Saturday, December 12, 2009

New media making old media mistakes, again

I've held off commenting about Facebook's latest privacy mistake (actually, it's a privacy attack) because it's such an easy target. The company, clearly attempting to increase its profits, unilaterally puts into effect sweeping changes that opens our information to the world, then retreats little bit, but still leaves us unsure about what actually is happening with our information, which is why you won't find much personal information on my site and, frankly, shouldn't find much on your's either.

But as I was reading some of the comments today (more than 150 news stories on Google news) and noting a question on Twitter by my colleague and new media advocate Linda Menck about the future of Twitter, I was once again struck by the way lousy American business executives seem bent on ruining their media product by stupidity and total disregard for the customer. New media is being run just as stupidly as old media, and, frankly, it faces the same bleak future.

My personal concerns are (1) privacy, (2) commercialization, (3) privacy, (4) arrogance in changing my settings without any approval, (5) privacy, (6) attempts to harness my history to specific advertisers, (7 and a hundred or so more) privacy. Yes, I suppose it's nice for advertising to be targeted to my interests. But it doesn't really seem to match up. And I end up questioning the need for everyone to know just when I look online as well as what I share with my family and friends. Linda decries the commercialization of Twitter (I was tweeting about an earlier post on this blog; that could be commercialization, I suppose), and she's correct. She asks what the answer? It's not out there as of now.

Reporter's firing prompts criticism

Another case where a reporter's private views cost him a job involves a Catholic reporter and a gay-lesbian support group, and raised once again the question of how the freedom offered in new media (in this case a private email from a non-work account) can affect journalists.

The reporter, Larry Grard, was fired by his newspaper, the Waterville Morning Sentinel, in Maine, after he wrote an email responding to a press release from the Human Rights Campaign decrying Maine's vote denying same-sex marriage. The newspaper also cancelled a free-lance column his wife wrote.

Certainly we've long had ethnics policies saying reporters shouldn't get take positions in political situations, but this case -- especially the cancelling of Grard's wife's column -- brought the issue up again.

Tiger Woods, gossip and journalism

Nicholas DiFonzo takes on the role of gossip and Tiger Woods, arguing in today's Wall Street Journal that society learns from gossip.

"Out of the vanity and cruelty of gossip, though, can come socially beneficial consequences. That is the gossip paradox: just when we thought the airwaves and tabloids could not tell any more lurid tales about the moral failings of sports figures that we admire, it turns out that maybe we're learning something," he writes.

"Beware the lure of infotainment," preaches Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in "The Elements of Journalism." They say that infotainment, that category of focusing on entertaining news, drives away serious journalism, along with many other problems. DiFonzo makes a good case for good that comes from our reporting gossip.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading, writing and the American culture

A fascinating essay in today's New York Times' Styles section by Michelle Slatalla delves into a problem that I believe is becoming endemic among Americans, and poses significant concerns not only for those of us in the media but for our culture as a whole.

She writes about how she's finding it difficult to read books, even though she has read books for most of her life. She is experiencing something that studies have been showing is becoming more and more a problem. As we read, but only in short slivers (such as this post), or watch only parts of comedy shows (SNL skits on YouTube, for example), we are losing the ability to concentrate on longer-form media. It becomes worse with our multi-tasking, such as reading a newspaper, checking email while watching a movie on television (that was me last night). Because we really aren't doing justice to any of the three, we lose attention. And it's the longer-form that needs it the most.

Now that you've read this short form, follow the link and read the longer form of Slatalla's original thought. Then maybe, a whole book. Trust me, you'll feel better in the morning.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bulletin! Print isn't dead

Print -- even newspapers -- isn't dead, according to a long takeout on the Editor & Publisher website. Even with daily newspaper circulation off 10.6 percent, higher prices and content cuts, the report finds reasons for optimism. Every time I see figures like that, I think of media analyst Alex Jones' comment that the above figures actually show the medium's strength -- 90% of newspaper readers are willing to pay more for less content for something they can get free on the Internet. If I were a newspaper publisher, I'd be throwing those number at advertisers (or former advertisers). He's absolutely correct, and it shows that the print model works.

Of further importance, buried in the story is a finding that directly ties content to readers. One study found a direct tie of price and content. "When asked about the perception of content
in tandem with price increases, the survey found a 4-to-1 gap in price versus defection. For example, if the paper raised the subscription price but readers felt they were getting more content, the fall-off in volume would be around 10%. At the same price, if readers felt like they were getting less content, volume would fall by 40%," E&P reported.

Of course, newspapers still have to deliver the paper. The Journal Sentinel announced it was cutting 39 more jobs, most in circulation. This comes after the mishandled newspaper dramatically reduced its content producers, sales personnel (doesn't it sort of make sense that you might want to strengthen sales if that's a problem, not cut the staff so badly that regular accounts are complaining not to mention all the potential accounts that aren't being contacted?), and the rest of the company (except, of course, for executives; after all, the company felt it had to give CEO Steven Smith a retention bonus last year since the market for CEOs who watch 90 percent of a company's value disappear is so large). That the continued cuts are hurting has showed the past few days when its website wasn't operating properly on some browsers and, so far at least, no one at the paper has noticed.

But, mismanagement aside, the print platform continues strong, and it's the job of print media to start telling their story effectively.

Email discussion continues

The debate about whether email is dying continues, with one veteran Internet marketer still seeing it as the preferred method of contacting potential customers. It's not that the marketer, Eric Kirby, is opposed to other methods -- in fact he cites a recent Outback Steakhouse promotion on Facebook as a great example of using social media -- but that it's still the widest used platform with little change in usage (87 percent of people prefer it, he says). In fact, the Outback promotion was used to gain email addresses.

