Thursday, July 30, 2009

A prejudice (and a prayer) for the power of the newsroom

Off the news ticker this week:

McClatchy and a number of other newspaper companies recently surprised and pleased Wall Street with first quarter earnings reports far better than predicted. One analyst (who’s invested in newspaper stocks) predicts that cost-cutting at the papers has taken hold just as the economy bottoms out, meaning that even modest improvement could mean “spectacular earnings growth” for several quarters.

By no coincidence at all, newspaper stocks – languishing in the cellar – rose dramatically. Their levels are still at or near historic lows, but after a long, steady plunge many are climbing again.

All of this relies on the economy getting better – people selling cars and houses, placing help-wanted ads, advertising clothing sales – and news on that front also brings tentative signs of improvement. Numbers involving home sales, earnings, declining unemployment claims and news from other sectors all gave hints that the bottom of the recession may be near.

On top of all that, beleaguered newspaper people must have taken some comfort from an article in Advertising Age that show public use of the internet is flattening, while traditional media have generally slowed or reversed their declines.

So it’s all good, right? Won’t be long ‘till everything is back to normal.

Well, no. There is no “normal” nowadays, and there’s no going back. But it is equally true that predictions of apocalytical change are overstated.

This is unquestionably a run of good news for those of us who don’t believe total, immediate digital transformation is the best scenario for journalism in America. Some do, and they argue their case tirelessly. No doubt they’ll find many reasons to dismiss my analysis of those development.

At least I’m consistent. I’ve argued for years that the shift from analog to digital is inevitable; on my first web page, in 1995, I wrote, “I’ve always been a storyteller, and I'm convinced the stories of the new millenium will be told digitally."

But I also argue, against a gale of internet triumphalism to the contrary, that the shift won’t (and shouldn’t) be immediate or total. Many of the people predicting the imminent death of printed news or counseling companies to shutter newspapers and spend all their money on the web are drinking their own bathwater. They have a vision – many times a clear and compelling vision – of what the shift to a digital, networked world will look like, but they’re in danger of leaping to conclusions that aren’t there.

I don’t believe untrained or unpaid volunteers alone can produce the kind of journalism on which democracy depends. I believe most people want and value good filters to separate signal from noise – and the best way we’ve ever found to do that is with professional journalists.

Of course I am deeply prejudiced on this subject. I love newsrooms and newsroom culture; for 40 years they’ve been my church, my job and my playground. You have to view my analysis with that in mind.

But those 40 years have also given me experience and insight I think come to play here. I know what a good newsroom can do, because I’ve been lucky enough to work in some. I have seen principle stand up against pressure, courage hold sway against expedience, ideals triumph over self-interest. I know what it takes to produce work like “A People In Peril,” the Anchorage Daily News’ 1989 Pulitzer for Public Service, when more than 30 talented professionals applied decades of skill and training and all their energy in the service of a singular public-spirited vision. I don’t think that will come from a volunteer collective.

But I neither am I terminally nostalgic about the past. A lot of things need to change, and others will change no matter what we think about it. Hierarchy has evaporated, the gatekeeper role has vanished and what was once inclined to become a sermon must now be a genuine conversation. “Objectivity” and distance – the “news voice” of our heritage – are dead. Transparency and fairness remain achievable goals; combined with the new plethora of views and opinions, that may be enough to support a consensus reality and common vocabulary for public affairs.

None of these things are the exclusive provence of professional journalism, certainly not exclusive to legacy newsrooms built to meet different needs. There are a handful of creditable “hyperlocal” news operations, there are examples of non-professional journalists making important contributions, and a few beacons that show us outlines of how newsrooms may evolve. All of these will grow stronger with experience.

But none of them now come close to the capacity of a good newspaper newsroom, which encompasses so much talent and experience and knowledge that it can produce a fountain of vital, important and compelling journalism where others are still producing trickles.

Talking Points Memo – a clear example of how journalism can evolve into new forms without forsaking heritage – did a fine job (along with McClatchy’s DC bureau) of exposing the politicization of the Department of Justice. And while it was doing that, traditional newsrooms opened our eyes to things like unauthorized wiretapping by the NSA, the CIA's secret "black site" prisons in Europe, illegal back-dated stock options at public companies, scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, and much more.

