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Posts Tagged ‘NPR’

I don’t use this blog to comment on issues outside of the news media, so I won’t address the gun-control debate that has come after the elementary-school shootings in Connecticut, but one that I first came across last night through a conservative friend’s post on Facebook, and which I subsequently came across multiple times, is the argument that the media should refrain from ever again using the name or photos of a mass killer because that would rob him of the infamy he craves.

(Among the places I have seen this are the website created by a mass-shooting victim’s family; Steve Buttry’s blog; and by David Brooks in a segment of NPR’s Dec. 14 “All Things Considered.”)

I’m sympathetic to the argument, but ultimately I think it would be futile, for three reasons.

First, the one thing that people on all sides of the gun debate would agree on is that the people who have carried out mass killings are deeply unhinged. Is the argument, then, that although they are unhinged, they will pause in their determination to kill, put down their guns and go home quietly once they realize they won’t get their name on the national news? Explain that to me. Even if a craving for infamy is part of their motivation, and I think that’s an open question, you’re assuming a crazed mind can draw the straight line from a national boycott on that publicity to the futility of seeking that publicity.

Second, how exactly is this boycott to be carried out? As anyone in any news organization can tell you, the news media are as organized and monolithic as a herd of cats. In my last job, I couldn’t even get the editors at four newspapers in the same company that had a congressional district in common to have just one reporter instead of four do the quarterly story on the district’s campaign finance reports. How you could convince even the majority of major national news organizations – let alone not just the broadcast and 24-hour cable networks and all of the nation’s largest papers but ALL. OF. THEM, down to the smallest of the hundreds of mainstream print, broadcast and online news outlets that are out there – is beyond me.

Which leads me to the third, decisive reason: A huge number of people don’t really want you to keep the killer’s name secret, no matter what they think right now. My conservative friend asked me my take on the media’s role in this and other news events, and my take on the media’s role is that people get the media they deserve, which is demonstrated by the media they choose. (For instance, if you want to live in a world where science is optional and math doesn’t matter, there are outlets for that.) What the media does at a time of tragedy is try to answer the questions that the typical person has; if we don’t answer them, we get calls and email asking why, and people will seek out media that answer those questions. In greatly simplified terms, the nature of a free market drives media to answer those questions in order to retain audience, which pleases advertisers. If even one news outlet uses the name, that organization will see a surge in its audience, and one by one others will wonder why they are withholding a name that is rapidly becoming common knowledge.

In the 1990s, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal ran a story revisiting a decades-old killing in which a woman took her young children down to a creek and one by one drowned them. It was chilling and riveting. Among the calls that came in to the newsroom was one by a woman complaining that the whole story was so awful it never should have been printed. The veteran reporter who answered the phone asked the woman, “Ma’am, did you read the story?” She answered firmly, as if scolding him, “I read every single word of it.” He replied, “Then you must have really enjoyed the story.” She hung up on him – but he was right.

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I’m gradually getting around to the ONA sessions I was not able to attend last week, and here’s one I definitely wish I had: David Wright of NPR discussing online design. He makes a point echoing one of the things said a day earlier by Amy Webb (included in this post) – get the online experience right or the content doesn’t matter.

(Video of Amy’s session. You can find video of David’s presentation here, but to keep up with the full thing you also need the slideshow in a separate window.)

But David had a better illustration than Amy did. Both asked, more or less, what problem are you trying to solve? David illustrated it with an example from the phone industry. In the post-monopoly, pre-mobile era, Sprint built its brand with a television commercial declaring its service was so good, “you can hear a pin drop.” In the post-mobile era, Verizon struck on the central issue for consumers: “Can you hear me now?” In other words, we went from a landline era, in which customers cared most about how clear the sounds on their phone were, to the mobile one, in which they cared most about whether they could hear anything at all.

In that metaphor, many journalists are stuck at the landline stage, but most of our customers have moved on to mobile phones.

What Amy said better than David was that news people stink at thinking in terms of Web design because we are most concerned with the end destination – our content. But since David’s entire presentation was design, he dwelled longer on that issue (how people get to the content in the first place) and showed just one example of the problem, the home page of a newspaper’s website, where the top navigation had, he said, 152 options (I assume he’s including drop-downs). The only reason for that can be journalists – every editor in charge of each section wants to be sure each “critical” part of his/her section is easy to get to from the home page. It does not help the online reader. Compare the typical news site’s design with what you find on an app designed for tablets, or (like the new business site Quartz) one designed to mimic tablet apps.

