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The [Chicago Journalism Town Hall] Papers

Previously:
* Chicago Journalism Town Hall Part 1.

* Comments to that piece.

* The [Eric Zorn] Papers.

(Zorn has responded to my response but I haven't had time to read it yet, nor to dig into the coverage by the Reader's Mike Miner and Whet Moser, or several other pieces. I hope to get to those this week.)

-

Here is the second part of my commentary about the Chicago Journalism Town Hall. But first, a summary of I have seen - mostly in Ad Age or via PaidContent.org - in just the last week that are wholly relevant. Consider these while oldstream journalists still angry and recalcitrant about the Internet tell you - without any particular knowledge thereof - that online advertising is dead and nothing makes money on the Web.

1. "Gawker Media Breezes Through February; Other Smaller Sites Faring Well, Too"

"When Gawker Media founder Nick Denton talks about plummeting display-ad revenues - as he has often recently - lots of people listen for clues about the market. So when Denton reports that his network of blogs is doing better than expected in both revenues and traffic during a month that has traditionally been miserable for the indie blog network, it's also bound to cause some people to perk up. Jim Romenesko got ahold of Denton's latest memo to the troops, which notes that the company's ad revenues for 2009 are up by about a fifth over last year so far. Traffic to the entire group of blogs amount to nearly 300 million page views in February, up by 34 percent year-over-year.

"Denton attributes the performance in part to new, larger ad units and the fact that the sales team has far fewer sites to concentrate on. The company successfully spun off four properties last year: Gridskipper, Idolator, Wonkette and Consumerist . . .

"Staying slim may be in Gawker's best interest, according to the WSJ, which highlights the fact that some smaller online publishers are faring relatively well in the face of the ad sales crunch. Local sports blog network SB Nation said traffic rose 15 percent from December to January, even as unique visitors to the sports category fell by 2 percent, per comScore; CEO Jim Bankoff told the Journal that ad revenues were rising by 25 percent each month. Bankoff noted that the model only worked for publishers that had lower overhead. Meanwhile, music gossip site Musictoob has been paying its two editors for less than a week, but it brokered a content-distribution deal with Yahoo Music in February; the Journal says it's strictly a traffic-sharing deal, but the ensuing surge in page views could help Musictoob garner higher CPM prices in the long run."

2. "Earnings: FT Profits From Premium Content As Online Subs Kick In"

"Looks like paid content really does work. FT Group profits rose 13 percent to £195 million ($277 million) in 2008, 'as growth of digital and subscription businesses and strong demand for premium content exceeded the decline in advertising revenues,' said owner Pearson (NYSE: PSO) in its full-year earnings, adding that it 'benefited from the shift towards subscription and service-based revenues.'

"We knew the part-paid access model FT.com introduced in October 2007 had boosted site registrations, but paying subscribers were still said to be flat last year. Now, however, online subs grew nine percent to 109,609 in 2008, on a fivefold rise in non-paying registrations to 966,000."

3. Hearst says it will have to hire more reporters and editors for its Web operations; also that it recognizes problems with its ad sales forces [as discussed here previously].

4. The New York Times launches local blog networks in part to enter new local ad markets previously too small for the paper to trifle with. Google has shown the way by proving how small advertisers can accrue into big dollars.

5. "Interactive media's share of local ad spending will grow, on the other hand, to $32.1 billion in 2013 from $14 billion in 2008, an 18% compound growth rate, BIA said. That would bring interactive media's share of local advertising to 22.2% in 2013 from 9% last year."

6. "SmartMoney Finds Using Fewer Ads Can Boost Click-Through."

7. "Food Network Seeing Huge Growth From Web Offerings: Revamped Content Offerings, Portal-Like Presence Is Luring Marketer Dollars"

"What's the secret ingredient to finding double-digit revenue increases in an almost universally brutal first quarter for media companies? In the case of Food Network, guacamole.

"While many media businesses are stalling, a small group of online publishers appears to be bucking the trend.

