Thursday, May 28, 2009

Istory and Yoo

My paper on Wednesday ran as its main headline "A Historic Nomination" about Justice-designate Sotomayor. I expected calls alleging the usual supposed left-wing bias and carrying water for minorities. Instead, we got nailed by people upset that we did not say "An Historic Nomination."

To those who left e-mail addresses or phone numbers, I and others responded that our stylebook, and the AP stylebook, said that "historic" and "historical" are to be preceded by "a." I noted that we would precede "honorary" with "an" and that it depended on whether the "h" was aspirated when you pronounced the word by itself, and quoted Bill Walsh's book "Lapsing Into a Comma" as noting that this apparently comes from a British pronunciation.

Most people were mollified, and, as often is the case, simply grateful that someone from The Newspaper had actually called them back. One woman was unimpressed and said, essentially, so I have to adapt myself to your being wrong. All of those I talked to had, like me, gone to Catholic school in the 1950s. So, once again, newspaper readership seems to be toppling into the grave; on the other hand, perhaps it was just that the high-water mark of teaching "an historic" as the only proper phrase was in Catholic schools in the 1950s, in an era when schools taught rules, Catholic schools taught rules that had divine oversight, and the language was seen as under attack from phrases such as "like a cigarette should" -- in other words, the era when the gatekeepers of cultures were being totally undermined by a revolutionary change agent, television.

(Discussion question: If the Web were totally regulated by a government agency as television was before cable, would the head of the Internet Communications Commission be describing online content today as a "vast wasteland" and would such a quote be eagerly picked up by traditional media? Further, is the Web a vast wasteland today in the same proportions as television may have been in the early 1960s? 25 points. Keep your answer under 400 words.)

OK, cranky old folks. Yet the reaction to my paper's employment of John Yoo as a columnist seems not to be confined to retired English teachers.

John Yoo could certainly publish his views on his own Web site. He could be linked to any number of conservative news-and-politics sites. The issue is not that the views of Yoo could be suppressed.

The link between "A historic" and John Yoo is that even in its damaged state, people still have certain expectations of a newspaper -- expectations that they do not have for other media. The newspaper is supposed to reflect and stand for what is right, whether it be linguistically correct or morally correct. The newspaper is supposed to seek the truth and not be complicit in coverups, lies, and the general human search for entropy. The newspaper is supposed to be one of the institutions that hold the community to a higher standard.

So far, we have not discovered a media replacement for that role, which is largely based upon print's combination of near-universal access to a product with a high cost of entry for producing similar products, which makes it both ubiquitous and singular.

My son has been challenging me recently about my mention of community institutions. When you look at the changes in society, the 1950s vs. now; the more roles, options, choices people have; the continuing rise of social justice; the limits that were placed on people in an era when everyone had to read the World-Herald and shop at Brandeis or Kilpatrick's to see an informed and representative choice of what was available, in news or merchandise -- exactly how did these slow-moving, bureaucratic, closed-minded, often racist and sexist institutions (including mainstream churches, and schools in the era of rote learning) make things better than they are now? It's a good question, and part of the answer has to be -- they didn't.

But community institutions such as newspapers -- which are in some ways the last community institutions -- still stand for the community's desire to be better than it is. When the Penn Center development was proposed for Philadelphia, where was it unveiled to the community? Gimbel Bros. In that era, a department store was part of what was telling a community, you can reach higher than you are reaching today. And it was not just an store saying this; it was something that was Bigger Than You Are. The answer to "what's bad about the loss of institutions" is that it loses the balance in which some things are bigger than the individual. (At the same time, 50 years ago the balance was out of whack as well, in institutions' favor.) A newspaper still fills that role. If it did not, we would publish John Yoo's column and no one would care.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 30

Wood, Morrell & Co. was the "company store" for the steelworks in Johnstown, Pa. The building basically survived the great flood, which Daniel Morrell had had intimations of happening. If you've never read David McCullough's "The Johnstown Flood," it's entertaining and blessedly short, and also goes into great detail about a department store owner named Quinn.

After the flood, the store was gradually separated from its company-store relationship and established as a publicly held company in 1903. But earlier, its name had been changed to Penn Traffic Co. for reasons that, as near as I can tell, have never been explained. I once spent time in the Johnstown library going through newspapers for the weeks before and after the name change, hoping that an ad or a news story would explain the name "Penn Traffic." None did. One day it was Wood, Morrell & Co.; the next, it was Penn Traffic, and that was that. It may have been the oddest name of any traditional U.S. department store, although Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution in Salt Lake City and the City of Paris Dry Goods Co. in San Francisco would give it a run for its money.

