are primarily interested in journalism.

I have argued increasingly what is implied in Doctor’s new article for Nieman Lab, that those running the news business by and large are not in it to serve the community, which is why there is not great concern with making sure there is a future news model that works.

The idea of retooling and refocusing, of giving up some — or, to be more accurate, most of — your current revenue to build a currently less profitable kind of business that has more legs, so that local journalism survives matters only if what is of top importance to you is local journalism. If you don’t care about journalism, if you are first and foremost a business person, your decisions are based on current revenue. Why would you cut your profit on purpose to pursue a theory that may, possibly, bring you more money in 20 years than your current path is likely to bring? That’s 20 years away — and it’s a theory.

Take my friend’s example, Warren Buffett. People keep pointing to him and saying he hasn’t “figured out” a business model. But look back at his statements. He never said he would reinvent the industry. What he has said is that if someone else finds something that actually works, he would evaluate it, but in the meantime he thinks small, locally focused papers can be profitable for some time.

And that’s what made Buffett a billionaire — looking for places where there is money to be made with minimal investment. He isn’t a venture capitalist.

We keep waiting for someone with deep pockets to rescue journalism. Charles Foster Kane existed only in the movies, but even there he was losing $1 million a year.

News people will not stop feeling screwed around by the people on the business side until there are no more business people left, and they will have left because there was no more money to be made.

When journalists move on from newspapers, it feels different. It’s personal. It’s more than a career shift and a mindset change.

When business people leave newspapers, they don’t change careers, they just move on to the next job. It isn’t personal. It’s ledgers, assets, liabilities and margins — money in, money out.

That’s why it feels like such a betrayal to journalists, and why journalists never seem to understand why everyone seems only to want to break their hearts.

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My company’s group of NC papers is migrating to a new CMS. I’m the lead for my paper. Within the setup questionnaire that started the process, there was an option for a free “day pass” for non-subscribers. I checked that box. Why not? Let a curious non-reader in. Maybe, best-case scenario, you gain a reader. Worst-case, someone who never reads you leaves that incremental revenue associated with the online ads that displayed with that person’s visit.

Later, I was told, nope, can’t do that. Nothing free is allowed.

How about $1? The iTunes 99 cents? Nope, it’s less than the charges that would be associated with the payment system.

So what is the one-day charge? $5. Read again: FIVE. DOLLARS.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I said.

I have been fortunate in my career that I have had multiple bosses who tolerate being spoken to that way.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I repeated. “Who would pay that?”

Still, my objections aside, that’s the plan. Come Aug. 7, at the latest, that’s the cost. Also the cost for a full week. The hope, if not the theory, is people will choose a week — and not, as I maintain, just give up.

I likened it to erecting an admission gate at Sears and saying you couldn’t come in unless you paid $5. I can walk through Sears or any retail store in this country, peruse the wares, pick them up, wack fellow customers in the arm with them, etc., without paying a dime and without any horribly overt ads confronting me.

I lost this argument.

Meanwhile, a free startup website that we had passed in social engagement has switched to a more aggegration-based strategy and has passed us in at least some measures, though it has less actual news content than it did before (its content is entirely social, press release or spot news the poster comes upon). But it’s free. I’m told, by those in the business, its ad rates mean it can’t possibly be making any money. But I’m told, by people in the community, that it’s intending to hire staff.

I don’t know yet who wins that argument.

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I spent most of the 12 years before coming to Lenoir trying to translate the national discussions about new media and news transformation for small newsrooms. Everyone talks in terms of big newsrooms and metro papers. But in terms of the national media scene, those are a minority of news organizations. The things that are of top importance in their newsrooms are luxurious daydreams for most newsrooms in the country.

In that sense, I was amply prepared for my current job. Yet I remain frustrated that smaller newsrooms, even those much larger than mine, seem to be less than an afterthought in journalism-discussion circles.

Take, as just one example, the Denver Post memo about the paper’s newsroom reorganization, much publicized and much discussed. “As part of the public meetings starting later in July, think about what The Post should cover, how should we be organized, what beats would you start and which would you eliminate,” it says.

It is the latest of many news conversations focused on rethinking what newspapers do cover versus what we should.

Good. I agree. Let’s rethink it.

I have four reporters in my newsroom, with these beats: sports (all), justice (cops and courts, countywide), city-county (Lenoir city government plus county government), and education plus the other five and a half (one is on the county line) small towns throughout the county.

I have no idea how I might reconstruct things to get better coverage. Literally everyone is a generalist. Half of all stories, at least, are what the city folk would call general assignment.

Do I stop having people cover the small towns in the county? That one reporter would like having Monday and Tuesday nights back, but the town leaders would view it as abandoning coverage, which would feed the negative narrative in the towns about our coverage. They are small towns. The average citizen in Charlotte may not give much weight to what his or her city council member thinks of the Observer’s coverage, but in Gamewell the elected officials are authorities, to many, and if they go around saying the newspaper doesn’t care, that carries significant weight.

Or maybe there should be no beats based on government structure at all. Except that my reporting staff is entirely under the age of 25 and from places other than here. Where would they begin? Beats, lets remember, are structure and help a new reporter figure out where to begin.

Or perhaps everyone would agree with me, that my newsroom is smaller than anyone would contemplate trying to reorganize beat structures.

Yes, well, move on, then, but it won’t mean I am less affected by the restructuring of media habits, advertising and news consumption patterns than you are.

The national discussion in journalism is divorced from the reality that the majority of papers face. Yet I know it is what the people on my staff will face if and when they decide to seek a job at a larger newsroom. And I know, from experience, that whatever larger newsrooms confront now will manifest themselves eventually in smaller newsrooms. Except it will be different, and no one will talk much about it then.

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