Thursday, May 29, 2008

Small convenience

If you use a Macintosh and Gmail (I do), you'll want to know that the latest OSX upgrade provides for the Mac Address Book to sync with Google (and Yahoo and Exchange). Check the preferences.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'Content just isn't enough ...'

Pat Dougherty shared this long and informative discussion of where online journalism is headed. I'd recommend that everybody interested in where we need to be take a look and think about the issues raised here.

The piece is a Q&A with John Byrne, a top magazine writer and author who recently made the move to the digital world as editor of His basic point: we need to move way beyond print's traditional focus on content and instead learn how to focus on the audience. We need to think differnet.

Here are a couple of tastes, and there's lots more at the link above:

Content just isn’t enough and readers prefer to get their news online from multiple sources. So content isn’t your King on the chess board. It’s probably not even your Queen. That’s hard for a lot of journalists or editors to fully understand. Some think those changes diminish what they do and what they’ve dedicated their working lives to do well. That’s an emotional reaction to the profound changes in our business. In fact, those changes make journalism a far more creative craft than it has ever been and a far more exciting place to be. In this world, context becomes King, not content. The environment you create to enhance and extend your core journalism by harnessing the intelligence and participation of your readers is what counts. As Jeffrey Rayport, a former Harvard B-school prof and a friend of mine, puts it: “Content and brand are table stakes today. The main game is to engage users directly in authentic, compelling, loyalty-inducing site contexts.”

Let me put it a different way. By and large, journalists and editors are product-centric. They think this business is still all about stories as products. They pour a lot of energy and intelligence in those stories to get them to be as good as possible. But truth is, they rarely think of the reader in shaping those stories. We need to move from a product-centric view of the world to an audience-centric mindset. That takes me back to all our reader engagement initiatives. Mike Shatzkin, the head of a consulting firm called Idea Logical, says it best: “In the future,” he says, “you will not monetize ‘content;’ you will use content as a tool to monetize ‘community.’”

If you're not trying new ways to engage your audience and co-create your products with them all the time, you're missing the point. Tools are important, but ideas and willingness are far more essential.

As far as I’m concerned, you can’t create meaningful reader engagement by simply putting an off-the-shelf piece of technology on your site. It’s about people, not technology. So if you’re not really committed to this, it won’t happen—it’s a real mindset change that requires a lot of handcrafting. Software isn’t going to have a conversation with your readers, and software isn’t going to accept story ideas and report and write them. That’s the job of editors and writers who need to fully embrace their audience. The collaboration that results from this embrace will really change the game.

Corrected: Lightning and lightning bugs

In discussions with a charming 11-year old over the holiday, I mentioned the truth of Mark Twain's observation that "the difference between the right word and almost the right word in the difference between lightening and a lightening (oops, lightning) bug."

I also told her I liked to collect words that mean precisely what they intend and that express something no other single word can convey. Interstice is a favorite, and liminal is another. The list also includes interregnum, and a friend suggests matriculate (which, like penultimate, also has the distinction of being misused more often than it is used correctly).

Any other nominations or arguments?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Annals of stupidity

We've often talked about how the music industry's history of resisting change and fighting its customers is an illuminating, cautionary tale for our own media business.

I never fail to be amazed and bemused by further examples of the poisoned culture from which their hubris arose. Here's an example, from an interview with former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh:

I remember going to visit [Warner Bros. head] Mo Ostin about six to nine months after audio cassettes became a big deal. Before that, people were just buying vinyl, but then, audio cassettes were becoming the most sought-after item. People were not buying records anymore; they were buying these little audio cassettes. [The record label was] paying [us] less money for an audio cassette, but there were articles in all the papers about how much cheaper it was to make an audio cassette than it was to press vinyl. So I went in and had a meeting with Mo Ostin, who was the president of Warner Bros. Records, and said, “You know, Mo, I need to ask you something really important. Why is it that in our deal, you have it so you’re paying us substantially less money for every audio cassette that you sell than for every piece of vinyl, yet you make a bigger profit off every audio cassette?” He just smiled and looked at me like I was his dense, naive son. And he goes, “Because that’s the way it is.” That was his answer.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Deep philosophy (and bicycles)

Many years ago, climbing a steep hill on a bike trip to Orcas Island, I turned to a tiring friend and said encouragingly, "Remember what Nietzsche said: What does not kill us makes us stronger."