Penn Traffic never moved from its company-store location, though, on Washington Street a few blocks from Johnstown's Main Street. In this it also was singular; Kline's, Thomas' and Nathan's were on Main, Glosser's a short distance away. The isolation of the store is clear from the photo above. Not many cities had outlier department stores, ones that clearly were downtown but just as clearly were not and had never been on a main shopping street; Alms & Doepke in Cincinnati comes most prominently to mind, and Jordan Marsh's main Miami store. (Another category was big department stores that were based in neighborhoods, such as Schuster's in Milwaukee and Sattler's in Buffalo.)

Johnstown recovered from the flood but never really went anywhere after that; Penn Traffic had the same sort of career until it went into the grocery business, where it had great success. It eventually sold its department stores to Hess's, but kept its headquarters in the old downtown store until moving to Syracuse. A 1994 biography of the company is here.

Penn Traffic early went into branches outside the city, its earliest ones being in DuBois and Indiana, Pa. If memory serves, the Bon-Ton store in State College was opened as a Penn Traffic.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Copy Editing: Who Are We, Anyway

With John McIntyre's blog moving to a new location, I did some cleanup of the copy editing links part of the blogroll. (I had outdated links to Andy Bechtel and Kathy Schenck as well.) And I added a link to another great copy editor's blog, that of Craig Lancaster at the Billings Gazette. I didn't link them in this post, because they're over in the blogroll.

Craig, in a post, raised the question: What exactly should we be doing?

Part of the problem copy editors face is that their jobs vary from paper to paper. Do they lay out some/all pages? Are they the "wire editors"? Are they expected to smooth out stories, or simply punctuate them correctly, or are they the first editor of record? Are they fact-checkers, or is that the job of the reporter or assigning editor? Do they proof pages? Do they manage the Web site?

It strikes me that one of the problems copy editors have is that at too many papers, their jobs consist of: Whatever no one else wants to do.

The majority of copy editors I have known combine a high level of skill, a perfectionistic streak, an incredible work ethic, and a combination of shyness and a sense that "if I can just keep my head down, maybe they won't give me even more to do." But as surveys have shown, such as the one that led to the founding of ACES more than a decade ago, copy editors are often the most alienated people in the newsroom -- not the most negative, not the most critical, but the ones most detached from what is going on elsewhere. In part that is their job -- to look at things with a fresh eye. In part that is the hours at a morning paper, which separate them from most of the reporters and top editors.

But in part it's because of the resentment many copy editors feel that things simply get dumped on them while others' roles (as they see it, and in many cases inaccurately) barely change -- that for all the nice-sounding words editors throw out about "last line of defense," many top editors see copy editors as somehow less than full journalists. (Real journalists, dad-gum it, they come up with story ideas and interview someone!) This it seems to me is why photographers can also get the short end of the stick, even though photos work wonderfully on the Web. Editors want to talk about cool stories that could be done, not about operational problems, and photographers, with their masses of assignments and cameras and interfaces, always have operational problems.
And some copy editors also feel that the less other editors know about what they do, the better -- a view held by some reporters as well, but which comes for the copy desk out of a latent fear that if asked, the top editor really would say, "No, I don't want you to change a word of any reporter's copy unless it's simply wrong, because I think what they write is perfect (or I just don't want them yelling at me)." Copy editors sometimes feel that they are saving the paper from itself in spite of itself, and take a certain pride in it.

So here is my challenge to copy editors, which I am going to take up myself (after the Indy 500, of course -- we all have our priorities). Go to the top editor in your newsroom and say: I'd like to talk to you about what you see copy editors' role as. Don't start off talking about staffing levels and page throughputs and all the "production" stuff we do. Most top editors are bored stiff by "production." So talk to them about what they see the job of a copy editor as a journalist. And ask them to put their thoughts down on paper.

Is the job of a copy editor to:

1. Edit grammar and spelling?
2. Fact-check stories? And check which facts? All? Some?
3. Trim stories to fit? (Or design the page to fit the stories?)
4. Make the writing of stories smoother (this is poorly phrased, you can do better)?
5. Work for changes to the story from the view of a typical reader?
6. Write headlines? (This is being increasingly put on the assigning editors or reporters.)
7. Write captions, or merely copy and edit caption information from wire and local photographers?
8. Lay out pages, using one's own news judgment? Or, lay out pages, using the news judgment of another person?
9. Proof some/all pages?
10. Update stories from watching for new information, or update stories as instructed, or edit updated stories, or whatever...
11. Pull and edit sports agate? Post lottery winners?
12. Post stories online?
13. Edit blogs?
14. Develop links?
15. Edit audio and video?

