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The [Eric Zorn] Papers

A response to Eric Zorn's recent criticisms of yours truly:

ZORN: Perpetually seething self-styled visionary Steve Rhodes has weighed in again at his nearly ad-free site to crow about how mainstream folks just don't get it like he does:

Limiting access to your product is madness. Thanks to the Internet, the Tribune now has more readers than it's ever had in its history. And the ability to know something about those readers to tell advertisers, to tailor editorial content, to create community, to interact, and to sell services and products to is virtually unlimited . . . reporting should never have a price tag put on it - not in a democracy. There are many other revenue streams to tap; just look around. [People should not be] eager to declare Internet advertising dead without having a clue about Internet advertising, which is only in its infancy and slowed only by the recession and stupidity, not because of ineffectiveness or lack of revenue-generation.

REPLY: 1. My business model has nothing to do with monetizing Beachwood Reporter. I rarely try to sell ads. I don't see a general interest news site that would depend on local ad markets to be sustainable; I never have and from the start that hasn't been my model. So Zorn's childish swipe is entirely misplaced.

2. Zorn might have noticed that I'm hardly the only one who doesn't think mainstream folks get it. Zorn might stroll over to the Tribune's own digital operation and he'll find far more people who agree with me than him.

3. I'm not a self-styled visionary, I'm a real one. In college I told my favorite journalism professor that those of us at the college paper enjoyed reading the AP wires so much that AP should offer them to the public. I suggested a bar where you could go read the AP wires on, you know, computer screens. That was 1985. Now, truth be told, it has nothing to do with being a visionary and everything to do with paying attention. I read then, and read now, journalism trade magazines, journalism research, journalism reviews - you know, keeping up with my industry - as well as business publications. Most of my fellow journalists do not. (In fact, the Tribune's new managing editor, Jane Hirt, recently advised her newsroom to "stop reading Romenesko." Yes. Please stop reading the nation's central repository for news, criticism and thought about our business. You might get some ideas!) Even back in the 80s, and probably before that, the mantra was that the industry had to change. It never occurred to me that the industry would be so recalictrant - or that we'd still be having these kinds of arguments in 2009.

ZORN: Rhodes would have more credibility on this if he were showing us how it's done. He tells us to "create community" yet doesn't allow readers to comment directly on his predictable screeds; he tells us we don't have a "clue about internet advertising" when, to look at his site all these years, he appears to be incapable of attracting it or tapping into enough of the "many other revenue streams" to pay people who write for him.

REPLY: I have created a community - one that I think is far more loyal to me and the Beachwood Reporter than to Eric Zorn and Change of Subject. Allowing comments has nothing to do with it. I don't allow anonymous comments unless I judge someone having sufficient reason to remain anonymous. Zorn argued with me about this when I founded Beachwood. I wondered why the standard for a newspaper should be any different online than in print; he argued that allowing anonymous comments was like talk radio allowing "Bob from Bolingbrook" on the air. Ironically, I was the one arguing in favor of upholding traditional standards. Also ironically, Zorn has instituted a new commenting policy, declaring that his old one was "an experiment that didn't work." In fact, the trend in newspapers is toward limiting commenting. Further, the Beachwood Reporter is not a blog. It is a website. I'd love to have blogs on it someday, but right now we don't; I don't have time to moderate comments all day. (Zorn also complained at the time about my use of "blind links," arguing that readers shouldn't be sent to links unless they knew what they would get there, which doesn't work so well when links are punch lines or you want to drive readers somewhere after arousing their curiosity; links can be excellent footnotes, but they can be more than that too.)

As far as advertising and revenue streams, again, the Beachwood Reporter proper is not a model and I've never claimed it to be, though it is part of a larger model I'm confident in. But this idea that a start-up ought to be able to accomplish what some of us suggest for a behemoth like the Tribune is folly, though I suppose it's flattering. I haven't even done search engine optimization on Beachwood, and I just got around to slapping some Amazon ads onto the site. I'm working on something much larger, and I've at least gotten far enough to be able to make face-to-face pitches on my grand plan to deep-pocketed investors that few others can reach. I'm not promising success, but even if my plan fails, that doesn't invalidate the principles that the rest of the Web world find working.

