More advice for newspapers; it’s time to take it

Newspapers get a lot of advice these days. Much of it is repetitive or derivative and contradictory. Much of it doesn’t answer a key question: How will we make money? Regardless, at some point, papers are going to need to step out and take some real chances. I didn’t take enough when I had the opportunity. I wish I had done more.

Stijn Debrouwere raises some great questions and provide answers in a post last week called Fungible that every editor and publisher should read. “Because the entire point is that journalism is not being disrupted by better journalism but by things that are hardly recognizable as journalism at all. Stepping up your game is always a good idea, but it won’t save you.”

And Debrouwere lists oportunities for newspapers to up their game.

Meanwhile, people who have been paying attention know that The Atlantic has successfully remade itself into a digital magazine. “Our history is in traditional print media,” said Smith. “What we set out to do was to disrupt ourselves in a sense. We decided that we wanted to be a digital media company participating in the high-growth markets and digital media. We went about the process of thinking through the questions, how do we disrupt our own company if we were challenging digital brands attacking us?”

I am a fan of the Atlantic Wire and read it on my reader every morning. I keep wishing a newspapers would give something like that a shot.

Mostly, though, the journalist in me likes Dave Winer’s River of News idea. “Once you have a river, do something bold and daring. Add the feeds of your favorite bloggers and share the resulting flow with your readers. Let your community compete for readership. And let them feel a stronger bond to you. Then when you learn about that, do some more. (And btw, you’re now competing, effectively with your competitors, Facebook and Twitter. Don’t kid yourselves, these guys are moving in your direction. You have to move in theirs and be independent of them. Or be crushed.)”

Fact is, ask people where they get their news and many will respond Facebook and Twitter.

But here is the opportunity for newspapers: Get Winer to work with you. “I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.”

It would be gutsy to take Dave up on his offer. Gutsy and smart.

Update: Dave’s response, via Twitter. “I am so under-utilized, it’s really a shame! :-(“

Newspapers need more columnists

These days, whenever veteran journalists at the top of their games leave the newspaper business, it’s bad. Out goes the institutional memory, experience and writing/reporting chops that readers have come to trust. Whenever a columnist leaves the paper, it’s doubly bad. Out goes the personality, wit and style that readers have come to love…or hate.

North Carolina newspapers have lost some great ones in the past few years, too. The News & Record’s Lorraine Ahearn returned to school to earn a doctorate. The same month — August 2010 — the News & Observer announced that one of its longtime columnists, Ruth Sheehan, was headed to law school.

Now, Tommy Tomlinson, columnist with the Charlotte Observer, is leaving the paper to write for a sports website. And with his typical grace, he describes what everyone who leaves a job they love feels:

Sometimes, when you’re going down the highway, you can look over and see another road running beside the one you’re on. I’ve spent a lot of time on the highway, and I’ve often wondered about those people on the other road, how the world might look from over there, how our journeys might be different even though the direction is the same.

The thing is, you can’t know unless you take the other road.

I hope the Observer replaces him. Good columnists are expensive and hard to keep in the corral and feisty. And worth every penny. As people are finding fewer and fewer reasons to pick up a newspaper, newspapers should hire more columnists. The news is everywhere; a compelling writer with a strong personality and deep insight isn’t.


Five things to do when looking for a newspaper job

After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s paean to newspapers, a student asked me advice on picking the right newspaper at which to work. I didn’t go Gladwell’s route. I like newspapers and think that they are an excellent place for rookie journalists to get the training and discipline they need.

Here’s a smarter version of what I said.

1. Find out what papers laid off people in the past three years. Then read up on what the chief executives, publishers and editors said about the layoffs. If their message was along the lines of “News coverage won’t be hurt,” cross those papers off your list. The leaders are either out of touch with the news department or they are blowing smoke to their readers. They can’t be trusted.

2. Find out which chief executives got big bonuses, severances and/or retirement packages while their properties had laid off people. That tells you a lot about the character of the leadership. Avoid them. (I would make an exception of the New York Times because, despite its issues, it’s still the best paper in the country.)

