Friday, September 24, 2010

Only Connect

New York University professor and news-future pundit Jay Rosen, as noted before, once said of something I had posted, in essence: WTF? You got it all wrong. And I had indeed gotten a good bit of it wrong. I always associated Jay with the early days of civic journalism, which seemed like sort of a Goo-Goo exercise, to bring people together in a theoretical agora and have them high-mindedly discuss civic problems and work toward agendas – the sort of poli-sci charette that the high minded, be they Barack Obama, Michael Dukakis, Adrian Fenty, think John Q. Citizen really wants.

So I would not have guessed that, when asked in an Economist interview to name news sources he believes are doing it right, he would have listed:

“'Advertising Age. Gawker. Wired. Voice of San Diego. The New Yorker. The Economist. (Disclosure: You're The Economist!) Rachel Maddow. Frontline. The New York Times. West Seattle Blog. Texas Tribune (Disclosure: I'm an advisor there). 'To the Point' with Warren Olney. The Atlantic. 'This American Life.' The Guardian. Jon Stewart.'”

Yeah, it's the liberal media. But the way in which Jon Stewart, Ira Glass, Rachel Maddow, etc. present news is not the classic, dispassionate, objective-view-of-the-world manner that in my mind, a typical Good Government type would crave.

Jay goes on:

“I think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which a serious journalist is engaged. … The American press does not know what to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and ‘report both sides’ reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there are such limits. But with this denial they've violated the code of the truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?. ... When journalists get attacked from the left and the right, they take it as confirmation that they're doing something right, when they could be doing everything wrong.”

Which gets back to what has become a thesis of “TTPT” – that newspapers did not fall from favor because they are printed, but because they became boring to their readers – which, then added to the fact that print is relatively boring compared with online, became a death sentence. A point of civic journalism was that journalists had become detached from the communities they covered; it was an effort to reconnect journalists with the public, and less with Reliable Sources. But the point of a Reliable Source was not just that he was a source; it was that he understood the rules you were playing by and played by them as well. The public was less in love with those rules than we were.

OK, this seems really obvious, but it also concerns why newspapers have been unable to save themselves. It’s not just because someone has to press the red button on a Goss Metroliner every night. It's because their entire worldview has been based on preserving and enhancing a professional technique that vast number of their readers found offputting, like putting out a car without upholstered seats.

Other voices:
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson: Newspaper publishers overseas think "the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feels distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment."

Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books reviewing “Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post" (nonsubscribers blocked): “The Internet was not ruining the paper, [newsroom executive Walter] Pincus argued…. Newspapers had lost audience through self-indulgence: they wrote stories for themselves instead of readers and produced blockbuster stories designed to win journalism prizes but destined to be unread by masses of people… Pincus was describing a divorce between reader and newspaper, and he thought American journalism’s passion for ‘objectivity’ deserved a lot of blame. It was ridiculous, ‘a lie,’ to believe that a journalist could not have an opinion. The illusion of ‘objectivity’ created reader detachment from a newspaper, and detachment leads to indifference and loss of another reader.”

Jon Stewart himself, in New York magazine: “’The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it!.... It’s one reason I admire Fox. They’re great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters… The mistake [mainstream news outlets] make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings.”

UNC senior Christopher Sopher, quoted on Poynter’s website for his study of how to attract young people to news outlets: “’There's this sense that you're not getting the whole truth, or you're getting a varnished, polished, cold representation of what's going on, because it feels so impersonal.’ More than previous generations, Sopher found, young people seek a personal connection to their news providers. But that doesn't mean that consumers want biased reporting. Rather, he found, they're seeking a more conversational, explanatory tone. Reporters should leverage their extensive knowledge of their subjects to not only report the facts of ‘what just happened,’ Sopher said, but the context of ‘why it matters.’"

A wide swath of opinion, and one that needs to balanced with commercial considerations, as Marc Wilson in News & Tech quoted Advertising Age: “Advertisers trust newspapers to provide safe, sober environments for their brands and … marketers want newspapers’ authority to rub off on their ads.” Yet Ad Age and Stewart would doubtless agree that Fox News’ viewers see it as authoritative. And yet they care, passionately. Fox News tells them -- in my view incorrectly, but it tells them -- why the most obscure news story matters to them. And Fox News speaks to them as people who are just fine because they devoutly worship God and believe in the right to bear arms, as opposed to people who one can see objectively simply cling to shibboleths such as guns or religion while under stress, instead of coolly analyzing them.