And in terms of paying writers, my writers are partners in this venture, not hired hands. We've all gone into this together with the hopes of creating something and having a lot of fun. And unlike anyone who writes for Huffington Post, whose business model is to never pay writers, my contributors know that we'll all share in the rewards equally when they come. What's so wrong with that? On the other hand, I don't remember Zorn complaining about TribCo executive salaries - or those of top editors - over the years while the company was kicking people to the curb.

ZORN: Look, I'm not touting the bundled subscription model as a panacea and I see pitfalls all around. But the smug, spitball shooters like Rhodes are so far offering only trite generalities, airy proclamations and dismissive adjectives (he seems to favor "crappy").

REPLY: Far from trite generalities, I've offered facts and examples for years now. This complaint reminds me of Neil Steinberg a couple years ago complaining to Chicagoist that my criticism didn't go beyond "he sucks." In fact, my criticism is specific, and almost always to make a larger point. Judge for yourself. (And Neil, we all know that you don't "love" to have "valid" criticism and you're never "bored when it's about me.") Airy proclamations? Hardly. I'll leave those to the Obama propagandist unwilling to face facts. And forgive me for using a word like "crappy." I didn't spend my college years playing adjective practice.

This is the second time Zorn has called me a spitball shooter recently. I think I'm shooting something far larger than spitballs. The first time was his challenge that I "show us how it's done" instead of complaining about the sorry state of reporting in Chicago and in the news industry in general. This is sort of like the baseball player telling the sportswriter, "You try hitting a curve ball!" It's nonsense. But the fact is, I'm not preaching anything to anyone I haven't done myself. Zorn pretends that I don't have 20 years of experience behind me. Let me fill him and everyone else in. In college, we at The Minnesota Daily took down an administration. You can look it up. I was the managing editor. Our investigation into a really expensive fence erected outside the president's mansion led to a series of stories tracing back to a slush fund operated by the university president and expenditures made from that fund without approval of the Board of Regents. We used FOIA laws extensively; we took the university to court to force the release of an NCAA investigation into our athletic department; we also conducted our own investigation which we were able to publish side-by-side that went further than the NCAA. On the business side, I created a simple system for accepting late ads in places where we would have been running wire copy (as was pointed out to me by a business-minded techie recently, websites should have sales people calling advertisers - within ethical guidelines - saying, "This story is exploding, do you want to place an ad next to it?" Yahoo notifies websites if they are going to make it to Yahoo News so their servers don't crash; do websites notify their sales staffs?), and persuaded the business department to dedicate an ad salesperson exclusively to our Arts & Entertainment section, doubling revenues there in two quarters. SPJ named us the nation's best college paper that year, and the Extra (it was spring break) we published when the president resigned was named best the nation's best spot news coverage.

If you must know more, I'll go on. (Feel free to jump down to the next point, this gets long because I want to make it perfectly clear.) In my first job in Lakeland, Florida, at a paper that loved to hire Minnesota Daily folks because of our experience and penchant for using public records laws, as well as our aggressive reporting, I changed the way the police beat operated. Random crime and even murders became briefs while I began writing stories about policy issues and investigating our law enforcement agencies. After the first month on the beat I had already broken stories about wrongdoing in the sheriff's office, the police department, and the local office of the state highway patrol.

It was there that I told our managing editor about a "bulletin board" that the St. Paul Pioneer Press was publishing containing reader comments. I was also struck by that paper's use of photos in classified ads - you could see a picture of the car on sale, for example. As happened throughout my newspaper life, I was roundly ignored.

In my short (nine months) time at a newspaper in Waterloo, Iowa, I opened police records for the first time in the history of the newspaper and the police department. It was actually a much bigger battle persuading my editors that the police reporter should be looking at, you know, police reports, as I had done in Minneapolis and Lakeland, and as should be routine anywhere. Before that, the police reporter would go to the station every day and a public information officer would "read" him or her "the news." Later, at the Tribune, they were similarly disinterested in seeing police reports. (My best story there was one I broke a story about the fire department lying to the state about its members going through the annual required training; I feared I was going to get fired because the city editor there, who later became the managing editor, was pals with the firefighters. She shook her head at me one day about how we just had totally different mindsets about being a reporter.)

