Call Me Maybe, Southern Pines style

It seems as if everyone has done a “Call Me Maybe” cover.

Well, now they have. Welcome to the version of the staff of the Southern Pines Pilot.

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No simple synchronized legs dancing for this group. The staff is all over town. Publisher David Woronoff makes his debut at the 50-second mark. Editor John Nagy comes in at the end of the table at 1:05, although he’s also in the crowd chasing the pastries right before that.

Nagy wrote me: “We just wanted to practice one of our core corporate values: have fun. It was a great way to break up the long summer and show everyone we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

They’ve succeeded. This is a place that has fun and clearly cares about its community. To me, this feels as if you could walk on in and be invited to sit and have a cup of coffee. Sadly, that’s exactly what many newspapers don’t feel like. Well done, Pilot.

Update: My friend Ryan Shell adds his own take.

Getting past the inconvenience of newspapers

It’s been years but newspapers still haven’t grasped the inconvenience of their products. And inconvenience is killing them.

Consider:

* A longtime newspaper loyalist told me last week that she finally dropped her 7-day home-delivery subscription to Sunday only because she was in her car headed to work by the time the paper was tossed on her driveway. If it isn’t there when she needs it, it’s useless.

* Want a paper delivered? Get dressed and walk down the driveway in all kinds of weather to get it. This in a time when many people check their smart phones before they get out of bed. 

* Want home delivery only on Sunday and, say, Wednesday? You’ll be lucky if that option is available. It may be convenient to you, but it’s inconvenient to the paper.

* Some papers, like mine, promote their e-editions, which for a relatively cheap subscription price you can read the newspaper itself online. But it’s a clunky interface, requiring you to scroll up and down to see the entire page. Inconvenient. Not accessible on iPad either.

* Some newspaper websites are good. More often, though, they aren’t. It’s hard to find what you want. Design is cluttered. Ads come unbidden onto the screen, and, like a pesky mosquito buzzing around the room, it’s hard to get rid of them. Search is bad. Some content is walled off. Inconvenient.

* On Thursday, I went looking for stories about the U.S. Women’s soccer team because I wanted to read and see photos of its gold medal victory over Japan. I went to the Washington Post, the New York Times and ESPN, and I was struck by what an inconvenience that was. Each site gave me stories by their reporters only. I wanted more than that. I wanted a curated collection of content from everywhere. (C’mon Project Thunderdome!) Finally, I went to Google News, but even there I seemed to keep pulling up the same AP story.

* Don’t get me started on mobile.

I love newspapers and can’t imagine not getting one every morning, though I know that day is coming. That’s OK because I love journalism even more, and I hate to miss good journalism because of obstacles put in my way. I know well that there are sound business, financial, cultural and historical reasons why these obstacles exist. The problem is that customers don’t care about any of them. They want ease of use and service.

There is a solution.

I hate to stand in line for anything, but I do it when the payoff is worth it. If you assume that news organizations can’t or won’t eliminate the inconveniences, the only way to save themselves is to make the payoff worth it. The content must be so compelling that I will tolerate hassles because I know that there is gold at the end of the rainbow.

This is so much easier said than done. If it were easy, every day papers would be full of interesting enterprise, hard-hitting investigations, surprises, local analysis, depth, news about my neighbors (my neighbors, not someone who lives in this city of 300,000.) Or perhaps it’s not breadth but it’s a clearly designated focus, in the way that I know what I’m going to get if I go to Politico or watch FoxNews. (Poynter has a good piece about “the continental content divide.)

Mass is dead. Personalized is alive. Make it so easy and seamless to get the news I want OR provide news and information that is so relevant and necessary to my life that I’ll trample the crowd to get it. I know journalists want to do that the latter. Let them loose.

Plain talk, redacted

One of the earliest and most fundamental lessons I learned in journalism was that no one outside of the newsroom gets prior approval or restraint of anything we published. Period.

A corollary was that sources didn’t get to approve or change their quotes. You might read quotes back to them to make sure that you got them right. You might read a section of your own writing to a source to make sure you characterized a technical issue clearly. But any changes made to a quote or a story were made by the writer not by the source. You never gave away that power or responsibility.

So what are we to make of this New York Times story that says the Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and Reuters have agreed to allow campaigns to approve the quotes of their aides before publication? I don’t know. Hell, I had to read the story twice because it was so hard for me to believe.

Oddly, the story doesn’t actually say why the news organizations agree to such restrictions. This is the closest reference: Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.

Campaign strategists wouldn’t talk to the New York Times or the Washington Post? Do you really believe that? They wouldn’t talk to the two most powerful political media outlets in the nation? I don’t, but for fun, let’s play it out. If campaign stategists won’t talk to you, what that really means is that you will get beat on a story because the strategist will talk to your competition. And no news organization wants to get beat. (This, despite the fact that no one really ever remembers who had what scoop because news becomes a commodity in about two seconds these days.)

