Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New thinking about news

Tim Porter has a posting over at First Draft describing what he sees as a significant shift in thinking about change at newspapers. He focuses chiefly on a recent column by Chris Peck at the Commercial Appeal, which was I suspect partly the product of some time a bunch of us spent at Poynter on the subject earlier last week.

Short version of Tim's conclusion: "The patient has swallowed the bitter pill."

After two days of talking about the future of news with stockbrokers, publishers, academics and others, Gregory Favre asked all of us to spend an hour writing something about our vision of the future, along with a short-term and long-term action item each of us could undertake to accomplish this. These are to be published on the Poynter site sometime soon.

I know I had a bit of a headstart since this is something I think and talk about all the time with you folks. You will likely recognize much of what I had to say:

Future of News
Poynter Institute 23 May 2006

A former newspaper editor named Mark Twain once famously observed that he wasn’t worried about his ability to find work because, “I figure even the people in the north of hell will be curious about what the people in South Hell have been up to.”

On that essential truth rests all my thinking about “the future of news.” Tomorrow’s appetite for real news and information will not be less than today’s. People’s curiosity will not diminish. Those who have reliable and timely information will continue to be advantaged over those who do not. And that means people who can supply such information will remain essential.

Yes, information is becoming freely and ubiquitously available, delivered around the clock and in many formats. Yet people don’t need more data in their lives. A recent book called “Data Smog” makes the point that too much information – or bad quality information – can, like polluted air, become toxic. People will always need help sorting, verifying and organizing the bewildering range of data flowing all around them, and so organizations that can do that will, like Mark Twain, always have job security.

Fortunately, those are skills that newspapers and newspaper journalists have honed carefully over many decades. While we’ve often been hidebound and stubborn about our delivery mechanisms and our relationship with readers, our much-vaunted “core competencies” are right at the center of filling this need.

The 21st century news company will have to be able to make a pitch to audiences something like this:

Yes, we know you’re awash in data and information. You wake up to NPR, listen to talk radio on your commute, surf the web when you should be working and see CNN in the lunchroom. You’ve been titillated by blogs and email alerts all day; friends and coworkers have sent you IMs about the latest item to tickle their fancy. You’ve got books and podcasts cued oup on your iPod. So what can we possibly do for you?

How about this: I’ll ask a hundred of the smartest people I know to spend all day sorting through that information, figuring out which of the blog items you saw is accurate enough to deserve your attention, comparing what the Secretary of Defense said on TV with what he told you last month, figuring what’s likely to happen tomorrow on that big story that dominated CNN. They’ll organize it in concise and manageable dimensions, collect it all in one spot and deliver it to your doorstep first thing in the morning to help you organize and orient your coming day.

In the meantime, we’ll use all those other channels as well to keep you posted on what we learn about the latest developments, and to deliver the information – chiefly local – that we alone have bothered to check out and discover.

In short, we’ll promise to make their lives better – to give them advantages over less well informed or less carefully briefed colleagues and competitors. We can help them narrow their choices for entertainment or understand why the local coach was so stupid. We can share an emotional connection with neighbors, or expose a corrupt contract at city hall.

That’s a hell of a “value proposition,” a promise to deliver real benefits in exchange for their most precious possession: a piece of their busy day. In the coming “attention economy,” where the only thing in short supply is time, that’s the only way to be valuable to people.

I haven’t spent time talking about the economics of the industry here partly because it’s not my expertise, but also because I have considerable confidence in the resilience of our basic business model: selling audiences to advertisers. If we assemble quality audiences and learn to deliver them (or partner with people who can), there will be willing buyers for that service. I can’t promise a smooth transition from our quasi-monopoly position to this new reality, but my faith in it is undiminished. (Basically, I trust that smart colleagues on the other side of the house will work as hard and intelligently on the business model as we are on content.)

In the short run, I can help secure this future for our industry by helping people get over their fear and frustration and embrace the opportunities. Al Gore says the biggest challenge in getting people to deal with climate change is that they tend to go straight from denial to despair when they contemplate the future. That seems true for people in the news business, as well. Fortunately, that cloud of gloom is easily dissipated by clear thinking and refocused perspective.

