news 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.

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.

Attacking the attack on the attack on jargon

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I don’t know much about Randy Michaels, the CEO of Tribune Company, but judging by the comments on this post, he’s not very well liked. And I don’t know much about the post’s author, Robert Feder, either.

But I do know English. Sure, I abuse it from time to time, but almost always on purpose, and only for effect. And one of my pet peeves is jargon in the news business. The reporters and editors who worked for me will be more than happy to tell you about the lists of words and phrases I banned from new pages during my time as a managing editor.

I’m shocked that Feder chose to poke fun at Michaels for banned 119 words and phrases from WGN news. Why shocked? Because I can’t imagine anyone who appreciates the English language could successfully argue that “shower activity” is a better way to say “rain.” Or “youth” instead of “child.”

Feder’s argument is that Michaels has better things to do:

Sure, you’d think the chief executive officer of a company struggling to emerge from bankruptcy and desperate to salvage an $8 billion buyout-gone-bad would have better things to do than pester his underlings with crazy proclamations. But in the case of Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels, you’d be wrong.

I disagree. I’ve said this before: The news business is struggling because it has lost the connection with the audience. By developing its own tortured language, the business is slowly removing itself from our livingrooms.

So Michaels’ point becomes a pretty good one: Talk like real humans, and real humans will appreciate it. If your audience likes you, word will get out and your audience will grow. A bigger audience means more ad dollars. More ad dollars is good for business.

The most appalling thing to me is that Michaels is actually being attacked for this in the comment section, by people claiming he’s micromanaging, that he’s destroying the company, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Really? Are you really defending use of “5 a.m. in the morning” on your news broadcast? Or “giving 110%”?

In my mind, the list shows Michaels is paying attention to the broadcasts on his stations. He sees problems and he wants them fixed. Would anyone argue if McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner told employees they weren’t allowed to spit in Big Macs anymore? Doubt it. Michaels is trying to keep his newscasters from spitting in your Big Mac. Your response should be simple: Thank you. It’s about time.


Update: Who gains the most from Paterson fallout?

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I figured after the events of the past few days, I should probably give an update about my feelings on the mess surrounding New York Gov. David Paterson.

In the past week, Paterson aide David Johnson has been accused of domestic violence and suspended without pay. The news media — which dug up and printed the tenuous story based on anonymous sources — has blown the story up so big that two of Paterson’s top cops have resigned. Paterson is under investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for a phone call between Paterson and Johnson’s accuser. On top of that, Paterson is being accused of illegally accepting free World Series tickets from the Yankees.

Speculation flying around the media now is that Paterson will resign soon — and possibly face prosecution later.

So I bet you’re thinking I want to back down on all the stuff I said about the New York Times’ story about Johnson, right? Wrong.

Look: This crazy witch hunt just keeps getting crazier. And if you don’t think the same people who planted the Times story are the very same people calling for Paterson’s resignation, you just don’t know New York politics.

At this point, we have no idea what really went down between Johnson and his accuser. We don’t know what Paterson said to her. We do know that Paterson claims that she called him – not the other way around. So far, that’s all we’ve got.

Who’s doing the investigating? Why, none other than Andrew Cuomo — the guy the state’s top Democrats really want to run against Rick Lazio for New York governor.

This charade is just too easy to see through. Paterson is not a strong candidate. Even the president asked him to step aside. When Paterson refused, the party went to work, dug up whatever it could find, and planted the story. Now the investigation starts and the pressure on Paterson really begins. Behind closed doors, he’ll get a promise — just like Eliot Spitzer was promised — that if he resigns, he’ll never be charged.

If Paterson walks away, the Dems get what they want: Andrew Cuomo on the ticket. But if he doesn’t, and frankly I hope he doesn’t, he’ll have a helluva fight ahead of him. I don’t think he’d win re-election, but I also doubt he’d end up convicted of anything.

I’m no Paterson fan. I didn’t know who he was when he got elected. Hell, I voted against him, because I was one of the few people who remembered the Spitzer-Vacco attorney general race a decade earlier. But this recent turn of events smacks of the good ol’ boys network. Paterson hasn’t been particularly popular with that set. And this shows you exactly what happens when you don’t play ball with the corrupt senators and assemblymen we keep sending to Albany.

Anyone attacking Paterson right now needs to take a step back and think about who stands to gain the most from his downfall. Is it Johnson’s accuser? Not likely. She’s anonymous, and will probably stay that way. Lazio? Nope. He’s way better off running a campaign against a weak incumbent. Cuomo? Maybe. With Paterson out of the way, there’s no primary to run. It would save a whole lot of money.

But the ones who gain the most are the ones Paterson has been challenging all along, with his attempts at ethics reform and his bulldog attitude. When he talks about changing Albany, the corrupt party heads know that he’s not smart enough to be saying it just for votes; he actually believes it can be done. Paterson has been a threat to their way of life. And they know it.

If any good can come of this debacle, I pray that it’s the opened eyes of the electorate. But with the pathetic showing from the unquestioning media, I highly doubt it.

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