Tag Archives: new journalism

Fumbling Through the Chicago Journalism Townhall

I was grateful to attend the Chicago Journalism Town Hall today, organized by Ken Davis, a long time WBEZ news director, with the purpose of exploring, essentially, how to save the Chicago news business.

I said I was grateful for going because I thought I was going to listen and partake in a thoughtful conversation on business models, to explore what works/what doesn’t, where the news is headed, etc.  What I got was much different.

Image Credit: www.bwog.net

Image Credit: http://www.bwog.net

A quick glance at the experienced and talented panel kind of said it all.  A lot of big names in Chicago journalism were up there.  Glaringly absent though were advertisers, managers and any academics from some of the fine Chicago j-schools.  Basically, what was needed to have a thoughtful conversation looking at different angles of the journalism business was not included (except for Andrew Huff of Gapers Block and Ben Goldberger of Huffington Post).  Instead, we got what was to be expected from a room full  journalists and PR pros in a crumbing industry – a lot of complaining.

The conversation actually started out on the right note.  Mike Miner from the Reader said that papers are like utilities who are unprepared for this day in age and has to be replaced by “younger, brighter and more creative managers.”

It became a bitch-fest full of bad ideas from there.

John Calloway said that the advent of online media was leading to traditional journalists’ stories being “stolen” and not credited elsewhere on the web.

Geoff Dougherty of ChiTown Daily News advocated the non-profit business model for new media ventures.

Carol Marin of the Sun Times argued that big media and their budgets are needed so that journalists can challenge access to sealed and hard-to-get documents in court.

Eric Zorn of the Tribune said the problem with Chicago journalism isn’t lack of interest, it’s how to monetize that interest.

Lee Bey said that newspapers were successful only when vertically integrated.  The news organizations had to own the means of production and the delivery mechanisms.

Another high(low)light came from Carlos Hernandez-Gomez who said that non-”professional journalism” brought stories with a point of view.  Taking a position, he said, is not journalism.  Hmmm.  Was he aware of the whole media bias thing floating around out there in the world?  Or the fact that both the Tribune and Sun Times endorses candidates.  Does that maybe call into question “accurate” reporting?

Finally, PR pro Carolyn Grisko suggested journalists should stop giving away content for free.  Content should be paid for by the people who use it.  Wait, didn’t the New York Times abandon the Times Select model because it failed?  I thought we were over the paid content wall of several years ago.

Eyes started popping though when Sachin Agarwal, President and CEO of dawdle.com, argued that online publishers can make money and can make big money.  Traditional media outlets just had to abandon their ways of doing business and adopt new models of sharing, linking and delivering news in compelling ways.

Brad Flora, founder of WindyCitizen.com, then pointed out how far the panelists had gotten off track.  First, he said traditional journalists stole stories and story ideas without credit to their original authors constantly.  There is no recognition of that.  Second, news aggregators like his site and other online media who link out are good things for traditional journalists.  They need not fear traffic diverted from their sites.  After all, Flora said, good content will get noticed and the crap ignored.  The good content will get linked to and that’s just good for any journalist and media outlet looking to sell advertising.

Carol Marin brought some sensibility to the panel when she responded to Flora that she did sense the panel was not looking beyond their narrow worldview.  But just as much as journalists have to learn from new media pros, new media pros also have stuff to learn from journalists too.  That’s a great message.

But, if I can pontificate here, the panelists missed the point big time and it’s clear the next generation of media pros did get it.  I talked about the Tribune‘s bankruptcy months ago and said at that time good content rules.  In other words, there’s always a market for good content.  In the 0nline and linked world, good content is easier to find and connect with.  Journalists need to focus on content and the other side of the business needs to focus on delivering content in a way that makes sense, listening to their audience and building relationships with them.  That’s the formula cystalizing for successful and sustainable media.

Big Media Playing Old Media Games

Some very interesting articles have come out in the last week highlighting big media companies’ quests to win the audience share game.  After so many years of playing that game in the TV, newspaper, magazine, etc. markets, online is now the focus of big media’s attention and money.

CNN.com yesterday reported that 21.3 million people logged on to watch the Obama Inauguration ceremony.  That crushes the company’s previous traffic record of 5.3 million viewers.

With numbers like 21.3 million viewers, CNN has a taste of what viewer capacity can be and how to adjust their consumption goals.  That will surely play into its advertising strategy.

