The [Monday] Papers
* PROGRAMMING NOTE: I'm having problems with my server today, coping the best I can.
This is the first of what I suspect will be two parts about the Chicago Journalism Town Hall held on Sunday. Because of said server issues, it gets rougher as my frustration mounted while trying to deal. I may polish and re-post later.
I was reluctant to attend the Chicago Journalism Town Hall when I first read about it. And yes, one of my first thoughts was: Why am I not on this panel? That's not an arrogant thing to say, it's just that this is my wheelhouse. I've been dealing with these issues for the whole of my 20-year career and let me tell you, it's been nothing but heartbreak learning of and observing the near-ignorance that most journalists have of their own business, and their recalcitrance not just to things that are new, but things that are better. It never seems to occur to most journalists that - like the American auto industry - the quality of what they do could be upgraded drastically.
But then, newsrooms are a culture that one study found is more resistant to culture found everywhere else in business but 1950s hospitals and the military. Progressive-thinking these people are not; change-averse to ridiculous levels and scared of their shadows they are.
Let me give you a recent example. Bear in mind that the year is 2009; the Internet has been around so long that the dot-com bust was eight years ago.
I was reading a trade industry publication last week informing those of our profession that you don't have to use the old AP inverted pyramid style when writing your stories. You can use feature leads! You can write in narrative style! You can use all sorts of gimmicks to "write" if you just learn the craft of newspaperese! You'll win awards!
Um, what is this, the wayback machine to 1975? Not only is that an amazingly stale discussion, it's amazingly outdated. The revolution of the simple link has irrevocably altered the way we should be writing and structuring our stories. But guess what? Newspaper reporters don't put links in their stories! It's true! And when newspapers put stories online, an editor doesn't put links in those, either!
Oh sure, there are auto-generated links that helpfully point readers to encyclopedia entries of every proper name mentioned . . . woo-hoo!
If you haven't ever made a link, you have no business being within 500 miles of any "town hall" on how to save journalism.
And it's not just because journalists need to master some simple forms of technology; that's the least of it. It's because the technological tools of the Internet age make journalism incredibly superior that what you can do on paper. You can tell stories better, you can do better reporting, you can fulfill your public service mission a thousand times better, because you don't have to operate within the artificial constraints of time and space; because you can use multimedia; because you can marshal more evidence to support your reporting; because you can increase your transparency a thousand-fold; because your work can reach gazillions more people than a print paper can; because your work has a longer life; and those are just a few of the reasons. Most of all, you can do what reporters are always taught to do but rarely pull off: Show, don't tell.
Ah, but reporters love to tell!
They fancy themselves literary geniuses, some of them do, when they are merely expert at the craft of certain formula which bear little relation to communicating with readers at the highest level. Or they fancy themselves tough-nosed reporters simply because they work in Chicago, and wail about the (falsely alleged) error rates of valuable tools like Wikipedia, without having even gone through the fact-checking process of a typical monthly magazine that will humble any newspaper reporter within minutes (trust me, I know).
The industry is still discussing inverted pyramids instead of the art of the link and how it changes the narrative structure of what we do.
Please die already.
So when I looked at the folks scheduled to appear on the town hall panel, I shuddered. Now, bear in mind, I know almost all of them and like almost all of them. Some I admire greatly, in fact. But someone please tell me, how is Rob Feder going to help us save Chicago journalism? Mancow.com?
At the same time, who wasn't on the panel? I'm told Adrian Holovaty was out of the country, so I'll give the organizers a pass on that one. (And by the way, I'm enormously glad and give great credit to impresario Ken Davis. It's just that he might have done his homework first.) No Brad Flora of The Windy Citizen. No Kevin O'Neil of the CTA Tattler. No Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics. No Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight. No one from the Tribune or Sun-Times digital operations (paging Bill Adee!) No Whet Moser of Chicagoland. No one from the Obama campaign. No one from the worlds of business, advertising, marketing. No Rich Gordon.
So when I got an e-mail from Ken Davis asking if I would attend, I expressed to him my skepticism. If it was just going to be a lot of kvetching about how Google and Craigslist stole our business, I didn't want any part of it. If it would be biased towards what was actionable, that folks were going to do something and not just talk for the umpteenth time, then maybe.
