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I recently read the most thoroughly detailed proposal I had ever seen for ensuring that local journalism survives the audience disruption and advertising decline created by the rapid growth of the internet.

It came under the sure-to-be-recipient of the Worst Headline of the Year Award on an article on the website of the journalism-research-oriented Poynter Institute: “Academics craft a plan to infuse billions into journalism: Give every American $50 to donate to news orgs.”

Least among my complaints is the use of the term “orgs” instead of organizations. The headline is already longer than the Amazon River, and the place the writer decides to economize is the last word?

Anyway, quickly: Horrible idea.

If you want the details, this is the idea, developed by a panel led by Guy Rolnik of the Stigler Center of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: There would be a checkoff on your income tax form, much like the current federal checkoff for election funds and the state checkoff for wildlife conservation projects, and $50 is either added to your tax bill or deducted from your refund to go to news organizations that you choose.

The report estimates that this structure could raise $13 billion to help ensure the continuation of “accountability and investigative journalism,” which it justifiably calls vital to an informed electorate and a functioning democracy.

I think that number is way high. The report posits that there are 260 million adults who would pay the $50 each, but the Tax Foundation says that in 2018 there were fewer than 141 million taxpayers, which would yield about $7 billion.

Regardless of the figure, the proposal has significant problems.

First problem: Even if the tax form is electronic, there is no practical way to list every news outlet in the entire country, and if there were, no one would read the full list. The choice or choices would be whatever news outlets come to mind quickly.

The panel’s report does not address the issue of whether a selection of news outlets would be presented to the taxpayer or it would simply be a fill-in-the-blank process. If it’s the latter, Fox News, MSNBC and NPR would do well. The News-Topic? Probably not.

That almost certainly means the money that any newspaper would get would come from people who already buy the paper. If you buy only the Sunday paper but get it every week, you already are paying the News-Topic $104 a year. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt that those who don’t buy the paper at all would like to send us $50.

The report addresses the issue of a few large, popular organizations getting the lion’s share of designations: No organization would be able to receive more than 1 percent of the total amount to be allocated. All money that taxpayers designate for those outlets already getting 1 percent would go to other outlets, more or less proportionally according to everyone else’s selections – although if 75 percent of all choices made were organizations that have already maxed out, putting the majority of the money to 25 percent of the choices doesn’t sound like it can be proportional.

That also sounds pretty complicated.

You might ask, what if most people don’t make any selection at all?

The report says the money would get allocated anyway, divided according to the choices of those who filled in the blank, subject again to that 1 percent limit.

So, you hate the media and don’t want to fund it at all? Tough, you have to.

Which brings me to another problem: Who would be eligible to receive the money? Does Infowars.com count as a news site? Most people don’t think so, but some people do. The president and at least some of his supporters, on the other hand, would say CNN shouldn’t be eligible.

The report says an independent panel would decide who qualifies to receive money:

“Key is the independence of this body; we believe that it should include representatives of journalists and of media owners, as well as scholars.”

Who appoints the panel members? It doesn’t say. One assumes it has to be the government. This is taxpayer money.

Anyone paying attention over the years knows that the “independence” of any body whose members are appointed by politicians is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of the criteria that are on paper for that body to use, all it would take is one radical change in direction of the administration in control, and many once-qualified news organizations could find themselves on the outs.

This possibility seems to have eluded the report’s writers.

“Any policy to preserve the free press should try to reduce or eliminate the news media’s reliance on politicians, governments, advertisers, large business groups or billionaires,” it says.

The motives behind the report are good – maintaining a functioning democracy, independent watchdogs on local government and independent voices.

“Recent events across the Western world have demonstrated the fragility of the liberal democratic order,” the report says in its conclusion, “and we believe that waiting longer to see if market forces alone can maintain the free press in the 21st century may be a risky choice.”

In other words, “Eat your spinach, taxpayer!” You’ll support the local news and like it.

The report notes that, despite research demonstrating the good that local journalism does and the negative effects that follow when local news dries up, “for the most part citizens are not willing to pay for this public good,” which is why it recommends a mandatory funding source.

I’m all for maintaining local news sources. I just have trouble endorsing something that’s mandatory and ultimately controlled by the government in the name of saving democracy.

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The little town of Rhodhiss lost the businesses and industry that gave the town its name (from cotton mill owners John Rhodes and George Hiss). But it still has a legend that came out of them, the fate of some unusual fabric spun in a now-closed mill.

Four years ago, in July 2015, one of my reporters was doing a more or less routine story related to the legend, and I Googled part of her story and found something that indicated the legend was wrong. I had her look into it.

What she wound up writing made her feel bad because it made the News-Topic a villain in that town, but it didn’t put much of a dent in the legend, which the town is celebrating on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

One of the famous movie lines related to journalism, from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a good line, but it’s not journalism. I don’t know whether many journalists would do what the newspaper editor in the movie did, reject running the real story told by U.S. Sen. Ransom Stoddard, and I don’t think it makes sense to ignore the facts that fly against Rhodhiss’ legend, as satisfying as the legend may feel.


And as the main source in the story said, this doesn’t mean there is nothing at all to the legend, only that some research is needed to find out exactly what was done with that fabric. Maybe, for instance, the bag under the lunar lander …

 

 

 

 

 

Read the story and decide yourself.

Rhodhiss’ point of pride called into question

By Lex Menz

RHODHISS – As you drive into Rhodhiss, the road signs show an astronaut in a space suit over the words “U.S. Moon Flags Woven Here.”

An astronaut also appears on the town seal.