In my view, the long term is less frightening and less perplexing than this interim, transition period in which we must continue our traditional operations while embracing change. (Insert metaphor here about changing the oil in your car while driving down the freeway ...) But perhaps our best service in this will be to help our colleagues recognize that these aren’t really two separate tasks so much as a migration from one form of storytelling to another – a relocation, perhaps, from the north of Hell to the south, or even to happier climes.

– Howard Weaver

Friday, May 26, 2006

James Briggs McClatchy

Excerpted from comments at
McClatchy Editors & Publishers Meeting
Fresno Bee photos
September 17,1993
Squaw Valley, California

by James McClatchy

Turning to the matter of newspaper character, the philosophical basis on which a newspaper rests is extremely important. Why is it published? Only to turn a profit? Or does it have another purpose? Is that purpose clear? Or is the character of the paper muddy?

Do our newspapers have something other papers don't have? Are we really different? The answer is yes, our newspapers have philosophical roots.

What has been this unique character? For one, a caring about the way things are for the ordinary person, caring about the way the world is, the way the state is, the way the city is. An intensity of concern, almost a personal expression of concern. This may be individualistic or even eccentric, a reflection of our origins and the personalities that shaped the Bees, a still-living connection to the issues and challenges and problems that existed 135 years ago and still exist today.

That concern was personal and expressed by editors 100 years ago, and 50 years ago, and it should be strong and expressed by editors 50 years from now.

I say it is not enough for us to have integrity and independence. We have those qualities and we are rightfully pleased with that, but every newspaper is supposed to have integrity and independence. That isn't enough.

The first Bee was founded by men who had a cause, who fervently believed in a just society. The newspaper they created showed it. It was passionate and aggressive about a lot of issues but it also was sensitive about individuals. It cared about the things that would make this new community a just society-affordable bank interest rates, land for settlers, an honest court system, cheap electricity when it arrived and clean water, trees and parks, good schools and fair treatment for the ordinary man.

The owners and staff have made major contributions to the fabric and quality of community life by working to get all these things. The Bee had policies that expressed their personal commitment to these practical goals as well as important philosophical values.

It is terribly important that these values and views and ideas and traditions, some of which are odd or idiosyncratic, be kept alive and respected. We need to be true to what we have inherited. We need to preserve the values from the past that give us strength today.

That won't happen without conscious effort, and the editorial committee is one of the tools to accomplish it.

If I believe in anything, I believe we must keep the faith with the many people who gave these papers not only integrity and independence, but extra elements of character and personality and convictions. These elements enriched their communities and made positive contributions towards that ideal of a just society.

The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Bee editorial
New York Times
Associated Press (via Mercury News)
McClatchy Company press release
– Posted by Howard Weaver

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sign your post, please

Just a reminder that since we're using my old blog as a joint effort, you need to append your name to your post so we can tell who says what. When you add a comment, the software identifies you automatically. But since it only expects on blog owner, main posts show up without ID.

(The item about Miami below is from Fitz McAden in Hilton Head, I believe).

– Howard Weaver

Friday, May 19, 2006

I ran across this piece, run in the Miami's New Times, about The Miami Herald's fairly un-regulated reader comment section, on the newspaper's web site. It offers some interesting observations on that paper's standards for what's acceptable commentary on stories and what's not.

