Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Circle of Life -- Newspaper Style

This post first appeared in Newspapers & Technology.

Back on the old sod, Mrs. Pete Monaghan came into the newsroom to pay for her husband's obituary.The kindly newsman told her that it was a dollar a word, and that he remembered Pete, and wasn't it too bad about him passing away.She thanked him for his kind words and bemoaned the fact that she only had $2. But she wrote out the obituary, "Pete died." The newsman said he thought old Pete deserved more and he'd give her three more words at no charge. Mrs. Pete Monaghan thanked him and rewrote the obituary: "Pete died. Boat for sale."That's one of my favorite stories and hints at how the business of newspapers has changed during my lifetime.On one weekly newspaper for which I worked early in my career, the publisher would post death notices and funeral times in the front window facing Main Street, making doubly sure no one missed an opportunity to say goodbye to a departed friend or foe.And everything in the obituary section (a.k.a "the Irish sports pages") was free, including the sign in the window. Charging for noticesNow, nearly every major newspaper in the country charges for death notices, obits and remembrances.When the practice first surfaced, critics made their concerns known.Nathaniel Blumberg, a former dean of journalism of the University of Montana, was among those critics."They're ghouls," he said, in a 1999 American Journalism Review article that discussed the industry's push to paid obituaries.Blumberg remembered looking up the definition of ghouls ("evil spirits that feed on the dead") before using it in this context. "The death of a citizen in a newspaper's circulation area is not only news, it's important news," he said at the time. Driving forcesTighter news holes and publishers' desire to reduce newsprint consumption have all been touted as drivers that have contributed to the emergence of the paid obit.But it isn't all economics.Newspapers also wanted to push the responsibility of getting obituary information accurate back into the hands of the family or the people who cared the most.It allowed family and friends to craft notices that reflected what they thought was important, relevant and appropriate instead of leaving it in the hands of a copy clerk or junior writer who had never laid eyes on the dearly departed.At the same time the trend toward paid obits began to blossom, the emergence of online death notices took solid root.This enabled newspapers to offer more robust interaction with their readers, providing them with such capabilities as search, guest books and almost unlimited space. More optionsBusiness propositions like Legacy.com, which provides users with format and form, developed successful models. The company, established in 1998 and based in Evanston, Ill., now boasts more than 500 newspapers as clients and partners."Visitors to the Web site can search by name for an obituary, read the comments, condolences and sentiments others have posted to the guest book, and post their own. Some 4,500 obituaries are posted each day which amounts to one of every two deaths in the United States ” and more than 600,000 guest book entries are posted each month," Legacy says about the service.Interestingly enough, Legacy.com.'s partners also sell a lot of flowers, gift baskets and condolence cards.Which brings us back (whether we like it or not) to the good widow Monaghan, advertising, and the "Irish sports pages."Some of you might think Pete's time on earth deserved more. But flowers bud, blossom and then fall: The old and ripe drop from the tree.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Directories might help papers find their way

Despite various experts’ claims, it never really was “who” you know or “what” you know. The truth is, everything depends on “how” quickly you could find out. And therein lies the secret of success for directories.

Newspapers have always been adept at telling people where to go. Now, with the advent of search engines and the splintering of traditional directory sources, newspapers offer an intriguing alternative.

Not too long ago, businesses were able rely on “the book” to help make the phone ring, but as it became two books, and then three and perhaps five in most markets, those yellowed pages are less and less relevant. You might go online, but which to use?

Readers still need to be directed.

Enter newspapers. But how?

Metroland Media Group Director of Classified Advertising Ashling Moore suggests going back to the fundamentals. Service directories, professional directories, and home improvement guides are all part of the traditional mix that might be revived with an emphasis on fresh content and timeliness.

Moore told a Suburban Newspapers of America conference last year that “Home Improvement Headquarters,” a directory in her Toronto Community Newspapers, flew because reps focused on the following points:

•The newspapers deliver weekly as opposed to annually.

•Because papers are weekly, they can be updated.

