Just when you thought the news industry lost its sense of humor…

The entertainment guide Time Out Chicago (not to be confused with the suburban Daily Herald’s Time Out entertainment guide … oh, wait, that right … nobody outside 847 knows about the Herald’s Time Out) decided to have a little fun in time for April Fool’s Day by publishing a story about the guide naming weird-haired billionaire Donald Trump its publisher.

The eagle-eyed business magazine Crains’ Chicago Business picked up on this and, not realizing it was a joke, publishes it on its web site as a news story. Unfortunately, the story has been since taken down, but Crains did print a good-natured “we were punk’d” retraction.

This comes a week after a classic crosstown newspaper rivalry was made public. The Chicago Sun-Times, long a thorn in the mighty Tribune’s side, launched a contest for the best video criticizing Trib owner Sam Zell’s intention to sell naming rights to the hallowed ivy walls of Wrigley Field. The winner was a video created by a Tribune reporter and intern. The Trib flaunted the win, and the S-T sheepishly admitted it was a good gotcha.

Frankly, it was the best crosstown punk since a Rupert Murdoch-led Sun-Time photog got a picture of then Tribune columnist Mike Royko after he was handed a Zingo-laden copy of the S-T.

With all the gloom and doom in the news industry today, it’s nice to see some one out there still having some fun. And who would’ve ever thought the Tribune had a sense of humor (aside from that highbrow Niles Crane humor that no normal Midwesterner would understand).

For those of you who didn’t catch the Zell-Wrigley video:

Thank you, Carl Sessions Stepp!

In a column in the current American Journalism Review, Stepp provides a counterproposal for the profession that is too mired down in self-regret and waxing poetic on the past to do anything about saving itself from death.

Yes, Stepp says, there still is a place for good journalism in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Great writing and great reporting is still currency, but we need to realize our readers no longer want it by our terms.

To survive and thrive, Stepp points out, we must make the mass of information at our customers’ hands and help them make sense of it. Stress the HELP THEM. To do that, he recommends, in broad strokes:

• Make it better not worse

• Make it astonishingly, irresistibly better

• Make it easier, not harder, to use and enjoy

• Involve everyone from school kids to staff members to senior subscribers in the ultimate group science project of creating the greatest news outlets imaginable.

Two points that Stepp makes that is so important are:

1. The rank and file are ready for change. They are the ones who have been closest to the front lines for so long. They’re the ones who have survived the layoffs, buyouts and company sales. They want to change, and are willing to make the sacrifices needed to at least get back to a sense of normalcy. What’s holding them back? Stepp points out its a management system that’s afraid or unsure of its direction. Management needs to set a clear vision and commit, even if it is a leap of faith. I certainly believe in my personal instance, if our management would hold up the sword and yell “charge” was we look into the storm, our people would follow faithfully. But since there has been no clear vision dictated, many of our great talent (and young talent) have left the business and the industry. It’s a real shame.

2. It has to be a unified vision and direction. We and many other newspapers are still bogged down in border wars and fifedoms that inhibit innovation and change. Change will not occur if managers and executives are too concerned about losing or sharing some of their corporate turf. You can’t stop the clearcutting of the forest if you’re only concerned about your tree.

I hope Stepp’s column becomes required reading in the boardrooms of newspapers who are still unable to move forward. It’s too imporant to ignore, even if it does cut to the heart of what’s right or wrong about your current organization.

Michael Miner’s excellent column in the Chicago Reader this week features a discussion with former Chicago Tribune editor Richard Longworth, who, in a new book, laments on how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world as the major newspapers in the region, such as the Trib, Des Moines Register, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, focus their staffs on local news.

“As a former newspaperman,” he’s quoted in the column, “I worry about how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world that will determine their future. Once the Midwest boasted excellent newspapers—in Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Detroit, St. Louis, Madison, Cleveland—committed to telling their readers about their world.”

But these newspapers are no longer providing the world news because, he says in the column: “… All over the Midwest, local news, no matter how trivial, is squeezing out the global coverage that readers need to make sense of their world.”

Two fallacies arise with his argument:

1. Mr. Longworth is obviously an old newspaper man, and his arguments assume that newspapers are the only channel for Midwesterners to get a global perspective. This was true in ’70s. His vision fails to take into account that the explosion of information that has occurred with cable news and Internet. A Des Moines resident no longer needs to wait for the paper to hit his doorstep every morning to find out about the issues in Europe, China, or Sudan. They can now look to the likes of the New York Times, CNN, or the BBC to not only get that information, but also have that information delivered to them electronically.

