Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ten points aimed at better digital

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

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

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

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

Talk is cheap, but here's my money

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

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

Sigh. We've been here so often before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop it.


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

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Murder your darlings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A further taste of Siracusa:

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

Thanks @base10 for the Siracusa pointer, via Twitter

Monday, December 15, 2008

Links going mainstream

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Listening to Leila

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

Too good to pass up

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Demonstrably inaccurate

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

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

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

Stop saying this; it’s wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATEJeff replies:

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

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Inlaid plastic, rubbery bits

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

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

(Thanks, Snarkmarket.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh yeah? Says who?

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

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

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Links growing at NYT

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

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

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

Turning the page ...

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

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

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

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

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

I take my leave feeling sure about two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me close and say farewell in gratitude.

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2008

McClatchy to share some coverage with Christian Science Monitor

From a press release on

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

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

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

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

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

Designing covers

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

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

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

Thanks, for the pointer.

Liveblogging as regular coverage

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

Is anybody in McClatchy doing this on a regular basis?


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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beauty is function expressed as form

I think this is simply beautiful. Remember, though, that I'm a guy who has watched a movie about a typeface more than once.

Click image to expand. Thanks, Matt, for the pointer.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Media futures: where's the critical thinking?

I sat down last night to annotate my objections to a rather superficial recent post in which marketing guru Seth Godin detailed his complaints and recommendations for how the New York Times should be operating online.

Not to pick on Godin (well, okay, not just on Godin), I was upset because it’s so common to find similar pieces shot through with inaccuracies, casual reasoning and ignorance. Godin offers up at least a half-dozen major flaws in something like 25 paragraphs – not just things I disagree with (there are way more than a half dozen of those) but facts and assertions that are either wrong or so ill-informed that they just don’t make sense. It pisses me off when people critique and dismiss institutions like the Times on the basis of such flaky reasoning, and it happens all the time.

Before I got warmed up to replay that this morning, I happened across another tours d’horizon about journalism that provides a splendid contrast: Jeff Jarvis’ new post outlining scenarios covering everything from revenues to collaborations. As is often the case, I find things to disagree with in his analysis, too, but there’s a big difference: how well reasoned and well argued Jarvis’ ideas are by comparison. His post is a solid platform that will support the argument it invites, not some off-the-cuff meandering.

I’ll try to give Jeff’s observations the thoughtful reaction they deserve over the next few days. As always, his points range from deep insights that will help define the future of our business – “Do what you do best, and link to the rest,” and “news will find new forms, past the article,” – to other assertions I find faddish and shallow. But it’s all worthy of debate.

Let me get the Godin burr out from under my saddle first. I reacted late yesterday in a series of Tweets that forced me to work within 140 characters; I need to stretch out just a little here.

  • I got mad in the third paragraph, when he described newspapers as “artifacts of a different age, one that today's consumer doesn't care a whit about.” He was talking about the physical presentation of newspapers (I think) but the point he seems to miss is that half of all the adults in the country use a newspaper every day. That’s a little more than a whit, Seth.
  • Later he asserts that “it's possible for a single individual with a Typepad account to reach more people than almost any newspaper in the country can.” Well, it’s possible, I guess. But nobody does. Even hugely popular sites like the Drudge Report or reach far fewer people than the total audience of the New York Times. (In Drudge’s case, of course, his site is entirely comprised of links, almost always to mainstream media sites – hardly a repudiation of the media model).
  • Godin graciously allows that some Times commetary has clout, saying, “Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn't the Times have 50 columnists? 500?” Well, because 500 columnists would get lost in the mess, Seth. Organizations like the Times filter and verify and authenticate. We pay them to help us sort out the best 25 columnists from the 475 others we’d never have time to read. (Surely Seth knows more than I about brand dilution).
  • He notes disapprovingly that “Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than (sic) the New York Times can.” Well, duh. Oprah is actively promoting and advocating for her books; the Times, thankfully, is trying to present honest, independent reviews – hardly the same mission. I want the Times to inform me, not sell me books.
  • He says the Times has advantages because “New York is an efficient place to be a newspaper. Lots of people, lots of advertisers, lots of spending ...” apparently unaware that local advertising (or even readership) is a small part of the paper’s success.
  • And so on. Really, on and on.

As an editor, the skill I look for first in journalists is critical thinking. While you’re writing, do you ask yourself “How do we know that?” or “Does this make sense, really?” Alongside basic honesty and curiosity, that’s a fundamental, baseline requirement for producing value-added journalism.

I’m usually reluctant to wander out into the blogoswamp like this because it’s so easy to get bogged down in what Jarvis characterizes as a “snarkoff.” That’s certainly not my intention. I don’t know Seth Godin but I respect his expertise and, generally, his point of view. I’m not being reflexively defensive (am I?) and certainly none of this is personal. I’m not saying he’s dumb or careless – just that I found this piece poorly constructed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Curate. Filter. Help people manage information

The future of journalism, we've learned, is hidden somewhere down a dark and winding road illuminated only by the failing light of autumn. For all the declarations and proclamations, I don't believe we've found it yet.