And on and on. Whatever you can think of, and also, "For everything in the paper/Web site/whatever," or just part of it. Don't assume that what you are doing now is what the editor wants or will say the job should be. It's just what you're doing now. Get the editor to say, yes, this is the job of a copy editor.

Because chances are, more than half of America's newspaper editors have never actually said, What is the job of a copy editor? They just have copy editors who do some job that they can say "last line of defense" about. They can tell you exactly what the job of a city hall reporter is, though. (The other less-than-half came up through the copy desk. But they sometimes forget, and sometimes feel they must prove to reporters that they are not copy editors at heart.)

And then, at the end, ask something like this:

Given what you have just defined as the role of a copy editor, how many slugs/stories/pages/columns/online tasks -- whatever makes sense in your location -- do you the editor think a copy editor should be able to handle in a day's/night's shift? Don't argue the point. Don't provide your own recommendations. Don't parse the thing into 15 subsets. Make it simple. You can make some nod that "Given that stories range from major investigations to police briefs, from wire copy to freelance book reviews," whatever. But make it one number, two if you have to because it can be hard to make audio and video equivalent to other work.

Half of the editors at this point will probably say, "Um, I don't want to say that." Because they will know what you are up to. They will want to say, "As many as there are." Make it clear you are not going to beat up on them. You just want to know what their expectation is. If they want to say "80 slugs," they say 80, and you don't start screaming, "Dammit, Jim, I'm an editor, not a bricklayer." If you're doing 80, then you're doing what the editor wants. If the editor says, "I don't want my reporters' prose ever touched," then you know to stop doing it. You may need to make a note to yourself to find another job once there again are other jobs to find.

But whatever, quietly and nonconfrontationally, then, a week later or so, give the editor the actual number of slugs/stories/whatever a copy editor is now handling. EVEN IF IT'S LOWER THAN WHAT THE EDITOR THINKS SHOULD BE DONE. We have to be honest. And let the editor say, hmm, I guess my figure was off, or, hmm, you guys can do more than I thought, or whatever. This is not an argument. (If the editor says, I don't think you should be doing sports agate, and you are doing sports agate, of course, point this out. The editor may have no idea how sports agate is being done.)

This will not save copy editors from being laid off or reassigned. It doesn't discuss "quality," which we copy editors love to discuss but which unfortunately is not quantifiable. It may put copy editors in the same category as reporters. Any top newsroom editor knows what beats the newspaper is covering vs. what beats it wants to cover, and bases its staffing assignments on that compromise. This may gives you the ability to say, well, then, what do you, the editor, want us to give up, the same way you give up covering X county courts? (And then, if the editor says, "I don't want you to proof pages," then you have to stop proofing pages.) But it may make the editor also take full responsibility for what happens on or to the copy desk, instead of saying, "Well, what can I do? I have to have feet on the street." It's a lot easier for the editor to say that if he or she really has no idea what the copy desk does or how it is done.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Copy Editing: Aux Armes

Steve Yelvington, an acknowledged guru of online news, steps forward to defend Tribune Co. from Charles Apple's attack after the layoff of copy and design editors. (And I feel the need to enter the lists. Meanwhile, 99.99 percent of readers of Tribune Co. papers have no idea who Steve Yelvington, Charles Apple or TTPB are, and I only include that 0.01 percent because some staffers may be aware of them. Of these little fights do we think journalism trends are made. Readers could give a flying fig.)

Yelvington spends much of his time arguing against what he terms "wire editors," and noting that replicating their function at 1,000 different newspaper sites is not going to help save the news industry. There is little argument with this. But Yelvington -- as with many before him -- seems prone to confuse the job of "copy editor" with that of "wire editor."

My career suffered from this once before. At The Flint Journal we had a period where we had Metro copy editors, of whom I was one. Then editors changed amid hard times that have never left Flint, and an editor arrived who saw "copy editors" as the people who put together wire pages. Local pages in his view were done by the assistant metro editors, who also assigned the reporters. No further steps needed, to the reader's dismay.

When I worked briefly on Knight Ridder's project to provide some centralized wire pages to its smaller papers, it was clear that some with my former employer also saw the role of copy editors as being to cull the wire and produce A-section pages. Tribune's effort seems to be to do away with two things that hindered the KR project -- the lack of common type fonts and ad stacks -- by ordering all its papers to have common fonts and ad stacks. It's a bad move, I think, for reasons stated here earlier, but they did at least realize that they had to address the question head-on.

