Thursday, July 31, 2008

For want of an "a"

Note: this post and comments were mysteriously removed when Etaoin Shrdlu was locked down as a suspect spamblog last week. I'm restoring it now.

Without other comment, I offer these links to a very public fight between a writer and his editors, British style.

Warning: Very offensive language.

1. Writer to copy editors (called subeditors, in the UK)
2. Copy editors to writer.

Thanks, Daring Fireball for pointing this out.

I wish we were a rock & roll band

We're working hard across McClatchy to discover and embrace new relationships with our audiences, moving from the old gatekeeper paradigm to a new model of conversation, sharing and co-creation. It's a huge shift for us, coming right in the midst of wrenching economic dislocation, but so what? The payoffs are enormous: survival, and, more importantly, better tools for democracy.

These relationships are shifting everywhere. One of the most analogous for us, in some important ways, is the music industry. In the midst of a wrenching economic dislocation ("They're not buying CDs! They're stealing songs on p2p networks!") traditional record companies are hurting. Many artists are likewise dislocated (remember Metallica's stance?) while others proved impressively prescient (believe it or not, see Courtney Love's analysis).

Long before the age of Napster or Limewire – back when music piracy meant bad bootleg concert tapes and stolen studio recordings – the Grateful Dead had already explored the new frontier. Their business model, now a commonplace amongst many progressive bands: "Give away the music and sell the experience." (John Parry Barlow (among his many other accomplishments, he was a Dead lyricist) has written presciently on such matters; start your exploration with The Economy of Ideas.)

This is all a rather longwinded way of introducing you to this website devoted to R.E.M.'s world tour 2008. It's an "official" band website, but it's entirely fan driven – a tour de force of tagging and the integration of social media tools.

Isn't there a community of people who care about, oh the Iraq war, for instance, who might come together in such a shared environment if we made that possible? Could you discover geographically bounded communities (our real venue as a business) that would love their leading local media company to empower this for them? What other, better ideas can you think of?

Yeah, it's the end of the world as we know it (sorry). But there's another world awaiting.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

U.S. Army Field Manual

click to enlarge

I read this in Harper's Magazine some time in the 1970s and typed this copy on my IBM Selectric. I kept it under the glass on my desktop for many years during the Alaska Newspaper War and always found the advice helpful in making plans. I found it in a folder recently (while looking for something else, of course.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In the video business

Now and then you get a note – like this one from interactive director Andy Perdue at the Tri-City Herald (42,000 Sunday) – that makes you feel good about what we're doing. I'll just share it as he sent it:

On Sunday, the Tri-City Herald was out in force covering our annual hydroplane races, which take place on the Columbia River between Kennewick and Pasco. It's an event that attracts 60,000 people.

Before Heat 3A, a pleasure craft just downriver from the races burst into flames. People were jumping into the water, etc. It was quite the spectacle.

Fortunately for us, we had five photographers covering the races from all angles, along with two video cameras operated by Interactive Media. Before the fire was even put out, we had posted a story, a photo gallery and two
videos. The story went up within five minutes, and the other pieces were added over the next 20 minutes. The video shot by our summer intern was astonishing - so good that King 5, the Seattle NBC affiliate, called us for
footage instead of the local NBC station (which was offering live coverage of the races but was out of position to shoot the fire).

Traffic to the site immediately and dramatically spiked, and that traffic continues today.

For us, the lesson is that we are prepared to cover anything anywhere at any time. We have the tools and the skill sets. In this case, we also were in the proper position to take full advantage - and we smoked the competition.

Here's a link to the daily story (with all assets attached).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Only twits ignore Jarvis on links

When Jeff Jarvis dies (and I hope that's a long time from now), perhaps the best choice for an epithet would be "Do what you do best and link to the rest." In that short phrase he has summarized much central, essential truth about media in the new globally networked world.

