When advertising looks like news

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I like dogs. I like Miss Babe Ruth, the canine mascot of the minor league Greensboro Grasshoppers who is pictured above. Miss Babe Ruth works baseball games, fetching dropped bats and delivering baseballs.

But I don’t like the entire front page of the sports section of the News & Record featuring — no, honoring — Miss Babe.

Oh, wait. It isn’t the real front page of the section. It’s a full-page advertisement paid for by the baseball team, not that that will be immediately obvious to readers who are used to seeing actual sports stories on the page. (At the top of the page is a line that reads “Paid for by the Greensboro Grasshoppers,” but newspaper designers know that few readers will see that.)

You have to turn to page 3 to get to the real sports page, pictured below.

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When I was an editor, I routinely fought – and lost – arguments over whether to display paid advertisements on the front page. (I was against them). I also opposed spadias, which are paid ad pages that wrap around part of the front of a section, covering the news content.

I had two arguments:

First, they got in the way of people wanting the news. Why put an obstacle between readers and the reason they bought a paper?

Second, when the advertisements are disguised like news, it’s an effort to deceive readers. Why would the newspaper want readers to feel as if we were trying to pull a fast one, I would ask.

(Here is support for that argument as it applies to websites: “Slightly more than half of consumers don’t trust sponsored content, now often called native advertising, and 59% believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles paid for by a brand, according to a study released Wednesday by content marketing startup Contently.”)

The counterargument, of course, was always that these ads represent money. And those days — like these days — newspapers need money.

And the fact is, whenever we published these ads I objected to, we got few complaints from readers. I suspect that few readers of the paper will complain this morning. Some are likely to find the feature on Miss Babe Ruth endearing.

But I can also imagine casual readers looking at the front page, seeing nothing but a story about a dog and putting the section aside as irrelevant. I can imagine devoted sports readers being confused, but then turning inside to find the real sports section and thinking, as I did: “I wish they had used these two dog pages to give me more real sports stories.”

Am I an old crank? Possibly. But I get disturbed when paid advertising is paraded as news content, even when it’s innocuous. Yet one more line between advertising and news is erased.

So does John Oliver: “I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers. Separately, they’re good. But if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.”

Sunday sampler

In case you didn’t know, many N.C. newspapers will tell you on their front pages today that school starts this week. But there are other front page stories worth noting.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.org.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.org.

Raleigh: Despite a new design that severely limits the number of stories it publishes on the front page, the News & Observer has two good ones. The first is one we all suspected: emails from powerful conservatives around the state all supported the ouster of UNC president Tom Ross. The reason is less clear — no one in power has actually ever given a reason — but it does appear to be blatantly political. He has a liberal background, even though his policies do not. With this crowd, not being one of them means you’re an enemy.

The second story is about the state’s planned expansion of the lottery. Many of us can recall the time 10 years ago when Republicans opposed the lottery as sinful gambling. Now they embrace it so closely they want to entice more citizens to spend money on this loser’s bet.

Durham: One thing the legislature has done so that its members can crow about how they’ve reduced taxes is send the cost for services to cities and counties. The Herald-Sun writes of the Durham school system’s concern about funding drivers’ ed. Is it the government’s responsibility that students learn how to drive safely? Given that I must share the road with them and teens are responsible for many accidents, I’d say yes, but then, I’m believe that government is good.

Charlotte: The Observer has dug into U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s land investment company and how it treated its investors. There’s no smoking gun — it is being investigated by the FBI — but it’s interesting nonetheless.


When institutional memory dies

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Updated with obit below.

Don Jud, who passed away Aug. 9, was a big deal in Greensboro. He taught economics at UNC-Greensboro for 33 years and formed and led the Center for Applied Research. He received the highest civilian honor bestowed by the State of North Carolina, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

His paid obituary, published in the News & Record Saturday, includes this line: “He compiled the monthly Triad Business Index and was considered the area’s economic guru, affectionately called “Economan” by the News and Record.” (Bold is mine.) Read the whole thing to get a better sense of his importance.

He was a big deal, and yet, the News & Record hasn’t written a news obituary about him.

News obituaries are written by newspaper staff members when people of community import die. They put the person’s life and career into a communitywide context. For instance, here is a news obit on Julian Bond. (Paid obituaries are written by family members and, in the harshest light, considered advertising.)

