Where have I been, you ask? In Oaxaca, Mexico, where the food is great, the mezcal is better and DSL is only a dream (at least on my dirt road). It's a great place for a media break. Until I return in about another week or so, read about how I built a house there or wander the stacks of the Best of First Draft: The list is below. Hasta luego.
The Quality Manifesto: What started it all.
Journalists Overpaid? Nonsense: There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.
No More Whining: He's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.
Eliminating the Bimbo Factor: I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did.
Would You Pay a Nickel to Read This?: In the world of online newspapers (and other media), the debate over whether to charge for content (more revenue) or not (more readers) draws well-reasoned and emotional commentary from both sides.
Newspapers Disrupted: "When you realize this newfangled thing is stealing your business, and you aren't sure how to get it back."
How Journalism Went Bad: Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Time for a Leadership Tuneup: Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines.
There's Nothing Left but the Journalism: Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism.
The Journalism of Complacency: Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations. He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.
ASNE's Diversity Study: Looking for Answers: Why do America's newspapers remain so white despite 25 years of effort to have them be more reflective of the communities they cover?
Money, Money, Money: The salary gap widens between the boardroom and the newsroom
New Readership Study: Culture Counts: A new study by the Readership Institute - released at the ASNE convention - focuses on attracting younger and more diverse readers to newspapers and on overcoming the internal cultural barriers that inhibit innovation.
Applied Talent: Howell Raines was right about one thing (at least) -- what counts is how much talent is at work, not how much is in the building.
According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability: Is having no source in a news story better than citing an anonymous one?
Goodness and Tyranny: The desire to do good work and the obstacles of tradition, convention and production connect all newspaper journalists.
News Media vs. Journalism: It's time, once again, to make the distinction between the "news media" and journalism.
Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls: The nature of editorial pages and how newspapers use them to connect to readers.
He Said, She Said, We Said …: Revelations about the mindset of traditional journalists, the power shift personal publishing technology has brought to media, and a common frustration shared equally by reporters and their subjects.
Apologize? For What?: The Boston Herald, has apologized for publishing a photograph of the young woman shot to death by police during a street disturbance following the Red Sox's victory over the Yankees. That was a mistake.
Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System: After meeting last week in Atlanta with a group of smart, committed journalists who gathered to brainstorm about ways to rescue what Carol Nunnelly of NewsTrain calls the "prisoners of the newsroom" - assignment editors and other mid-level managers - I've come to believe the traditional newsroom structure is obsolete and cannot respond to the challenges of changing readership, new journalistic forms and professional stagnation that threaten the relevancy of newspapers.
The Power of One: Over and over again I hear journalists bemoan the falling numbers in their newsrooms or shrinking size of their news hole. And they are right to do so. They are also right to pursue efforts to link quality journalism to higher profits. But that is not enough. Individual journalists need to take personal responsibility for the quality of their work and get beyond the question someone asked yesterday at a conference on homeland security reporting: What can one person do?
Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, A Guide: Philip Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor, wrote "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," as "an attempt to isolate and describe the factors that made journalism work as a business in the past and that might also make it work with the changing technologies in the present and the future." I read the book and dissected it chapter by chapter.
ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda: The American Society of Newspaper Editors convenes next week in its usual location (Washington, D.C.) with its usual line-up of predictable political keynoters (Bush, Rice) and its usual array of panels devoted to the industry's ongoing crises (declining readership, stagnant diversity, confused ethics, eroding credibility).
New Values for a New Age of Journalism: Are some of the newsroom's most prized values contributing to journalism's continuing decline in credibility? What should replace these values to better reflect the complexities of modern media yet still embrace the core principles of journalism? What should be the standards of credible journalism in an age when all definitions of news are up for grabs?
Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis: Could the most ambitious readership experiment underway at an American newspaper provide clues to construction of a future in which newspapers survive by embracing the values of the very forces that are threatening their distinction?
The Mood of the Newsroom: In the last 18 months I've interviewed several hundred journalists - reporters, photographers, copy editors, executive editors, designers, graphic artists. I've been in newspaper newsrooms of more than 500 people and in newsrooms of less than 50. It has been an immersion course in the mood of the press - and much of it hasn't been pretty.
Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?: Can grassroots journalism bridge that gap between local information and local news? Is it even necessary to do so? Or is just having the public distribution of the information sufficient to fulfill the need of an informed citizenry?
Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet: When is this self-destructive obsession by the press with "scoops" and "exclusives" going to end? Newsweek is the latest self-inflicted victim of this misplaced priority, which values "sources" over facts and half-truths over transparency - and for what?
The $34,000 Question: What Will You Give Up to Get More Local?: Change comes with a price. The more radical the shift, the higher the cost. For newspapers, the tariff to a different future must be the sacrifice of sacred cows, damage to some newsroom egos and even the loss of some of today's readers in the hopes of securing more of tomorrow's.
Oh, Canada: An Innovation Presentation: I spoke yesterday at Canadian Newspaper Association's annual conference, held this year in Ottawa. I pulled together a number of the ideas you've seen on First Draft for a presentation on newsroom innovation.
Working at Change: How One Newspaper Created a New ‘Compact’ with Readers: As I noted the other day when I wrote about John Robinson’s efforts to make his newspaper in Greensboro more local, change is hard work – and at a newspaper it can be dauntingly so.
Blogging the Beat: I talked with several reporters who write blogs. Here's what they had to say about the advantages blogging brings to a beat reporter.
Dawning of the Age of the Journalist: Could it be that as the age of the journalism business wanes under the weight of an obsolete business model and changing audience that potential power of the individual journalist is on the rise? Are we entering the age of the journalist?
London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper: The first-day story no longer belongs to newspapers - and hasn't for a long time. It isn't even the property of professional journalists any longer.
News Meets the Global Thought Bubble: How are traditional news organizations responding to citizen journalism and blogging? What interests do citizen journalism and mainstream news organizations share? Where are they at odds? founder responses (what will future audiences of news look like?)
Building the Journalism of the Future, Intentionally: It's getting harder and harder to find a silver lining in the cloud of bad news that is enveloping the newspaper industry. But I'm going to try. My mantra that practicing quality journalism will help newspapers find a path to a sustainable future rings hollowly in light of the New York Times' announcement that will trim 4 percent of its workforce, including 45 positions in the newsroom.
Journalism by Every Means Necessary: One reason I have been writing less these past few weeks on First Draft - aside from the temporal summer slump and yet another plunge into Mexican real estate - is that I have run out of patience.
The Rise of the Norgs: In scraping the newsroom clouds for a silver lining, I could argue that this year of cutbacks and layoffs, as institutionally disruptive and personally damaging as they have been and will continue to be to so many journalists, can be seen as the catalyst so desperately needed to awaken a slumbering industry.
Newspaper have the unenviable obligation of having to report on their biggest ailment - circulation loss. Romenesko gathered up all the stories written about yesterday's circulation bomb. One clear trend: Big regional papers are shedding non-core circulation faster than you can say rising fuel costs. This means opportunities for smaller local news outlets (local papers, hyper-local web).
Here's a taste of each story:
San Francisco Chronicle (down 16.6%): ""We cut a lot of what you would call unprofitable circulation around the first of the year. We made a decision that we want quality, profitable circulation that better serves our advertisers." - Publisher Frank Vega.
Chicago Tribune (down 2.5%): "A report this year by Northwestern University's Media Management Center estimated only 9 percent of people in their 20s will read a newspaper daily by the year 2010 if current trends continue unabated."
Boston Globe (down 7.7%): Led with the 4 percent decline in the daily circulation of its tabloid competitor, the Boston Herald, even though the Globe's percentage decline was higher. (The Globe said it disclosed its own loss a month earlier.)A Globe executive was quoted saying the paper's "emphasis should be on higher-quality circulation" - a phrase that seems to be a trend (see Chronicle bullet above.)
New York Post (down 1.7%): Trumpeted the steeper decline (3.7%) of its rival, the Daily News, saying "the battle between New York's two tabloid newspapers is now tighter than ever."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (down 7 percent): "Miles Groves, a newspaper consultant in Washington, said some papers have large numbers of Web readers, but they're having differing degrees of success in gaining advertising dollars from this audience. 'Unfortunately, the market really values the print reader more than it does the online reader.'"
Minneapolis Star Tribune (down 0.3%): Echoes my post yesterday about circulation losses leading to acceleration of advertising losses and quotes an executive of a Minneapolis ad agency saying, "A lot of our money is being allocated from newspapers to online, event marketing or permission-based marketing -- things that are more targeted."
Houston Chronicle (down 6%): Somewhat defensive story that explains how stricter auditing rules led to lower numbers. Paper's VP for circulation also says gas costs fueled (ahem) decision to eliminate outlying circulation in "San Antonio, Dallas, far South Texas and parts of Louisiana."