As we struggle with reshaping our operations to fit into new revenue realities, you need to understand these issues at a fundamental level. There is much more here than an argument for aggressive aggregation (though it includes that, in spades). Surrounding that specific issue are concepts like shifting from scarcity and abundance, and questions about to protect the value of expensively produced content when perfect copies can (and will) be made instantly available.

And aside from the economics (a hard subject for us to get beyond, at the moment) there is this ultimately more important question: What is best for society? How can we serve audiences best as we advance the public service mission of accountability we have so long espoused?

There is no better place to start exploring than with Jarvis, whose prickly style (he sometimes dismisses those he disagrees with simply as "twits") and politics-on-my-sleeve digressions will discomfort traditionalists. But only a twit would fail to appreciate what a wide swath of fertile new ground he is plowing.

This useful summary is from a recent Jarvis column in The Guardian:

Links are the currency of the new media economy. We bloggers think we're doing AP and papers a favour when we link to their articles. I teach my journalism students that their headlines and intros are more important than ever because these are the advertisements that will draw people to click links and read more.

The problem for AP and other syndicates is that they are trapped in an old-media economy, selling their content to publications to support their work. In print, we needed countless copies of an article. But now, online, we need only one copy with countless links to it.

Update: I was reminded to write this post this morning when I watched my not-so-webbish wife click on a story at our national website, read the three graphs there and then click again to go to for the remainder. Win, win, win.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A caution against the categorical

Many of the smart, passionate people who are arguing for a new definition and practice of journalism – I'm thinking here mainly about Jay Rosen, Howard Owens ( jayrosen_nyu and howardowens on Twitter) and, in a somewhat different way, Jeff Jarvis – are in danger of suffering from baby-with-the-bathwater syndrome. Too often, they propose simple, categorical resolutions to complex and nuanced issues.

(Update: Following a good Twitter exchange with Jay, let me clarify: I certainly don't mean to be categorical myself in suggesting all these folks hold all the attitudes I find misguided. You'd profit from reading their thoughts in whole at their sites).

Both the business model and relationship with audience for traditional news companies are under huge stress. Both must change in dramatic ways, quickly.

But that doesn't mean everything we've learned about value-added information and public service journalism – fairness, ethics, professionalism – ought to be jettisoned for a new launch. As I have argued many times here, the better model is evolution, not revolution. (See Reign of Terror.)

In the spirit of helping further their very useful deliberations, I offer the following in a cautionary spirit:

In the play “A Man For All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s drama of Sir Thomas More as he struggles in “the thicket of his imagination,” two scenes illuminate the dangers of wholesale rejection of ideology, convention and (in More's case) laws by passionate reformers. I suggest some parallel for those who would reject the conventions and established disciplines of journalism as they explore the beguiling new frontiers opened by global, read/write networks.

Towards the end of the first act, Sir Thomas More is with his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and his son-in-law Roper. They are clamoring for the arrest of an individual. Margaret tells her father that the man is bad. More replies, "There's no law against that." Roper tells him, "There's God's law." More answers, "Then let God arrest him."

More continues with a lesson to his son-in-law: "The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal, not what's right, and I'll stick to what's legal." Roper accused him of setting man's law above God's. More answered, "No, far below. But let me draw your attention to a fact. I am not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong I can't navigate. But in the thickets of the law, oh there, I'm a forester."

Later, Roper argues straightforwardly for the necessity of abandoning, even destroying established law in the service of his own perception of God’s higher ordinances:

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

(I don't have the play in front of me; I remembered these basic scenes and Googled for the quotes used above).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Design by committee

Please do not spit on the floor

I really value the chance to write for this blog now and then, practically the only writing I do these days except for speeches and memos. I am grateful and appreciative of the fact that some people make it a practice to stop by and read what I write; many also take the time to comment. Some even do me the favor of disagreeing when they think I'm wrong, as I have been and certainly will be again.