Several start-up Web sites such as SB Nation, Seeking Alpha Ltd. and HealthCentral Network Inc., which create and aggregate content about topics like sports, business and health, are recording sharp gains in visitors and - in many cases - revenue. They are outpacing other sites on similar topics through business models that allow them to create niche content with little financial investment."

-

COMMENT: The online operations of newspapers can be the best aggregators out there, and they are best positioned to spin off niche sites and subscription products. As the saying goes, if you don't cannibalize yourself, someone else will.

-

Town Hall 2
First, some observations.

*

Supreme irony: I'm the optimist here. I see fields of green, red roses too. All they see is darkness.

*

I'm reminded of a phenomenon cultural theorist Homi Bhabha has written about in another context: Their fear is based in large part on a conscious or unconscious recognition that we know something they don't - as well as what they know. We know twice as much. That's why the oppressor fears the oppressed. The oppressor only understands his world. The oppressed understands the oppressors' world by necessity, but also their own. And that additional knowledge - and insight - makes the oppressors uncomfortable because it can be used against them.

*

The notion that blogs are just about snark is ridiculous. Some of the best blogs out there are tax blogs, accounting blogs . . . blogs run the gamut in style and quality just like everything else. Look at the New York Times's blogs. My favorites there right now are DealBook and Proof.

*

Shortly after I started the Beachwood Reporter, Lewis Lazare began calling me every few months. I had never spoken to him before in my life; at first I thought he was gathering information for a story, but none every appeared. It was odd because nearly every conversation was the same - him telling me about how dumb young people are these days (in part because they weren't familiar with his favorite musicals) and how the Internet has made them so.

I always used to say things like "as opposed to that story in the Sun-Times today about the city's favorite dog names?" or "Just a second, I'm reading the horoscopes in your paper."

Two classics, one of which I've written about before. He once demanded to know how I could criticize the media when I wasn't writing about what a boondoggle the Olympics would be should they be held here. He obviously hadn't been reading me (yet had no problem writing cheerleading the Olympics in print despite what he told me privately.)

The other was his complaint about Facebook. I told him that I used Facebook sparingly but that I liked it and it was really powerful in ways many of us had yet to explore. His complaints continued unabetted until it dawned on me.

"Have you ever seen Facebook?" I asked.

"No."

*

Lazare now has a blog.

*

And by the way, the next journalist who writes a column about how Facebook friends aren't real friends and kids these days apparently have no human contact because they are always on the Internet or texting on their cell phone should be taken out back and flogged with a keyboard.

Do you folks really believe young people - and the rest of us - don't know the difference between real friends and online acquaintances? Do you really believe online friends are replacing human friends? Have you ever found that you can keep in touch with your real friends even more thanks to technology? I'm sure when the phone came out oldtimers complained that friends never saw each other in person anymore.

Please, please, please. Hoariest of hoary.

*

Memo to journalists whining about getting paid: Nobody is paying for your news stories right now. The metro section doesn't make money; it's subsidized by the Travel and Real Estate sections (et. al.) The Reader has always been free and its reporters got paid; same with the Onion. I don't think the fact that those aren't dailies is relevant. But with subscription products created to go along with free online news, a more direct connection can be made between payment and content - if you're willing to stomach the results.

*

By the way, journalists screaming about paid content can feel free to write a check to every website they visit every day. Nobody is holding you back.

*

Let me be clear once again about paid content: The real news should be free. What happened to all that screaming about our public service mission? It's the other areas of a newspaper - and areas still undeveloped - that provide opportunities for subscription products of all kinds. That's just part of the model.

*

I always forget to mention PopMatters of Evanston when citing local online success stories. It has a million unique visitors a month.

Now, the show.