Objectivity means in the end distancing yourself from everyone, because anything, even one's own feelings, can be analyzed. But most people don't do this about themselves and what they believe. There’s no doubt to me that Obama was factually correct in his famous statement about clinging to guns, religion and bias. But that's for a sociology paper, not a campaign - or a newspaper.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Press of Business As Seen From Abroad

Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association has long been one of my personal antidotes to Newspaper Gloom and Doom. Part of this is that Earl takes a worldwide approach -- he sees what's happening in Colombia and China as well as America and England. More important is that Earl doesn't see the newspaper as being identical to the newsroom. The newspaper is a business that sells ads and distributes a product and serves customers and reports the news. The first two exist to support the last two, but the newspaper is not just an institution that reports the news and the heck with everything else.

The ever-esteemed Doug Fisher must have caught Earl's blog posting around the same time as I did, but he beat me to the post. So I'll link to Doug's ever-informative "Common Sense Journalism" and his excerpt, in which Earl says after a visit to Australia:

"The two trains of thought among publishers worldwide are that:
"*The United States is an early warning system of consumer and advertiser behavior.
"*Or, that the U.S. publishers have so under-invested in their print products that they have no root system when disruption hits. Thus, the U.S. story is avoidable in other parts of the world. ...
"What the Americans get wrong in print, I was told, is projecting a templated, soulless environment for the consumer who wants to slowly browse. In the past decade, this is an increasingly gaunt-looking print environment reflecting poorly on local media brands that haven't gotten a workout in decades. While quality print newspapers should be platforms for deep engagement, U.S. publishers have created tools to get readers in and out of their print pages in shorter and shorter time increments.
"Advertisers won't invest in such a platform, my friend said. They don't want to be associated with platforms devoid of sizzle."

I'll quote further:
"American publishers, [his friend] mused, have given up too quickly on print as a platform of lucrative engagement.
"Don't confuse migration of eyeballs to digital platforms with the death of the print platform. Don't abandon all efforts to transform print from our only platform of engagement to 'one of several platforms.' Just because print might have a smaller impact in the next five years doesn't mean it's a dead platform."

"Others at the conference had plenty more to say from what they've viewed from afar — volunteering to the American speaker their views of why their national newspaper industry is different from my country's experiences. For example, the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feels distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment.
"Sobering. Probably goes too far. Yet interesting perspectives.
"By contrast, the conference featured three case studies of newspapers that are getting the print environment emotionally correct: “i” in Portugal, Toronto Star in Canada, and A Crítica in Brazil. The Portuguese newspaper redefines what a brand can be in print with a “daily magazine” design so stunning and different as to defy characterisation. The Toronto Star lives by a set of principles by its most famous owner with a clear “social conscience” viewpoint. And the Amazonian daily A Crítica personifies soulfulness and a reader-first campaign mentality."

Earl elaborates on this in the September Editor & Publisher, which is behind a paywall so I will further quote him:

"Advertisers aren't investing in newspapers because a print product doesn't work. In fact, the research suggests that print works beautifully because of the nature of the audience and medium. Instead, advertisers aren't investing because newspapers are losing the perceptual war in building, sustaining, and nurturing their audiences....

"A brand isn't like wine in a bottle that grows in value as it ages. We confuse age with value... A brand is the sum of all contacts over time.... The perception of a news brand gets shaped by product condition, billing, editorial position, rack location, the way a phone is answered. ... I sometimes wonder how a multibillion-dollar industry can function without knowing much about its customers."

(From the traditional newsroom perspective, of course, anything you knew about your customers would lead you to pander to their biases, so best not to know anything. We would produce what was best for them, and they would appreciate it. From the business-side perspective, we didn't have to know about our customers' problems. They had to know about ours, because not only was our business infinitely more complicated than theirs, where else were they going to go? Take it or leave it, pal. Hmm, we didn't expect they'd choose the latter...)

Earl's point in all this is that everything affects whether people care about your product -- what you cover, how it's delivered, whether the Sunday paper at the 7-Eleven has a torn front page and inserts falling onto the floor, whether the person you call in the newsroom does the usual newsroom thing and hangs up on you after belittling you for bothering him -- and the point he and his overseas friends make is:

Customers have to care about your product. If they don't, they'll just walk away.

And while Earl's feeling is that sometime before the year 2100, the economics of gasoline, ink, paper will spell the end of printed newspapers -- "The issue won't be whether people abandon print, it will be whether it's economically feasible to serve markets via print versus other alternatives" -- in the short run, print works.

He even notes "a counter-revolution against digital -- too much information, too much connectedness ... short-term, there's a backlash that we should take advantage of." Elsewhere in the issue, E&P quotes the "Digital Future Study" findings that for the second year in a row, the number of Internet users who said they would miss the print edition of their newspaper increased, and this year the number of people stopping subscriptions to get information online decreased.

