Old-School Newspapering

You may have already seen this—it's been making the rounds over the past day or two—but it's great: A scarifyingly hilarious story in which a group of modern-day college journalism students produce a newspaper the old-fashioned way—you know, the way those of us of a certain age did it back in the day. With typewriters, darkrooms, layout sheets and other antique stuff (they failed to find a hot waxer, though. Pity).

Man, do I feel old. If anybody needs me, I'll be reading the news on my iPad, thank you very much. What is this "paper" stuff you speak of? Now get off my damn lawn, you kids. 


Read It and Weep

I wonder sometimes if the people who run news organizations actually look at their own Web sites.

I mean, look at them the way readers do. Use them to find out what's going on, to get the news, to search for needed information. I ask because a lot of big-name news Web sites occasionally seem designed to frustrate readers as much as possible.

I'm not just talking about bad design, endless lists of small-type headlines or site searches that simply don't work, often in comical ways. Those are all sins, of course, and they're chronic. Brad Colbrow added a few more in an excellent post last week, including missing links, incredibly jumbled templates and photo thumbnails that click through to…photo thumbnails. There are other good gripes in the comments on his post.

I'll add a few myself: Pages that load incredibly slowly and/or erratically—you know, so that when you click on the link you want, items jumping around on the still-building page cause you to accidentally click something else. Or how about those maddening 30-second pre-roll ads, not just on videos, but even on slideshows, for crying out loud (I'll bet the stats triumphantly show the item was clicked, but fail to note that many readers are long gone three seconds into the commercial.) Or how about faulty Flash-laden ads or content packages that unfailingly crash the visitor's browser?

There's a good one in Colbrow's post that drives me nuts: random links to vaguely related stories or galleries, inserted into body text every couple of grafs to break up story flow (magazine sites, never the brightest examples of digital thinking, are principal offenders here). How did anybody think this was a good idea? I saw one today that's a really unfortunate howler:

(That's from a Time story that ran on Yahoo, but Yahoo added the oddly juxtaposed link, which wasn't in Time's original.)

These things aren't just embarrassing. They all make news sites harder to read and harder to want to come back to. Readers are smart. They know when they're seeing sloppy work, and with unlimited choices in the digital world, they'll take their eyeballs elsewhere.

News sites don't seem to understand that user interface and user experience are critically important online. Instead, they're rife with this sort of sloppy stuff. That's why I wonder whether the people who run news sites read them regularly. Then they'd notice these things that drives readers away and exert a little more quality control.


American Newspapers: Rise and Fall

There's a fascinating piece of data visualization here, done by a group of Stanford researchers, tracing the rise of the American newspaper, and its march west, beginning in 1690. The visualization, which plots 140,000 U.S. newspapers, continues through today, so you can see the number of papers diminishing, as well, over the past couple of decades.

Newspaper map

Good stuff, and sort of reminiscent of the animated map tracing the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane's media empire in the fictional "News on the March" newsreel in Citizen Kane (at the 2:30 and 7:10 mark, but watch the whole thing, because it's great cinema!).

Is the Alacarticle the Answer to Selling Content Online?

Could it be that publishers are looking at the notion of charging for online content all wrong?

To date, just about all the talk and experiments with paid content have involved selling online subscriptions or, on the iPad, individual issues. Makes sense, since that's how publishers historically have sold their print versions. Or, actually, it doesn't make sense, because many of us believe that online customers who can find equivalent free content elsewhere will simply ignore the publishers' subscription/single-copy offers.

We need more empirical evidence to prove or disprove these theories and settle this religious debate, but so far, only a handful of specialized sites have made online subscriptions work, the jury is still out on The New York Times' much-watched Web subscription effort and single-copy magazine sales on the iPad started strong and then sputtered in most cases.

But maybe there's another model: selling content by the article.

Last week, Fortune magazine published a big takeout on Apple—and held it off the magazine's Web site. Instead, it made Inside Apple available as a downloadable file for Amazon's Kindle, at 99 cents a pop. 

By all accounts, it sold like hotcakes, even reaching the Top 10 in Amazon's Kindle bestseller list. Behold: the a la carte article. Let's call it the alacarticle.

The alacarticle may not be the ultimate answer to legacy media's online revenue woes—no one solution is. But Fortune's experience, while a limited sample, of course, seems to indicate that readers will pay by the story, under the right conditions.

For years, some publishers have babbled hopefully about "micropayments," a term none of them really seemed to be able to define. Theoretically, I think, it meant that any article could be sold for a few pennies, but the publishers could never quite figure out how to actually collect those pennies (long-established online payment systems like, oh, PayPal, Amazon and iTunes being just a tad too futuristic for these publishers to grasp, apparently). 

For all the talk about the micropayment idea, the problem is that, even with the long tail, there's not a big market for the vast majority of articles, and too much free competition. Advertising is still a much better bet for mass-market online publishing revenue, as it always has been in print.