I was persuaded to attend, not just by Ken, but by a few others. And while there was a brief moment where I thought something good might actually come of those three hours, besides rattling the cages of a few folks there with their heads stuck in a past that wasn't nearly as good (though it could have been) than they seem to think it was, by and large the city's mainstream journalists revealed depths of ignorance beyond even my imagination.
Bar Camps are "un-conferences" where participants gather to discuss a broad topic, but the "panels" and "sessions" aren't decided upon until everyone arrives and sets the schedule together. This one was hosted by Rich Gordon of Northwestern and held at Medill's downtown newsroom.
The participants were 30 to 40 technologists, journalists, and students. Everyone attended the first session before splitting up into breakout sessions. That first session was about business models for news and media.
It was easily a more knowledgeable dicussion than the one that took place about business models on Sunday - a toxic brew of obstinance, ignorance, and inflated sense of self-worth. And it was really just a quick overview. But news flash to all town hall attendees: There are business models that not only work but are quite lucrative on the Web - and some of them are for news!
At the town hall, we were informed by many expert journalists that nobody - and I mean nobody - is making money on the Web. It's destroying us! I mean, the Internet was painted as a face of evil, like Martians landing with death rays picking off industries one at a time.
And if you're an Internet sympathizer, I think they put your name on a list!
On Saturday, though, I had the chance to meet with some interesting folks talking about moving things forward; at the end of the day, one group actually built something (last I heard it was a site called Hash Mash.)
At the end of the day Sunday, the only thing anyone wanted to build was death chambers for the other side of a print-online divide that only exists because the print people have their heads up their butts.
On Saturday, though, I sat through sessions on collaborations, both inside your own organization and with others, including some of the ins-and-outs, pros-and-cons of content-sharing; a session where some of us journalist folk could complain to a couple techies about the communication gap we often have, and how to overcome it and work together for a common goal; and a discussion of the differences between "news" and "data" and where sites like EveryBlock fit in and what they could do for readers. And there were other sessions which I did not attend.
On Sunday, I had to sit through arguments as tired as Family Circus cartoons and stories about holiday travel. "Theft!" John Callaway thundered in response to a question about the secret of Huffington Post's success. Google, I learned for the zillionth time, is also stealing our work! We should charge readers for our articles! We should find a rich guy to endow us! We should own the phone lines that carry our content!
Yes. We should use a time-machine to strangle Craig Newmark in his crib and do everything different than we did the first time around. And we'd still screw it up.
I shouldn't say "we," but I come from the ink-stained wretch world. No one has had as romantic a view of newspapers as I; I'm right there with you, print people. But a lot of folks today have the same warm feeling about cool stuff you can do on the Web. And like I said, Internet journalism is superior to print journalism. And I worked in your newsrooms and saw a long time ago what a bunch of dolts - with a few exceptions, of course - that most of you are.
"A column is based on the length of a column of type!" Ann Marie Lipinski once explained to me in frustration, when explaining why one of her former columnists was at odds with the paper because he wanted his columns to jump. (And many newspaper columnists today still act as if that artificial length was handed down by God as optimal, or that there is something valuable about news stories filed at 6 p.m. that sit around until 6 a.m. before anyone sees them.)
Yes, but not only is that an artificial constraint, but columns are of different lengths in different-sized publications. And besides that, aren't journalists the ones who should know better than any that rules are made to be broken?
That was just the first time that I repeated something to myself that Rich Gordon had said the day before: The old will not lead the new.
I was already angry, I admit. I looked over the crowd before we got started and just wanted to scream, "Where the fuck have all you been?"
Ever since I was in college in the 80s, there's been talk about how badly the industry needed to change. A lot of talk, and not much action. And if you were one of the folks, like me, keeping track of the industry you loved and studying best practices and thinking about innovation and quality and trying to be forward-thinking in your newsroom, well, you were crushed. Not the way to get ahead. The only way I could get anyone in the business to pay attention to me was to leave the business.
Among the ridiculous claims made by the city's elite journalists:
- Slate just lists the day's top stories. WTF? Slate is packed with original content, of course. If the complaint is about its "Today's Papers" feature, well, oh my God . . . that doesn't even warrant a response.
