Sunday, December 31, 2006

Size doesn't matter,
but trusted voices do

In the age of "distributed media," Jeff Jarvis argues here, size doesn't matter.

Knitting together trends that show audiences increasing prefer to "roll their own" by selecting media from many sources, he argues that the age of mass media is over. Increasingly, he suggests, everything from news headlines to viral videos will find niche audiences made up of people who are more likely to have come to them on the recommendation of friends than the authority of publishers. (This is an oversimplification, of course; go read what he says in full).

He's surely right about much of this; his links to arguments that support the thesis are well worth following. (For example, we've known for some time that pageviews are a crude and increasingly ineffective way of measuring anything).

And indeed, the notion of central authority is fading everywhere – in media, government, religion. Tower Records is dead, but nowadays I can buy a 1974 concert video of Van Morrison in Montreux online. (In fact, I just did).

But I think Jarvis extrapolates too broadly. Correlation does not prove causality. The disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise; the fact that viral videos can find audiences without central distributors doesn't mean there won't be broadcasters.

Yes, the era of Charles Foster Kane bellowing that people will think "what I tell them to think" is gone; Sic transit gloria mundi. But I don't think that means people no longer want or need trusted voices. Actually, as the internet's thicket of factoids and ubiquitous opinions grows ever denser, I think they'll want them more and more.

Jarvis is right when he says people no longer need you to tell them the headlines or pre-package opinion commentaries for them. Our challenge is to adapt our expertise to the new realities of distributed media. We become guides, not oracles; organizers, not gatekeepers; referees, not coaches.

In cities with great libraries, people still bought encylopedias; you don't always need or even want the whole damn library. And in a world of networked omniscience, people will still need signposts and trusted voices. At our best, we can supply both.
–Howard Weaver

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Washington Post moves
more journalists to web

Not much new in this Reuters report, but it adds to the growing consensus of newspaper response to audience migration:

Washington Post aims for
closer print, Web ties

Fri Dec 29, 2006 2:34 PM ET

By Robert MacMillan

NEW YORK, Dec 29 (Reuters) - The Washington Post Co. plans to have its veteran editors help shape the way stories appear on the Web in the latest example of how top U.S. publishers are retooling news operations for the Internet.

The Washington Post's Web site, launched more than a decade ago, has been a bellwether among online news publishers because of its early success at attracting readers online and growing advertising.

While many newspapers beef up their Internet sites to meet a growing migration of readership to the Web, their print and Web production operations remain mostly separate divisions.

The Post for example produces and packages its Web news with employees who work across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in Arlington, Virginia.

Starting in January, print editors will "help us at the Web site and at the paper think smartly about more three-dimensional ways that you can present that news," Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. told Reuters.

Newspaper editors have traditionally focused on assigning and editing articles, as well as questions of layout, such as where a story sits on a print page, the tenor and size of its headline or its relation to a photograph.

Web news also requires expertise in updating breaking stories through the day, drawing attention to human interest or feature stories as well as ensuring reporters make it a priority to add video, audio or commentary to the page.

That integration is key to the future of newspapers, as Internet advertising is often their fastest growing segment, rising 30 to 60 percent annually, depending on the publisher, even as print ad rates and circulation declines.

"The majority of their audience is now online," said Jeff Jarvis, media consultant and publisher of the Buzzmachine blog. "They have to serve that audience where that audience is."

Some have cut hundreds of jobs, narrowed their print page width or consolidated production plants to save costs. Others face shareholder pressure to improve returns or sell assets.


In the meantime, many newspaper stocks are sharply underperforming the wider market as the pace of Internet earnings has yet to compensate for slower print growth.

Washington Post stock has dropped 1.1 percent since the start of 2006, the New York Times has lost 10.4 percent and McClatchy Co. has shed nearly 27 percent, compared with a 14 percent rise in the benchmark S&P 500 Index <.SPX>.

Companies aiming to bridge the gap with their own Web operations include USA Today publisher Gannett Co. Inc. , which is reshaping newsrooms at nearly 90 local papers to emphasize Web and print news editions as equally important.

More publishers anticipate similar changes to their operations, trying to push sometimes reluctant print staff to outline how they will do their jobs in the future.

Dow Jones & Co. is relying on its Dow Jones Newswires service for much of its daily coverage, focusing on exclusive stories and analysis for its Wall Street Journal newspaper. The New York Times last year said it would integrate its Web and print operations.

"All of the desks here to varying degrees are becoming much more active about ... advising their reporters to call in to the continuous news desk or file their stories to us," said Neil Chase, editor at the Times' continuous news desk that assembles breaking news throughout the day.

The Post has a similar division whose reporters and editors handle breaking stories for the Web, but that thinking has not penetrated to all levels of the print edition.

"The news section sometimes can use the continuous news desk as a crutch rather than finding ways themselves to make that news happen," said editor Liz Spayd, former assistant managing editor of the paper's national news desk.

The ideal, she said, would be for section editors to approach their jobs as, "I'm not going to just think about [news] like how it happens on the paper, but on the Web and every platform."

She said the role of newspaper editors in building Web news will not take responsibility away from current Internet staff.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Indianapolis asks news staff
to write advertorial copy

I remember reading something about this issue, framed mainly as a question of whether Indianapolis management would insist on union support for the "Information Center" model. But I guess I wasn't paying close enough attention to realize a central issue was management's desire to assign news staffers to write advertising copy.

Here's a story from the Indianapolis Business Journal, flagged for me by an alert staffer in Charlotte.

