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The [Thursday] Papers

UPDATE: 10:40 A.M.: See below for new town hall comments and NBCChicago.com links.

7:17 A.M.: Just to get started, here are some comments I received via e-mail in response to my first piece about the Chicago Journalism Town Hall. I didn't receive any negative comments; I'm not editing selectively. I am deleting names and other identifiers to protect commenters, many of whom are frustrated inside their own news shops. In some cases I have edited the comments ever so slightly for punctuation and clarity. I'm still planning on a second installment and some other related content, as well as some semblance of a regular Papers column this morning, but first I have to do some work for NBCChicago.com. Back soon.

COMMENT 1: Digging your analysis of the Town Hall meeting, especially juxtaposed to Saturday's deal in the downtown Medill newsroom. I have fond memories of that place, so I would have loved to have been at both sessions to experience exactly what you endured.

Here's a funny aside from [DELETED TO PROTECT IDENTITY] years in TV at the Tribune station in [CITY DELETED TO PROTECT IDENTITY]: Absolutely none of my work is accessible on the web. None. If I want to prove to you I was a broadcast journalist via Google, all you would see is my [YEAR DELETED TO PROTECT IDENTITY] reporting as a Medill student in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Why you might ask? Because my station, [DELETED], didn't know how to code the online site to show up in Google searches. I asked them if maybe we could get that changed so our TV stories would be accessible online and we were denied permission by Tribune overlords. Then last summer they upgraded the site and everything from before the upgrade was lost, and as a result, [DELETED] years of TV stories done by yours truly vanished without a trace. Nothing online, nothing on YouTube.

Not a newspaper story per se, but emblematic of the problems with old media. That said, working for an online company [NAME OF EMPLOYER DELETED] is a refreshing change of pace. And I can assure you there is a ton of money still to be made in digital, especially on the advertising side, because of the high level of audience engagement provided by rich media advertising.

COMMENT 2: Never saw so many asses chewed out so artfully . . . wonderful job . . . looking forward to part 2.

COMMENT 3: I've been in newspapers for only 10 years and I'll admit I joined the curmudgeon camp early in this conversation about the ails of the industry. But I'm not stupid, at least I'd like to think that. As much as I want to hang on to the papers, I don't see them sticking around. For me, though, the reason is they've reduced and marginalized their product, perhaps making advertisers second-guess spending money for something not even the owners fully stand behind.

Sure, they're losing money (cost of print and press is high), but so are a lot of businesses.

Tribune/Sun-Times could have managed a hybrid version much better. Keep a print edition, but for special features/investigative pieces. Use the Web to steer readers to print, too.

COMMENT 4: Server problems or no, your discussion of the journalists that time forgot at the Town Hall was masterful. It should be required reading at every J-school.

COMMENT 5: You were reading my thoughts. Or I was reading yours. You are right up and down the line.

Bless Ken Davis, but I was struck immediately when he described the facts of the Internet as 'sobering.' Sobering? The internet is intoxicating! It's the best thing to come along for journalism since, well, the printing press!

Amen.

COMMENT 6: What's stunning is that as late as 2005 (when I was still working at a major metropolitan newspaper), all I ever heard was how newspapers had to "compete with the Internet." The Internet, upper management continued to essentially proclaim, is the enemy. That's absurd, of course. When newspapers kept saying they had to figure out how to compete with the Internet (some still are, I suppose), they should have been saying "We are the Internet, too! And we're going to figure out how to own it!" Instead, newspapers lost a prime chance to transfer their credibility and their "brand" to the Web. As a result, when you think of Web news, nobody thinks of the Tribune or NY Times. They think of Huffpo or Politico or (pretty soon) Global Post. Newspaper owners could have created these ventures if they had only accepted the fact that 25 percent profit margins were no longer a reality!