But Matt Thompson is definitely onto something. His blog is a window on his year-long study of the new landscape for news. This week, in the midst of a broader discussion about election coverage, he explores a notion I am sure is very close to the center of the debate: curation and filtering.

After arguing that coverage of the recent presidential contest was the best ever, he wonders why that didn't necessarily translate into better informed citizens:

I’m a politics junkie who’s willing to devote untold hours to the task of tailoring my coverage to suit my information needs. For someone like me, the diversity and breadth of information on the Web is perfect. But what about all those folks who don’t have the time or the inclination to cull through 150+ blogs, numerous news sites, forum postings, status updates, etc.? Who’s editing that infostream for them? Who’s pulling these nuggets together, or pointing out where to look?

As far as I can tell, no one. The task of distilling this ocean of data continues to fall to the individual.2

If this year’s election coverage was truly the best ever, but we are not the best-informed we’ve ever been, that suggests a different avenue of inquiry for those concerned about the function of journalism in a democracy. Most conversations today continue to revolve around how we support journalism as the traditional infrastructure for news crumbles. My hunch is we’re slighting a conversation that might be just as significant — not how we support journalism, but how we make it more effective.

Every effort I've seen employ qualitative aggregation (my favorite is the Alaska Newsreader at ADN) has been a success, especially popular with readers. Increasingly, refining our ability to help people manage information is going to be as important as supplying information to them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

10 useful observations

Scott Karp of Publish2 has some characteristically insightful observations about web video in a new post at the Publishing 2.0 blog. I recommend the whole thing, and am particularly taken with this point he makes:

Six years after Google perfected search advertising, there has been no innovation in online advertising that even comes close to the same scale.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Iconic images from newspapers

Originally uploaded by krstnb
Yes, the media landscape is changing. But it hasn't all changed yet, as the interest and demand for printed newspapers chronicling this historic election has demonstrated. You all know what the demand was like at your paper; here's a video made from front pages around the nation that also underscores that point.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it

Like “truth,” “news” is a plural noun.

I remember reading about an old press baron who insisted on asking editors, “Are there any news?” until finally one replied, “No, sir, not a single damned new.”

The grammar doesn’t matter much, but it’s important to remember that news indeed is many things, not one.

News is a river, flowing past us in the direction of time, constantly changing. As Native American lore reminds us, “No man can step into the same river twice.”

News is likewise a process, a complex set of relationships between events and personalities that makes better sense when understood in context. What happened before? What is happening elsewhere at the same time? What are the related effects? What will happen over there if this happens here? Why?

Furthermore, what once was the pronouncement of news has become a conversation about it. Discussions of what events mean or what issues are legitimate are no long subsidiary to the process of determining news; they are an integral part of it.

In my salad days journalists relied on one tool to handle it all – the constantly changing river of news as well as the intricate web of process and relationships. Our tool was the story, a finite prose narrative anchored to one spot in time – all the news we could gather and report by midnight, more or less. Compared to the alternatives of the day, it was a rich and powerful source of information.

Compared to the alternatives today, it’s not.

While narrative prose will always play a central role in human communication, the future of public service journalism does not reside with “the story.” Serving news audiences today demands the ability to deliver information that is, as Matt Thompson says, “both timelier and more timeless.”

Jeff Jarvis is postulating that the new “building block of journalism” is the topic, meaning a blog or site “that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering.” That seems sufficiently broad to embrace much of what we need to be doing. Matt is taking a deeper and more nuanced view of the same questions and comes to some well-supported, sweeping conclusions. Like this:

“I think we’re on the verge of an epochal advancement in journalism. We’ve spoken for years about the radical evolution that must take place, but I think our ideas are only now matching our ambitions. In recent years, our craft has gotten quicker and glitzier and slightly more in touch, but all our progress has been incremental. Now, the paradigm shift is finally at hand ...”

In a popular book in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell introduced us to the notion of the “tipping point” – which he described as “the level at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable” – and that’s where I see the metamorphosis of news and journalism today.

To be honest, the basic direction of news in a digital, networked world has been apparent for more than a decade, but until recently its unstoppable momentum wasn’t obvious enough to command attention.

After the graphical browser appeared and opened the world wide web to a global audience in the mid-1990s, many predicated its inevitable ascendancy. But in March 2000 the “dot com bubble” burst in a spectacular display of business failure, allowing many old-school journalism decision makers to breath a sign of relief and exhale a string of I-told-you-sos. As a result, the steady Darwinian progress of online companies continued somewhat under the radar while traditional media companies not only survived, but prospered. Newspapers, for example, showed year-over-year revenue growth well into 2006 and operated at elevated profit margins well beyond that.

Unsurprisingly, that all conspired to lull traditional news organizations into more complacency than now seems healthy. (To be fair, there was less the big organizations could have done than today’s critics acknowledge, but little good will come from rehashing those tired arguments). Today this sea change in audience and delivery tools is coupled with an epochal economic meltdown, and the result is an environment traditional news organizations will find painful in the best case.

