Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My Favorite Stories of 2008 Part II

Earlier, I wrote about 10 of my favorite stories from our web site, divorce360.com. Since then, I've come across some additions to my list. So I share:

1. Credit Card Crunch Causes Divorce.
First it was the real estate crash. Then the stock market crash. Apparently credit card companies are next in line. And as couples struggle to deal with the overwhelming financial issues, their relationships are struggling as well.

2. Divorce in your DNA.
It's bad enough that you have to overcome the grief of divorce, but what if it is hard wired into your genes? A study this year showed that some men may be more prone to divorce than others. The culprit? Their DNA. Unfortunately, there's not much anyone can do about it. "There are ...many different factors influencing how happy people are in their relationship and the gene variant ...will make a very small part of these factors," said the researcher who studied the issue.
3. Sue your Ex for STD.
He cheated. You showed him the door. Only later do you discover he gave you a lifelong gift on his way out -- a sexually transmitted disease. What can you do? Take him to court. Legal experts say some partners are making their spouses pay by suing them in civil court. It is, after all, the American way.

4. Share your Divorce story on YouTube.
Want to get back at your ex? You can try the same stunt pulled by Tricia Walsh Smith. She aired her divorce laundry on YouTube. Others have tried blogging about their ex-spouses. The video didn't help Walsh's case, but she certainly got a lot of feedback. She's parlayed her new-found fame into a music video, which is even worse than her first go-round.

5. The Cancer Made Me Do It.
This story falls under the category of "Pathetic Excuse of the Year." With his wife in remission from her battle with breast cancer, former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards admitted on national television that he cheated on her while stumping for the nation's top office. One excuse played out in the public: the stress of sickness can make one act out of character. Ick.

6. Trend: Dump your Wife for a Facebook Friend.
With everyone jumping onto the social networking bandwagon, it should have been easier to spot the newest trend. Forget online dating. These days, spouses are hooking up with their high school honeys and dumping their wives for their long-lost flames. Whoever said you can't go back?

7. Getting Divorce? Get a Ring.
When you break up with a spouse, one question people often ask is, "What do I do with my ring?" There are still a number of options -- sell it, give it away, pawn it on a web site just for this purpose. And after the divorce, feel free to buy a ring that marks your new status. Yep, a divorce ring. So in addition to all the health forms (single, married, divorced -- check), you can advertise your marital mess right there on your finger.

8. Some People Announce their Weddings, Others their Divorces.
So how do you tell folks that you've kicked out your marital roommate? Forget the subtle holiday cards with your new return address and maiden name. These days, the hottest trend is a divorce announcement, followed promptly by a party. Think of it as an engagement party, except for singles. Lost your toaster, ask for a new one. You can even register. Who knew?

9. Baby Girl First, Divorce Next.
Here's a study that makes you wonder if gender equity is possible in America. Researchers discovered that married couples whose first child is a girl have a greater risk of divorce than those with boys. The risk is very slight, but it does make you wonder.

10. Most People Have Faith in Marriage.
To end this list on an uplifting note, here's a poll that warms your heart. The U.S. divorce rate is more than 40 percent. Second marriages have an even higher risk. But a Roper poll shows that most divorced Americans believe in the institution of marriage, even if their own relationship wasn't successful.

It just goes to show you -- a little faith goes a long way.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

10 Top Stories for 2008

This month, our web site, divorce360, marks the end of its first full year.

In 12 months, we've launched the site, redesigned channels and focus pages, improved our search engine optimization and added everything from a business directory to a social networking area.

In many ways, working for a web start up is very much like my old job as a newspaper editor. Thing change daily, and you never stop trying to make it better for readers/users.

To celebrate our first year, we examined traffic and arrived at a list of top stories, blogs and community advice on the site.

Along those lines, I've put together some of the more interesting stories we've published on the site this last year.