Frankly, email works, it's worked for a long time, and it makes sense for those of us who can't (or won't) check Twitter or Facebook multiple times a day. For media folks, keeping track of how people communicate is vital, so this discussion is important.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twitter's future depends on changing human nature?

Simon Dumenco of Ad Age offers ten lessons he's learned from Twitter. I especially like his number nine, which posits that Twitter's future depends on our changing human nature. I doubt it.

If rumors are enough for you. . .

I love well-thought-out lines that really nail a thought so I wanted to share this from Christoph Keese, head of public affairs and an architect of the online strategy followed by the publishing giant Springer (publisher of Europe's biggest daily newspaper). Talking about the need for journalism, he said: “A highly industrialized world cannot survive on rumors."

Keese wants publishers to work with Internet companies to create a “one-click marketplace solution” for their online content with Internet gateways displaying links to newspaper articles, videos and other content from a variety of providers, as search engines do now. But some of the items would include something new: a price tag.

Free journalism is an example of getting what you pay for (see most newspapers, which are in the process of slashing their staff members by the scores or, even cheaper, Internet websites depending on free reporting). If you think rumors are enough news for you, please come by just about any McDonald's or bagel restaurants in the morning and listen to the fact-free zone. I am stunned at what I hear that passes for fact.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thinking about the sports game story

Erin Sheehan, former editor of the M.U. Journal and currently with guest relations for the Atlanta Braves, passed along a link to a column by Jason Fry at the National Sports Journalism Center suggesting radical changes in the sports game story.

She was correct in that the column was thoughtful and interesting. Its premise was that the sports game story – the mainstay of most sports pages – is outdated, dull and unable to compete with all the other ways sports fans have of getting information about a game (or other sports event). Fry is correct; most game stories are all of the above. However, as a sports fan (and former sports writer in a bygone era), I think the game story is still the most important story in most sports sections.

First, let’s deal with that pesky competition angle since that’s what most new media folks have used to convince newspaper editors to commit seppuku by saddling beat writers with tons of other stuff. Yes, we know who’s won; we probably look at the box score or other statistics before reading the game story; we may well have seen the highlights on “Sportscenter.” So? We’ve long known one fact that seems to get lost in all the speculation about competition – people who have gone to a game are more likely to read a game story than those who didn’t go to the game. So much for the competition problem. People don’t care about the competition; if the story’s any good, it will be read.

Second, Fry suggests four tactics – two of them are the surrender mode adopted by most newspaper editors, but the others, reinvigorate and reenergize them, are worth following. The reason sports fans who have been to a game want to read the game story is to put what they’ve seen into perspective. They want the quotes, the play-by-play of key moments, and the analysis. They’ll also seek out the best story they can find among all the stories. If it’s not in the newspaper but some new media form, that’s what they’ll find. One of the advantages of new media is that sports fans today have a lot of options, and I’ll bet they use them all. I read ESPN and The Sporting News online daily in addition to sports sections from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, New York Times and, sometimes, USA Today. And I sure read various takes on the same story. But I read them anyway. A good story works every time, and, frankly, I see an awful lot of smart young journalists like Erin Sheehan in classes and student media at Marquette (and lots of other schools). Give them time and opportunity and watch them do their own reinvigorating and reenergizing.

Pete Hamill on journalism, a must-read

Great interview with Pete Hamill on about journalism that should be read by every aspiring journalism. Following is his answer on writing columns:

"The editor is part of it. If you’re writing a column and the editor says go cover the Vietnam War or go cover the World Series or the last fight of Sugar Ray Robinson, you go. But most of the time you’re making choices. What I did as a columnist because I liked (Jimmy) Breslin and (Murray) Kempton and a lot of people after that, the opinions in the column were based on the reporting. You went somewhere. My routine was to call in fairly early and see what was on the AP datebook and the paper datebook and see what was the best thing for me to cover. And make sure nobody else was going to be there.

"I was a generalist. I wanted to cover politics on Monday and the Rolling Stones on Wednesday and whatever I felt like, a good murder, on Friday. You learn more that way. You can tell when a guy is at his 27th World Series. The prose flattens out. The sense of surprise is gone. It’s like another day at the office. If you can keep enthusiasm going for a lifetime, then it’s better to be a generalist. . You can pick assignments that force you to read three books before you show up if you want to."

Should news be free?

Arianna Huffington offers a long defense of new media (actually it's an attack on old media attacks on new media) in which she poses arguments that aggregators are doing news sites a service.

There's a lot of thought and good points in the article from the Chicago Tribune, along with some fuzzy thinking and deceptive numbers (for example: "Did you know newspaper advertising fell nearly 19 percent this year while Web advertising is up 9 percent and mobile advertising is up 18 percent?" Probably true, but using percentages hides the fact that the bases are so dissimilar, which means that the money lost is newspaper advertising is a heckavua lot more than the money gained in web advertising).

A big part of her problem, as is much of what I read about this situation, is due to differing definitions of "news." Huffington says, and I agree, that charging for "news" won't work since there are many free sites. But are columns news? Analysis pieces? The Journal Sentinel's "Packers Plus?" For example, if I ran a "news site," I'd charge for all the extras -- those things that just can't be found everywhere. For example, I enjoy reading Bill Simmons on sports or Andrew Sullivan on culture or Frank Rich on our society. Why should everything they write be free? Should everything Bob McGinn writes on the Packers be free? I don't think so. I strongly suspect Huffington was paid for writing her piece -- and she should have been.