2. Mr. Longworth also assumes the philosophy of “if you write about it, they will read it.” Reader habits have changed drastically since the ’70s, and unfortunately regional newspapers are finding readers have more interest in Main Street than Red Square. Even if the Cleveland Plain Dealer did a multi-part series on the effects of China’s emerging global dominance on the local economy, who beyond the Pulitzer committee would put the time and effort in reading the entire series? It is unfortunate, but people are more drawn to world affairs today when Bono or Angelina Jolie … not journalists from Cleveland … bring it to light.

The media … and old-world journalists … must realize that the medium no longer is the message. Information is the new product, not paper. Readers will pick and choose their information from a cafeteria of sources, both traditional and non-traditional. This is why marketing and branding is so important in the news business today (and why the new focus of Northwestern’s Medill School is a valid one).

In this world, CNN, BBC, New York Times and Washington Post will be among the leaders in the global information market. Local newspapers … at least those who have already established themselves as a “local source” and understand the transition to new media … will take the lead in the local news markets.

Unfortunately, Mr. Longworth, in this world there will be no room for “regional newspapers,” and their only choice will be to focus on being the local news leaders.

This doesn’t mean they still cannot do great analytical journalism, bringing global issues to the local level. It does mean, however, that no matter how big or small, a newspaper can no longer be all things to all people.

I didn’t get my newspaper this morning. No big deal, I just called the automated customer service line and, after punching a number of buttons, my account was credited (I’ll pick up a copy when I go to work later today).

But it got me thinking, especially in light of comments tagged to a MarketWatch column I read regarding job cuts as the death knell of newspapers. The readers, who I assume are NOT invested in the industry, did not complain about the lack of reporters to cover local events or the loss of experience and knowledge that usually accompanies buyouts of veteran journalists. They complained about delivery…not getting their paper in a timely manner or, if the did get it, not having the paper on their doorstep.

I’m wondering now if we as an industry added to our current death spiral early in the process by economizing on our delivery methods? When we replaced carrier boys and girls who threw the paper on your doorstep with independent contractors who do a “drive-by” delivery on the edge of the driveway, did we ignore something that customers held near and dear at a time when we needed more of that? Did automating customer service … and later outsouring it to call centers half a world away … alienate our customers even more?

When I was managing editor of a small daily in the ’80s, I hosted a “meet the editor” night at a local business expo. Readers were invited to stop by and tell me what was on their minds, good or bad. What I was surprised to hear was that people generally did not ask me why we didn’t cover some event, question our local leaders more, or write more about the little league team. They were more concerned about getting their paper at their door every morning. Those who did had high praise for their carrier, those who didn’t threatened to cancel their subscription if I didn’t do something soon.

As a young journalist, I had pretty much scoffed off delivery issues as the rant of misguided customers. But now, I realize that this is a pretty basic tenet of successful business: It doesn’t matter hown great your product is, if your customers can’t get it when they need it, it’s worthless.

As a seasoned veteran (who probably would be in line for a buyout if my company goes to that), In have to ask: Did we add to our current misery by not taking paper delivery more seriously many years ago?

There’s a lot of buzz on the blogosphere about Dallas Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban barring bloggers from the team’s locker room. Independent bloggers are outraged that their blogs are not being treated like established news organizations, or getting the respect they deserve, or exclusion infringes on First Amendment rights, etc.

Cuban may have his quirks, but he has a valid point in his reasoning. Space. There’s only so much room in the locker room for people, and limits must be set.

Many, many years ago I was covering a very nasty teachers strike in a far northwest Chicago suburb. It got so nasty that the school board took the teacher union leaders to court, claiming the leaders were breaking their contractual obligations to the district by encouraging teachers to reject offers and stay on strike. The courtroom was packed with teachers in support of the union. So packed that the judge cut off access to the courtroom because there was no more room. A few local reporters and I were allowed to sit in the jury box, which was also eventually filled with citizens.

Right before the hearing, a reporter from a Chicago TV station showed up with full camera ensemble and upon encountering the deputies, was denied access to the courtroom. At first, he asked a bailiff to see if one of the local reporters would be willing to trade places with him. Obviously, that didn’t work, so he went to the court administrator’s office and, with camera rolling, asked why the administrator was denying press access to the courtroom.

