Monthly Archives: December 2008

A newspaper journalist offers practical online advice to her colleagues

My name is Gina Chen. I’ve been a newspaper journalist for 20 years, and I’m worried — but excited — about the future of the industry I love.

chenGina Chen is really no different than the thousands of journalists in newsrooms around the country, trying to make sense of where the news business is heading. Except this: She’s doing something to help her colleagues along.

Save The Media, Chen’s recently-launched blog, exists, as she puts it, as a “kick in the pants”:

I got into this business with the typical idealism. I wanted to be a voice for those who had none. I wanted to expose the wrongs in society. I wanted to make a difference. And in my small way, I have.

But like a close relative who sometimes needs a kick in the pants, journalism needs to get its head together, I think.  New media is here, and you need to use it.

I’m worried because so many journalists I know are  stubbornly digging their heels in and refusing to change quickly enough with the times. Yes, it would be nice if this were still the 1960s, and people had nowhere else to get their news except the mainstream press. Wake up. Those days are gone.

Each of the posts so far is direct and full of valuable information on a specific topic. Take the current post, on Search Engine Optimization for journalists:

First, what is SEO? In the very simplest terms, it’s using words in your post and headline that will help search engines find your content. So it’s back to “thinking like Google” as I explained in my post about picking your blog name. You need to use words that will let Google and other search engines — which are computers, not humans — understand what your post is about.

Why does it matter? One of your goals as a journalistic blogger is that people will find your post on a given topic. So when they type a search into Google, you want your blog to be among the first few sites that come up. (The first few sites are the ones that most people will go to.)

She then outlines 10 specific steps any writer, copy-editor or producer can take to increase readership to their stories, simply by changing their approach to headlines.

This kind of simple, actionable advice is what Save The Media is all about. As Martin Langeveld, who first noted Chen’s blog on his own excellent News After Newspapers, says, it’s well worth putting into your feed reader.

The story so far: I actually want the news business to succeed

So here’s how these things go. You write 85+ posts over the course of a handful of months. Some of them are are considered, thoughtful pieces, many with even a modicum of original reporting. Others are appreciative notes and links to discussions elsewhere.

A few are smartassed screeds, one of which takes apart some recent (I’ll still say it) idiocy by Paul Mulshine in the Wall Street Journal.

Guess which post got linked from Romenesko and unleashed what I like to call a robust discussion in the comments?

So, just a quick reminder. This isn’t a blog that takes any joy from the current condition of the U.S. newspaper business. I spent 12 years of my life inside it and would probably still be cheerfully toiling away on change from within had that buyout offer not been so timely and irresistible.

Here are some ideas I’ve floated over the past few months in these very pixels that might benefit from further discussion:

Pros vs. Pajamas: The trope that will not die.

The zombie lives, this time in an op-ed in the WSJ from the Newark Star-Ledger’s Paul Mulshine, who conflates the shout of “Copy!” and the pounding of six-part carbons with some golden age of “real” journalism that the modern internetses are killing:

When my colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger John Farmer started off in journalism more than five decades ago, things were very different. After covering a political event, he’d hop on the campaign bus, pull out a typewriter, and start banging out copy. As the bus would pull into a town, he’d ball up a finished page and toss it out the window. There a runner would scoop it up and rush it off to a telegraph station where it would be blasted back to the home office.

At the time, reporters thought this method was high-tech. Now, thanks to the Internet, a writer can file a story instantly from anywhere. It’s incredibly convenient, but that same technology is killing old-fashioned newspapers. Some tell us that that’s a good thing. I disagree and believe that the public will miss us once we’re gone.

Why are newspapers disappearing? Those damned bloggers in their pajamas:

The problem is that printing a hard copy of a publication packed with solid, interesting reporting isn’t a guarantee of economic success in the age of instant news. Blogger Glenn Reynolds of “Instapundit” fame seems to be pleased at this. In his book, “An Army of Davids,” Mr. Reynolds heralds an era in which “[m]illions of Americans who were in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff.”

No, they can’t. Millions of American can’t even pronounce “pundit,” or spell it for that matter. On the Internet and on the other form of “alternative media,” talk radio, a disliked pundit has roughly a 50-50 chance of being derided as a “pundint,” if my eyes and ears are any indication.

The type of person who can’t even keep track of the number of times the letter “N” appears in a two-syllable word is not the type of person who is going to offer great insight into complex issues.

I agree with this: It sucks that journalists are losing jobs and that newspapers are failing. But the marketplace of ideas is not a zero-sum game. And just because the author seems to have run across an inordinate number of people who are unable to pronounce the word “pundit” that’s no reason to dismiss the whole of the blogosphere, as he does.

And it’s a sham argument anyway. I’d bet that a sizable percentage of any newspaper’s readership is equally idea- and spelling-challenged. The leaders of the social media movement are no more average members of the rabble than are the ink-stained wretches Munshine beatifies here. Reporters, pundits, thought-leaders — whether in print or pixels — become who they are because of the value of their skills and ideas, not the medium they choose to disseminate them.