As News & Tech columnist Doug Page wrote in the June issue (I couldn't locate a link in its archive):

"For the newspaper industry to remain viable, it needs to go back to basics, focusing on sales, service, and content of the printed edition and changing its attitude toward its old-fashioned paper product."

And for what to do next, we will turn to, out of character for TTPB, Jay Rosen.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Back to Work: Wide Open

That's the problem that no one in the news business has been able to crack. Economic models exist because you can control your business. If you can't control your business, you don't have one.

Way back in the early days of this blog, it strongly held that print was necessary as a pipeline into the reader's home. You controlled what went into and out of that pipeline. The glory of the Internet was, of course, to be that no one controlled what went in, and you controlled what you saw. Good for theory, bad for business.

But the Internet wasn't designed to be a business or a home for one. As Dan Kruger, CEO of iPhase 3 Corp., a software developer, was quoted as saying in News & Tech when asked why stories seem to be impossible to monetize:

"The design of the Web was for the unconstrained distribution of information. Every piece of Web software you use has that protocol on it. An ad is another piece of content -- stories and ads need distribution control and you cannot do that on the Web. ... The inherent design of the Web thwarts control of distribution, security, privacy or payment.

"If it was possible to get that control on the Web from all the time and attention the newspaper industry has spent trying to do so, the industry would have already achieved it."

We move on to Michael Hirschorn, founder of the TV production company Ish Entertainment, in the Atlantic, who says that the Internet as we know it is "the product of a very specific ideology. Despite its Department of Defense origins, the matrixized, hyper-linked Internet was both cause and effect of the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley. The open-source mentality ... proved useful for the tech and Internet worlds. ...

"Ironically, only the 'old' entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a century building up."

Hirschorn's point is that "the era of browser dominance is coming to a close." Replacing it will be the app-based model, whether for phones or tablets: You want something, you pay for it. "For all the talk of an unencumbered sphere, of a unified planetary soul, the colonization and exploitation of the Web was a foregone conclusion. The only question now is who will own it." In other words: Utopia always fails. It's a business, son.

The utopianism that powered so much theorizing about the Internet -- Hirschorn quotes John Perry Barlow, an early proponent of digital freedom, as saying, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone" -- powered Surrealism and Dadaism, powered Communism, powered forms of religious ecstasy since time immemorial. But why did so many news industry leaders, not just editors but publishers, CFOs, etc., sober men and women, either fall for it or feel they had to genuflect toward it to the extent of putting their businesses and mission in mortal jeopardy?

Just some thoughts:
*The newspaper industry lost its mojo with TV news, spent decades trying to come up with a substitute for "we told you first," and thought it could find its way back.
*Newspaper people are always suckers for futurists, idealists, and anyone who makes one feel behind the times.
*Maybe these guys will be right. What do we know?
*It killed the record industry first. It must be inevitable.
*Our own kids not only don't read newspapers, but don't think we're very special for working for newspapers. We must be outmoded. Get with it.
*Maybe there really is a business model out there and we just haven't found it yet.
*Being part of "the conversation" is more important than how we make money being part of it.
*Hell, this business ain't that different from print, we're just selling adjacencies.
*Free classifieds will fail because an ad in the newspaper is worth more than an ad in a shopper. Context is everything.
*I don't understand what they're talking about, therefore they must be right.

All well and true. But I have to recall dimly what Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times was quoted as saying a decade ago, which was something like: If I could get rid of the cost of printing, ink, trucks, drivers, bundlers, inserters, mailers, delivery fulfillment staff, etc., I'd get rid of 70 percent of my costs. (And if I could keep the same level of income...)

Certainly the Times was planning to use a lot of that to increase news coverage. But stopping the presses would have done the trick that eliminating linotypes and competing newspapers had also done: Create a period of increased quarterly earnings without much effort, and get the analysts and investors off the newspapers' back. It would have meant a few years of not managing every dime every week just to keep the stock price up.

And it would have worked, had someone noticed that the Internet was not designed to restrict the flow of information. But newspapers came early to the Internet game, and thought the model was going to be AOL -- which did restrict the flow. I can still remember our publisher saying in 2003, who knew the model was going to be search?

So the future: Newspapers will try to turn their efforts away from the Web and toward tablet and mobile apps, while at the same time denying that they are abandoning the Wild West of Browser City (because someone might yell at them for restraining information or being only concerned with money) and probably only doing so half-heartedly (because they still are wedded to getting millions of clicks, from the DNA of selling millions of papers), while still printing newspapers but doing them for senior citizens instead of trying to reinvent them, because everyone says you can't do anything but watch them die.

Everyone but newspaper executives nearly everyplace else in the world, it turns out. More to come next week.