A few just turn to ad hominem declarations and simple name-calling. When it's directed at me, I usually don't much care, but I am advised by more experienced bloggers to police things to some degree. Otherwise the climate simply continues to devolve, driving out more appropriate, useful participation.

I'm going to treat this like a saloon. I want folks to come in and have a good time. I want you to drink here, and it's okay to drink too much, to get rowdy and yell. But it's my saloon and if you start to spit on the floor or break the furniture, I intend to throw you out. (Yeah, I'm talking about you, tough boy. And I'm the guy to do it.)

Those who feel constrained by this are, of course, welcome to do what I did: start your own free blog and make your own rules. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I.

Putting the "me" in media

This photo will say a lot of different things to different people. (To see the supersized original version, click on the photo above).

One thing it clearly illustrates is the urge and capability of people to be their own media: look at all the cameras, cellphones, even computers being aimed at Barack Obama by the jubilant people in this Berlin crowd. It's astonishing. It means something.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Two high-profile departures from the Tribune ranks this week reminded us that not everybody is going to make it through this transition in the news business.

Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski is a clear-headed, tough-minded journalist of considerable talent, and she will be missed. David Hiller, who was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, left less impression on the profession, though his exit foreshadows darker days ahead for staffers there. Their departures come as all the Tribune operations cut both staff and newshole to help meet debt payments amidst falling revenues.

Believe me, I know how it feels. General economic conditions remain grim, and earnings reports from newspaper companies offer scant promise of rapid revenue improvement. News companies rely heavily on advertising from retail, auto sales, real estate and employment. None are healthy right now.

This is the fire on the burning bridge – making it both hard to get across, and imperative that we do so.

There are a number of convenient scapegoats for this situation (I’m apparently one, myself), but despite that, no easy answers. The integrated, multimedia firms we still call “newspaper companies” may be the only medium still showing growth in total audience, but that hasn’t translated into sufficient revenue to pay for our expensive journalistic habits or inefficient old operating methods. The result, inevitably, is continued cuts and contractions.

Unless carefully managed, these can deteriorate into a feedback loop of frightening intensity, in which cuts cause declines ... which demand cuts ... which cause declines ...

The way out of any feedback loop, from greenhouse gases to newspaper woes, is to interrupt it. Stop the bleeding, then fix the problems. We can, and we are.

Doomsayers and anonymous commenters don’t want to acknowledge it, but newspapers remain the foundation of the most powerful news-gathering organizations in the world. We’re stretched making debt payments while revenues decline, but we’re making them. McClatchy has paid off hundreds of millions in KRI debt and is on track to meet our year-end target of about $2.1 billion.

Critics and dreamers want a silver bullet. There isn’t one. We’re going to have to work and manage our way out of this, day by grinding day. We cut expenses, painful as that may be. We’re selling non-strategic assets (newsprint companies, excess real estate). We’re engaged in partnerships both to reduce expenses -- like shared production facilities or distribution deals -- and to extend our reach, as with the Yahoo partnership and Google ad auction deals.

And there is much more yet to come. Complex systems do not lend themselves to simpleminded fixes, no matter what academics or dilettantes might argue. (They remind me of nothing so much as Nelson Algren’s observation about the dangers of literary conferences, where you will hear one-book wonders describe “the failures of Paine, the failures of Twain, the failings of Wolfe, the failings of Faulkner.” As I recall, this is from an essay in The Last Carousel). We are working as hard as possible across a bewildering array of fronts, learning, experimenting, testing. We're getting better.

Meanwhile, we are growing audience and online revenue. In the teeth of a brutal economic environment, we remain profitable and are investing in growth opportunities.

We have hard choices yet to make and much work yet to do, but McClatchy remains a mission-driven, public service journalism company devoted to sustaining and advancing its 151-year legacy.

Lots of people seem to want to bet against us. I’ve got a grand here that says they’re wrong. Any takers?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What about better writing?

We need lots of new bells and whistles, databases and widgets. We also need to employ the tools we have more effectively.

