Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Joe Paterno and the Future

It has been months and months since I have posted here ... I've sort of had a lot going on in my life. But I do still have huge interest in this topic and hope that over the next few weeks I can get this rolling again.

Let's start here: Today, at FlyPMedia they posted a multimedia version of the Joe Paterno story I wrote for Sports Illustrated. This is true multimedia -- photos, charts, graphics, video, audio, interactive, the whole works.

It's very interesting to me ... and very new. I didn't have anything to do with the process (other than writing the story) but I'm really interested in how this works ... and how such things can work in the future. One complaint I have heard about newspapers that I tend to agree with is that most of them use the Internet in the least imaginative ways ... they just put the newspaper online. Some -- and The Kansas City Star is one of those papers -- will incorporate a little video, some photo galleries, etc. Some -- like the Washington Post and New York Times -- will go further and incorporate what are almost mini-news documentaries into their sites.

But it seems to me that there are so many more possibilities. The Internet is not stagnant and immobile like print. You can do so many things to bring the words to life, to engage the reader and make her a part of the experience. And there will be more and more and more ways as time goes on.

Anyway, I'm interested to hear what people think of the piece at FlyPMedia ... not the story (no critiques, please), but the presentation. Did it engage you? Did it make the experience of reading more or less enjoyable? Do you want for stories to burst to life on the Internet or does it steal some of the intimacy of reading? What do you think about this sort of reading future?

I don't expect many people are checking in here these days and for good reason. But if you happen to stop by, would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Another link

Yes, I do know it has been weeks -- months -- since I last posted. This is based on about 500 different factors ... but I do intend (hope?) to get this blog going again with some ideas and thoughts and conversation.

in the meantime, reader Paul passed along this excellent column by Megan McArdle which I think really hits the point. The reason newspapers are struggling and dying in her view (and mine) has little to do with all the bloggers that grizzled journalist so enjoy complaining about. Newspapers are struggling and dying because the BUSINESS MODEL is gone. Advertising is fragmented. Classifieds are gone. Real estate is in the tank. Businesses have figured out how to go customer direct.

Newspapers have been driven by advertising for ... well, forever. Newspapers have never been able to survive on subscriptions ... and I'm not sure why anyone thinks that they can now. Charging for content sounds fine, and it probably should be done. But does that save the model? I don't think so. What newspapers need are new ideas.

Anyway, read the column she says it better than I do.

Friday, May 1, 2009

At least print doesn't go offline

Several posts coming but for now ...

You know why newspapers are our future?

Because the Internets are breaking!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mnookin: Ya gotta make it easy

I have a few friends -- OK, really, something like two -- who are so cool that, really, I feel badly overmatched in our friendship. Seth Mnookin is one of those friends. He’s writes for big magazines, he writes books, he hangs out with stars, he does charity work, he zips around New York on a motorbike of some kind, he wears black a lot. I am entirely out of my friendship depth.

He’s also a brilliant media critic -- his book Hard News on the New York Times is absolute must reading for anyone interested in newspapers. I asked Seth if he would write an essay on the future of newspapers. He sent along some thoughts about a big question here: Will people pay for content?

* * *

About three weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion on the media -- which, as far as my bank account is concerned, still consists of the results of my labor being transformed into physical products made out of dead trees and so forth.*

* I'd adopt a Posnanskian conceit here and include my footnotes -- which I've always been a fan of** -- in the text itself. So: in the past fifteen years I've been employed by daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, weekly magazines, monthly magazines, and quarterly magazines. I also did a stint writing for the late, great Inside.com, and while it was among the most fun of my many jobs, I don't think I logged enough time there to qualify as a new-media employee in any real way.

** In the NYT Book Review of Feeding the Monster, Chip McGrath said, "He has also chosen to lard his book with copious footnotes, some of which appear to be a homage to David Foster Wallace." I do not think he meant that as a compliment.

To the extent that my "talk" had any kind of organizing conceit, it was that the news industry's "original sin" wasn't so much giving away content for free, it was making it so damn hard to pay for content. I contrasted that with two popular topics here: the Kindle and the iPhone. Amazon and Apple have both perfected the type of instant-gratification, on-the-spot payment plans that basically erase the lag time between wanting something and owning it--buying a book or an app are, in today's parlance, incredibly low-friction transactions.*

* So low friction, in fact, that on more than a occasions I've woken up having spent the previous night doing the Kindle's/iPhone's version of drunk-dialing: buying books/apps without any thought as to whether they were something I'd still want to own, come morning. This is the only way I can explain why I now haveiBird Explorer Plus loaded onto my phone.