Seattle Times (down 7%): Written against the backdrop of the Times-PI fight over their joint operating agreement, the story reports the Times "also trimmed distribution to outlying areas, including Eastern Washington, where circulation costs outpace newspaper revenues."
Baltimore Sun (down 8.5%): Attributes its own losses to "reduction in certain types of promotional programs at schools and hotels" and prints the most apocalyptic quote of the day, from Tom McPhail, a media studies professor at the University of Missouri. He says: "They're falling like a rock and it's going to continue. Only if they morph themselves into 'Google' will they survive. They have to be very innovative, but I think they've missed the boat. They're behind the curve and they're going to become dinosaurs."
Nobody expected good news from the latest tranche of newspaper circulation numbers that came out today - and there wasn't any.
Some might take solace in the fractional gains posted by the New York Times, but even the most sanguine in the industry must be pushed closed to pessimism about the future when seeing year-over-year circulation losses like 8.5 percent (Baltimore Sun), 11 percent (Orlando Sentinel) and 16.5 percent (San Francisco Chronicle).
(Hearst's decision to buy the Chronicle has to seem like the company's worst strategic move since the Spanish-American War. The paper's circulation has fallen 13.7 percent since Hearst paid $660 million for it in 2000 - and another $66 million to offload without further legal entanglements the faltering afternoon Examiner. Last year, the Chronicle lost $62 million and is in the process of cutting 120 Guild jobs, many in the newsroom.)
Thus far, despite the steady circulation drop, newspapers have managed to hang onto their share of national advertising and post small percentage gains in print revenue (online advertising is rising rapidly, but still represents a small fraction of incoming dollars).
That appears about to change - meaning the current circulation nightmare newspapers find themselves in is about to be accompanied by its evil stepsister: The loss of advertising nightmare.
Driving this specter are twin forces - the raw numbers, that is, the loss of circulation; and the ineffectiveness of newspaper advertising in reaching heavy spending younger people, who live their lives online. [Read: Young Readers Users Producers Minds.]
Let's start with the second reason first.
A story in the New York Times on Sunday about the challenges faces Warner Brothers points out that "the average cost to market a film domestically in 2004 was $34 million, roughly half the $64 million average price tag to make one." Much of that money is spent on newspaper advertising, ads that are not reaching the highly coveted young audience.
Here are the demographics, courtesy of the Motion Picture Association and Scarborough Research via L.A. Weekly:
Movie attendance: 12- to 39-year-olds, 57 percent 40- to 59-year-olds, 31 percent; 60-plus-year-olds, 12 percent.
Newspaper readership: "35- to 54-year-olds are the biggest readers of daily newspapers, followed by those 55 and older. A much smaller portion of readers came from 25- to 34-year-olds, followed by the barely there 18- to 24-year-olds."
In other words, the people movie-makers most want to attract aren't reading newspapers, so why advertise in them?
In its story, the Times cites a Warner Brothers survey about the movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" that found that "30 percent of teenagers said they learned about" the movie online. "It is conceivable," says the Times, "that studios could forsake newspapers altogether someday." Replies Warner Brothers exec Dawn Taubin:
"It's a possibility, but it depends on whether there are other forms of advertising to replace it."
Nikki Finke, in her L.A. Weekly piece, quotes an unnamed studio marketing executive expressing frustration about the cost vs. circulation ratio of newspaper advertising:
"You'd think it would get cheaper because it doesn't reach as many people as it used to."
Eventually, advertising rates must follow circulation - downward. Rick Edmonds, writing for Poynter, explains (my emphasis):
"… the circulation losses of 2005 could easily translate into a loss of pricing power in 2006. In the worst case, it could shift the industry into a mode in which ad revenues, as well as circulation, enter a period of slow decline.
"'Advertisers do think in CPM (cost per thousand),' said Paul Ginocchio, media analyst for Deutsche Bank Securities. 'If circulation is down 3 percent or more, that probably means no rate increase.' The volume of advertising has been also been declining 2 to 3 percent a year. 'So, yes, this (2006) could be the year that ad revenues go negative.'" (This is a good piece putting the circulation picture in context. Read it.)
Wall Street analysts are making similar predictions. E&P reporters that Goldman Sachs says it's "'very unlikely' revenue growth will accelerate in 2006" and that Merrill Lynch says "companies are placing advertising outside of traditional media," meaning "newspapers will likely suffer."