At Northwestern University, I created my own graduate degree in newspaper management, combining classes from Medill, Kellogg, and the speech communications department, which granted me permission to pursue such a program (Medill didn't, but I had never liked Medill much anyway) and which had a course in media economics that I wanted to take. I also earned a "master's certificate" in telecommunications policy through the speech communications department; telecommunication is what they called "online" or "digital" back then.

While at Northwestern, I worked at the Newspaper Management Center (now the Media Management Center). I worked mostly with Michael P. Smith, now the director, then a senior editor from Knight-Ridder, on several consulting projects, such as the Local News Ideabook, which was sent out to editors of all Knight-Ridder papers; the Newsroom Brain, a guide to newsroom ethics and decision-making; and a report on managing Generation X that we presented to the top 75 managers at Tribune Co. Truth be told, me and Mike used to get jazzed reading the Newspaper Research Journal. So, you know, I don't just make this stuff up out of my head. (Mike sent me a note a few months ago about an interview I had given to an industry publication from around that time that he had come across, in which I suggested college students "go digital" as part of their job-seeking process, remarking on my prescience. The truth is, that's where new jobs were being created.)

During that time I also sat through every pricey executive and middle-management seminar the management center put on, right next to editors and publishers from around the country - including, at one, former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski (whom Zorn recently suggested be named to temporarily hold the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Roland Burris.)

Next I spent 18 months at the Tribune as a reporting "resident" (also known as "an intern whom we keep around for an extended period of time to save money on reporting costs") and encountered the most dysfunctional newsroom I have ever seen to this day. My experience wasn't unusual; those of us who had experience in other newsrooms were aghast. Our editors were not at all interested in looking at police reports or pressing for public documents, or covering neighborhoods or suburbs filled with poor black people (the Tribune made a business decision not to do that, according to former editor Jim Squires), or even cover congressional or aldermanic campaigns. Don't get me started.

After that I freelanced for five years for a variety of publications, many of them national (believe it or not, doing education stories for USA Weekend was quite fun and interesting, and I got to travel); most of what I did during that time was reporting for the bureau that Newsweek used to have here. I traveled widely around the Midwest for Newsweek, including for my role on the reporting teams covering Andrew Cunanan and the Unabomber. From my vantage point, Newsweek was a breath of fresh air. I'm sure folks there had their complaints, but from where I sat it functioned as smoothly as one could expect. If Zorn wants to, he can check in with John McCormick, the Tribune's deputy editorial page editor who was my boss at Newsweek; McCormick will confirm, I'm sure, that I talked a lot back then about how the newspapers did their jobs and how I thought they ought to do their jobs instead. As the magazine's Midwest bureau, we had about a dozen newspaper subscriptions from out of state, and I read them all.

From there I went to Chicago magazine, where for six years I wrote long magazine stories mostly about politics. I can assure everyone I was never afraid to ask a tough question. The story I did there that got the greatest response - all positive - to perhaps anything I've done in my career was called "The Case Against Daley." Longtime veterans of the Tribune assured me that my profile of Lipinski perfectly captured the newsroom and its culture. I think I could have done that story better, but whatever. For two years I wrote the weekly online media column "Press Box," which garnered quite a bit of attention not just in Chicago but throughout the industry. (While doing that column I was amused that some Tribune staffers accused me of holding a grudge against their paper at the same time some Sun-Times staffers accused me of criticizing them in order to get hired at the Tribune. This is our small and self-absorbed media.)

For the last three years, I have presided over The Beachwood Reporter. Nobody has to read me here; I don't have the safety of a newspaper or magazine around me. But people do. I'm often invited to speak on panels about new media and journalism, including national SPJ panels, traveling to Los Angeles to help give a citizen journalism seminar, speaking to the annual convention of the International Newspaper Marketing Association, just to name a few, because frankly, there's been too many to remember. In just my first year with Beachwood, the magazine for the American Society of Newspaper Editors included me and my site next to a bunch of newspaper sites as examples of those "doing it right." Among other accolades.

