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, 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 or -- 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 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, 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 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’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, 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 and 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.