Miami Herald Wrestles With Free Speech

The Herald has been accepting comments on its web site for stories that
appear in the newspaper for about a month now — and it has the feel of a
bold experiment. There seem to be few controls. The editors allow commenting
on a handful of potentially controversial stories each day and readers post
them instantaneously. It’s free speech in its rawest form and its now being
done across the recently sold Knight Ridder chain.
Check out yesterday’s response to Dan Christensen’s story about U.S. Sen.
Mel Martinez accepting $250,000 at a fundraiser partially organized by
disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It’s definitely raw.
“Cubans and Jews should go back from where they came,” wrote a lovely fellow
who goes by “La Pluma.” “Anglos do business. Cubans and Jews steal.”
Not exactly the Herald’s standard fare (they usually don’t do hate). Another
commentator called Martinez a “crook” — a charge that isn’t made nor
substantiated in the article. Another called him a “traitor.” Still another
wrote, “If you dig deeper, you will find Martinez takes part in aiding
illegals enter the US.”
Obviously, that stuff seems a little dangerous for the Herald to publish,
especially the totally unfounded stuff about immigrant smuggling. It made me
wonder if anybody is monitoring the comments at all. So I dialed up Rick
Hirsch, the Herald’s Managing Editor/Multimedia, and left him detailed
questions about the posts and the new commentary system.
When Hirsch phoned in the afternoon, he said he hadn’t been aware of the
Martinez comments and had them removed from the site after he got my
message. (Sure enough they were gone.) Were the comments approved by Herald
employees before they appeared on the site in the first place?
“Readers post directly to the web,” Hirsch said. “There is a button that
enables readers to object to comments that they find objectionable. … We try
to review the comments, we keep an eye on them, but we’ve had some stories
where we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of comments. To be looking at that
24/7 in real time is not something that we can do.”
So it’s a self-policing method: If a reader objects to a comment, Herald
staffers are alerted. Then they use their judgment as to whether they want
to delete it. When asked which story so far has gotten the most incendiary
comments so far, Hirsch didn’t want to get too specific but said, “People
wrote some unusual things about [Miami Dolphins coach] Nick Saban.”
Despite the occasional problems, Hirsch said that the Herald is basically
dedicated to having a free-wheeling discussion.
“As a matter of policy I wouldn’t call it an open mike, but it’s a free
debate,” Hirsch said. “The web is not the same thing as the newspaper,
certainly, and I think that anybody who has a web site has to wrestle with
what you censor and where you draw the line. We try to stay out of the
debate as much as we can.”
You have to love that attitude and it’s good to see the Herald — and the
entire soon-to-be-part-of-McClatchy chain — throw a little caution to the
wind. I’ve been told by people in the media business that there’s actually
no difference, legally speaking, between what appears in the newspaper and
what’s on the web site. But I have to agree with Hirsch — there is an
obvious difference. The web site is malleable and quickly fixable, while the
newspaper is basically set in stone. So long as the Herald shows good faith
in expeditiously removing libelous comments, it shouldn’t have a problem.
The First Amendment should win out.
That’s should. Unfortunately that question could play out in a courtroom.
It’s a quandary that, as Hirsch said, just about everyone involved in the
Internet has had to wrestle with at one time or another. What do you think?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Valedictory or benediction?

In recently rereading two good speechs from ASNE, I was struck by the contrasting message I carried away from each.

The first was John Carroll’s fine speech to the assembled editors, entitled “Last Call at the ASNE Saloon.” It is a characteristically well-crafted work of art, but it is at its core more valedictory hymn than blueprint for solutions.

The writing is elegiac, the focus nostalgic.
“The golden age is over,” he tells us. “With the advent of the web, our rotary presses, those massive machines that once conferred near-monopolies on their owners, are looking more and more like the last steam engine … Then there’s a more subtle problem, a crisis of the soul.”
Well, not really, John.

Contrast his message with that of our colleague Dave Zeeck (who is, I feel certain, as big a John Carroll fan as I):

“I'm not spending another minute of my life worrying about the future of newspapers … I believe in newspapers and I believe they will last. But I also believe in the web. Heck I'm willing to believe in iPods and cell phones. Really what I'm saying is I believe in journalism. I believe in the future of news … What we do isn't about the ink and the pulp, though my love for both endures. It's about journalism. Turning over the rock. Finding the story. Telling it in a compelling way. Changing a life. Opening a mind. Righting a wrong. Making a community better.”
I’m not trying to set up a Zeeck-Carroll steel cage death match here. There is much to learn from each speech, and much in common between then. You can find a pdf version of Carroll’s remarks here, and David’s speech is available here.

