Tribune Co. may go the cellphone route; Are you reading “The Facebook Gazette?”

Some nuggets to munch on:

* CNN this week reported that the Tribune Company is reportedly developing its own tablet device, which, according to sources, would be given to subscribers for next to nothing if they sign up for extended period subscriptions or partner with cellular services.

Give TribCo credit for finally looking up at what other industries are doing to maximize. Hmmmm. give the hardware to consumers at next to nothing, lock them into a long-term deal for services provided to the device, and make those services somewhat exclusive.  Sound familiar?

As the folks at Apple, AT&T, Verizon, Amazon and others have been showing us for the past decade, the money is not necessarily in the product (though Apple may be exempt from that fact), the real profits are to be made in the services provided and the timely and convenient delivery of those services.

Nice to see at least one newspaper company acknowledging they are looking at the success of others and trying to adapt that into a model that may work for them.

* The Business Insider recently ran a piece entitled “Facebook is Your New Local Newspaper.”  Now, while I agree I can get more gossip about friends and relatives off of Facebook than I can out of my local newspaper, I really question the logic behind the story.

Certainly, I can get ads and coupons off Facebook, but is the content provided by friends, relatives and  bloggers writing “just for fun.” (and I have to question whether they really are writing “just for fun.”) providing the care and non-partisanship that professional journalists put into their works?

In a few years, perhaps journalism will find its way onto Facebook (or whatever replaces it by then). But for now, when it comes to local news presented in a professional, non-biased fashion, I’ll take my local gazette over the Facebook one.



Crawling into the evening; Slovakia pays up; Is Patch leaking?

My last entry berated newspaper publishers for fearing to take a leap of faith and try new things to get themselves out of the hole they dug themselves into.

But, fortunately, there are a few out there that are willing to give it a try. One of them is the Orange County Register, which decided to run with some recent research on the habits of tablet owners and create a P.M. edition for the iPad. But instead of just turning back the clock 30 years and giving readers a newspaper with final stock prices, the Register team instead focused on a key demographic and is tailoring the content to fit what they are looking for.  So instead of an electronic newspaper for the masses, its more of a niche product for young South California professionals.

It’s being offered at a price. But, as the Knight Foundation researchers found, tablet users are willing to pay for content if they find valuable to their lifestyle, in terms of information and fit.

A  smart move by the Register, and an experiment everyone should keep an eye on.

Keep in mind that survival of individual news companies won’t be reliant on one big money-maker, but several smaller ones. A P.M. tablet edition tailored for that particular audience could very well be a step in that direction.

The future of paid content … in Slovakia?

As more traditional news outlets jump onto the pay wall wagon, media blogger Alan Mutter highlights one model that seems to be working overseas. Two takeaways he notes:

1. News organizations working together to make it work (though he doesn’t mention if they are in competitive situations)

2. It’s easy for customers to pay.

Would something like this work in, say,  New York or Chicago, where competition among news orgs is fierce? That is unsure,  but it would be interesting to see the lions sitting with the lambs for the sake of journalism’s future.

More Hype on Hyperlocal

Interest blog item from Erik Wemple of the Washington Post on AOL and hyperlocal site Patch.  It’s interesting that Forbes predicts AOL’s massive venture is expected to lose $100 million this year. Seems like Patch’s revenue model — which is very similar to the one that doomed other good ventures earlier in the decade — has yet to catch on for the majority of its 800 sites.

What makes it sad is that Patch was one of the largest employer of out-of-work journalists in the past year (notably at a lower pay scale than they were previously making). If AOL cannot build a sustainable revenue stream for Patch, these journalists will be back on the streets…and that’s the real tragedy.

Tablets and news: Back to the future?

Those of us who are children of television can remember the family oriented shows that would

Leave It to Beaver — © Universal Studios Home Entertainment, All rights reserved

"June, have you seen my iPad?"

always show the dad (whether it was Ward Cleaver, Ozzie Nelson or Jim Anderson) coming home from work, settling in the easy chair after dinner and opening a copy of the evening newspaper to settle in for an evening of catching up on the news.

That was life back in the ’50s, and in many ways Hollywood‘s dads reflected the habits of the average American. The U.S. was full of p.m. dailies to meet the information demands of the real-life Wards and Ozzies.

Then came the ’70s, and lifestyles changed.  Evening newspapers  died off like  black-and-white TV as morning newspapers fit people’s lifestyles more.

Today, newspapers — and news organizations in general — continue to struggle to find a profitable way to meet the growing information demands as people turn to electronic media to satisfy their thirst for news.

When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, we in the business looked at it as a game changer, but we weren’t sure just how it could change. Now, a year later, we’re seeing how people are using tablet devices, and the results may give news organizations hope in finding their way into the future.

