Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Götterdämmerung is both twilight and a dawn

In common understanding, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) is thought of as synoymous with apocalypse: a scene of utter destruction, unrelieved by hope or nuance. Yet in Nordic lore and in Wager's opera, that twilight is balanced by a dawn: as the gods pass from the scene, another race is born and emerges for its time in history's sunlight: human beings.

The concluding opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung’s most prominent moment is indeed the fall of Valhalla, a magnificent combination of musical score and stagecraft. Depending on the director, it usually features tumbling towers, clouds of smoke and rumbling peals of music. Yet as the thunder of Act Three, Scene Three recedes, the last three minutes of the 15-hour cycle are filled with ineffably beautiful music announcing the dawn of a new age.

Is this a metaphor for the passing of godlike networks and newspapers from a lost Valhalla? For the birth of a new kind of news? In some ways, yes, it is.

A McClatchy board member asked a couple of years ago what I thought the biggest change in news introduced by the internet had been. Many answers came to mind: our shift to a 24/7 news cycle, perhaps, or the introduction of powerful new tools like video and database presentation. But I settled on another: the complete erosion of the gatekeeper model.

As we saw things not many years ago, the editor was a gatekeeper, entrusted by the paper and the community with filtering genuine news from trashy sensationalism, with balancing the harm that might befall a suspect’s family with the community good of identifying him.

We took it seriously, and for more than a dozen years in Anchorage, I tried to be the best and most honest gatekeeper I could. We put things in the paper that powerful people didn’t want there, and once in a while I kept out things that staffers thought were ready to print.

Well, so what? However well (or poorly) we might have performed, those days are gone. Nowadays editors can stand at the gate if they want, but the fences are down and all the people are standing over yonder.

Of course good taste and good judgment remain important value-added ingredients we bring to the presentation of news, both printed and digital. But the notion that we have any fundamental control over what gets said or debated is already badly dated.

Far from mourning that fact, we ought to embrace it and explore the opportunities it brings. Rather than either chasing the lowest in popular taste or hiding out in an ivory tower, we can engage in genuine conversation with our audiences, learning what they think, sharing what they know and ultimately creating information that will be far more valuable and satisfying for them.

I started thinking anew about this while listening to an NPR report on crowd sourcing of innovation and design this morning. Of particular note was a sneaker company that asks customers to submit designs that are then voted on online. Winning designs get manufactured; the designer gets $1,000 and one percent of the sales revenue. The practice not only reduces design costs; it also serves as marketing for the products.

I’m not ready to let readers vote on what should be on page one tomorrow, but I can’t see any reason why we don’t ask them to weigh in later on the choices we did make. Would it be interesting to know that X% of your readers thought something you put on a-11 belonged on a-1? What about listing 10 possible story assignments and asking readers to help decide which get covered first? Why couldn’t some reporters blog the process of reporting and writing a story, detailing what questions they need answered, taking advice and later telling readers in real-time about their progress (or obstacles) in learning answers?

Yes, things are changing. Towers are tumbling, new rules emerging and old promises being broken. As an old dog, I often wish it wasn’t so. But I believe in journalism, and I believe a new dawn’s coming for those who see this through.


  1. Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes! I wish I had a more coherent comment. I just want you to know that I agree with your point. The gatekeeper model, if it ever existed, is dead. And the sooner we get that through our heads and adapt to it, the better. Thanks for your blog.

  2. Howard, beware the butt-crack!

    Howard may get the ref... but for other readers, let me explain:

    As an avid, amateur photographer I enjoy uploading photos to Flickr. After a recent trip I uploaded a set that included some of the family, some "artsy" shots, a couple of wildlife shots and a "joke" shot of some woman wearing "low-rise" pants sitting in front of us in a crowd.

    Like the proverbial plumber, there she was showing way too much of the scariest part of the human anatomy for the world to see. I though it was somewhat funny so I shot it and later uploaded it with the set.

    Enter the vaunted crowd-sourcing: With no effort whatsoever on my part (to the best of my knowledge there are no "butt crack" groups on Flickr - no I didn't look, nor should you), that shot is well on track to be one of my highest trafficked shots and has the most comments and is considered by Flickr's voodoo to be the most "interesting" of all my shots.

    A butt-crack shot is my most interesting shot?!? Now the crowd could be right on this but suddenly I'm not so ready for the gatekeepers to go away just yet.

  3. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Howard, if you have time to lean, you have time to clean, brother. It's time to grab a broom and cut the chit-chat.

  4. Anonymous2:50 PM

    Howard, please read this. It explains everything you guys are doing WRONG. Thanks.
    PS: Please forward to Gary.

