News and news media

The state of the industry, not new about me.

More bad news for news.

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The hometown newspaper in the city I work in just announced it will cut home delivery to just three days per week. The reason, of course, is that it just isn’t making money off the print editions and must focus time and resources on its online product, along with mobile and tablet platforms.

It’s a sad state of affairs, when you consider the historic nature of the announcement: After nearly 200 years, this city no longer has a true daily newspaper.

Even sadder, in my estimation, is the fact that the leadership at the paper’s parent company continues to point fingers at the Internet for the demise of the printed product. And rather than figure out how to survive, they continue to hasten to rush toward extinction. To wit:

Readers have long clamored for a better news product. This particular newspaper cut its newsroom staff in half a few years back — from about 200 to about 100 — which, no matter how you slice it, means less news. I’ve never done a story count, but the decrease in quality over the past several years has been evident. I spent a dozen years competing against journalists from this newspaper, and always found them on top of the game. Recently, the paper is clearly scrambling just to put news on pages — and it’s often not compelling, important news, but news the paper believes will sell more papers.

Of course, the paper had to cut positions. It was bleeding money, both from wages and from a multi-million-dollar printing press installed to allow the paper the ability to print color on almost every page. The idea behind the press, of course, was to talk more advertisers into buying color ads. Color ads mean more expensive ads, which means more money for the paper. Didn’t work out that way.

So here we are.

The paper couldn’t afford the journalists, so it offered buyouts to get rid of as many as possible. The product suffered. Readers noticed. In response, the decision is to eliminate even more jobs, but concentrate on the electronic product.

Here’s the deal: The product is still crappy, whether it’s in print or online. Cutting costs by cutting journalists will never never never never never fix your dwindling readership.

Know what? I’m not sad.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as journalists eulogize the industry. And of course the claim is without proper, trained journalists, the nation will fall apart. Sure, bloggers are telling the news too. But they aren’t real journalists, are they?

This is hogwash.

Our notion of professional journalism and journalism ethics is relatively new, considering the age of newspapers themselves. One of America’s first newspapers, the New England Courant, was published by Ben Franklin’s older brother, James, and was filled with fictitious accounts from fictitious correspondents — satire and opinion pieces. The year was 1721, and until that time, news sheets were filled with news from overseas.

But “journalism” in America became something much different. It became a way to criticize, to needle the establishment, to raise awareness and whip up discontent. It was meant to inform and entertain. It was political, biting, and sometimes dangerous. It was the life’s blood of each community.

That didn’t change much through the 1900s — even through the 1950s. Newspapers were largely a reflection of their editors. But they’d lost something, even by then: They’d already become an industry, and men had already become very, very rich, just by selling information.

Over the past hundred years, the problem has only increased, to the point where huge corporations have dominated the news industry for decades, and they made a lot of money.

But information wants to be free. And we want it to be free.

The news industry has dumbed the news down, just to sell newspapers, to catch audiences. It is rarely the bastion of truth and justice it once was, yet it masquerades behind the ideals of objectivity. There is no objectivity in the news; the object is to make money.

The truth is, the common man is taking the news back. In our local communities, local bloggers are telling the news — with their own spin. And that spin leads others to tell the news from their side. There are debates online. There is conversation. There is, truly, a freedom to print anything. A real freedom of a real press.

The news industry will eventually die — at least in terms of being the leading information source. But the news itself will live on. Wherever there is injustice, there will be a voice to speak out against it. Wherever there is need, there will be a pen. Because this new breed of journalists realizes what the old guard forgot long ago: It’s not about money. It’s about doing what’s right.

Readers (not journalists) decide what news is.

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To be honest, I don’t know much about The Day, or theday.com. Until today, I’d never heard of James H. Smith, who is, allegedly, a 42-year veteran of the news industry and member of the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.

TheDay.com ran an excerpt from Mr. Smith’s induction into the Hall of Fame the other day — a forceful, though desperate, attempt to defend his former industry against the bloggers who’ve attempted to unseat true journalists from their position atop the summit of the Mount of Truth:

It is undeniable that new information technology, which is bestowing on us amazing communication tools like Twitter and Facebook, can promote democracy. But when cyberspace starts buzzing pejoratively about how a free and open society no longer needs a news media to tell it what the news is, democracy is endangered.

The bloggers who disparage Brian Williams or Diane Sawyerfor choosing what fits in a half hour of news or who say editors shouldn’t be the arbiters of what news is, can happily join the marketplace of ideas; but they can’t pretend to know the tenets of journalism as they blithely opine into a computer screen.

It is the job of journalists to decide what is news. It’s not the job of anyone else. Editors cannot let those who would denigrate the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy get away with such demagoguery. A professional press, printed, broadcast or cyberspaced, means a staff of dedicated news men and women with ethics codes, standards, education and training.

This is an interesting, but misguided, argument.