The administrator told him, “Let’s go the the courtroom and you can pick out which citizen I’ll have removed so you can have a seat.” That footage didn’t run on the 6 p.m. newscast.

Cuban’s argument about vetting media access to include independent bloggers is also noted, although maybe presented a bit brashly. The problem with legitimate bloggers … and there are some great ones out there … is that they are working on a platform that anyone can start up and claim ownership. Let’s face it, blogging has become the CB radio of the 21st Century. Any yahoo … including this one … can start one up and keep it going as long as he or she has an axe to grind. With the millions of blogs out there it would be nearly impossible to separate the number of request from bloggers who are trying to make a name and living for themselves from those who are trying to get great seats at a Marvericks’ game.

Maybe it’s time for the blog community to start policing itself, figuring out a way to raise the legitimate blogs from the chaff. Until that happens, I’ll say “10-4, good buddy” to any chance of independent blogging gaining credibility in the credentialed world

Here’s an item that was probably missed by most journalistic circles because … face it, how many of us have the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business on our RSS feeds?

Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, talks to GSB students about “How Newspapers Will Survive?” Here is a podcast. Be warned, it’s more than 30 minutes, but it’s well worth it:

Crovitz offers 5 axioms that newspapers must adopt to survive the current change in the market:

1. Consumers, not content nor distribution, rule the media industry
2. All media are new or soon will be
3. The medium is not the message and, if it is not careful, may block the message
4. Brands and content still matter
5. Software and information are more powerful together than apart.

This is a drastic departure from the current newspaper business model, in which the medium rules the industry and is the message. And while Crovitz’ assessment is on target, I continue to wonder why newspaper publishers, faced with such dramatic shifts in consumer and advertiser habits, continue to build new ideas and processes that are still tied to the paper-and-ink product.

Publishers don’t have to abandon newspapers, but they can no longer build their business around them. Consumers are no longer driven to papers, but they are still driven for news … now so more than ever. The core product of the industry needs to be content; news, information, advertising, etc. Newspapers must shift to a delivery method of getting that out to our customers.

In other words, I shouldn’t be working for a newspaper. I should be working for a news company. And my news company currently delivers news to my readers through a newspaper, web site, feed to mobile phone and niche publication. And my news company is keeping an eye out on future technologies that will make delivery of my news even more convenient and reliable for my readers.

In that core product are the values we hold most dear and are still relevant to readers. They will want my company’s news because we continue to offer great journalism, great storytelling, great photography and great multimedia. The news my company offers will be relevant to their lives and will enlighten, inform and entertain them. Brand and content will continue to matter as the industry evolves.

And, in order to be competitive and survive, newsrooms are going to need to adapt to the demands of our readers. Weeklies will need to adopt daily news cycles, dailies will need to adopt broadcast news cycles. Print and broadcast are now in competition for customers. As Crovitz points out, yesterday’s news is irrelevant to today’s consumers. It has been for years. We’ve been blind to that for too long.

Crovitz stops short of saying the industry needs to quit pining for the good old days and get it’s butt in gear to adapt to a changing marketplace. But newspapers must take that risk and let go of its past formulas in order to find success in the new world. For as Crovitz notes, in the future “all media are new or soon will be.”

Interesting question on political ads and news web sites, written by Poynter Institute faculty member Bill Mitchell. And a rebuttal from James N. Crutchfield, former editor of the Akron Beacon Jorunal.

As much as I admire Bill Mitchell, Mr. Cutchfield is correct. Mitchell’s is a typical reaction of “old world” media thinking in a new world environment.

Old world journalists must get over the axiom that readers cannot discern news from entertainment, or advertising. Readers, especially younger ones (and they ARE out there, contrary to popular belief), and more savvy and intelligent than we give credit.

If people can understand that Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Saturday Night Live is not an endorsement of her by the show or NBC, they can surely figure out a post-it web ad of Barack Obama on a news web site (and, again, we should also let go of the term “newspaper web site” because our product now is news, not paper) is not necessarily an endorsement of that news organization.

It’s a issue a lot of newspapers … including my current employer … still don’t get as they’re trying to attract new readers. Let’s respect our readers’ intelligence. Maybe then, they’ll respect ours.