- "We saw it coming." No you didn't. You were in denial. You rationalized. You didn't understand it. You still don't put links in your stories. Hell, you still have black and white photos in your papers!
- We can charge for articles just like iTunes! Right. Call it iNews and charge readers 99 cents for every story about the county government budget and how tattoos have gone mainstream. Go to business school, please, then return to the conversation.
- Aggregators are stealing from us! Are you kidding me? The Tribune loves getting linked by Huffington Post, The Drudge Report and on and on. If it doesn't, it's idiotic. It's free advertising, expands the audience exponentially, and drives traffic back to the Tribune. The Trib can try to monetize those readers in any number of ways, from the ability to charge higher ad rates based on increased readership to trying to sell them subscription products or enroll them in loyalty programs. In fact, it's a basic job (or should be) of a content marketer these days (or the newsroom) to send those links out promoting your organization's work. And that's just the first level of how viral works. As someone said to me after the program, if you don't understand the link economy, you don't belong in the discussion. Aggregators are your friends.
- Online advertising doesn't work! No one looks at it, several apparent experts told us. Experts who surely haven't read a single piece of research or have any experience in the advertising field. First, this argument seems to presume that readers look at newspaper ads. When newspapers had a monopoly, they didn't have to do much to prove the effectiveness of their ads. Internet ads, though, are far more effective for an advertiser in the sense that you at least know how many eyeballs are on the screen, instead of paying for ads that hundreds of thousands of folks never saw because this section or that went straight into the trash.
But online ad revenue is down. Yes. The whole economy is down. So what?
But print advertising still pulls in 90 percent of the revenue. True. And it probably gets 90 percent of the attention. How much of any given sales force is focused on online ads? As I understand it, most are sold as an add-on to print ads. And print sales folk don't understand the Internet any better than their reporting brethren. I was on a panel a few months ago at the annual convention of the International Newspaper Marketing Association, and one issue that most in the audience agreed on was that there weren't enough sales people selling Internet ads, and those that were doing so didn't want to and didn't understand them.
- There's no business model! No one is making money on the Internet! One of the first things people always ask folks like me or, say, Andrew Huff of Gaper's Block or Geoff Dougherty of Chi-Town Daily News is, are you making money? And if the answer is, not much, well, that just goes to show you, online doesn't work! I don't understand this notion that a profitable newsroom the size of the Tribune's should be able to spring fully formed from our efforts. I do know that if more of the naysayers would jump off their sinking ships and lend us a hand, we'd get to profitability a lot sooner. I'm pretty tired of some folks in this town waiting for me - or others like me - to put in all the groundwork and start making money so they can make a comfortable leap. No thanks.
Besides that, when venture capitalists put money into projects, they often don't expet a return for five- to seven-years. Some projects will fail. Others will succeed in ways that could never have been predicted. But it's funny, I never knew our newsrooms were so fully of such stellar business minds - especially as they sat by while their own companies were looted and disemboweled and did nothing.
Each of which could have sprung from the newsrooms that had the clear advantage.
And there are many more, from Ars Technica to other kinds of Chicago tech companies, like 37 Signals, Threadless, Coudal Partners.
Nobody's making money on the Internet. Except . . . just about everybody.
The Internet may have hurt travel agents, but it's been great for Orbitz. Get it?
News Wants To Be Free
If you want to try to charge for Tempo (or Live or whatever it is now) or the Sports section - neither of which compare to what else is out there now that there is competition - go for it. But democracy isn't for those who can afford it. Everyone should have access to journalism that reveals to us that our governor is a crook and our senator a liar.
Um, problem solved. It is a paid profession, and doing quite nicely in many quarters. New models are springing up everywhere. Politico, HuffPo. Gawker, MinnPost, Pro Publica . . . you either have to be patient or you could help us out and move things along faster.
On Saturday, Rich Gordon said that ESPN.com, NYTimes.com, and CBS Marketwatch are examples of sites with enough scale that they are making enough money to support the journalists who produce their content. ESPNChicago.com is coming, and it maybe NYTimes.com/Chicago will arrive one day. Just because the private clubs that are the Tribune and Sun-Times may not make it - though I think the Trib will in some form despite Sam Zell because of what it has in its digital pipeline - it doesn't meant the death of journalism. It just means the death of really horribly run organizations that failed their publics.