To put the importance of advertising in newsroom terms, consider that the price of a full-page movie ad in the New York or Los Angeles Times is about $100,000 (says L.A. Weekly) - about the annual cost of a reporter. The math isn't good. Lose an ad, lose a reporter.
As I said at the top: There's no good news here. The continued circulation loss will trigger revenue decline that will lead to further newsroom cutbacks that will contribute to further circulation loss through a dilution in quality and quantity of content.
The only way out of this destructive cycle - destructive to the economic ability of these institutions to support journalism - is a reinvention of the business and newsroom models. This is a not a crisis that can be solved by cost-cutting alone.
"... let's just imagine a newspaper as a product, one that was just invented today...
"It's a product you have to go and get in the rain, snow or wind and pull out of the hedge, the leaves or a coin-eating box on a dirty street corner. It's heavy. It's big. You're not interested in 90% of its content. And when you're done with it, you -- literally -- have to wash your hands and figure out how to properly dispose of the thing.
"Would you buy this new invention?
"Didn't think so."
Sad, but true.
Newspapers need to get over the idea of attracting young readers. Why? Because "reader" is an obsolete concept when applied to coming generations.
The new Pew Internet & American Life Project study on teenagers' use of interactive media details the depth of the digital fluency with which young people approach - and shape - their lives today. It also contains one important lesson for journalists: If some day we are going to engage these young people with news as much they now are with music, video and online conversation then we must create and deliver the news in the same digital environment in which they live.
Newspapers and television remain the greatest producers of journalism in this country. Yet, their one-way communication models- we print and distribute, we produce and broadcast - are antiquated mechanisms to a generation that makes no distinction between the pre-Internet era and Web 1.0 or Web. 2.0. The web was always there for them, something that provided entertainment, information, communication and, increasingly, the user-friendly opportunity to now just view media but to be the media.
Says Bernard Luskin, a media psychology professor, in the New York Times:
"These young kids are very sophisticated and phenomenally intuitive," he said. "This is the first generation that's been born into digital life, instead of transitioning into it."
This bodes badly for journalism that relies on a one-way pipe to move from newsroom to the public. As Steve Yelvington points out in this post on E-Media Tidbits, "media usage patterns are established early in life and tend to persist." In other words, today's 16-year-old who is accustomed to the self-control of the remix culture and hangs out in MySpace is not going to become tomorrow's 32-year-old who is satisfied with the morning paper or the nightly news.
"New media never completely replaces old media. They just drive the old media into more specialized niches. Newspapers will survive, but in radically different form, many less than daily."
What's important - as Meyer pointed out in the Vanishing Newspaper [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.] and as Jeff Jarvis says today - is saving journalism, finding an economically viable means to support the work journalists do. It is becoming clearer and clearer that in the long term newspapers - the nation's biggest employer of journalists - are not going to be able to do that in traditional ways. Jarvis writes:
"Saving journalism isn't about saving jobs or even newspapers. In fact, the goal shouldn't be just to save journalism but to grow it, expand it, explode it, taking advantage of all the amazing new means to gather and share news we have today."
He's a step or two beyond where I would go because I want to save newspapers - and by save them I mean not just as advertising delivery vehicles but as providers of quality journalism - but Jarvis' essential point is dead on. Journalism must morph into new forms, adopt new values that keep the principles of the profession but change its practices and reach out to its future audience - tech-savvy screenagers who see no separation between media creator and media consumer.
I started this blog 35 months ago with a post I called the Quality Manifesto: Good Enough is Not. My thinking on the root causes of newspapers' problems and what can be done to address has evolved since then, but one thing remains unchanged: Most daily newspaper journalism - not the projects, not the investigations, not the big stuff we save for Sundays, but the routine weekday grist - is a bland, stenographic mix of meeting and crime stories that have little to do with the everyday lives of the people in our communities.
Here's what I wrote then:
"Newspapers don't have a societal problem; they have a quality problem.
"In an age of increasing public sophistication - and diversification - about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers.
"Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough."
Will Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News reporter who writes the highly readable Attytood blog, once tore me a new one over that line of thought, calling it "risibly pompous" and contributing evidence of my "loathing and contempt" for the ideals of "the newspaper business that he claims to love." We exchanged emails, acknowledged our differences, made promises for beers to be consumed and moved on.