So, unlike the claim also of Robert Feder that I was a "self-appointed media critic," (see Feder Frenzy) as opposed to, say, Richard Roeper being a self-appointed movie critic (okay, Ebert-appointed, but you get my point), I'm well-versed and well-studied in my subject matter. What credentials am I missing?

ZORN: I've asked the skeptics, the Trib-bashers and the web triumphalists to point us to examples of robust local online news operations that are self-sustaining through advertising - that pay salaries that will attract people to journalism as a career and have the resources to do more than plod from meeting to meeting to crank out copy.

So far they have not pointed me to an example of what I, too, hope someday to find. I'm just not sure that, with all the competition and all the fragmentation in the online audience, we're going to see that any time soon.

REPLY: Robust local online news operations aren't going to spring up fully formed. But the examples I've listed are indeed going concerns. Online sites have been included in the Pulitzer Prize competition for the first time this year. It takes time. But newspapers should already be there; they have squandered their tremendous advantage, and I don't think anyone in the industry seriously argues otherwise. And why does a concern have to be self-sustaining through advertising? There are other models. Maybe MinnPost and other new sites are the newspapers of the future. Would that be so wrong?

ZORN: And in the interim between now and the day when smart people like Steve Rhodes finally grab the reins from all the clueless, stupid people he believes are in charge, we're going to continue to lose major media outlets unless someone figures out a way to translate these admittedly large audiences into slide-reversing revenue.

RHODES: I think your own digital operation is starting to figure it out. But yes, clueless stupid people have been in charge for a long time. Do you really want to argue that point?

ZORN: Rhodes tells us that we should be -

focusing on unique content, which means local reporting first and foremost, though not merely conducted in the same crappy traditional way . . . The ability to reach readers through e-mail newsletters presents a new content form with new advertising models that follow. And that's just the start of it . . . if you want to know more you have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, hire me as a consultant, or better yet, invest in my company.

Consultant, consult thyself.

REPLY: A nice attempt at being clever, but still wrong. [THIS JUST IN RE: E-MAIL NEWSLETTERS: "Still Unsexy, Still Selling."] I started my site with barely a penny in my pocket three years ago. Should I be staffed up already? I'll tell you this: if all the folks at the Trib and Sun-Times waiting for me to make money on my own before joining me would join me now, we'd get there a lot quicker. But there are success stories all around, even right here in Chicago. Real Clear Politics, FiveThirtyEight,, Pitchfork Media, Ars Technica, to name a few - these were all born right here. I always use CTA Tattler as a prime example of how beats should now be covered as blogs. Adrian Holovaty won $1 million from the Knight Foundation to build EveryBlock. I'm not a fan of citizen journalism, but let's see where Geoff Dougherty takes the Chi-Town Daily News with the grant money he's won. Is it the Tribune? No. But the trend lines are going in opposite directions. (You know, if you crunch all those together, along with the Beachwood, Gaper's Block, the Windy Citizen and a few other top sites, you've got a helluva newspaper. Real metro and investigative reporting could follow.) In business, you have to innovate or die. Clearly, the innovation in news is coming from outside the sphere of traditional media organizations - which, after all, are merely companies that will live and die just like other companies. I've always found Zorn's reflexive defense of traditional media and its practitioners - Amy Jacobson, for God's sake - curious. I don't understand it, except insofar as the clubby world of Chicago journalists who like to think they're upholding some grand tradition just by association with something that was hardly grand to begin with doesn't like to see their authority challenged or diminished. Still, as one of the first mainstream journalist to embrace the online world, Zorn should know better. Like I said, Eric, I think if you stroll over to the Tribune's digital side you'll find more folks there in agreement with me than you. And those folks are not only the Tribune's future, but really the Tribune's present.


What Zorn was responding to:

* My first piece on the Chicago Journalism Town Hall.

* The comments I received from my readers in response to that piece.


The Beachwood Tip Line: Be it dead or alive.


Posted on February 26, 2009

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