Jim

Prescription for SND’s ills

In Biz, editor, Freelance, graphics, innovation, News, newspaper, publish, publisher, Publishing, Smartness, smartnews, startup, The news biz, venture on June 19, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Like many other news and former news folks, I’ve been unable to tear my eyes away from the Society for News Design trainwreck. (Charles Apple’s coverage here) And like many others, I’ve been involved in sotto voce conversations in the wings as the blood spread across the stage.

First, my background: I’m not now nor have I ever been an officer of SND. I let my membership lapse recently, as I’m out of the business. I’ve been a paying member off and on over the years, always (as far as I can remember) out of pocket. A Quick Course in Chapel Hill really turned my head around on newspaper design in the early ’90s and planted the seed for my career.  Many of my friends and most people I would call colleagues are or have been members. I’ve attended three annual workshops — San Jose, Houston, and Boston — on my own dime and felt they were worth every penny. My only other official connection was a lecture session I gave at a Quick Course in Salt Lake City. So, I’m a semi-active former member, not in any way an important voice.

Here’s the upshot: SND needs a wholesale reinvention. SND needs to get into the news business by promoting and incubating journalistic ventures that will eventually compete with the current mainstream press. Yes, I said it, it’s time for SND to bite the hand that’s fed it for decades.

The news industry has let us down. I can’t count how many of my friends and colleagues have lost their jobs or are just waiting for the axe to fall. And the axe appears to have fallen disproportionately on “visual” people. It’s time to fight back, and to do it in a way that genuinely supports the interests of members — by creating jobs.

Who is doing that, right now? A scattering of disconnected ventures, each hoping to be the next big thing, many with little or no money or support, just enthusiasm and big dreams. Those of you who’ve followed my Smartnews misadventures know all about that. These efforts need support: investors, clerical/intern help, good ideas, marketing. These are not necessarily SND’s strengths, but they need to be. News needs that. Those of us who believe in design as a journalistic tool, who love infographics and grids and, yes, even the Typeface du Jour need that.

Jay Small, whom you could call an important voice, is on the right track:

SND must represent the brightest thinking focused on innovation in communicating the news. Typeface du jour? Web width of the month? Hell, no. Attracting and engaging news consumers and enabling communities around the news? Oh, yeah!

SND needs to fill another leadership vacuum: The gap between so-called visual people and word people. Far too many designers, photographers and graphic artists have weak spelling, grammar and reporting skills. Way too many writers and editors have no clue about the synergy of their efforts with those of everyone else. Much has been said about bridging the worlds, but the silos remain. And toss multimedia and Web skills into the mix, too. There are just not enough jobs out there to justify separations of church and state, anymore. Anyone who’s lucky enough to have a newsroom position has to know it all. But so few of us do.

Some of SND’s training does address this: The folks I most respect get it about perpetrating good journalism, about making every word and image count. But it’s in our nature to go for the pretty over the effective. We’ve got to focus on changing that if we want to have a place at the table.

If SND were to do all that, I’m afraid that much of what it focuses on now — the big contest, the annual meeting — would have to take a backseat. It’d be the end of an era. But, let’s face it, folks, we’re at the end of a journalism era.

Should the guvmint step in to save journalism?

In Biz, editor, News, newspaper, Publishing on May 12, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Just got my hands on Free Press’ white paper, Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy. Free Press bills itself “a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media.” I’m only just now sitting down with this; thought I’d share before I was done looking at it.

Journalism for those who can afford it?

In Biz, editor, innovation, News, newspaper, Politics, publish, publisher, Publishing, smartnews, startup, venture on May 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I’ve been wondering whether we’re headed for tiered journalism — quality news and information available only to those who can afford it, and who have a deep enough interest to bother; bloviation, press releases, gossip, trivia, poorly researched crap for everyone else.

I don’t see a conspiracy, I suspect a pattern. Public interest journalism has been on the wane for a long time. The reality is, more people are interested in the cast of Twilight than in what happened to that $700 billion we gave to the banks. And even those of us who are interested in following the money are liable to get their information from people they feel represent their interests, whether that be Fox and Friends or Paul Krugman.

Even if that tribal dynamic weren’t in play, the bottom has just flat dropped out of the “content” business. If it can be digitized, it can and will be shared, for free. Almost all efforts to build walls around general-interest news or entertainment have failed. Readers won’t pay for stuff they can get somewhere else for free, even if it’s not as high quality.

And you’ve got ad buyers abandoning media. So general interest and public interest news are shrinking, maybe toward a singularity. Newspapers, TV stations, magazines just can’t afford their staffs anymore.

So you’ve got a deepening sea of news and info out there, but less and less of it, proportionally, is what we think of as traditional, paid, professional, supervised, vetted, edited journalism. Even though everything’s digital, there’s a low signal-to-noise factor, kinda like those cheap cassette tapes you may have bought as a kid (if you’re a geezer like me.) Lotta hiss, distortion, pops and breakages.

Meanwhile, some mad scientists are tinkering with noise reduction schemes and boutique operations that produce (presumably) crystal clear news for specialty markets — but only for elite customers who can afford it. Who would that be? Big corporations, mainly. Government agencies, maybe. Well-heeled nonprofits, I suppose.

Here are a couple of examples:

My cousin, a Washington technocrat, turned me on to Stratfor several years ago. Basically, it started as a newsletter founded by author and futurist George Friedman. He looks at world events through the lens of “intelligence” (you know, CIA stuff) rather than journalism. So Stratfor treats the same stuff as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, but in a way that’s of particular interest not so much to the many, but to those who have lots at stake. And it costs $399 a year to subscribe.

Now, $399 might not sound that atrocious, but keep in mind, with Stratfor you get geopolitics: analyses “without bias,” breaking geopolitical news, and monographs and assessments “which offer rigorous forecasts of future world developments.” No art reviews, no comics, no gardening section. No local crime or City Hall. (By the way, Stratfor is looking for an online direct-marketing copywriter.)

Here’s another example, a startup I just found out about today. Psydex, a company that searches and analyzes news sources “in real time” just launched Psyng, a “portal that scours newswires, Internet feeds, TV closed captions, blogs and other sources of ‘chatter.’” Psyng claims to cut through the noise to reveal “statistical patterns and trends in social networks, human behavior and financial markets.” Then they plan to sell access to that to media and corporate interests.

The example they cite: “When US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River in January, Psydex’s algorithms detected—within seconds of the incident—unusual chatter levels well before the news was broadly disseminated.”

So if you really want up-to-the-second info — ahead of your competitors, Psydex would say — you should buy it from Psyng. “Whether your Topic of interest is Oil Refinery Explosions, Apple Computer or Mergers & Acquisitions, Psyng can instantly alert you to key news events, delivering correlations and projected impacts as the news happens,” the site boasts.

Apparently, there’s a network journalists may join, but I’m not sure how that works or what, if any, remuneration there might be for “professional journalists, editors and other intelligent observers.”

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