Monday, March 31, 2008

Yahoo Can, Newspapers Can't?

Yahoo can do this. Newspapers can't?

See previous blog entry. Enough said.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fixing What Ails Newspapers

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to fix what ails the newspaper industry. It's the topic of conversation with everyone I know who still works in the profession. And no one seems to have a magic pill.

A few months ago, at an annual meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors, I spoke with a Gannett editor who knew me before I jumped off the print bandwagon and fell into this Internet gig. She asked me, given my new vantage point, how I would move forward in the new media age.

I suggested that her company -- also my former employer -- consider taking its news service, which wasn't breaking much news ground, and use its staff in a different way -- to aggregate news from its newspapers across the country. There was, as far as I could tell, no reason for WebMD or any other national health site to exist when the company owned a string of newspapers that could provide more, and better, health-related content. Sadly, she said, a similar idea had been floated before but, for a variety of reasons, it hadn't worked.

The conversation bothered me. And today, a day after reading the full report from Newspaper Next, it still makes me cringe. The report, if you haven't read it, is a call to action for newspaper companies struggling to compete in a new media landscape.

So here's my suggestion for the day, directed at any large newspaper company that's trying to recreate itself in a world where fewer people are reading print products each day. Consider taking all your Web sites dedicated to a particular niche audience, let's say moms for example, and connect the dots for a national audience.

Imagine this. All your local niche moms sites connected under one umbrella site. (Let's steal a brand name from an already national product and call it USAmoms for lack of a better name.) All your local traffic moving through one national portal -- a Babycenter for moms if you will. I wonder, would that play with national advertisers do you think?

I guess someone will have to give it a try.

Things that Make you Go Hmm....

Last night, somewhere around 3 a.m. when I woke up and couldn't fall back to sleep, I grabbed a stack of -- ohmygawd -- printouts, wandered into the living room and curled up on the couch for a good read.

At the top of the pile was a recently released 100-plus page report called, Making the Leap Beyond Newspaper Companies. I had been saving it for an airplane trip or a sleepless night, whichever came first. It kept me awake a lot longer than I planned.

Here are some of the highlights I came across....

1. Newspapers are still behind in the new media game.
(I think we can all agree on this one.)

2. Local wikipedias. Do it.
(See previous blog entry.)

3. Search for new online target markets -- like moms. Write more for them. Sell more stuff to them. (Next will be dads and pets -- just ask Gannett. See page 17, annual report.)

4. The bottom line was simple:
Don't lose the money that's already coming your way.
Find ways to make more money with new products.
Target folks who aren't spending money with you.

After I finished, I had to wonder -- is any of that really new?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mapping the Local News

A reporter I worked with at my previous job recently sent me a link to a news site she works with in Chicago called I was fascinated by the mapping on it. The idea of linking news stories to a map of the community seemed like another way to localize the news for readers. I've seen it done before for special events -- a marathon bicycle race in the midwest and crime in a city.

If I were from the area, mapping of the news would help me prioritize what I wanted to read -- and what I wanted to read first. I wondered if video could be incorporated to make it more interactive -- something like this new site, Seero, which focuses on travel. My only complaint was that there weren't enough news stories on the map, which would make it a richer experience for readers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Snapshot of the Newspaper Industry

I spent the better part of the last week in another state, judging a newspaper contest for a company I haven't worked for since college. It was an odd experience given that -- after more years than I care to admit -- I no longer work at a newspaper. And it proved to be an interesting snapshot of what's happening in the industry.

As I was checking into the hotel, I ran into another judge -- an editor I haven't seen in more than 20 years. Back then I was a reporting intern, and he was the assistant city editor assigned to make certain I made it through the summer without getting into too much trouble. He must not have held my inexperience against me since he seemed happy to get reacquainted.

When he heard I'd joined an Internet startup company, he wanted to talk more about my experience. Why? The newspaper company he works for is for sale. He -- and another judge who works at a sister paper -- will find out next summer who their new owners are.