3. Check out the website. Is it easy to navigate? Does it seem to be community-based, rather than newspaper-based? Does it have a good mobile app? Does it have more content than what was in the morning paper? Are there community voices? If the paper lags here, then you have to doubt its commitment to the future. While a newspaper company’s main revenue source is the paper itself, digital is the future. The smart papers are preparing for the future and investing profit into exploring and developing its digital future.

4. Does the paper have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest? Is it active and engaging or does it just shovel content? Is there a staff presence that’s easy to find? Is the paper’s leadership there? If the answers are no — or the answers aren’t easy to determine — beware. The paper is either timid about social media, doesn’t understand how it works or isn’t committed to being where people are gathering.

5. Last — not first — look at the printed edition. Are the stories interesting? Are the photos and design well-done? Are they well-edited? Is there a sense of enterprise and risk-taking? Good ideas, good reporting and good editing will give you an excellent sense of what you can learn at the paper.

Not all newspapers are “dreary, depressed places.” The ones that are looking forward and taking care of their people are as lively and interesting as newspapers ever are. (Bear in mind that I was in the business for nearly 40 years — and never did I hear someone say, “Man, morale is so good in the newsroom!” I did hear a lot of people say, “This is one helluva good story.”)

Winning the readers with news and losing them with advertising

Two surveys:

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, we rely on local newspapers for information about our community. Nearly three quarters (72%) of adults are quite attached to following local news and information, and local newspapers are by far the source they rely on for much of the local information they need.

Excellent. I love it.

Here’s the but: According to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Survey, we don’t have a lot of trust in the advertising that supports the news. …While 92% of consumers say they trust word-of-mouth recommendations, less than half trust paid ads in traditional media outlets. The trust in these ads has declined by more than 20% since 2009.

Where does that leave us? Same place we’ve been for a while. Except worse. Even as the public’s confidence in newspapers (and TV) is in the 20% to 30% range, advertisers, by and large, have stayed with them through the past five years of unpleasantness. That’s even though the amount of time people spend with print has plunged. So, if people’s trust in paid ads are now declining? Gulp.

There are possibilities. Alan Mutter recently outlined four. The first step to getting serious about digital publishing is to develop a strategic commitment to building relevant and remunerative products. Because most profit-pinched newspapers lack the time, money and in-house talent to develop such products, it makes sense for the industry to pool its resources to create a Digital Widget Works to build products to compete with the upstarts.

The time to act is now. The contest will only get more intense, with Groupon, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and a host of wannabes feasting on fresh capital faster than you can spell IPO.

Ken Doctor also has a bunch of ideas: What kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities do you have in your company, assets that can be used newly and differently? What kind of job needs to be one by someone who has the budget and has no go-to supplier…yet?

And there is the Nieman Lab.

Here’s the present and the future: Ask the students in my mass communication class where they get their news and they say Facebook, Twitter and “people I know.”

The high cost of good journalism

Good journalism costs money. Good investigative journalism often costs a lot of money. How much?

Today, Tyler Dukes, managing editor of Duke University’s Reporters Lab, tweeted: .@newsobserver editor John Drescher says it’s not unsual for the paper to spend $150,000-$200,000 on a single reporting project.

I love that John has put a price tag on it. The N&O does a number of ground-breaking investigative projects. The paper swept the investigative reporting category in the N.C. Press Association contest this year. Series on faulty water projects, the behavior of the Durham DA, and the UNC football scandal are powerful works of journalism. That kind of watchdog journalism demands accountability of public officials and public money. My sense is that when an N&O reporter knocks on a public official’s door, their heart jumps just a bit.

I wouldn’t second-guess that expenditure on those projects.

But it does cause me to reflect upon the trade off. $150,000 to $200,000 could pay for three or four decently paid reporters. If a paper does, say, three projects a year, we could be talking about the salaries of a dozen additional reporters. When newspapers, including the N&O, are faced with staff cuts year after year, at what point does the cost of day-to-day news coverage confict with the cost of in-depth investigative reporting?