Dr. Jud was 71. He hadn’t been out of the limelight for long. The most recent mention of him in the News & Record I could find on Google is a year ago. But he was quoted in business and real estate stories in the paper for decades. He shouldn’t be so quickly forgotten.

Here is my point: This is what happens when newspapers are cut so close to the bone that they let go of their institutional memory.

I mentioned on Facebook being surprised that the paper hadn’t written an obit on Dr. Jud. One of the staff members at the paper responded: “Not many left here who knew of him.”

It may seem minor — news staffs are stretched thin and have other important stories to report and write. But this cuts to the core of whether a newspaper knows its community and respects those who have worked hard to build the community.

Update: The managing editor of the paper, Steven Doyle, tells me via Twitter that a news obit on Dr. Jud is in the works for tomorrow’s paper.

Update 2: This fine news obituary was published Aug. 18.

Sunday sampler

Burlington: Before I get to the people in Raleigh, a story in the Times-News about a government agency that works. Told through the eyes of a woman trying to get help for a violent, emotionally traumatized 2-year-old, the story describes the Alamance Alliance for Children and Family.

Charlotte: The General Assembly is the power center in state politics these days, and there are several important issues left to deal with. (Some of them shouldn’t be dealt with at all; they should just die.) The Observer reviews six that are still in the spotlight in what is becoming one of the longest sessions ever.

Wilmington: Related, the Star-News shows what happens with the General Assembly drags it feet and introduces unexpected and unwanted budget changes, in this case on the state’s film industry and the state ports.

Raleigh: A female libido pill? Nice. Does it work? I guess the FDA will tell us Tuesday. A Raleigh company is betting the farm that it will. “If the drug is approved, Whitehead predicts Sprout, which has 31 employees, will ‘quadruple in size’ by hiring drug sales reps to promote the pill to doctors who would prescribe it. Sprout has the ability to ramp up production quickly at facilities in Virginia and Georgia so that it can get the pills to patients this year, she said.”

Where is the social media conversation moving?

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Whenever I talk about Twitter in my college classes, I thank them for favoriting my tweets, but that I prefer retweets so that my thoughts will circulate beyond my circle. I lecture them on the value of building a network that way and increasing their social capital.

And, as usual, rather than lecturing them I should have been listening to them. I might have heard a canary in a coal mine.

Here’s what I’m thinking about today:

Last week, Twitter announced that its number of users wasn’t growing, and the prospects for growth aren’t there right now.

Hold that thought.

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A few weeks ago, I tweeted to six students I know who are registered for one of my fall classes, and I asked for suggestions on first-day snacks (shut up with your judging). All six “favorited” the tweet, but not one of them answered the question.

I asked one, Jordan Jackson, why she didn’t answer, she said something to the effect of, “Our generation isn’t using social media for conversation that much. We post photos and information about ourselves, but Instagram has taught us to like things rather than talk about them.”

Is social media — or, at least, Twitter specifically — becoming a place to broadcast, but not to interact? That, to me, is a new insight. (I am, after all, the guy who told Bill Mitchell at Poynter six years ago that the social web “is a cocktail party filled with interesting people.  You can move from group to group, engaging on different topics, listening quietly when you want to, talking at others.”)

I’m well aware there are different reasons to favorite something on Twitter. The most predominant one is to let the tweeter know that you enjoyed the tweet. In this case, though, I addressed a specific question to specific people. All they had to do was tweet back: “Chocolate chip cookies!”

So, in individual emails, I asked them why they didn’t answer.

One said it was intimidating. Another said she feels “pressure to only tweet/respond if I have something clever to say or a clever way to say something.” And she didn’t feel like saying “chocolate chip cookies” was tweet-worthy.

One agreed with the first student: “I think social media, especially with a site such as Facebook or Instagram, is now a place for people to say ‘This is what I’m up to. Look how cool my life is and how cool I am.’ Twitter, however, is substantially different than other social media in my opinion. I use Twitter not to keep up with other people but to read funny tweets, watch funny videos and entertain myself. There’s a lot of pressure to tweet things that are witty and clever because the standard is set higher to favorite something on Twitter than it is to like a picture on Facebook or Instagram.”

Has the standard to engage with others risen too high?

Or maybe it’s about the brand. Drew Goins told me: “The past couple days on my Timehop have shown me 5-year-old posts from my Facebook Wall that are super conversational — extended exchanges comprising multiple posts on one another’s Walls. I’d never think to do that now. The main function of social media accounts has in the intervening years shifted from one of interpersonal exchange to personal branding, I think.”

