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.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lessons from the iPhone

I remember years ago, when I worked at the old Cincinnati Post, the features department decided to do a story on the cartoon Beavis and Butthead. As I recall, we were several months behind the times on the story, which is one of those newspaper quiarks that has always killed me. I realize that it’s hard to be on the cutting edge of what’s hip and new and fresh and now -- Lord knows, I’m behind the times -- but those six-month late stories with headlines like “Facebook Is New Way To Keep Up With Friends!” or ledes like “Many people have said goodbye to writing checks and licking stamps and have started to pay their bills through ‘electronically!’” ... they make my side hurt.

Anyway, we at the Post were doing this Beavis and Butthead story, but of course we were a family paper* and as such would not print the word “Butthead.” So, when I picked up my post I found this outdated story about a cartoon that had already run its course, and the headline was “Beavis and Friend.”

That was one of those rare moments when I wondered about the future of newspapers.

*I just caught an interview with the late George Carlin where he was talking about how family newspapers would not put certain words in the paper, and he said: “How do they think the families got started in the first place?”

Now, of course, those thoughts about the future of newspaper are daily occurrences, sometimes hourly occurrences. Every single day, I read another story about why newspapers are dying, I talk to another friend who mentions a horror story at their shop, I hear about another newspaper that is on the brink of collapse. This blog is not really about that ... it’s supposed to be about ideas and opinions about where newspapers (in the larger sense -- news gathering organizations) are going.

But I will admit having one of those “Wow, the world has changed” moments yesterday. Not surprisingly, it revolved around my iPhone.

First, I will point out the obvious: When I was growing up, newspapers were everything. I don’t mean that as an editorial comment. I mean just about every single thing anyone wanted to know, they found in the newspaper. What’s the weather supposed to be? Look in the paper. What time is the movie playing? Look in the paper? Did Duane Kuiper get a hit last night? Look in the paper. If you wanted to know the score of the Vikings game, your horoscope, what was happening in the Middle East, if it was time to move the clocks back, lake levels for fishing, snow levels for skiing, what new music was coming out, who was having a yard sale in the neighborhood, where you could find a job, coupons for the supermarket, prices for cars, what was playing on television, what time the game started, what advice Abby was offering, what all those police sirens going off were about, what happened at the school board meeting, where to buy a used bicycle, what to expect at the new restaurant down the street, what was going on in Charlie Brown’s life, if the local college got the highly recruited running back on and on and on and on and on, forever, it was in your newspaper (or you damn well wanted to know why it wasn’t).

Put it this way: Whenever a local television station messed up something -- blacked out a game, changed its schedule at the last minute, replaced something with a local telethon, whatever -- newspapers would get hundreds of calls. Why? Nobody called the TV stations when their paper did not show up in the driveway. But that’s what newspapers were back then: They were supposed to be the answer to every question and the solution to every problem and the daily connection to the world. It was a nice place to be, and lots of people got very rich on newspapers ... almost none of them being reporters.

Well, I don’t need to explain how much that has changed in the new world. But I admit being somewhat overwhelmed when, in a bored moment, I was reviewing at the apps on my iPhone. I had never looked at them quite in this context ...

TWC: This is The Weather Channel App. It is free, and this is what it gives me: To-the-moment weather conditions, an hourly forecast for the next 12 hours, a 36-hour forecast for the next day and a half, a 10-day forecast to begin my planning, a weather map to look at the area and a radar so I can see for myself, video giving me local weather in real time and so on.

-- Now, as I go through each of these apps, I want you to think about this: How much BETTER is this than what newspapers used to give me? And how can newspapers compete with it? I think with the TWC App it’s clear: There’s no way to compete.

Now Playing: In this free app, the iPhone finds precisely where you are and gives you a list of movie theaters within a few miles, tells you what is playing at each movie and what time, gives you extensive reviews of the movie and allows you to watch the trailer, if you want.

At Bat 2009: This is not a free app, but basically it gives you up-to-the-minute boxcores and stats for each game, you can follow along pitch-by-pitch using MLB.com’s Gameday, listen to audio, and they will post videos of highlights just minutes after they happen.

i.TV: This is an interactive TV guide that works specifically with your television system, gives you times, reviews, information about each show, tells you what’s coming up, and it can be set so you can rate the shows. You can also get a DirecTV app if you have DirecTV and it gives you much of the same information, and also allows you to record Parks and Recreation from anywhere, like I just did.

Instapaper: This one’s ridiculous. You insert a “Read Later” button on your Internet browser. And anytime you run across a story you like but don’t have time to read, you click the button and, voila, it’s on your phone, easy to read next time you are bored anywhere -- the dentist office, the plane, the kitchen table, the bathroom, whatever. One of the great newspaper selling points has been that it’s the easiest thing in the world to read in the bathroom. Well, reading an iPhone is plenty easy too.

AroundMe: So this free app finds your location and then tells you where you can find the nearest: Banks, bars, coffee houses, gas stations, hospitals, hotels, movie theaters, pharmacies, pubs, restaurants, supermarkets ... and it gives you an address, a telephone number, shows you where it is on the map.

SportsTap: Every sport, latest news, box scores, schedules for all major sports teams, pro and college.

Craigsphone: Craigslist for the iPhone. That’s all. Anything you want to buy. Right there. I could buy Kansas City Fleetwood Mac Tickets for $125. I will not. But I could.

