Jim

Archive for the ‘Biz’ Category

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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Want to get back at evil corporate greedia? Carving each other up ain’t gonna do the job

In Biz, editor, graphics, newspaper, Publishing, smartnews, startup, The news biz, venture on May 2, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Lots of bitterness and fury from people whom Tribune has canned recently. Hell, I just got a 10 percent pay cut in my non-newspaper job, so I feel — well, a sliver of the pain, myself.

It appears the head-rolling — which seems disproportionately distributed among “visual” folks — has brought long-built tension over how much value designers and copy editors add to a newsroom to a head. Couple that with resentment toward the survivors, and you’ve got a bloodbath.

OK. I get it. Newspaper owners don’t think we’re worth as much as writers (I say “we” because, though I have a writing job now, the better part of my news career was in layout, copy editing and design.) Many of our jobs have become, as The Yelv points out, obsolete.

What I don’t get is journalists turning on each other.

If you want to make a future for yourself in news, you’re going to need every friend you can find. Now’s not the time to burn bridges — at least not with our colleagues. I will go so far as to say that corporate news has already burned our bridge — and this time, I mean “our” in the sense of all journalists.

I’m not saying this to be a pollyanna. I’m saying we need a better survival instinct.

I won’t lie; publishers and executive editors have disappointed me a little in the lack of enthusiasm for Smartnews. You would think that now would be the time they’d take an interest in something that could reduce costs. They are so shellshocked, however, they cannot even begin to look two steps forward in their game. And they don’t really have a lot of leeway; I understand the money is tightly controlled right now. No one wants to play guinea pig.

I can live with that. They don’t owe me anything.

Where I’m much more disappointed is in the utter lack of heart I keep finding among my colleagues to do something concrete about their predicament. Apart from a job search.

Look, it doesn’t have to be Smartnews. Maybe a journalist doesn’t see the value or the future, or doesn’t trust us. I can live with that, too.

Do something creative. We pride ourselves on our creativity, do we not? The possibilities are infinite. Do it yourself, like my friend Ernie with Short Form Blog. That’s a great example of a designer/editor redirecting his efforts to the Web. Before, he was a curator of news for print. Now, he curates for the Web. Get involved with Publish2. Take an ad sales person out for drinks and pick her brain.

Breaking out the machetes ain’t gonna work, folks. We’ve lost one war, already.

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Pondering the economics of making a news startup work on the Web

In Biz, Freelance, innovation, newspaper, publish, publisher, Publishing, smartnews, startup, venture on April 18, 2009 at 7:18 pm

I ran a cross a comment on this thread that breaks down the dilemma that faces Internet startups.

It’s a great idea to have journalists curating the best tweets about a story or topic. That’s a solid content model. Now, if you want to make a living at it, you need to sort out and execute a business model.

You have two options:

1. Get massive traffic, 2MM+ pageviews/month while keeping costs low, low, low, such that you can use existing advertising networks to make a living. Their rates are insultingly low, but if you can break a million pageviews without having to pay for content or help, then you can make that work possibly.

2. Build it out into a brand with a defined, die-hard niche audience that specific types of businesses will pay a premium to reach. What about approaching the makers of some of the Twitter clients out there? They’re always looking for new users and your audience consists of super-active Twitter-users who are likely always one step ahead of the game. What if Twirl or Tweetdeck sponsored you guys for a month or two?

Very difficult for any individual journalist to drag in 2 million page views per month (I’m astonished at how few even this blog gets, even though I make almost no effort to market it. You’d think that random chance would drag in more useless, accidental traffic.) And there are only so many valuable niches around. I think of my friend Charles Apple who’s absolutely got the “visual journalist” market nailed down — but what is that worth to him or to Visual Editors in terms of advertising? I don’t see Adobe ponying up oodles of ad money. (Maybe as we all get outsourced and have to buy our own equipment and software, that’ll change.)

As publishers and executive editors have not exactly been beating down our doors, I’ve been thinking off and on about how we could grow Smartnews into it’s own direct-to-consumer Web experience. The result would probably be something like True/Slant. But probably more open, using that rating system to direct eyeballs and presumably ad revenue to journalists. I’m open to your suggestions.

