Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Are newspaper stories too long?

It's hard to argue with a story titled "Cut this story!" so I won't. Michael Kingsley, one of the more original thinkers among print journalists, opines in the Atlantic that newspapers are in trouble because their stories are too long. I think he's right. And he's wrong.

Newspapers are filled with way too many stories that aren't the length I'd want. Let's use the Journal Sentinel for example. Today's paper offers us yet another story on the Asian carp that's way too long, a wire story on the intelligence failures of the Christmas would-be bomber that a bit shorter than I wanted, a story on the debate over the mayor's takeover of MPS proposal that I don't need to read because I've already got all the information I needed to know about the subject and a story on tickets for the Packers that's probably about the right size (I have no interest in the subject so I didn't read it). On the other hand, it carried only a wire story on a Milwaukee gardener who set off alarms in an airport with bottles of honey and a story on a mother accused of serving liquor to middle-schoolers that cried for more detail. Most stories seemed about right.

I think it comes down to how interested we are in a subject. My brother-in-law with an autistic child reads every story he can get on autism and wants more. I love archeology so I read every story on fossils or old bones. I also follow an out-of-state basketball team and read reams on it. But not too many people want to read anywhere near as much as I do on those subjects.

Here's a case where newspapers could use the Internet wisely. I'd cut those huge stories, but link to huge stories online. I'd offer more on fossils -- online. Just as the JS brings in lots of readers who pay to read its Packers' Plus section, it could attract a lot of us online if it offered more content.

Kingsley writes about the style of writing, and he's correct in that stories often are too long, but he's wrong in that they often aren't long enough. Journalism is exciting because today we can write to a variety of lengths -- and we should.

With even free lance pay down, where will journalism come from?

For some time my mantra has been "newspapers may die but journalism will live on." That's because I truly believe it is needed, at least in its traditional role of informing the public. I still believe that it's needed.

But for the first time I must admit to cracks in my belief about journalism living on. That's because to live, it needs support, and I don't see where it's coming from. Publishers have cut not only all the fat, but most of the muscle and are now into bone in their operations. Today, I read that free lance payments are at their lowest point ever.

The new media promoters are all over the place proclaiming that it doesn't matter if newspapers and magazines fold because we can get all the news we need from new media sources, blogs and aggregators. I read more blogs than most people (I check in with at least 40 a day) and look at the news aggregators regularly, but that's not how I keep track of what's going on because the blogs are all limited in scope, often opinionated, and few do good journalism. The aggregators like Google News or Yahoo News are limited by what they find. Far too often they are dominated by blogs or esoteric sites, many of them failing even the most elementary journalism tests of objectivity and attempts to completely cover issues.

If all the professional content providers like newspapers and magazines go away, where will the aggregators find news?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New, larger e-reader announced

The newest e-reader just announced is larger than the Kindle and is touted as aimed at newspapers and magazines. It's a new technology that has gotten a lot of attention, although some reviewers are critical (ZDNet's blog says this: "While this e-reader is an interesting approach to displaying printed content digitally, it makes for difficult mobility and a lack of color consistent with other e-readers"). But it's larger size and flexibility seems to offer some advantages.

The device uses a thin, flexible sheet of steel, which the company claims is stronger than glass, and allows it to move around. Seems to me that it would be easier to read, although the larger size cuts into portability. Still no color, though.

Report says advertising to rise in 2010

New report predicts advertising will pick up in 2010. J.P. Morgan analyst sees gains all over the place in a report jammed with estimates. I don't see a breakdown between Internet and print in this (it seems mostly Internet), but there are a lot of ramifications if the projections prove true. For example, analyst Imran Kahn predicts a big rise in ecommerce, which has broad economic implications. He also predicts a big growth in global search and another in social media.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A nice look at media history and its possible futures

"Down the centuries, people have fought for the right to know more. It would be truly ironic if that struggle were to be halted in the face of history’s most liberating communications technology."