What they both said was to design with the online audience in mind. Create the best possible experience and people will come back. Without a good experience, the content alone won’t do it.

All of this echoes an idea from a decade earlier that didn’t (in my opinion) find much acceptance in newspapers: the “experience” newspaper. The argument then, said almost exactly as David put it in his presentation, is that people will pay for a satisfying experience, even if the essential content (the actual content or something similar) is available somewhere else. If it’s true, that more than anything else might be the hope for getting young people who don’t have any news-subscribing habit to pay for news. If it’s not, the future of paid news – aside from major national or regional brands – might be tied entirely to the number of older readers who already are in the habit of paying for news – in other words, already in decline.

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I will take issue with the poynter.org headline The one chart that should scare the hell out of print media, for two reasons. First, it’s actually two charts, the second of which is above, from a presentation by KPCB’s Mary Meeker. The two illustrate what appears not to be a blip but a trend in the money end of the news business. The one above extrapolates the advertising revenue.

You may question whether it is reasonable to extrapolate a trend from the greatest economic collapse since the Depression. I would argue yes both because it started before the economic collapse and because of the second chart, comparing where advertising revenue is spent and where consumers spend their time:

Note on the far left: People spend 7 percent of their time with print media, but print gets 25 percent of the advertising revenue. Note on the far right: People spend a combined 36 percent of their time with Internet and mobile media, but those get just 23 percent of the ad revenue. Even if print will be perceived as a better buy (not a bet I would make), at some point those numbers seem likely to come closer to equalizing.

First conclusion: The ad revenue decline of recent years seems likely to continue.

This leads to a point made by Ken Doctor at the Nieman Journalism Lab: Money coming to news organizations from readers (paid circulation/online access) is growing as a percentage of revenue. Partly this is because of declining ad revenue — if you’re total revenue is $100, then $20 is a small percentage, but if your revenue drops to $50 then $20 is pretty big – but it’s also from the growth of various kinds of paywalls. I remain convinced that an all-or-nothing paywall closes a newspaper off from the possibility of luring new customers, but the trend toward metered paywalls seems able to draw in both avid readers and those who wouldn’t pay even for the bigger headlines of the day.

What the combination seems to lead us toward, as Doctor indicates, is a model where many news organizations will be asking for subscriptions more on the basis that NPR stations ask for memberships — not because they have something every day that you want know, but because you want free access because they regularly do. Advertising, in this scenario, becomes an increasingly less important revenue source; readers drive the revenue.

One fear I have read often in the past is that a news model driven by what is popular would gravitate toward the lurid and celebrity gossip, but I don’t think the above situation would do that. The kind of readers drawn by that kind of news would not be the ones who pay for regular access. Those readers would want at least the occasional substantial bit of civic journalism or in-depth news. You might make a living (a la TMZ) if you are at the top level of celebrity gossip, but at the local level that won’t cut it.

But what also seems likely is that the new level of revenue may not support seven-days-a-week newspapers in many markets, as Clay Shirky argued will eventually be the case even with the Washington Post. If that becomes the common model, then would mere daily scarcity of news drive enough people to buy online subscriptions to get news from “newspapers”? After all, in many markets there are TV and radio stations, which already send out news for free, and in many cases there may be small sites such as Homicide Watch (cited by Shirky) that focus on certain high-interest news areas more thoroughly. What then would spur people to pay for access to the mainstream non-TV news site?

Aggregation is part of the equation — if a news organization shows that no matter the source, it will round up all the news in the community, it could gain a loyal local following. But that seems not enough, to me. If less frequency is key, I wonder whether a higher quality of writing in the reduced number of publication days will be a major factor. If that’s the case, then the frequent publishers’ first instinct of holding down news salaries when budgets constrict could be counterproductive.

The keystone of my evidence, besides any manager’s common sense, is from a story by NPR’s “Morning Edition” in early May about new research measuring human performance in groups, which found that a minority of any group typically will account for a majority of the group’s performance. In other words, a few stars get more done at better quality than a larger group of more typical people. That runs counter to my experience of what managers at all levels do in the face of budget pressures, which is to replace departing staffers with someone who costs a lot less and is deemed “good enough.” “Good enough” hires, if you extend the logic of this study, actually cost more in the long run because they are not just a little but a great deal less capable.

There’s a tantalizing hint of this thinking in the memo from Jim Amoss to the Times-Picayune newsroom about changes in New Orleans from the paper’s reduction in days of print:

“Concerning pay in the new companies, I want to dispel some rumors: There could be some salary adjustments, depending on changes in job descriptions. But most people will make what they make today, if not more.”