News items of interest to Smartnews enthusiasts

In Biz, editor, Freelance, News, newspaper, publish, publisher, Publishing, smartnews, startup, The news biz, venture on April 5, 2009 at 7:59 pm

A couple of interesting Forbes items I ran across via Twitter this afternoon.

First is last year’s article on newspapers’ revolt against Associated Press. Buried down in there is some fun stuff about the amount of money at stake. According to Forbes, AP only derives about 30 percent of its income from newspapers. That surprised me.

U.S. newspapers paid about $215 million in annual content fees to AP last year, even as they provided up to 30% of the reporting that composes AP’s daily state news coverage. AP’s fees currently average around $143,000 per paper, but the actual amount a newspaper pays per year varies greatly from paper to paper, with the largest dailies paying well in excess of $1 million a year.

That’s a boatload of cash. Maybe not AIG money, but still.
And then this:

… any alternatives would have a hard time matching the breadth and timeliness of AP’s daily news report, particularly on state news, breaking national news, photography and sports. Still, that hasn’t stopped editors from shopping around. For instance, sports news agency PA SportsTicker has experienced an uptick in inquiries from U.S. newspapers about its services, according to Sales Director Jay Imus.

Naturally, we envision a network of journalists so broad it could really begin to make a dent in this argument. Erica Smith has tallied up nearly 8,000 layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers in 2009. How many of those are writers, editors, photographers, graphic artists, designers, Web developers? If just one-tenth of them sold content through Smartnews, that’d be a hell of an amazing body or work.
Meanwhile:
The other article describes Rupert Murdoch getting on the ‘hey, maybe we should sue Google’ bandwagon. (This article’s where I found the link to the item about AP.)
Here’s an interesting thought at the bottom of this article, from Anthony Moor, deputy managing editor of the Dallas Morning News Online.

“I wish newspapers could act together to negotiate better terms with companies like Google. Better yet, what would happen if we all turned our sites off to search engines for a week? By creating scarcity, we might finally get fair value for the work we do.”

Would newspapers have the balls to try something like that?

At what cost free publicity? Heh.

In Biz, editor, innovation, News, newspaper, publish, publisher, Publishing, smartnews, startup, The news biz, venture on April 3, 2009 at 11:02 pm

MediaBistro’s WebNewser picked up on Smartnews A Smarter Way to Gather Content, But at What Cost? It’s hard to complain about a little publicity, but any time you end up in the news, you realize what our sources go through when they open the paper (or turn on the TV or what have you) — you see all the niggling little things that the reporter got wrong.

So at the risk of sounding ungrateful (and I’m not, I’m glad to get the word out), here are my quibbles:

  • I’m pretty sure neither Randy nor I live in Raleigh, N.C. I used to live in Raleigh, but that was many, many moons ago — long before Smartnews was a twinkle in my eye. We do live in the Carolinas, however, so … pretty close.
  • The last sentence was a little off, too: “The cost to a small publisher (weekly circulation of less than 100,000) could run as little as $1 and go up to a flat fee for exclusive, unrestricted content for $1,000.”

    Yes, content can go for as little as $1 a pop for small publishers. However, only large publishers could ever shell out $1,000 for exclusive, unrestricted use of an item on Smartnews. So, as far as the headline, I’ll tell ya at what cost: Rock bottom prices! That’s what cost. Especially when you consider our contributors. A few bucks for a Charles Apple graphic or Martin Gee illo? Good Lord, yes.

  • ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ Now’s no time to slow down on Smartnews

    In Biz, Fayetteville, Freelance, Publishing, smartnews, The news biz on March 27, 2009 at 3:23 am

    Charles Apple kindly gave me a platform to pimp Smartnews a little more, in advance of taking the experiment live on April 1. Randy in particular has been actively recruiting publishers, hammering away at state and regional press associations and the like. It’s a monumental task: Just think of the thousands of newspapers; alt weeklies; city, regional and state magazines. And over the horizon — niche and trade pubs, English-language pubs outside the United States, and on and on.

    Lest I sound too excited about it all, it’s important to remember that we’re in the proof-of-concept phase. Realistically, this predates even internal alpha-testing, as far as the Web site. We just want to bull ahead as time’s a-wasting. Flying by the seats of our pants, to cop an old cliche, just as with SmartNews (the Fayetteville, N.C., newspaper (R.I.P.)) and Bluffton Today. Newspapers are in deep trouble; they’re dropping journalists like a dog sheds fur in the summer. We want to do what we can while we can.