I seldom like quote leads, but I thought this one totally summed up a fascinating essay in today's Irish Times by Roy Greenslade, a journalism teacher in London. His essay does a great job of putting today's media into its historical context. As he traced the past, information speed is what's been increasing over the centuries, not information. As delivery systems change (carrier pigeons through the Internet), improved speed is what we see.

And that improved speed and access has dramatically widened the media we can consume. For example, I'm able to pick up Greenslade's essay. This is a big improvement. So is expanded media access.

But there is a downside. What if nothing replaces old media and it dies? Who will hold government's feet to the fire? We're already seeing this in Milwaukee where the Journal Sentinel isn't covering government as it used to so we have one politician who consistently misstates the truth with only a few bloggers pointing out the emperor has no clothes.

But go read Greenslade for a deeper understanding of what's happening.

Optimism in the newspaper industry

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that a recent spurt of advertising has created some optimism in the newspaper business. I've noticed (and maybe it's not new, but it seems new to me) a resurgence of automobile advertisement in the Journal Sentinel. I've wondered for some time when advertisers will start wondering if all that cheap Internet advertising actually works. I still haven't seen anything showing it does. I still keep wondering if the real estate industry's flight from newspapers to the Internet might not have something to do with the housing slump (sure, that industry's in trouble along with the rest of the world's industry, but it seems to me that the Internet isn't the most efficient way to choose houses).

Sometimes, delivery is the problem -- Updated

Update: I sent a copy of the following post from this morning to Elizabeth "Betsy" Brenner, publisher of the Journal Sentinel, and received several polite and informative replies both from her personally and from Rick Debroux, the company's distribution director. In short, they apologized for the problems and are investigating what happened with the incorrectly inserted sections. Mr. Debroux reported that two of the boxes mentioned had broken latches and the third had been repaired recently. It was the sort of response that could be expected from a company that, as Ms. Brenner said in her response, takes customer service seriously. It's also the kind of thing that may well keep the newspaper around for a long time.

*** *** ***

Jeff Cohen of Shorewood reads the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For a variety of reasons, he buys the paper each day (this should bring cheers from JS management), and he generally purchases it from a machine or at a gas station or nearby grocery store. Suddenly he has two problems, and they are indicative of the major problems facing the newspaper industry.

Seems the extreme cuts in staff by the JS have devastated its delivery system. There are only three newspaper boxes left on Jeff’s route from his apartment building to a bagel shop he visits each morning to drink coffee, eat a bagel and read the paper. The box at the corner of Capitol and Oakland this morning still showed the newspaper from December 22 in its window; the box in front of the Post Office has been empty since then, and the box in front of the bagel shop (an Einstein’s) won’t open even after the money is put in. At least, he says, it does return the money when you hit the return, which isn’t true of many newspaper boxes.

Now he has a new issue, and one that I think is very serious (not that the others aren’t either since they are cutting into circulation). He purchased a Sunday paper at a gas station, started reading it only to find that several of its sections were a week old (EntrĂ©e, the Comics and advertising sections within the comics). He checked at the grocery store and found it was the same.

We’ve talked about how the amazing thing about the newspaper industry isn’t that it’s lost customers, but that it’s still got so many of them despite higher prices and much less content. Now the paper is completely mistreating customers by not making current papers available and passing off old sections as new. It not only shows a disregard for customers, but also is indicative of a very poorly managed delivery system. As Jeff says, “Why would I subscribe when the service is so lousy?” Why indeed?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Post ombudsman offers his take on journalism's future

With all of us looking at the future of media, it's interesting to read the column today by Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander. It's a good summary of changes made by the Post as it moves much of its emphasis to the Internet, although acknowledging that it's print that pays the bills. There are many stories and different takes on journalism's future. They all add to our understanding, this one more than most.

The case for new media -- and against it

Interesting blog takes a tack that is seldom heard from: the news consumer. Blogger Joel Mathias of points out -- accurately -- that the Internet has brought us opportunities to sample far more media than most of us were able to read in the past. At the same time, he says, newspapers aren't making money. So what's the answer? Mathias doesn't really offer one, but he makes the case for both the best and worst of journalism today.