But there may be a market for certain, high-interest, high-value articles, as Fortune is demonstrating. If the (excellent) argument against online subscriptions is that readers can usually find pretty much the same news and information elsewhere, for free, then maybe Fortune's alacarticle experiment shows that there may still be specific stories or packages that could be held off the Web and made available as Kindle or iBook downloads, or apps.

The number of potential stories that fit this model is small—they probably have to be major and exclusive—and there's a calculable tradeoff in lost traffic and associated ad sales. But the Fortune experiment points to a new way of selling content that lets customers buy just a story they want, rather than a broad subscription they may not care for. Other examples are appearing as well: Long-form journalism site Byliner is also selling content by the story for Kindle and iPad, incidentally. And ProPublica's "Wall Street Money Machine" investigation was just made available as a 99-cent Kindle download.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because there's a parallel in the recent evolution of the music industry, which found its favorite form of distribution, the album, unbundled by iTunes so that customers could buy just the songs they wanted, individually. The music industry is still grumbling about this, but selling songs a la carte is preferable to not selling albums at all. Maybe that's also true of selling alacarticles, as opposed to subscriptions. It's giving the customers what they want, at a price they're willing to pay. What a concept.




A (Slightly) Premature Report of the Death of The New York Times

Former Oracle/Microsoft exec Dick Brass famously predicted more than 10 years ago that the last print edition of The New York Times would roll off the presses in 2018. Slate and a group of parodists have jumped the gun a bit, imagining a suddenly final edition of the Times. In the grand tradition of 1978's Not The New York Times, it's hilarious. But I'm still betting on Brass' prediction.  NYT Slate

Understanding the Business of Journalism: The Columbia J-School Report

Everybody in journalism should spend time reading Columbia Journalism School's voluminous new report on the digital journalism business. Bill Grueskin and team have done a superb job of surveying and encapsulating, in very clear (and clear-eyed) language, the current state of the online journalism business, including a wealth of interesting examples and case studies.

It's hard to summarize the many findings here, many of which have been clear to a lot of us for a long time. At the risk of oversimplifying, I'd say the report concludes that there's money to be made in digital journalism, that there are online news sites making money (usually by keeping costs very low), and that the onus is on legacy journalism businesses to double-down further reinvent themselves to adapt to the revolutionary changes in the industry.

But probably the best conclusion in the study is a striking quote from Randall Rothenberg, the former New York Times reporter who now runs the Internet Advertising Bureau: 

"Here's the problem: Journalists just don't understand their business."

Amen to that. I'm becoming more involved in teaching business and entrepreneurialism to journalists (I taught an entrepreneurialism course at University of Maryland this semester, I'm leading a session on business at a Knight Digital Media Center journalist "boot camp" next week, etc.) for precisely that reason: It's critically important that journalists become more business-literate and understand how their business works. Reading the Columbia report will go a long way towards educating journalists about their business, what's happening to it, and how to start fixing it.

Where’s The Pulitzer Buzz?

Anybody else notice how quiet it's been on the Pulitzer Prize front this year? The announcement of this year's winners is just a few days away—but there doesn't seem to be a lot of chatter or speculation about them.

That's a real contrast to years past, when journalists would gossip about possible winners and lists of alleged finalists would leak a few weeks before the award. But I've been asking around, and this year there seems to have been no leaks and little, if any speculation.

With newspapers still fighting for survival, newsrooms apparently have other priorities. The veteran editor of one daily tells me he'd even forgotten the Pulitzers were coming up. A friend who works in an oft-honored Pulitzer newsroom says there's been little if any buzz about this year's awards in his shop.

It's a sign of the times, er, Times, I guess. As in the record industry, where business woes have made the Grammy Awards a much less important event over the past few years, the usual excitement about the premier journalism honor apparently is taking a backseat to just getting the daily journalism jobs done. Or maybe it's just that the Pulitzer board's longstanding efforts to crack down on leaks have killed the usual chatter.

That's not true of all the Pulitzers: on the cultural side, there's buzz on arts sites about possible winners for drama and literature. And one horoscope site is promising Sagittarians that they've got a shot at a Pulitzer Prize…in August. Now that would be a prize-winning story!

Update: I agree with Jim Romenesko's observation that Joe Strupp's departure from the Pulitzer beat has helped quiet things down. But I think there's also less interest this year because newsrooms have more critical priorities.

The Instant iPad App

For publishers, iPad apps are all the rage these days. Everybody's developing whizbang apps to take advantage of Apple's popular tablet—even though, when you get right down to it, most of the apps aren't huge improvements over the publications' existing Web sites, which are just a touch away on an iPad screen. Still every newspaper and magazine wants to have its own iPad app, so they're spending zillions to develop them, business models be damned.

But do you really need to build your own app? It turns out there are other tools out there that can create good-looking apps, from publisher's feeds, at minimal cost. Three of the best-known ones are Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, which create slick, high-quality iPad publications from various combinations of users' Twitter and RSS feeds. Good stuff, and I'm surprised we haven't seen publishers license private-label versions of these platforms to create cheap, easy iPad apps for themselves.