This is an old and outmoded definition of copy editors, one I would not bother to knock down except for Tribune's actions and Yelvington's further discussion about features editors, whom he also sees as passe. To him, a features editor appears to be someone who is responsible for filling the back of the book sections with largely syndicated content -- AP, or a garden column from NEA, or whatever. As he notes, the Internet offers far more depth on any subject than a newspaper could ever offer.

But features editors I know are not people scanning for the equivalent of Copley News Service fillers and negotiating with UFS salespeople over bridge columns. They are assigning local writers, increasingly freelance ones, to do local stories about -- well, gardening, or food, or entertainment. Yelvington says he worked as a copy editor -- but it seems to have been a long time ago.

Finally, Yelvington acknowledges why copy editors have been needed, but says that in an era of fewer copy editors, reporters who can't write well are going to be as outmoded as wire editors. This is the Jack Shafer fallacy -- that reporting staffs of the future are going to be composed of flawless wordsmiths whose writing will tumble into pre-formatted spaces in print or online, with little benefit of human intervention. Yelvington seems to acknowledge a disconnect here, but closes with: Well, it just has to happen. Because the Link Economy says it does. Sorry. Don't really know how.

Being a wire editor (or a reporter or copy editor) is a job. It has skills that can be taught. But talent cannot be taught. Facility with the language, the sixth sense to know which "facts" to check, expression in a few words that can be easily understood by readers -- again, there are skills, but these are talents, not jobs. Some reporters are terrific writers. Some, OK. Some are so-so or worse. Many of them are wonderful at developing news leads, getting sources to talk, knowing the mood of the moment, but not good at stringing a sentence together.

The newsroom of the future will have many different jobs than it has now. It will need to sharpen different skills. The talent of the people who come to work will be as varied as before. The shortcomings presented by the shortfalls of multiple talents and skills sets will always need to be addressed. The God of Newspapers didn't make copy editors to lay out 236-2s; that's just what he employed them to do. He made copy editors to make copy better, approachable, intelligible, and well presented. They are journalists, not mechanics. Yelvington's critique belongs to a green-eyeshade world of hot type, not to the copy desks of today.

And what do those copy editors do? As Lisa McLendon notes on the ACES Web site:

"We know journalism is changing, and we're changing with it. We're learning multimedia, social media, SEO, XTML. We know that today, being current with technology isn't enough -- so we're moving forward with it. ACES is at the forefront of training copy editors to integrate traditional duties with new technologies.

"But the means of delivery is one issue; quality is another. To stand out from the oceans of poorly written, error-riddled chatter, rumor and commentary on the Internet, news organizations must maintain their quality standards if they want to maintain their reputations as credible sources. Traditionally the fact-checking, question-raising, prose-clarifying and typo-fixing was done by the copy editors. Now, it is still done by the copy editors."

So, copy editors, here's the thing: You need to talk to your top editor and say that he or she needs to get on board that copy editing is an editing job and not a "production" or "manufacturing" job. And that editor needs to talk to someone on the business side, where they break down tasks into numbers so they can compare with other papers.

If your editor says he or she thinks it is a "mechanical" job, well, then you know.

Copy editors traditionally are not good at politicking, and we were told often how we would always have jobs, and we believed it. Now, we have to justify ourselves. We can do this, but it requires forcing the issue.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 29

Bowman's Department Store, at 314 Market St., was one of Harrisburg's two downtown department stores. It and Pomeroy's, the larger store, were located nearly adjacent to each other on Market Street, up which commerce had moved when it outgrew all being on Market Square on Second Street. You can't see it in this photo, but there is a large "B" on the front of the building.

Pomeroy's building is gone (it was where the new tall building is at the top of the photo), as is the main Pomeroy store in Reading, but the Bowman building still is there. There originally were Bowman brothers. One, Samuel, split off and kept the branch store in Carlisle, which also was known as Bowman's but for most of its career was run by Albert Watson, who was not a Bowman but bought the store and kept the name. John Bowman ended up with the Harrisburg store, which went down through his family -- sons William and Harry (yes, perhaps the Bowmans inspired Prince Charles), and descendants Russell Charles and John Delaney.

Bowman's from the 1950s opened suburban stores, such as one at the east end of Harrisburg near the end of Market Street, as well as expanding to other cities. In the mid-1950s it purchased Bittner's Department Store in Sunbury, Pa., and created a division called Bowman's Sunbury Inc., which not only ran a small department store in Danville, Pa., but also had a suburban branch in Sunbury -- impressive in a town of about 15,000 people. The branch bore the wonderful 1950s name "Bowman's Fashionalia." In the late 1960s, the chain picked up the S.S. Weiss Inc. store in Pottsville as well. But like most independent department stores, it became noncompetitive when the enclosed malls opened -- Harrisburg became a target of the large Philadelphia stores, such as Wanamakers and Gimbels, and while the Allied Stores-owned Pomeroy's could soldier on, the writing was on the wall for Bowman's.