1. Facebook Has Potential to Serve Divorce Papers.
The Internet has given us a whole new way to interact with people. Beyond digital copyright law, there are other legal ramifications. Using social networking to serve legal documents might be a new -- and gray -- are of law, but it's coming, as our recent story can attest.

2. Two First-Borns? Bad Match. Birth Order Can Help Marriage.
Studies have shown that birth order makes a difference in how you see the world, but how you see your spouse? Apparently so. There is strong connection between birth order and divorce rates,” explained John Curtis, Ph. D. and former family counselor turned management consultant and author. The most successful marriages -- "the oldest sister of brothers marries the youngest brother of sisters.”

3. How You Sleep Hints at your Feelings about Marriage
Want to check if your partner is really happy? Consider the way you and your spouse sleep at night. Do you snuggle up against each other in a spoon? Then you're very comfortable together. Do you hook legs? You're great friends. "The way partners share a bed says a huge amount how much they really like each other, trust and feel safe with each other," says Dr. Mark Goulston of the University of California. "Analyzing sleep positions can highlight trouble spots they may not even be aware of."

4. Recession Hurts Divorce Settlements.
It's hard enough to deal with the emotional issues when you and your partner decide to split. But when the recession causes financial ones, how can it be any tougher? First the recession was hurting divorce settlements as they were being negotiated. Then, because of the financial crash, job losses and the mortgage crisis, couples began returning to court to renegotiate the settlements they had.

5. Baseball Can Save your Marriage
Want to save your marriage? Try going to a baseball game. Okay, it's a little more complicated than that, but not much. Essentially, here's a study that says if you share a hobby or pastime with your spouse, you're more likely to maintain your relationship. It's kind of a no-brainer when you think about it.

6. Older Couples Divorcing to Save their Retirement
One of the saddest stories this year is about older couples having to make the tough decision to divorce so that the sick spouse doesn't run down the financials for the well one. Couple that with the tough economy, and this may become an even bigger problem.

7. Men Don't Understand the Cost of Cheating.
If you didn't know about this study, the story about former presidential candidate John Edwards teaches this harsh lesson. Here's a guy with everything, and he chucks it all -- including his chance on the national political stage -- for a younger blond. This study shows you why: Men just don't get what cheating will cost them.

8. Hurricanes, Natural Disasters, Can Cause Divorce
As if the news isn't bad enough these days, here's proof that hurricanes -- or any natural disaster -- can cause such a strain on a marriage that it can put it over the edge. But it doesn't have to end that way. Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., relationship expert and Suddenly Single advice columnist for Match.com, suggests that the outcome depends on the couple, “Sometimes, a crisis or disaster can bring a couple closer together as they recognize what’s really important in life."

9. Many Couples Start New Year with Divorce.
Most people want to lose a few pounds in the new year, but some folks want to get rid of a whole person. Apparently January is a big month for divorce, particularly for couples with youngsters. They make it through the holidays and announce their uncoupling just after the new year.

10. Office Affairs on the Rise.
Apparently men and women working together can cause a number of issues -- including this one, a rise in the number of affairs at the office. "You have a common focus and lots of opportunity to get to know each other ... ,” said Tina Tessina, author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media 2008)." “You are together, working on something. It has nothing to do with a personal relationship at all. It’s a pseudo intimacy.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Links to the Marriage Calculator

What's success at an Internet start up company? When something from your site gets written about by lots of folks. If that's the case, the marriage calculator has hit a sweet spot.

Beyond links to a number of smaller blogs and web sites for television stations and newspapers, there are some pretty big dogs in the links.

If you haven't seen it, here are a few of the folks who have written about the calculator, which was put together for us by University of Pennsylvania's Betsey Stevenson, a Wharton assistant professor of business and economic.

Stevenson used statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau to help us with the marriage calculator, which can show you how many people who married at your same age with your same education level are now divorced. The widget also uses those figures to project five years from now how many more folks in your group will be divorced.