Anybody know what's happening at other Gannett papers?
–Howard Weaver
Battling Betsy vs
Gentleman Jim

In keeping with the pugilistic theme of the Warren Zevon post below, I thought you'd enjoy this Fresno Bee video of Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye boxing with Editorial Page Editor Jim Boren.

The editors faced off as part of the paper's coverage of Nintendo's Wii video game console. This short clip has before-and-after interviews with the two novice gamers and also shows much of their actual boxing match. (Watch for the shocking ending.)

Using online video as a way of reporting on a video gaming phenomenon seems like smart journalism nowadays. As an added bonus, the video helps introduce Betsy and Jim as real people who don't always take themselves too seriously – a nice departure from typical MSM stereotypes. Nice job.
–Howard Weaver
The wisdom of
Warren Zevon

from Boom Boom Mancini
by Warren Zevon

When Alexis Arguello gave Boom Boom a beating
Seven weeks later he was back in the ring
Some have the speed and the right combinations
If you can't take the punches it don't mean a thing

Hurry home early - hurry on home
Boom Boom Mancini's fighting Bobby Chacon
urry home early - hurry on home
Boom Boom Mancini's fighting Bobby Chacon

When they asked him who was responsible
For the death of Du Koo Kim
He said, "Someone should have stopped the fight, and told me it was him."
They made hypocrite judgments after the fact
But the name of the game is be hit and hit back

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cool nerve and
steady leadership

In January, 2000, the Sacramento Bee Forum section for which I was responsible published a speech by Time Magazine’s director of new media, Daniel Okhrent (who would later become the NYT’s first public editor). Our headline posed his conclusion as a question – The death of print? – but even so, I was publicly chastised by other editors for daring to publish even a suggestion that newspapers were in trouble.

Here’s part of what the Okhrent piece said:

I will assert once again that The Death of Print is going to happen, far sooner than many of you may think. The word Internet was all but unknown in the U.S. six years ago, and Time Inc., which had not yet even imagined its potential impact, had no one working in the Internet arena. Today, the Internet is inescapable; through the advent of e-mail, it is ubiquitous. In the financial markets, it as essential as dollars. Throughout Time Warner, more than 1,000 people are developing copyrighted Internet product, or marketing it to consumers. Someday, we may even make money at it.

For now, though, all of this is destabilizing, particularly for those of us who are investing substantially in a future so tantalizingly clear in the ultimate goal, but the path to which is so tangled in thickets of doubt, uncertainty and confusion.

But despite such growing awareness of the gathering storm, just a few months later the dot-com bubble burst. The irrational exuberance with which the stock market had embraced the emerging online marketplace evaporated. Many of the dot-coms became dot-bombs almost over night.

And a lot of newspaper people said “I told you so,” breathed a sigh of relief, and relaxed.

Of course, what the bursting bubble did was weed out stupid companies and punish stupid investors – leaving behind smarter companies and smarter investors, who quickly proved that customers really did want the benefits online media could bring.

Since then, newspapers have made incremental progress toward becoming more multiplatform, but the pace has been inadequate. I introduced what we called “the urgency agenda” a couple of years ago, but let’s be honest: we didn’t always behave urgently.

Now we’re at another, perhaps decisive tipping point. Our world is shifting under us, faster than we imagined it could.

What now?

One of the continuing bright spots we can point to these days is the fact that when you combine print and online reach, our audience is growing. As we never tire of saying, more people want what we do today than wanted it yesterday.

Which is why, even in days when talk about reducing expenses is inevitable and necessary, we need to remember this: we have to keep investing, too. Yes, we have to pay the bills. Yes, we have to preserve our base. But we will surely fail if we don’t extend quickly into these new digital channels and build audience, as well.

So, who’s going to do that?

Our newsrooms. Nobody else.

The good news is that we can do that with fewer people than we employ today, but we cannot do it simply by cutting staff and layering on assignments, and we can’t do it without staffers’ enthusiastic engagement.

We must all understand and accept the financial emergency. I am ready for us to reengineer the newsrooms fundamentally, approaching this as genuine reinvention – and with the urgency to which we only pretended up until now. Our newsrooms are ready for fundamental change, particularly if it is presented as a full-faith effort at the long-term survival of our mission rather than a reflex effort to prop up margins. As one of our editors puts it, we must “[m]ake growing readership and online revenue Job One. If we’re truly at war, turn [our] auto plants into tank factories. Ration scrap metal and sugar. If you launch troops on too many fronts, but also cut taxes back home, you end up losing the election – or your company.”

Here is an instructive example about failure to adapt, drawn from another media industry (emphasis added):

"It would be unfair to say that the music industry was full of stupid executives. Instead, the people at the top were well-paid pashas who lived and died by short-term results. They’d attained their lofty posts by cunning and a gut instinct for what the public wanted. If the glaciers that supported their current business model were to melt, the smart play for an executive was to hope that there would be sufficient ice to support him until retirement … [T]he music industry reluctantly began [to offer products over the internet]. They were pathetic, half-hearted efforts …
Steven Levy in The Perfect Thing, p.91

We used to wonder about other newspaper companies for their frequent, shortsighted shifts in strategy. McClatchy has been steady and consistent by comparison, and I think we should continue to embrace the “athletic company” model we have long espoused.

Like any athlete, the newsrooms must shed any and all fat; they can and we will. (Maybe we argue a bit now and then about the definition ...) They need a game plan that pulls maximum effort from every team member; we’re ready to reorganize them in ways that would have been unimaginable five years ago. They need to work harder and change priorities; we can do without unproductive bureaus; share travel sections and regional food pages; update websites 50 times a day instead of 15.