So be it. The need for honest public service journalism – the kind that speaks the truth to power, puts tools in the hands of citizens, builds community – is more urgent than ever. As the events accelerate, our need for reliable, independent information grows. When your competitor has access to deep information resources, you need even more. Databases, open archival records, real-time reporting, deeply grounded analysis, and unfettered debate will combine to deliver a richer experience than any single story or disembodied report. Platforms (mobile, web-based, e-ink) and media (text, video, voice) will matter only as options for the audience to sort out.

Kevin Kelly’s brilliant New Rules for the New Economy outlined in 1998 how an economy based on bits rather than atoms – on abundance, not scarcity – would change the rules. Now he’s boiled it down either further: Where Attention Flows, Money Follows.

Luckily for us, many of the ways in which you can keep attention flowing are right up our alley. We can explore more about that soon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Way to go, Anchorage

Editor & Publisher online reports:

EXCLUSIVE: Top 30 Newspaper Sites for September
Thanks to Palin,
Anchorage Daily News Crashes the List

By Jennifer Saba
NEW YORK – The Web site of the Anchorage Daily News zoomed up to make it in the list of top 30 online newspapers. The Web site enjoyed a 928% spike to 2.1 million monthly uniques in September, no doubt due to the paper's excellent coverage of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The E&P story is here. And the outstanding Palin report can be found linked off today's ADN Palin story here.

And eat your heart out, Atlanta, Boston and Baltimore.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

25 best news photos?

You can argue with the selections and the rankings in Vanity Fair's list of "the best 25 news photos." But there's no argument about how powerful these photographs remain.

You can see the whole gallery here, and vote on rankings. Which do you like best? What do you think is missing?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Major overhaul at

The Sacramento Bee launch a completely retooled website this morning, combining clean and efficient design with a robust set of new features. Commenting and forums are greatly enhanced, including opportunity for readers to create profile pages and start their own blogs. Photo and video galleries have new prominence, and navigation is enchanced several ways, including lists of "most viewed" and "most commented."

Pages are also wider, which makes me happy because it ensures better display of one of my favirote secitons, The Frame, displaying outstanding photography from the Bee and elswewhere. Here was a favorite from today's line-up:

Mel Melcon / LA Times

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where radio gets its news

click image for link; thanks to Chris Krewson

Signal to noise: filtering and finding what you want

Once upon a time I listened to music on KFQD radio (750 AM) in Anchorage, where a guy named Scotty played records on his show every night that helped shape my taste in pop for decades to come. Later came college and album-oriented FM stations, late nights in Baltimore filled with smoke and rock music far removed from the mainstream confines of Anchorage AM stations.

Until recently, my music discovery followed roughly that same trajectory: from mainstream to personalized, evolving through eight-track tapes that let me hear what I wanted in our blue F-150 pickup, on to custom-made casettes from hipper friends introducing me to new sounds and finally to the apparent nirvana of the iPod. Apple's brillant marketing pitch said it all: 1,000 songs in your pocket.

But it turns out 1,000 songs won't do it – and neither will the nearly 6,000 I've collected since then. The fact is, I don't always know what I like, or what I want to listen to next. "Shuffle" doesn't work too well for me since my iTunes collection spans a wider range of styles than I ever want to hear in hodgepodge.

Welcome Pandora Radio and, more recently, the iTunes Genius playlist. Here are two new tools that combine the best of personalization with some much appreciated guidance and introduction to new music. Both use sophisticated algorithims to match my tastes in music with other songs I might like. Each can learn from my listening habits to fine-tune the selection.

Pandora is in some ways more ambitious. It streams music constantly from its own collection based on matches with artists or songs I have previously selected. I can also vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down to teach it. I can't select specific congs (a licensing limitation) but in general the service does a good job in picking the tunes. Of course there's a quick way for me to click and buy those I like.

The Genius feature on iTunes uses the music already in my collection to build new playlists based on any song I select. It has less to work with and isn't spot-on making matches, but it often reminds me of songs I own but rarely listen to, and the groupings are coherent and useful.

What does this have to do with the news business? Not a lot, I suppose, but it does make me think about the role we play in helping readers refine a bewildering selection of news and information down into a manageable "playlist" for any specific time. Human editors add value, as do the selection algorithims in Pandora or iTunes.

Readers once were stuck with whatever their newspaper picked for them – a lot like me listening to Scotty on KFQD all those years ago. When it became possible to aggregate our own selections, we entered an iPod age of news, where I built a list of RSS feeds and read just what I wanted.

But it feels to me like Pandora and Genius can trump the experience of listening only to my own collection. And I think smart, useful selection of news and information can do a better job for most of us than autodidactism.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Learning to host the party

Here's a metaphor that ought to resonate with nearly everybody who reads this blog: Why albums used to matter. The 3:21 video comes by way of Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket, who found the key lesson to be the admonition that media should be "... figuring out where the party is at nowadays, and setting yourself to be the one who's over there hosting the party."

I immediately took issue with that (before watching the video) because it seemed to presume that success is defined as hosting the party – no matter where it is, or who's there. While that may be true for a movie company with no artistic pretensions, or a television producer looking only for the largest possible audience, it isn't a worthy destination for those trying to perform public service journalism.