While we examined the quality of visual, written and online journalism for a group of papers none of us worked for, the state of the industry was the backdrop for discussion. Using the numbers, this picture of the profession emerged:

1. Of the 16 judges, one was a long-time journalism educator. So for the purposes of accuracy, 15 judges had been working at a newspaper in the last year.

2. Of those 15, three were no longer in the industry. One now teaches college journalism. One works for a government agency. The third (me) works for an online company. All three of us left the industry in the last year. All three of us had worked for the same newspaper company for a long time.

3. Of the other 12 judges, two editors (as I explained earlier) are working at a newspaper company that is on the market.

4. Of the 10 remaining, one -- who manages a digital department at a newspaper -- lost an assistant who took a buyout. This happened two days into the event. That manager won't get to replace the position.

At dinner one evening, we were visited by several editors who worked at the company's largest newspaper, which is located in the same town where we had converged. A friend, who lives in the city, e-mailed me a copy of a recent article about the executive editor, which was published in a regional magazine. In it, the writer described how the editor was fighting against a declining newspaper circulation by focusing more on its online site. The article gave her efforts mixed reviews.

And today, a few hours after an editor at another newspaper told me he was asked to buy equipment on eBay to save money, I read that newsprint companies are increasing their costs again. Given the recent buyouts, layoffs and declining stock prices of newspaper companies, it makes you wonder -- what will happen next?

Before I returned home from my stint as a judge, one editor at the event explained that the increasing pressures on the industry were hitting his newspaper, too. He simply isn't hiring much these days. He added: "It's not going to get better anytime soon."

But with all the talented people in the journalism industry, I still have hope that he's wrong.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wikipedia, Collective Knowledge and Newspapers

A few years ago, I sat in a meeting with an editor and argued that we should start a local version of Wikipedia. The idea was simple. We could remain the historical knowledge of the community by using our Web site to help us.

Given that we were focusing on how to improve our online content, this new element, I thought, would offer something that people would come back to over and over again. (As an example, just consider Joe Biden’s folks trying to rewrite his political history with plagiarism.)

I figured it would be a cross between the newspaper archive and refrigerator journalism. Unless you’re from a particular region, state or community, you’re probably not going to go searching for this kind of stuff. However, school kids, locals and folks who need term paper topics for college might find it handy. It was, I believed, another way to chronicle the area’s history. And a new way to look at our jobs as journalists.

The idea was shot down for a number of reasons, including: The newsroom didn’t have the staff to maintain it; There was an unwillingness to open up the project to the community; There seemed no way to connect it to our online efforts; and most importantly, at a time when newspapers were struggling financially, it would compete with the idea that people would pay for old newspaper stories in the newsroom's archives.

Back then newspaper companies around the United States were struggling to keep readers from dropping their print subscriptions. They’re still struggling now, even though they've all changed their focus to online.

I must be honest. I’m part of the problem. I used to read a print newspaper every day. Several of them. I used to collect them on vacations so I could see what my colleagues were all doing and how well they were doing it. I used to think I’d never do anything but work for one. But today, I have a job at an Internet startup company, and if it weren’t for my parents, (and my boss who still gets the NY Times daily for work) I would rarely read a printed newspaper.

My parents are not the norm. They don’t own a computer or know how to use one. In fact, they weren’t sure what I did when I worked for one. And now that I work for a Web site, I might as well be working on another planet.

I, on the other hand, have a laptop at home connected to the laptop at work. I have a laptop at work connected to RSS feeds from around the world. I read more news online than I ever did when I collected newspapers to read. And my Blackberry connects me to everything, all the time, even in traffic. Not a day goes by in which I don’t know what’s happening, when it’s happening, updated by news alerts. So by the time the newspaper arrives at my doorstep every morning, I’ve heard it all several times over.

