Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ten points aimed at better digital

In contrast with my hyperventilating post below, here's an example of Jeff Jarvis at his best: scanning a broad horizon and reeling in useful points of view and admonitions we should all be paying attention to.

In a post entitle simply Hope, he reproduces a ten-point list of excellent advice from Edward Roussel, head of digital the The Telegraph in London. All are worthwhile; let me highlight my two favorites here:

1. Narrow the focus. “…[M]edia companies need to invest more money in their premium content—editorial that is unavailable elsewhere but that is highly valued by readers. Go deep, not wide.”

5. Bottom up, not top down. “The reporters on the ground are closest to your readers. They are therefore best placed to conceive, create and nurture community Web sites….”

Talk is cheap, but here's my money

I suppose most people had better things to do Christmas Eve than read newspaper and journalism blogs. Sadly, I was not among them, and couldn't restrain myself today from posting a comment on one of the latest Jeff Jarvis postings about why those of us laboring in newspaper companies have no hope.

In fact, that's the title of the Buzzmachine musing: No hope. You can read it in full there, but here's the particularly smirky part about McClatchy:
* McClatchy shares hit 60 cents yesterday. As I write this, it’s up to a big 78 cents. Bubble! Gatehouse hit 4 cents (and I’d still short them given their current attitude); market cap: $2.3 million. See Alan Mutter’s excellent analysis of how debt did in papers. I’d say it’s more than that: It was misplaced optimism in the form and in the incumbents. If these papers had instead taken on debt to innovate and create or to buy innovates (a la the New York Times buying About), that might have been productive. Instead, they bought newspapers, which was only an indication of how snug their blinders were.


Sigh. We've been here so often before.

Here's what I said in the comments on Jeff's blog:

I get so fucking tired of correcting you, Jeff. Has it *ever* occurred to you to do some reporting — like asking questions of those involved — before pronouncing such apocalyptic conclusions?

It’s perhaps more than interesting that you so frequently refer to blinders; I’ve never read an analyst who is so consistently, persistently wrong about basic facts.

Yes, the stock price sucks. As you know (or should) that reflects Wall Streets’ analysis of our prospects. And we all know those are some smart guys who always get it right, huh? To cite stock price as a definitive measure of performance is as bad a sin as those who ran their companies mainly to maximize stock price.

This much is clear: When McClatchy demonstrates, as it will, that it is coming out of the the downturn/transformation challenge whole, that price will rise again.

Yes, debt is tough to manage when revenues fall. No shit. But I guess you refer to Alan Mutter’s analysis as “excellent” simply because it confirms your beliefs. It’s anything but excellent. It’s very thin soup, persuasive only to people who know less about these issues than he does.

He opens by lumping all the news companies together and saying “The details in each case may be different. But the story is the same.” Nothing could be more wrong. It’s *all* about the differences. To equate the Tribune’s debt with McClatchy’s KRI debt is simply looney. Stop repeating this trash; it makes you look stupid.

Your post is entitled “No hope.” Bullshit. McClatchy remains a strongly profitable company (you can look it up at the SEC). It’s never missed a payment and isn’t about to. Lehman Bros failed; GM is failing; even in the same economic climate, McClatchy is not. There is much hope.

Online sales and revenues continue to grow at double-digit rates. Our percentage of revenue from online leads the industry (excluding, perhaps, the national papers) and continues to grow. Perhaps more importantly, the company is so much more efficient now than two years ago (to the tune of some $350 million in reduced expenses) that it doesn’t have to return to anything like historic margins or revenues to be successful.

You know that I have long offered to wager $1,000 on McClatchy’s prospects with anybody who doesn’t believe me. Let’s make it personal, shall we? Show me your money, Jeff.


Because you’re wrong. Consistently, persistently wrong in a way that hurts thousands of McClatchy employees who are working hard every day to advance the interests you profess to believe in but routinely dismiss with a shrug and near-total disregard for facts or reporting.

Stop it.

\-\/\/

P.S. Re Pew: The internet IS NOT a source of news; it’s a delivery system.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Murder your darlings

Packing up your office yields many a trip down memory lane. This week I talked with newsroom staff at the Sacramento Bee and shared some notes I made in 1997 about newspapers and websites. (Yes, I tend to save stuff).

I had some decent insights back then, but perhaps none better than this one: "Newspapers are trapped by desire to own and control everything ..."

This resonated powerfully while reading this insightful post about how Apple handles change. After noting that "Most large and successful corporations are afraid of change," John Siracusa notes that "While other companies are paralyzed with indecision, or cling relentlessly to what has worked in the past, or are seduced by sentimentality, Apple is busy murdering its darlings."