•The papers are local and focused on the area in question so the trades advertising in them are equally local and focused.

•Readers trust the community newspaper brand more than the randomness of flyers and assorted books.

Main source

Another strong selling strategy is to position a weekly newspaper directory as the “go to” source to find a service or trade’s Web site and/or phone number.

Yes, you can go to Google or Yahoo to find a plumber in you neighborhood, but why? Wouldn’t you be more inclined to pick a local craftsman out of your local paper? The paper’s service directory narrows a reader’s center of attention conveniently.

Papers have further capitalized on this trend by helping small advertisers create or enhance their existing Web presence.

This post first appeared in the March 2008 edition of Newspapers & Technology.

In these cases, the newspaper can create a limited listing or page for these smaller companies. In some instances, these may be the only Internet presence these advertisers can muster.

The trick is to make a directory “hyper-useful” to readers, advertisers, salespeople and even competitors. If you offer the easiest and best route to find that local plumber, your directory will be used.

Ease of search, relevance of the located information, brand knowledge and timeliness all play important roles on whether such directories get used. And if they are positioned with content that is also likely to serve the customer or reader of the directory, then you have a much greater chance to attract readers and get results for those advertisers.

Even online giant Google recognizes the importance of newspaper advertising. Its PrintAds program makes it easy to run ads in newspapers across the U.S. — whether you’re buying space in one paper or a hundred.

How quickly can we find the right way to direct readers and advertisers to useful advertising? Perhaps we have had the answer all along. Here’s to looking up your old address.


Press' strength remains in its roots

This post first appeared in the April 2007 edition of Newspapers & Technology

There is something very healthy and encouraging about a 130-year-old trade organization spending most of its time and energy trying to reinvent itself. I couldn’t help but noticing that during the 129th annual Colorado Press Association meeting, which was held in late February.

“Our industry is changing dramatically because of shifts in technology, and this year’s convention reflects that. Many of the programs look at innovative ways our papers are keeping pace, and even setting the bar higher, on the ever-shifting playing field of information technology,” noted Randy Sunderland, CPA president and general manger of the Delta County Independent.

In the halls of the staid Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver, one could easily walk into a conversation between several old-line, ink-stained wretches debating whether or not convergence of print and videography is viable, and if the “mojos” (mobile journalists) trend is the wave of the future.

Carol Hudler, publisher of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., and president of Gannett’s Sun Coast Group, outlined in a Friday presentation how her company dispatches high-tech news gathers with ThinkPads, digital audio recorders and video cameras (see Newspapers & Technology, January 2007).

Instead of being tethered to a desk in the newsroom (in fact, they don’t even have a desk), these mojos work from their vehicles, collecting information for both the paper as well as multiple microsites.

Sometimes, the stories are developed via “crowdsourcing,” where consumers are the creators. The writers also ask for expert help from readers. The News-Press also mines reader forums for print-story ideas and by doing so, builds stories faster using the help offered by users who participate in the gathering process.

Convergence, even in smaller papers, was another hot topic as papers like the Montrose Daily Press, the Fort Collins Coloradoan, and Steamboat (Springs) Pilot & Today demonstrated video efforts in each of their operations. Efforts ran the gamut of teaming up with local television stations — with print and video — to buying leased-access cable channels and thus creating their own programming.

That’s what Steamboat Pilot & Today did earlier this year when it purchased Colorado cable channels Steamboat TV 18 and Winter Park TV 18, beaming programming to audiences in these mountain resort communities.

Suzanne Schlicht, regional manager and director for new ventures at World West LLC, the paper’s parent company, said initial efforts were fairly basic, involving a $400 videocamera from Wal-Mart and a reappropriated bed sheet, but the important lesson managers learned was “to just get started.”

For now, the Steamboat Springs newspaper produces a daily Web update. But it hopes to begin producing a full traditional newscast for both the Web site and cable channel, providing news, sports and weather. The programming would join other content such as “Good Morning Steamboat” and “Downtown Steamboat.”