Thus I come to my continuing prayer: that the potency and capacity of our best newsrooms will be preserved and once again nurtured, and that they will continue to rise to the challenge of embracing a new news paradigm and a new relationship with audiences. I am encouraged to believe this is happening.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From oration to conversation

Whatever happens, however we rearrange our marketplace of ideas - as sooner or later we certainly shall - our sense of what “publication” means is bound to change. We will be able to make our commentary part of the text, and weave an elaborate series of interlocked commentaries together. We will, that is, be moving from a series of orations to a continuing conversation, and, as we have always known, these two rhetorics differ fundamentally. It seems reasonable to assume that as the definition and nature of “publication” changes, our system of academic rewards and punishments will change as well. If we keep an eye on these changes, they may change for the better. Above all, we may be able to introduce our students to the scholarly conversation sooner than we do now, and in more realistic and effective ways. (emphasis added)

Richard Lanham
The Electronic Word:
Democracy, technology and the arts

University of Chicago Press 1993 p22

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stupid headline words: the readers speak

I asked folks on Twitter what stupid words in headlines bothered them most. Here are the initial responses:

Probed; spar; faces; linger; walks back; curb; spark; exec; inks; Solons; pokes (for the Dallas Cowboys); mull; nix; tapped kudo; eyed; inked; dissed; slay/slain

One person offered a three-fer: Moguls Ink Pact

Add to the list in comments below. There must be more stupid words than these ...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Scoring this round: McClatchy 1, critics/analysists 0

A Macintosh blogger I follow has a feature he calls "claim chowder" in which he delights in digging up and exposing old predictions and claims after they have been proven spectacularly wrong. It's a delightful dip in a pool of revenge and schadenfreude.

Michael Simonton, welcome to a hot, steaming bowl of claim chowder:

Fitch Ratings analyst Michael Simonton is among the camp that believes McClatchy will wind up in bankruptcy court at some point. "Default is imminent or inevitable," Simonton predicted after McClatchy's debt exchange flopped.

In fact, evidence at hand now suggests he was not just wrong, but stupid wrong. This from yesterday (AP):

The surprising profit raised hopes that McClatchy has shrunk down to a size that will enable it to remain in good graces with its lenders and avoid bankruptcy protection ... "'It's really remarkable,'' said newspaper analyst Edward Atorino of Benchmark Co. ''They have done a Herculean job in a difficult economy. Unless things get a lot worse real fast, they should be OK for the rest of 2009.''

Obviously, much remains uncertain and unpredictable in the middle of both economic meltdown and an epochal phase transition in the news business. Anything can happen. Your mileage may vary. Yada, yada.

I'm no longer at McClatchy, certainly not privy to any insider information. I'm sure the execs there, as always, will be cautious and deliberate about what they have to say.

But I don't have to be. In the end, you ought to place your bets on one side or the other or shut up.

Note to Simonton: You get paid for this kind of analysis, right? You're an expert? Put up or shut up.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A couple of drinks with Walter Cronkite

I was having drinks with Frank McCulloch at the bar in the Crow’s Nest in Anchorage one night in the early ‘80s. (We never went for “a drink” in those days; we went for “drinks”.)

Walter Cronkite, in town for a broadcasters’ shindig, spotted Frank across the room and came hustling over. A thirty-something journalist whose entire career had been in Anchorage couldn’t have dreamed of sitting at the table while they swapped trans-global war stories. My favorite was Cronkite’s recollection of “all we went through to get our folks out” of Saigon as the city was falling.

Cronkite left before we did. A waiter came over with some concern and told us he’d left his credit card behind.

Frank offered to deliver it. We all knew, in that time and age, that almost nowhere on earth could anyone else get away with using a card that said “Walter Cronkite” on it.

Feedback, push back and a final word

The feedback and push back I'm getting for suggesting that news companies compete by building a better news site has become too varied and detailed to handle in the comments section.

First, thanks to Scott, Dave, John and Chris for giving the idea respect enough to argue with it. (I haven't heard back yet from Jeff, whom I think misread my argument, but I hope to. I actually expected us to be on the same side on this one: compete, innovate, collaborate, link, fight back).

There are some straw men and some plain old mistakes in these criticisms. I'm sure there are valid points and gotchas, too, but I'm not highlighting them :)

Biggest straw man: Google News. Nobody is talking about Google News, which is a strange beast by any measure – and not a very useful aggregation page, in my view. We're talking about all the ways across all Google platforms in which people hunt for news or get back news results when they hunt for something from any source.