Then I watched the video, which I'd suggest will be worth your time, too. We can profitably adopt the "get there and host the party" metaphor, too, with this caveat: we already know who we're trying to host (people who care about public and civic affairs) and how we plan to decorate the room (with the journalism of verification, with opportunities for co-creation and conversation, with social networking tools that can help build community cohesion).

Taken in that light, the admonition becomes an imperative. In much the same way we've talked here about abandoning the outmoded "gatekeeper model" of editing, this reminds us that these people are going to be out looking for a place to party independently of what we do. Our obligation is to ensure them a somewhat more enriching experience for those times they're not headed to the VIP room at the disco.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Which America do you see?

If you read this blog you know I like infographics and design. I find both aesthetically and personally satisfying, but there's also real power in deciding how to display information.

For example, which of these maps more accurately represents electoral America in 2004?

The first is a familiar red/blue (GOP/Dem) map by electoral winner where each state is represented by its geography.

But elections aren't about geography; they're about voters. And the second map, where states take shape based on population, is a far more accurate representation of the 2004 results.

You can see more fascinating maps like this here.

Thanks to Matt at Snarkmarket for the pointer.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Knight multimedia fellowships

Multimedia Reporting and Convergence Workshop
January 11-16, 2009 and March 22-27, 2009

The Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California, Berkeley is now accepting applications for week-long training sessions for mid-career journalists wishing to advance their multimedia skills. The workshops combine instruction in multimedia storytelling and hands-on multimedia news production.

Fellowships include all expenses except travel. More information is available here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Money talks

Matt Thompson wants to discover, uncover and recover different ways of telling stories. He's all about a continum of information -- context, backstory, history, explanations,and the like; the blog annotating his research at Univ Missouri details the quest with some subtlety.

He's been talking a lot about the money crisis as a case study. His quick take on how to share what he's been learning takes this form -- well worth a look. I'd like to have a reference like this tuned to my area and including local specifics on my news site.

This is my favorite of the links I've been to thus far.

UPDATE (Thursday AM): Jeff Jarvis examines Matt's effort in the context of his recent posts about "replacing the article." Find illumination here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Is journalism failing again?

Howard Owens worries here about the lack of skepticism in reporting on the market bail-out legislation. His points ought to raise concerns and evoke some pondering amongst all of us who were discouraged by the wide-spread failure of accountability reporting in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Worth a read.

Here's the lead:

In the days prior today’s bailout vote, you could surf through Google news and find any number of stories that told us that the U.S. economy is in a crisis, and that spending $700 billion to bail out Wall Street bankers was unavoidable.

Or you could turn on the television and watch just about any news show and hear the same thing.

What you rarely found or heard was any serious questioning of whether the crisis was anywhere near the proportion George W. Bush said it was, or if the bailout was really necessary, or if the bailout would work, or if, maybe, the bailout might make things actually worse.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Congratulations to the Miami Herald for a splendid new design at, the site that has emerged as the leader in South Florida and for users all over the country and hemisphere. Already a cornicopia of news and information, it now joins sister site as one of the most attractive and user-friendly anywhere.

Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal credits Rick Hirsch, Raul Lopez, Suzanne Levinson, Paul Cheung and Alex Fuente with working the laboring oars in this effort. We're proud of them all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A map of the future

While we argue whether it's the Baby Boomers' self-absorption or the irresponsibility of Gen Y slackers that ruins our newsrooms (see comments on posts below), the world of news and stories and audiences is changing irrevocably. The blaming debates – even the persistent discussion here about whether Gary and I ruined the whole economy, the newspaper industry, or just McClatchy – are already history, and no longer even very interesting history at that.

The people who will shape the future of news in the new order are already hard at work doing so – with their ideas, their arguments, their actions. The discussion plays out day by day on dozens of specialized blogs, moment-by-moment in Twitter streams of engaged journalists and thinkers. It plays out in newsrooms – newspaper newsrooms, unique new media like TPM, hybrids in-between – with every turn of the cycle. Grizzled veterans and over-confident rookies, categorical prophets and cynical pessimists all play a role.

You can either participate in that process, stand aside quietly and wait for a resolution, or get rolled.

When people ask "If you were my age, would you be in the news business?" I answer unequivocally, "Yes, and for the same reasons I got into it in the first place."
  • I always wanted to have a career that let me make a difference in my community, promote fairness, explain how things worked;
  • I wanted to work around smart, articulate, smart-ass people.
  • I wanted to have fun.
  • And I wanted to feel like my life's work had made a difference.

The future of news will be decided in this generation. If we manage to sustain the core principles of public service journalism, being part of that effort will be a worthy legacy for any of us. How cool would it be to look back one day and say, "At the point where it really mattered, when many others had left or moved on, I was on the field"?

The media sites on the blogroll down the right side of this page (slightly outdated, but then so am I) offer a good starting point for those who'd like to dive into the thinking and argument now going on about the future. At the moment I am particularly taken with Matt Thompson's, though I haven't got my brain completely around it yet.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Best magazine cover

I love nearly all the magazine covers in this competition for best of the year, but I think it's impossible for any to top this one from New York. Take a look at the entire line-up here and see what you think.