Everyone wants to get on Geoff Dougherty's case about his city room budget, but it was John Callaway who said you could start with six reporters, or up to 12, for $2 million to $3 million. Dougherty merely agreed. What's funny to me is, why would you? Why would you re-create a city room? I mean, is Callaway talking about a digital venture? With six to 12 reporters, you don't really need an office. And again, there are ongoing ventures already. Why start from scratch? But we could. Everyone in that room. Three hundred. That's a newsroom. Of 300. But what's the new model?

*

Uh-oh. Here it is: Let's re-create the City News Bureau!

I love how the answer of oldstream journalists is . . . to go backwards. Let's start a paper!

I mean, huh? A digital City News Bureau? No, I didn't hear anyone mention that. And isn't Dougherty basically running a City News Bureau - with even less well-trained reporters?

And I could never figure out the value of having reporters phone in what desk sergeants just told them? It's a crappy way of training journalists. Why put together something new full of cop briefs?

*

Rob Feder complained about folks at Channel 5 having to re-apply for their jobs. Now, I obviously have an association with the station's website, but I don't have any inside information. I do have an opinion, though: They should re-apply for their jobs! So should everyone in a newsroom these days. The jobs have changed!

If you're not capable of covering your beat as a blog, you might not be qualified for your job anymore. If your forte is editing videotape for broadcast but you are oblivious to formatting for the web, maybe the job isn't for you anymore.

I don't like to see people lose their jobs, and I understand that folks have mortgages to pay and kids in school. But newsroom jobs are no longer tenured positions.

*

Carol Marin says that if you strip out Rich Miller's newsfeeds (and links presumably) . . . what have you got? Wrong! Those are value-added features, but that's not why people go to Miller's blog. They go there for his reporting and his take. His newsletter existed before the blog and made a very, very nice living at it producing something without links or newsfeeds. Now he makes money on both. A lot of money. And by a lot I mean a lot, from what I understand.

*

Ethan Michaeli stood to speak about the digital divide and how ill-served the city's poor are by the media. At first I thought he was off-point, but the more I thought about it, I realized he wasn't. For example, poor people not only cannot afford newspaper subscriptions, but they've been blown off by newspapers who don't like mixing their demographics into the reader profile they like to show advertisers.

The Internet can be a boon to the poor; citywide Wi-Fi and subsidized laptops could go a long way to closing the information divide in our cities.

*

Newspapers act like they haven't been aggregators, but I see papers filled with stories from AP, Bloomberg, McClatchy, and other papers such as the LA Times, the NY Times, etc, and even pieces from online outlets such as Slate. Yes, they pay for syndicated material. But if I want reprint something on my website, I might have to pay for it too.

And AP has always done breaking news. You don't have to publish anything before it's ready. Standards can be upheld. But is the S-T upholding standards with all its Drew Peterson stories? Just where are these standards you speak of?

*

Was this all an exercise to get the Chicago Community Trust to rescue us?

*

Jump aboard. Get together. But instead it's about how to preserve, or go backward. It wouldn't be the end of the world if Tribune Co. came to an end. It might be better for everyone.

*

Neil Tesser, former Reader media critic: "The Internet kills everything!"

I know, it totally kills!

Oh, you don't mean it that way. Um, do you use it, Neil? I mean, this is just ridiculous. The Internet is an explosion of creativity, knowledge transfer, wit, essays and analysis. You might as well say the printing press killed everything. Vaudeville is dead.

*

Sachin Agarwal, the CEO of Dawdle.com, stands up and screams at the panel: "Stop making crap!"

I look at the stories in the papers every day, and only one or two at best have anything to do with democracy and public service. There is a ton of crap in there. Reporters and resources are being wasted.

*

Objectivity. Sigh. Usually a useless argument because nobody defines their terms. But let me just say, the Tribune has a viewpoint. The view of moderate suburban Republicans. The view of editors who insist a trend exists but doesn't, or who call up stories according to what has happened to their families and blocks. The Sun-Times had David Radler reaching his hand into the paper, cheerleading the war and promoting his pet interests. Reporters stood by. The Sun-Times in particular has had a view on how great the Olympics will be; both papers have a view that it's not a big deal that Jody Weis is defying a federal court order, because I don't see that story on the front page.