When he was at the Miami Herald, Geoff Dougherty said, margins were at 20 percent - and they were laying people off to get them to 25 percent. The model was broken a long time ago.
"Please don't," I muttered under my breath.
We don't need any more odes to how great newspapers are/were. We know. We get it. Websites are even greater.
But you could pick up a newspaper for the bridge column, Callaway protested, and stumble upon that story about Afghanistan. The beauty of a newspaper's serendipity!
Let me ask y'all something: Who is this mythical person who picks up a paper for its bridge column and can be enticed into reading a story about Afghanistan just by, I suppose, a clever headline?
I have a hard time believing someone like that exists.
But more unbelievable is the notion that somehow serendipity is lost in the Internet. The Internet is a case study in serendipity! Ever hear of the term surfing? That's serendipity! But then, I seem to remember reading that the youth of America were wasting their lives surfing the Internet. Better to surf the newspaper?
And of course, a newspaper's website is far more serendipitous than its print edition. You see all sorts of things, from Most E-Mailed to Breaking News to blogrolls to video . . . YouTube is a master of serendipity; you can't stop at just one video. You don't go to Boing Boing knowing what you will find ahead of time; nor NYTimes.com. Just a waste of time to discuss.
No one should be allowed into future town halls without proving they've actually used the Internet.
I figured that with 300 people in attendance, if each ponied up $10,000, that'd be $3 milliion right there. Sure, not all of us can afford 10K, but some of us (them) can afford much more. We'd all be in business.
That discussion got sidetracked with arguments about, oh, how you would pay for legal help to press FOIA requests. Please. As Dougherty pointed out, and many of us have experience, there is plenty of pro bono help out there, and there are new online ventures like the Chicago Justice Project already doing a better job of it than our newsrooms. (Credit EveryBlock too for digging out data from the city and opening up public records.) When I was at the Tribune and Chicago magazine (unlike my college paper, The Minnesota Daily), my editors were never interested in FOIAs. I have a feeling we could do better on a shoestring than our current news shops are doing now with white-shoe law firms.
"How do you keep a reporter for $30,000 a year?" Eric Zorn asked.
Give me six reporters at 30K a year and I'll kick your ass day-in and day-out.
Christ. Is it really about reporters' salaries?
Robert Feder: "I don't know anyone who goes to Medill to be a platform manager."
I do! I met a couple of them on Saturday. One grad student returned to Medill to take advantage of its new curriculum because under its old curriculum she didn't learn the skills she needed. A couple others discussed their course in interactive storytelling. Why is that somehow inferior to an old-fashioend course in, say, narrative storytelling?
The real problem is that tech-savvy students will be entering a world where print newsrooms are still separate from digital newsrooms. It's one thing, people. (Rich Gordon said on Saturday that some digital operations are regressing because now print people are taking over from the interactive people and they're having to learn and re-learn what the interactive people already know.)
At this point it became clear to me that some folks were simply naysayers, the folks who, as the saying goes, are always telling us why we can't do something as others are doing it.
END OF PART ONE
* The Weekend Desk Report. "False Optimism took a major pounding this week," writes our very own Natasha Julius. "Not that Stark Realism has seen much of a rally either."
* Beachwood Goes To The Oscars! "How random was it that the winner of the Best Animated Short quoted a Styx song? He should be brought back to do that every year," writes our very own Julia Gray. "Plus, if you play his acceptance speech backwards, he's also calling for Roland Burris to resign."
* Milton Bradley Madness. "Hey people, can we get something straight about Milt Bradley right now? Just because he's edgy doesn't mean he's effective," writes our very own Jim Coffman. "I'm officially fed up with reading misguided missives about how the free agent right fielder who actually played much more designated hitter than anything else last year will make a difference for this Cub team because he'll light a fire under more laconic teammates. What exactly has he won that leads people to this conclusion?"
* Meeting Up This Week! We plan your week's meet-up schedule, including Mattteson Masterminds, Chicago Cylones, and Knot Just Knitting.
* The Burris Economy. Has he been a net gain or loss?
The Beachwood Tip Line: Soft serve.
Posted on February 23, 2009
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