And, of course, there are countless news aggregators that would allow me to get news in about five million different ways (I do have a New York Times app, which is a bit slower than it should be ... I should figure out a way to create an iPhone app for my blog).

The larger point here is not to, once again, talk about how the whole concept of newspapers -- with the inevitable delay between printing and delivery, with the immutability of print, with the fixed costs -- struggles into day’s world. We all know that. We know it backward and forward.

No, the larger point is that as amazing as all the apps are that are listed above, none of them really provides much that is NEW other than technology. What I mean is the sports news you get, the around me information, the advanced TV guides, the movie app with reviews, even the weather reports, all of it is mostly just a repackaged, timely and utterly convenient version of what newspapers (and the Yellow Pages) gave Americans 30 years ago. In many ways, the game has changed entirely. But in other ways, the game has not changed at all. People still want much of the same information. We just want it faster, we want it constantly updated, we want it to be convenient, we want it to fit our lives

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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Krieger: Down To The Wire

I have known Dave Krieger for close to 15 years now, which appalls me to no end: Neither one of us should be that old. Dave is one of those people who says stuff that makes you think, “Man, that is SO obvious; why in the heck did I not think of it?” He has more or less played every position you can play in newspapers -- news-side reporter, NBA beat guy, columnist, general assignment reporter, and so on. I’ve always thought of him as the Kiki Vandeweghe of journalism, not because I see any similarities but because I like saying “Kiki Vandeweghe.”

Dave also lived through the last days of the Rocky Mountain News. Here are some of his thoughts about newspapers and the Associated Press, and he wonders: Who is helping who?

* * *

During the hospice phase of the Rocky Mountain News, I read every diagnosis of newspaper ills I could find. By and large, they weren’t very helpful. They spent an inordinate amount of time castigating the newspaper industry for failing to anticipate the technological and economic upheavals now destroying its revenue base. Not only were these critiques of little or no value in prescribing a way forward, they carried the implicit assumption that what capitalists call creative destruction can be anticipated and avoided, or at least in some way accommodated. The buggy whip makers, if they'd had a brain among them, would have started mass producing automobiles before Henry Ford beat them to it. Right.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve come to the Joe Poz Journalism Cogitation Page not to offer any brief for newspaper management or ownership. They were every bit as short-sighted as the critics suggest. Not only that, many journalists, unhappy with the pattern of publicly-traded conglomerates siphoning profits for shareholders rather than re-investing in the business, have been pointing this out for decades, which was slightly more useful than today’s hindsight, although, it turns out, not much.

In any case, reviewing the road to ruin is not especially helpful as we peer over the precipice. Neither are endless explications of the role of technology – the secular problem – or the collapse of auto, housing and employment advertising – the cyclical problem. It is as if we are all Lions fans now, reading the sad results, blaming Matt Millen.

I was one of a number of Rocky folks who engaged the public, in print and in person, about the paper’s survival. As a sportswriter, I talked about what I knew. I mentioned that the amount of primary-sourced information on the Denver Broncos – Colorado’s state religion – would be reduced considerably if the Rocky went away. This was a feeble attempt to convince readers of the sports page it was in their interest to save the newspaper. The response I often got demonstrated just how little the public knows about the process of news dissemination.

“I don’t get my Broncos coverage from the Rocky,” I was often told. “I get it from ESPN. They do a better job covering the Broncos than you guys.”

Naturally, I rushed down to Broncos headquarters to see where ESPN had set up its bureau. But no, the press room was still occupied by the usual suspects from the Rocky, Denver Post and Colorado Springs Gazette.

In other words, “ESPN wires.” When I explained to people that ESPN.com, SI.com and the many other sports sites like them manage to cover local teams by running wire service rewrites of local newspaper stories – and that those rewrites would disappear when the newspaper stories they rewrote disappeared – they shrugged. For them, this was like being told how the sausage is made. There’s no shortage of outlets pouring Bronco news. The Rocky would be missed, but not that much.

After three months of this conversation, the Rocky died. I was lucky enough to hook on with Denver’s surviving daily, the Post, the publisher of which also happens to be chairman of the Associated Press. In that role, Dean Singleton gave a speech the other day in which he said the newspaper industry has done a lousy job of defending its copyrighted material and suggested it would have to do better to survive. This set off the usual debate about whether Google helps or hurts newspapers. A Google executive blogged about it, producing that rarest of species, a piece of Google original content.

But Singleton’s speech also prompts a question I haven’t seen discussed to the point of nausea, a failing I propose here to correct. The question is about the AP: Why should any newspaper in the internet age be a member of an organization that takes that paper’s original material, rewrites it and distributes it around the world without attribution or compensation? In fact, an organization that charges the newspaper for the privilege? Inasmuch as the AP is a creation of the newspaper industry, is it not accurate to say we are complicit in the theft of our own material? Aren't newspapers the agents of their own destruction every day?

The AP now “throws down gauntlet to online news aggregators,” according to Ecommerce Times, but what is the AP but the biggest news aggregator out there?

With the Rocky gone, let’s say the Denver Post and Colorado Springs Gazette severed their relationships with the AP. Not likely, the publisher of the Post being the chairman of the AP, but work with me here. When the Post and Gazette covered each excruciating detail of the Broncos' recent quarterback soap opera – if you don’t know what this is, I suggest you return to your home planet immediately – no one would be legally authorized to rewrite their stories and hand them out to American Online and Fox Sports. Legions of Broncophiles would be unable to find their news at sites that don't actually cover the team. The only way to get it legally would be to read the Post or the Gazette.