Nobody gets a no-cut contract – from the coach (that’s me) on down; let’s reward winners and dismiss failures.

But it makes no sense to take the court with four players when the game demands five. The amount and quality of work we require of our newsrooms is not decreasing. Success demands enthusiasm and innovation and we all need to understand that while things aren't perfect, we have the tools we need to win.

We can reassure staffers about that even while optimizing operations, trimming staff and saving money. But doing so requires cool nerve and steady leadership, especially right now.

I felt a tinge of hyperbole when I said, not long ago, that it looked like it would fall to our generation to save American journalism. I don't feel like that's an overstatement any more.

Our task is to preserve the values of honest, independent, public interest journalism. In the end, it's not about saving newspapers, or titles, or jobs. It's about the mission.

And for now, the very best thing we can do to ensure it is to work urgently and intensely to preserve and grow the audience for what we do. That's the focus of all our efforts from here on out.
–Howard Weaver
Venture-funded journalism?

Jeff Jarvis posts about a German journalist-entrepreneur bringing his experience with citizen journalism abroad to Harvard, with some useful links to related stories. Perhaps the most interesting item in the item is a question, not an answer:

I wonder whether we will, indeed, start seeing more venture investment in not just media but specifically in journalistic projects. Some have said that the moguls thinking of spending billions to buy hunks of Tribune Company or the New York Times Company would be better off just starting new ventures that are not dragged down by the tremendous costs of old media’s infrastructure. There is money to be made in news and I do think it will be made a lot faster creating new ventures rather than trying to reform old ones.

Monday, December 25, 2006

As BoingBoing reader Andrew Tonkin notes:

FYI James recorded a song called "Christmas in Heaven" - creepy man, it's like he KNEW.
Fiddling with ourselves
while the world burns

Frank Rich – one of the smartest observers of contemporary culture anywhere, for my money – weighs in with a different take on Time's designation of "You" as person of the year. In Rich's view (available in full for Times Select members here) it's all about distracting ourselves because reality is too hard to handle.

Here's a prime example of his lash:

As of Friday morning, “Britney Spears Nude on Beach” had been viewed 1,041,776 times by YouTube’s visitors. The count for YouTube video clips tagged with “Iraq” was 22,783. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But compulsive blogging and free soft-core porn are not, as Time would have it, indications of how much you, I and that glassy-eyed teenage boy hiding in his bedroom are in control of the Information Age. They are indicators instead of how eager we are to flee from brutal real-world information that makes us depressed and angry. This was the year Americans escaped as often as they could into their private pleasure pods. So the Person of 2006 was indeed you — yes, you.

This little jeremiad reminds me of arguments Neil Postman raised more than 20 years ago in "Amusing Ourselves To Death." I haven't reread it lately, but life nowadays seems to show his basic points have been proved all too true.

The full Frank Rich column in NYT's Sunday Week In Review section for those who don't have access online. (Times Select is free to subscribers; just register with your subscription info).
–Howard Weaver

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The future of video
is ... newspapers?

Video journalist and professor David Dunkley Gyimah from England makes a case in a post from Online Press Gazette that internet opportunities offer a wholly new evolution in video journalism. His discussion is full of references to British programs and personalities I don't recognize, but his essential point seems right.

And the part I liked best was this observation from a BBC VJ:

Now, everyone's doing video-something, or at least has the tools to do so. The BBC has a division of VJs, Channel 4 has won awards with them through its indie scheme, and regional newspapers are breaking interesting and fertile ground.

One experienced BBC VJ told me: "The real threat for video news will come from the newspapers."

Newspapers doing video journalism? It sounds incongruous, but we really shouldn't be alarmed ...
There's scant discussion beyond that, but the possibilities are already apparent.
–Howard Weaver

Friday, December 22, 2006

Roles for reason and passion
in American journalism

Once you get past the windy, somewhat antique introduction and hagiographic reminisence of Theodore H. White, E.J. Dionne's recent speech at Harvard has some intriguing insights about the press and public affairs nowdays. If you have some time over the holidays, this makes interesting reading.

Dionne makes an impressive argument for finding a marriage between the indispensible honest, non-partisan reporting of mainstream media and the passionate engagement of bloggers and others who bring the virtues of genuine argument back to the center ring of public affairs. He says:

... there is also an obligation not to confuse partisan media with independent media. There is an enormous need for information that is developed outside the confines of political struggles. Honest debate requires at least some consensus on what the facts are -- and honesty, not obfuscation, where there is genuine confusion over the nature of the facts.

What we need, in other words, is to welcome the newly partisan and participatory outlets while finding ways to nurture and improve independent journalism. The two are very different forms. They need not be enemies, even though they should and will correct and criticize each other. If we see one as an alternative to the other, we will be wrong analytically, and we will miss a great opportunity. If we see them as complements to each other, we arrive closer to answering Christopher Lasch's demand that democracy live up to its vocation of being the most educational form of government.

There's also a useful, quick history of "objectivity" in American journalism, and some forward-looking prognostication, as well:
... I began thinking about what [Theodore] White would make of the new back rooms in American politics: the offices and kitchen tables of those Andrew Sullivan described as the pajamahadeen, the bloggers, and the other technological developments that have challenged the journalism and the old ways of doing politics. What would he make of the fact that the two most powerful outside influences on my son James' politics -- I say "outside" because I pray we parents still have some modest influence -- are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (I confess I don't mind that a bit.) What would he make of the conflicts between the so-called old media (or the so-called mainstream media) and the new media?
The conservative PowerLine blog approves, here, in a post by Paul Mirengoff that's also worth a look.
–Howard Weaver

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

'How human attention
is created and allocated'

I read Richard Lanham's book The Electronic Word more than 10 years ago, when I was working on McClatchy's first strategic plan for internet publishing. It's not easy reading; at some points, it reminded me of Mark Twain's observation that "maybe I could read Jane Austen on a salary."