Later that day, on an even steeper slope, I asked him, "How's it going, John?"

He was panting. "I ... think ... some German guy ... is trying ... to kill me."

That's the way this all feels to me nowadays. Mostly, I feel like we're surviving, and therefore getting stronger. And once in a while, the German guy shows up, too – but we're still here and pedaling.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Top features

The American Association of Sunday and Features Editors has released finalists for its annual Top Ten selection of best feature sections in the country.

Congrats to Tacoma, Charlotte and Sacramento, all of whom made the cut and now are in the running for the final list.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Way Ahead: On the continuation of a painful but rewarding journey

As early as 1993, long before academics had focused on disruptive technologies or "The Innovator's Dilemma" – even before the first web browser made its public debut – one dominant company 's chief technology officer warned how its industry and many others "would be flattened by the build-out of digital networks." In 1995 the company's CEO added his voice, in a manifesto called "The Internet Tidal Wave" that mandated redirection.

Since that redirection, the company's stock price has fallen by half, the portion of its revenue derived online has stagnated at about 5% (it's 11% at McClatchy today), and its online division has been losing money since 2005.

If you read Randall Stross in the Sunday New York Times, you recognize that company as Microsoft.

I wrote here earlier about Kodak's transformation from an analog (film) to digital company, a process similar in many respects to what we're going through. The Microsoft story isn't a perfect analogy for us, but it likewise holds lessons and guidance for our future.

Perhaps the most important one is this: there are some things we just may not be able to do a damned thing about.

It's tempting to blame The Present Troubles on mistakes. How come newspapers didn't invent Google? Why weren't we ready to compete with free classifieds? Why didn't we get into video earlier?

But Microsoft, despite global dominance in computer operating systems and desktop software – and all its astonishing profits – also didn't invent Google. (Hell, Sergey Brin and Larry Page didn't know what they had when the Google search engine was launched, and it might have died in the crib if Yahoo hadn't licensed it for years). It's hardly surprising that newspapers were ill-equipped to compete with a small non-profit that doesn't care about charging for classified ads, or that we didn't get into video back before people had broadband capable of displaying it.

Let's say this again: it's not raining on us; it's just raining.

Of course we made mistakes, including some big ones. As newsrooms, we were slow to recognize our loss of control and to embrace the need for greater co-creation and interaction with our audiences. Newspaper companies were often timid and clumsy in learning how to sell online, and in building systems that encouraged migration from the outrageously profitable old monopoly to the fiercely more competitive new digital arena. Too many people on both sides of our house had their heads in the sand far too long.

But while those missteps and others are haunting us today, they are by no means the primary cause of our discomfort.

We used to live in a world where almost nobody could compete with us, and now nearly anybody can. That changes everything – but it doesn't decide everything.

Alan Kay famously said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it," and the future of local news and information – our franchise and our mission – has yet to be determined. We are proving every day that people want and will use the content we create and organize for them, in print and online. We are the last mass media in most of our communities, reaching more than 70% of the adults in these growing markets. We are the most vigorous guardians of the First Amendment, the most vocal champions of free expession, and the undisputed bulwark of fearless investigative journalism.

Now we have to prove that we can transform our legacy businesses into efficient, competitive modern enterprises. We have to find stability and security in a rapidly shifting economic landscape. That means employing technology to capture cost savings (yes, outsourcing and centralization) and refocusing a smaller number of employees to ensure mission-critical jobs are done right.

This cannot be done painlessly, but it can be done successfully – and it must be. While our continued existence depends on success in the marketplace,
the reason for existence remains our public service mission. Put it another way: economic success is essential, but it is not sufficient. We perform a vital role for self-governing people.

Our future will be determined by those who choose to play an active role in inventing (and reinventing) it. There are painful miles to go before we see the precise terrain of that new world, but it will be a journey of discovery and reward for those who navigate it successfully.


UPDATE: After I posted this morning, AP moved this story about Microsoft reopening its talks with Yahoo. They're in transition, too.