Image from NYTimes

Image from NYTimes

Speaking of advertising strategy, K.C. Estenson, the CNN.com’s new GM, places a higher priority on time and clickthroughs than simply traffic.

The idea behind this is that advertising can only be effective if people are engaged in CNN.com’s content.  Readers have to spend a meaningful amount of time on the site to view everything that is happening.  That of course, benefits ads, CNN’s revenue stream.

Interesting to note as well, CNN.com is pushing to be more sensational than its TV sibling.  If it’s possible to do that without compromising what is left of CNN’s news reporting, CNN.com might evolve into something much more  entertainment focused than news reporting (if it’s not already).

Finally, my hometown Chicago Reader published a great article by Michael Miner on why talented and established writers would write on the Huffington Post, among other sites, for free.

The argument goes that the Huffington Post has a massive audience and payment for writers comes in the form of exposure.  Of course, exposure means little if a writer does not have a personal brand – website, published works, social media, blogs, etc – that can help convert their Huffington Post readers.

Anderw Sargus Klein, writing on Splice Today, thinks those benefits are pretty good for a writer.  I don’t disagree.  But, I do think the Huffington Posts’ model of having a more or less being wide-open model to hundreds of bloggers will eventually lead to its diminishing place in the online journalism world.

The reason for that is fragmentation.  We see media fragmenting at a hyper rate in traditional media.  I beleive online journalism will also fragment significantly.

The problem with the Huffington Post is that its mandate is too big.  Tighter vision and focused coverage I think would benefit any online publication.

Surprise? Tribune in Ch. 11

News of the Tribune Co.’s bankruptcy this morning was hardly surprising.  In fact, I was most surprised to see the Tribune simply mentioned when I went to the NYTimes website this morning just because  I can’t recall the Times ever referring to the Tribune for anything.

The Tribune joins the Chicago Sun Times in financial trouble, calling into question whether America’s third largest city will cease to have any, let alone two, major daily papers.

This got me thinking, how has the Tribune gotten into this financial mess?

Horizontal Growth

Over the course of many years, the Tribune has acquired other media entities, including newspapers (L.A. Times), T.V. (WGN) and radio (AM 720 in Chicago).  For decades this seemed like a good move because TV, print and radio were simply the sources of information distribution.

I have a feeling that over time, the Tribune just got too big.  Plus, all forms of traditional media advertising, the way these outlets make money, have been hit hard simultaneously as ad budgets get allocated further away from print, TV and radio.  Enduring all these blows at once must have been crippling.

I think the reality that TV, radio and print really were not the same business, became very evident as the Tribune began falling.  On the surface, yes, they are all media and they all survive on advertising.  But beyond that, they are different businesses and it’s simply hard to be great at the newspaper business, and the TV business, and the radio business.  Scalability could probably be reached through owning many outlets within the same the medium – all print or all TV, for example.

Applying the Wrong Prescription

Then along came the Internet, and these weird things called blogs and social media began to undermine traditional media and steal audiences.  Instead of trying to adapt in this new online world though, the Tribune began making changes within its own pre-internet world.  For example, its answer to declining readership was to put a heavier emphasis on entertainment news.  It seemed as if some genius at the Trib read a marketing report saying that entertainment news is a hot seller, and so the Trib better start focusing on entertainment to gain back audience.  This only compounded the Tribune’s downward spiral into not just being in a business where the means of production and consumption were changing, but the paper also no longer did what it was originally good at – reporting the news.  More on that later.

By making all these costly changes – heavier focus on entertainment, layout changes, cutting out news sections, etc. – the Tribune was not addressing how people wanted to get their news and how the Tribune could continue being relevant to a changing readership.

They could have stopped and said, “hey look at the Huffington Post” (who just got $25 million in funding), “what makes the windycitizen blog a hit?”  They didn’t ask those questions obviously because their delivery style has not changed and there has been no attempt at changing it.  These new forms of journalism that feature more interactivity were key to these sites’ successes.

Moving Away from Tribune’s Core Business

In the last few years, I find it extremely hard to tell anyone what area of the news the Tribune really owns anymore.  Local politics?  I’d choose a host of blogs that provide stories that I follow via Twitter.  Business?  Crain‘s has the Tribune beat.  Sports?  Maybe.  But, I’d still take ESPN.com to get a fuller picture of what’s happening.