But though it's a bit academic in tone, the ideas are profound. I was reminded by something else that came up today of this particular section, which I flagged years ago and have referred to many gtimes since. I thought some of you might appreciate this notion, as well:

In a society based on information, the chief scarce commodity would presumably be information, not goods. But we are drowning in information, not suffering a dearth of it. Dealing with this superabundant flow is sometimes compared to drinking from a firehose. In such a society, the scarcest commodity turns out to be not information but the human attention needed to cope with it.

Intelligenda longa, vita brevis should be a motto of the information age – life is short, but long indeed the list of things to be know in it.

We have in the West a venerable tradition of studying how human attention is created and allocated: the “art of persuasion” which the Greeks called rhetoric. A better definition of rhetoric, in fact, might be “the economics of human attention-structures,” for whenever we “persuade” someone, we do so by getting that person to “look at things from our point of view,” share out attention-structure. It is in the nature of human life that attention should be in short supply, but in an information economy it becomes the crucial scarce commodity. Just as economics has been the study of how we allocate scarce resources in a goods economy, we now will use a variety of rhetoric as the “economics” of human attention-structures. Whatever we choose to call it – and almost certainly our name will not be the now-discredited “rhetoric” – the construction and allocation of attention-structures will be a vital activity in our information society.

It is not as if we haven’t had warning that this new economics has supervened. Was not Pop Art all about the replacement of goods by information as the main scarce commodity in an information society? That was Andy Warhol’s message, however various his medium. So his infatuation with movie stars, and especially with “personalities,” people famous for being famous. So, too, the infatuation with signage that James Rosenquist carried to epic dimension: his immense canvases take the scaling of attention-structures as their great subject. “Target” paintings, preoccupied with central focus, and alphabet paintings, depicting letters as opaque objects rather than transparent symbols, both “imitate” the “information” in an information society. Robert Irwin’s minimalist paintings and environments are all calculated to bring human visual attention to acute self-consciousness. “Happenings” were contrived yet spontaneous and participatory attention-structures. The shift of emphasis from object to beholder in contemporary art and letters bespeaks the same sensitivity to a new scarcity. Indeed, much of the strangeness and “experimentality” of twentieth-century experimental art comes from the relative difficulty of “imitating” human attention as against the objects we attend to.

In this experimental world, a training in rhetoric turns out to be of real use, and an intellectual framework frankly rhetorical condign to describe the society as a whole. In an information society, then, the arts and letters, the “humanities,” move from background to foreground, become essential rather than ornamental, and the “Q” question poses itself with a new urgency.
The Electronic Word
Operating Systems, Attention Structures, & the Edge of Chaos
Excerpts from pages 227-228

Making television

Jeff Jarvis twice in one day. Take a look over here to see his video report on ... video reports.
Time mag says 'You'
are person of the year

Dan Gillmor has some thoughts here, including this note:

The world has changed, as the magazine's writers, photographers, artists and editors captured in this issue. Here's the issue: It's changed even more than they may want to concede deep down in their essentially top-down, corporate gut.

Jeff Jarvis has a somewhat different take on the piece over here, where he says:

Well, I suppose I should give Time some credit for recognizing the power of the people. Only thing is, there’s no news here. This is nothing new. We have always been in charge. It’s just that the people who thought they had the power now have no choice to but hear us and recognize that we are, and always have been, the boss.
To which I'd say, well, not really.

"We the people" have always been the ultimate authority, of course, but the average reader wasn't really in charge. In the same way that comparison shopping on the web drives auto prices down toward a lowest common denominator, the disintermediation of media has likewise empowered news consumers beyond the norms of earlier times. This is a good thing, despite the discomfort it brings to us aging Gatekeepers and the damage it does to our econommic model.

Remember this exchange from Citizen Kane?

Emily: Really Charles, people will think ...
Charles Foster Kane: ... what I tell them to think.
Or A.J. Liebling's rather more arch observation: "Competitive newspapers love the little man; his name is circulation."
–Howard Weaver

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I'm just sayin'...

I doubt that this item means anything. Just made me feel better this morning, that's all.
–Howard Weaver

Friday, December 15, 2006

'Lights & sirens' in Tacoma

As the Pacific Northwest threatens to wash away in an historic winter storm, the Tacoma News Tribune's crime and breaking news team is posting almost constantly to Lights & Sirens, their regular blog. It's an informative way to catch up on the latest there (neither Seattle paper was able to publish) and to see how important and effective this kind of report can be.

Congrats to all the Tacoma staffers doing great work through this crisis.
–Howard Weaver

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cry bullshit!
and let slip the dogs of news

Daniel Froomkin argues enthusiastically over at the Nieman Watchdog blog that newspapers are missing a big bet by not encouraging reporters to challenge conventional wisdom and un-spin some of the dizzying blitz of propaganda we all face nowadays – in other words, to call "bullshit" a lot more often.

Here's a taste (a sniff?):

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

This put me in mind of a talk I heard Molly

Ivins give when she was in Alaska at a journalism symposium in May, 1987. I kept the note I sent to the Daily News staff about her talk, and this is what she said almost 20 years ago:

Thus spake Molly

ADN is about to start running Molly Ivins’ syndicated column. I thought you might enjoy these notes from her workshop on newspaper writing at Alaska Journalism Week, May 1987:

On reporters and editors who shy away from colorful, powerful language:
“Ours is the only craft I know where we would purposefully dull our own tool.”