The bigger question is this: who will do the reporting, and who will pay for it? If newspaper companies get smart about business models and stop trying to prop up the old institutions of ink and paper, there’s a very good chance that they will survive. But they will survive in a world where Reynolds and others have an equal share of the voice, assuming the quality of what they’re saying is high enough to warrant attention.

The Sun and Post leap forward with sharing agreement, fall back with print-centric focus

I thought the Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun made a brilliant move today, announcing that, beginning on January 1, the two newsrooms would start sharing news and sports coverage. The stated goal is to eliminate overlap and to create efficiencies. The real goal is to forge ahead boldly to help save the business.

But then I saw this, and I realized the terrible truth of exactly what business it is that they’re still trying to save:

Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for metropolitan news at The Washington Post, said the two newspapers will be able to publish each other’s stories online, but only after the story has appeared in print in the originating newspaper.

I confirmed this directly. There will be no sharing of online content until it is first – say it with me – published in the paper.

pressIf this were, say, 1997 and print was booming and the online division comprised just some geeks in the basement, I could almost understand this logic. But I thought we’d settled this question: Digital is the future, not an afterthought. And where will The Sun and The Post publish all this shared content anyway? News hole is shrinking rapidly. Why not make the first and most comprehensive point of sharing online?

Imagine this: a regional online powerhouse that not only would bring in huge audience numbers, but for the first time just might be big enough to start eclipsing withering print revenues. Smart regional buys for national advertisers and targeted local ads sold against the combined reporting of the two largest newsrooms in the Mid-Atlantic just might sell well, even in this recessed economy.

That won’t happen just yet, because The Sun and The Post have chosen to focus on the papers first. Here’s hoping they soon turn their attentions to building something even greater online.

The reports of print’s death may not be exaggerated

Death throesDesigner Jason Santa Maria takes a look at the current state of print publishing and decides:

  1. Print just might be in its death throes
  2. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s his conclusion:

The medium of print will not die, but its spot atop the mountain of mainstream content distribution is in its final days. This could bring about a rebirth of design innovation online. We can help bring about change and find new ways to connect with audiences. This is an exciting time to be a designer, assuming we can all hang onto our jobs long enough to see what happens.

The post itself is a nice Cliff’s Notes to the Resolved: Print May Not Be Dead, But It Certainly Has A Nasty Wet Cough And A Certain Yellow Tinge Around The Eyes crowd. But the comments are even more interesting as Jason and his readers offer the kinds of astute observations about print and digital that it took newspapers 12 years to make.

We’re not going to save the business with bigger banner ads

I need to create a new TextExpander macro that simply says Martin Langeveld has a great post…” God knows I type that enough.

The latest is actually a 1-2 punch, presenting practical advice for the sales team and the newsroom at newspaper companies.

He gets off to a very good start:

1. Lead with the DotCom brand. Publishers: take out your wallet and check your business card. And have a look at the cards your salespeople hand out. What’s more prominent: the name of your newspaper, or the name of your web site (if it’s even listed on there)? If the biggest element on the card is not your online brand, confiscate all the cards and replace them. Do the same thing with all other printed or online sales materials, rate cards, media kits, whatever. In other words, make sure your graphic message is: we are first and foremost an online news and marketing organization.

This got me thinking about an idea I’d been pitching at my old company earlier this year: A variation on the network model.

For 10-12 years, most local news markets have grown audience and revenue the same way. Flagship news brands benefitted from the rising tide of internet adoption in all markets, the growth of available and cheap broadband, and, somewhat, by a growing focus of newspapers’ former print-only newsrooms on digital media.

In recent years, some markets have embarked on audience diversifcation and growth efforts through the launch of niche sites. These sites are adding to audience and revenue, but are growing slowly and all are based on the traditional strategy of building comprehensive content-focused sites with a newspaper’s own staff and freelancers.

But consider, at least, the network model.

The network model recognizes that the internet is an interconnected space where, in any given audience niche, there exists already rich content, widely dispersed, yet very little smart aggregation and monetization of that content. In my city, Baltimore, for instance, there are more than 270 individual community organizations, most with web sites that are rich in the kind of hyper-local content newspapers wish they we could create and gather. Under the old model, we’d try to replicate that content. Under the new network model, we’d recognize those individual sites – each with a small but passionate audience – as part of a larger potential advertising and content network.

Now imagine that niche – neighborhoods – combined with local moms, and soccer dads, and music fans and book nuts and weight watchers and job seekers and shoppers and church-goers and pet owners and barflies. Imagine all of the little slices of interest in our local markets reassembled into one audience pie.

That’s a business.