    1080&add. Moving in international and financial categories.
    Cox News Service
    LONDON — Punchier headlines. Shorter stories. Bigger photos. None of them have stilled the death knell for U.S. newspapers.
    With readers migrating to the Web and ad revenue failing to keep up with the shift, American editors might look across the Atlantic for tips on how to stave off their demise.
    London, for example, is bursting with several thriving competitors, boasting at least five serious newspapers and four tabloids. In Berlin, Europe’s largest paper, Bild, reported its most profitable year yet in 2007.
    Experts say European papers are prospering largely because they haven’t followed the U.S. path of draconian — and self-defeating — cuts in scope and quality of coverage.
    “It’s a mystery to me why (U.S.) publishers think people will pay more for less, especially when the online world offers so many alternatives,” said George Kennedy, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who spent the summer in London. “It’s no accident that U.S. readership of the Economist, the Guardian, and the Times has gone up as their American competitors have cut back staff, pages, and ambition.”
    But some experts say European newspaper companies have also been more willing to experiment with new technologies, news and advertising formats, and promotions, and their innovations are paying off in continued readership.
    Perhaps the most important factor in the success of European newspapers is their effectiveness at guiding readers to their Web sites.
    According to the Newspaper Association of America, Web sites of U.S. papers attracted an average of 65.4 million monthly visitors in June. By comparison, the Newspaper Marketing Agency in the much smaller United Kingdom reported that in June, the Web sites of six large national newspapers drew 94.8 million visitors.
    The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers reported this year that European online revenues are forecast to more than double in the next five years, and will account for 12 percent of total newspaper advertising by 2011.
    Susan Kremers, owner of Newspaper Consulting Services, a Minneapolis-based company that advises publishers on how to make use of the Internet, said she has repeatedly urged U.S. newspapers to embrace the opportunities provided by an online edition.
    Too often American publishers have underinvested in the Web, she said, still choosing to view it as supplemental to the print version.
    Kremers said that U.S. papers could do much more in the area of creating expanded local content like breaking news, weather, archives, video, blogs, photo galleries, and polling options.“
    European newspapers ‘’had the benefit of learning from U.S. mistakes,“ she said. When U.S. newspapers were creating online editions in the late 1990s, she said, ‘’we were still unsure where the Web would take us.? Fearing loss of subscribers, many newspapers resisted putting their content online.?Those that embraced it as an alternate source to get their news out, didn’t have the luxury of knowing how many additional opportunities that technology would create.“
    Kremers said that European newspapers also make better use of digital technology.
    In a partnership between Bild and Vodafone, readers who want to find out more about a Bild article simply photograph it with their cell phone camera and send the photo to 4242. This gives them direct access to additional multimedia content such as photos or videos on their cell phone.
    According to the Newspaper Association of America, total daily newspaper circulation nationwide fell from an all-time high of 62.6 million in 1990 to 53.1 million in 2006.
    For the six-month period ending in March, all but two of the nation’s top 20 newspapers reported decreases in circulation. Only the Wall Street Journal and USA Today posted increases — both less than 1 percent.
    Revenues have suffered as well. U.S. papers have been especially hard hit by a decline in print classified advertising, much of which has migrated to free Web sites. U.S. papers also are being hurt by skyrocketing newsprint costs, rising fuel costs, and deep declines in real estate and automotive advertising — two areas of the economy that are suffering badly.
    While U.S. newspapers depend on advertising for about 75 percent of their revenues, in Europe the figure is 50 percent or less, according to Chris Kubas, of Kubas Consultants. But the trend may be shifting, according to the World Association of Newspapers. The group found that over the past five years, the growth of ad-supported free dailies has more than offset a fall in paid circulation, with the result that total free and paid circulation has increased 9.61 percent in the European Union.
    Some papers saw success after modifying their shape.
    Five years after launching a tabloid format, London’s Independent was selling 30,000 copies a day more than its broadsheet predecessor, although it has struggled over the past year.
    The Times, too, posted gains in sales after switching to a tabloid format in November 2004 following more than 200 years as a broadsheet.
    Mario Garcia, whose Florida-based Garcia Media helps redesign newspapers around the world, believes there are a number of reasons why U.S. newspapers are struggling.
    One is an unhealthy dependency on focus groups.
    ‘’Many times an innovative concept is shut down by readers who simply are not used to it and therefore dismiss it as foreign to them,“ he said. ‘’I definitely find that editors outside of the U.S. are more likely to let gut feeling, their nose, their eyes, or just a sense of street savvy, help them make decisions when it comes to introducing new concepts.“
    Garcia also said U.S. editors haven’t been innovative enough when it comes to presenting advertising.
    At many papers, such ideas as ‘’sponsorship ads for the weather or TV listings is seen as intruding into the landscape of the editorial integrity of the paper,“ he said.
    In addition, Garcia said, European newspapers often package the sales of ads for cell phones, print pages, and online sites, an initiative not happening widely at American newspapers.
    Kennedy, the Missouri professor, also noted that British papers market themselves much more aggressively than American papers.
    London’s Sun tabloid recently ran a promotion targeted at upscale Londoners giving them the chance to buy opera tickets at greatly discounted prices. The result? When Mozart’s ‘’Don Giovanni“ premieres next month at the Royal Opera House, all 2,200 seats will be packed with Sun readers.
    ‘’The years of effective local monopoly seem to have sucked out of American papers most of their aggressiveness of imagination when it comes to selling themselves to either readers or advertisers, Kennedy said.

    (Optional add follows)

    Central Michigan University journalism professor John Hartman said he believes U.S. papers should be free in order to attract more readers.
    “But publishers are reluctant to give up 20 to 25 percent of their revenue,” he said.
    Hartman said a different kind of marketplace also has benefited European papers.
    “Europeans simply are more literate and more contemplative than we are, and less infested with video worship,” Hartman said.

  5. Anonymous9:26 AM

    I'd like to know what someone at was thinking when they ran this item under "top stories" -- "Mickey Rooney Heartbroken at Racism Charges from 1961 Film Role". Who cares? Seems a little more was happening this weekend than that.

    This is why it's known as "", or as the joke goes, "Sacbee, where you get yesterday's news today".

  6. Anonymous7:19 AM

    I notice the art you used was copyrighted. Did you get permission to use it. I run into this many days. The art to illustrate the horrors of illegal file sharing? Grab something from the internet.

    PS: It's yesterday's news tomorrow.

  7. I linked the image to the original book jacket on Amazon, where it could be purchased. I think that avoids any charge of appropriation. Generally speaking authors and illustrators appreciate exposure, rather than resisting.