Nothing in the arsenal is even nearly as potent as narrative text.

We should write better. Stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end. There should be emotional connections for readers, conclusions, a pay-off for the time readers invest.

Hey, I recognize that not every story (or even most of them) lends itself to narrative treatment. I’m all about alternate story forms, visual journalism, web 2.0 techniques, co-creation and all the rest.

But I am also hungry for storytelling, for writers who can work their magic on a preliminary hearing in a murder trial, or a heated exchange at the city council, or a lonely immigrant worker who misses home. Edna Buchanan, Jimmy Breslin, Francis X. Clines.

No six-year old will ever tug at your sleeve and ask, “Mommy, tell me an article.”

But stories? Oh yes, please.

We need more.

(I will start a new folder called "Better writing" on McClatchyNext where you can share winning examples from your paper or website. Please do.)

P.S. Yes, I also see the notice about upgrading the site at McClatchyNext. I have inquired with PBwiki about doing so; I am honestly not just stiffing them on the bill.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tune in for tomorrow

Several of your cousins are at the Knight Digital Media Center in L.A. this week for workshops entitled “Transforming News Organizations for the Digital Now.’’ The program looks rich and deep.

And you can follow alongwith the proceedings via Michele McLellan's blog on the event. Tune in when you can.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Free kisses and cheap truffles

For those newspaper advertising and business readers who stop by here – and for all the rest of us, who depend on them – here's an intriguing lesson about the power of "free."

From a site with the intimidating name "Neuromarketing" comes this summary of recent scientific research about how powerful the concept of "free" is when it comes to making decisions. Some argue that "the preference for free" seems hard-wired into our brains. In one experiment, most subjects chose a free Hershey's Kiss over a premium European chocolate truffle priced at 14 cents ...

I know editors who have been begging for a free classified product to help sustain readership at their papers. We've agreed at our I-20 meetings in Sacramento that free classifieds are clearly worht trying, but few folks have made much of an effort yet that I know of.

Am I wrong? I'd love to hear more. In the meantime, have a look at this research, and think about what it could mean in all areas of our marketing efforts.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Get some, Drescher

You may have read that a News & Observer reader sued the paper following newshole cuts and staff reductions, claiming he wasn't getting what he originally paid for.

Impossible to imagine a better response than this from the news boss:

John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer, said he's glad that Hempstead is a loyal reader and that the N&O has meant so much to him.

"We've had some really good papers recently, and they're worth more than the 36 cents a day that Mr. Hempstead is paying us," Drescher said.

"In fact, he owes me money," Drescher continued. "So when he gets a lawyer, he can work with my lawyer and figure out how much he's going to pay me for the excellent coverage he's been getting recently."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Wiki weirdness

If you've been trying to access our new wiki today, you may have had problems. Here's the latest from their site:

PBwiki status update
Author: Ramit Sethi Filed under: General
Tuesday Jul 8,2008
7/8/08, 3:55pm: If you’ve noticed your wiki is sluggish or inaccessible, we’re aware of the problem: Our upstream network provider is having connectivity issues, and we are monitoring the situation to restore access to your wiki ASAP. Your data is safe, and we’ll update this blog post as soon as possible.

PBwiki blog for status reports in available here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Willingness to grow

When Janis Heaphy was publisher of the Sacramento Bee and my boss, she gave me an article by Peter Drucker called "Managing Oneself." Though much of the insight later seemed like simple common sense (doesn't it usually?), at the time it opened my eyes to a couple of important concepts.

(To me, the big take-away from that article was just this: try to arrange your responsibilities so that you do most what you do best. You're better off amplifying your strengths than improving your weaknesses, all things being equal.)

The basic premise in this article from the New York Times feels the same: fairly self-evident, really, but likewise profound.

Here's a taste:

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability,” says Ms. Dweck, who is known for research that crosses the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology.