While writing about the social media habits of teenagers, danah boyd might suggest to an astute reader that as more adults and prospective employers have joined the conversation, millennials are moving elsewhere.

To some extent, conversations have moved to YikYak (anonymous) and Snapchat (private). My unscientific observation is that many college age students don’t use Facebook or Twitter or Instagram for much more that occasional status updates.

I don’t know if any of that is right. Maybe it’s simply me. But I’m intrigued by the idea that the actual interaction is moving away from Twitter. No, not with millions of people, but with many millennials, which is an influential group.

And if Twitter isn’t going to be the place, what is? Or rather, what will be?

Updated with a few comments from…Twitter:

Dylan Howlett: Bigger takeaway for me: Millennials might be the “connected generation, but they’re not the “quick-response” generation.

April Bethea: I do wonder sometimes how much media’s use of social has changed how people use social platforms, for better or worse.

Marnie Davey: my 12yo & her friends all use Instagram for everything, incl messages – it seems to be all about the :P

Michael Lananna: I think Twitter is still conversational in some circles, but it mostly feels like a vehicle for link-dumping a brand-building.

Chris Coletta: On Twitter specifically, it’s not an age thing. It’s a “power users vs. normals” thing.

Mindy McAdams: A thought: What if millennials aren’t having conversations? Maybe sound-bite culture has come to that.

Chad Arndt: Insightful. And yes I’ve cracked under the pressure to be witty.

N.C.: Where the government doesn’t trust its citizens

Take a moment and think of all the reasons you keep something you’ve done a secret. You know: You’ve made a mistake and you don’t want to own up to it. Or you’ve done something and you know people won’t like it; or you think if people know they might misuse the information — reasons like that.

We’ll wait.

OK, let’s examine some of the things our elected officials have done that keep information from the people they purport to represent:

* Last year, they passed legislation that makes it a crime to reveal the specific toxic chemicals involved in fracking.

* Last week, they passed legislation that would keep secret the specific drugs and the names of the companies that manufacture the drugs used in executions.

* Now, the Senate, in its proposed budget, wants to essentially close police records. According to the Charlotte Observer,  “Practically speaking, that would mean most every police department record, including police reports on arrests, could be kept secret.” (H/t to Peter St. Onge for the pointer.)

No reason for you to know about murders or rapes, robberies or assaults in your community. Say there are a slew of break-ins in one particular area of the city. Or perhaps heroin use is going up or down in town; would you care about that?.

Or worse, say there was an officer-involved shooting in which a body camera records the action? Should the public be able to see that? Oh, wait. Police are already keeping those secret. After all, look what they’re doing in Bridgeport, Conn.

In both the fracking and the execution secrecy laws, the legislators say they want to protect the corporations involved (rather than citizens). In the police records case, no senator has stepped up to claim ownership of the language in the bill. That’s right, as with many things in the budget, the wording was added, and no one is owning it. Courage.

This is a legislature that doesn’t trust the people it purports to represent. It has consistently taken power away from local governments. It has refused to let citizens vote on issues that pertain to them.

And it continues to reduce access to the business of government.

When elections come around in 2016 and state representatives are asking for your vote, make sure you ask them why they don’t trust you.

Sunday sampler

I may need to go beyond front pages to get at the good journalism in N.C.’s newspapers. With more newspapers moving to fewer stories on their fronts, there are fewer stories that rise to my subjective standards of interesting, relevant content. I’m also being tantalized by inside the paper stories being promoted on the front page. (But I’m not going to do it today.)

Lenoir: The News-Topic continues its reporting on the story of Amos Shook, whose car and presumed body was found in a nearby lake 43 years after he was reported missing. This piece compares the Shook case with a 1993 death that one man says provides similarities that must be more than coincidence. Are they murders? Right now, in the Shook case, investigators say there is no evidence of foul play. But, I – and many readers – like a good mystery.

Let me know what I missed.


When newspapers don’t care about their customers

Updated with comments below

Updated at 5:24 Monday: Bruce posted this on Facebook: “So it’s now 5:11 PM on Monday and no one from the News & Record has tried to contact me. Thanks! I can keep this up as long as it takes. (My comment: a few News & Record staffers said the paper tried to contact Bruce, but — wait for it — the phone number they had was out of service.)