ESPN would no longer have access to our material for the relative pittance of an AP membership, certainly a small price to pay to pretend to cover 120 teams in four major pro sports on a daily basis when it does no such thing. In this fantasy world, the Post and Gazette would have an opportunity to charge a fee for access to certain material on their web sites, just as they do for subscriptions to their newspapers, because no one would have the legal right to rewrite their material and post it for free elsewhere, as the AP and ESPN, respectively, do now. The papers might then be in a position to defend their copyrights by suing any entity that reposted their published material, as some no doubt still would.

What about the downside you ask. No more AP copy in the paper or on the web site. Back in the day, this was disincentive enough. How else to get national and international coverage and, more important, news of Madonna?

These are no longer the benefits to local papers they once were. Few have the space to run much national or international news anymore, and most have realized that’s not their role, anyway. Before the Internet, the local paper had to provide a little bit of everything. Now, readers can get their national and international news from outfits that specialize in it, providing original reporting and analysis, not the same wire story a thousand other papers are running. Besides, so many journalists are now out of work it is possible to contract freelance help on any subject and in any location imaginable, and for very reasonable fees, too. As an added bonus, you get original work. You pay for it out of that substantial AP fee you’re no longer paying.

No, I have no personal beef with the AP or any other wire service. In fact, I have many friends who work for them and I wish them no ill. Nevertheless, given the state of the newspaper industry, it seems to me this consortium no longer benefits its member papers nearly as much as it benefits the outfits that take and repackage their work, eliminating any trace of the originator. Why should Google or Yahoo get access to rewrites of all our original material – not to mention benefiting from the advertising that accompanies the search pages that link to it? It’s perfectly understandable that Google wouldn’t want to underwrite the expense of generating content when it can appropriate ours. The growth of Google News augurs an increasingly self-contained news structure, increasingly dependent on wire copy, for a company that produces no original news content whatever but does know how to take the first advertising swipe at news-hungry eyeballs.

Perhaps the inter-related, inter-dependent nature of newspapers and wire services explains the relative paucity of discussion on this topic. Or maybe it's been discussed and dismissed, and I missed it. In that case, sorry. Still, it seems fairly obvious that newspapers cannot charge for online content so long as rewrites of that content are being given away by its partners down the street.

It seems to me the function of the wire service has changed from sharing content among equals in the old media world to distributing newspaper content to outsiders who have the technology to skim off much of the advertising revenue in the new media world. The wire services as they exist seem obsolescent as far as newspapers are concerned, their role having morphed from supportive to destructive of newspapers' value proposition.

What if the publishers of America’s remaining major metropolitan daily newspapers (and those of other papers that wish to participate) withdrew from the AP en masse at the soonest practicable date and began charging subscription fees for access to certain parts of their web sites? What if they invested in software to detect the theft of their original work and aggressively defended their copyrights in court? What if newspaper publishers took back ownership of their proprietary local content in this way and then proceeded to monetize it?

Seriously, what would they have to lose?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Robert: The future waits for no one

Here is an essay, written by Robert Cook, about progress, and the importance of keeping up:

* * *

The news is alive and well. The newspaper business just hasn't adjusted to the times in terms of providing the best way to deliver their product. The thing is that newspapers are just one of several industries that haven't recognized the real changes in our economic climate and the ways that affect how consumers do business.

Industries that are consumer-driven are struggling right now. Three of the most visible are newspapers, the automotive industry, and retail stores. I see three strong factors in how people are doing business these days is taking a toll on these businesses:

1. The economy. This seems like a no-brainer but I don't think it's affecting things in a completely obvious way. Sure, people who have lost jobs or income can't pay for a newspaper or buy a new car or go shopping. It’s more than that, though. Everyone is being more cautious and thoughtful about how and where they spend their money. There are easy ways to sacrifice without really sacrificing and there are some easy choices where people can cut back without having to completely do without.

Families opting to ditch the second or third car or people deciding they don't need to replace the 2- or 3-year old car just because it lost that new car smell is a modest and sensible adjustment when you’re not feeling confident about the economy -- but this is having an impact on auto sales. Shopping at a high-end retail store when the items you want are available online or at a big box store at a substantial discount gets less and less appealing when the extra money is essentially going toward the shopping experience and not toward a superior product. With newspapers, the news is already coming into people's homes for free. They're already paying for cable and the Internet, so using those tools to get their news is only logical. They might miss the feel of the paper in their hands and the smell of newsprint but those are luxuries when the information is already waiting for them in their homes.

2. The information age. The computer has made everything easier and it's changing people's habits. As mentioned, the news is already in people's homes. What's more, there is more news than anyone can possibly digest and with blogs and RSS feeds, people can choose news sources that are tailored specifically to their points of view or interests. Telecommuting is reducing the need for actual commuting and the need for multiple cars in some families. Shopping online is more convenient and cost-effective because online stores do not have the overhead associated with the costs of retail display. Online stores pass the savings on to the consumer while allowing them to shop in the comfort of their own homes.