First, the lie: Journalists love to tell readers/viewers/listeners that bloggers are just pajama-clad whiners, gleefully hammering away at their keyboards without regard for the truth — all while popping pimples in the mirror and not showering. Bloggers are untrained, unethical, incapable of deciding what is interesting or necessary for the rest of us to read.

The truth is, many bloggers started blogs out of frustration, because the news media has lost its way. Many bloggers are, in fact, former journalists who have been displaced (thanks to newspapers and television programs that have done such a great job of retaining their audiences that they’re barely staying in business). Sure, there are bad apples. But there are plenty of those in “real” journalism, too.

And let’s look at the other part of the argument — the one where journalists decide “what’s news.”

Journalists don’t decide that at all. What they actually decide is what they’ll write about, and what they’ll print. But it is the READERS who decide what’s news — because only the READER can decide what they read.

Mr. Smith has managed to prove so eloquently why newspaper circulation is bleeding. Our newspapers and journalists are so far out of touch with readers that they can’t even see the readers’ value anymore. It isn’t new for the reader’s sake, but for the journalist’s sake. I’d argue that if journalists continue the path they’re on, they’ll be left talking only to themselves.

Social media experts really don’t understand social media.

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There. I said it.

I follow way too many social media experts on Twitter. Too many folks who want to teach your company how to be successful in social media. They promise you heaps of good fortune with your Facebook page and they’re super excited to do your tweeting for you as well. There’s a whole industry now built around these folks, and regardless what they call themselves, they really have no idea what they’re doing. If they did, they wouldn’t be doing it.

Social media platforms weren’t really designed for business; they were designed so folks like you and me could connect with each other, share little things and basically keep in touch — in a superficial, but somehow meaningful, way. As these sites attract users, they also attract businesses — especially those who want the Internet equivalent of a storefront on Main Street.

Problem is, the goals of a business and the goals of an individual in social media are severely different. I choose to use Twitter to connect with folks, whether I know them in real life or not. Facebook is the place where I maintain a loose connection with old classmates. LinkedIn is for keeping in touch with colleagues. Businesses, on the other hand, use social media for two reasons. Those who do it closest to correct use social media to respond to customer complaints, join conversations about the brand, monitor chatter about themselves. But the majority are there to sell.

I can already hear you: “OMG, Dan. What’s wrong with that lol?”

The problem is companies and organizations overestimate their customers’ desire to engage with them. Sure, I love Pepsi and my BlackBerry. I follow both on Twitter. But I don’t engage with them. I don’t remember the last thing I read from either company. But that’s not the point…

Remember in high school how you and your friends found that perfect spot to hang out? No parents or cops or teachers…it was a place where you’d sit back, chat, maybe even sneak a couple of dad’s beers and share them in the summertime. That’s how most social media sites start. They’re little clubs where the cool kids hang out.

Imagine you’re at your little hangout and suddenly a McDonald’s opens 20 feet away. And then the AT&T store opens next to it. And an auto dealership. And 30 social media experts open storefronts, all surrounding you. Suddenly you can’t even talk to your friends without wading through all these businesses, and they all keep trying to get your attention. And of course your parents and teachers show up, because they’ve all heard your hangout is cool. After awhile, you and your friends just decide to find another place.

That’s what social media experts are bringing to social media.

Myspace was cool at first. Everyone connected with each other. You kept in touch. You shared pictures and songs and everybody was happy. Bands all wanted Myspace profiles, because it made getting a web presence easy. Then businesses all wanted to be on Myspace, because that’s where the kids were.

Where’s Myspace today? Overrun by businesses, musicians and celebrities. My own band still has a page there, and our only friend requests come from TV shows, movies and businesses. It’s over, people. Businesses are just standing around in Myspace land, begging each other to buy.

The same is happening on Twitter and Facebook, where social media experts, in order to keep themselves in jobs, continue to push the importance of a business being involved in social media. Unfortunately, that one little fact shows just how little they understand about social media, and their own role in destroying it, one site at a time.

The sad part is that I agree that companies need to have Twitter and Facebook accounts. I think we’ve come to a point where you’re silly if you don’t. But never once have I seen anyone point out just how bad businesses are for social media. Our social media experts never say “Listen, we should be on Twitter, but we have to realize our mere existence on Twitter will surely hasten Twitter’s demise.”

That, folks, would be an honest, and knowledgeable, expert. Anyone out there ever heard that? I bet not.

Journalists must write for people — not search engines

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If you need any more evidence that today’s journalism is a rudderless ship drifting about aimlessly, look no further than the reaction surrounding the recent decision to change the AP style for “Web site” to “website.” It amazed me to see the phrase “AP Stylebook” on Twitter’s trending topics, and as a former journalist who hasn’t quite washed the ink from his hands, I was curious.

My reaction to the news? So what? I yawned. I moved on.

And then I saw this. In a nutshell, Robert Niles of The Online Jounalism Review argues that journalism students need to ditch AP style and start learning SEO. Now my blood is boiling. Check out this idiocy:

The newspaper industry developed a common style, maintained by the Associated Press, to meet the communication needs of a print-based industry trying to most effectively communicate with a broad audience.