I recently sat in on a News University webinar (co-sponsored by The Poynter Institute and the Knight Foundation) on reader trends on iPad and tablets. Some interesting takeaways from that webinar:

1. iPad use among the early adopters tends to be more for leisure than productivity (counter to PC use). Most use their device while sitting on a couch or chair.

2. Use of the iPad trends high during the early morning (5-8 a.m.) and late evening (after 8 p.m.) hours, again contrary to other platforms.

3.  iPad users spend more time with their device, and tend to read more long-form items.

4. iPad users tend to be more willing to pay for quality content.

Heavy use in the evenings? Users sit in easy chair or sofa? They spend more time on the device? Willing to pay for content?

Is the iPad creating a new generation of Ward Cleavers?

This is something newspapers in particular should take notice. It is a formula that worked 50 years ago, and maybe it’s time to develop p.m. editions for tablet platforms. Keep in mind that the experience as well as the content is what will sell your product, but it is something that worked before, and if readers are ready for it, it’s definitely worth trying again.

But you better hurry.

Ozzie’s waiting for you.

Journalism: A profession or trade?

I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback on my previous post whether a journalism degree is still worth the cost. It seems that many others are also wondering not only whether the cost is worth it, but whether what you’re getting for that cost is valuable as well.

I tied this in with a recent discussion across several Linkedin professional groups, asking whether journalism today is still considered a profession, or whether it is more of a skilled trade. Many respondents believe that journalism has always been a trade, and several thought an apprenticeship program may serve budding  journalists better than a 4-year college degree.

I think we can all agree that, in the days of the penny press, The Front Page and Citizen Kane, journalism was indeed a trade, where up-and-coming reporters worked as copy boys and runners for seasoned writers, learning from the masters and honing their own craft. Somewhere in the New Frontier era, colleges grew journalism curriculums and handed out diplomas. The Woodward-Bernstein era brought renewed interest in journalism and millions flocked to college to obtain j-diplomas. As newspapers became a big business, diplomas became mandatory to get into the field, and that’s when people started  looking at journalism as a profession (It probably didn’t help, as in my case, to have college textbooks with names like “The Professional Journalist”).

But, unlike other professions like lawyers, doctors and accountants, journalists do not have to go through an accreditation process that holds them to a level of standards and ethics. “Accreditation,” in a sense, came through the organization a journalist worked for.  A New York Times reporter, for example, would have higher standards in the face of the clients and customers as, say, a reporter for the National Inquirer.

 While news organizations have similar standards, there was a disparity among organizations in how those standards are applied and how violators were handled. We saw this in the 1990s with the revelation of plagiarism and misconduct at prestigious places such as the Times. There is no uniform, independent organization that holds a journalist’s feet to the fire, like there are for doctors and lawyers.

In that respect, journalists cannot be considered a true professional.  But it can certainly be considered a trade. Writing, reporting and editing are crafts that use tools which everyone can use. But there are several intangibles that cannot be taught in a class or a laboratory. I know how to use a saw, hammer and sander, but I cannot build furniture with the quality and detail of a master craftsman. Likewise, anyone can use a pencil, paper or computer keyboard, but there are certain skills — both tangible and intangible  — that separate the wordsmiths from the hacks.

The question remains whether these intangible skills is best nurtured in a classroom or a real world environment. And, while apprenticeships seem to be a more logical and cost-effect method of learning these skills, how many newsrooms today have the time and resources to become training fields for the journalists of tomorrow?

Finally, with the rise of “citizen journalist”-based hyperlocals and the “anyone can write a blog” era, is it time for the trade to have an independent accreditation board, by which members would be held accountable to a level of standards and penalties assessed for members who don’t?

More on this in my next post.

Is the cost of a journalism degree worth it?

Of course, we do not go into journalism for the money.

But, unfortunately, passion and commitment to be a watchdog for the public good won’t pay the bills.

We’ve watched the painful evolution (many would argue erosion) of the news industry over the past five years, and what we’re seeing is a profession that is losing value as the combination of advancing technology, changing readership habits and cheaper labor pools have left thousands of trained, experienced journalists without a decent way to eke out a living.

Couple that with the increasing costs of higher education today and you have to wonder: Is a journalism degree worth it anymore?

(An aside: This started as a discussion with a colleague about Congress cracking down on for-profit colleges, which federal studies say have a higher default rate on student loans. Under federal proposals tom make the schools more accountable for their practices, my friend – who is employed at a for-profit — noted the amount he paid for his education from Northwestern University’s Medill School would not pass what the feds are proposing for the for-profits.)

Is spending well over $100,000 for a 4-year degrees that promises an average starting salary in the mid-$30,000’s  (and more likely less in much of the country) worth the investment? In particular, will the cost of the nation’s premiere schools such as Medill ever pay off (especially noting a recent Sun-Times story listing a one-year master’s program at Medill for around $84,000)?