3. The green movement. Online shopping has another appeal to some consumers: reducing car use. The segment of the population that is trying to reduce its environmental impact is growing. Shopping online means one less car on the road that day. It's one less necessary parking space. It may mean one less giant building filled with unnecessary stores turning off its lights. Telecommuting isn’t just an easy thing to do in the information age – it has a green benefit . It ends up being one more reason to not buy a car. People are riding the bus or their bikes to work, too. People who tried the bus when gas was four bucks figured out that they like being able to read a book instead of stressing out about the person who just cut them off. People who chose a bike are starting to like how they feel with the extra exercise. As for the newspaper business, people are less inclined to cut down trees so they can read and they don't want trucks taking the news to them when it can get delivered over a wire using power that is also getting greener.

The problem for these industries is not that the economy is failing or that consumers are abandoning them. It's that those businesses lacked the vision to anticipate the changing times. Things are in place in more and more parts of the country (and world) to live a modern lifestyle without a car, with online shopping. And no one really needs a newspaper anymore. It seems like businesses that succeed are the ones that provide what people will want next, rather than providing the same old thing. The phone companies have survived by providing high speed internet, cable television alternatives, and mostly by providing wireless telephone service so that they are still getting the phone business as people turn away from land-based telephone communication. The entertainment industry has delivered fast and easy access to films, music, and television programming via the internet in anticipation of its market moving that way entirely.

Meanwhile, retail businesses continue to sink big money into big buildings that are expensive to keep open and into inventory that is moving more slowly just as people become less interested in driving to stores. Meanwhile, Amazon has come along and started providing *EVERYTHING* cheaper and more conveniently. It's a better business model and businesses that can't adapt to it are doomed.

The automobile industry is going to watch its product become obsolete while some other mode of transportation takes over. The automotive manufacturers have pushed the idea of the car as an extension of one's personality instead of pushing to develop better transportation models. They lobbied the government to force the infrastructure toward highways, streets and roads when they could have worked with the government to develop faster, cleaner, safer forms of transportation. Now, as people's attention slowly turns to other ways of traveling, they're looking for a handout. The government should be pushing bailout money toward manufacturers and industries that are providing tomorrow's transportation -- not yesterday's -- and giving an incentive to those companies that will train our auto workers to do it. Our government should be subsidizing growth, not stagnation.

The newspapers are failing because the Internet is where most people get their news and most newspapers aren't providing the best online news or doing it in a way that will earn them enough money. Blogs and national TV media seem to be providing the news with a profit model that allows them to stay in business. As newspapers fall away, the demand for the quality that is lost will probably and eventually get met by the most successful of these enterprises. It will be interesting to see how local coverage gets handled -- if small newspapers will continue to survive as they meet small community needs or if local blogs and online news sources will pop up to address that need as well. One of the nice things about capitalism is that if there is a market for something, someone will start a business to provide it.

The bottom line, to me, is that businesses are failing because they aren't adapting, and the shame of it is not that businesses are going under but that workers are not being prepared for the transition. Auto workers could have been trained to make super-fast trains (and still can be), whether it is for GM or for some new company that is making super-fast trains. Retail workers can be trained to provide customer support for the increased volume of online shoppers or provide customer service selling tickets for super-fast trains. Sportswriters can … well…I guess the transition won’t be easy for everyone. Apparently, there is no need for sportswriters in a world of super-fast trains. Unless we race them!

Actually, sportswriters can write interesting blogs, develop an audience and make sure that si.com and espn.com have someone local and knowledgeable covering the Royals or the Nuggets or the Browns. Local sports fans will expect more local coverage from national outlets, as will local residents looking for more general local coverage. It doesn't matter if the Rocky Mountain News is open as long as someone is providing news about the Rocky Mountains and that the journalists who used to work for that paper can still feed their kids, ideally doing something they enjoy.

I realize this essay isn’t newspaper-specific but I see the issue as bigger than just the newspapers. Understanding the plight of newspapers as part of a larger picture seems useful to me. It is also important that we, as a society, remain open to change as something natural and inevitable. The horse and carriage and town crier industries have been in tough shape for a while but there was not an intermediate stage where we were without news or transportation. Blacksmiths making horseshoes gave way to mechanics just as people who were good at ringing bells and yelling gave way to news writers. Some blacksmiths probably learned to become mechanics and some town criers developed their writing skills. Industries are born and grow and change and fail in a more or less constant flux. People get left behind and hurt and that is a harsh aspect of reality but businesses and industries giving way to something new is progress and, when it's faster, cheaper, easier, and cleaner, that's a good thing.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Clay Shirky on Newspapers

This has been linked and reprinted in a lot of places, so I figured we certainly should reprint it here. This is Clay Shirky’s long and detailed take on what has happened to newspapers, and what might be coming next.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bill James on Newspapers

One of the luckier things in my life is that I am friends with Bill James. You probably know Bill as the brilliant writer who brought countless new ideas to the game of baseball; Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world a couple of years back. But the truth is, Bill is simply a thinker. Baseball happens to be his great professional love, but he has many other loves. He is working on a true crime book, which should be amazing. He and I have had talks about everything under the sun, everything from politics to religion to race relations to golf, and it never ceases to amaze me how his mind works, how he goes from A to B to C to D, never skipping a step.

I planned to ask him to write a little something about newspapers, but then a reader pointed out that he had already written something on his Website. Bill graciously allowed me to reprint those few paragraphs here, with the caveat that I point out it was written off the cuff, and the details were not intensely researched or double checked. I would add that the point for something like this goes beyond the basic details ... Bill thinks this is the natural progression of newspapers, and we just happen to be caught in the turbulent times.