UPDATE: Bonus round – some 25 reader contributions have made the final round of a Penquin contest to design the cover of a new novel by Sam Taylor, The Island at the End of the World. Here's one of my favirotes. Click it or here to see them all.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Regaining the influence of the front page

Scott Karp at Publish2 thinks he's identified one big reason why newspapers are losing influence in setting the news agenda: the guiding/filtering role once played by the front page has been surplanted by news aggregators, a game we aren't playing very well.

His argument is well worth considering.

A taste:

The answer is that Drudge, along with Google, figured out that in the web media era, when all news content is accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world, and no news brands no longer have a monopoly over news distribution, the power of influence lies in the ability to FILTER the vast sea of news.

Newspapers were once THE most important filters for news. But they gave up this role on the web, because they didn’t see that the web analogue to what they did on the front page in print was NOT taking the same content and putting it on a website front page. In fact, you could argue that this is the single biggest mistake that newspapers have made on the web.

What they failed to see is that the web analogue to the newspaper front page is LINKS to where the news IS. That’s Drudge.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A painful path to a productive future

McClatchy has just announced the loss of still more jobs in newsrooms and newspapers across the company, only a few months after the first widespread layoffs in our history. Some announcements were made today and others will be finalized shortly. FTEs Employees representing about 1,150 full time jobs are involved.

We believed the painful cuts made earlier would see us through the sharp revenue declines we’re experiencing, but conditions continued to get worse.

It can be hard to keep the faith through times like these. Nobody suffers as much as people who lose their jobs, of course, but those who remain at work suffer too. Staffers are working harder, with fewer colleagues and less certainty. Pay has been frozen for a year. There are worries about whether the company has a plan to get through this transition and regain a stable footing. Are people making a mistake for sticking with us?

For those of us who love being in the news business – in other words, nearly all of us at McClatchy – such doubts are especially troubling. Will journalists be equipped to do the job our communities depend on us to do? Can we retain the critical core of talented employees upon whom success rests, and provide them the tools they need?

We can. As the national economic news plainly demonstrates, it's impossible to know when the economic tide will turn, but we know it will. We will keep the company safe until then, because despite these painful decisions, that is the foundation of security for all of us, and the only way to ensure we can sustain our mission.

Upon that foundation we are building a new structure that reflects the realities of today's media environment. A great deal of impressive change has already occurred, though it has been masked and obscured by the pall of the revenue declines. We truly are reinventing what kind of enterprise we are, transforming a newspaper company into a hybrid, multimedia information source. I want to outline some of the key components here, and to be as frank about our plans as I legally and prudently can be.

William Gibson observed, “The future has already arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” If you look closely across the broad range of McClatchy papers, you can see the outlines of our restructured future already taking shape. We will be smaller, more efficient and more sophisticated. Like most other American companies, we will concentrate resources on our core functions – in our case, providing information and selling advertising. We can do so across a broader range of platforms than anybody else in our communities, and growing audiences attest to our success there.

Even something as traditional as printing papers can often be done cheaper and better outside the core newspaper. As you know, we will shortly be printing The Modesto Bee in Sacramento, and have contracted to print Boise and Bellingham at non-McClatchy printers in the Northwest.

In other regions, we are finding ways to cooperate with other newspapers to share costs and hold down expenses. The Miami Herald in now delivering the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Miami-Dade county, and that newspaper delivers the Herald to the north. Miami’s newsroom is testing a content sharing plan with former rivals in the region. Many other such opportunities are possible, and while we can't talk about them all in advance, you can be sure we are looking for them actively all over the country.

You will have noticed that we're selling real estate, our share of a newsprint company and other assets that aren't central to the mission. Knight Ridder sold a very valuable Miami parking lot, and we are working to close that deal. Smaller parcels elsewhere are being marketed; we sold the Knight Ridder jet a long time time ago, and have likewise sold our plane.

All of this helps pay down the debt we undertook in buying Knight Ridder. Reducing that burden – particularly some bank loans amounting to about a billion dollars – is the single most important thing we can do to ensure stability. Until revenues bottom out and begin to improve, the pressure to pay down debt is significant.

You can also see new ways of doing business emerging at various newspapers; as these new practices prove out, you can expect to see them adopted more widely. We know not every newspaper or market is the same, so we won't look for pure cookie-cutter solutions, but we will move emphatically to embrace operations that make sense. In Charlotte and Raleigh, several newsroom departments have been merged. When Raleigh gets the technology to do so around the first of the year, page and perhaps even section production duties can be shared, and we look to extend that as quickly as possible amongst our Carolina newspapers. These moves will allow the papers to devote more of their resources to unique local coverage while common jobs are done once instead of many times.

A small staff working with our new advertising vice president at corporate is expected to return many times its cost in new advertising revenue by leveraging our size and multiplatform reach with national customers. Advertising sales staffs at all papers are being trained and incentivized to sell digital products better. McClatchy Interactive is optimizing its operations, too, handling things like digital ad placements, our Yahoo partnership and social networking tools that build audience.