And now WordPress has made creating a news app—or at least an iPad-compatible blog—even easier. Got an iPad? Got a WordPress blog? Check out your blog in Safari on the iPad, and prepare to be amazed. (If you don't have a WordPress blog handy, here's a good hyperlocal one, by my friend Dan Woog, from whom I first heard about this trick. Sorry, I can't help you if you don't have an iPad!)

Very quietly, WordPress has rolled out a nice iPad "Onswipe" theme for all 18 million of its blogs, automatically making them iPad-friendly. You get a nice title page, an iPad-like layout of posts, and the ability to swipe across the screen to change pages—all requisite features of any good iPad app, all automatic for any WordPress blog. The popular blogging platform has had a similarly good-looking, simplified mobile version for smartphones for a while now. No muss, no fuss—instant compatibility with the latest in mobile computing.

The point is, you don't need a team of developers to create a good-looking iPad app or iPad-friendly site for your publication. Why waste the money building a custom app? WordPress, like Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, is proving that a simple, universal iPad-in-a-box solution may be a much better way to bring publications quickly and easily into the tablet age. 


The New York Times’ Porous Paywall

I think there's a rule today that every media-business blogger has to weigh in on the New York Times' finally announced online subscription plan, and I'm going to do my part by deferring to Felix Salmon's excellent analysis, which I think is spot on:

What does all this mean for the New York Times Company? I can’t see how it’s good. … By my back-of-the-envelope math, the paywall won’t even cover its own development costs for a good two years, and beyond that will never generate enough money to really make a difference to NYTCo revenues. Maybe that might change if the NYT breaks its promise to offer full website access for free to all print subscribers. But that decision would be fraught in all manner of other ways.

For the time being, though, I just can’t see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?

Agreed—this really looks like small potatoes, perhaps just a sop to virulent "we must get paid!" factions within the Times. I think it's just porous enough that it won't affect more than a small number of die-hard Times readers—and I'll bet most of them are already subscribers to the print edition, and thus will get the online version at a weird discount

Me, I'm in the latter camp—I still get the printed Sunday Times, so the online version will be free for me. Truth be told, as much as I'm a fan of the Times, I can't imagine paying for the online edition. As with the Wall Street Journal, the Times paywall appears to be porous enough that I'll be able to read what I want, through links and the occasional site visit, without triggering the subscription bar.

Critically, I understand that what I pay for when I subscribe to the print edition is printing and delivery of the paper. Those physical production costs don't exist online (per the comments below, advertising foots the bill for the journalism), and thus I don't understand why I'd pay $15 a month for NYTimes.com.

In any case, as Salmon says, it doesn't appear this is going to make a material impact on the Times' finances. Which really makes you wonder what the point of it all is, except maybe to make some sort of "we must be paid" statement. Sorry: Just wanting to be paid does not a business model make.



Gannett: Repainting the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Circulation is down. Ad revenue is down. Staffers are facing week-long furloughs, yet again. There are whispers that USA Today is in trouble. The classifieds business is pretty much gone. Newspapers are dying. The broadcast business isn't much better. Even the company-backed Newseum is a disaster.

So what's Gannett going to do?

Change its corporate logo and slogan, of course. Of course.


That's the spiffy new logo—guess they laid off most of the company's designers amid all that cost-cutting. And that's the equally plain new corporate slogan: "It's all within reach."

Scintillating. That's really gonna make me run out and buy a Gannett paper. Corporate rebranding—yeah, that's the ticket. As has already been pointed out, it worked so well for Knight Ridder. Remember them?

What a joke. What exactly does Gannett gain from this farce? A fresh coat of paint on the corporate logo and a meaningless slogan aren't going to move the needle at all.

And what does Gannett lose? Do the math. How many hours of high-priced executive and consultant time went into choosing and market-testing the new logo and slogan? Plenty. How much is it going to cost to change stationery, reprint business cards, update signage, run ads, etc., to implement and publicize the new logo? Conveniently, Gannett isn't saying, although CEO Craig Dubow allows that it's "significant." It's safe bet that "significant" means millions of dollars. (Not to be missed: The voluminous corporate-mandated guidelines on use, care and feeding of the new logo.) 

Those are dollars that could have been used to keep Gannett's staffers from being furloughed, or to invest in interesting innovations and startups, or even to hire a few more reporters at the chain's staff-strapped papers. Instead, they're being thrown to the winds in a burst of corporate-suite ego that's right up there with Gannett's elephantine—and increasingly empty—corporate headquarters in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. (Hey Gannetteers: If you haven't been to corporate HQ, you've missed the eye-popping experience of strolling across the highly polished marble floor of the building's vast, arena-sized lobby to the security desk located about a football-field's length from the front doors. I kid you not. See photos below. The annual costs of heating and cooling that cavernous empty space probably could pay for another round of city hall or cop reporters at several Gannett papers.)

Gannett's not totally dumb—the company has some interesting local and advertising initiatives going on. For instance, check out TheBoldItalic, its sharp, stealthy San Francisco site for 20-somethings. Smart stuff.

But spending millions for a corporate rebranding to adopt a blah new logo and dumb slogan? Not so smart.

Gannett 1

Gannett 2