Opportunity lurks

We know from growing experience how popular local video can be on our sites, which just makes sense. People like to see things happen, and we're able to deliver more of that experience on the local scene than anybody else. (I counted nine video clips available from the home page of the Kansas City Star this morning; In Merced, where television comes from Modesto and Sacramento, all the Sun-Star reporters carry cameras, and their reports are the sole local video.) Video's popualrity presents another opportunity I hadn't recognized until recently: unlike most web content, viewers don't find most of what they watch through search engines. A survey of a thousand adults by Synovate yielded these results:
  • 53% found videos through their own exploration
  • 52% found through recommendations from others
  • 40% searched for specific videos
  • Other forms of video findability - 18% following online recommendations from people they didn’t know; 10% via unsolicited email; and 9% via email or RSS feeds.
The most obvious opportunity: make it easy and painless for your viewers to recommend your video to their friends. There's a little more on this subject at trendsspotting, where I came across this info.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Twittering in Wichita

We've talked in this blog before about the prospect of using Twitter for news. Now the Wichita Eagle is showing a dramatic example. You can follow their twitterstream of a high-profile local trial and see it happen, pretty much in real time.

UPDATE: The Journal of the American Bar Association has an extensive article about reporter Ron Sylvester's Twittering (Tweeting?) online. One of his posts was "One juror forgot to turn off his cell phone. Ring tone: "Carry On My Wayward Son," by Kansas."

Here's a taste:

Trial junkies following the high-profile prosecution of a Wichita man accused in the contract killing of a pregnant 14-year-old girl can get continual, brief updates at from a reporter covering the trial.

Reporter Ron Sylvester is covering the trial of defendant Theodore Burnett for the Wichita Eagle, but he’s also submitting updates to Twitter, described as “a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”

In Sylvester’s case, those reading his Twitter posts are his newspaper readers. His first Twitter message today read simply: “The capital murder trial of Ted Burnett began this morning.” Later, Sylvester described the opening arguments of prosecutor Marc Bennett, who contends Burnett took a mere $500 to kill Chelsea Brooks for Brooks’ older boyfriend, who feared he would be prosecuted for statutory rape.

The Twitter entries are short, no more than 140 characters, but they are frequent. In just the first hour of the trial, Sylvester wrote 20 posts.

Burnett is charged with aggravated kidnapping and capital murder, according to a Wichita Eagle summary of the case. That page also houses the latest Twitter updates as Sylvester posts from the courthouse. The victim's boyfriend, Elgin Robinson, is scheduled to stand trial in September.

Sylvester uses a T-Mobile Dash phone and a Bluetooth foldable keyboard to send his updates to Twitter through text messaging. He always asks for permission before bringing his equipment into a courtroom, and judges are amenable.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Looking across the burning bridge

A recent trip back to Anchorage got me thinking about how I left my hometown in 1995, headed to Sacramento for a new job with the improbable (and admittedly pretentious) title of “assistant to the president for new media strategies.”

I was sure there was a big digital revolution brewing our business, and I desperately wanted to be part of it.
Like most folks who thought about such things back then, my anxiety for the news business centered on the notion of “disaggregation” – the worry that audiences wouldn’t need us any more to get at the information they wanted and needed. With nearly unlimited access to nearly anything, 24 hours a day, would people want newspaper content, and the editing, sorting and filtering we provide?

Now, in the midst of a bigger challenge and transition than I ever imagined, I realize I had that all wrong.
We’ve done a great job on the content side of the equation. Unique visitors to McClatchy websites grew by 25% last year; for the first quarter of 2008 it was even better, more than 40%; about 26 million different people visit our sites each month, according to Omniture measurements. Even in a world with astonishing content available everywhere online, we’ve demonstrated that we can create local news websites and related ventures that draw growing audiences – and we’re getting better at it.

The big challenge is one I didn’t much consider back in 1995: what really got disaggregated was audience and revenue. It works a little like this: People still like the content we produce and assemble, but when they’re done reading our site they go to Google and type in “Maui condos” instead of looking at the ads in our travel section. Google’s frictionless, astonishingly efficient AdSense serves up ads in relation to those searches and rakes in money.

Not all the money, mind you. Newspaper advertising – about $45 billion a year – is still bigger than Google and Yahoo revenue combined. But our ad revenue is declining rapidly, and our cost structures – which grew up in an era of monopoly pricing and deal with moving around tons of paper and ink – don’t stack up well against margins at the digital-only players. Our own online revenue performance, while improving dramatically, isn’t where it needs to be.