I was at the think-tank session at Rand in 1987 that led to New Directions for News. It was the first time I'd ever worked with professional "facilitators," the first time really that I knew such things existed. I was fascinated by their contention that that could apply the same principles across many industries to foster innovation, and asked one how working with newspapers compared with other clients.

"Great question," he replied. "It's so different. Everybody else just wants us to help improve their widget. Thy want a better widget or a faster widget or a cheaper widget. But you newspaper people are in love with your widgets."

And indeed I was was. I loved pretty much everything about newspapers from the first time I walked into the Anchorage Daily News newsroom as a high-school sports stringer in 1967. I loved the smell and the mess, the sarcasm and the profanity. I took my future wife to watch the press run on our first date. I have a handle from the old letterpress on my desk today.

The letterpress didn't survive the offset era, typewriters gave way to CRTs and eventually we banned smoking. Widget Worship passes into its honored, venerated place in the pantheon of lost gods.

A further taste of Siracusa:

Over the past decade, Apple has been using a different playbook. In Apple's estimation, the best time to kill off a successful product or brand is "as soon as possible." Dropping a winner means creating a new winner to replace it, and that's exactly what Apple has decided it must do to be successful: create great new products again and again. Brand momentum, product inertia, and all the other naturally occurring forces in large corporations stand in the way of Apple's execution of this plan.

Thanks @base10 for the Siracusa pointer, via Twitter

Monday, December 15, 2008

Links going mainstream

Linking outside your own site and aggregating news from others is increasingly commonplace, and more and more McClatchy sites are already doing so. The Alaska Newsreader and Sac Bee's Capitol Alert are two examples.

In case you missed it, here's an article from the NYT that summarizes recent development. (Publish2, which is cited here, is a newspaper-friendly partner you can approach for free help in establishing a link process at your site.)

Embracing the hyperlink ethos of the Web to a degree not seen before, news organizations are becoming more comfortable linking to competitors — acting in effect like aggregators. The Washington Post recently introduced a political Web site that recommends rival sites. This week NBC will begin introducing Web sites for its local TV stations with links to local newspapers, radio stations, online videos and other sources. And The New York Times will soon offer its online readers an alternative home page with links to competitors.

These experiments exemplify “link journalism,” an idea that is gaining traction in other newsrooms across the country. “It is a fundamentally different mindset” for journalists, said Scott Karp, chief of the Web-based newswire Publish2, who coined the term.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Listening to Leila

The front page of the McClatchy Washington site features a video interview with Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel offering a nuanced assessment of the Iraq surge. You can find it here or click on the image below.

Too good to pass up

I'm well aware that iPhone tips won't be of interest to all the vast audience of this blog, but I likewise know some of you are lucky enough to have one.

This list of iPhone tips is fabulous (thanks, Daring Fireball). if you use the phone, you'll almost surely benefit from some or most of these tips.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Demonstrably inaccurate

If you're a regular reader of Jeff Jarvis' blog – and I hope you are – you may have seen this mention of McClatchy in today's version of newspapers-are-fucked:

McClatchy keeps arguing, with ear plugs well stuffed and blinders tight, that the problems in the industry are not fundamental but cyclical (as Dave Morgan said to that at my New Business Models for News Summit, “bullshit”).


That's just inaccurate, as I pointed out in a comment on buzzmachine this morning:

Stop saying this; it’s wrong:

“McClatchy keeps arguing, with ear plugs well stuffed and blinders tight, that the problems in the industry are not fundamental but cyclical (as Dave Morgan said to that at my New Business Models for News Summit, “bullshit”).”

As you know, I was there at your conference, and called Dave on his mischaracterization immediately after he spoke. The Pruitt quote he cited was taken wholly out of context (I know; I heard the whole earnings call). Pruitt was talking about many of the effects OF THE LAST YEAR being cyclical. Morgan acknowledged as much to me, but said he wanted to make the general point and Gary’s quote was freshest.

As recently as yesterday, Pruitt said on Wall Street, “”We recognize that part of our advertising decline is permanent — reflecting the secular shift to the Internet. Another part is temporary — reflecting the cyclical nature of our business in a recession,” Pruitt said.”

Your comments about earplugs and blinders are beyond cheap shots, Jeff. They’re becoming willful, hurtful lies. Facts matter, dammit.

I'll let you know what Jeff says when he replies. I hope he'll correct things.

UPDATEJeff replies:

I apologize then. i did not recall hearing you say that to Dave when I was there. But I have heard Pruitt say similar things at more than one event. I do think that he has at least been very late in recognizing the gravity of the situation.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Inlaid plastic, rubbery bits

Regular readers will have noticed my fascination with design, whether it's found on a newspaper page, book cover or ipod. But a toothbrush? Could design really improve a toothbrush?


If everything in our lives were afforded the design attention that my toothbrush has, we would sit in chairs that floated while tickling our troubled backs, have tables that yielded at our aching elbows while remaining firm on top, walk on floors that tingled like active sand, and sleep on pillows that would never allow our ears to flatten against our heads.