The only time I check the news is when it’s breaking. For example, when the recent shooting at a Wendy’s restaurant occurred down the street from where I live, I went to my local newspaper’s Web site to check out the coverage. I was able to share the name of a person in the restaurant at the time with an editor in another part of the state where that person was from – helping an editor in a newsroom I used to work in get a local angle to a story that got national attention.

I have, unfortunately, become the reader I wanted so badly to attract when I was working in newspapers, which circuitously gets me back to my point.

If we want to attract readers to newspaper Web sites, we have to be more than we have become. And one of the things I think we lost along the way was our commitment to being the historical memory of our communities. Between the buyouts and the layoffs, employees with years of experience in their communities no longer work at a place where they can share their knowledge with readers.

So here’s a suggestion. Give up your paid archives. If you were making the kind of money from them you needed, you wouldn't be laying off folks in the newsroom. And because I'm the kind of news person who hates telling you what to do without offering to make it better, here's an idea to consider.

Set up a Wikipedia for your community with topics based on the beats that are important to your readers. Use the collective knowledge of your readers to build that historical knowledge for your news Web site. Then assign upkeep of the facts of those entries to reporters in your newsroom – or if you’re a larger newsroom and still have a librarian or two, they can help as well. Older reporters who might be annoyed by the new work could be swayed by its ability to become a community resource. And reporters new to a particular beat might actually learn something about their community before they go out to cover it.

Then, if you consider my previous blog on links, you'd be able to use it to give readers a deeper online content experience. Every time a name pops up in a story or a well-known court case is mentioned, you can use your community's Wikipedia. And if you're like the editors I have spoken with who have concerns about the resource's accuracy, you will know that your version has been fact-checked by your staff as part of your new media efforts.

In the end, you become more useful to your readers. And who knows? You might attract an advertiser or two along the way.

Something to Link About

The last few weeks, I've spent a lot of time talking about connecting the dots for readers.

You'd think this would be second nature to someone who spent 20 years in newspapers, the last decade as an editor and the last several focusing on online projects. In my previous position, I once published a real estate database on a Friday afternoon -- a promo to a traditional Sunday print piece - that received so many hits in the first hour that it crashed a corporate server. Professionally, that probably wasn't the high point of my career, but it was a rousing readership success.

My point is, I have some experience in online content.

Still, since I took this job as an editor at an Internet startup (which launched its first Web site three months ago), I've learned that I wasn't nearly as good at giving readers what they wanted as I thought. I know this because, every day, I get a report that tells me where I didn't connect the dots for them. It shows me where they went to on the site, how long they stayed and at what point they left. When you know that, you can see where you need to focus your attention.

Over time, I've learned that by connecting the dots (from story to story, from writer to stories, from source to story and so on), I can improve the numbers. For example, I took one story on the site with a few links. I added links to other stories on the site, special projects and outside sources. The story kept readers engaged for more than an hour.

Yes, that was one story.

And yes, that was one hour.

And so, as you can imagine, lately I've been big into links. My e-mails with reporters go something like this...

Link it up…More links please…WHERE are those links?

This week, an editor (and friend) who manages a mid-sized newspaper in a cold state asked me why I had become the link queen. And I tried to explain what I've learned in a way I thought might be helpful for him - and for his readers. I used an example of a story about hockey that was published in his newspaper and on his Web site.

To keep this experiment all above board, I must make a confession. I am not a big sports fan even though I have overseen several sports departments in my career. However, I do admit I did enjoy tailgating as a student at the University of South Carolina. And when I lived near Philly, I did see the 76ers play, if you could call it that. And recently I watched the Dodgers beat the heck out of the Cardinals before the end of the third inning in a Spring training game.

So you know, I could have picked any sport for this little exercise.

The hockey story was no different than any other sports game story I have ever read. Here's what happened at game. Here are some names of standout players. Here's what the coach said. Blah blah. (PLEASE NOTE: For today, we're going to skip Marisa's lecture on good writing as the foundation for getting anyone to read your stuff, regardless of whether it's published in print or online.) Anyway, the whole story might have been 15 inches long. So I get to the end of it, and look around. But I can't find what I am looking for.