A news search can and does include ads, fellows. Click here, for instance. And when you search for topics generically, news results some up at the top of pages with ads. Try this one.

But this isn't my main point. This is:

I'm not suggesting we beat Google at search or "take away" their business. I am saying we can beat Google at a customer service they don't do well: filtering and displaying news content of relevance and utility for busy, overwhelmed consumers, pitting judgment vs algorithms.

"Leapfrogging," if you will, to a new game.

In my view, this has to be done at scale. Small new initiatives are essential and some will doubtless prove viable, but we're not talking about one problem and can't rely on one solution.

Finally, I have to tell Chris that his argument isn't at all persuasive to me. Topix is and pretty much always was the opposite of what I'm talking about. It may well have a place, and I hope they find it, but it isn't about judgment.

I understand lot of this is religion and not subject to ordinary debate, so I'll end my part of the back-and-forth here. I devoutly hope I get a chance to be proved right – or wrong. (It's all about mistakes, eh Jeff?)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Time for news to play offense: how David can attack Goliath (and win)

If you don’t think paid content can ever pay the freight for professional journalism – and I don’t – then what hope is there for news companies?

Well, the good news is that there’s plenty of money being made on content online. On the other hand, the news companies have to be willing to fight for it.

Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL are making more money from online content than the newspaper industry makes from everything. Many billions of those dollars are tied directly to the distribution of news and news searches, and that’s the money news companies must find a way to get.

Let’s say those online giants – call them GYMA – make $15 billion a year from news and news-related content (searches, archives, etc). I think that’s a conservative guess.

If we could find a way to get just 10 percent of that – $1.5 billion – pumped into American newsrooms, the impact would be direct, immediate and dramatic. The layoffs could stop, and owners would have breathing room to address strategic questions instead of constantly bailing water to keep the boats afloat. Newsrooms could start hiring the kind of people they need to create the journalism of the future.

Too often, executives and editors I talk with at news companies act like that’s impossible. You can’t compete with Google, they say, grasping instead for legislation or regulation to let them keep their content behind pay walls, away from GYMA altogether. They somehow think their content is valuable enough to charge readers for, but not valuable enough to compete in a marketplace that’s already proven extremely lucrative and attractive to consumers.

Say that again: valuable enough to sell to people who haven’t been willing to buy it so far, but not valuable enough to compete with GYMA? Not good enough to capture 10% of their ad revenue?

That’s a losing strategy. And it’s wrong.

I’m a real dinosaur in the news business in one respect, at least: I spent the first 20 years of my career in life-or-death competition for readers and revenues. The good guys won (that was us) and I’ve never flinched from a competitive fight since.

Not many news executives and editors nowadays were lucky enough to have that seasoning. The newspaper industry as a whole was monopolistic in many important ways over the last 40 or 50 years. Truth is, it was easy to make money for most of them.

I’ve often heard McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt say the news business in that era proved the wisdom of Warren Buffet’s admonition to “always invest in a company that can be run by a complete idiot – because sooner or later, it will be.” When the Anniston Star’s owner (Brandy Ayers) announced in 2003 that he was creating a foundation to keep the paper he inherited independent and reinvest profits in community and academic affairs, he told ASNE he had been raised in a great newspaper tradition with “the twin blessings of monopoly and nepotism.”

News companies no longer have either: few are nepotistic these days, and the notion of monopoly is a distant, dimming memory.

To win and survive in the future, they need to look back instead to a tradition that used to define the industry: competitive fire.

An old politician in Juneau once reminded me that “you can’t beat something with nothing.” Newspapers won’t beat Google or other aggregators by building pay walls and leaving the field of battle. To win, they need to provide something better than GYMA. That’s where the money is – that $15 billion isn’t theoretical – and besides, open competition is the only way to keep serving a mass audience, which is their mission.

The good news is that they already have a product that can beat even Google in the news business: curated, edited, verified, sorted news – not just an exhaustive list of stories, but the news that matters most. What they don’t have is any way to play on the same field as Google. They lack the scale and internet savvy to put that product in front of consumers who want it and for whom advertisers will pay. Google has proven that works; what news companies have to do is take some of that money away.