Updated later Monday night: Jeff Gauger, publisher of the paper, apologized in a comment on the FB page and said a paper rep talked with Wiley about the problems. Our goal is flawless delivery. We of course will credit your account for your missed deliveries. We will credit your account for an additional 13 Sundays (or three months) as recompense for the frustration and irritation we have caused. Also, we will quickly provide technical assistance and coaching to give you easy, uninterrupted access to the News & Record’s digital editions. Again, I am sorry.



These days, people tend to know what they’re going to get when they subscribe to a newspaper. They may get irritated by the editorial pages, bothered by the tone and amount of news coverage, or left wanting by the lack of sports coverage for their favorite teams. Still, there’s enough value in the paper that they want it.

What people don’t expect — and which is hastening the demise of the business — is poor customer service. What do you do when people try to give you money, and you don’t seem to want it?

Enter Bruce Wiley, a Facebook friend of mine who lives in High Point. The News & Record — my former paper — sent him a subscription offer in the mail, and he decided he wanted to start Sunday-only home delivery. He called the paper, and that’s when his problems began.

“Having been a previous subscriber, they had my information in their system, including my old landline number. I told them that number was no longer in service and gave them my cell phone number to update their records. I also instructed the young lady to start delivery on July 12th since we would not be home July 4th weekend.

“All is good at this point. We returned home on Monday, July 13, and there is is no paper delivered. I called customer service, gave them my cell phone number when asked and they say they don’t have that number in their system. Once they find my records, they inform me that the paper is not supposed to start till July 19th. I give them my cell phone number once again to update their records. Our paper is delivered on the 19th.

“On July 17th, I call Customer Service to find out what steps can be taken to link my paid account with online access, as advertised. They still don’t have my cell phone number in their records, I’m still associated with a landline number that is not in service. Again, I give them my number. The person on the phone has no idea how to help me with online access. I ask to speak to a supervisor. I am informed, at 2 p.m. on a Friday, that there is no supervisor to speak with. The young lady asks me for my name and number, which I give again. She assures me someone will be in touch.

“So, 9 days later, no call.”

“On top of that, no paper delivered today (July 26). I called and the only options are to use the N&R automated system. I am prompted for my phone number, so I enter my cell phone. After entering my house number, the system tells me there is no such subscription. I press zero to speak with someone and the recording politely tell me the office is closed and if I want to talk to someone, I have to call back on Monday.

“I actually have to call them again because there are no options to go back thru the menu. So I call again, go thru the automated process, use the out of service landline number and guess what, they say I do have an account. When I use the system to tell them that I did not get a paper delivered, the response is that we’re sorry, we’ll credit your account and goodbye. No option of getting a paper delivered today. Oh, and I still don’t have online access.”

That’s the end of his account. Here’s one translation of his last three sentences: He cares enough about the paper to pay for it and then call to get it when it isn’t delivered. But the newspaper office doesn’t care enough about him to get it to him.

He tagged four News & Record editors, including the publisher. None of them commented on his post so far, although 18 other people have, at this writing. Based on those comments, Bruce’s experience isn’t uncommon. And it’s not just Greensboro; several of the commenters said they have the same problem with the News & Observer in Raleigh.

My guess is that this is a nationwide newspaper problem.

Twenty years ago, a newspaper marketer told me that subscribers don’t cancel because of the content or opinion of the newspaper. They quit because of service problems. Twenty years ago, we worked hard to improve our service, grow circulation and stop cancellations. Customer service folks at the paper – even department managers and reporters – would deliver newspapers to people if the district managers were out of the office.

Now, most of — maybe all — of the customer service folks in Greensboro have been laid off, and calls are directed to a centralized BH Media customer service operation in Texas. I have heard stories that the operators in Texas don’t know how to help customers with the e-edition or with the 1808 magazine. Based on the comments on Bruce’s Facebook post, they have difficulty with newspaper delivery, too.

Is this fixable? Of course, it is.  It requires focus, accountability and people who know the product and market. As newspapers consolidate and outsource services, these three characteristics are lost.

I don’t know how long Bruce will persist in his quest to get a News & Record. I can’t say I blame him if he says to hell with it.

And that’s a shame.

A quick selection of comments from Facebook and Twitter.