There is no "Click here for more about the team", which I'm sure has been written before. No "Find more stories by this reporter", who obviously has written them before. And no links to player or coach bios in the story, even though there are probably profiles in the newspaper's archives, somewhere. Nope. Nada. Nothing. Not a single link.

Ok, now imagine you're a hockey fan. (Big stretch for me but I'll try.) After you read this story, are you going to stay on the site? Are you going to come back to read news about your team? Or are you going to find a Web site that does more than offer surface information on your team?

Now, (Forgive the cliché) put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine you're a newspaper editor. You spend every day struggling to keep your readers as they drop your newspaper and head online to read about their favorite hockey team. What can you do to get them to read your hockey coverage, if not in print then online?

(If you still aren't getting it, here's a hint: Connect the dots.)

But wait, I'm not finished. I have one more thing for you to think about.You're a newspaper editor. You're still struggling every day to keep readers as they drop your print product and head online to read about their favorite hockey team.

Now instead of using the hockey story for this exercise, use the entire newspaper.

It's definitely something to link about.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Poem, a Pocket, a Love of Words

Today I am using this blog as a public service message. I assume anyone reading is a lover of the written word. So here's my request. Consider this effort from the American Academy of Poets called "Poem in Your Pocket." On April 17, the organization is asking folks to "celebrate the power of a poem" by sharing a copy of your favorite with folks you meet through the day.

Write about it or participate in it, whichever you prefer.

In a world that seems to have forgotten the importance of words, I would ask that you consider a gentle reminder to others that words can make a difference in the world.

Monday, March 3, 2008

An Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks

They say an old dog can't learn new tricks. I know they're wrong.

About a month ago, I wrote about my "journalism dad" Don Moore, who had spent several decades working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He was my deskmate for several years -- a grump of a man with a big heart and an eye for a good news story. I used to tell people, "Don Moore could find a story in a crack in the sidewalk." And he could.

Last month, he got laid off in a round of cuts at the family-owned newspaper on the west coast of the state. It was just one more in a long line of layoffs at newspapers across the country. But because it was a small paper, it seemed no one even noticed he was gone.

Don started in the business when the writing tools of choice were a pad, a pencil and a typewriter. So in an economic climate like the one facing newspapers today, it was unlikely he was going to find another job. When I discovered he'd been let go, it felt like someone knocked the wind out of me.

So I wrote an entry in this blog, from a former newspaper-editor-turned-web editor, that asked the newspaper industry when it was going to find the answer to what ails it? And when it does find the answer, where will all the people like Don Moore be? You know the folks I'm talking about. They're too old for an industry that is struggling, if not dying. And too young to retire and sit out on a beach thinking about the good, old days.

After a few more days of stewing about it, I decided I couldn't sit around and wait for anyone else to come up with the answer -- because it may never happen. So I called him and asked him if he wanted to write for the web. Four weeks, a new laptop, a wireless router and some story assignments later, he had his first web-only byline on, the site we launched in December. And while he's still tryiing to figure out links and attachments, the same skills that served him in the newspaper industry have found a new home writing stories on the Internet.

Today, I got a series of e-mails from some friends I met when I attended the Maynard Institute a few years ago. All smart, savvy young professionals who fell in love with journalism and wanted to make a difference. The title of the string of notes was "another round of layoffs." And from newsrooms around the country, they e-mailed one-after-the-other about the various states of economic well being at their companies. It was not a pretty picture.

Given that I'm out of the traditional print industry for a time, I could only sympathize, send good wishes and hope for better days for them -- and for the profession itself. There was, in my mind, one happy thought. At least one of the fine newspaper journalists I know has been able to find his way to another job doing what he loves to do -- writing good stories -- in the new media landscape.

And that's got to count for something.