I hope to get him to expand on this after a while. But for now ...

* * *

Well ... I hate to be the rational doomsayer, but ... in the modern world it is unnecessary to cut down trees to spread ideas. We can spread ideas perfectly well without paper. We're in this difficult transitional period where it is unclear how the writers, reporters, researchers and editors are all going to be paid for their efforts in the post- newsprint world. But to me, it's just a transitional problem; in 25 years we'll be in a better place because we went through this transition.

Writing the crime book ... the modern newspapers started about 1836. There were newspapers for a hundred years before that, but they were relatively expensive. In 1836 somebody "invented" the steam-driven printing press ... not sure tying together a steam engine and a printing press can really be considered an invention. But anyway, paper was cheap, so putting together a little engine and a little printing press enabled anybody with a small investment to start his own newspaper. Every significant city by 1845 had dozens of little newspapers, which were much closer to Blogs than to modern newspapers.

One of the first things they did was start writing crime stories, exploiting crimes for money. Then there was 100+ years of newspapers getting bigger and bigger and more organized and more expensive to produce. What were basically one-man shows, and then the better ones hired assistants and then business managers, they added sports sections, cartoons, advertising salesmen and then advertising departments. They invented wire services (about 1890), and then there were syndicated columnists and syndicated features. The newspapers drove each other out of business for 100 years.

You and I entered the scene at a certain point, where each city had one or two big newspapers which had hundreds and hundreds of features, and they had these things when we were 10 years old and learning to read and they had them when we were 25 years old and 35 years old, so we tended to think of that as the natural and permanent order of the universe -- but it wasn't; it was just a moment in time; the newspapers were very different in 1935 and very different in 1935 from 1910 and hugely different in 1910 from 1885.

Eventually the newspapers -- as a natural outcome of processes that began in 1836 -- became SO big and so expensive that they were dinosaurs, unable to compete with smaller and lighter information providers.

We're back to 1836 now, in a sense; everybody who wants to has his own "newspaper", and it's tough to know who is good and who is reliable and who isn't, but the same processes are still running. The blogs will get bigger; the good ones are hiring a second helper and a third and fourth, and we'll spend a century or more sorting things out and re-creating the market. It's hard, but it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newspapers as non-profits?

We are just throwing a lot of stuff up on this blog at the moment, hoping that something will stick and conversations will bubble. But in the next few weeks, we are also hoping to get some guest essays, a few interviews, more of your thoughts. Point is, some order is probably coming.

Today’s thought comes from Geoff, who is editor for Where I Stand. He wrote this interesting article for his blog about whether not online journalism can survive the death of newspapers. One of the topics in the essay is one he expands upon in an email: Should newspapers, in fact, be non-profits?

“I wrote an essay last month that questioned why the default funding model for journalism has always been for-profit. As if reporting the truth and profits were mutually beneficial pursuits. The business of journalism isn't like the business of, say, retail. True, competitive culture partly drives the pursuit of scoops, leads and sources, but was Woodward thinking about a sales commission during all those 2 a.m. rendezvous with Deep Throat? No. And is the New York Times Iraq bureau really an efficient and streamlined use of its budget? Well, no.

“But it exists for a larger purpose than bottom lines. There's a consensus that societies are better off with a fully-functioning press yet we're willing to jeopardize it in the name of competition. Just doesn't seem like a reasonable compromise.”

I don’t know enough about non-profits co really dive into this question ... but it sure seems like there is something here. An editor once told me: “Everybody wants the news, but nobody wants to own it.” I always thought that was a weird thing to say. Now, I wonder.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thoughts of a friend

Lots of journalists are writing about their emotions these days. Here is my friend, Charlotte Observer columnist, current Nieman Fellow (at Harvard) and Pulitzer Prize finalist Tommy Tomlinson on the subject.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Douglas: Politics Killing Newspapers Too

If you ask people in the newspaper business, they will give you any number of reasons for the newspaper crisis. They will tell you that the business model is outdated. They will tell you about the downturn in the economy. They will tell you about the fragmenting of the advertising market. And so on. And so on.

However, if you ask someone who is not in the business, there’s a reasonable chance they will tell you that newspapers lost readers because of an inability to stay politically objective. Check out any story about a dying newspaper, and you are guaranteed to find many reader comments about how newspapers are no longer fair and no longer speak to all their readers.

Here is a reader, Douglas, making the point.

* * *

My dad and I grew up reading the sports section. That is really the only section of a newspaper I care about. I would subscribe to a newspaper just for that section alone. I think a lot of people would.

But over the last year in particular, newspapers have shown they care less about their readers and more about advancing political ideals. My journalism teacher turned me onto the New York Times sports section, and said it had well-written features. And it did. I enjoyed reading what their sports writers had to say. Mind you, I was just reading this online, giving ad revenue to those sponsors via a hit on their Web page.

However, this past summer, when they failed to publish John McCain’s editorial without a “process” or whatever they called it, that was the last straw. I knew about their political leanings before, but this was it. I sent them a note, telling them why I would never visit their site again, and I have not gone back since. They can do with out my Web page hit.