In some ways, stores such as Bowman's, Wasson's in Indianapolis, and the Interstate chain of myriad Grand Leaders and Stillman's paid the price for being too quick with suburban stores -- they opened branches long before their rivals, in an effort to compete with discount stores in a car-oriented America, but then were already committed to locations and strategy before it became apparent that enclosed regional megamalls were the shopping location of choice in the 1970s and 1980s. In Indianapolis, Wasson's Eastgate-Eagledale-Meadows branch system looked OK even with there not being a Wasson's store at upscale Glendale, but when Lafayette Square, the city's first enclosed mall, opened a mile from Eagledale, it was over. (Newspapers, of course, were, despite the rap, early and enthusiastic in their attempts to make use of the Internet -- but their portal-based strategy did not adapt well to links and search. You can get to the party too early.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reviewing an AdAge

I picked up the May 4 issue of Advertising Age because of its story on the death of Portfolio magazine. AdAge, like NewsTech (formerly Newspapers & Technology), is always a blessed antidote to read, because its concern is things involving the exchange of money and not the Future of Journalism. Therefore, while it does its share of endless theorizing, it is more of a voice that sees things as they are and says why, less of seeing things that are not and saying why not. You need both, but lord, do we have a lot of the second these days.

The story on Portfolio was blessedly free of any references to "no new print product will ever be developed," "no one will ever read print again," "how stupid Newhouse was to invest in print," etc. AdAge's take: Took too long to roll out, content was at variance with the times. But magazines are not the main interest of TTPB. Pay attention to these stories:

"Newspapers Build Digital Portfolios": While everyone is talking about print editions sucking air, newspaper companies are finally putting their money into digital companies and applications that are actually digital companies and applications, instead of simply "newspapers on the Web," which, as we now know, don't work very well. The story reminds us that "Myth: newspapers stuck their heads in the sand and just hoped the internet would go away. Reality: Newspapers took some of the biggest, earliest swings on the web, most turned out to be misses, and then got steamrolled by Google just like everyone else." Of classified, it notes: "The newspaper business is crippled -- along with broadcast TV and radio -- and frankly, doesn't have the firepower to make huge digital investments beyond attempting to keep what revenue it has left from walking out the door. Part of that is attempting to keep at least some classified revenue that left for the web. Ironically, this is where newspapers have had some digital success." What this has to do with journalism, of course, is yet to be seen -- but if it were to put newspaper companies on a more solid and widespread financial footing -- but of course, it might lead them to abandon journalism altogether. At any rate, this is a story you won't read on most discussions about the Future of Newspapers.

I can't find this one online, but its headline is "How Personality Can Predict Media Usage," culled from a study by a company called Mindset Media. This could all be hooey, but the company alleges that it knows what type of people read newspapers: Optimists, dynamic people, and leaders. "Essentially what you're seeing here is, what TV doesn't have, newspapers do," said Mindset's John Durant. The least-likely to read newspapers: "Bravado fives," who "can be stubborn and show a willingness to be sharp-tongued." Take this study on its own terms: Would that mean bloggers are the least likely to read newspapers? (Heck, would it mean journalists are among the least likely to read newspapers? This could shed new light on our self-loathing articles about the newspaper business.)

For those who point out an attribute of digital -- its ability to produce reams of data -- columnist Jonathan Salem Baskin writes, "Digital stuff is alluring and frightening, and we've been dared to embrace it by a Greek Chorus of enablers who incessantly yell, 'Do it faster and more often, or you'll be out of a job.' Lots of the successes promoted as cases to emulate are nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies for selling digital services." The point: Never forget that everyone has a dog in the hunt.

Finally, read this column by Simon Dumenco and you may never see the "triumph of social media" in the same light again. As he notes: Twitter "still lacks a revenue model and just burns through more venture capital every time a new user signs up." Other nuggets: "Susan Boyle has been on what I called the "Google Dole" -- her fame fueled in a nonsensically nonprofit manner by Google's YouTube unit, which hemorrhages cash serving up too much video with nowhere near enough advertising support." And: "Getting million of new users in the Third World, it turns out, really sucks, because Facebook will never really be able to meaningfully monetize those eyeballs. It's tons of cash out (bandwidth, data storage, personnel) with little hope of cash in."

