media

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.

Dear designers: Maybe you aren’t worth as much as you think.

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For years, designers have decried spec work and contests as being bad for business. Why, they say, should they work for free? Why should they design a logo for a client who may flat-out dismiss the work and never pay a penny? Why should they waste their time entering logo design contests, competing against 100 other designers, when only one will make anything at all?

These practices, they say, devalue their work. Designers are highly skilled professionals who must be allowed to work with an engaged (read: paying) client who won’t just flake out on a whim and hire someone else. Their talent and skill must be trusted and appreciated because — let’s face it — a client knows nothing about design.

Here’s the truth: Contests and spec work don’t devalue the work of a designer. Bad design and poor value do.

Let’s step back.

When I started website design nearly a decade ago, it was for one simple reason: I was appalled by the BS I was being fed by “designers” who felt they could charge whatever they wanted — purely because I didn’t know how to put a gif of a rotating phone on a web page. There were keys to that kingdom which they held close to the breast, and I was to pay for that knowledge with my firstborn.

The truth is I’d already been a designer. I’d studied newspaper design under one of the nation’s premier designers, and I’d successfully designed or redesigned more than a dozen publications. I have a solid understanding of color, weight and spatial relationships. Also, I’m left handed. I’d done logos, newsletters, stationary. Pretty much everything. But I didn’t know how to get those things to the then-nascent Internet. Fortunately, I have a geek for a best friend, and he was more than happy to learn.

Our first act was spec work for the newspaper company where I worked. The company had dabbled in the Internet before, paying a firm to develop a news site — and ended up a quarter million dollars in debt. For free, my friend (and now business partner) built a site from scratch, which we delivered to the company. That piece of spec work landed us both new jobs, and as we learned more about web development, we began to offer our services to others.

Since then we’ve done plenty of spec work, designing mockups of websites for clients who, more often than not, are gunshy because they’ve been burned by poor design or unreliable designers who charge too much and deliver too little. Often we’re hired to take the job. Sometimes we aren’t. Dem’s da breaks.

The trouble with the argument over spec jobs is this: There’s a difference between designers and Designers, and that difference is not apparent to the client until they’ve seen what you’re capable of. Sure, a resume and a portfolio are nice, but let’s be honest: Designers only use their best stuff in their portfolio. No matter how good a portfolio is and no matter how much a reference might rave, the client and the designer just may not be on the same page. Ever.

For these clients, a logo contest works quite well. First, they probably don’t have much money to work with. Second, they’re looking for as many options as possible — often in the hopes of finding a designer they can actually work with long term. One client I work with used Crowd Spring when trying to develop a new logo. Not only did he get something he was happy with for a very reasonable price, but he made contact with the designer and has used the same person again.  Maybe 50 other designers didn’t get that job. But maybe they shouldn’t have. And maybe their work really wasn’t worth paying for.

As has been noted in articles across the web, contests like these often bring out the dregs of the design world — folks who, by virtue of the fact that they’ve pirated Photoshop, believe they’re designers. But Photoshop doesn’t make you a designer; finding someone to pay for your work does. Perhaps — just perhaps — these “contests” can help weed out some of those dregs. Maybe after losing every contest they’ve entered, some of them will study a little, some may study a lot, some may drop out altogether. But the idea that spec work and contests are unfair because not everyone gets paid for their work is, well, silly.

It’s also silly to ignore that the cream rises to the top, and that the best designers will more than likely win, add padding to their portfolios, and likely find clients they can work with again and again.

Do I enter contests? No. I’ve built a reputation for being fair, honest, hardworking and talented. You know what else I do? I don’t expect a dime from a client until the work is finished. And I don’t call it finished until the client is 100 percent satisfied. If they don’t like my work, I take it with me. I’d rather they spend their money somewhere else.

Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t want to work on spec or enter contests, don’t do it. But every argument against this work sounds the same to me: You want to get paid for everything you do and you don’t like having to compete for fear someone else will get the job. In that case, fine. That means more work for those of us who are willing to put our customers first and our wallets second.

The new music model

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I’ve been writing songs and playing music since high school. I’ve been in several bands, and even once imagined that I’d someday be famous.

During college I played in a pretty good band. We wrote good songs, performed with heart and drew a crowd. We paid for studio time and self-released our own album. It was expensive and time consuming, but we felt as though we were headed for the big time. We started shopping our music to record labels big and small, just hoping to sign a record deal.

Time and again we were turned down. Though executives repeatedly praised our music, they weren’t willing to take a chance on us. They said we weren’t attractive enough to be marketable.

That experience left me fairly devastated. I lost faith in my music. Though I never stopped playing, I decided to stop trying to get the attention of record companies. I decided to make music for me.

Why am I telling you this?

The recording industry has long dictated what we’ll listen to. And it’s not about who makes the best music; it’s about who will sell the most records. It’s about who has the best image, who will look best on a poster and who is willing to perform exactly what the label expects. Certainly there are notable exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between. As a result, our airwaves are filled with simple pop songs that, for the most part, sound the same and say the same things. It’s McMusic.

Though I gave up on record labels, I never gave up on music. My best friends and I continued to write and record songs together, and a few years ago decided we’d recorded enough songs to make an album. So we gave ourselves a name, launched a website, put out the album and have been selling it online. A few months ago, I decided to start recording my own music. I shoot video of my recording sessions and post the videos with the finished songs to YouTube. I’m by no means a star, but my videos are watched hundreds of times and I generally get good feedback.

The most interesting thing I’ve found is the incredible number of musicians who are doing essentially the same thing: creating music and circumventing the music industry, finding a niche and getting recognized for their work. The leaders in that group are Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn, who play together as Pomplamoose.

Pomplamoose videos are fun to watch. Jack and Nataly are talented and attractive. They’ve gained thousands of fans and millions of video views. Jack says they’ve had plenty of interest from major labels, but they don’t want a record deal; they make their money off their YouTube ads, iTunes sales of their songs and various endorsements.

Whether Pomplamoose would have achieved notoriety without YouTube is debatable. They’re talented and attractive. Their songs are pretty good. If they were willing to play the game, I’ve no doubt the industry would embrace them, market them, make them stars. But they seem to enjoy doing things their way. They play their own instruments, do their own engineering and mixing, write their owns songs. The recording industry hates that kind of behavior.

What we’re seeing these days is a new music model — one in which listeners have more control than they’ve ever had. Thanks to the Internet, you can discover artists you’d never have heard of 10 years ago. There’s a buffet of music out there, waiting to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse. Many of these artists — me included — are writing, playing and recording their work themselves. There are no middlemen. What you hear is what the artist intends. Often you can purchase the songs you like, and the artists receive a much bigger cut of your purchase.

YouTube is filled with original artists making songs and videos, just begging for an audience. It’s time for consumers to take the power in our own hands, to listen to what we like — not just what’s on the radio. It’s time for us to explore everything that’s out there, instead of the handful of acts the recording industry allows us to hear. It’s time to start being active about our habits. You’ll find that those you support online will not only appreciate that support, but will often respond to your comments, take your suggestions, and make you an active participant in the process.

Get started now! Visit my YouTube channel or my website, where you can download my album for free. Shameless plug.

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  those 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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