I will repeat the relevant part: “most people will make what they make today, if not more.” In a world where the competition for eyeballs is not just local, the need for writers who can catch a reader’s attention is heightened, and it would make sense that if you find you have someone who can both produce the daily bits of news needed to keep a news site relevant while also producing stories worthwhile to the remaining partial-week readership, you would pay that person better than someone who could do only one of the two functions.

For that reason, I would reach back all the way to the early 2000s for a piece of advice I heard an executive repeatedly give (mostly in vain) to publishers: You get what you pay for. If you cut the size of your staff but increase the pay of the remaining people, so that your payroll overall is the same, you might be able to attract and retain the people you need. It is guaranteed that if you cut the staff size and hold the line on the pay – or, worse, cut it – you will never have the people you need, and who would want to pay to read your sorry rag at that point?

6/12/12 UPDATE: I’m gaining some hope about the above from an INMA article about the Star-Tribune boosting reader revenue closer to 50 percent:

“We’re asking users to pay more of the freight. But for that strategy to work, we knew we needed to focus on high-quality customers who see value in our products and have low churn. And to get those high-quality customers, we’ve focused on three areas: our core print audience, pricing/retention, and accessibility.”

If you’re going to focus on high-quality customers, you have to have high-quality staff to provide the value needed to hold onto those customers:

“The content we provide isn’t available anywhere else. This is local reporting — business, local sports, city council meetings. You are doing that, and you are relevant. Differentiate yourself from your competitors. Once you do that, you’re going to get people and you’re going to get them to pay.”

But it’s beyond content to a smart strategy on pricing and marketing. Those are not my areas of expertise, but the article’s points sound good to this journalist.

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Warren Buffett
I would wager you would have a difficult time finding an employee of any Media General newsroom that is soon to become part of Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media Group who wasn’t thrilled by Warren Buffett’s letter to his company’s publishers and editors. It declares what he calls a “hands-off principle” in the management of the newspapers. As far as it is defined, it sounds as good as any management declaration that living journalists who don’t own their own papers would be able to remember.

On content:

“I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.
“That will mean both maintaining your news hole — a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well — and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports. No one has ever stopped reading when half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors.
“You should treat public policy issues just as you have in the past. I have some strong political views, but Berkshire owns the paper — I don’t. And Berkshire will always be non-political.
“… Our job is to reign supreme in matters of local importance.”

On the possibility of duplicating the debt levels that could not be maintained as revenue shrank:

“We shun levels of debt that could ever impose problems. Therefore, you will determine your paper’s destiny; outsiders will never dictate it.”

Read that again: “You will determine your paper’s destiny; outsiders will never dictate it.” That is where the rubber meets the road in this story, because it’s not entirely true, and the real question is to what extent editors and publishers understand that.

What is it that is driving the industry’s decline? The debt was a factor, so its removal is a great help and provides breathing room, but it’s not the driver. The level of debt that Media General had incurred might have been manageable at the levels of revenue that were coming in 10 or 15 years ago, and if those had kept up then everything would have been peachy. What changed? Buffett’s letter somewhat addresses this:

“We must rethink the industry’s initial response to the Internet. The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model and certain of our papers are already making progress in moving to something that makes more sense. We want your best thinking as we work out the blend of digital and print that will attract both the audience and the revenue we need.”

Clearly the experiments with online paywalls now under way at a number of these newspapers will continue, but that doesn’t address the real driver. If you find the formula for paywalls of any kind that get you back to the paid-content equivalent of whatever your paid circulation was 15 years ago, you are not fixing the problem because paid circulation has never, at least since the 19th century, come close to paying the cost of producing the news. If you drop $1 in a newspaper box, the actual per-unit cost of creating that newspaper probably was $3 or $4. Traditionally, the bulk of that cost is covered by advertising because advertisers have thought it was well worth it to reach the mass audience. Newspapers produce news, but their business has always (at least since the 19th century) been selling eyeballs to advertisers, not selling newspapers.

Paywalls may help, to the extent that they provide at least some revenue and the lack of free local news online can stem the loss of print circulation, which in turn helps justify the rates charged to advertisers. But advertising has been declining for years for reasons that have nothing to do with drops in print circulation.