Because if we can tag their sites with our ad code, we can help them sell their audience. Newspaper companies – still the dominant local online brand in most markets (though not for long if they’re not careful) can raise their effective reach in their local markets without creating one piece of content or one line of code. And the individual sites? Each month they get a check in the mail. Everybody wins.

This is not untested. Glam Media serves as an example of what you can do when you stop trying to build all your content and “capture” the audience and instead work to leverage the audience that is already there. Last year, Glam overtook iVillage in audience and revenue by embracing the network and finding sites that were already producing content that women in their target wanted and encouraging those sites to join the Glam network.

The chart below (originally from Glam, via Jeff Jarvis)  is instructive. The yellow/brown circles represent owned and operated web sites. The purple are independent blogs and web sites that neither iVillage or Glam own. Notice how few of the circles on the Glam side of the chart are yellow.

The Glam model is to spend a whole lot less time building O&O sites, and more time building the network. And it pays off. Last year, Glam earned as much as 70% of its revenue through the network, not through its O&O sites.

To me, that’s a smart way to build both audience and revenue – leverage the content and the efforts of independent sites through the power of the network. That’s one way newspapers can begin to grow their online revenue beyond the existing banners and clicks model.

Re-engineering the wall between church and state

Chris Brogan, the well-known social media strategist and evangelist has a post today about what some of us would call journalistic ethics.

On December 2, Chris wrote a sponsored post on his Dad-o-Matic blog about K-Mart. K-Mart gave him a $500 gift card to go on a shopping spree and write about it. He took his kids. They bought some clothes and toys for a Christmas charity. He wrote it up, with prominent disclosure, talking about how K-Mart isn’t the wartime-in-Beirut hellhole you thought it was. End of story.

Are you twitching yet?

Because some people were. They questioned whether this foray into “advertorial” by Chris called his entire body of work into question. A Forrester analyst in a Twitter post called Brogan a “bought” blogger. Another Tweet, from Ben Kunz, said Nothing wrong w bloggers making $ from ads. But writing Puffery for Pay clearly diminishes @chrisbrogan ‘s voice.

To those of you sitting in the newsroom, this probably seems like a waste of breath. “Of course any paid writing is advertorial, pure and simple.”

But what happens when the advertorial is written by your star reporter and not some kid in the marketing department? Because that’s the equivalent here. Brogan is a star of the emerging social media movement. He’s written tens of thousands of words, spoken at dozens of conferences, influenced untold numbers of people. Does this one post (or, if he decided, dozens of sponsored posts?) undermine his credibility?

I say no, it doesn’t. The wall between editorial and advertising exists for a good reason, but there are many ways to honor it. The traditional newspaper model is just one.

The key is disclosure. As a reader, I know before I read a word, that Brogan has been paid. I can then filter at will. If I think that the money exchange is unseemly, I can move on. If I stay, I have a crucial fact available to help me evaluate what I’m reading.

But this is all a very long introduction to the real reason why I’m typing this post on a Sunday morning rather than doing all the other things I need to finish before the sun smacks the horizon: Chris Brogan’s explanation. Anyone who cares about communication, journalism and business models for such should take a few minutes today and read his thoughtful debriefing on the matter:

There’s a whole stripe of people out there who argue that the sponsored post corrodes my editorial integrity, and that I’m not unbiased if I do something with sponsorships, etc. I want to address that, because it really hits to the core of the story, in my mind. Simply, they’re saying that one cannot be editorial-minded and manage a paid sponsorship. (Which, if you think about it, you’re saying that humans can’t separate their perspectives appropriately.) I have a few points with regards to this.

  1. Newspapers and magazines are dying. If you’re not reading Newspaper Death Watch and Paid Content and BuzzMachine, then you’re missing some of the most riveting and depressing news of our generation.
  2. Those models all work on advertising-to-pay-for-editorial and editorial-to-keep-eyeballs-to-support-advertising. In fact, all previous media works that way. TV, radio, etc. Lost isn’t on TV because it’s cool. It’s because people can advertise against it.
  3. Those models are dying because advertising and marketing have lost their impact in those spaces.
  4. Since the early 90s, people have hoped to figure out how the web will fix this.
  5. I have some opinions on this.

I’m not a journalist. But I am a publisher. I am a reporter. I am a media maker. And here’s the difference: as a publisher, I have all the jobs of the newspaper. I am both the editorial staff and also the business side of the house. In this piece by Barbara Gibson of IABC, Barb Gibson says in her comment to me: “One more note in answer to your points above: while magazines do indeed do advertorials, they’re usually not written and bylined by their star journalists.”

That’s the crux right there of what has people hackles raised, I venture. In larger operations, there’s a bag man to take the advertising money and leave the journalists pure. I’ll get back to that point, because there is a line still, and that line must be respected. That hasn’t changed, and won’t change. But because there are many of us who are the publisher, the writer, the researcher, the customer service department, and the public relations staff, you’re going to have to seek a slightly different way to manifest that distinction.

There’s much more at Chris’s site.