On why newspaper circulation is declining:

The average American newspaper delivers “a dry turd of lifeless facts on peoples’ doorsteps every morning...”

On the standard newspaper version of objectivity and fairness:
We must get beyond “the false idea that truth always lies exactly halfway between two opposing ideas ....”

“The cannons of journalistic objectivity only put a megaphone in the hands of those with power.”

“An amazing number of politicians are genuinely admirable people—but my rule is: ‘The geeks are fair game.’ ”

About the effect of TV news on politics:

“You go to Washington these days and you can’t find a sumbitch with bad hair.”

On characters she admires in American journalism:
William Brand, Waco publisher of The Iconoclast ... Shot by an outraged reader, he then pulled his gun and shot his own murderer.
For what it's worth, I heartily endorse the sentiments of both Froomkin and Ivins. Of course, I don't have to answer the phone at the editor's desk any more ...
–Howard Weaver

New editor in Salt Lake

I don't know what to say about the Deseret News' new editor that isn't obvious, but I couldn't resist posting just to use this cartoon, from the Salt Lake Tribune.
–Howard Weaver
What does love & fashion
have to do with journalism?

I'm not yet sure about this, but in my heart I just know there are important lessons for us in these notes (see post from Dec. 10) prepared for a talk about blogging and luxury commerce.

Have a look, and let me know what you think.
–Howard Weaver

P.S. Busy here. Sorry about lack of posts.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Back to the future:
lessons from a press baron

You might not think advice that's more than a hundred years old would be especially helpful in navigating today's media turbluence, but I find continued refreshment in the words of E.W. Scripps. These are from the memos to editors reproduced in Faith In My Star (my emphasis added):

EWS let a former secretary, George Putnam, start the Spokane Press, but scolded him:

Your paper is dull. Your staff is spreading itself too thin . . . All any paper needs is one column of news the public must have . . . every day.” [Putnam couldn’t take it, resigning in a few weeks.]
–April 28, 1903

Sending William Strandborg to the Seattle Star as new editor, EWS advised:

“Be yourself . . . hard, and definitive, and pervasive. Make a paper that everybody will read and at the same time be a certificate of your character as a gentleman . . .Do what [the other papers] are not doing . . . so that all people will take the Star to know what is going on. Don’t be too correct. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

Don’t be afraid of trying experiments. Whatever you feel right hard about, that do . . . Better an enthusiastic damn fool than perfectly correct and prosy . . .

Don’t be afraid to act promptly in dealing with your staff . . . If you have a bad man, let him go. If you don’t trust a man, let him go . . . Don’t permit anyone – myself or the president of your company – to persuade you to employ a man you don’t want, or discharge a man you think you can make good use of.”
–May 10, 1903

As they say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

–Howard Weaver
'Weapons-grade heels'
on the last frontier ...

Photo by Mark Lester, ADN

Do yourself a favor and go read this Anchorage Daily News feature, from today's front page up in the Great White North:

TALKEETNA -- "All you are is a piece of meat to these women," bachelor No. 30 claims in the Talkeetna Bachelor Society's Male Order Catalog.

This is not a complaint.

Where else but the Talkeetna Bachelor Auction could you get a room stuffed with women -- from grandmas in sweatshirts to babes in glove-tight gowns and weapons-grade heels -- going nuclear over some hip-gyrating guy missing his shirt, pants and a front tooth?

–Howard Weaver

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Which dog is wagging
that "Long Tail" ?

There's a provocative post at O'Reilly Radar called "The Economics of Disaggregation" that provides links to some potent arguments about the conventional wisdom about how aggregators (Yahoo, Google) benefit more than producers of content (you).

It starts with this sobering synopsis of the argument from Slate, including this:

Fresh thinking about what ails newspapers arrived in yesterday's (Nov. 29) Wall Street Journal, where staffer William M. Bulkeley contributed a column titled "The Internet Allows Consumers to Trim Wasteful Purchases." Bulkeley explains how the photographic film industry, encyclopedia publishers, the music industry, and the advertising industry feasted on buyers by forcing them to purchase things they didn't want—prints of all 24 shots from their camera or a whole album to secure one favorite song, for example. "The business models required customers to pay for detritus to get the good stuff," Bulkeley writes. But digital cameras, the Web, iTunes, and search-related advertising have stripped those industries of their power to charge for detritus.

Bulkeley could have easily applied the wisdom of his lesson more broadly to newspapers. It's not that the complete gestalt of local, state, national, and international news plus sports, comics, classified, opinion, and hints on fashion, home, entertainment, and food isn't still useful. It is. But given a choice, and the economic means to make a choice, many buyers prefer to make an unbundled purchase. Unbundling the news they want from the news they don't want is what the Web allows readers to do now.

Also linked from O'Reilly are alternative points, mainly arguing that while consumers may benefit from disaggregation, that's not the aggregators' intention: they just wanna make money. And in a capitalist economy, somebody will.

One lesson for us is unassailable: nobody has to come to newspapers for a one-size-fits-all news/reader experience nowadays. We have to build audiences in many ways, on multiple platforms, through varied channels. People who come upon your information via search engines may never even see your home page, much less your newspaper. But we have to make that info useful for them, and make them valuable to some advertiser.
–Howard Weaver

Monday, December 04, 2006

Should every journalist
also become a blogger?