(Thanks, Snarkmarket.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh yeah? Says who?

Harper's Magazine has often used an "annotation" format to deconstruct a public document of one kind or another, offering marginal notes to explain what the material really means.

I haven't seen it used much in newspapers, and never as effectively as in this example from the New York Times. I've come to believe that newspapers too often let challenges and rebuttals go unchallenged; in this new age of boundless discussion and debate, we need to be in the middle of all the arguments. This side-by-side presentation seems especially appropriate to me, and I'd recommend it.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Links growing at NYT

Dan Gillmor notes, and offers a quick introduction to, a couple of noteworthy developments at the New York Times.

The most important by far is the decision to link and aggregate aggressively, including "links to coverage in other media — including bloggers and direct competitors."

Surely it's clear by now that our role as information curators mandates linking and aggregation. We've done some, but not enough. The good news is that it's getting easier to do; and that's the bad news too, of course, since it means others can do it to.

Turning the page ...

I have worked for newspapers for more than 40 years now, and since my younger brother’s death a year ago, I have known that I would leave my job at McClatchy before too long. I’ve always looked forward to having second phase of my career, to a chance to spend more time with my wife, and I am tenderly aware that none of us can command the calendar.

While awaiting the right opportunity to depart, I have discovered that there is no opportune time for such an announcement, and so I have simply set a date. I will leave at the end of the year.

As you would expect, it is painful to leave a company I love and a profession that has defined my life. I am acutely aware that this is a time of great challenge and uncertainty for our business, and the most poignant part of my decision is the feeling that I am abandoning shipmates left in peril. I feel bad about leaving when so many beloved colleagues and fine journalists are working through such difficult conditions to sustain and advance the crucial work we do.

Yet their good work and deep devotion also make it easier for me to depart, for I am wise enough to know that this mission will be in good hands without me, and this allows me to move on.

Some colleagues I’ve told about my plans warn that this will surely be interpreted as “Howard bailing out,” or some sign of impending disaster at McClatchy. Like so much you hear about our business nowadays, such thinking would reflect people who don’t know what they’re talking about saying things that don’t make sense.

I take my leave feeling sure about two things.

First, that the challenge faced by McClatchy and its newsrooms is immense and fundamental. Navigating to success through the coming months will be painful, sometimes torturous work.
Secondly, that the mission of public service journalism will emerge from this transformation in tact, and that McClatchy will remain in control of its own destiny. I have deep faith in McClatchy’s ownership, in its leadership, and in its journalists.

You may recall that I offered six months ago to wager $1,000 with anybody who thinks differently. I haven’t had any takers yet, but I hope I will; I could use the money.

I have spent too much of my life in newsrooms simply to pronounce some Pollyanna forecast. My confidence is grounded in an intimate, 30-year history with McClatchy. The forecast represents a distillation of everything I know and believe and have figured out about the profound changes unfolding around us. My insights and credentials are far from perfect, but they are not inconsequential. My prediction of success is rooted in deep thought and nuanced study.

At the heart of my analysis rests a simple but potent realization I made many years ago: honest, high quality news is far more powerful and more valuable than raw data, sloppy reporting or partisan propaganda. No institution is even remotely as well equipped as we to deliver this public service information to the civic sphere. We are hurting too badly for me to say that glibly or to underestimate how hard is will be to prove, but I have bedrock faith that we will do so.

Unlike so many of our poorly informed critics, I do not believe our current circumstances are primarily the result of mistakes. They are, rather, the simple and inevitable result of being in a mature business that has been overtaken by transformational change that would have turned us inside-out no matter what we had done.

You will hear digital triumphalists and grave dancers hurl charges like “Why didn’t newspapers invent Google?” or “Why didn’t newspapers start Craigslist?” Many of them look to the enormous power and promise of the networked world and admonish us to abandon print publishing altogether, a nonsensical notion that illustrates both the depth of their ignorance and shallowness of their analysis.

Just for the record, Google didn’t even invent Google. Larry and Sergei, brilliant as they are, didn’t know what they had created when they started indexing web pages. Their company would have gone broke if Yahoo has not licensed its search capacity in early years, and they didn’t start to make real money until they purchased and incorporated somebody else’s system for selling contextual search advertising.

As for Craigslist, think about that for a moment. How on earth would creating free classified listings have saved the profitable classified advertising whose loss we feel so painfully today? Craig Newmark, a smart and unassuming nerd, is perfectly happy to charge a pittance on a tiny fraction of his ads to subsidize the majority of the free listings. There’s no way we could have stopped him from his philanthropic endeavor, and no way that duplicating his service would save us.