Here are some of the blogs and stories that have been written about the widget:

The New York Times
The Baltimore Sun

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Marriage Calculator, Gannett layoffs and the NY Times

On the same day that Gannett began sending more journalists to the unemployment line, the Marriage Calculator we rolled out at divorce360.com began making the rounds. It was a bittersweet moment for a former newspaper editor who now works at an Internet start up.

As old friends were e-mailing me on facebook about who was being tapped to leave their newsrooms, the Marriage Calculator was pushing traffic on the site through the roof. We were inundated by new signups who wanted to become part of the site's community. One link to the calculator on walletpop.com was later moved to aol.com's welcome page. Another link from the New York Times Freakonomics blog added to the mix.

According to Google's hot trends for the day, marriage calculator, divorce360.com and divorce calculator were the top search terms -- in order of first to third. Those search terms ranked above: "Week 14 NFL power rankings", "Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair Photo", "the Gator Bowl" and "Britney Spears Good Morning America."

Before the day was over, I couldn't tell whether to laugh or cry. I did both. Someday perhaps journalism will see more days like the one we had yesterday on the site and fewer like the one faced by my former newspaper colleagues. I can only hope.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Widget 101: What's a Widget? How Does it Work?

Earlier this week, I updated my facebook status with a note about putting the finishing status on a widget for the web site. A few moments later, a friend e-mailed this question: "What's a widget?"

A widget is a web-based tool that allows you to enter information into a database and get something in return. If you're buying an airline ticket, for instance, you're entering the information parameters -- the time frame in which you want to fly -- into a database, which in turn spits out the tickets that are available in that time frame for the area you want to visit.

We've been working with Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of business and public policy at Wharton, who used U.S. Census information to put together a database. We call it The Marriage Calculator. The user answers some basic questions: the age they were at the time of their marriage, their education level and -- if you're a woman -- the number of children you have, and the database shares two statistics:

1. The number of people with similar backgrounds who got married and are now divorced.

2. The number of people like you who are likely to be divorced in five years. This uses historical Census data to predict what will happen in the future.

My last year in newspapers, I spent a lot of time managing database projects -- including about property values that got so much traffic it shut us down for a short time. While my boss wasn't exactly happy, I considered that a user success, if not a career-enhancing one.

The point of this widget is similar. Interest, traffic and users who keep coming back.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Six Months Is Too Long to Wait for Newspaper CEOs

Like millions of other people around the country this morning, I got up, made a cup of coffee, turned on my computer and hooked up to the Internet to check the news.

After reading about death threats against President-Elect Barack Obama, his mother-in-law's move to Washington and the most expensive cities to buy groceries, I turned to another topic of interest -- the newspaper industry's struggle to survive in the new media landscape.

I clicked on a story by Editor and Publisher about a summit for newspaper CEOs held by the American Press Institute. (Click here for summary of the event.) The topic of the conference was the saving the newspaper industry.

(Let's forget that the conference was closed -- although someone in the room was twittering about it, God love them. I'll come back to this later.)

Interesting points from the story include:

1. All but one of the public companies at the event "were below the safe range" for bankruptcy, according to James Shein, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

2. The group was told by Steve Miller, the executive chairman of auto-parts maker Delphi Corp, "Cutting staffs will reduce costs, but it won't happen fast enough, and will erode the product."

3. "The biggest hurdles to progress [is] the industry's senior leadership, including some people in this room," Shein said. "I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes."

4. The group plans to meet again in six months to talk about the problems.

So here's my question: If an expert in business turnarounds walked into your office today and told you that your company was in financial trouble and your effort to cut costs by cutting staff was eroding your product's quality and you -- as the top dog -- were part of the problem because you're doing the same old, same old and it isn't working, would you wait six more months to talk about it again?

No, you wouldn't.

But that's what the group of newspaper CEOs plans to do. In all fairness, the executives who attended did get some homework for the next class. The list includes:

1. Act -- and think -- like an entrepreneur.
2. Create new initiatives and kill them quickly if they fail.
3. Don't wait for all the data. Take action.
4. Downsize to achieve larger goals, not as a cost-cutting tool.
5. Leverage core competencies into new areas.
6. Be honest with workers. Get ideas from them.
7. Don't whine. Inspire.
8. Bring in experts with a different view to see if they can help.
9. Leverage your brand.

