Press bailouts, ‘this new Web thing,’ and newspapers in 2009

Why are we still mourning the non-loss of the newspaper when it could be really easy to fix?

I was horrified to find out yesterday that at least one Connecticut lawmaker is considering a government bailout of a newspaper.

Look, I understand newspapers are having a hard time, but do newspaper publishers and lawmakers expect readers to think a newspaper will report objectively on a government that funds it?

Pentagon Papers? You want to run those? Well, we'll be taking back that $5 billion check. Good luck!

Even some college newspapers operate independently of – including paying rent to – the institutions they serve.

But newspapers are facing a stark reality right now: Readers are buying fewer papers, advertisers are fleeing, and the costs of newsprint, payroll, overhead (rent, utilities, etc.) and distribution are mainly on the rise. One major national newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, will go to a weekend edition only, with daily focus going entirely online come April.

Detroit's two major dailies, the Free Press and Detroit News, will go down to thin (32-page) editions three days a week, with full editions three days and one Sunday edition between them.

These may not be happy times, and while it may be the end of the newspaper as we know it, that's not a bad thing; it's just a change. It's not even the first one newspapers have undergone – I wasn't around when radio and TV were born, and I was in high school when CNN showed up, so I don't know what the panic looked like, but this new Web thing is no longer new, so stop whining and start listening.

Your newspaper's Web site is not your trained circus monkey. Learn how to make it work not only for, but also with you. Most newspaper-affiliated Web sites – including the one I work for – use stuff from the newspaper as their primary content. But they also have other affiliates, bloggers and staff on-hand to help them compete. While you as a newspaper might be the only daily print game in town, and you see local TV and radio news as your primary competition, the Web site is competing with other news sites around the country for eyeballs.

Here are some things you can do, with tips from Gina Chen, Martin Langeveld, Jeff Chandler, Chris O'Brien, and me.

Journalists vs. bloggers is a myth. Get over yourself. You've been on your beat 25 years. You have a shiny laminated press credential with a 2x3 photo of you on it. Big deal. That gives you historical background and access. It doesn't make you any smarter than anyone else. If a die-hard college basketball fan happens to be younger than you, it means her institutional memory doesn't go back as far as yours does, but her knowledge of the current team runs just as deeply as yours does.

While you're running around getting quotes from coaches and players she can't get, she's reading their Facebook and MySpace pages, chatting online with other fans, and reading 20 different sources about the team, some connected, some not. Yes, she's reading your stuff, but she watched the game, so she's skipping your game story and going after the anecdotes and analysis you had to put in your blog, since you could only get 22 inches into the paper.

Sorry, but as a fan who pays a lot of attention – and who maybe happens to be a lawyer or an accountant – her analysis of the team is probably as valid as yours.

A blog is just a publishing platform – and it's a good one. Plus: it's bottomless. Let's say your a columnist for a newspaper. You write four columns a week, each around 25 inches. If you're a good columnist, you could probably take November and December off and have the paper run 100 inches a week of stuff you had to cut. But you can't do that, because the stuff is no longer relevant, and given the state of the industry, you're worried that if you don't show up for a couple of months, you won't still have a desk in January.

Enter the blog.

You have a pretty much "bottomless," interactive publishing tool. While the newspaper is essentially one-way communication – sure, you print your e-mail address and phone number, but of your paper's 300,000 subscribers, what do you get, 50 calls a week, maybe 100 if it's a touchy subject? – people can read your column online and comment on it immediately. You can then add your replies in another comment, and then you have...oh my, a discussion!

And you're not limited to the 25 inches you get in the paper. While newsprint, ink and distribution costs are increasing, server space is cheap as heck. Write all 100 inches you put together. Post all 50 photos you took, not just the one they had room for in the paper. Got an audio recording you did for the column? Post it. People love that stuff. Video? Great. Can't put that in the newspaper, might as well not waste it as source material only you get to see.

Don't shun conversations. If you're writing for a newspaper, it's probably for two or more of the following four reasons: (1) you know a lot about something, (2) you're a good researcher, (3) sources trust you, (4) you can string a couple of paragraphs together. In fact, it's probably reason (4) and at least one of the other three.

This means there are a lot of people reading your stuff who could be doing your job if either they wrote better, or they wanted to take a pay cut and do something else.

That's not derision. That's just to say that while what you're doing is important, there are other people who know just as much as, or perhaps more than, you do, and you could enrich your writing, your career and your life by listening to them.

One of the things I loved about being a reporter was that if I had to write a story about a bakery, I had to rely on a couple of other people (and maybe a little bit on the Internet, an encyclopedia, and a dictionary) to tell me everything I needed to know. I don't have first-hand experience running my own business, I don't make bread, I don't have hungry customers to make recommendations to.