My point is, areas that the Tribune used to be great at, they no longer are.  When I get up each morning and look at the local news section of the Trib online, I see anywhere between 10 and 20 stories, of which about 3 are interesting.  International news?  The Tribune is a joke.  Regional news?  I don’t see them taking leadership on this either.  City politics?  There’s some decent coverage, but again, there’s more depth from someone like a Ben Joravsky at the Reader or the blogs that cover this.

What about the Tribune’s columnists?  That’s probably the biggest turnoff about the Tribune.

Think about the New York Times again.  People read the Times because of minds like Tom Friedman and David Brooks.  The only one at the Tribune worth their salt is John Kass.  Kass has proven he has the chutzpah to report on tough issues, call out people when he believes they’re wrong and he’ll stick with a story.

The others? Eric Zorn is soft and Mary Schmich is uninteresting.  And what’s with Dawn Trice?  Do we really need a columnist devoting their three to four days per week column to race relations?  If the Tribune should know anything about the next generation of readers, it’s that the Millennial generation is a post-racial generation in so many ways.

Prescriptions for Success

Here’s my recommendations to getting the Tribune back on track:

  1. Develop a real online strategy.  Give readers the news and give them control over how they get their news.  Let them rate articles to determine what goes on the front page, put up new pictures from the day’s news instead of the same photos week in and week out.  Also, the Tribune should show respect to bloggers and other smaller news outlets.   A little humility and cooperation might go a long way to engender some good cooperation between news sources.
  2. Invest in good minds, make things interesting.  Right now, I don’t see any debates happening from the Tribune between its columnists.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Trib featured two smart people with differing political views to take on issues in order to make its readers think and question their own assumptions?
  3. Be really good at something.  If the Tribune is cutting its DC staff or its international staff, ok…then cover local politics better than anyone.  Give us good reporting and full coverage, with pictures, videos, etc.  Then, cut out the stuff that you’re not good at.  If I wanted to read about entertainment news, I’d go to People or US Weekly.
  4. Downsize the scope of media ownership.  I think being as big as the Tribune is, has hurt the company.  Again, it can’t do everything great.  It should pick a core business and be the best at it.  Get out of the businesses that it doesn’t understand or is not good at.

The Wild Card

Sam Zell is no ordinary owner.  He’s one of the keenest business people in the world and he knows what he’s doing by bringing the Tribune into bankruptcy.  I think the paper will emerge one day in much better shape than it is today – I wouldn’t dare say profitable but I’d say not hemorrhaging money.  Zell has the business understandings to fix this complex problem.

Three Mini-Case Studies on New Media

Three recent blog posts caught my attention and prompted me to think about the direction media is moving.  While I’ve blogged before about the slow-to-change nature of traditional (especially print) media, there is evidence that change is on the horizon.

Each of the following case studies present a different picture of how media is changing:

1. The New York Times recently profiled Voices of San Diego.  This in an interesting publication where veteran journalists have banded together to provide investigative stories about local issues.  The market niche is clear – these journalists are offering something unique in their coverage that other local papers do not.  Plus, other sister publications doing the same sort of journalism are popping up in cities across America.  Soon, the Times reports, these independent sites will join together in an association.

Flickr, mynameispiet

Image Credit: Flickr, mynameispiet

2. Chris Brogan recently blogged about his visit to Gannet’s headquarters.  The publisher of USA Today and scores of other papers brought Chris to speak with company leadership on the direction of new media and exchange ideas about Gannet’s attempts to change with the times.  They might be on to something, as Chris suggests.

3. The New American Foundation hosted Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who presented on the changing media environment and the need for government to embrace the changing media world.  I really like what Schmidt had to say and encourage you to listen to his address.

In short, media is at somewhat of a crossroads, and has been for a while.  Some publications, like the Chicago papers, are finding out that futilely trying to do what they’ve always done is not getting them anywhere (while ceasing to do some of the things that were actually good journalism).  Others, like USA Today and the New York Times, are experimenting and making changes, trying to figure out the balance between professional journalism and new media.

The ones who recognize, as Chris Brogan and Eric Schmidt point out, that their business is information sharing and not newspaper publishing, they will be able to adapt to the business model that works and carries them forward.