This is my personal story, but nationwide, when a newspaper has an obvious political bias, it “writes their own death.” It isolates half the people in America along party lines. No one wants to pay for something they can get for free if it’s spewing propaganda. Instead, they’ll flock to ESPN.com or SI.com, or the blogosphere.

But if newspapers would drop the political act, and produce actual journalism, people may again pay for print services.

Like I said, I am into newspapers for their take on the local sports teams. I love sports. I also love politics. But I do not love when the two of them mix. When I am listening to Rush Limbaugh, I don’t want to hear what he thought about Sunday’s Steelers game. And when I am watching sports, I don’t want to hear about Barack Obama.

However, I fear that the “new media” is trending down the same path that newspapers went down. Now, when I get SI the magazine, I have to see a cover story with Obama titles “The Audacity of Hoops”. I threw that issue out without ever glancing inside the cover. And today on ESPN.com, I had to see a front page story about Obama’s bracket. I am not visiting them again today, and will try and use them less in the future.

Politics is a divisive issue, and the more newspapers, or sports outlets, try to be political, they are going to divide their readers/viewers. Journalism is dead. And that’s why newspapers are dying as well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Red: The Kindle (Part 1)

A couple of days ago, I bought my own Amazon Kindle. You already know that this is the relatively new reading device from Amazon (now in its second life -- Kindle 2). It is incredibly thin, has a screen that is roughly twice as big as an iPhone and numerous buttons that make reading a book (or newspaper) extremely easy.

I bought it for two reasons: One, because, let’s face it, I am a gadget junkie and I could not wait any longer; Two, because I have for a few years now been fascinated by the concept of some kind of handheld wireless device -- bigger than a phone and smaller than a broadsheet newspaper -- that people could use to read newspapers. Haven’t we all had this thought? It just seemed to me that there are SO many advantages to a device like this:

1. It could very closely replicate the print experience without many of the various costs of printing and delivering a newspaper.
2. You could, quite reasonably, charge a subscription fee.
3. You could, it seems to me, easily incorporate advertising into the product.
4. The newspaper would then become a living thing, no longer tied to the eight-hour shackles of the printing press and circulation, and one that could be updated, wirelessly and constantly, throughout the day.
5. It would be like what they had on The Jetsons.

There are no doubt disadvantages to using something like the Kindle too, but frankly I’m not business savvy enough to see them. I mean, yes, you would have to get these devices into the hands of people. Yes, the Kindle is not the perfect newspaper device -- it would be nice to have a device that was slightly bigger and perhaps had the capability for color -- but these are technical issues and I just find it hard to believe that we do not have the technology to create a remarkable wireless newspaper. I just cannot help but see the Kindle concept as a big part of whatever is the newspaper future ... and this will no doubt be one of the ongoing themes of this blog.

Here is Red with his thoughts about the Kindle. I’ll be back with more. Please feel free to dive into the discussion via comment or email:

* * *


I believe that the age of paper delivery of the news is just about over. Is this bad? Not in my view. No more so than the loss of the local Iceman, milkman, lamplighter or the town crier for that matter.

I am old enough to have sold the evening paper on the corner to the crowds that got off the streetcars and later buses. Later I had a paper route and flung the paper from my bicycle. Most of the time I even got it near the door. These are fond memories of my youth.

Today's kids will not have these experiences. On the other hand, I have no memories of horses in the street, The Great Depression or World War II. So who's to say?

The delivery of news will continue. Newspapers don't die due to the lack of news. They are dying because no one has figured out to how to deliver news -- and more importantly advertising -- to the individual (your personal copy) without using a press, paper and ink. I like the idea of my personal copy of the newspaper. Something I can have at my desk, the dinner table or den. I believe newspapers can still do that.

Enter the Kindle (or Kindle like devices). Technology is in place now to deliver the "paper" with all it's graphics from the internet "cloud" on a lightweight hand held device A web browser on a laptop is a poor second. Imagine your "paper" delivered to your personal device every day. The only things you would miss would be going outside to pick it up, the smell of ink and and the newsprint and being able to fold it in all those weird ways folks do.

With this model the newspaper would shed it's biggest cost, that of actually printing the paper. I believe news gathering organizations can then survive and prosper.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Empty boxes

An amazing photo of discarded newspaper boxes from The Boston Globe’s “Scenes from the recession.” It perfectly reflects the recession ... and what we are talking about here. (Hat tip to Nate for pointing it out).

Non Sequitur

I’m not one to link to comics often, but this does seem to fit the general theme.

Craig: The Paperless Paper

Craig Calcaterra -- a.k.a. Shysterball -- is one of the most thoughtful voices I’ve come across on the Internet. He’s a lawyer and a baseball writer. There should be a good joke in there somewhere. Here is Craig voicing his view about a potential editorial future of newspapers.*

*A quick editor’s note: Much of what he talks about here is not new but actually quite old -- I could not help but think that some of his ideas sound like the rewrite man back in the 1940s and ‘50s who would sit at a desk, have a reporter call in news about a fire and turn that into a story. Anyway, that’s how it struck me.

* * *

The two central hurdles to get over to get us into the new era are (1) the access problem (i.e. who goes into the locker room to get the quotes and reports back from the press conferences) and (2) the usability problem of the blogsophere and other online media sources to people at large (i.e. the fact that it's really hard to know where to go for what unless, like me, you're online 24 frickin' hours a day).

What I am proposing is the transformation of newspapers into locally-organized clearinghouses for the vast world of online news and opinion, done mostly by independent agents, bloggers, freelancers, etc.