I might learn a lot about a bakery through writing a feature piece on it, but it shouldn't end there. If I post it in an interactive environment, other people with more intimate knowledge of different aspects of the story – being a business owner, being a baker, being a customer – can chime in, and not only will I learn something, my piece becomes more interesting because of it, and I may even glean some new story ideas.

Seriously, we're still talking about whether we should link externally, even if it's to a competitor's Web site? Chances are, you're probably not the go-to expert on your beat. You write about local bike paths? Know all about ISTEA and TEA-21? Know all about where funding is coming from for the local intermodal transportation projects? Great. You want to know why some unemployed 42-year-old shlub living in his parents' basement in suburban Nebraska is getting more page views on his Blogspot blog than you're getting on your newspaper-sanctioned (and, let's face it, employer-required) blog?

It's because that shlub looked around the Web and linked to almost the exact same piece you wrote in 30 communities across the country, where it's also happening. It's that person who looked for other people who think they're experts but only fit that description locally, and found a national pattern – or even better, found a solution in St. Louis for a problem in Portland.

At the same time that you might need to realize you're not the only person who knows a lot about your beat, have some confidence that your voice is important. If it means linking from your piece to some seemingly far-off Web competitor like the Washington Post or Talking Points Memo, do it – your readers will see you as a valuable resource leading them to interesting stuff, and they'll come back to you for it.

If you got your story idea from a local competitor, so be it. Build on their story, then credit them via a link with finding it first. Local readers are also paying attention to other local media. They saw it there first, and you're not fooling them. But crediting the competitor could lead to collaboration, either at the reporter level or at the institutional level, and collaboration leads to great things. One of the tips Gina Chen had was for newspapers to create the "next big thing." If collaboration can lead to that, why would you skip the beginnings?

Listen to your readers. They know something. Don't tell your readers what they should think is important. Work with them to find out what they think is important.

In their book News Around The World (which I helped edit and which I can't believe is retailing for a hundred five dollars), Pam Shoemaker and Akiba Cohen found that across 10 countries, when asked separately, editors, journalists and readers rank the importance of stories pretty much the same.

There are, of course, some culture differences, particularly among editors if there's some state control of media, but handed a list of assignments or headlines, pretty much everyone recognizes important stories when they see them.

So when you rank a story highly – putting it on top of a Web page or on A-1 – and your readers slam your news judgment, work with them on it. Don't pretend you know better. Also, if they stop reading, you don't have a paycheck, so sometimes you have to give them what they ask for.

Revise your publish schedule – and definitely don't sit on stories until they come out in the paper. This might be the single most important thing newspapers can do with the Web. The first newspaper Web sites were entirely "shovel-ware" – reporters would write stories for the paper, and after they made sure the paper went to print, they would just copy and paste their stories onto the Web.

That would doom your Web site now – and if you're still doing it, stop.

Unless either it happened two seconds before you were going to press or you've been the only news organization working on the story for three months, by the time they get their paper, most people already know about a story. When you run a banner headline about Israel and Hamas going to war in Gaza, you need to recognize that people probably have already heard about it. If they didn't see it on the Web at work, they saw it on the evening news, or heard it on the radio on their commute home.

Don't think the morning newspaper is the first people are hearing of it; you don't need to give them the bit they've already read or heard. Give them the local angle. And don't wait until tomorrow if you have it today: if you put it on the Web at 4:00, people will read it, and they'll say, "thanks, newspaper, for being first with that." Tomorrow, it's, "gee, thanks, newspaper, but I knew that already."

You can take what you put online, refine it, cut it to fit the newshole, and run that in the paper for people who have a morning routine of sitting with the newspaper over coffee, or who read it on the bus.

And then there are feature pieces of general interest that maybe someone else is working on. If an athlete sat out injured last season and the new season is approaching, you're probably working on a piece on that athlete, but so are all the local TV stations and any bloggers who happen to cover your beat (even if you don't put much faith in them).

So, you've written your piece, and it's slated for the newspaper in three days. Well, why are you sitting on it for the Web? If a TV station runs it first, or a blogger runs it first, and the staff at your affiliated Web site picks it up, they'll link to that TV station or credible blogger, and you'll be mad because you got scooped.

Well, you would have been first, but you decided to sit on it, because of a production schedule. Boo-hoo. People who get the paper are going to read the story when it comes out, but if you can get the story (in some form) online now, you can be credited with being first, rather than with being three days behind everyone else, even though you had the story.

This post came out sounding a bit on the negative side, but it all leads to me wanting to see newspapers succeed, even if they're not doing it in paper form. A lot of TV stations aren't being watched on TV anymore, and people are listening to many radio stations over the Internet, since they have high-speed Internet connections but not radios at their desks or in their home offices.