Jean in Greensboro: It took me several frustrating tries to link to the online site (like the phone number issue, they had already linked my email to a user name and somehow that was a barrier.) I have had many opportunities to use it as about twice a month we don’t receive the paper. When you get a person on the phone they are good at apologizing. Still haven’t gotten a call back from a supervisor I requested.

Mark on canceling the Washington Post:  I had the same experience with The Washington Post a few years ago. No “Why?”, no “Please reconsider,” no “What if we offer you some sort of a deal?” Just, “Okay.” No other business lets customers get away this easy.

Abbie in Greenville, N.C.: It’s definitely happening to us. We get Facebook messages about it all the time.

Matt in Roanoke: Now you don’t even reach someone at the paper. You reach someone in Texas.

Carol in Raleigh: I’ll take your word that this is a pervasive problem; can personally confirm though that N&O’s CS is a mess

Sherry in Hamilton, Ont.: Gave up 20 year subscription with The Spec due to poor customer service. Still miss “getting the paper”

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer tracks the relationship between Gov. McCrory and the legislature. It wasn’t a particularly good week for McCrory, but I don’t think he’s had many good weeks. The story doesn’t go particularly deeply into the chasms between the gov and the General Assembly — McCrory didn’t talk to the paper — but it’s interesting and could set the stage for a deeper, more analytical piece about what this means for McCrory’s future.

Greensboro: Last week, the Citizen-Times in Asheville wrote about the long wait for DNA testing on rape kits. This week, the News & Record follows that with its own story on efforts to work around the state’s backlog with regional crime labs. The search for solutions continues.

Lenior: The News-Topic has a pair of good stories about Amos Shook, whose car and presumably body were found last week at the bottom of Lake Rhodhiss. Forty-three years ago, Shook went out on a date and never returned. His family doesn’t think his car ended up in the lake by accident and doesn’t think it’s a suicide. What it remains is a mystery.

Raleigh: The N&O takes a compelling look at the connection between high school sports powerhouses and schools with a large number of poor students. The outcome is probably not surprising: High schools with a high percentage of poor students rarely win titles in the so-called country club sports – tennis, golf and swimming – and the number of sports in which the more affluent dominate is growing.

Sunday sampler



I include the Observer’s front page to show what the result of the new design. (Courtesy of the Newseum.)

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has two good ones today. First, a piece on how long it takes to run DNA tests on rape kits and the impact on real people. And it’s not good. More than 200 in Buncombe County alone going back years. “When I found out that rape kits weren’t getting tested, that was the next stab in my heart, and I cried for days,” Laurie said. “I knew it was everywhere and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I am up against huge problems here.'”

The second piece in the Citizen-Times attempts to answer a question that I suspect many communities in N.C. and the South have: Why are wages here lower than other places in the country?  “The answer might be simple: Asheville has an economy with a mix of companies that do not make many of what economists call “high-value” products.” It’s a good piece, explaining economic theory is clear, easy-to-understand (even for me) language.

Burlington: 1,500 people rally in Mebane Graham in support of the Confederate monument there because they feel it’s threatened. If you wonder about the strength of the “heritage not hate” crowd, it’s here.

Fayetteville: I like stories about people openly carrying guns in public. They put the spotlight on the nation’s gun laws…and how the principles meet the practice. The Observer writes about a man walking around the Cross Creek Mall carrying an AR assault-type rifle. It’s apparently legal and it apparently alarmed people. (As you read this, imagine the guy were African American or a Moslem.) The debate rages.

Lenoir: The News-Topic has the fun story of the day out of Rhodhiss. The town believes — and has publicized — that the fabric used to make at least the first flag to go to the moon was manufactured in a factory there. Now, someone with the state Department of Cultural Resources says no. My favorite line: “The person he spoke to said that according to information on the Internet, his story was incorrect.” (The story goes on to explain each side.)

Raleigh: If you need another reason to hate insurance companies – and by extension, the General Assembly — the N&O provides one.  Basically, life insurance companies can hold onto unclaimed policies until the policy holder would have reached the age of 100 as long as the insurer hasn’t been notified of the person’s death. And of course, some beneficiaries may not be aware of the existence of the policy.

Winston-Salem: The Journal tells a horrible story about an adult care center that has now been closed. How this kind of thing continues to occur should shame us all. “Inspectors found that residents left the center on Reynolds Park Road and stayed away for days at a time with no one to check on them. Officials said residents were having sex in the woods with other residents who had sexually-transmitted infections or who lacked mental competence.”