A journalism instructor in the UK argues here that every journalism student should become a blogger, if only to understand better how the blogosphere is changing things for journalism.

Here's a sample:

But the real point of getting a journalist blogging at this early stage in his or her career is that the bloggers, in all their variety, with all their different skills and abilities and interests and biases, are reshaping the world in which professional journalists operate just as much as the telephone shook up the profession in the first half of the 20th Century.
Thanks for the link from Sacred Facts.
–Howard Weaver
How to host a good party

This interview with Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake from .net magazine is worth reading if you 're pondering the imponderables of how to build online communties, keep flame wars to a minimum and learn to live without control. Here's a good taste:

According to Caterina: “The most difficult part is not the technology but actually getting the people to behave well.” When first starting the community the Flickr team were spending nearly 24 hours online greeting each individual user, introducing them to each other and cultivating the community. “After a certain point you can let go and the community will start to maintain itself, explains Caterina. “People will greet each other and introduce their own practices into the social software. It’s always underestimated, but early on you need someone in there everyday who is kind of like the host of the party, who introduces everybody and takes their coat.

(thanks to for the pointer)
–Howard Weaver
First ground-level view
of Gannett's Info Center

Frank Aherns' story in the WaPost today is the first on-the-ground reporting I have seen about how the Gannett Information Center plan is being applied. If you haven't already clicked through from Romenesko, do it now.

As the dimensions of the program come into view, we're seeing both great ideas and some scary concepts at play. Much about their reorientation of news resources seems smart and worthwhile; at the minimum, I give them huge credit for trying to make major changes to meet the major challenges we face. Making the whole newsroom webcentric and focusing resources on helping readers access their own information through customized databases sounds just right. Encouraging citizen experts to participate in reporting complex subjects is well worth trying; I hope it works in practice the way many of us think it might, and I'm glad Gannett is going to give it a run.

Other priorities seem questionable to me from this distance. I'm not convinced that micronews (like the calendar signing that is the Post story's main anecdote) is very valuable to readers. I guess we'll see.

But having reporters go along on sales calls to seek "sponors" for a major reporting project is just wrong. Along with some other questionable practices Gannett editors are discussing off-the-record, I find that blurring of traditional editorial independence quite troubling.

Time will tell. Let's pay close attention; please let me know if you have observations sorth sharing.
– Howard Weaver

Monday, November 27, 2006

Swift stroke

During our long newspaper war in Anchorage, I became an aficionado of military maxims. There is nobody better than the colonial naval hero John Paul Jones.

Here's one (with my emphasis added):

The rules of conduct, the maxims of actions, and the tactical instincts that serve to gain small victories may always be expanded into the winning of great ones with suitable opportunity; because in human affairs the sources of success are ever to be found in the fountains of quick resolve and swift stroke; and it seems to be a law inflexible and inexorable that he who will not risk cannot win.

And my favorite:

I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way.

–Howard Weaver
Bloated and oblivious

Here's a perspective you don't read much in your MSM publications: the view that the L.A. Times newsroom is, indeed, "bloated and chronically oblivious to the needs of its customers."

Philip Terzian is books and arts editor at The Weekly Standard, a one-time L.A. Times reporter and (on the evidence of this one column) a political conservative who's right at home in that publication; his analysis is worth your consideration independently of its modest political slant. He's named some issues that too often go unspoken in these debates, and God knows we need to be as clearheaded and agnostic as possible in searching for solutions.

Here's an observation that belongs on your radar in pondering the future:

A half-century after the death of afternoon newspapers, and one decade into the Internet, we may locate the future of daily print journalism roughly halfway between the Times and the Tribune: leaner products, appealing to older, more affluent readers, emphasizing local news but with quality national and foreign coverage, and culture and features, to prevent a wholesale exodus to the Internet.

And here's another, somewhat more acerbic sample:

... while it may be poignant to read about the editor of the Times standing up to those profit-minded meanies in Chicago, the Tribune Company is on to something. If the long-term survival of newspapers is at stake, it will not be secured by fat and happy newsrooms, or writers and editors incessantly addressing themselves to other writers and editors.
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why this matters

Caught up in the sturm und drang of contemporary newspaper economics, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger issues at play in our struggle.

Here's an example: the inventor of the World Wide Web is worried nowadays about the "bad things" that could emerge as misinformation and "undemocratic forces" multiple on the net.

Says Tim Berners-Lee:

If we don't have the ability to understand the web as it's now emerging, we will end up with things that are very bad … Certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web.

Well, no shit.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Great Britain, a Guardian journalist writes of the despair he feels about the deepening pool of conspiracy and irrationality he encounters on the internet (and elsewhere in daily life.) In concluding that "We rationalists are the oppressed minority," he describes having posted on a website that argues Bush and Zionists were behind the 9-11 attacks:

I feel battered by the relentlessness of their insults. "I'm not going back there again. Horrible, patronising, codeword-using anti-semitic bastards," I eventually think. "They're so irrational. They sit behind their computers all day, pontificating away, getting their 'facts' from YouTube. They probably all look like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons."

It's a peculiar post and I can't tell where the columnist is headed, but his central point is plain to any of us who has been flamed for an editor's blog entry, cursed on the phone by a pro-or-anti abortion crusader or backed into a corner at some cocktail party by a conspiracy theorist.

His solution is public assertion of rationality (apparently extending all the way to militant atheism). Mine is to cling ever-more tenaciously to the principles of journalism that have animated our profession.

We're in the verification business. What we do is so much more important than simply passing along information or factoids. Go back and reread Jack Fuller's description of "the truth discipline" in News Values. What we do isn't the same as what people do in chat rooms, or on most opinion blogs.