The rough outline: Ad revenue won’t support the purchase of paper and ink and delivery services and hundreds of reporters on hundreds of beats, but it could support a streamlined editorial staff and some niche reporters for whom access matters. Guys who cover the pro locker rooms and press boxes and guys who cover high level politics in which credentialing is required for space and security reasons. Most other beats can be (and increasingly are) being handled on a hyper-local level. People reporting/blogging about the PTA and the town council meetings. People reporting/blogging about the high school football game and the new shopping mall. People obsessively following the new licensing requirements for day care centers. People staying hip to the latest home and garden developments. They're all out there now already, doing their own disparate things, many whistling into the wind. Over time, however, they can coalesce into a volunteer army (mostly volunteer anyway; see below for more on this) that mixes more expository information into the subjects about which they're already writing thereby making it more useable for everyone. But yes, they can keep their opinions and hobby horses too, because I think one problem we have now is news that strains so hard to be objective that it's ridiculous. That's another rant, though.


So at the outset, burn down the current newspaper office and replace it with:

(a) the brand, archives, and history of the existing papers;
(b) a skeleton crew of highly skilled reporters to cover those access-dependent specialized beats;
(c) a streamlined editorial staff who spends way less time wordsmithing and far more time making sure every conceivable story of interest is covered in a given day’s digital-only edition.

(c) is the obvious new thing here, so let’s explore that: the editorial staff spends its time filtering content from the blogosphere and amateur reporting ranks and organizing it into usable form on the paper’s website. They’re not sitting at an assignment desk, really, as much as they’re serving the function of a crackerjack reference librarian, making sense of the sheer masses of information and opinion out there, and presenting it to the readers, who depend on them to make sense of the chaos.

They key is not to tie the paper to any specific writer or writers. Rather, the news dictates it: on Monday, the paper may feature, among hundreds of other items, stories/opinion from a guy in Brooklyn about a big housing development that broke ground. On Tuesday nothing is happening in Brooklyn, so they run with content from the uptown blogger covering the new restaurant and the guy in Queens who has a neat series going about the change in street crime over the years.The key is that every day, there are a million things happening, and as the blogosphere expands fewer and fewer things are going uncovered. The editors serve as gatekeepers, gatherers, ensurers of basic standards. The key is that the paper does not need to tie itself to much of a fixed staff and associated costs, nor does it need to worry about column inches. For the first time, we may actually get all of the news that's fit to print as opposed to the narrow swath of it for which the paper decided to devote editorial staff.

How do you incentivize/manage the content providers? Tricky, but not insurmountable. I suppose on some level a paper could have a choice: they could enter into loose and flexible syndication/freelance agreements that would allow the paper to take from the blogger what they think is worthy when they think it’s worthy, paying him some amount for used content and allowing him to otherwise ply their bloggy trade (or whatever their primary trade is) on their own simultaneously. If, however, the newspaper thinks they’ve got a great contributor, they can compensate him or her for greater degrees of exclusivity and regularity of content.

I would presume, however, that the majority of content providers would be part timers at best: people who work other jobs for a living but who use their expertise and insight into specific areas while simultaneously scratching that writing itch so many of us have and making a real contribution to civil society by keeping the rest of us informed. Nice byproduct: maybe the increasing isolation of modern life -- we spend our days with like-minded people and then retreat to our digitial caves at night -- will be alleviated as everyone not only has the incentive, but the opportunity to share some of their specific insights and interests with others.

Anyway again: so much of that system depends on the newspaper’s editorial staff making good content decisions. As we know from the present state of the papers, however, good decisions in this area aren’t a given. In a printing pressless age, however, the barriers to entry for such an aggregation service are relatively low, so if the new era newspaper is not serving the public well, a competitor “paper” will spring up and offer a better menu of contributors. Editors would soon learn, I suspect, that their job as gatekeeper isn’t as robust as that term is typically meant to mean, and the concept of “quality” is not synonymous with “a report written by a person trained at a J-school and put through a given paper’s corporate ladder.”

People want facts, some attention to grammar, balance, but not to an ignorant fault, and when we’re talking about opinion writing, intellectual honesty. Elsewise? Let people be themselves and let the information flow. Inefficiencies will reveal themselves, but incetives will exist for people to fill content vacuums. Over a period of years, however, we may very well find that we have more and better information that we ever had in the age of print newspapers.

The Killing Fields

This post is from Ed, who finds that newspapers -- the printed product -- are simply fading out of his life.

I'll tell my story because I fear I may be killing an American industry.

I've read newspapers as long as I can remember. It all started with the Sunday funnies. Those whimsical and colorful four-panel strips that told stories that often went over my head. I remember quite vividly that the local radio station would read the funnies on the radio every Sunday at a certain hour, and I was able to follow along and enjoy the tales. As years go by, the sections change but the delivery method remained the same. My interest moved to ads (what toy do I want next), and then around age 10 to the Sports section.

The Sports section was the most important part of the morning. The stats, the box scores, were my connection to another world. I would spend hours looking at the box score and recreating in my mind all the action from the previous night's games. There were no TV highlights; in my mind the images I saw were the faces from the baseball cards. But I saw images; I saw the action. And Sunday- Sunday was special. Sunday had ALL the stats for ALL the players printed on two full pages, and I would spend hours dissecting, analyzing, and reviewing all the numbers. Who had the most hits? Who had the most home runs? Every Sunday, I had to know. And what was great was that the stats were through the previous Friday's game -- they were CURRENT.