Pains from contraction and restructuring are being felt across the company, including the corporate offices. As you know, our corporate staff is much smaller than the Knight Ridder staff that handled about the same number of papers, and we have saved a lot of money by eliminating duplicate services and keeping tight rein on expansion. Pay freezes and other programs affect corporate employees like all others.

Some of you have questioned whether well-paid senior staff are sharing the pain. Our salaries were frozen a year earlier than other employees, and because a larger percentage of senior staff pay comes as bonus, stock appreciation rights and the like, total pay goes down dramatically when the company performs poorly. The average corporate vice president's compensation has been significantly reduced over the past two years, and will surely be lower still this year.

I have faith in our combined efforts to see us through to a profitable, stable future. There is no question of our ability to survive as a business, or to produce public service journalism that serves our communities. Both require some sacrifice and patience, but both are true.

Because we will be smaller, we need our smartest, most dedicated and most capable employees to move us forward. We intend to make sure you are well paid and well treated over the course of your career at McClatchy, and as revenue conditions improve, that will be a top priority.

Don’t give into pessimism. Times are tough, but they won’t be tough forever. We have important, essential work to do, and we need to be about it every day.

Understanding a new architecture of news

I hate arguing with my wife. Yes, for all the predictable reasons, but also because she so often turns out to be right. (BTW, today is my 30th wedding anniversary; there may be some connection between that and my admission in the previous sentence.)

From my perspective, our discussions typically involve about an hour of her being wildly wrong in multiple different dimensions, culminating when she lands on a final point so fundamentally true and correct that I can only agree. It's great for getting us to the right conclusion, but tough on my editorial-board-trained argumentative ego.

I sometimes feel that way about Jeff Jarvis (apologies to both Barb and Jeff for comparing them), the provocative professor and mediablogger at BuzzMachine. Not long ago, he landed on a conclusion that strikes me as one of those fundamentally correct concepts where the result trumps whatever process produced it. Though I continue to disagree with some of Jeff's conclusions (and, more frequently, with a process that sometimes seems hair-trigger and categorical) I've often credited him here with some of the most thoughtful and useful media analysis around. Add this to the list.

His notion of a "press-sphere" illustrates new relationships between producers and consumers of news (and much more) and offers a good snapshot of the fundamental changes our venerable industry is undergoing. Importantly, it doesn't dismiss the press or professionalism in the process, but does show how the once-linear relationship of producing and consuming has been irrevocably altered. If you want to understand how our role has changed and glimpse where our future lies, you ought to be considering this.

Please take a careful look. Let me (and Jeff) know what you think. It deserves our best thinking.

A taste:

When we put the public at the center of the universe — which is how these charts should be drawn and how the world should be seen, as each of us sees it — we see the choices we all call upon: the press still, yes, but also our peers, media that are not the press (e.g., Jon Stewart), search, links, original sources, companies, the government. It’s all information and we curate it and interact with it with the tools available. And, again, the press stands in a different relationship to the world around it.

(Edited to recognize Jeff's post was earlier than I thought: April 2008).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Politics, journalism and the internet (and more)

Some valuable ruminating about the impact of the internet on argument, journalism, facts, politics and persuasion at David Weinberger's JOHO the Blog. I recommend the whole post, which includes this:

We make the mistake of treating the Net as if it were a medium. But it’s more like a world than a medium. Everything humans can do and say is done and said there. Want to find hate-based OCD? Got it! Want to emphasize the way in which bloggers bring skeptical intelligence to stories promulgated by the worst of the MSM? Can do! Because the Net is an open world, no examples are typical .

Another look at Gary Pruitt

I presume you all found the Sacramento News & Review profile of Gary and the company through the link off Romenesko yesterday, so I didn't highlight it here. Apparently it sparked another blog comment at Reuters that somebody sent to me. You can find it here as Rolling stones with McClatchy's Pruitt:

A taste:

McClatchy Chief Executive Gary Pruitt is one of those newspaper executives a reporter can get along well with because of qualities that are not always common to your typical CEO:

He leaves the jargon behind at interviews.

He is honest about bad news, making it easier to believe him when he delivers good news.

He believes in the product — good journalism — as fervently as he does in his duty to please shareholders (which in McClatchy’s case includes the company’s namesake family and a bunch of other unhappy people).

Trouble is, there isn’t much good news to tell about the newspaper business.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When the truth is just a 'little fact'

I'm so old I can remember a time when the truth or falsehood of most issues was broadly agreed upon by the electorate and political debate was mainly about what should be done about them.

A couple of years ago, a University of Maryland survey found something like 42% of adults in America still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction long after acknowledgment by the president that we couldn't find any. How could we ever have a national debate about the war on that basis?

A story in today's Washington Post about how "falsehoods" quickly become imbedded truths in campaign rhetoric reawakens my fears. Have a look at this discussion of the truth (know here as "little facts") versus campaign claims and public images:

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," [the GOP strategist] said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

AP-free zone

This from Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine:

New Jersey’s Star-Ledger today put out an entire edition without anything from the Associated Press within. The sharp-eyed reader will notice lots of local news by staff plus articles from other papers–Washington Post, LA Times, McClatchy, the Glouceseter County Times–and content from online services such as Sportsticker.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


These data from the Newspaper Assocation of America show that newspaper revenues have dropped $13.4 billion since 2003. Allen Mutter says they dropped $3 billion in the first six months of this year.

