Predictable shopping shouldn’t be headline news

The day after Thanksgiving is usually a slow news day but never fear, dear journalist, there is a HUGE cultural event that demands coverage! Time to throw everything you got at it!

Luckily you had the forethought to build a database. Now make sure you’ve got a Twitter hashtag set. Then, on Friday, get some video! Do a live chat! Saturday, make sure you run a front page story on the phenomenon that, by at least one news organization’s admission, is no longer a surprise to anybody.

I understand the argument that we should cover what people are interested in, but if we must cover — and give such prominent play to — Black Friday shopping, at least we could do a good job. See guys, as Fev at Headsup put it, “Shopping doesn’t really need context.”

Perhaps it’s because Black Friday is the metro news equivalent to a new Brangelina baby, but the coverage is generally so useless. There might be interesting cultural angles, but “HOLY SHIT, PEOPLE ARE IN LINE AT MIDNIGHT TO BUY A $200 HDTV AT WAL-MART” isn’t it.

So let’s get away from speculating whether more or less is being spent this year and find stores willing to tell us if sales are keeping pace with last year’s. (Stores do have the ability to watch their sales in real time and probably know to the penny how close they are to last year.) Let’s talk to sales psychologists who could tell us why humans are driven to spend in herds and, maybe, how to resist. Could we look at how good of a deal some of these bargains really are? Maybe a “36 Hours“-style piece that plans out the 1 a.m. shopping spree.

Because unless you’ve got a story about locals being trampled to death, I’m really not that interested in stories about people shopping. And if you absolutely must push Black Friday off A1, there is that whole Mumbai thing you could put there instead.

Oh no, they didn’t!

The Gazette’s A1 hed on Wednesday, Nov. 5:

The Gazette’s sports section hed on Sunday, Nov. 9:

I already complained about Wednesday’s Obama hed. Reusing the hed — down to the exclamation point! — a second time this week doesn’t make it better.  As the ancient Chinese proverb goes: Cliché me once, shame on you; cliché me twice, shame on me.

Obama election front page winners and losers

If only we could have historic events every day, maybe newspapers wouldn’t be in such trouble. Some very nice A1s ran this morning.

The nicest A1 I saw was from Mr. Obama’s hometown tabloid, the Chicago Sun-Times. Simple. The Des Moines Register‘s was simple and effective and I’m a fan of not trying to make the headline do too much. We know who Barack Obama is and what his victory means. No need to do too beat readers over the head with your, um, hed. The Gazette‘s Yes, He Did! is too obvious (we saw tons of Yes, He Did and Yes, He Can heds today, best to avoid the cliche). The layout is striking, though. The Press-Citizen was apparently in a Star Wars mood after CNN’s Princess Leia hologram. Or perhaps those on the universal desk there are too young to know better remember the original movie’s full title (it was 1977, after all). The Sioux City Journal again tries to do too much. No need to root. Understated heds only, please. The worst was from the Weatherford (Oklahoma) Daily News. Simply awful. The Rockdale (Georgia) Citizen was awful, too; It led with a dog story (albeit a dog-attacks-school-kids story).

Mindy McAdams is right, as always

I missed this because my feedreader is purpetually at 1000+ unread items, but I would be remiss if I didn’t link to Mindy McAdams’s reponse to Dan Conover’s 10 reasons why newspapers won’t reinvent news. I was overly optimistic when I took issue with some of Mr. Conover’s assertions.

Ms. McAdams is, of course right. She writes:

Yesterday a journalist who (still) works at a big Florida newspaper told me, “Last year we were trying to shoot as much video as possible. This year, we’re trying to save the paper.”

That’s not one of Dan’s reasons, but it could be. I mean, if the people who run newspapers had realized that it would come to this — to trying to save the paper — more than a year ago, there might have been something they could do.

So Dan’s larger point (that we can’t expect these guys to turn it all around) rings true for me — even though I’m sad about it.

It makes me sad, too, though I know she’s right.

10 reasons why newspapers might reinvent news

On Xark, Dan Conover lists 10 reasons why he no longer believes newspapers will be significant players in the reinvention of news. It’s a pessimistic piece and I can’t say that I fully disagree with him. I think I’m just more hopeful (some might say naive). First are his reasons; my responses follow.

1. Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants.
We’ve already seen the truth to that. In The Tampa Tribune‘s case, which Mr. Conover cites, it was a dramatic change the readers rejected: a reduction by three sections and dozens of pages. But if newspapers can keep their loyal print readers buying papers, papers can subsidize their experiments in new media to attract younger readers.

