2010-01-22 Journalism musings

Category: Dan Lyke life Category: Journalism

Gina Cuclis had some musings titled "Would You Pay To Read The Press Democrat Online? that spawned some interesting discussion.

Here are my posts in the thread. The Santa Rosa PD press releases are at 1 and 2

1/21/2010 2:04 PM

Readers have never supported newspapers. The nominal cost of a newspaper has always been about showing to the advertiser that the readers wanted the content.

Among the reasons that advertisers have been unwilling to fund online publications is that with the more precise metrics of online tracking ads look less effective than print (when, done right, I believe that they're not, but "done right" is another discussion), and that they're enjoying the disintermediation of not having "reporters" in the loop: I enjoy woodworking, and right now the best links to articles about other woodworker's projects often come from a tool seller's mailing list, rather than a woodworking magazine.

On the value of reporting, a friend of mine tells the story of being in the lunch room at an animation studio you've heard of. He was reading a New York Times piece on computer animation, and saying "this is crap, and all wrong". He turned the page, or skipped to the next session, and was later heard to mumble "wow, this piece on terrorism in Afghanistan is fascinating".

A coworker turned to him and said "somewhere, in a camp in Afghanistan, there's a terrorist saying 'this piece on computer animation is fascinating'".

The rise of the amateur has shown just how misinformed and clueless many (dare I say most?) reporters and editors are. "The News" looks all authoritative and interesting 'til we see it cover a topic we actually know something about, then we realize that the skill of the "journalist" isn't in understanding the topic, it's in writing a compelling story. And, for the most part, the information they're writing about has been provided by organizations that have a very strong interest the tone of the story.

Often they're the same ones that have purchased the ads.

As I've noted for years now, long before the net threatened the papers: When it comes to media, you are not the consumer, you are the product. The advertisers are the consumer.

Yes, we need to support a way to get information about events that affect our political decisions, or our lives, but if that's been happening through the current system it's only been as a happy byproduct (witness, for instance, the malfeasance and single-sourcing of the New York Times in the whole Iraq war run-up).

So the question is not, and should not, be "how do we save newspapers", it should be "what are we going to replace them with". I think a good portion of this will be more informed citizen journalism, and I think we'll all be richer for it.

1/22/2010 3:08 PM

Gina, on "newsrooms on the websites", a few anecdotes:

Sometime in the early '90s I was a naive young nerd starting an Internet company back before anyone had heard of this newfangled thing. Our project was the outgrowth of a community group of people who were trying to build a real-time network in Chattanooga Tennessee, and as such one of the people who was helping us was the brilliant publicist who managed to get Mother Jones magazine to declare Chattanooga the "greenest city in America" or something similar in one of those years.

We were a couple of techies, but R. got the local TV stations interested in us, and showed up with some local reporters and cameramen, and then handed them written copies of the interview they were about to conduct.

We naive geeks were aghast! We're telling the reporters what they're going to ask? Isn't that kind of condescending? Nope: That's exactly how it's done. In fact, until we figured it out, every time we showed up without R.'s help to an interview and weren't handing the reporter the written article they were about to file, we got rolled eyes and a lack of publicity.

So we dutifully recited the answers, they went back to the studios and dubbed in the questions, and everyone was happier.

So, yeah: What the corporate newsrooms are doing is putting out the content as they'd be giving it to the reporter.

Which brings me to: A few years later I was employed at Pixar during the launch of Toy Story. This was big news, both inside Pixar, because it was a formerly unknown company making a big splash, and in movies, because it was an animated film from Disney that wasn't from inside Disney.

As the week or two post-release went by the internal mailing list was flooded with news stories as we found 'em, as our families mailed them to us from their small hometown papers. Again and again I was completely floored by how reporters from all across the country, small towns and big cities, could take the same press kit and mis-spell stuff, introduce errors, mangle quotes, and make an absolute hash of some basic info.

So: We get the press kits directly from the companies without having them mangled by people who can't accurately transcribe the company's name? Heck yeah I'm excited about more direct news!

99.44% of "journalism" as its actively practiced is taking a press kit from a publicist, figuring out which publicist to call to get a press kit for the stock quotes from the "alternate view", mangling those together with some spelling and grammatical errors and a introducing a whole bunch of flaws and fuzzy thinking, and publishing that as an article.

If we could just get reporters to link to their original sources, these press kits from the organizations whose representatives they quote, we'd raise the bar dramatically.

So, thanks Michael Aparicio and the Santa Rosa PD and everyone else publishing those sources.

1/22/2010 3:19 PM

Two other anecdotes of dubious relevance:

In that same Internet startup era, we naive young geeks went into the offices of a muckety muck at the Chattanooga Times or News-Free Press, I forget which. We said "here's what's coming, do you want to be a part of it?" He said "I don't see the business model". We said "we don't know what your business model is either, but it's coming".

He had a decade and a half of clear warning, and he (and the whole rest of his industry) flubbed it.

Slightly previous to that, some friends had started a free weekly. In staid conservative Chattanooga, people ate up this slightly edgy paper that was willing to speak up. Among other things, they included "# of TVs" in their bar reviews, higher numbers leading to lower reviews. I forget whether the key badness was that or something else, but they panned a new eatery in town. The next week the funders of that eatery pulled all of their ads. The week after that the friends of said funders had pulled all their ads. After not terribly long, they couldn't afford to keep publishing even with the largesse of their friends and readers tossing press costs at them.

One honest review of a restaurant: One dead paper. Given that the local government was fairly well tied up with various local sources of capital, you can also imagine that had they managed to survive longer they'd have had to stay pretty generic on local political issues.

On writing reports of local government meetings: Alas, you're right. On the other hand, what I see coming out of the Argus Courier coverage of Petaluma issues is worse than having to read the minutes myself. I've currently volunteered and am about 6 months into a two year term serving on the Petaluma Technology & Telecommunications Advisory Committee, and am trying to stay abreast of various meetings related to that. I'm going to have to see if I can take my notes from things like the Petaluma economic development plan meetings and get 'em up on Empire Report, 'cause currently they're languishing with 3 or 4 readers on one of my web sites.

That doesn't solve the problem, but it might be a step.