Today’s online publishers, editors and reporters need a new style that most effectively allows their words to reach their intended audiences. Unfortunately for them, the print-inspired AP style is not that. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) journalists need to learn search engine optimization [SEO] techniques as much as, if not more than their predecessors who worked the print industry needed to learn AP.

The argument is that AP style is for print; SEO is for online. And Niles argues journalists need to learn how to use SEO in their writing to help content “jump to the front of the line” in search engines. He says “good SEO can help make your pages more lucrative in keyword-targeted advertising systems, such as Google’s AdWords.” None of that has anything to do with journalism, and it absolutely shouldn’t. Ever.

AP style is an attempt to find a common, understandable language amongst members of the news industry. It sets rules so there’s a degree of sameness in language from one writer to the next. It allows for an authoritative voice that denotes a particular discipline. As such, it is extremely necessary. And not just for print. Even online, a website that doesn’t follow a consistent style is uncomfortable to read. Some readers may not pick up on why, but inconsistent capitalization, punctuation and language are disconcerting. AP style eliminates that.

As for Niles’ argument about SEO? It’s bunk.

A true journalist reports the truth, and should never never think of profit. Following Niles’ advice amounts to creating advertorial content. It’s slimy, dishonest and chips away at the pillars of what journalism should be.

One need look no further than Gizmodo’s recent series of stories about the next-gen iPhone to see why creating performance-based content is a bad thing. According to Gawker Media owner Nick Denton, Gizmodo reporters are paid “traffic bonuses” for their stories, and the reporters who broke the story about the next-gen iPhone stand to make a decent heap of cash for essentially buying property considered stolen under California law. That’s not good journalism. But it did quadruple the number of visitors to Gizmodo.

Reportage for the greater good and solid writing will get attention. And it’s worthwhile, even if it costs you.

As a young journalist, I investigated the trouble local pantries and soup kitchens had getting food donations from a large retailer (I won’t name the company, but it happens to be the largest retailer in the world). After the story ran, the retailer refused to sell the newspaper at the store. It cost the paper a considerable amount of money. But you know what else? Our local food pantries started getting donations. And due to customer demand, the paper was back on the racks there in a matter of a month.

Bottom line? Journalists need to write for people — not search engines. And if folks like Niles are the future of journalism, we’re in a lot of trouble.

Why Old Media loves the iPad (and why you shouldn’t)

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With the big Apple iPad launch came a flood of reviews across the media. David Pogue loves the device. So does Walt Mossberg. Old Media are throwing themselves at the iPad as if it’s the promised savior.

For the New York Times and Popular Science, Conde Nast and the host of Old Media producers building apps, the iPad could very well be the last, best hope.

It’s no secret that newspapers and magazines are suffering from nosediving reader numbers. And nosediving reader numbers mean nosediving advertising dollars. Fewer ad dollars means less cash to pay stockholders, bloated management trees and, ultimately, journalists. And it’s less money to buy one thing these organizations have relied on since Gutenberg: paper.

Paper is a huge expense for newspapers, rivaling only salaries for the top expense at most print publications. Paper (and ink) costs can be downright crippling, but without paper, there’s no business. It’s like running a McDonald’s without frozen hamburger patties.

The iPad gives print publications the exact out they’ve been looking for: a device folks can use to flip through the pages of their favorite periodical — almost as if they’re holding the paper itself. It offers designers full control over the look of the thing, unlike the fairly typical newspaper website. It’s a wonderful way to print a newspaper or magazine without using paper. Brilliant. Newspapers could actually charge a whole lot less for their products and still make enough to pay the bills. And then some.

But the Internet is already an excellent platform for publishing. Heck, I do it myself whenever I get the chance. It’s cheap, reaches a vast audience, and publishing is immediate. So why are publishers so eager to put in the time and expense to join the iPad bandwagon?

Control.

Newspapers, by and large, hate the free Internet. Believe me on this. I’ve sat through the conferences and the seminars. Even now, publishers are confused and frightened about cannibalizing their print content, working too hard to generate added-value online content and how to handle the comment sections of their sites.

It’s that last one that really sticks in their craws.

In the pre-Internet days, it was easy to moderate public opinion. An editor just decided which letters to print and which to leave out. These days, it’s not so easy. Commenters and trolls say whatever they want, whenever they want. And thanks to the Safe Harbor rules, newspapers can’t do much about it, other than automatic filtering.

The iPad brings back ┬áthose halcyon days when the editor decided everything. That’s because the iPad is about consumption, not interaction. It’s a device for consuming media — not creating it.

I’m not saying that’s an entirely bad thing. I am saying it’s a potentially dangerous thing.

See, we count on our newspapers and magazines to be our watchdogs. But who watches the newspapers? Who calls these outlets out when there’s conflicts of interest, shoddy journalism or outright lies? For the past 10 years, bloggers and commenters have been serving that function. We’ve held journalism to a higher standard than journalists hold themselves to. And that’s a very good thing.

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