The problem, as I saw it, wasn't that people weren't willing to pay for information they could get elsewhere for free; it was that it took more effort to pay for that information than it did to find it for free. To wit: in the time it would take me to fill out my name and billing address and track down theCVV/CVC code on my credit card, I could have done a half-dozen Google searches and found 824,000 other places to get that same data. What the newspaper/magazine world needed to do was get together and institute a single pay system, where you click on a button on any media site --be itnytimes.com or thebark.com -- and .99 cents (or $10.99, or whatever) magically disappears from your bank account.

A few days later, Steve Brill, one of my old bosses, announced he was starting Journalism Online , a new business based on that exact idea.* And in the few days after that, plenty of people -- including Jack Shafer -- explained why Steve was insane and his idea was doomed to fail. Jack argued that no one would pay for pieces that could easily be pirated by clearinghouse sites like The Huffington Post, or Gawker, or anyone else: "What legal recourse will Journalism Online and its hypothetical client/partners at the New York Times, Newsweek, Esquire, The New Yorker, and Fortune, et al., have if Gawker's rewrite aces observe both copyright law and the "hot news doctrine"?" This, I think, misses the point.** It's obviously cheaper for me to look up the flight pattern of a European Starling using the free mobile Wikipedia app on my iPhone than it is for me to pay for iBird Explorer . It also costs me more time, effort, and aggravation.

* This is one of the many reasons Steve is a wealthy entrepreneur and I am perpetually struggling to "monetize" my "labor": when I have an idea, I blab on about it during an ad-hoc panel at an art gallery; when Steve has one, he raises a couple of million bucks and makes it happen.

** Of course, Jack is someone who has a long and frequently brilliant career writing online, so by any measure he's better qualified than I am to write about the world of the Internets. He's also, from what I've heard, one hell of a bird watcher. 

(If I was writing this for a print publication, this is where my editor would tell me to wrassle up a good kicker to close out on. Oh well...)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Kindred: Thoughts About E-Reading

Dave Kindred is one of the legends of newspapers. He is winner of the Red Smith Award -- the ultimate in sportswriting, sort of like the lifetime achievement Academy Award for sportswriting. He has worked for The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, The Louisville Courier and a noble experiment called The National. He has written nine books, and he is working on his 10th -- which will be all about The Washington Post and, in a larger way, newspapers.

I should also say here that Dave has been as important to me and my career as just about anyone ... he sent me a note once when I was an uncertain young columnist in Augusta, Ga., and he has been there to mentor, encourage and inspire me ever since. A few days ago, he sent me a note about the iPhone post here, and I asked him if he would write a few thoughts about the future of newspapers. He sent me this within a day.

* * *

    I'm going to do three things here. First, I'll reprint an e-mail I wrote to Joe after reading his blog item comparing newspapers to his iPhone. Then I'll get all excited about a new thing that will make it possible to be a dinosaur and a futurist all at once. Third, I'll whimper a lot.     First, the e-mail to Joe ..... \

    "Good stuff. But y'know  what? Not to be too lumbering a dinosaur here, but only one of the apps you applaud has anything to do with NEWSpapers. That those things -- weather, movie times & other bulletin-board trivia --appear in a newspaper is the product of newspapers' fat, happy, monopolistic days when they tried to be all things to all people....."

    Here I interrupt myself to sing, "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end," after which I mutter, "Those days, they've ended, deal with it."

    Back to the e-mail to Joe. . .

    "I want an app called NEWSWORTHREADING. Just the facts, ma'am. (A "Dragnet" allusion proving I am a lumbering dinosaur. So shoot me.) Tell me a story. Give me a Poz column. Give me Wright Thompson writing 3,000 words on anything. And I don't want to read it three lines at a time in the palm of my hand."

    The iPhone, the iTouch, the BlackBerry -- all those hand-held gizmos -- are fabulous creations. They are utilitarian devices of a high order. They also are -- excuse the expression -- adult toys. Not that there's anything wrong that. But as much information and play time as they offer, the hand-helds do not give me what a newspaper does --  a rich reading experience. Nor do they give advertisers any reason to buy display ads when those ads are the size of postage stamps. So every time I read a rhapsody about hand-helds, my inner dinosaur roars.

    Agreed, newspapers as we have known them for the last quarter-century cannot be saved. As Joe said in his blog, we all know why. But it's one thing to say newsprint is obsolete and it's another to say that an iPhone is an adequate replacement. It is not. Today's hand-held is a tool and a toy. Yes, it can deliver journalism but in miniature. At best it's a headline service that sends you to a PC or even, gasp, the newspaper awaiting your return from work. It cannot do the simple thing a good newspaper does best -- give a story the impact that makes it worth our time.

    When the hand-helds seduce readers away from a newspaper, one consequence is the loss of revenue for that paper and, in time, the loss of reporters and editors who breathed life into the paper. These are hard jobs and they're done well only by people who understand how hard they are and yet are willing, even eager, at pinch-penny salaries, to do them. Because Joe respects newspaper work as much as I do, he ended the iPhone blog with this paragraph:

    "That’s why I cannot get away from the idea that people still want what newspapers have always given them. But now, the technology has allowed them to get that information and entertainment and daily help easily and from many different places and, seemingly, for free. I’ve got to believe that this new technology should allow smart newspaper executives to create a great product, a combination of print and digital and mobile, a newspaper spin-off that would feel essential to people. Anyway, I want to believe that."