They could say what every editor I’ve known would have said: “Hell, no, we won’t give you prior approval over your quotes. We’re going to tape it. If you say it, it’s on the record. Be responsible for your words, don’t say something stupid and you’ve got no problem.” The source could say no interview and that’d be that. But if your competitor gives in, well, you lose the story.

Would we worry about that? Probably. Would that cause us to compromise a principle? No. We’d just try to get another story.

Most media organizations have ethics policies. I would love to see the wording on an item that explains when, why and which sources get the authority to review, approve or strike through their quotes before publication. Bet no self-respecting media organization would put that in writing.

Much of the public doesn’t trust what newspapers print. The public thinks reporters are biased. This is a step in the wrong direction.

Answers for TV & newspapers

“No one in charge wants to fail, of course. But the hesitation to boldly address this emergency is a failure of leadership. Maybe some are waiting for the economy to turn around. The economy isn’t helping matters, but that’s not the problem anymore. Much more fundamental. It’s been called a culture of inertia in the print world.”

Those are the words of a former TV news director, who is actually talking about TV news, not newspapers. TV is following the same path newspapers blazed a few years ago: chasing new customers with an old product, trying to make the audience come to the TV rather than going to where the audience is when it’s there, and chasing news that has only incidental relevance to people’s lives.

“I believe too few people know what to do, and the ones who do aren’t being given the money and authority, along with the time needed, to create the disruptive change.”

Right now, TV’s solution seems to be “make people like you.” Jeff Jarvis comes to the rescue with a more helpful — but much harder — to-do list. This list is not just for TV; newspaper journalists — and newspaper leadership — can easily adapt Jeff’s list to their purposes. It will be difficult and frightening, but not as difficult and frightening as the current path we’re on appears to be.

Three journalists seek the future

Three smart young journalists I know are leaving their jobs and returning to school to study journalism’s future. If I were still the editor of a newspaper and one of them worked for me, I would mourn the loss of a good reporter. But I’m not. I’m hopeful that they will do more than study the future. I’m hopeful that they will create something new, not just for themselves, but for all of us. I told her what I would study if I were returning to school..

1. Money. Enough people are looking at the future of reporting the news, of figuring out how to reach people. While that’s what interests journalists, don’t go there. Look at the other side of the equation — the revenue. Where is the money going to come from to produce the strong public service journalism we want? Many have suggested solutions, and some are even trying them with varying degrees of success. But what that says to me is that the best solutions are still out there. If I were returning to school, I would study how to make good money practicing journalism.

2. Community. Traditional news organizations lost their built-in headstart to be the community’s place to be when Facebook came along. But Facebook is vulnerable because of its immense size, because of its insistence to do things that annoy its users and because it’s now a publicly traded company with all the profit pressures that brings. It’s not unthinkable that it could go the way of MySpace. Competitors are popping up all the time. What is the next Pinterest? It’s out there. I think someone can concoct the magic formula that melds journalism and community with connective tissue that is  valuable, informative and profitable.

3. Mobile. It is the future of media. Baby Boomers, who were once the core loyal newspaper and TV audience, are dropping subscriptions and appointment TV news watching and going mobile. That should scare news execs in the same way they should have been scared — but weren’t — when they heard about Craigslist. While some media have figured out how to do mobile effectively — Netflix, for instance — news organizations haven’t. (By effectively, I mean not only delivering a good product to people who want it, but also making money doing it.) Yes, there is cost to mobile and the ROI isn’t immediately apparent. But the ROI of YouTube wasn’t apparent until it was purchased by Google for a couple billion dollars. There’s opportunity. Why let the next Zuckerberg or Brin or Newmark get their there first?

I was going to add a fourth. I was going to suggest she examine why media ownership has been so resistant to understanding or accepting where the business is and what is coming down the road. I was going to suggest that she start with Media General’s CEO, who said that it wasn’t until last year — last year! — that they realized newspaper world had changed. But I decided that topic had been hashed over and resolved by many, and it was more of a psychosociological study, anyway. Besides, SchoolhouseRock teaches that three is a magic number.

I don’t know that these are the best three. What would YOU study?

Raise hell and take names

It’s not hip, going into a small county and starting a newspaper. It’s a lot of work, too. But, damn. You want to be a journalist and no big paper will hire you? Screw ’em. Start your own.

That brings me to the Yancey County News, which was started in 2011 and has now won the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment and the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

Boom.

Here’s the story.

Yancey County is in the mountains of North Carolina, but this can be done just about anywhere. Short answer is that it takes a little startup money, hard work and brass balls. But, damn, it sounds like fun…you know, what we used to do: raising hell and taking names.

 

10 reasons why a paywall isn’t the answer

For anyone who thinks paywalls are the way ahead for newspaper companies, read this evisceration of the idea by Howard Owens. A brief excerpt from his post at CJR.

A paywall is reactionary. It represents a mindset that says there’s nothing wrong with our journalism or our business approach. It is also an admission of failure at building a real online news business.