But here’s one thought that certainly occurs to me as I read them: the epic, big-picture pirouette may not serve us very well as we go about the daily business of telling our communities what they need to know. Neither the sweeping jeremiad – What Hath God Wrought? – nor the revolutionary manifesto – Blow up the newsroom! – offers much real guidance for doing what we must do.

Dave offered an historical reference, from the Hebrew Book of Ethics, in summary:

The work is great
The day is short
It is not our duty to complete the work
But neither are we free to desits from it.

I’d add that Abe Lincoln had some advice about navigating a considerably more epic struggle back in his day. Speaking of the unimaginable issues facing a country at war with itself, he observed, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our nation.”

Let’s make it so.
– Howard Weaver

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dave Zeeck's leadership

Tim Porter, a former newspaper journalist, digital advocate and frequent critic of how print media have approached the future, has some enthusiastic words of praise for Dave Zeeck's ASNE speech in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. You can read his take on it here. You can read Dave's entire speech at the News Tribune site here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Regardless of what you think of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, you gotta love his latest blog post:

Where Newspapers kick the Internets behind

Here's a really, really rich guy who gets home from a playoff basketball game and wants more info, so he surfs the Web looking for more info. Can't find it at Yahoo! Sports. Not happy with Finally goes to bed. Gets up and reads the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Now he's happy because he's getting more original content from ink on paper than from various Internet sources.

Mark Cuban is not unlike a lot of sports fans (except for his millions). Frankly, he's a lot like political junkies and other news addicts. Providing original, compelling content is what separates newspapers from other information sources.

-- Andy Perdue, Tri-City Herald
Last week, following the release of the latest ABC numbers, we were actually able to get some positive play in local media despite showing a decline in print circulation. At the suggestion of our political columnist, I pulled some numbers for our web audience and passed them to our Business team for insertion into the brieft that ran in print and online about The News Tribune's circulation report.

While print circulation dipped 2.5%, online registrations were up 21% and page views were up 17%. I heard from a handful of people who heard separate radio versions of the story and the online numbers were the lead, followed by the print numbers.

Something to think about when the next report comes out in six months.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Deep dpown in this Philly Inky story that ran 5/9 there's mention of an investment company that's purchased a chunk of MNI. This would appear to be a vote of confidence.
Yes? No?

By Joseph N. DiStefano
Inquirer Staff Writer

CHARLES FOX / Inquirer
Newspaper readers at 30th Street Station. An industry monitor said circulation fell 1.2 million, to 45.4 million daily. Online viewership jumped more than 5 million, the Newspaper Association of America said.
It may not be news that Americans are shifting their reading habits from the printed page to online.

But yesterday's stock rally by newspaper chains - despite yet another decline in print circulation - shows that newspaper publishers are doing a better job convincing investors that their business isn't dying, but moving online, raising hopes that advertisers' dollars may follow.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported yesterday that newspaper circulation fell 1.2 million, to 45.4 million daily, during the six months ended March 31, compared with a year earlier.

The Inquirer's daily circulation fell 5 percent to 350,457; Sunday Inquirer sales also slipped 5 percent, to 705,965; Philadelphia Daily News circulation fell 9 percent to 116,590, the ABC reported. Other area newspapers also reported circulation declines: Total newspaper sales in the Philadelphia area, Wilmington and South Jersey were down about 6 percent.

Publisher Joe Natoli said The Inquirer dropped giveaway or deep-discount readers, but gained paying subscribers. Home-delivery customers paying full price or getting a small discount grew by 38,351 on Sundays and 6,148 on weekdays during the year, according to Natoli. The paper dropped an average of 21,447 "heavily discounted and third-party sales" each weekday, and an additional 57,829 on Sundays. The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers also reported cutting free or discount copies left in hotels, schools and other institutions.

The Newspaper Association of America reported viewership at online Web sites jumped more than 5 million, to 56 million in March, compared with a year earlier. However, it was unclear how much a change in Web data-collection methods may have contributed to that gain.