The great thing about newspapers is deep resources – very few TV or radio stations, or Internet-only news sites have large staffs covering a region. And it takes very little extra work to put good work from those staffers on the Web in an attractive and useful manner, and more quickly than their competitors – both local and national – can get the news together.

Here's to a great 2009!

Kennedy and the press in Syracuse: Not a good start

If Caroline Kennedy is our next senator, I will:

• Not vote for her in 2010
• Not vote for Gov. David Paterson, should he decide to run for re-election
• Let the DNC and the New York State Democratic Party know that I'm really, really upset with them.

One of the biggest complaints the press has had with the Bush administration over the past eight years, is that the administration is very secretive.

We've seen the launch of both OpenTheGovernment.org, which is an advocacy group, and OpenGovernment.org, which is more of a consultant in helping governments open up to the public and to the press.

Caroline Kennedy was in Syracuse today, meeting with Mayor Matt Driscoll to get some idea of Upstate issues. At least we think that's why she was here.

Kennedy has announced that she's interested in filling the U.S. Senate seat that would be vacated by Sen. Hillary Clinton, assuming she is confirmed to the position of Secretary of State in the Obama administration (if she's not confirmed, she'll still be the junior senator from New York).

Kennedy's professional resume certainly gives her the experience needed to hold public office. I'd like to see someone with her qualifications work their way up to senator – perhaps through serving at the state level and as a U.S. Representative first – but sometimes a fresh voice isn't oh so bad.

Ann at Feministing is in agreement with me on her qualifications – not a great first choice, but probably not a bad choice in the end.

But what she did to the local press today was simply unforgivable for anyone seeking public office.

After speaking with the mayor, she stepped out of his office, told reporters that she had told the governor she'd be proud to be considered for the job, and that the governor has a process in place for selecting the next senator.

She said she shared her experience with the mayor, and that's when the press starting asking tough – but I think fair – questions. Questions like, "Will you share with New Yorkers what that experience is?"

She answered exactly one question:

Reporter: Where are you going next?
Kennedy: To the car.

At least one reporter – it's hard to tell via the audio whether it was the same reporter asking multiple times, or multiple reporters – expressed some disbelief that she was meeting with a local official and would not answer any questions from the press.

Here's what's worse to me: She's all but a media darling because of it.

WTVH [an affiliate of my employer], the local CBS affiliate, not only cuts off the video when she walks out as questions are starting, they managed to find some locals who support Kennedy for the seat.

Daily Kos has a screen grab of The New York Times changing from a lede challenging the appearance to a soft, fluffy one.

WSYR, the local ABC affiliate, pokes a little fun at the brief appearance, saying that if you blinked, you missed it.

WSTM, the NBC affiliate, is the only local shop to run the full video.

The local newspaper, The Post-Standard, gets a lot of points for trying [disclaimer: I work for the affiliated Web site]. Their video fades out as she begins to walk away, though they do have audio and transcript all the way until she climbs in the car. The main problem with that is that video is more dynamic than audio or text.

I simply cannot support a potential government official who is not willing to be open and honest with the press throughout her campaign – even if she's not up for election by the public. Her entourage could have warned reporters ahead of time she would not take questions, or she could have introduced her comments with something to that effect, but to entirely ignore questions – hardball or softball – is not only an insult to the press, it's an insult to the people of the state of New York.

Christian Science Monitor about to break big ground

The Christian Science Monitor will announce in tomorrow's paper that in April of 2009, it's going to cease printing a daily edition, in favor of a weekly print edition and daily online offering.

This is both really scary and really exciting.

Scary. The CSM is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. It's won six Pulitzers and a special citation, and it might just have the best international coverage of any U.S.-focused news outlet. If a paper like that is having trouble, I'd have to worry about other, not-necessarily-so-amazing papers.

Of course, the CSM is based in Boston and serves a national audience, and there aren't many of those anyway.

Really exciting. I've long thought that newspapers' print editions should complement their online offerings, rather than vice-versa (for the record, this was my belief before I started working for a newspaper-affiliated Web site). The Web may be bottomless, but people tend to skim.

Print news hole, however, is not infinite, and furthermore, newsprint is fairly expensive, so you tend to fill as much as you have to, not as much as you can.

Ideally, what goes on the Web are all 300-to-500-word briefs and interactive elements like slideshows, photogalleries, videos, and Flash graphics. What goes in the paper would be 3,000-to-5,000-word versions of the best of the stories, along with large, interesting informational graphics.

The idea is not to see the two media as competing, and not even as places for duplicating content to reach a broader audience (though shovelware has, thankfully, gone out the window in most places). Instead, use each for its advantages. You don't need to cram another 200-word blurb about a fire at a vacant house into a corner of the paper, but you can stick it online and tie it to a 4,000-word piece about absentee owners and insurance fraud that's running in the paper.