And think about this, as well: printed newspapers continue to reach about half the adults in the country every day, and to generate billions of dollars in annual revenue. Only a person who has never enjoyed that kind of base would be foolish enough to advise that we abandon it. This is the foundation upon which we are building the success of our increasingly digital future.

Though it is under great stress, there is so much right about our company and our prospects that I have no hesitation in forecasting success. All around us, legendary banks and auto companies are failing. Housing has crashed and consumer confidence plummets. But consider this: in the midst of the greatest economic calamity in generations, already deep in the throes of transformational secular change, the McClatchy Company is operating multimedia publishing companies in 29 American cities from Miami to Anchorage – and all are profitable. Thousands of skilled and dedicated journalists went to work this morning in these McClatchy cities, ready and able to practice public service journalism.

There’s no denying we have been gravely wounded by the end of our industry’s monopoly advantages, and those wounds are deeper still on account of the devastating condition of the national economy today. I certainly have not always reacted correctly or with due speed to the nature of the changes, and our whole industry has – to varying degrees – been overtaken by the speed and scope of changing consumer habits; we need to move faster in reshaping some of what we do.

And while it's true that ensuring our future requires sophisticated selling, steadfast, adaptive management and steely resolve, the future is really all about the newsrooms.
Nothing else we do as a company means much if we fail to sustain our public service journalism. The McClatchy family has not persevered into the seventh generation in order to publish successful brides magazines, or websites with comprehensive nightclub listings. We labor not to ensure we can create new blogs for pet owners, or rich vertical online sites devoted to vacation properties. All of these and much more are essential, of course, because public service journalism is an expensive proposition, but we must not take for granted the capacity or elasticity of our newsrooms.

Let me close and say farewell in gratitude.

I am grateful that C.K. McClatchy saved the Anchorage Daily News and then hired me to write editorials there 30 years ago. I am grateful for the unwavering guidance and support I got for practicing the kind of journalism that won us the Pulitzer Prize for Pubic Service just a few weeks before his death. That precious commitment has been true here at McClatchy every day of my career. I am grateful to the family owners, to the board of directors, and of course to my colleagues, in newsrooms and on editorial boards and in the executive suite.

But most of all, as I close the book on my contributions to the company, I am grateful that Gary Pruitt is young enough, smart enough and tough enough to keep leading McClatchy through this perilous time. We’ve worked together since the early 1980s, when I was a young editor and he an even younger First Amendment lawyer, and I’m well positioned to bear witness to the remarkable consistency of character he brings to the challenges at hand. McClatchy could not have better hands on the tiller.

Monday, December 01, 2008

McClatchy to share some coverage with Christian Science Monitor

From a press release on mcclatchy.com

Dec. 1, 2008 – Today, the Christian Science Monitor and The McClatchy Company are initiating a content-sharing agreement that will offer print and online readers of the Monitor and of McClatchy's 30 daily newspapers more timely, top-notch foreign reporting.

The Monitor and McClatchy will make edited stories by Monitor foreign correspondents Mark Sappenfield, based in New Delhi, and Sara Miller Llana, based in Mexico City, and McClatchy foreign correspondents Shashank Bengali, based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Tyler Bridges, based in Caracas, Venezuela, available to one another when they're ready for publication.

"At a time when America's economy, national security, environment and even health are bound more closely than ever to the rest of the world, we're pleased to be able to give McClatchy readers access to some of the world-class foreign reporting for which the Monitor is famous," said McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott, who oversees McClatchy's seven foreign bureaus.

"Cooperation between McClatchy and the Monitor supports the continued professional coverage of international news," said Monitor Editor John Yemma. "That’s important because readers need independent and trustworthy sources of news to understand complex issues around the globe."

The agreement will run for three months, at which time both parties will evaluate it and decide whether to continue the sharing agreement, to terminate it or to expand it.

Designing covers

Perhaps I'm simply feeling disagreeable, but I didn't find this survey of the best book cover design from 2008 particularly inspiring. A surprising number are simply jumbled displays of bad type. Others seem predictable or clich├ęd.

But there are some dandies, too. This is my favorite, and I'd also recommend "All the Sad Young Literary Men," and "Against Happiness," among a handful of others.

There's a poll and you can vote, too. What did you think?

Thanks, kottke.org for the pointer.

Liveblogging as regular coverage

I'm impressed with the way the NYT has turned Kit Seelye into a one-woman liveblogging machine. She regularly provides the first coverage I read on developing events like press conferences or speeches – and, quite often, her report is all I need.

Is anybody in McClatchy doing this on a regular basis?

WTF?

In my experience, it's impossible to keep up with all the developments on the web and in media nowadays, though you can learn to decipher the jargon. But you will need help.

Here's some. I haven't vetted the whole list and can't vouch for every entry, but this seems like a good, journalist-accessible compendium in plain English.

 
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