Some may argue that a degree from Medill or Columbia or other prestigious schools may have more clout in the business than other schools. But as traditional newsrooms get leaner and meaner, will we be seeing more of those graduates finding their first jobs at places like Patch or, where average pay is below the figures mentioned above?

Journalism many years ago was treated as a trade, where scribes worked their ways from the copy boy to reporter to editor, honing their crafts in the real world and learning from mentors. Somewhere along the way colleges developed degreed journalism programs and the craft evolved into a profession. However, unlike other professions, journalism had no accrediting boards to certify and regulate a set of standards and ethics among its members (like a bar association or AMA) — that was left to the individual newspapers.

As the industry struggles to find a new ground, journalism schools continue to adjust their programs to meet potential future needs. One trend we’re beginning to see is median companies partnering with schools  to provide real world laboratories through their hyperlocal sites. AOL’s has created Patch U. to provide its growing hyperlocal network as a real world laboratory for  budding journalists, and the Tribune Co. has recently made similar arrangements with local colleges for its Triblocal hyperlocal products.

These programs, however, harken back to the “trade” days when a journalists cut his teeth through real work, instead of in a classroom or laboratory. If a student completes a couple of years training at Patch U., will that make his diploma from State College moot? The answer to that lies in whether that experience could replace a journalism degree when the new journo is ready to make the next step.

The other question is where that step will be — if there will be any.

The business (or lack thereof) of hyperlocal

J-Lab’s five-year status report on its New Voices community journalism project released a few weeks ago was a good confirmation of the status of hyperlocal news. While it did not surprise anyone who has been following the development of hyperlocal media, it did highlight what has been working — and what hasn’t — in the industry.

The report brought forward 10 key takeaways; three of which really stand out: Engagement (with your readers and the community as a whole) is key; sweat equity counts for a lot (It you build a hyperlocal site, they will not necessarily come…in many cases, you have to drag them to it); and legacy news outlets are not yet in the game .

A fourth takeaway — community news sites are not yet a business — may be currently true, but may also distract the casual reader. While the report justly states that many volunteer efforts are showing promise for sustainability, others want to develop sites into a sustainable business capable of paying staff and contributors. A number of traditional and non-traditional revenue plans have been tried by the sites in the report, with few being successful, and none achieving a business model that pays full salaries and benefits. (This is the main reason, I suspect, that legacy news operations are hesitant to engage in  hyperlocal … it hasn’t proven itself to be the express ticket back to financial health.)

However, the key finding in the report (that wasn’t listed as a takeaway) is that the most successful sites were those developed  from the bottom-up. “It’s no coincidence that some of the most robust projects originated from the founders who are intimately versed in their communities and operate their sites as a labor of love,” according to the report.

That quote harkens back to community journalism in its hey day, long before the CNHI and GateHouse homogenization of small community newspapers began. They were operated out of storefronts by a small but dedicated staff who were well plugged into the communities, knew everybody and reported every thing, no matter how big or small. They were supported by the mom-and-pop businesses in the town and eked out an earnest  living.  (I’m reminded of a letter written by the publisher of the Tuskeegee, Alabama  newspaper a couple of years back, who argued he did not need an online presence because his newspaper was doing just fine in his town. And it probably was for the reasons mentioned above.)

Hyperlocal’s future is grounded in that dedication and engagement in the community — the more of it the better.  And that is the reason legacy news sites — especially those that pride themselves in being ‘local’ — need to establish a hyperlocal connection.  The local legacy news sites already have the foundation established. What they need to do is commit more sweat equity in establishing with local advertisers that hyperlocal is a grassroots approach of reaching the readers they want. And, it needs to be established that hyperlocal complement — not competes with —  the established news site.

Hyperlocal will not become successful from direction at the boardroom level  (sorry, AOL), but from engagement with the community at street level. J-Lab’s efforts are showing it. It’s time for local legacy news sites to step up and make the commitment to hyperlocal — not as a financial savior, but as a piece of a successful and profitable community news and information strategy.

When journalism, reader experience co-exist in harmony

A lot has said about the ‘demise’ of  journalism. That the watchdog role cannot exist in a short-attention-span world. That Flash graphics and multimedia can muddy the telling a good story. In short, that readers cannot be a part of the storytelling experience.

That is simply hogwash.

Case in point, this week the Washington Post unveiled its two-year investigation of the U.S. intelligence industry, entitled “Top Secret America.” Online, it is a brilliant example of how watchdog journalism can become a reader experience. In addition to the words (which there are plenty), the reader can explore a deep database through various portals. Readers in California, for example, can look at a map to find companies and agencies in their locale that are a part of the burgeoning industry, and gain stats from the local end. They can slice and dice the data compiled through the investigation process to get information that is pertinent to them. For the time or attention-strrved, there’s even a “Cliff Notes” intro video that introduces them to the series.

In short, this is watchdog journalism that allows the reader to be his own watchdog as well — a true user experience.