    There is, in fact, good reason to believe.

    The reason is an electronic reader, called an e-reader. 

    This is the part where you can be a dinosaur and have the future, too.

    Soon, maybe even this year, the Hearst corporation will introduce an e-reader with a screen the size of a standard sheet of paper -- not a dinosaur's newspaper size, granted, but Time or Newsweek size, which is close enough -- in any case, not the six-inch diagonal of Amazon's Kindle. "The larger screen (to quote a Feb. 27 report at CNNMoney.com) better approximates the reading experience of print periodicals, as well as giving advertisers the space and attention they require."

    The reader is likely to debut in black and white, CNNMoney reported, "and later transition to high-resolution color with the option for video as those displays, now in testing phases, get commercialized. Downloading content from participating newspapers and magazines will occur wirelessly. For durability, the device is likely to have a flexible core, perhaps even foldable, rather than the brittle glass substrates used in readers on the market today."

    Other outfits in the e-reader race are Sony and Barnes & Noble, with some reports citing Apple, Google, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon.

       As much as I dislike quoting anonymous posters, I must here. At MarketWatch.com, a commenter on Jon Friedman's column of April 17 certainly sounded authoritative on the subject of e-readers. "Jackafuss" foresees newspapers giving away the e-readers to people who buy subscriptions. How its e-reader will work, Hearst isn't saying, perhaps because the idea of "foldable" e-paper has been kicked around for a decade without ever becoming practical. The question more pertinent to our talk here is: With so much free information on the Internet, will people actually pay for a newspaper's product ever again?

    Friedman's poster thinks so. He wrote: "Newspapers will not only survive but they wiill see huge profits through rebounding advertising rates and new earnings from 'delivery fees' just about the time production costs collapse. Electronic delivery through reading tablets is about to shift into high gear. . . .By offering large e-readers 'rent free,' newspapers will find it easy to contract with other publishers for low-cost delivery services. Even bloggers will move from free service to subscription service."

    My first reaction was that I had two things to say about this.


    And, sign me UP!!!!

    Alas, no sooner had I made these decisions than I read a real futurist's blog -- that of Steve Yelvington, an ex-newspaperman now living in Augusta, Georgia.

    He wrote: "At the risk of seeming like a chronic naysayer, I have to point to some problems with the idea" of e-readers. He cited 1) capital requirements, in that no one is going to be lending money to save a failing newspaper by investing in "completely unproven idea using technology that has barely made a dent in the marketplace" (that would be the Internet), 2) these devices almost certaiinly break down quickly, 3) the usual-in-all-new-endeavors hidden costs, 4) still no classified revenue, 5) loss of insert-advertising revenue (I hadn't thought of this one at all, and Steve says it's as much as 40 percent of some papers' revenue), and 6) a low signup rate because old-time newspaper readers may not want to learn to operate the thing, and why can't I just use the Web anyway?

    "Now, don't get wrong," Yelvington wrote. "I think these e.ink-based devices are way cool. And certainly some people are placing very big bets on them -- especially Hearst. But I don't expect magic."

    So, I'm back to whimpering.

    I'll just keep my newspaper.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Seinfeld line

Exciting post coming on Monday from newspaper legend Dave Kindred. But first, this from Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance on The Tonight Show in 1990:

“To me the most amazing part of the news is that whatever goes on in the world -- it exactly fits the number of pages that they’re using in the newspaper that day. I mean I don’t know ... they must stand around after each edition going, ‘I don’t believe we just made it again. ... If one more thing happens, we’re screwed. ... There’s no more room in this paper.’”

So true. So funny. And so sad ... a lot less is happening in the world these days.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tomlinson: Newspapers and Stories

I’m going to tell you a quick story about my friend, Charlotte Observer columnist and Nieman Fellow Tommy Tomlinson. I’m not going to tell you about all the awards he won or the time he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist or how many people live for his column.

No, instead, quickly, I’m going to tell you about a time when we worked together in the Rock Hill Bureau of the Charlotte Observer. We were called the “York Observer,” and the idea was that we were going to write about three small counties in South Carolina -- York, Lancaster and Chester Counties, affectionally known as the YLC -- like they were New York City. We would cover high school sports like they were the Alabama football. We would cover softball games and church group meetings and garage sales and everything in between. It was a noble experiment. And for a 22-year-old sportswriter -- which is what I was at the time -- it was maddening. There’s something about being 22 that makes you believe you deserve something bigger.