2. The culture of newspaper management is a dysfunctional relic of a low-bandwidth, monopoly era.
It is true that many papers are owned by large, publicly traded companies. But there still papers that are independently owned, either in whole or in part. The problem is that the old guy-in-his-bathrobe-sitting-at-a-computer can compete and actually use a paper’s own resources to compete with the paper; it’s called a hyperlink. The sooner papers realize that linking is vital to Web success, the better. Also, innovation needs to be able to able to worry about long-term success over short-term profits.

3. The culture of newsroom leadership contains a fatal 20th century flaw: A fundamental belief that equates all new trends with dangerous “fads.”
It’s disturbing that newspapers see their use of Twitter as putting them on the cutting-edge of social media. It’s a start but it isn’t the end-all-be-all. Still, there has been a greater willingness to put resources into trends. While it may be too little, too late, it’s encouraging.

4. No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway.
This is about time. The newsrooms I’ve been in are amazing inefficient places where reporters and editors spend lots of time doing things that don’t end up directly in the paper. Encouraging reporters and editors to spend some of that time experimenting and figuring it out on their own is doable. Reporters should be an inquisitive bunch by nature and should work to learn some of this stuff on their own.

5. Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise to constitute a viable tech infrastructure.
J-schools aren’t exactly producing these people, either. Medill is just now getting ready to graduate its first two programmers-turned-journalists. People like Rob Curley, Adrian Holovaty and Matt Waite are rare and expensive. But the hurtin’ that has been put on newspapers means that papers are willing to open themselves up to crazy experimentation (hell, Gazette Communications is letting those Medill students play with its paper, Web sites and television station). That might be enough to attract more of the right kind of people to newspapers.

6. Inertia, uncertainty and toxic paralysis rule most newspaper companies.
Those rule most companies, but it is particularly understandable in an industry that seems to be quickly crumbling. Still, the people coming to newspapers right now are, typically, more passionate. They’ve have to be because they’ve fought though the doom-and-gloom to choose their new career. They sure as hell aren’t doing it for money or job stability.

7. Individual ad-reps still make more money selling print ads than Web ads.
This is a valid complaint; papers have been very slow to switch to a real online ad rate model. (I was shocked — SHOCKED — to hear at a job interview a year ago that the Gannet paper was just switching its online ad rates from a per-month model to a CPM model.) The excuse I’ve heard is it is harder for the ad department to make the switch to online first than it is for the newsroom. Bullshit. Online ads can be sold as reaching the niche audiences that advertisers love. And the ad people need to think hard about what they can slap advertising on (how may newspapers are producing podcasts that aren’t sponsored?).

8. Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency.
While this is mostly true, papers still do have it. How often do you see links to newspaper stories on blogs, Twitter, Digg and the like? All the time. Papers can regain some of their influence when they show a willingness to curate the world for their readers, including linking to the competition.

9. The connection between quality and profitability has been broken irreparably.
Papers have lost sight of quality, but the slashed newsroom sizes actually enhance the chances that newspapers will innovate. They have to reorganize and redefine roles when thousands of jobs are eliminated (at least 11,777 so far this year, Erica Smith figures). Smart reporters and newsrooms are going to be looking for new ways to report and deliver news.

10. Finally: Newspaper companies hate modern journalism.
I’m not sure hate is the right word, but they certainly don’t get the New Media World Order. If I hear “use Facebook” offered as a real solution one more time, I’m going to flip. But while management is generally clueless, there are a lot of sharp people who work at newspapers who will get a chance when everyone else jumps ship because there just ain’t money in news any more.

Readers don’t want no single-section papers

On Monday, The Tampa Tribune launched a redesigned, single-section paper similar to the Chicago Tribune‘s effort. The Tampa paper’s new format emphasized shorter, alternate format stories and fewer jumps. It had been in the works for a few months (I saw prototype pages floating around when I was there over the summer).

Today, less than a week later, the paper is throwing the planning out the window and redesigning its redesign because it pissed off the people that actually buy the paper. (Jeff Houck rounds up some complaints on his blog.) From Executive Editor and Vice President Janet Coats’ memo:

* Our core audience loves the Tampa Tribune. It’s not just that they love newspapers; they love this one. St. Pete [Times] is not a true substitute for them – they want this paper. Any sense that the newspaper has become a commodity for those readers isn’t the case – they recognize and appreciate the distinctions between us and our print competition.

* The multiple section habit is deeply engrained. It’s clear that trying to change that habit through a single news section is not something readers are going to accept. As [Trib Managing Editor] Duke [Maas] said, we’ve interrupted the way our most loyal readers communicate with each other in the morning – through handing the paper back and forth and sharing items with each other.

* The Tribune has always been a strong sports paper, and that is a distinction for us. But the changes we’ve been making for the last year have tipped sports out of balance with the rest of the newspaper. While sports remains important, in a world where the economy is imploding and a presidential election is upon us, we’ve overemphasized that part of our content.