The point about objectivity isn't in how stories are reported, but how they are pursued. You let the chips fall where they may in pursuit of the reporting; reporting can lead to conclusions. You don't give equal weight to everything everybody says, because the reporting doesn't support the idea that gravity is non-existent.

Now, the idea that news should have a point of view that admits bias and that we should go back to political pamphleteering is, in my view, nonsense. We have way too much punditry and ideologically driven "journalism" already. But to equate that approach with journalism on the Internet is also wrongheaded.

CLTV's Carlos Hernandez Gomez complains that you need "objective" journalism instead of folks only consuming ideologically driven news (Bill O'Reilly) that only reinforces your existing viewpoint.

Yes, but the example he gives is cable-TV, not the Internet. So let's not blame the Internet.

But wait - Rich Gordon of Northwestern (and many others) say studies show that those who read ideologically based political blogs actually have more knowledge about the opposing side's arguments than those who don't. Why? Because they link to and debate those very arguments.

But even if this wasn't true, I'd like to know if there was a time when those who subscribed to The Nation also subscribed to The National Review.

I'm not a big fan of ideologically driven blogs, but the level of information and discussion on them is many times higher than what daily newspapers even begin to approach. Daily Kos posts the daily schedule for Congress, for godsakes. These are engaged readers - and they read the mainstream press, if only to poke holes in its work.

The last presidential campaign was the best example of how off the mainstream media is in this arena; if you weren't following the blogs you weren't really following the election, because that's where the debate - both strategic and on issues - played out.

*

And let me say that Bill O'Reilly is right when he says most critics haven't seen his show. I don't like O'Reilly as a person, and sometimes he says ridiculous things, but he's a broadcast talent who puts together an interesting show and his own views are far less rigid and more iconoclastic than he's usually given credit for by those - including mainstream journalists and so-called open-minded intellectual liberals - who opt for the caricature they've heard about instead of paying attention to the real thing and deciding for themselves.

*

Chris Robling stands to ask for responsibility in the new media world, in which mistakes get repeated over and over.

Um, have you ever tried to get a newspaper to write a correction?

And their mistakes live on forever. On the web they get corrected pretty quickly, they are easily written into stories or signalled to readers, and it's usually done with some degree of immediacy. The Jayson Blair saga taught us how rare it is for readers to actually point out egregious errors in print; on the Internet your in-box fills up pretty quick.

But responsibility is about responsibility, not the medium.

*

Barb Iverson: The Internet has the self-correcting mechanisms of transparency and triangulation.

*

Let me ask you a question: Do newspaper websites do any better a job correcting their errors than, say, online-only publications?

I didn't think so.

*

And let's talk about standards and responsibility. To me, ethical standards are ethical standards regardless of the medium. Not so for newspapers. For example, letters to the editor require a real, verifiable name. But right next to those letters they'll print anonymous comments e-mailed to the paper. Same with anonymous comments allowed on newspaper blogs. Guess what? Political strategists (and marketers) go on your sites all the time as anonymous commenters and deceive readers.

And why in the world (paging Eric Zorn) would you allow click polls? Please.

When I was at Chicago magazine writing the online weekly media column "Press Box," I had to beg for my column, which often ran to 3,000 words, to be edited. I thought it particularly important because so many other journalists would be ready to pounce on every misplaced comma. But I also wanted the safety net of an editor, as every journalist ought to. It was a running battle to get edited. "There's a different standard on the Internet," my old-school magazine editor told me.

Not to me there isn't.

And there you have another supreme irony: I'm an evangelist for Internet journalism but I think I'm the one trying to uphold standards more than many oldstream journalists (again, paging Eric Zorn; or maybe I'll just post some anonymous comments to his blog).

*

A fellow website entrepreneur's comment to me when the subject of micropayments came up: "Just because they read something in Time!"