In late 2005 (!!!) when I was interviewing for a newspaper job in Chicago, a top editor (!!!!) told me that the print edition of the newspaper would always be king and would never go away because nobody would ever figure out a way to make advertising profits via the Web. My response: "Well, other industries are making money on the Web. Newspapers will figure out how to do it, too. They have to. Maybe not as much as they made 10 years ago, but newspapers will find their profit niche on the Web." The top editor just shook his head in complete disagreement.

I don't consider myself a visionary or even a progressive sort when it comes to the future of newspapers or journalism. However, newspapers as we knew them died because of a combination of ignorance and denial.

COMMENT 7: Meantime, Eric Zorn seems all to happy to supply more evidence why he might be the most irrelevant and absent-minded columnist in town (save for Carol Slezak, perhaps). The next cogent and legitimate thought he has will be his first.

REPLY: I'm totally against the cable-TV model Zorn proposes, in part because we've already been there: it was called AOL. Back in the day, you had to subscribe to AOL to get access to the online Tribune, New York Times and other publications. We're not going back.

Besides that, 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.

Finally, as I've said and written before, if you want to try to put your crappy feature stories behind a firewall, go right ahead. I recommend not writing them instead and focusing on unique content, which means local reporting first and foremost, though not merely conducted in the same crappy traditional way. And this 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.

(See my comment below for another irritable trap Zorn falls into . . . people 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.)

COMMENT 8: Hey Steve - was waiting with bated breath for your take on the Sunday shindig, wanted to go but couldn't make it - you killed it.

COMMENT 9: God DAMN, man. Marry me, do it right now.

COMMENT 10: Thanks for your take on it. I regretted not going until I read it. Sounds like too much whining took place at the meeting. And how many folks from the gay press and minority newspapers were invited to the panel?

COMMENT 11: Good to read your take. I was disappointed as well.

I couldn't believe the discussion went on for 2+ hours before anybody mentioned the real problem - really the only problem: old-media advertising doesn't work on the web. As you point out, there's nothing wrong with the content. We just need a better business model. That will almost certainly mean a much, much leaner cost structure (boo-hoo). But it will also likely mean a new revenue structure. What we've tried so far is putting content on the web and parking brand ads around it - which worked fine in print for a few centuries but clearly doesn't cut it in the interactive world (for a bunch of well-known reasons). Once somebody finds a better way - and somebody will find it - it's game on.

Sunday only confirmed for me that the answer is not likely to come from the ranks of journalists - who flock to print-centric solutions like nonprofits and paywalls - although that's not to say we shouldn't be thinking about it.

REPLY: I actually disagree with this commenter. Here's what I wrote back:

"I would say that you can't just put up your existing print content and park ads around them and expect that to be the model. The new business model is a new CONTENT model . . . the nature of content can and should change on the web in all sorts of ways, and that creates new ad models too . . . I don't know why everyone is so quick to declare online advertising dead except as wish fulfillment; to the contrary, it's just in its infancy! We don't even know what metrics to use yet, advertisers are still unknowledgeable about the web, sales forces largely aren't selling it, and the new media products still haven't been developed . . . the Web model is every bit a new content model as anything; the advertising model will follow, but the only thing different about the business model itself will be a wider array of revenue streams available."

To expand and reiterate, you can't just put your old content on the Web and think you can slap ads around it and that's that. Your old content, by and large, sucks. And it's not reported, written or edited for the Web. You might as well slap radio transcripts on the Web and think you're now doing Internet journalism; you're not.

I said something similar when I was on a panel a few months ago before the annual convention of the International Newspaper Marketing Association. One leading light in the industry said after a series of presentations - which also included Geoff Dougherty of the Chi-Town Daily News, Philip Meyer, John Lavine (whom I worked for part-time at the Newspaper (now Media) Management Center while I was a graduate student, and some Wall Street dude - that the new business models that me and Dougherty were supposed to talk about didn't materialize; we were talking about new content models. Dougherty said that if you do great work, a business model will follow. I disagree - strongly. My argument, expanded upon in a follow-up e-mail to which I never received a reply, was that new content models are new business models. Here's why.