The cable channel already sports content from Resort Sports Network.

Similar presentations on new technology and new ideas dominated the rest of the meeting.

Back to roots

But the most compelling and pure moment of the celebration of newspapers and their craft hung, appropriately, on a story.

The moment presented itself Saturday, with a slide presentation by Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler and photographer Todd Heiser. The duo won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for “Final Salute,” a special report that covered Marine Maj. Steve Beck and his duties as a casualty notification officer.

From Sheeler’s words and story:

“They are the troops that nobody wants to see, carrying a message that no military family ever wants to hear. It begins with a knock at the door…

“After the knock on the door, the story has only begun.”

As always, it is the story that is important.


The medium is the network

This post first appeared in the March 2007 edition of Newspapers & Technology.

As you get older, you learn to rely less on your equipment and more on your connections. In newspaper technology, as in everything else, the distributed power of the Internet has changed not only the way we do business, but our lives in general.

It is no longer about hardware and software but it’s the network that is important.

“The network is opening up some amazing possibilities for us to reinvent content, reinvent collaboration,” wrote Tim O’Reilly. Notoriously slow moving, our industry is starting to catch on and reinvent elements of our own businesses.

Enabling formats like Adobe’s PDF have, over time, allowed us to throw something out there on that network and have everyone see it the same way - no matter what hardware or software limitations we might face.

Workflow changes

Additionally, certain tools like Microsoft’s Office suite have become commonplace across platforms and almost as universal as a claw hammer.

These standardizations have changed newspaper workflows as a result.

It is no longer a requirement that every machine in the building (from the editor’s terminal, to the photographer’s, business manager’s, publisher’s, reporter’s and so on) be loaded with thousands of dollars worth of software (QuarkXPress, InDesign, Photoshop, eleventy-billion fonts, Illustrator, more, more, more) sporting processing power enough to edit movies. In fact, it is no longer necessary that any of us are in the building.

Back in fashion

Specialization is back in fashion.

Work on the project in you own little corner, with your own little tools, on your own little bench and then transfer it to a format that we can all read. And we can then mark it up and tell you what you missed, or even open it up and add to the file with our own little tools, in our own little corner.

But we still need to be able to move our work to a common area. That makes the network all-important.

In the old days, a community journalist went to a meeting, came back to the office that night, typed up the compelling account of a zoning change and transferred his photos into photo editing software for color correction.

He then jacked around with the photo software for an hour before writing a head and plopping the story and photo onto the page that was waiting for him

The page looks OK, considering the amount of training he has had in correcting photos and his writer’s-skewed design skills.

But something seems haywire when he sends the file to the RIP.

Blending together

Meanwhile, or perhaps a night or two later, a different community journalist with a different set of skills in the next town over, but working for the same cluster of papers, does the same thing. Eventually, the two of them figure out that one of them is better at getting photos color corrected and pages choked through the processor, while the other is more a wordsmith and government writer.

Now, one stays at the office, designs the pages, corrects the photos, etc., and the other goes to meetings, connects to the network and files a story. Now they are able to acquire and use more specialized tools for their specific functions.

They like what they are doing more and are better at it. Management is happier because the equipment mix is a little less expensive. Everyone is happier.

The specialization makes even more sense as you gather more diverse talent and a wider task range.

But what pulls it all together, of course, is the network.


What bloggers want in today’s journalism

This first appeared in the June 2007 edition of Newspapers & Technology.

A reporter working for a local newspaper asked me recently if it was OK to quote Wikipedia as a source. It depends on context I thought, but realized that if the reporter did use the site as a source, he really would need to attribute many sources and not just one.

The online encyclopedia is developed by contributor input.

It’s a child of what New Yorker writer James Surowiecki termed the “wisdom of crowds,” or as Howard Rheingold noted in “Smart Mobs: The Next Revolution,” the emerging trend for group behavior based on new technologies like the Internet, wireless devices, PDAs and digital phones.