The aggregate data don't reflect McClatchy's performance precisely; for example, our online revenues are growing robustly, which apparently isn't true everywhere. But it's obvious that the whole industry is in recession, and we're hurting, too.

I mention this to suggest that you consider the scale of the problem before blaming it all on Gary (or, worse yet, me). We've made some mistakes and haven't done everything right, but the serious financial situation that mandates layoffs and expense reductions is way bigger than us.

Right now, the issue is ad revenue decline. We know we're never going back to the days I've referred to as Fat, Dumb & Happy, but we don't need to. Our company is already considerably more efficient than it was then and becoming more so, so our operating costs are falling. If revenue can stabilize, we'll be able to operate healthy news organizations without the continued threat of further cutbacks.

And when will they stabilize? Nobody knows, and signals are still mixed. But they will, and our job is to get from here to there, and then start building.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Well, that was fun. 

I wanted to allow unmoderated, anonymous comments on this blog to model the benefits of open, unfettered conversation. For nearly three years now, it's been wide open and generally worked well.

Now it's not. I have turned on the "moderate comments" feature, which means I'll need to see and approve comments before they appear. Anonymity is still okay, and I intend to approve liberally. I guess you'll be the judge of how well I do.

I'm not looking for more email or to make this clumsier, but I honestly think the degenerating flood of repetitive, often misinformed comments is a barrier to broader communication. This is my blog and I'd like to elevate the debate a little.

There are plenty of "hate McClatchy" blogs out there, and starting a blog is easy, so there's room all your name calling, ad hominem criticism and more. But not here.

I apologize for the inconvenience, which I will work to ensure is minor. Please continue to comment, to criticize and to contribute.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin coverage: Must we chose broccoli or curly fries?

I got a good question in the comments to my “Wag the dog” post (below) that gives me a chance to clarify and expand on the original. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that this is my blog to elevate that question and answer it here, for wider visibility.

The (anonymous) comment/question was:

As one of your MNI reporters, I appreciate you clarifying way up above that you wouldn't actually fire reporters for asking questions, as you said you would in your lead. (A gentle writing reminder here: Exaggeration in the pursuit of making a point sometimes comes across better in person than in print. I'm just saying.)

In the welter of crap posts, some previous Anon made mention that if ADN had covered the Palin daughter's pregnancy months ago -- vetted it for the world, in effect -- then maybe it wouldn't be an issue now.

And as one poster pointed out, the prurient and sleazy (my words, not his) are what seems to drive readers' interest these days. Certainly not NATO treaties with the Soviets.

As responsible journalists, we're no longer the gatekeepers of information. But God knows we still need to attract readers and (let's say it together) drive Internet traffic.

So what are your thoughts on balancing all those things in a responsible way?

It’s a very good question. I had a discussion like this in Tacoma once, when I mentioned that it’s hard to make a living urging people to eat their broccoli when the guy in the next booth is selling curly fries. Editor Karen Peterson raised her hand to remind me, "Howard, they giving away the curly fries over there."

And so they are. But if all you eat is curly fries, you die young and fat, clutching your heart. We need to be sure we are selling not just broccoli but balance, nutrition, longer life. Many people want that. We can sustain our mass audiences by finding ways to serve that impulse, with time for dessert along the way.

I wish I had been clearer in my original post about that distinction. Of course I don’t propose firing people for asking questions, pertinent or impertinent. I have never done so one time in 40 years of journalism, so it’s a fair bet I won’t start now. I didn’t realize my attempt at emphasis would be interpreted as a genuine threat or a directive.

I promise to try to be more precise if you promise to cut me a little rhetorical slack.

I don’t apologize at all for my sentiments, which are genuine, important and – I think – right.

I had a helpful, productive email exchange last night with Mark Seibel and other editors at the bureau who were explaining whey their staffers took issue with my post. In thinking further about it, I decided this was what I intended to say: We are not likely to get many substantive chances to question this woman, and I don't want them squandered. Sex education policy opens the door to questions about her daughter, I guess, but much of the rest of the frenzy thus far as centered on far less meaningful questions. I don’t want us to play into that. There are plethora of infinitely more more important questions to ask and things to learn about Sarah Palin, matters of genuine national interest and security. Do you – or anybody you know complaining about this – question that prioritization?

I'm sorry I kicked up some dust with this. I'm not sorry about what I said.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin: Wagging the dog in Dodge City

I believe I’d fire any reporter who wasted a chance to question Gov. Sarah Palin by asking a single question about pregnancies, DUIs or thuggish boyfriends.

An extraordinary two-month drama is now unfolding about her nomination as a vice presidential candidate, and its resolution will demonstrate a great deal about the ability and capacity of press to perform genuine public service journalism in an era of Dodge City bloggers and Wag the Dog manipulations. Much hangs in the balance.