When you present your news on, say, a blog focused on a beat, let's say something like the CTA Tattler, you create advertising opportunities that don't exist just by slapping up a series of articles. As the content form changes, so do the advertising forms; and digital advertising is obviously far different than static print advertising. Even 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. (I mean, 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.)

The content is as much of the problem as anything else. You still have to serve your customers - readers. And you can't serve your customers over the Internet if you aren't putting frickin' links in your story, just for starters. I mean, that's the most basic level before talking about more sophisticated ways to further hard-core journalism that performs its public mission and, as a bonus, is profitable.

The very way information is presented on a website is different than it is in a newspaper - or on TV or on the radio, etc. And that changes the way that information ought to be reported, written and edited. In the case of journalism, it changes it for the better. And for advertisers, those changes are for the better too.

COMMENT 12: I'm a big believer in the Internets. As much as I love physically holding a newspaper or magazine - both are old school.

This whole newspapers vs. the Web reminds me of back in the day when film editors were resisting the move to non-linear editing systems. the guild had meetings about the importance of updating your skills and it was met with such resistance. But, what everyone finally discovered is that the Avid and Lightworks were just TOOLS. For about a year, computer geeks got editing jobs, but producers/directors learned quickly that button pushers are not editors and while they can do cool effects, they didn't know squat about story, character development, etc. In the meantime, film editors got their heads out of their asses and learned the new tools. The job market is tougher, but those systems are getting cheaper and cheaper so studios have more money to make more films. It's working itself out, if that makes any sense. I think it mirrors what's going on today in journalism.

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That's all for now, I will return.

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COMMENT 13: Steve, your take on the journalism town hall (which, by the way, was such a pathetic, navel-gazing name to give that event) is totally on target. Journalists who say the Internet is stealing their fun are not paying attention to how much MORE fun reporting can be when you can get your stories in front of people faster, use more links and more media forms, and actually converse with readers over a story. Year ago I took a pad of paper and a pen to cover a story; now I take two cameras, a laptop and a mobile phone, and those aren't burdens, they're better, sharper tools that make me far better at showing the story instead of telling it. I'm glad you were there as the voice of iconoclasty. I opted to skip the whole thing. It sounded more like a wake-without-alcohol than a town hall meeting to me.

COMMENT 14: [The Return of Commenter 4] I'd like to add one more thing that seems forehead-slapping obvious (but I don't quite recall where I heard it first, so I can't attribute it do any one person): the Internet will not supplant print newspapers. It's an add-on. Nothing ever dies anymore, new technology just pushes the last one into a niche. Vinyl records are still around. Some video producers are still sticking with Betamax tapes. There's still an AM band on your car radio and you'd be mad if there wasn't.

I thought it was an interesting point and made me feel a little less gloomy about the state of affairs in print journalism. Now, if I could get the car stereo to download the paper in the morning and read it to me during my commute . . .

REPLY: I think your car stereo already does that - it's called WBBM!

COMMENT 15: Steve, I thought of you when I read ["Schaumburg turns off red-light camera near Woodfield," chicagotribune.com] because the article quotes an "Alex Rodriguez who lives near the intersection." The automatic link generator that you so love provides a link to a bio of the baseball player!"

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On NBCChicago.com
* Burris II: Son Stars in Scandal Sequel

* The 5th's Chosen One

* Smile, Your Car Is On Candid Camera

* The 5th District's E-Mail Wars

* So Long, Fast Eddie

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CATE PLYS NOTE:
Cate's Open Letter to the Illinois African-American Community is republished today on the Tribune's Op-Ed page (with credit to us, of course). I'm told Carol Marin also mentioned it last night on Chicago Tonight. We love Cate Plys. Please love her as well!

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The Beachwood Tip Line: Don't be a tool.



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Posted on February 26, 2009


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