“People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

In this case, nurture wins out over nature just about every time.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Postmodern Sublime

The strum und drang around here and on our new wiki McClatchyNext might sound to some like an unruly chorus of confusion about editorial direction at McClatchy. It doesn’t sound that way to me.

As I’ve said many times here and elsewhere, our newsrooms are leading the way into the new media landscape -- growing audience, mastering new techniques, exploring new relationships with audiences. Yes, we have a lot to learn and some disagreement about how to go about it, but the simple, bedrock fact is that more people are reading our work and using our information than ever before.

By the most recent measurement -- first quarter, 2008 -- McClatchy’s online audience growth is up more than 40% from the previous year, which was itself a record. We learn and quickly embrace one new tool after another – most recently, rich, deep databases filled with local information began to appear across the McClatchy network. Yes, we’ve struggled with formats and had some failed communications, but video, alerts, mobile platforms and continuous news are all the norm nowadays. Our somewhat punctuated progress in applying social networking tools to news and community cohesion is about to get much better.

You are manifestly not failing.

Everybody recognizes the challenges we face. Most immediate, at the moment, is revenue. I’ve written a great deal about that in this blog of late and don’t want to rehearse it all again, but the short version is that the shifting competitive landscape (the web, mainly) and cyclical economic downturn (especially real estate, auto sales and hiring) are reducing newspaper company revenues dramatically. We’re making much less than we counted on, so we’re forced into dramatic cost savings, like layoffs.

That hurts, and it’s doubly painful when it also comes at a time when we need to be doing more, not less, for readers and other audiences. Shrink the newsroom staff while we demand more productivity? How can that be possible?

At the same time, enormous opportunity beckons. For the first time in my life, newspaper newsrooms can compete and win on breaking news. We’ve got video capabilities, access to vast realms of electronic research, pocket-sized cellphone cameras in every pocket. We can survey audiences, update stories continuously as events dictate, post reader comments seconds after articles have appeared.

We can’t go back – and I wouldn’t if we could. I’m not willing to give up what the internet, digital cameras, laptops and smart phones mean in my life. Nobody else will, either.

Utopian or distopian? At the moment, things feel precisely like the condition social theorist Fredric Jameson described as “the postmodern sublime” – the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy. Will CareerBuilder’s trustworthiness and value-added features be able to compete with the fraud-and-freebies world of Craigslist? Will readers value verified and edited stories more than group-sourced wikinews? Can somebody figure out how to pay for the professionalism we think these tasks demand?

And will somebody discover a cure for baldness and aging before the terrorist biologist brews up a virus that eats us all? Stay tuned for the conclusion in a future episode.

[Postmodern Sublime: get the t-shirt by clicking on this image.]

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What's next? Another way for you to help us decide

In a comment last week, Jonathan said McClatchy needed to "set up an online repository for ideas, sort of like what Starbucks did when it solicited suggestions from customers. Give people a venue. Innovation will happen. It must."

Okay. I did it.

The "online repository" is a public wiki with folders and sections devoted to various issues we face. It's called McClatchyNext. Anybody can read it; to create pages/subjects and post comments, you need to be "invited" to join.

I'm easy; I'll invite anybody. There are instructions on the intro page about writing to me or my assistant for an invitation. I'd prefer people to register with real names, but it's okay if you don't. Use a webmail account as cover if you must. (The wiki is a McClatchy project, but we're always happy to have other smart people help us out). There is also an option to "Request access" on the initial login screen. When you first go to the wiki, the login is in the upper right corner and you should see this screen, on which I have circled the request button. Either an email to us or a click here should get you approved.

On the front page I wrote, "Obviously, this can’t work without community participation. I promise it will get read and considered and introduced into conversations here in the corporate suite, and I hope it will likewise energize and incubate discussions at individual newsrooms and between newsrooms, too."

We're listening. Please join in.
UPDATE: 33 regsitered users as of 3pm. Only 673 spots left; don't delay.