Jay Rosen spins out an ominous and all-too-plausible scenario over at Huffington Post, examining how and why Republican strategists may be able to manipulate press performance and public reaction in the Palin drama. You ought to read the whole thing; I found these two points especially compelling in light of what I’ve been thinking about this:

Sarah Palin, under intense pressure ... gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.
* Strategy: bingo, that's your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.

Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.
* Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite-- at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all "access" expectations. Use surrogates and spokesman, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.

Let me say right away that I expect Sarah to wow the television audience today. She is indeed charismatic and telegenic and performs superbly on script. Alaskans know this, and won’t be at all surprised when America discovers what a likable and engaging person their governor is.

I think that’s a good thing. Leaders in a democracy ought to be likable and able to persuade people to follow them. In many ways, that’s one of Barack Obama’s main qualifications.

The danger is that the Palin narrative will get caught up for the remainder of this campaign in discussion of her daughter, her husband’s driving record, the brutish My Space comments of Bristol’s alleged boyfriend. Nobody will ask – or maybe even get a chance to ask – what she would do about the economy if she inherited the desk in the Oval Office. She won’t get quizzed about NATO’s role in the post-Soviet world. She won’t get questioned about why she never bothered to visit most of the states she’s campaigning in, much less any of the rest of the world.

That will be a huge loss for American voters. Selection of a vice presidential candidate is always about picking a president-in-waiting, perhaps never more so than for John McCain. He would be the eldest first-term president in history and he’s had recurrent bouts of cancer – the kind that killed my little brother. The notion of his vice president succeeding him is not theoretical.

I spent the long Labor Day weekend in Juneau, Alaska, at my god daughter’s wedding. (She’s smart and gorgeous and her beau is a champ, since you asked). I talked with dozens of politically connected, longtime Alaskans. Most had good things to say about Palin. Not one of them thought she was qualified to lead the free world.

That won’t be true of most Alaskans, a fiercely territorial breed who will rally around one of their own, but it’s reason enough to demonstrate why her qualifications need thorough, sober examination.

Anchorage Daily News Editor Pat Dougherty made many excellent points in describing the coverage scenario for Editor & Publisher magazine. Michael Kinsley was characteristically witty in his observations at Slate (see No Experience Necessary), where Jack Shafer was even more on point (Hurricane Palin). One sample:

Thanks to McCain's miscue, everything the press touches about Palin turns into a scoop: her earmark flip-flops, her political inexperience, her Alaska Independence Party connection, her views on teaching "creationism," her book-banning phase, plus the "troopergate" scandal, her husband's ancient DUI, and her pregnant teenage daughter. And the press rampage has only just begun.

Rosen’s description of this exercise as “the theater of the post-modern presidency” might just as aptly be “the theater of the post-modern press.” We’ve talked here before about the end of the gatekeeper era of journalism, and that’s manifestly on display today. Blogs with millions of readers feel free to charge Gov. Palin faked her pregnancy to cover up for her daughter, and then (as far as I can see) remove the offending post after it’s debunked. GOP media handlers get away with hiding a newly named vice presidential nominee away from any press contact at all for days.

The old order is gone, with all its faults and all its checks and balances. We’re in new territory today, and it’s a dangerous land. I don't pretend to know how this will turn out.

To paraphrase the benediction we hear so often at political conventions, “God bless the press, and God bless the United States of America.”

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Lessons on display in Biloxi

Executive Editor Stan Tiner sounds a bit like a proud papa (okay, a lot like a proud papa) when he talks about the performance of the Sun Herald staff during hurricane Gustav. And why wouldn't he?

There is also an important lesson here about our responsibility to present the news in all the ways our readers want and need it. I'll let Stan's words tell that story:

Hurricane Gustav was quite a learning experience for the Sun Herald, and one to which the newsroom team responded with an incredible and successful effort. What a testing ground for our flip video/sunherald tv reporting.

The proof is in the numbers. Of course, a hurricane always puts up big numbers on our website, but look at the results for our video – six the top ten hit parade. Think about that. A week ago most of us didn't know there was such a thing as flip video. We were lucky to post one or two videos a week before, if that.

Last Thursday the staff received training, and on Monday we went into action with nine cameras. What our web viewers got was a glimpse of the power of video by a staff of story tellers who used the cameras to tell the dynamic story of Hurricane Gustav far beyond the limits of any other news organization, since our staff doubtlessly exceeded all other news assets covering the storm in South Mississippi combined. We are learning about how web users WANT to receive information on the web, and we are delivering. Meanwhile our storytelling in words and photos represented some of the best real time reporting in the history of the paper as well as online. The photo gallery is the best I have seen and the numbers back this up. The Sun Herald photographers had the best day I have ever seen for a staff. I have never seen a better portfolio for shooters than our team took yesterday.

This experience also reminds me how the so-called “old media” aspects of our work – words in ink, and still photography – adapt so well into our interactive media world. We are evolving and growing in our skills and this is perhaps the true test of our ability to survive and prosper. I don't believe anyone will tell me I am wrong when I say our first day print edition represents the height of our powers as a newsroom team.

Awesome. That is all I can say. We learned some incredible lessons from Katrina, and yesterday's performance was so crisp and efficient and that this old editor is awed. Everyone performed at a high level and the result is platinum.