Tommy is only a couple of years older than I am, and his job was to cover Lancaster (pronounced LAN-cas-tur) -- best known, to me at least, childhood home of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs who sang the song “Stay,” the shortest song to ever reach No. 1 on the charts. When you drove out of Lancaster, there was a sign that read “Wish you could have stayed ... just a little bit longer.” Tommy had a little office there, and I mean little.

So here’s the story: That year, the two biggest high schools in town -- Rock Hill and Northwestern -- both had remarkable football teams. They were both undefeated, they were probably the two best teams in the state, and so when they played the last game of the season it was, for the York Observer, the biggest thing in the history of the world. I’m not entirely certain of this, but I’m pretty sure that I never wrote more leading into a sporting event than I wrote that week.

That Thursday, I was spent. We all were spent. So, the editors wanted to get something fresh, so they called Tommy in Lancaster (he had just started) and they asked him to write something about the game.

Here’s what he did: He cold-called a bunch of people in town to ask them what they thought about the game coming up. And, in an afternoon, he weaved together the best story of the week, one that really got to the heart of a small town and a big football game. I remember one woman said she couldn’t watch the game because she would be washing her underwear.

Tommy is my newspaper barometer. Here he is on newspapers and stories:

* * *

When I think about newspapers dying I think about Butterfly McQueen and the Board of Zoning Appeals. This probably requires an explanation.

The Board of Zoning Appeals was part of my beat covering local government for the Augusta Chronicle (the morning paper) and Herald (the afternoon paper) at my first newspaper job in Augusta, Ga.* When the full Zoning Commission made a ruling that one of the parties involved didn’t agree with, it went to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Most of the disputes were about things like somebody’s maple tree dropping leaves in the neighbor’s yard, or somebody building a shed too close to the property line. Like the People’s Court, but less interesting. They met in a room about the size of a McDonald’s restroom. I was always the only reporter there.

*True Pozheads will know that Joe also worked in Augusta. I was there first, then got hired in Charlotte, where Joe and I worked together and became great friends; then he went on to Augusta. We share a love for Squeaky’s Tip Top and horrific tales of playing on media day at Augusta National. I hit balls so far in the woods it will take archaeologists to find them.

So I show up one day and the clerk tells me this is going to be a great meeting, probably the best Board of Zoning Appeals meeting ever, because Butterfly McQueen was coming. If that name doesn’t ring a bell: Butterfly McQueen played Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies – that’s Butterfly McQueen. She was born in 1911. When I saw her it was probably 1987 or ’88 and she was living in Augusta. I think a couple of folks at the Board of Zoning Appeals wanted her autograph. But not after they saw her. She was frail and tired and sad.

It turned out, if I’m remembering right, that she had put a trailer in her backyard – maybe a relative was living there – and some of the neighbors had complained. Both sides told their version of the story. The Board of Zoning Appeals ruled that she had to get a special permit. You could tell from the look in her eyes that getting a special permit would take an effort she wasn’t capable of. She slowly rose and thanked the Board of Zoning Appeals for their consideration. Once a famous actress in one of the greatest movies of all time. Now a broken-down old woman shuffling out the door.

I don’t remember the story I wrote. I wasn’t very good then so the story probably wasn’t either. But I did do something – I wrote a story – and that’s the point I want to make about dying newspapers.

It is absolutely true that when newspapers go, we the people will go without crucial information in our lives. A million people are willing to fact-check Obama or break down the NFL draft. Not many people are willing to cover the zoning board, week after tedious week, piecing together tidbits into something bigger. Corrupt local politicians, crooked cops, shady developers, scam artists: They can’t wait for newspapers to die. No one else will watch them as hard and for as long as newspapers did.

But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is that we’ll lose so many stories. Not analysis, not commentary, but real stories from the little corners of our lives. Bloggers and podcasters and folks with Flip cameras will tell some of those stories, and some of them will be better than the best newspaper work. Some of them will be done by former newspaper people. If it comes to that, I hope I’m one of them.

But there aren’t nearly as many people who make a living telling stories as there were a few years ago, and it’s obvious that there will be even fewer. Next week, next month, next year, there won’t be as many people out hunting for those stories, doing the fieldwork, talking to people, digging dry hole after dry hole, searching for paydirt.

Newspapering is not strenuous work compared to most other jobs. Once you learn a few moves, it’s not that hard to tell a good story. The hard part is finding one worth telling – not just a funny anecdote or a slice of melodrama, but a story that’s deep and broad and richly human, one that helps us make sense of our world.

We newspaper people screw up a lot – we miss things, we get things wrong, and Lord knows we have been slow to understand the revolution in our very own business. But one thing we can do is tell a true story. I suspect that will turn out to be a rarer skill than most people think.

I’m not sure how many people read that Butterfly McQueen story, or remember it. Some, I hope. And now you. It was just a little thing I came across one day, working for the newspaper.