That gap between audience and revenue, between costs at our traditional ink-and-paper business and pure digital companies, defines the pain newspaper companies feel today. It isn’t permanent, no matter what the digital triumphalists proclaim; print revenue is falling, but not falling to zero. Our online revenue isn’t a one-to-one replacement for lost newsprint profits, but it doesn’t need to be. There's a healthy, sustainable business at the intersection of those two: a hybrid news and advertising company that creates and sells content on multiple platforms, mainly print and online.

Because we now have competition we didn't have to face before, our share of both audience and advertising will shrink. Eventually, thanks to the same technologies that fuel that competition, so will our expenses. Meanwhile, we'll discover and prosper from opportunities, as well: being back in the breaking news business, delivering video, targeting information for specific audiences, convening and enabling community conversations, delivering easy access to vast databases of information.

We're at the most painful and awkward juncture of that transition right now. There's a promising future across the bridge, but we have to get from here to there – and the bridge is burning. Mark Zieman in KC likes to quote the mid-century American poet who wrote, "Time is the school in which we learn / Time is the fire in which we burn," and that's never been more true.

Layered on top of structural changes (new competition, new platforms, new audience expectations), we're also suffering painfully from a national economic downturn that hits newspapers in the breadbasket: employment, real estate, auto and general retail advertising. McClatchy gets to bleed extra, since we have big properties in Florida and California, where real estate woes are much worse than elsewhere.

Well, so be it. We can't control the national economy or the transformation of the news and information world. We can get better at what we do, and tune our operations to match the challenges and new demands – and we are.

As I said earlier, our success in growing audiences is a bedrock accomplishment that is the foundation of everything else we're doing. Audience growth has always been the best predictor of success for media companies, and it still is.

We do have to improve revenue performance to match, and there are major initiatives in play across McClatchy to do so. This obviously isn't my area of expertise, but I know that staffing, training, compensation and incentives for sales are top priorities.

And, finally, we have to adjust expenses to reflect the new revenue realities – an unavoidable, continuing process that must be done right for any of this to work. McClatchy employees are living this reality every day.

We do all this because our mission matters. We're a public service journalism company; if we don't produce public service journalism (defined here, bottom of the post) there's no real reason for there to be a McClatchy Company. That requires finding a stable, sustainable and successful place in the marketplace. 

Some productivity tools

I've meant for some time to recommend a productivity tool that's become a regular part of my activity: reQall.

The service is simple, fast, free and effective. You call an 800-number and leave a voicemail message. A few minutes later, a transcript of that message (typically a reminder, in my case) appears in your email in-box. It's remarkably accurate, though it sometimes stumbles on proper names, of course. But as a reminder service or an easy way to make a note while on the road, it's very good. I have it on speed dial on my cell phone.

While I'm on the subject, two more quick recommendations (for Macintosh users):

  • Bean, an elegant, spare, Word-compatible word processor. It's also free.
  • Mailplane: replaces the Mac Mail ap as an interface with Gmail accounts, adding considerably to Gmail's web-only functionality. It's shareware for $24.95, with a 30-day free trial.
  • UPDATE: Have now registered and paid for my Mailplane; it's worth it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


An artform only a wonk could love, I know, but I enjoyed this gallery of all the presidential campaign logos from 1960–2008. (Thanks, kottke).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Making data accessible

Somebody who reads this blog (if there's anybody left after the long interruption between posts) knows what this means for our business. Sadly, that person isn't me.

If this strikes any chords with you, write and let me know, please.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Gluttony of the media-grinder

Longish essay on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the media, and race in America from Bill Moyers is available here in transcript or video.

Here are the money graphs:

Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering Catholic-bashing Texas preacher who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee's delusions, or thinks AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell said the attack was God's judgment on America for having been driven out of our schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.

Jon Stewart recently played a tape from the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham talks in the oval office about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy; this is wrong -- white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren't.

Which means it is all about race, isn't it? Wright's offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn't fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone's neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettle some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We are often exposed us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I've never seen anything like this – this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner before our very eyes. Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Charlotte gets more recognition

Congratulations to the Charlotte Observer, recognized (yet again) for the outstanding investigation of mortgage lending abuse, "Sold A Nightmare."