Simply, they hold that the network-connected group behaves intelligently and in an efficient manner because of the network.

New buzz

Witness the growth in crowd sourcing, citizen journalism and the transfer of power to the blogosphere for hyper-local news.

But is this shift happening because bloggers are doing a better job than traditional journalists?

Northampton, Mass.-based blogger Tish Grier, writing to me about a recent column I wrote on who qualifies as a journalist, says people are not necessarily looking for news reports from bloggers.

“I don’t know where folks in the press get the impression that bloggers are reporting the news — or that bloggers ‘want’ to report the news,” she said.

Grier is the force behind Constant Observer and also writes for Assignment Zero, the latter an attempt to bring journalists and the public together in the fashion of the open-source movement in software development.

“Actually, I think this is something that’s been hyped by folks like Jeff Jarvis and other insider/media pundit types,” her note continued. “It’s the same way that there’s a boatload of hype that ‘people’ are ‘clamoring’ for citizen journalism (not really, they’d just like their local papers to do a better job. but if somebody else gives them a better product, they’ll take it).

“Seriously, when it comes down to it, it’s really insiders in journalism who are trying to upset journalism’s apple cart — not ‘bloggers’ or ‘people’ or ‘citizen journalists.’

“When most bloggers get press creds, we’re simply writing our impressions of a scene, not doing hard-and-fast reporting. We know that, our readers know that. The only people who don’t know that are the press. If most of us wanted to be reporters, we’d become journalists (however that’s accomplished — there seems to be conflicting schools of thought on that one.)”

Taking advantage

Jay Rosen, who is executive editor of Assignment Zero, says the industry should take advantage of the possibilities provided for us by the new technology.

“An outstanding fact of the Net era is that costs for people to find each other, share information, and work together are falling rapidly. This should have consequences for reporting big, moving stories where the truth is distributed around. By pooling their intelligence and dividing up the work, a network of journalists and volunteer users should be able to find out things that the larger public needs to know,” he wrote in a letter to participants of Assignment Zero.

Grier, however, holds that it is really two different things.

“It will never cease to amaze me how the press can’t seem to get with the concept that most blogs — and most bloggers — are having conversations, not reporting. We put stuff out there to get people to talk ‘to’ us or ‘about’ what we said. It’s not about reporting at all. And maybe if we get credentialed to go into the hallowed halls of Congress — well, maybe it’s to provide a little bit of fly-on-the-wall observation and transparency to the whole process.”

Yes, and maybe the whole process can stand to be more open and subject to the give and take of what news consumers want.

I think we are likely to find that out.


Who is a journalist?

This article first appeared in the May 2007 edition of Newspapers & Technology.

“The liberty of the press is most generally approved when it takes liberties with the other fellow, and leaves us alone.” — Edgar Watson Howe, 1911.

Who qualifies as “press”? The proliferation of blogs and other new technology is forcing journalists and professional associations to hammer out new ways of defining who’s eligible for press credentials.

Consider what’s happened in Washington, D.C., where the Capitol Correspondent’s Association recently rewrote its rules governing who can sit in congressional press galleries.

The rules are strict, requiring applicants to prove that they are a full-time, paid correspondent who requires “on-site access to congressional members and staff.”

In addition, applicants must be employed by a periodical that can qualify under General Publication mailing privileges under U.S. Postal Service rules and publishes daily, or employed by an organization that disseminates original news and opinion and has been publishing continuously for at least 18 months.

Leaves us out, but …

That sort of leaves out us poor, pitiful weekly newspaper folk, but, hey, who wants to listen to Congress all day anyway.

The organization goes on to exclude anybody who does not live in the Washington area and firmly disallows any lobbying, paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work.

Yet the advent of blogging and digital punditry has transformed the business. Anybody with a computer and access to a Web site can call himself a member of the press. But merely evoking the term, much like wishing for a winning lottery ticket, doesn’t necessarily make it so.

I write about this because of my role on the board of the Colorado Press Association, which has been asked to consider issuing stricter guidelines about who can obtain press credentials.