What we do matters. And that's why it's worth all our best efforts to keep doing it, even in hard times like these.
–Howard Weaver

(For more on the question of conspiracy in public affairs, see the post that provoked this at SacredFacts, a blog by Richard Sambrook of the BBC.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Somes answers from
the Strib's 'Big Question'

The Star Tribune's innovative combination of blogging and reporting (called "The Big Question") has been focused on the campaign in recent weeks. Today writer Eric Black explains how he plans to extend the feature beyond elections and campaigns.

I think Eric and editors at the Strib are onto something here. Eric serves as a hybrid journalist, factchecker, referee and guide. He explores public debate and discussion from a disinterested but never uninteresting perspective.

You might want to check in on the blog from time to time here. Here's where Eric says it's headed next:

The plan for the moment for taking the Big Question into the post-campaign future includes continuing to do “Is That a Fact?” pieces, only now they won’t be just about campaign ads, plus the new “Verbatim” feature, and one I’m calling “Are You Sure?,” a critical thinking exercise about gaps between the conventional wisdom and the evidence that should support it.

For my next trick, I’m hereby inaugurating “Do You Believe in Logic?” (yes, it is a reference to the Lovin’ Spoonful song, if you don’t get it, ask your parents). If it works, this will be an effort to scrutinize the logic, and not just the accuracy, of public discourse.

–Howard Weaver

Don't bet against
the internet

It won't surprise you to hear Google's CEO holding forth on the importance and potential of the internet. (Their stock just passed $500 a share; maybe they're onto something there).

One of his most interesting observations is about how the internet is far more than a ubiquitous delivery system; it's also making fundamental changes in how we live.

I know this is true for me. I keep reminders of things like locker combinations by sending myself Gmail, which I can then retreive and search for nearly anywhere; I have a cool Verizon EVDO modem that lets me look for the nearest Home Depot while Barb drives around in circles; I get a lot of my news from my 60-something feeds at Google Reader.

I'm not going back.

Google's Eric Schmidt, from the article (emphasis added):

But what’s surprising is that so many companies are still betting against the net, trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. The past few years have taught us that business models based on controlling consumers or content don’t work. Betting against the net is foolish because you’re betting against human ingenuity and creativity.

Of course this new technology raises profound challenges for many established companies. Skype, an internet telephony business (voice over IP), is as disruptive to the economics of the telecommunications industry as China has been to the global manufacturing sector. But that disruption is only going to intensify.
–Howard Weaver

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Justices hand victory to free speech online
Web Site can't be sued for the postings of others

That was the headline on a Mercury News story from Tuesday.

The story explains:
The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that federal law is clear on insulating Internet providers and Web sites against lawsuits for the inflammatory statements of others. The ruling does not, however, protect the original authors of defamatory material.

Thought I'd bring it to the attention of this group. We'll all eventually be dealing with this kind of thing, I think, from both ethical and legal perspectives. I'd be interested in your comments/thoughts.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Current TV's Pro-Am model
for user-generated content

They call it VC2 (for viewer-created content) but in fact the hundreds of video productions on Current TV can also be recognized as another form of citizen journalism. Here, as we've discussed in earlier postings, the emerging model is the "Pro-Am" construct, where volunteers supply the content, but professionals select it, shape it and ultimately determine what makes the cut. Importantly, Current goes out of its way to help viewers succeed as video producers, including extensive online tutorials.

Here's a taste of the interview at, featuring Robin Sloan:

[W]e make decisions in a spirit of collaboration, taking cues from the [viewer feedback] on the site, but acknowledging that the responsibility for a good, informative product is ultimately ours. What that often means, practically speaking, is that our amazing VC2 team will work with a producer to polish a piece before it goes on air. A lot of what you see on TV is literally a mix of organic uploads and professional polish.
–Howard Weaver
Living history in North Carolina

If you missed this link on Romenesko today, E&P reported on an ambitious joint effort over the past week by The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh.

We teamed up to produce a 16-page tab section, published Friday in both papers and the Wilmington Star-News, and additional reporting on what's known as the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, a long-buried chapter on the successful white supremacy movement in North Carolina whose champions included both our newspapers. Josephus Daniels, who bought The N&O in 1894, was one of the leading architects of the Democratic Party's campaign to seize back control from a coalition of Republicans and Populists. The 1898 story has become a current event in North Carolina because of the publication of a 500-page report by a state commission, released this year. Among the commission's recommendations: that newspapers in the state acknowledge their role. We had considered a special section before the final report came out, but the recommendation cemented the notion.

Because of the newspapers' role in this history, we hired an outside writer to do the main piece (author and historian Tim Tyson), The Observer's Eric Frazier tracked down descendants of black and white participants in the 1898 events and both papers did supplemental stories. The E&P piece focuses on the editorial page apologies that coincided with the news stories. Both The N&O and Observer, which offered the section and a one-page summary to newspapers across North Carolina, are getting numerous requests for additional copies and generally positive comments from readers. A common refrain, even from native North Carolinians: I never knew this.

To see the work on our sites, click the home page links above or go here for The N&O's "Ghosts of 1898" page.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another view of the
future of newspapers

Michael Hirschorn has a piece in the Atlantic Monthly online exploring the future of newspapers that's worthwhile for a couple of reasons.

First, it's an intelligent and provocative take on how journalists and newspaper might adapt to changing media dynamics to turn liabilities into assets. Despite occasional moments of amusing myopia and ignorance (AP video as a "breakthrough" effort?) it's smart and well reasoned.