NAA president John F. Strum said advertisers are increasingly interested in the total online and print "audience" for papers, not just their print sales. Investors appeared to be buying that argument yesterday: Share prices at the nation's largest newspaper chains - down steadily over the last year - rallied on the news.

Gannett Corp., the nation's largest newspaper company, closed at $56.86, up $1.60. New York Times Co. closed at $25.70, up $1.14. Tribune Co. closed at $29.84, up $1.82. Knight Ridder Inc., which owns The Inquirer and Daily News, closed at $63.06, up 61 cents. McClatchy Co. closed at $47.09, up $1.44.

McClatchy plans to purchase Knight Ridder this summer, but it is selling the Philadelphia papers and 10 others it doesn't want. The chain hopes to close the sales this summer; its share price has drifted lower since announcing the Knight Ridder purchase earlier this year. A Boston investment firm, Highfields Capital Management L.P., reported yesterday in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it had purchased 5 percent of McClatchy.

Agents representing Onex Corp., of Toronto, paid their second visit in two weeks to the Philadelphia papers' Broad Street headquarters yesterday; other last-minute visits by would-be owners are expected before final bids are due for the papers on May 16. Onex director Kosty Gilis declined to comment.

NAA's online data were collected by Nielsen//NetRatings. NAA vice president Randy Bennett said the firm changed its data collection methodology last fall, the period that corresponded to the largest increase in reported viewing. NAA officials could not immediately say how the change would have affected viewer totals.

Circulation was also down at big metro papers in Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other cities. The New York Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger were among papers showing small gains.

NAA did not report estimated annual online readership by newspaper. But the group is speeding its efforts to present comparable online and print totals in future reports, said Randy Bennett, vice president at the association.

Last year NAA asked Nielsen//NetRatings to begin tracking "unique visitors" and page views at papers in Philadelphia, Dallas, and other major markets. According to Bennett, online viewers who checked the site shared by The Inquirer and Daily News at least once a month rose to 1.3 million in November from 1.2 million in July; page views jumped to 24 million from 14 million. The typical online viewer checked the site eight times in a month, viewing 47 pages, up from seven times a month and 38 pages a year earlier.

Generally, "newspapers are seeing pretty significant increases in their traffic, month to month," Bennett added.

In a news conference, association officials told reporters that papers were using profits from print advertising - their major source of funds - to finance small but fast-growing and potentially more profitable specialty and online publications. Online ads, while growing more than 25 percent a year, still account for little more than 5 percent of newspaper revenue, association senior vice president John Kimball said.

Monday, May 08, 2006

I found this very interesting column on Romensko a few days. It was written by Ed Wasserman, a fellow I used to work with years ago. It's an interesting perspective on Pulitzers, especially from the point of view of small newspapers. FITZ McADEN

Prizes are trophies for rich papers
I spent nearly 30 years in newsrooms, never won a Pulitzer Prize, wish I
had, never will. I have worked with a number of reporters and photographers
who won -- none thanks to my help -- and they deserved their prizes. I know
people who served on Pulitzer juries, and they're conscientious and
incorruptible. And I've never seen a Pulitzer awarded for work I didn't
think was outstanding.

So call this sour grapes, but I've come to believe that the Pulitzers -- for
all the celebrity, the champagne, the career-capping glory they bring -- are
bad for the profession. They purport to stand for excellence in journalism,
but if they do it's in the same way that Rolls Royce stands for excellence
in car-making.

And that's the problem. The Pulitzers are big, clunky trophies for the rich.
They honor lavish work that has no bearing on the reasonable strivings of
most journalists, dazzling achievements that are a galaxy apart from the
nimble municipal reporting that energizes a robust civic culture. They
amplify a structure of dominance within the profession that sneers at the
work of most newsrooms, and every year they send out the same, deeply
wrong-headed message: that great journalism is primarily national and
international in scope, and is practiced mainly by the country's wealthiest
news organizations.