He builds himself to a crescendo here: "Weirdly, some of the management at these companies don't even seem to be trying that hard to make money -- a consequence, perhaps, of still being awash in millions of dollars of VC money. ... You've got to admit that at some level the boys at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are actively choosing to redistribute the wealth. They're taking money from venture capitalists and deploying it so that millions of people far beyond Silicon Valley can get something for nothing. Entertainment, information, and self-marketing opportunities, mostly. And, oh yeah, a sense of 'connectedness' -- cyber companionship -- which makes this particular era of VC-wealth distribution all the more ... touching. (Let's all be friends -- on someone else's dime! Let's all be perpetually jacked into the hyper-insta-now global hivemind of human consciousness -- for free!)" Gee, sounds like "let's give everyone our news -- free!" Let's put "Antitrust" into the DVD one more time.

His point: "The digital Robin Hoods can't keep redistributing the wealth forever, because eventually the wealth runs out. Investors get sick of propping up private ventures that don't have viable business models."

To which this comment is interesting: "Many start-ups today are really non-profits that just have a different legal structure. I am not a tax expert, but given the tax bracket many VC's belong to, there may be better tax advantages to a failed investment than a charitable contribution. Fewer Non-profit start-ups fail than profit based start-ups because they are typically fueled by leaders passionate for their cause who can typically find donors equally interested in supporting the cause. Shaping culture can be terribly satisfying, more so than any profit." I suspect fewer non-profit start-ups fail primarily because they do not have to produce a profit. And the passionate leaders still need a paycheck. But when we're talking about the business of newspapers in the digital age, perhaps we are talking about two different universes more than we think. The comments go back and forth between "Monetize!" and "Social good!" Increasingly I think that the argument over "print" has just been a metaphor.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

True Grift

We've been here before, of course. Take out your Emery, Ault and Agee mass-com history book. The elite newspapers from the Revolutionary era, aimed at the ship owners and commercial interests, were supplanted by the Penny Press. The era of yellow journalism. The tabloid era and the picture of Ruth Snyder being executed. For many people, USA Today was just another part of that continuing battle between "Should the press attract readers however it can" vs. "Should the press serve the best interests of society," which always is presented as, if you do A, once, ever, you aren't doing B.

But, of course, you can't ignore life, and so newspapers have always done A while pretending that they are doing it to serve the best interests of society. Had O.J. Simpson taken his famous drive in the era before 24-hour cable news, perhaps multiple-edition papers would have covered it with extras and 9-stars (Simpson Car Speeds On; Police Flummoxed by Endless Drive). As it was, we in print were able to simply follow up with a news story and an analysis, if necessary ("Simpson Drive a Symbol of Americans' Eternal Flight From History"). We could be high-minded because TV was lowbrow, and we still had endless pages of Sunday help wanted even though everyone in the country was watching the white van on CNN. Man, was life good.

Probably my paper, which still considers itself a traditional gatekeeper, would have ignored the story of the "hipster grifter" except that she managed to get herself arrested in Philadelphia. Our story does a fine job of explaining to anyone who has never heard of Kari Farrell why she is more than a News in Brief item. And to do so, of course, it needs to put itself into the world of New Media, where, despite its online presence, it really still feels uncomfortable:

"To her followers, Ferrell, with her large tattoo of a phoenix on her chest and her presence at concerts and clubs around Brooklyn, fits the mold of urban hipster.

"Dozens of media and pop-culture blogs began tracking her movements and collecting stories from alleged victims about a month ago. An April 15 feature about Ferrell in the New York Observer was the first to use the nickname 'hipster grifter.'

"Her appeal to readers, said Gawker blogger Hamilton Nolan, was 'just the outrageousness of the stuff she had done.'"

That's right: No higher purpose, no effect upon social justice, no meaning other than itself. (The online newspaper the Post Chronicle had a staff-written story May 3 noting: "Like me, you probably never heard about the Hipster Grifter until today when someone sent me a link to four naked photos of a tattooed Asian girl." The Post Chronicle says its "news staff is compelled to provide up-to-the minute news that is accurate and unbiased, and present clear-cut facts and data you can trust." So, yes, it is a link to four naked photos of a tattooed Asian girl. And, yes, the word in our story about the tattoo being on her "chest" is not bowdlerizing; the tattoo is above her breasts. So, yes, I checked it out. Sue me.)

Here is the New York Observer's story on her arrest; OK, it's been a continuing thing so it doesn't need an introduction, but a phrasing such as this would never appear in a mainstream newspaper, or would it:

"We admit that the notion of Ms. Ferrell eluding capture for months, even years, befriending twentysomethings in tattooed enclaves across the country while she insisted that she had been framed (or at least, was sorry) was alluring."