The real driver behind the industry’s trouble is that the Internet is not just an alternate delivery medium. As Jeffrey Cole of the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future has put it, the advent of high-speed Internet is driving changes in society and personal behavior just as the advent of television did. That, not the decision by newspapers “to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print,” is the force behind the growth of 24/7 news on mobile devices and tablets. If you somehow could put every newspaper in the world behind a hard paywall, that wouldn’t address all the TV networks, local TV stations, radio networks (NPR, to name one), web-only news sites, local place blogs, topic-oriented websites, and on and on and on. People expect to find everything they want to know online not because newspapers are there but because, as I said in a post last month, everything else is there. And because everything and everyone else is there, that is where many advertisers increasingly want to be – and they are not just trading print news sites for online news sites, they are exploring the Internet’s plethora of options for reaching an audience.

Buffett knows all this, I think. As he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an interview Thursday, “(Print) circulation for the industry will decline,” and experimentation is necessary:

“Some newspapers are experimenting with various pay-for-content models in their digital editions. Buffett didn’t specify what sort of model should be adopted, saying that is something the company’s newspapers will have to work out themselves.
“‘I think there is a better formula’ than the current revenue model, Buffett said in the interview. ‘I don’t think staying free over the next 10 years is the sound choice.’”

So we have to circle back to the “hands-off principle.” Here’s what the directive to publishers and editors boils down to in plain English: You make the decisions, as long as you maintain both your news hole (that’s one of the few things specifically spelled out in the letter) and profitability (not spelled out, but Buffett’s not running a charity, so it’s assumed).

The situation, then, is not much changed from what it was before, for these papers and any others: If advertising continues to migrate not just to other platforms but to non-news venues, what’s left is higher prices for readers, in print and online. Can a paywall for a small or medium-size news organization bring enough revenue to cover all production costs that are not covered by the remaining advertising? I hope so. I think so. If it can’t, hands-off or hands-on won’t matter.

Which brings us to this portion of Buffett’s letter:

“American papers have only failed when one or more of the following factors was present: (1) The town or city had two or more competing dailies; (2) the paper lost its position as the primary source of information important to its readers or (3) the town or city did not have a pervasive self-identity. We don’t face those problems.”

No, we don’t. But that doesn’t mean we won’t discover a No. 4 reason: The publisher and editor failed to recognize what the problem really was.

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Most journalists seem to take it as a given that what is accurate and fair is true. But whether you agree apparently depends on what you mean by “true,” which became clear after several items in the news in the past month.

First came reports – such as this one from NPR – about “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a story drawn from the experience of John D’Agata, a writer, and Jim Fingal, who had been assigned to fact-check an essay by D’Agata. From NPR’s description:

“Ten years ago, D’Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D’Agata wrote an essay about the tragedy — but in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.”

D’Agata fudged or fabricated details large and small, and distorted timelines and sequences of events. He defended his departures from accuracy by saying his version was “more dramatic” and that his essay was written in pursuit of a greater truth, an artistic truth.

Next came the horrifying (for journalists), full-show-length retraction by public radio’s “This American Life” for running a report by writer/performer Mike Daisey about Apple’s factories in China, which, similar to D’Agata’s essay, mixed and matched facts, locations, times and events without much regard to accuracy. Although clearly remorseful in the retraction episode, he remained stubbornly insistent that his error was only one of labeling, that ultimately he conveyed a larger truth that was important for people to feel connected to.

Neither of the above episodes would have caused a ripple of alarm if either had simply been labeled fiction. Much fiction is largely based is fact. You don’t have to watch very many movies or TV shows to understand that “based on a true story” has a wide variety of meanings, from “this is nearly entirely what really happened” to (more often) “there’s a nugget of reality here, but not a lot.”

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine summed up what I feel about the two stories:

“You need not take a journalist’s oath to tell the truth. You need only be born to a mother such as mine, who told me and my sister often–very often–that ‘there’s nothing worse than a liar.’ It worked on us. My sister became a minister and I became a journalist.”

Then a third item entered the news, giving a twist to the idea of “truth vs. accuracy.” It turned out that the season-opening scene in AMC’s “Mad Men” last month, in which men in a New York advertising firm drop paper bags filled with water onto black civil rights protesters below, was drawn directly from the facts in a 1966 New York Times story – right down to one of the protesters, after coming up to the agency to find out who was dropping water bombs on them, saying, “And they call us savages.” That line of dialog, as it turned out, came in for harsh treatment from some TV critics. Said one, “When she said that, it just rings so false.”

How much truer can you get than reality? Must you fabricate to discover truth?

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I supposed it’s appropriate that the meaning of those lines by John Keats “is disputed by everyone,” as englishhistory.net put it.

If only a journalist had been there to document what Keats intended.

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