Big boys sweep

The Pulitzers should be reimagined and restructured. At present, they are
much less a prod than they are a reproach to the vast majority of working

Unlike lesser contests, the Pulitzers have no circulation categories. They
make no allowance for the grotesque disparities in size and resources among
the 1,400-plus daily newspapers that are the principal contenders. Plus they
have no categories at all for what most of those papers actually do.

So the big boys sweep. They're the ones that pay good salaries and attract
great talents, provide research support, travel money and above all, time --
two months, six months, whatever it takes to produce breathlessly detailed,
hard-hitting narratives to be hammered into shape and finally packaged into
winning entries by in-house promotional staffs.

Accordingly, every year, most Pulitzers are divvied up by the giants, and
the only real question is whether this year the Washington Post, Wall Street
Journal or Los Angeles Times noses out the perennial front runner, the New
York Times.

True, every year, one or two smaller papers are recognized, some grizzled
newsroom veteran is finally honored. And in a traditional gesture of
noblesse oblige, one big prize -- often the public-service award -- goes to
the daily whose community has been flooded, burned, hurricaned, buried,
earthquaked or somersaulted by riots. Unlike FEMA, the Pulitzer board can be
relied on for guaranteed compensation to towns whose papers keep publishing
despite natural calamity and the consequent disappearance of automotive,
help-wanted and real-estate advertising.

But if the winning entries are good, even great -- and they invariably are
-- where's the harm?

It's that the Pulitzers honor what most journalists get to do only after
they die and go to heaven, if then.

For starters, here on this Earth most don't get near stories of historic
moment. They're trying to keep your communities honest. The best stories
they get to pursue wouldn't catch the eye of a Pulitzer juror for a
nanosecond, even though they matter intensely to their communities --
land-use scams, petty thieving, the lies of municipal officials and hometown
fat cats. The Pulitzers have no category for local news, let alone sports or
business. And the most recent awards suggest that jurors took pains to
ensure that even the categories that might go for local efforts -- beat
reporting, columns and feature writing -- did not.

Underdogs and top dogs

The question I'm raising is not whether the most prestigious prizes in the
profession are being awarded justly, but what they're being awarded for --
and what message do they thereby send to journalists. Right now, the message
to young reporters is that if they're serious about winning a Pulitzer, they
should get hired by The Times.

The Pulitzers should reward choice, sacrifice, perseverance and service, not
just marquee impact, and they should honor the accomplishments of those who
struggle not just with sources and critics but with the limitations, the
scarcity and the clamor of their own under-funded newsrooms.

It's ironic that a profession that is supposed to care about society's
underdogs saves its most coveted honors for its own top dogs.

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and
Lee University.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Storytelling with Stock Charts

With all the talk about stock listings in newspapers recently, I'm surprised I haven't seen more talk about what Google's done with their stocks. I must confess, I'm in the throes of a big crush on Google Finance.

I've always thought of stock charts as powerful instant stories -- clear, stark depictions of our fortunes rising and falling over time. I like our Financial Content stock charts very much. They're clean, pretty, straightforward, and packed with information. I wish the charts also graphed the volume of trading alongside the price, but that's a quibble.

But the storytelling award in this department has to go to Google. Check out a chart on Google Finance. Run your mouse over it, to see the exact fluctuations in price and volume from day to day. Use the upper map to zoom in and out, and watch how the story changes as the scope of time contracts and expands. Play the story backwards by dragging the chart to the left.

And my favorite part: click on one of the letters hovering atop the map to see the corresponding news story. There's still a role for writing and analysis here, but that role becomes much more powerful and resonant when it's connected with three miniscule bits of data -- price, volume and time -- in a beautifully-designed interface.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Coverage from ASNE

Here's a taste of the coverage and commentary from ASNE last week. If you know other good pieces, please link them here or in the comments:

David Zeeck, in The News Tribune
Deborah Howell in the Washington Post
David Shribman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ryan Blethen, Seattle Times
Al Neutharth, USA Today
– Howard Weaver