Since then, Knight Ridder, which owns the Daily News and its larger sister paper, the Inquirer, has hammered both newsrooms with budget cuts. The Daily News is losing 25 journalists - 19 percent of its staff - and, as Will wrote the other day, "will attempt to publish a big-city newspaper with just 110 or so people."
Here's what Will wrote the other day about his own paper's troubles (my emphasis):
"… much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities...or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses - named Objectivity and Balance - we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.
"We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best - and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America - we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do."
Not risible. Not pompous. But serious and important because it signals a growing acceptance by journalists that, again as Will writes, "assigning blame" to "corporate greed" won't save the Daily News or other newspapers because "billionaire trust fund babies with a net worth based upon exorbitant promises to Wall Street will not simply go quietly into the night."
This is exactly right. In The Mood of the Newsroom I wrote:
"… I am sorry, my friends in the newsroom, much of the rest is your fault. The journalism, the leadership, the mandate to reflect and engage your community, the necessity to make tough, but creative decisions in the face of conflict, as all industries must do from time to time - those are all your responsibilities and you have abdicated them.
"The obdurance and avoidance endemic in newsrooms rests on a bedrock belief that the 'problems' at their newspapers are best solved with more bodies or a return to a more 'traditional' form of journalism."
I asked: "What if we stopped writing about things even journalists don't read? Let's be honest: Many journalists don't read their own newspapers because they find them boring. Why continue feeding that stuff to the public?"
Columbia Journalism Review, in its current issues, explores a similar vein in an editorial. It writes (my emphasis):
"Take a look at the front page of your newspaper today. How many stories are on events that the average reader has already heard something about? The Metro section, is it riveting and creative? Or incremental and cramped? Does the paper have strong voices? Does it provide the kind of context that cuts through the fog of information? Does it have any fun? Does the photography speak volumes? Does the Web site offer more than digital newsprint? Can a reader get into the conversation? Do you want to read this newspaper?"
What's interesting to me is that, increasingly, the people asking these questions are inside the newsroom, like Will Bunch, instead of outside it, like Jay Rosen or me.
In scraping the newsroom clouds for a silver lining, I could argue that this year of cutbacks and layoffs, as institutionally disruptive and personally damaging as they have been and will continue to be to so many journalists, can be seen as the catalyst so desperately needed to awaken a slumbering industry.
Will Bunch's blogging colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan Rubin, lays out the challenge in a post in his blog, Blinq: "The Inquirer knows it has to take the opportunity to re-invent itself. We must figure out who we are and what we do best, and do it now."
It's good to see the Inquirer pulling local bloggers into that conversation. Dan writes about a gathering between journalists and bloggers at the paper. One blogger, Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerrilla, asked her readers how to remake the Inquirer. The responses, as Dan says, "make brutal reading for reporters at the Inquirer. But they should be read."
The bloggers are speaking truth to a fading power.
From the carnage at hand and the confusion about the road ahead, Will Bunch sees hope and coins a term - Norg. He writes (my emphasis):
"'Norg' because we need to lose our old identity with one dying medium, newspapers, and stress our most valuable commodity, the one that we truly own, and that is news…without the paper. Thus, we must now be news organizations, or 'norgs.'
" … Yes, it's a cheap gimmick. … But it's a cheap gimmick aimed at starting a valuable conversation that should have begun years ago. With all the gloom and doom in the newspaper business these days, the focus here in Philly has been on Nov. 4, the day that 100 journalists (25 here, and 75 at the Inquirer) will mostly leave the profession, or leave town. I want the focus now to be on Nov. 5, the first day of the rest of our lives for those of us staying put."
Journalism is a verb. It is what we do. I like the way Jacqui Banaszynski puts it: We commit journalism. Print, web and broadcast are means of delivering journalism from Point A - those who commit it - to Point B - those who read it, watch it and interact with it. [Read: Journalism is a Verb, Not a Platform.]
A couple of months ago, in a testy post, I wrote that newspapers must "change or die." [Read: Journalism by Every Means Necessary.] That's still true - both literally and metaphorically, meaning that the death by irrelevance or the death by mediocrity brought on by budget cuts is just as destructive to journalism as the literal shuttering of a newspaper. (Knight Ridder is already jettisoning non-core products.)
Will Bunch issues his own grim ultimatum. Go read the rest of his piece (and the followup), especially his comments on the need for more personality in newspapers. Here's a final word from him (my emphasis):
"We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information -- serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.
"If we don't change, we will die - and it will be our fault."