It was all there in print . And it was each and every morning. Like magic, I would wake, open the front door, and find the medium to transport me to another world waiting in the driveway. And should the paper NOT be there, well a whole round of curses for the paper boy. Damn him to heck -- give me my Sports section.

* * *

Over time, the love affair changed but it was still there. It was the Friday weekend section, where I first saw what movies were opening that day and what records were on sale at Tower Records that week. It was where I found my first job, bought my first car. The newspaper was an hour or more each day of news, views, ideas, dreams, wants, needs, good, and bad. It was the start of each day, and no day could begin without it.

Today I start each day with a glance through the e-mail and then 30 minutes on the RSS Reader. All my news delivered to the computer. I don't have to put on slippers and stroll through the dew; I wake the computer and open the browser. If I want opinion, a laugh, a provoking thought, or just a general what's-going-on, it's all online. I don't wait until Sunday to get my stats- I go to ESPN and get 100 more stats than the newspaper ever provided. If I want to know what movie opens this week (or the next 12 weeks), it's online. Buy something -- online. Local news -- online. National -- online. Want a laugh -- the internet's loaded. What's on sale? It was emailed to me that morning.

I still subscribe to my local paper. I cut down to Thursday through Sunday because I wasn't reading during the week. Even now, Thursday and Friday's paper often sits in the garage unread until Saturday. If then. Often I'm throwing away the paper, rubber band still wraped around the twice folded relic. On the days I read it, I spend a fraction of the time I used to. I skip most of the ads (saw them online), I quickly browse the sports (the news stories are half a day old, I read them at lunch the day before), and I skim the rest. I think every day about canceling. I could really use the extra money, but I just can't do it.

* * *

I know my paper is dying. It's a McClatchy paper -- it's on its last legs. Money is tight in my corner of the world, but yet for some reason I keep getting it. I can't give up on my youth, my standard news bearer. In some ways I feel that canceling my paper is canceling on my community, my city, my city's history and in so many ways my history. I tell myself that with the internet, I'm not missing the news -- I'm just getting it in shorter, quicker doses. What I lack in depth, I gain in...

I don't gain. I don't get depth. The RSS reader gives me a quick sentence or two. Sometimes I click and read an entire article, but often not. The thoughts and opinions I read are thoughts and opinions I agree with- why click or subscribe to a blog that doesn't share my values. The sports opinion now comes from national writers; I don't read the local opinions any more. I don't experience the joy of imagining a game -- I see the highlights instantly on the web. I don't wait for the weather -- I catch a bottom scroll on the tv, link on my homepage, or even a menu on the Wii. I get digital copies of the ads I want to see, and don't give a second thought to the ads I miss. I read news on my cell phone, on my computer, and on my Kindle (I'm also killing the book printing industry; go ahead and add that my iPod is killing the music industry while you're at it). I probably spend twice as long reading news, but next to no time with a newspaper. And I know that even though I still subscribe, I am transitioning further away from the newspaper. I'm killing an American industry.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's the story?

So, here's the concept of this blog: Newspapers, we all know, are drowning. There are reasons for this, numerous reasons, some complicated, some very simple, some interesting, some boring as sin. The times are changing. The economy is in the tank. Readership is breaking into niche audiences. The business model is broken. Print is dying. Newspapers lost touch with readers. Readers lost touch with newspapers. On and on and on and on and on.

People also feel very differently about what's happening to papers. Some say good riddance. Some worry for the future of Democracy. Some believe newspapers wrote their own death notice with their greed and stubborn reluctance to adjust to a changing world. Some believe this future was inevitable, that the overpowering newspaper business that once existed could not survive, it had to be picked apart piece by piece like the fish in "Old Man and the Sea." Some believe that a technological breakthrough and an economic turn can put newspapers (or whatever they will be called by then) a new life -- there are more readers now than ever before. Some think that if you hooked up a heart monitor to the newspaper business right now, you'd get a straight line.

I suspect that if this blog gets going, then we will discuss all these topics at some length. But, for now my idea for this blog is a bit different. What I am hoping it can become is a collection plate for ideas, thoughts, schemes, designs and general philosophies about the future of newspapers.

And by "newspapers" I don't mean the newsprint and ink product that may or may not get thrown into your driveway. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it is that the future of newspapers as we know them is no future at all. No, by newspapers, I am talking more about how people will get their news -- and who will be the ones delivering it -- as the future becomes now.

I'm hoping to do very little writing on this. What I would like to do is find smart people -- business people, editors, bloggers, writers, readers of all kinds -- and have them rant about the business any way they would like. Do you believe that newspapers are dying because of their political spin? Do you think the Kindle is the future of papers? Do you believe that newspapers are simply going down because of the incompetence of the bosses? Do you just want to write a bit about what newspapers have meant to your life?

I would love to have these stories or essays -- long or short -- describe what you think has happened, and more where you think it's going, if anywhere. I hope this thing can become a bit of a slot machine, where you never know exactly what you will get.

So, for that, I am hoping to go on the inspiration of friends, strangers and everyone in between. You can email me here if you have something to say, anything at all, about newspapers. And that's how this will begin.

Anyway, maybe this goes nowhere. We'll see what happens.