It’s common knowledge throughout town that fabric used to make at least the first flag to go to the moon, if not more, came from Burlington Industrial Fabrics, which once had two factories in town but left in 1983.

A scrap of material sits folded up in a drawer at Town Hall that came, it is said, from the same batch as the moon flag material.

Town Manager Art Delaney never even considered that the story could be wrong until he recently called the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh about getting a historical marker for the town about the flag fabric having been made in Rhodhiss. The person he spoke to said that according to information on the Internet, his story was incorrect.

“She said they were pulled off a shelf at a post exchange in Washington, D.C., and just handed off,” Delaney said. “I nearly fell off my chair.”

Delaney wouldn’t be the only one falling off of a chair. Many people around town have personal stories about their connection to the flag fabric.

Carl Compton, who lives on the Caldwell County side of Rhodhiss, worked at Burlington Industrial Fabrics as a weaver right out of high school in 1961 and eventually was promoted to loom fixer. The company made special materials, including material for the Goodyear blimp and fabrics for NASA. Among the fabric made on the 64-inch looms was one that Compton said was extremely heat-resistant and involved Kevlar, a fabric best known for its use in bulletproof vests.

Shortly after the flag was unfurled on the moon in July 1969 by Apollo 11, the mission carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Compton said, Burlington Industrial’s employees were informed of their accomplishment.

“We didn’t know what we had done,” he said. “It really surprised us.”

Compton said the company’s announcement was a proud moment.

“We were just working. That was our job. We weren’t trying to crow about it. But, if I had known, I would have gotten some pictures,” Compton said.

But Rhodhiss’ flag story doesn’t fly, according to Anne Platoff, who wrote a research paper in the early 1990s, when she worked at the Johnson Space Center, about all six of the flags that were taken to the moon.

“It’s an interesting story, but it’s unverified,” Platoff said of Rhodhiss’ story.

Her research paper, “Where No Flag has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” details considerations that went into the flags and flag poles and where they came from, and no part of that story includes Rhodhiss. Her sources included a press release from NASA in July 1969 stating that the flags were ordinary nylon flags ordered from a catalog.

“I went through the evidence there was at NASA, and the only documentation I found at NASA was that it was purchased from a government stock catalog,” Platoff said. “As a historian, I will only go with what facts I have. I have found absolutely no evidence that points to who made the flag on the moon. I found no indication that it was a specifically made flag.”

However, she said Rhodhiss may have been involved in the Apollo 11 mission, just not in the way residents think. Possibly the material woven there was used for the flag patches on the spacesuits or some part of the ship. But that would take some research to find out.

“Maybe this is one of those cross stories with some truth,” Platoff said.

Delaney said the state will send him an application for a historical marker, which requires a packet of information to back the town’s claim.

“We’re going to send it back and see if we could get something,” Delaney said.

Ansley Wegner, a research historian and the administrator of the Department of Cultural Responses’ historical marker program, said the decisions on applications for historical markers are made by a committee of 10 history professors. Stipulations include that the information supporting the marker request must have a secondary source, such as a historical non-fiction book.

“It’s hard to say what the committee is going to approve,” Wegner said. “It’s up to them to decide whether it’s state historical importance and not local historical importance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 …

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Google ad revenue
I keeping beating the dead horse of journalists’ knowledge about their own business, and here I go again. Complain about staff cuts, focus on the quality of the content, whatever, just stop ignoring the reality of the business, which is that advertising is going away, finding new paths to consumers. No paywall will stop it. The news end of the industry keeps doing what it can to keep up with the customer, but the business end of the industry has proven inept at solving its part of this riddle. Is that because the folks there aren’t that good, or is it just that any good solutions are much harder to find?

11/27/12 UPDATE: Alan Mutter has another chart:

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Google logo
Writing for Poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman explains the longer-term implications of Google starting to incorporate your social connections in search results, so that whatever results Google might feed you for a search will be influenced by whatever your friends have looked at:

“The point for news organizations and journalists is that it’s more important than ever to build strong social followings and to optimize content for sharing. Social media is becoming an engine that drives more than just Facebook and Twitter’s own referrals.”

In other words, it’s another argument for engaging the audience, whether you like it or not.

However, I have a feeling the search model is going to change yet again. The whole “what your friends are reading will influence what you see” thing is wearing on me in my Washington Post Social Reader. Apparently a heck of a lot of my friends read not only celebrity gossip, which I don’t care to see at all, and Apple fanboy love but also a lot more fluff than I ever expected to come to me via anything with “Washington Post” in its name — of the top six headlines at the time of this writing, two are Apple stories, one is about a Korean pop group and one is about paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton’s sister. Social search, in other words, is making my social reader less and less useful to me, to the point I expect I’ll stop using it at all — until they fix it, at which point the model will shift again.

1/12/12 UPDATE: Good additional details from Justin Ellis at Nieman Journalism Lab. … Still haven’t seen anyone share my “Hell is other people” take on it.

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I have serious doubts that Google+ is going to escape the non-Facebook “I don’t need it” vortex, but I think Google’s plans to link journalists’ Google+ social profile to news search results may be something that, in some form, becomes routine in coming years. My initial reaction to seeing this was, “Yikes, that’s creepy.” But it’s not actually; if you already have a social profile out there — Facebook, Twitter, what have you — then why is it there? If not to connect with readers and (to use a term from Megan Garber’s Nieman post) provide transparency, then what? Marketing? Because your boss told you to? Any reason I can think of for having a social profile is served by linking it to the stories in news search results. But the “Yikes, that’s creepy” will be the understandable first reaction that, like even having a social profile in the first place, journalists will have to work through. Begin.

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