* The problems readers had with the changes had to do with sectioning and placement of some types of content. The alternative story presentation, shorter stories, and fewer jumps have not generated a strongly negative response.

I understand what papers are trying to do by resectioning and redesigning — they have to because the old way clearly will not continue to work as readers’ habits change. But pissing off the loyal paper buyers won’t help.

Papers need to redesign in ways that make them even more “newspapery” and not try to make the print edition more “Weby.” Papers will never be able to compete with the Web for breaking news and immediacy. Where papers can compete is analysis and using the daily cycle to take the time to go deep and get it right and be smart.

The final graph is the best part of the memo:

So, am I sorry we tried this? Hell no. We live in a time that calls for making some bold moves. This one was a move perhaps ahead of its time; it certainly was ahead of what our readers are ready to accept. We’ve learned from it, the story format is working (we’re actually hearing some positives about that) and we’re going to respond quickly. This is the first test for our audience-focused newsroom; we’re going to listen to what our audience is telling us instead of trying to just outlast the complaints.

Update: Ms. Coats’ writes to her readers:

You’ve made one thing very clear this week: The Tribune is part of your household. Your devotion to this newspaper is powerful. We respect that, and we’re humbled by it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for your patience as we work through the changes.

Why The Gazette is right to leave the AP collective

So The Gazette is planning to live with the Associated Press. A difficult decision, I’m sure, but one I fully support.

My suspicions were aroused when Steve Buttry tweeted about a meeting with the AP bureau chief and the regional vice-president. And this evening, Mr. Buttry moved this on the Twitter wire:

My letter notifying AP that The Gazette is planning to leave: Column explaining it to our readers should post shortly.

In that letter, dated Sept. 18, Mr. Buttry wrote:

Perhaps the moves you have made to sell AP content widely across the Internet were necessary decisions as you seek to adapt and prosper in the digital age. But those moves certainly have contributed to devaluing your content to members.

Yes, yes, yes. By selling its content to Google and Yahoo and others who take but don’t contribute stories, the AP has made the stories it provides to the wire service’s owners (it is a newspaper collective owned by its newspaper subscribers, after all) more or less useless. Every AP story run in the dead-tree edition has already been available for hours when it arrives on the reader’s front step (or drive way, or bushes, or roof). And it isn’t cheap, either, costing hundreds of thousands or millions, depending on a paper’s circulation.

The Gazette is just one of the papers that have threatened to leave (the AP requires two years’ notice to stop service, a requirement one paper has challenged). But local news is what will keep newspapers afloat, not wire content and certainly not stories readily available from Google or Yahoo.

I’m not saying everyone should be or is getting her news online, but newspapers can’t compete in the long run if they pay more for less valuable content. By raising its rates, AP is pricing itself out of a lot of paper’s future plans. Local reporting is what the AP cannot do to any large degree and it’s what newspapers need more of to save themselves.

Update: In Mr. Buttry’s Sunday column, he gives three main reasons for the decision, similar to what other papers have said:

  • The availability of the AP’s national and international news online lessens the value of the that news to the paper.
  • The selection of state and sports news has declined.
  • The AP has increased rates (6 percent to 10 percent for The Gazette) and decreased the service options.

Competition in the link economy

More on this later, but this is a great example of operating in the so-called “link economy” by recognizing that more can be made from becoming a reliable source of information by linking to stories from others (even your competitors) than by producing your own duplicate version.

First came this:

Then came this:

Yes, that is the Chicago Tribune retweeting the hated the Chicago Sun-Times. And and for breaking news. The Drudge Report has $56 million in revenue mainly because it links. Think about that.

Somebody’s watching

Ralph Gross remembered the glory days of The Des Moines Register and he didn’t like what it had become.

“Thirty years ago,” he wrote in a 2005 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “I would pass in front of the Register building and with great pride read a display that said: ‘The Des Moines Register has won more Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting than any other newspaper except one. Congratulations, New York Times.’”

The national reporting prize has been awarded since 1948 and, at the time Gannet bought the Register in 1985 , the paper had six — the same as the Times. The Wall Street Journal had won just three national reporting awards and this year’s winner, the Washington Post, held zero.

And while the Post, Journal and Times now hold, respectively, three, seven and 11 national reporting Pulitzers, The Des Moines Register, “The paper Iowa  depends on,” hasn’t won since the chain bought it, winning its last that very year.

Mr. Gross was upset and joined the Register’s citizen advisory board when the opportunity arouse with the hope of improving his hometown paper.

I know little more about Mr. Gross. I talked to him once on the telephone about a book project shortly before he died in February of this year. But I respect what he did: take an active role in improving the media his community depended on.

I hope to do the same on this blog: let Iowa’s newspapers, television and online news organizations know that someone’s watching.