Every editor and every publisher has to make that decision for themselves. (I write that as if it is just now happening. Actually, thoses decisions have been made ever since 2007 when papers started what seems to have become annual downsizing.) When I left the News & Record, our reporting staff was too lean. We couldn’t cover everything that we and our readers wanted us to cover. We missed stories because we just couldn’t get to them. There’s no question we sacrificed project journalism because of the manpower it would take. Our readers noticed.

I’m glad that John and the N&O has stuck a stake in the ground to do the sort of investigative journalism this state needs. I worry — and every citizen in this state should worry — when newspapers have to sacrifice their watchdog role because they don’t have enough reporters. I fear we’re close to that point.

I’ve emailed John a few questions about his estimate. I’ll include his comments when he responds.

Update: Tyler Dukes writes about the same topic at Reporters’ Lab, and he spoke with Drescher about his comment.In fact, John says the paper aims to do four to six projects a year. Depending upon the number the cost of the reports could exceed $1 million.

My response as quoted by Tyler: “If I had that choice when I was still the editor [of the News & Record], I would probably fall on the side of fewer projects and more feet on the ground for daily reporting,” Robinson said in a phone interview Thursday, although he added that such a philosophy is highly dependent on the type of newspaper you want to be.

Here’s the app. Where’s the money?

When I was a newspaper editor pushing to get some traction to develop a mobile app, one of the issues that stymied the business types was, to quote, “What’s the ROI?” Because I was a journalist, it came out as, “It costs money. How are we going to make money?”

I would talk about future customers and going to where the people are. They would respond, quite rightly, by thinking of the present: “Where’s the money?”

Nielsen lines up with them: Taking just the use of paid content on tablets in Q4 2011, Nielsen found that in the U.S., a majority of tablet owners have already paid for downloaded music, books and movies, with 62 percent, 58 percent and 51 percent respectively saying they have already made such purchases. The one area that really fell down in the U.S. was news, where only 19 percent said they had ever paid to read news on their tablets.

Related, Ad Age reports that  Conde Nast is making progress with advertisers on its iPad app. The growing body of overall information on tablet readership is reinforcing some early impressions that are promising for magazines on tablets, according to Conde Nast.

Readers typically swipe through tablet editions from front to back, for example, the same way they work their way through print editions. They browse — taking in ads as they go — instead of jumping directly to specific articles the way web surfers do.

“Consumer behavior with digital editions of magazines is very much like their behavior with print editions of magazines, and very much unlike their behavior with websites,” Mr. McDonald said.

Digital-edition readers are also still younger but more affluent than magazines’ print readers, Conde Nast said, although the disparity has narrowed as tablet ownership has grown and Amazon and Barnes & Noble have introduced devices that are cheaper than the iPad.

Meanwhile, my former paper has a new, free app. I like it.

Where’s the leadership?

I teach a little of Milton’s Areopagitca to my Elon class. (My class is thankful that it is only a little.) I include it because it provides the foundation for a discussion of freedom of speech and press. I like the idea that when truth and falsehood collide, truth wins.

That’s one reason this Q. & A. with Chris Robichaud of the Harvard Kennedy School caught my attention.

How can we live in an age so rich in information, with so many educated people across the world, and still seem to be susceptible to such embarrassing and deep ignorance? You would have hoped at this point that a civil society would agree on the basic facts and could get about disagreeing about the interesting things – what to do about them. That’s where disagreements are supposed to happen.

But no, we don’t even agree on the basic facts….

In this country, and this is just a confession, a lot of us were just stunned at the Birther debate. Not at first – you always expect some absurdity to arise when you have a presidential candidate whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who’s black. That’s going terrify a certain portion of the population.

But after a while, I mean…I think that the number of people who became convinced that he wasn’t a US citizen grew after he was elected President. You start to wonder, “What the hell?” I know that’s just one example, and that may be unfair because it seems so fringe (and yet the numbers suggest it’s not as fringe as we would like). But all the same, it just causes you to scratch your head and go, “What’s going on?

He goes on to talk about the ignorance of the presidential debates where no one is interested in getting to the truth. He suggests that neither the politicians nor the media are doing much to improve the discussion, and I think he’s right. I’d like to say there is an opportunity for the mainstream media here, but I’m not confident they want to grab it.