Oh, how many times reporters have said that about their editors upon getting a totally lame story assignment.

*

A woman stands up to castigate journalists for being so self-absorbed. She's from the ad/biz side, and points out all the other folks in newspaperland who are losing their jobs too. She's right. It's not just about us and our stories; it's about an entire apparatus falling apart.

She also issues the quote of the day: "Rockers make it rock, but roadies make it roll."

*

Susan Berger, contributor to the New York Times, complains that we don't remember Watergate. Huh?

We remember the Iraq War! Where was your paper on that?

Why is there an assumption that public affairs and investigative journalism isn't on the Web and/or won't move to the Web . . . as well as the assumption that those stories are well-read when presented in seas of gray on newsprint?

Watergate would have killed on the Web! It would have been much better. And maybe Berger doesn't remember, but the Washington Post stood alone on that story for a long time. On the Web, a lot more of America would have known a lot more about that story long before it did.

*

Berger: "The public thinks [news is] free."

The public certainly doesn't think professional journalists work for free. So what does this mean, exactly? If content on the Web is free, what do journalists care if their salary is drawn from revenues other than subscription fees? Newspaper reporters for years largely derived their salaries from department store advertising. Again, no one was paying you for your stories. That's why they had to put crossword puzzles and comic strips in the paper.

*

A lot of delusion out there. It wasn't your killer content that made newspapers so profitable; it was monopoly ad markets and near-monopoly content markets. I always thought the folks at the Reader were under the mistaken impression for years that they were insanely profitable because of their (mostly) interminably boring and irrelevant cover stories when in fact it was the listings and classifieds that made the paper such a financial success. When they lost the market on those things, the financial edifice crumbled.

*

Panelists are confused about who the guy from dawdle.com is. It's not a news site and he's not an advertising guy, he's an advertiser. He's explaining the Gawker model of less cluttered advertising but it's in vain.

"They don't know what CPMs are," I say under my breath.

*

Tran Ha, editor of RedEye, says her paper's business model is working.

In a very satisfying group moment, the whole crowd hisses.

*

But.

Look, I hate RedEye but you shouldn't confuse it with being a newspaper. It's a commuter entertainment sheet - not a
terrible thing to have in your company's portfolio. I wish it was done a lot better, but it is what it is.

*

While discussion of this town hall rages through the blogosphere, the print and broadcast worlds remain silent. Where do you have to go, journalists, to get your news about this extraordinary event? The Internet!

*

What was the goal of the town hall? In my view, it lacked an objective. If it was about saving journalism in Chicago, maybe it should have been a call for proposals. Maybe it should have been an effort to bind us together in a new venture - or to bind the efforts already going on. Maybe it should have been the formation of a new non-profit organization, or the founding of a new news operation. But if that were to occur, it would have been an admission that the traditional news shops aren't or won't or can't do the job. Instead, it was an effort to turn back the clock or freeze time and save the old. If the reporters there had been covering the event and it had been another industry at stake, their stories probably would have focused on the refusal of labor and management to move forward, upgrade quality, remake themselves for the modern economy, use new technology, retrain and recruit talent, all the things reporters routinely write about other industries - but which they never seem to apply to themselves.

*

A day after I first wrote that, I see this on the Trib's editorial page:

"Yes, employment and retail sales are down, so state tax revenues are dropping. But that's no problem! Illinois lawmakers set aside billions of dollars when revenues were rising during all the fat years. They also reformed how Springfield funds education, pensions and health care. Owing to that skilled stewardship by our legislators and governors, we squirreled away enough acorns to spare us any talk whatsoever of tax increases during this recessi . . .

"Oops . . . wait . . . sorry. That's the situation we should be in today: with ample savings from the high-revenue years to carry us through a difficult time."

COMMENT: Why is it so wrong to similarly criticize the newspaper industry for its similarly poor stewardship?



Permalink

Posted on March 4, 2009


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