The basic notion behind a paywall is, “Journalism is expensive, therefore people should pay for it.” The notion ignores evidence to the contrary and locks in a mindset that believes the way we’ve always done it is the only way to do it. Paywall advocates are not innovators, and if you’re not an innovator in the fast-moving Digital Age, you’re dead.

One of the real dangers of the current paywall schemes isn’t that they won’t produce revenue; it’s that they will become the proverbial golden handcuffs, producing too much revenue to abandon but not enough to accomplish what advocates hope: save journalism.

Full disclosure: He is overly generous in his praise of me in reason #3.

Reading the morning paper

About this time in 2011, during one of my rants that the newsroom didn’t have the staff to do all the things that we needed to do, my publisher and I decided to take a different course. Rather than expand the staff — the budget was under too much duress — we agreed that the news staff would focus its efforts on the newspapers of Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. They are the biggest circulation days and, more important, they produce the most revenue. From then until I left last December, the journalistic focus was to produce the best newspaper possible on those days. If we had to sacrifice a story or photo on Monday or Tuesday to make Wednesday or Sunday better, so be it. (Monday and Tuesday, in particular, are loss leaders.)

I don’t know if it made any difference in the results — there are too many variables in circulation and advertising to credit or blame one factor — and I didn’t stay long enough to continue watching it. But it did ease some of the stress in the newsroom and, I think, produced strong journalism.

That’s what I think of when I read about New Orleans Times-Picayune’s decision. We didn’t discuss dropping publication of any day. Our financial position wasn’t even close to that. Frankly, I think that helping newspaper readers break the habit of reading a daily paper is unwise. After all, they don’t seem to have any difficulty in doing that themselves.

On Friday, Mark Glaser at MediaShift introduced a poll asking readers how often they want to read your local newspaper in print. (Go vote. Right now, “daily” is ahead.) I’m a daily reader. It’s not that the paper is complete or up-to-date. It isn’t. But I have the newsprint habit. For me, it’s not the same as watching television or cruising the web for news in the morning, both of which I also do. I simply like the experience of turning the pages and reading on paper.

That, and I like to support the efforts of civic journalism. I’m not convinced you can be a fully informed citizen without reading the paper. But that’s just me.

 

 

An abundance of opportunity in journalism

It’s been six months since I left the News & Record, and I have finally figured out the answer to that question. Now, people seem surprised when I answer “no” with absolutely no hesitation.

It took awhile for me to get there, to realize that there was little that I missed about being editor of the third largest newspaper in North Carolina. Of course, I do miss my friends there. As every journalist know, a newsroom is a special place filled with energy, excitement, creativity and humor. Oh, and I do miss the bi-weekly paycheck.

Obviously, I don’t miss all the things that ran me out of the business — the pain caused by the financial problems, the obsession with profit, the second guessing, the lack of vision from the industry, the sense of helplessness and inevitability in the decline.

Years ago, I asked the same question of a former editor who was teaching at the University of Georgia. He said he only missed being “in the know.” He missed being included in the embargoed and off-the-record conversations with movers and shakers. I actually tried to avoid those sessions whenever I could. They were useful for reporters. My attendance was only useful for the movers and shakers. So, there was no reason for me to be there.

Don’t get me wrong: the 13 years I was editor were a true gas. The good times far, far outnumbered the bad times. But it was time for me to go and let someone else take a run at it. As I thought about leaving, I worried that I would not have enough to do, that I’d become aimless, that I would miss it terribly. After all, it’s been in my blood for 37 years.

I did miss it for a little while. I quickly discovered that the things I loved — being a part of a creative process, hanging with interesting people, trying new things, making a difference in the world — are all easily replaceable. Some are in journalism — this blog, for instance, and teaching — and the others are just about joining a part of the world that my focus on my career didn’t permit me. (I never said “I want to spend more time with my family,” but that’s been a benefit, too.)

I have regrets, primarily about things I didn’t do. I have written about them here. But miss it? No. I left the newspaper; I didn’t leave journalism.

And there is an abundance of opportunity in journalism.

“Where is the money?”

Newspapers have money. Sometimes, a lot of money. They just don’t think it’s enough.

I write that because a commenter on this post asked: “For the newspaper that takes this bold step, where is the money?”

I suppose that the years of layoffs, furloughs and salary freezes have given people the idea that newspapers are broke. In fact, those actions have helped newspaper companies’ bottom lines. I’m sure that some newspapers are barely breaking even. A few may even be losing money. But they are the exception, not the rule. Most newspapers have profit margins that, while not what they were in the 90s, would still make other local businesses quite happy. Here’s the illustration: Warren Buffett isn’t buying newspapers if he doesn’t think they make money.

So, the real question isn’t “where is the money?” The real question is, what is the newspaper spending its profits on? And the follow ups: Is it investing in the future? Is it investing in its staff? Is it reducing the profit-taking so that more can be funneled back into the operation? Is it reducing its investment in the newsprint product so that it can increase an investment into digital news creation and distribution? Or is it mimicking Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove,” riding the moneymaker to the end.