Main concern

The main fear many have, I believe, is that by somehow posing as “legitimate press,” bloggers could further damage our already shaky reputations. But maybe some of the MSM’s reluctance is that it wants to remain exclusive and thus not admit any new members. After all, what we do is so important it forced the nation’s forefathers to make the first make-good to nothing less than the U.S. Constitution.

Bloggers, of course, have an association of their own (at least one) and they continue to flex their collective muscles as well.

Most recently, the Media Bloggers Association, a 1,000-member organization working to extend powers of the press to bloggers, was able to secure access for two blogger seats in the 100 seats reserved for media in the “Scooter” Libby trial.

Blogging status

Additionally, another blogger, Garrett M. Graff, became the first blogger to be granted a daily White House pass for the specific purpose of writing a Web log in early 2005, according to The New York Times.

In Graff’s case, his quest for White House press credentials was actually helped by members of the White House Correspondents Association.

In ensuring the invitation to Graff, the WHCA wanted to make sure it alone was responsible for redrafting the rules defining a legitimate journalist, according to The Times.

I think that point is well taken. It is up to journalists to define for themselves what is proper and correct in the context of associations and organizations offering professional credentials. But it is probably up to the public to determine whether those credentials mean anything in the future.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Newspapers in the information business?

This post first appeared in Newspapers & Technology in January, 2007.

I don’t know how many times in the last year I’ve heard someone with their feet mired in the traditional ink-on-paper newspaper business try to argue that he is really in the information business.

Some of those characters even believe it. But the cement around their ankles and thought processes keeps them slogging away with the old models and methods while the world changes quickly around them.

Tim McGuire, editor and senior vice president of the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, is quoted on the subject in “The Art of Leadership in News Organizations” by Shelby Coffey III.

“Many people have heard the old story about railroads and how they should have realized they were in the transportation business in the same way newspapers ought to realize they are in the information business,” according to McGuire. “I heard someone else say a few years ago that in fact the railroad people knew they needed to be in the transportation business. They just loved the railroads so much they couldn’t make the change. There is a lot of that in our business.”

Indeed there is.

Under attack

From adapted news cycles, changing views in objective journalism, and generally trying to come up with new ways of paying the bills, traditional newspapers quite correctly feel like the business is under attack.

And what is the natural reaction when under attack? Usually, hunker down in a hole and keep your head down. But if it doesn’t look like that is going to work, maybe it is time to try a counter-attack, or, alternatively, come out of the hole with all guns blazing.

In a world of instant feedback and precise, automated ad targeting — a lot of us waited far too long before coming out of that hole with guns blazing.

It is a bit like the scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where the whole Bolivian army is waiting.

“The losers are likely to be those companies that try to make money by pouring old-media wine into the new Web bottles,” notes Business 2.0 magazine in its March edition. “The winners will be the players that invent new ways to tap into what the Web brings to the party; instant feedback, instant analysis, and the collective wisdom of a billion users.”

Advertisers and the agencies that represent them have become much more savvy in finding out what works and what doesn’t — in a very short amount of time — and they vote with their wallets.

We have gone way past the days when someone could say, “Half of my advertising works like a charm and half does me absolutely no good, but the trouble is, I’m not sure which half is which.”

For example, ad agency Ogilvy & Mather now uses a software optimizer that runs 5,000 to 10,000 calculations every time it evaluates how well an ad campaign is working.

Dynamic results

With that data, the agency is able to pull non-performing ads right away or adapt the campaigns on the fly. And some advertising vendors on the Web have gone to a pay-for-performance program in which publishers only get paid for advertising if it sells product or creates verifiable results in the form of leads or an order.

Imagine if newspapers went to such a system.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that newspapers, with a few exceptions, don’t even do a very good job of keeping track of their own vast stores of information, much less data tracking readers and how they use the information provided.

For that reason, I think a lot of the rhetoric about being in the information business is perhaps just wishful thinking.