It's a good list, to be sure. Given the number of journalists who have lost their jobs in the last year, (Journalists whose personal stories I haven't read because no one wants to write about their own industry's toubles), I especially like item number four. As the crisis worsens, companies keep resorting to cutting staff and quality with no real long-term solutions.

In addition, I'm keen on number six, although I must say it's kind of hard to get ideas from the front lines if 1. The meetings are closed. 2. The folks sitting in those meetings are the same ones who failed to see the changing market conditions that have now devastated our newsrooms.

Most importantly, I think a good dose of number eight might heal what ails us. If we can use crowd sourcing to examine how Cape Coral, Fla., financed the expansion of its water and sewer project, (costing $20,000 or more to some of us who lived there) I'm pretty sure we could find experts in other fields who would be interested in helping save The Fourth Estate for our children.

At least I hope we can.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reporters in a Digital Age

When I got into reporting, all you needed was a pen, a notepad and your curiosity. These days, it's a little more complicated as newspapers try and capture the readers who have migrated to the Internet to get their news. Since leaving the traditional print industry and joining an Internet start-up that produces niche online content, I've had a number of conversations with newspaper editors about what a reporter should be able to do in this new digital landscape.

If I were back in a traditional newsroom, here's what I would consider if I were recreating a reporter's beat. Because every newspaper has one, let's assume the position is a city government beat -- although you can use this framework for any beat from sports to features and get the same result. And for the sake of clarity, let me say, yes, you'll still need to understand the journalism basics -- like how to use a pen and notepad and ask questions that folks sometimes don't want to answer.

But as more people commit citizen journalism, traditionally trained journalists need to become aggregators of content as well as creators of it. Really, each reporter becomes a community editor of sorts. And in the end, they will be more connected to what's happening in the areas they cover -- never a bad thing for a good journalist.

1. Video, audio and more. Just like a pen and notepad was once the basic foundation of a good reporter, knowing how to produce video, audio and photo galleries are now part of the job. Web readers love all of this. And there are lots of folks in your community who are creating it -- so you don't have to rely on only your own work. Use their work as well as your own to share what's happening in the neighborhood you're covering.

2. Set up a social network for your community. Get on facebook, twitter, linkedin and other social networks on the web. Find out who is from your area and hook up to them. Read what they say when they say it. And cull from those networks story ideas, links and other information that may be of interest to the people in your community. This is, in my mind, just another way to develop your network of sources -- possibly with some new voices you might never have had before. All of this can be used when you get to my next point.

3. Start a community blog. Make it accurate. Make it grammatically correct. And make it quick. Use the social network to write about the topics of concern in your community as they happen. You don't have to generate the information. You just have to find it, give it an introduction and link to it. And remember, whatever you write doesn't have to be long and drawn out. Twitter does this in 140 words. You can make yours longer, but they don't have to be.

4. Be a community builder. Your job is to find the folks who care enough to blog about what's going on in their world, cull the best pieces and share them on your blog so others will know about what's happening. You may even link people in your community, simply by finding topics they have in common.

5. Build your own content partnerships. What do I mean? In the Internet world, you connect with others who cover the same topic you do. They produce content, which you can write about and link to. They can link to your work as well, and through that, you build on your own little traffic network. Imagine all the agencies you cover in your community. Imagine their work on your community blog. OK, yes, you should let folks know where the information came from, so they can use their common sense about the bias, if there is one, in the story you are linking to. In exchange, you get more content.

6. Encourage participation. The more you engage in your community, the more they will engage with you. From focus groups to niche web sites, newsrooms have seen that happen time after time. Yes, some of these folks you'll only know online. But so what? It doesn't matter how the conversation is happening, as long as it is. And you can be proud of yourself for helping to build it.