Sort of a meta-reference, in other words; we're covering this story because it seems like it could be a cool story, not because it means anything. It's the Internet, space and time are endless, media outlets are endless, we don't have to justify what we do by appeals to a higher purpose. It is what it is. Newspapers have always covered things because they seem like cool stories, of course, but then someone yells "You're just doing this to sell newspapers" and we scurry back to Point B for cover.

And "outrageousness" appears to include this moment of citizen video journalism at Gawker, in which Kari -- or someone who is said to be Kari, or someone who looks like Kari, but let's assume it is Kari -- says to some guy, "Do you wanna go spelunking in my cavernous vagina?" He, of course, says, why, sure! Perhaps he reads the Post Chronicle and has already virtually explored the rest. It's all just there. But think of the discussions in your newsroom! Maybe they had those at Gawker. Or maybe Gawker just said, cavernous vagina = Web hits. Which is not that different from, woman in electric chair = street sales.

And what does it all mean? We're already there, dealt with that and past it. As Gavin McInnes, described as the founder of Vice, put it (yes, I have no idea what Vice is):

"I realize hindsight is 20/20 but how awesome would it be if you knew a chick was a hipster grifter but didn't let on and dated her anyways? She'd fake cry during intercourse and tell you she wants to have your babies and you'd be all, 'I know Kari. I've never loved anyone this much.' How intensely dark and fucking weird would that be!?

"You'd have to constantly avoid situations where you give her cash and you'd have to sleep with your credit cards up your ass but, as we've learned from seducing strippers, the more dough you put out the more you're seen as a dolt. She'd actually appreciate the challenge. Oh what a heavy thrill it would be watching her out of the corner of your eye, trying to predict her next hustle. Anyone with a junkie roommate knows how challenging this can be."

God, mainstream newspapers would have to spend weeks determining what percentage of the metropolitan area had lived with, or were, junkie roommates, to determine if this was a trend story. (Do we do it as a pie chart or a fever chart?) After that in Gawker, an unnamed editor ponders the chance of her getting a book deal and finds it lacking (though noting that a similar story hoodwinked the New York Times into doing a Style piece about What It All Means). But the Observer reporter is asked what it all means, and being a reporter for a publication that existed before the Internet, she gives it her best J-school try:

"Since the story ran I've heard tales of other grifters people have had the unfortunate experience of coming into contact with. They're certainly an intriguing group of people, but you just feel like at some point it starts just being sad more than anything else—the grifters themselves seem to have some serious mental health issues and the people they target are so emotionally and often financially drained from the experience. My (armchair) analysis is that it's partly the need to feel loved and taken care of (see Kari's constant hospitalizations under questionable circumstances) but taken to an unhealthy level. Connected to that is wanting to have power over people (Kari's suicide attempts and 'pregnancy' scares, tellingly, seemed to come when it seemed like a guy was about to leave her, or when he was on tour with his band—she would make it so that he 'couldn't' leave her). I think people with these kinds of issues are also deeply, deeply lonely; in one of my follow-ups to the original story I told about how she made up intricate lies to get someone to go to a concert with her. Many of her victims also said that she always seemed to have something to offer people, and I would bet that she did that because she was nervous about being alone. But I think there's also the thrill of getting away with it all; knowing they have the power to manipulate people to such a degree must give grifters a kind of high. Kari knows she comes off as friendly and personable, which is why she's able to manipulate people so skillfully."

Damn, there we go trying to make it all mean something again. Watch in your local daily in a couple of weeks for a Sunday story on "Hipster grifters called problem for society," followed by "Mental health agency seeks funding to treat hipster grifters" and "Mayor announces grifter initiative." The New York Observer reporter is leaning in that direction and if she worked for the Times would probably go there. But in the meantime there are still those photos of her tattoo.

Again, it's not that newspapers are immune from this stuff. But this is what a world of instant communication without gatekeepers really means. The gatekeepers' job really wasn't to be censors (though they did that) or class advocates (though they did that). It was to say, this is meaningful and this is not. This serves the best interests of society. Well, goodbye to all that. We're told that in communications, it's good that we want what we want when we want it how we want it, and media companies should answer that need. In cities, what most people appear to want is a six-lane freeway from their office parking lot to a mile from their home, whereupon they exit onto a bucolic, never-crowded country lane bringing them to a subdivision that only they know about, because if other people know about it, criminals from the city know about it. Oh, and did we mention free parking and no tolls? Didn't demanding what we want when we want it how we want it help bring about the Great Recession? Oh, but that's so old media of me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What He Said

Robert Picard, the most sane man in the universe of journalistic whatiffiness.