The question is how much people really want to get to the truth, particularly if it means separating them from their emotion-fueled opinions. If tat is there, the media will follow. But the media certainly will not lead.

Pull that ripcord!

What can Old Print do to survive? To use a trite metaphor (or two) – stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, grow a pair, and change your businesses.

This post from TechCrunch is depressing, but not for the reason you might think. It the same point-by-point guide that digital thinkers have been telling newspaper execs for years. Like, here’s point No. 1:

1. Face reality:

– The audiences of traditional print brands on paper and pixel are aging.

– Digital upstarts are capturing the new audiences, and stealing your least loyal current readers.

It goes on from there: Start thinking like startups; Gut and retool your staff and cost structure; Update your web platforms…. Anyone who has been paying attention for even a few years has heard all of this before. It is stunning that a post like this would be welcomed as something new by the world out there. (It has been tweeted more than 1,000 times.)

What is it about this advice that makes it so easy to ignore? I think I know. It is hard to see the gold at the end of this rainbow. Problem is, it is easy to see the ground that is going to cause a sudden, painful stop to the free fall. So why not pull the parachute and see if it works?

Quit screwing around; to regain trust, it’s time to change

Craig Newmark’s survey on the credibility of various news sources is simply the latest that shows the public doesn’t have much trust in mainstream media. Not much trust in any of the mainstreamers: newspapers, TV, radio or news websites. (Yep, news websites are mainstream now.)

The survey shows that only 22 percent of respondents say that newspapers are “very credible” in reporting on politics. And that’s the top rating. Cable and network news get 21 percent, and talk radio and Internet news sites each register 13 percent.

For years, traditional news organizations have marketed themselves as trustworthy. It’s time to acknowledge that most people aren’t buying it. That bond of trust may be irrevocably broken.

So, how about we try something different? What if mainstream media covered politics differently, focusing less on the horse race and more on the issues? What if television rambled on less about, say, the Catholic Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception insurance and delved deeper into health insurance, period? What if the time spent dissecting who made what gaffe after each GOP debate — and forcing viewers to listen to the candidate’s handler explain what he really meant — was actually spent talking about Romney’s time at Bain, Santorum’s voting record in the Senate or Paul’s record in the House?

What if the reporters actually had the freedom to call BS when candidates or campaigns parsed the truth? (Here’s an attempt.) What if they followed the Daily Show model in covering the hypocrisy of some political candidates and government policies (without the humor, presumably)? What if television actually gave more than a soundbite and didn’t let candidates off the hook? Watch the morning news programs and it’s either he-said, she-said journalism, or the reporter asks a question, the candidate doesn’t answer, and the reporter moves to another question that the candidate doesn’t answer. In the end, the viewer gets little sustenance.

One of the common assumptions is that the public doesn’t like the sausage-making process that hard-nosed reporting is. They think it’s intrusive and rude, and it often is. Good interviewing often makes people uncomfortable because the reporter is trying to pull the truth together and match facts with what’s being said. It does get ugly. But I think the general public wants to see reporters who are independent and boldly seeking to get answers to the questions the public has. (And that isn’t which GOP candidate is leading in the polls today or an embarrassing video of Romney singing “God Bless America.”)

It’s also transparent, and transparency builds trust. (Think it doesn’t? Think of how you feel when a news exec declines to talk about something going on at his shop? Or think about your reaction when you hear a news exec who has announced layoffs say, “it won’t impact our news coverage.”)

Case in point: Jay Rosen and NYU Studio 20 took a look at the questions posed to the GOP candidates at all of the 20 debates and asked if it reflected the “citizens agenda.” (113 questions were asked about campaign strategies and negative ads!) Rosen suggested that last night’s debate viewers pose their own questions on Twitter with the hashtag #unasked. As Jay tweeted afterward, “Number of questions tonight about science: zero. Technology: zero. Climate change: zero. Small business: zero.”

There is a reason that the trust bond is broken between the public and the news media. It’s us.