Secondly, it leads and concludes with references to EPIC, the futuristic mocumentary that predicts the demise of MSM at the hands of Googlezon, et al. And EPIC, as you may know, is the product of our own Matt Thompson (deputy online editor at the Strib) and Robin Sloan, who really ought to be working for McClatchy himself.
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is this the generation
called to save

About 11 years ago, working on McClatchy's strategic plan for internet publishing, I left Manhattan to interview Jim Wilse in New Jersey. I got on the train in Times Square and got off in Star-Ledger Plaza. I wondered even then if there’d ever be another time when newspapers were powerful enough to etch their names thus on the civic landscape.

In Chicago Friday for a meeting with our MCT partners, I waited for an elevator in the lobby of Tribune Tower and felt an even more powerful, more foreboding question about our place in the scheme of things.

Have you seen the tower? Modeled after Rouen Cathedral in France, the Tribune’s headquarters stands as an icon for Chicago and the newspaper world. The 36-story tower grew from a 1922 competition seeking nothing less than “ the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world.” Col. McCormick surely did not doubt that his newspaper deserved that. As if to punctuate its grand, self-confident style, the building incorporates stones from famous locations around the world – the Alamo, the Coliseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China. Apollo 15 obligingly brought back another from the moon.

And today, of course, the fate of the 159-year-old company the gothic tower houses is very much up in the air. The marketing of Tribune Company is the biggest in a continuing series of seismic events that have rattled media companies of late. Dow Jones sold six newspapers, and Copley is trying to sell seven. The New York Times sold its television stations and the Boston Globe may be in play. Belo eliminated its pension plan, Cleveland and San Jose added to the growing ranks of laid-off journalists. Akron and Contra Costa decided they could do without executive editors.

More and more, it looks like we are going to be the generation called on to save American journalism. It’s a nice honor and all, but it’s not going to be easy.

In fact, it will be brutal, as the sad litany of recent events well illustrates. McClatchy hasn’t escaped unscathed, either, and we know there’s more pain to come. Revenues continue to erode, undermining the business model our traditional operations were built on. If we make a lot less money, we’ll have to spend a lot less, too.

And that leaves fewer resources for the crucial fight at hand. “Business as usual” isn’t possible, and “journalism by attrition” – doing everything 10 percent less well than we did it yesterday – is inadequate.

How do we handle that?

Partly by reaching out on new platforms and in new channels. Partnerships are sure to play an increasingly important role. We can be even more relentless in expense savings, negotiate better rates, learn to share content more regularly. Although people are working hard and productively, we all know we can manage to a higher standard.

Most fundamentally, we need to reinvent the way we do things – where we focus the resources we have, how we manage our newsrooms. If you were starting from scratch today, would you build a newsroom exactly like what you have now?

That's a question we should be asking all the time now, adjusting operations constantly as the answers change.

Most importantly, we have to keep the mission at the center of decision-making while we adapt: how can we continue to hold government accountable, give voice to the voiceless, speak truth to power? How do we build community cohesion, inform civic debate, make life better for the average person? If we can answer those questions well, we're winning – no matter how hard the fught becomes.
–Howard Weaver

Thursday, November 16, 2006

New story form: the inverted inverted pyramid.

Try this on for size. (Andy Baio pointed to this in his excellent blog.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blogs, transparency, objectivity and bias

We're all supporting blogs on our sites, in no small part because we hope that blogs will create more meaningful opportunities for true conversation between our newsrooms and our audience. Increased transparency of the sort created by such conversations, we hope, will prove a powerful weapon in differentiating what we do from the echo-chamber ‘journalism of affirmation’ practiced by what Richard A. Viguerie and other partisans are labeling ‘new and alternative media.’

But are we really prepared to have those conversations? And are we prepared to answer the questions our audience is increasingly asking?

One thing I hope is now clear: Reader largely don’t know or care about the steps we on the news side have taken to maintain our objectivity. They don’t see a distinction between the editorial pages and the news pages, and they largely don’t distinguish between columnists and reporters. Most of all, they don’t trust the careful lines we’ve drawn to maintain objectivity. Rather than seeing those lines as journalistic standards, they instead suspect they just convenient shields we use to hide our biases.

Leading up to the election, the reporter behind our most active news blog found himself mired in just that sort of vicious circle. His audience was large and dedicated. And overwhelmingly skeptical. Rather than valuing his contributions more because he was objective, many argued that his refusal to disclose his personal leanings made them trust him less. The left-leaning readers saw bias favoring Republicans, the right-leaning readers saw bias favoring Democrats. And while many of us may see that as proof that he was doing his job, the end result is that both groups said they found the blog less relevant and less trustworthy. Yes, it’s a select group. Yes, it’s a partisan group. But do we honestly believe that such skepticism isn’t found throughout our audience?

Last spring, Michael Kinsley grappled with the problem and suggested a middle way: Ditch our claims of objectivity and instead just stick to the facts. Here’s a quote:

Abandoning the pretense of objectivity does not mean abandoning the journalist's most important obligation, which is factual accuracy. In fact, the practice of opinion journalism brings additional ethical obligations. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Kinsley’s complete Slate essay can be found here.

As our reporters, particularly those covering politics, wade deeper into the conversational world of blogging and other two-way media, these questions seem impossible to avoid. Sure, we could attempt to steer clear of these ugly issues by keeping news reporters out of our blogging plans. But we won’t be solving any problems that way, we’ll just be ignoring them. Kinsley’s solution is probably overblown. All journalism can't be opinion journalism. But some sort of more aggressive transparency certainly seems to be called for.