"Communicating regularly is hard work. It takes skill; it takes a voice; it takes having something to say; it takes time. Making money from it is even harder....

"Although large numbers of people are trying the new technologies, they are reacting to them in different ways. Some find them highly useful and satisfying; some find them worthless and disappointing; some find them a worthy pastime; others find them a waste of time. What this means is that—like all technologies—they are more important to some people than to others. Consequently, managers need to be realistic in assessing their potential, the extent to which they are being used by the public, and the extent to which they provide opportunities that media companies should pursue.

"Because those promoting the technologies are self interested, uptake figures are easy to come by. Finding out who has tried the technologies, but decided they were undesirable is harder. However, research is showing some interesting results in that regard. We now know that 60 percent of the people who try Twitter stop using it within a month, that only about 5% of blogs are regularly updated, that more than 200 million blogs have been abandoned, and that about 37 million web domain names are deleted every year....

"From the business standpoint one has to be realistic when evaluating the opportunities presented. Media executives need to ask hard questions: Do all media companies need to provide content across every available platform regardless of the cost and effort? Are all types of news and information appropriately carried on all platforms? In what ways is branding and marketing for the company actually served by these engagements? How are these monetized? What are the returns on the investments? What are the risks of not engaging these technologies?"

Boldface mine. And while you're on his blog, read on to the subsequent item on executive bonuses, which, since it mentions my newspaper, I won't comment on except to quote this:

"Most newspapers, however, are surviving the downturn and will be serving their communities for many years."

I remember reading about the late Berkeley Gazette in California. Ingersoll came into its management in the 1980s and was appalled, and it took a lot to shock Ingersoll. I remember a reference to it this way: They went to the circulation manager's desk and opened the drawer and found it filled with start-delivery requests that had never been fulfilled. People wanted to subscribe to the paper, but that would have meant more work for him. So he just ignored them. This was consistent with its overall management. Ingersoll tried to salvage the paper, but it was too far gone.

The next time someone says "a newspaper shouldn't be run like a business" -- no, it should. To quote a former managing editor about my paper's business operations under its previous ownership: First-rate newspaper, third-rate company. (And now, of course, the Zellots are down to fifth-rate.) Honestly, journalists should demand to work for good business people. But that would require our paying attention to things we would rather ignore.

Monday, May 4, 2009

ACES Numbers and a Few Words from Jack Welch

Got back late last night and am having to re-enter the stream of life -- being 56, of course, I am genetically unable to multitask -- or is it simply not particularly interested in doing so? The American Copy Editors Society convention final total was 259 registrations. In Denver last year it was just over 300; I don't recall the exact figure from Denver, but using what I think it was, that means ACES 2009 -- lousy economy, horrible time for newspapers, etc. , and in a comparable location with no other major cities nearby -- had 85 percent of last year's attendance.

And it's certainly loyal, motivated, concerned workers such as these, who are trying to not only better their current skills but learn new ones for SEO, audio, video, that the industry needs less of, because all they really are is "mechanical" workers. Can someone who does newsroom job analyses and provides these figures on "how many" people a newsroom should have proportionately in each category find out what copy editors really do and reassign them to the "working journalist" category?

Anyhow, got to run, but I did want to draw attention to comments by Jack Welch on Friday in my paper. He did put another stake into the Boston Globe, but the main thing is his comments on local TV news: "'They're really hurting. Local advertising has gone away.' Generally, local TV is 'in worse shape than newspapers,'" Welch said.

Well, you won't see that on the 10 o'clock news, because TV news does not operate under the belief that public self-flagellation proves your objectivity. And TV can be dying but still keep the ratings up and doesn't have an ABC Fas-Fax to fixate on. (Note to newspaper business: Just stop reporting the damn thing. Yes, some online critics will accuse you of being self-serving. Who cares? How many people are going to go out of their way, even online, to read a story about the ABC Fas-Fax? Don't lie; but newspapers never have reported everything they know.)

But maybe some newspapers would like to call TV stations and ask their general managers to discuss the revenue picture, or call some news directors and ask them about staffing levels, number of stories covered, whether their annual conferences are disrupted, etc.? About whether they are merging back-office work? About how successful their Web presences have been both in terms of views and economics? TV is still the most-trusted source of news for most Americans. Partly that is because TV just tells its viewers, "Trust us." It doesn't run stories saying, "We're going down and so you should trust us less."