Local Publication Provides Election Service Via Twitter

The Pioneer Press, owned by the Chicago SunTimes group and publisher of dozens of Chicago neighborhood and suburban weekly papers, found a way to provide a unique and highly relevant service to its customers this election. Through Twitter, Pioneer pushed out election race updates to over 220 followers. On Election Day, updates came every few minutes sharing reports on the wait times at polling stations around the Chicago area.

Congratulations to the Pioneer Press for providing a true public affairs service and being highly relevant to readers this election. While the Tribune and Sun-Times use Twitter to push out stories it publishes online and in print, the Pioneer Press did a superb job of sharing content, showing relevant news updates not found anywhere else and responding to Twitter users questions. It demonstrated the true use of Twitter as a give and take medium. Rather than broadcasting messages as Jacob Morgan points out guest-blogging on Chris Brogan’s blog, which nobody really likes, Pioneer kept the conversation and interest alive.

I think this is a great lesson in the new journalism. Pioneer’s Twitter use proved that not all content can or should be published online or in print. Furthermore, the true value of a paper – especially a local paper – is to provide local information not covered by the larger city or national papers. Pioneer showed they are a true authority on local news.

A real community formed around Pioneer’s Twitter use and will continue to look to the publication for local info. I hope that Pioneer saw the value in Twittering and will continue to use it even after the election.

Just a Good Move for a Chicago Newspaper

No, I’m bot talking about the Tribune.  I’m certainly not talking about the Sun-Times.

I’m talking about the Chicago Reader.  I’ve been a fan for many years.  They’re such a good place to let me know what’s happening in this city from a multitude of perspectives.  Plus, it says it in an intelligent way…which I interpret as a way of telling readers it respects their intelligence.  (BTW, Ben Joravsky is an awesome reporter).

Until tonight though I never really looked to connect to them online outside of their website.  But I’m so glad that the Reader asked people on their front page to check out their Flickr group.  I found a mecca of artistic and professional-level pictures of Chicago, covering all sorts of subject matter.

Image from lauren*o on Readers Flickr Group

Image from lauren*o on Reader's Flickr Group

It certainly made me feel like I was sharing an experience with the people who posted those photos and wiyh others that are viewing them.  Plus, I felt like the quality and range of pictures – from postcard shots to the nitty gritty of Chicago neighborhood life – really fits perfectly with the style of writing and coverage of Chicago by the Reader itself.

The two big papers in Chicago have been on their way down for years.  Both seem to be victim of the changing media industry.  Why have they been so vulnerable?  Well, maybe because the foundation of their papers weren’t that solid to begin with.  But more importantly, the value they bring current readers is little to none.

The Reader is interesting though.  They’ve held this unique position as a city-wide paper that has a great understanding of local life, that is of course reflected in their coverage.  And Flickr is such a perfect social media tool to enable the Reader to “walk” their brand’s “walk.”

The results, unscientifically of course, is a readership that is loyal and happy.  You can count on the weekly Reader to deliver on their promise to tell me what’s happening, give the Chicagoans’ local angle, and bring me stories that I effects my life.

The New Journalism

We all know that journalism has changed drastically over the last ten years. In turn, the way stories are pitched, created and read have been turned on its head. There’s a great slideshow from slideshare.net that I wanted to post here for people to view:

I really like the new models of journalism that this presentation features as well as the new sort of jobs a journalist can have. The main point I have is linking. In this world, public affairs and news coverage is all about integration. The more information links to each other the greater the possibility it is for news to found by readers.

Big journalism may be decrying that their business model is damaged beyond repair. It’s also interesting to see how the big papers are clinging on to model of writing and publishing.

Here in Chicago, the Tribune and the Sun-Times are threatened. It’s conceivable that Chicago will be without a major newspaper in the future. That being said, what can these papers do?

One thing they’ve done is integrating more video with articles. Another approach has seen the both papers focus much more on celebrity gossip rather than the hard-core new and public affairs that these publications were founded and built a brand on. I think this new approach in particular has made both papers much less appealing to the point where I hate reading either of them.

Maybe it’s time to begin linking? That would mean hotlinking other stories and blogs outside their websites. Sure, it would draw readers away from their websites in the short turn, but it would create more interesting reading and greater community that would build readership in the long term.

If they don’t start changing business as usual, watch out Chicago, our big papers may go away and new paper could usher the city’s new journalism.