The item the CSM put out about the switch cites a combination of 40 years of declining print circulation and a growing Web audience. I'm sure that could be said of almost every daily newspaper/Web site pair in the country – as our jobs become more mobile, our lives become more hectic and our wallets become thinner, we don't take as much time to read a newspaper, and if we're not taking the time to read it, many of us aren't buying it. But we're reading online, and through a variety of sources, including our mobile phones and headline aggregators, and through social media services like digg, Twitter and Facebook.

Yes, it's going to be tough, and I'm guessing they picked April 2009 because (a) they can ramp up the plan, (b) train people, and (c) have enough cash to get them through the next six months.

I think that a lot of companies are going to look at what the CSM does, and adopt or modify it as a concept. It's an influential news organization, and it's a changing world out there. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do.

This is why I don’t do live interviews

Got this in the e-mail at work. Ouch.

IT’S A FACT! SNAPPLE OFFERS NBA REPORTER NEW CAREER FOR THE OFF-SEASON

PLANO, Texas (Sept, 16 2008) – In a continued effort to educate Americans one bottle cap at a time, Snapple offers New York Knicks reporter Jill Martin a side job for the off-season: Snapple Cap Fact Writer. In a recent interview, Martin failed to answer basic trivia questions about her own team - including a question about the years in which the Knicks have won the NBA Championship.

To ensure that New York fans have a more informed reporting staff, Snapple invites Ms. Martin to write five Knicks-focused Snapple cap facts. In addition to gaining crucial knowledge for her career, Martin will receive $1,000 for each cap fact. Snapple will provide any and all resources needed to research these facts, including: Internet access, direct contact with devout followers of NY sports fans and the email address of the president of the Patrick Ewing Fan Club.

The job offer expires on the NBA's opening night October 29, 2008. “Snapple, in no way, wants to interfere with Martin's full-time job,” said Bryan Mazur, vice president of marketing for Snapple. “However, this is a wonderful opportunity to engage a talented young reporter - and Snapple is more than happy to help!”

To respond, Martin can contact the Snapple consumer line at 1-800-762-7753.

I officially feel old, at least in new media terms

Remember Napster? It was a music sharing service that was hugely popular among college students, unemployed hackers and other people who thought disposable income and music were mutually exclusive.

The site was started by a college drop-out named Shawn Fanning, who got sued about 30 million times (OK, slight exaggeration) for letting people trade copyrighted music for free, and who is probably now quietly making some giant income because he's a genius who figured out how to leverage the Internet really well.

Just saying.

After the original Napster was shut down, it disappeared for a few years and then someone bought the name and logo (we call that a brand in marketing terms, kids), and turned it into a boring international conglomerate with Los Angeles headquarters and offices in New York, Tokyo, Luxembourg and Frankfurt.

They also have a "free" service that swallows your IP address and lets you listen to a song without paying three times before you then have to buy it.

Yawn.

Best Buy – you know Best Buy, don't you? They have those 50-foot yellow-and-blue tags glowing from the sides of box stores and malls everywhere – decided Friday it would buy Napster in an effort to (snicker) take on iTunes.

iTunes has 70 percent of the (legal) music download market. Best Buy wants to double its sales in the next five years.

Somehow this just feels like the cool kid turning square, then becoming a lifelong mid-level corporate tax attorney for the rest of his life.

So long, Napster. It was good watching you wither away to a soulless paper-pusher.

Media Theory 101: Fear-mongering Monday

If you watch a lot of TV, you think crime in general is higher than it is, and violent crime in particular is many times higher than it actually is; you think your family secretly hates you, your friends are out to get you, and your co-workers talk behind your back; you think the air, the water, the plants, the city streets are all dangerous.

In fact, you're pretty sure that the only think you can safely do is continue to sit in front of the TV.

This, essentially, is George Gerbner's mean world hypothesis. It's based in a fair amount of fact, actually. Gerbner and his study team went out with a survey, asked people their level of use of various media (what they watch, read, or listen to, and for how long each day) and then basically quizzed them on statistics like crime and water toxicity and the like.

And, lo and behold, the less you go out into the world, the scarier a place you think it is. It's a vicious cycle, really, because it's hard to spend more time in your house while consuming less media. The windows only need so much washing, the woodwork only so much dusting.

This is a list of things I did on Monday that definitely could have killed me, but clearly did not.

Got out of bed, cooked breakfast, drove to work, drank water, drank coffee, sat in front of a computer screen, talked on a cell phone, drove home from work, ate lunch at a restaurant, walked nearly two miles into downtown, rode an elevator, drank iced tea, met strangers at a meeting, walked nearly two miles on the way back home, climbed stairs, breathed air indoors, breathed air outdoors, ate dinner, ate microwaved popcorn, read from a collection of hardcover fiction.

The world is definitely not so scary a place. Make sure you get outside before the frostbite settles in (just kidding. About the frostbite, I mean).