Google’s algorithims are a wonder of the world, by far the best at sorting and retrieving static information of all kinds. What they don’t do very well is sort through information on the basis of trustworthiness: which is best, most reliable, most accurate? “We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the NAA last April.

Well, journalists can and do handle that in a coherent way, every minute of every day.

The problem for news companies is that Google spans the globe, and they individually can’t. Only by banding together to offer the collective judgment of thousands of journalists about hundreds of relevant stories and presenting that in web-savvy ways can they reach the scale necessary to win a share of the billions already flowing to Google, Yahoo, AOL and MSN.

Disclosure: I am on the board of a company (Publish2) that is finalizing plans we think could do just that – and something Google never will: share 50% of the revenue with those who create the stories. Others are also looking at or thinking about ways to address the need for joint, competitive action. For any to succeed, the news companies will have to stop building walls and find the nerve to play offense again. They will have to work together and win by offering a better product. They will have to do it soon.

The Anchorage Daily News was just beginning to win its 40-year battle with the Anchorage Times when that once-dominant paper was sold to a rough-and-tumble oil millionaire with deep pockets and a reputation for ruthless competition. It seemed like everybody I talked to after that said something like, “You must be scared now that you have to compete with Bill Allen.”

Honestly, I wasn’t. “If I wanted to compete in the oilfield services business, I’d be terrified,” I told them. “But in the news business, Bill Allen ought to be terrified of us.”

After spending two years and a reported $40 million learning that, he folded the Anchorage Times.

I’d be terrified to think about competing with Google on anything involving algorithms. But when it comes to news judgment, they ought to be terrified of us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How to compete with free

I've had some mean things to say about Chris Anderson's "Free" thesis, but beneath the book's overly simplified theme, he's done a lot of good thinking about what makes products competitive in a world where so much is, after all, free.

Good interview here; this is the quote I liked best:

You know, why do people buy music when you can download it for free? Why does iTunes exist. Because it's easier and safer and faster, not really because people feel some sort of moral obligation to pay for music. Ninety-nine cents doesn't matter as much as one-click simplicity. So they're not selling music. They're selling simplicity.

And that's what news sites must do: don't sell commodity news, sell what readers want: understandable, verified, trustworthy news that has been sorted and displayed in ways that can be digested by busy people.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ancestor worship or fertility rites?

Jeff Jarvis makes an important, fundamental point about mistakes, failures and innovation over at Buzzmachine today.

He's thinking specifically about the issue in what I think is perhaps the toughest context: government. His point is that "government must be granted the license to fail ... so it can have the courage to innovate," and surely that's right in theory.

But it's probably tougher to tolerate failure in government than elsewhere because it is by definition pluralistic and needs to meet some consistent standard. Stakeholders are bound to question why their programs are always the ones that seem to fail.

In private life – business and commerce, the academy, creative endeavors – Jeff's point is fundamentally applicable. I was lucky enough to be taught as a young editor periodically to ask the folks I worked with, "When was the last time you made a good mistake?"

I'd stress, of course, that a "good mistake" didn't involve coming in drunk and misspelling all the names. A good mistake was one where we learned something we couldn't have learned otherwise, where we were better off afterward for what we learned, where we had a clearer vision of what to try next.

The real reason to ask them, though, was this: If a person can't think of a good mistake, that means he's been asleep. It's axiomatic that people who try new things will fail; the only people who don't aren't trying.

Jeff also cites Craig Newsmark's observation that England suffers widespread "failurephobia":

I was struck by the repeated comment that failure is stigmatized in UK business culture. In Silicon Valley, failure is just a normal phase of one’s career. You might succeed in your first endeavor, probably not, so you’re ready to persist in subsequent efforts…..

So true. I lived in England for a year in the early 90s, a period of widespread despair and discouragement for the Brits. I wrote an essay about feeling "suffocated" by the culture there. As an English columnist wrote in noting his countrymen's widespread criticism of Bill Clinton's inauguration, "Every public ceremony in England is ancestor worship; every public ceremony in the United States is a fertility rite."

Think about this also calls to mind the supposed motto of the French bureaucracy: "Nothing should ever be done for the first time."

The U.S. has a huge advantage over "old Europe" in these matters – but not, I think, over India, or China, or Brazil. Beware.