    I don’t think American print news will rebound, even if the ridiculous corporate debt is somehow miraculously resolved. The job losses will be permanent. But the need for news and information remains — my god, there’s a hunger for it — and advertisers still believe more strongly in print and “traditional” media than they do in the Web. Should all news media collapse in the next few years anyway, we should at least have quite a collection of talent at hand. Whatever the medium, whatever the business model, at some point that’s got to be worth something.

    So you can’t afford to buy your own home

    In Biz, Politics, Unfettered stupidity on November 18, 2008 at 12:55 am

    Turns out, it’s not that great of an investment, after all.

    Suppose you had put $100,000 into the U.S. property market back in the first quarter of 1987. According to the Case-Shiller national home-price index, you would have nearly tripled your money by the first quarter of 2007, to $299,000. On the other hand, if you had put the same money into the S&P 500, and had continued to re-invest the dividend income in that index, you would have ended up with $772,000 to play with—more than double what you would have made on bricks and mortar.

    The linked article’s really about the collapse of the whole system of finance. Every once in a rare while, I say something smart. The other day, I had one of those moments: “Money is entirely too important to leave in the hands of bankers.”

    Some more tidbits from the linked article, if you don’t feel like plowing through the whole thing:

    • The financial history of the past 800 years is a litany of debt defaults, banking crises, currency crises, and inflationary spikes. Moreover, financial crises seldom happen without inflicting pain on the wider economy.

    • In 1980, bank indebtedness was equivalent to 21 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. In 2007 the figure was 116 percent.

    • The motto “In God we trust” was added to the dollar bill in 1957. Since then its purchasing power, relative to the consumer price index, has declined by a staggering 87 percent.

    • (Upon signing S&L deregulation) President Reagan declared, “All in all, I think we hit the jackpot.” … When the ensuing bubble burst, nearly 300 S&Ls collapsed, while another 747 were closed or reorganized …. The final cost of the crisis was $153 billion (around 3 percent of the 1989 G.D.P.), of which taxpayers had to pay $124 billion.

    • One might assume that, after the catastrophic failure of L.T.C.M., quantitative hedge funds would have vanished from the financial scene, and derivatives such as options would be sold a good deal more circumspectly. Yet the very reverse happened. Far from declining, in the past 10 years hedge funds of every type have exploded in number and in the volume of assets they manage ….

    • But what about the rest of us, the rank-and-file members of the deluded crowd? Well, we shall now have to question some of our most deeply rooted assumptions—not only about the benefits of paper money but also about the rationale of the property-owning democracy itself.

    Thanks to Kristin Lenz of the Washington Post for posting the link on Facebook.

    Memo: Blackwater fudged numbers to win fat contracts (and other items of interest)

    In Biz, Fayetteville, Fort Bragg, N.C., Politics on August 1, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    I try to keep an eye on news items related to Blackwater Worldwide, a North Carolina-based company that supplies mercenaries private security in hellholes like Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans. Partly because the privatization of the U.S. military is fascinating, partly because the Fayetteville area, home of so many elite, special ops guys, is a fertile recruiting ground. Lately, there’s been another flurry of stories.

    Federal investigators are raising new questions about whether an affiliate of the controversial security firm Blackwater Worldwide should have received more than $100 million in federal contracts set aside for small businesses.

    In a memorandum made public Monday, internal investigators for the Small Business Administration said the agency “did not adequately explain” how it concluded that Blackwater falls within size limits for small-business contracts.

    Meanwhile, Blackwater’s getting into the private eye biz:

    “Blackwater started a private intelligence company,” (Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army) explained, “a private CIA essentially, called Total Intelligence Solutions. And the man running Total Intelligence Solutions is J. Cofer Black. He’s a thirty-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also was the guy who ran the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, the government-sanctioned kidnap-and-torture program.”

    And here’s an interesting backgrounder on Blackwater:

    Critics see Blackwater as a company that recklessly abuses the gears of war to make a buck. (Founder Erik) Prince and his devoted team view themselves as a military support staff that helps the government save a buck through an obsessive commitment to identifying and fixing inefficiencies in operations and training.