Experience the series here

(An aside…The Post started the series on Monday, instead of Sunday. The paper’s reasoning was to coordinate the series with their online reader traffic, which is down on the weekends. That is a sign that the newspaper recognizes its readership is not exclusively tied to its print product. Does your newspaper recognize that?)

Granted, the average newspaper does not have the resources to come up with such a massive experience. But the Post’s series is a great example of how today’s journalist has so many more tools to work with when telling the story. In addition to words, journalists have video, audio, interactive graphics and databases to work with. Reporters and editors need to realize words are not the only way to tell stories, and in some cases, may not be the best way to tell the story. Good journalism relies on deciding what tools best tell the story, and not crutching one up with another.

Readers in today’s world should experience great journalism, not just read it.

Are PDFs better than paper? No, but …

 Tribune Company Chairman Sam Zell told CNBC this week that he sees a day when home delivery will be replaced by PDFs. Zell sees that as a way for newspapers to reduce overhead (the costly capital expenses of presses, delivery trucks, etc.) as it tries to make good with fewer advertising dollars, as well as adapt the product to new technologies.

I posted this story on my Facebook page, which ignited a firestorm of angst from some of my followers. The idea of eliminating the paper-and-ink edition, they say, is to eliminate an experience that is unique and, by far, superior to any electronic version.

I certainly agree with my followers that the tactile experience of reading a newspaper is far different — and more enjoyable — to reading the same edition on my laptop or iPhone. It’s an experience that  just cannot be copied on any current electronic platform.

However, when I look at my teenage children and their friends — as well as many of my younger co-workers — I see their faces  buried in the screens of their cellphones and iPods,  reading text messages from one another or updating their Facebook profile. I’ve come to realize that this is their “newspaper”  experience. They are growing up getting their information through this method, and that in turn will develop into their adult routines.

Yes, they are missing out on a wonderful experience. But that is their experience, and to survive, newspapers must adapt to that.

I can make a similar argument for music. The sound quality of CDs and MP3 are nowhere near that of a vinyl album playing on a tube-based  stereo system. The depth and richness of music cannot be replicated on a digital platform. Yet I’ve resigned myself to the fact that tubes will never return and that my music will no longer be housed in a grapefruit crate. I can still appreciate my old LPs on my solid-state amp and 25-year-old speakers, but the world has moved on to a new music experience, and if I want to be a part of it, I need to adapt. 

Likewise, PDFs will not replace the look and feel of reading a newspaper at the kitchen table. But we Boomers have to realize that if journalism is to survive for the next generations, we need to meet them on their level.

Hire a journalist, you won’t go wrong

One perk of my longevity in the industry is that I get to meet and work with a number of talented, passionate and dedicated people.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been catching up a many of them. Unfortunately, those folks are no longer employed; all are victims of cutbacks in the industry, and some have been without steady work for well past a year.

And that’s a shame, because it’s harder to find people who are more passionate, loyal and dedicated to their work than journalists. They loved what they did, but are realistic enough to know that they may never have another chance to return to the field they loved so much. So they’re hoping to apply what they’ve learned outside the field.

But what I hear is that potential employers, especially in the communications and media relation fields, are hesitant about hiring journalists. I’m not sure if it’s because the negative stereotypes that exist or just not understanding the scope and demands of the occupation.

But whatever the reason, employers are missing out on a real gem if them do not consider folks who have experience with news organizations.

A bit over a year ago, the Poynter Institute’s Jill Geisler listed 10 reasons why you should hire a journalist.  I still can’t top her observations, except to say that if a journalist can walk up to a grieving family and get them to talk about the loss of a loved one; or dig through piles of mundane reports to uncover a misuse of public funds, or bang out stories against pressing deadlines every day, then they can certainly handle whatever your clients throw them.

So if you’re hiring, consider a journalist. There isn’t a group of  professionals that are more dedicated, loyal, upstanding and fun to work with.

You won’t regret it.

UPDATE: Good news to report on former colleague and Star & Stripes reporter Kevin Dougherty. His rehabilitation form a serious accident while fulfilling a lifelong commitment to walk across the country is coming along faster than anticipated. Daily Herald columnist Burt Constable says Kevin is focused on getting back on his feet, and in true form, refuses to feel sorry for himself, given the bravery and commitment he’s seen reporting from the war zones.

Rise of the hyperlocals?

Alan Mutter’s recent blog item about Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content and its inherent threat to newspapers highlights a renewed interest in hyperlocal news sites … to folks outside of the news industry.

Mutter points out that Yahoo acquired a stable of 380,000 writers who could potentially be utilized to provide content on a very local level. Those writers could draw audiences that could make Yahoo’s rich database even richer.

This news comes amid AOL’s push to expand its purchase last year of Patch, a hyperlocal news site that showed signs of success in suburban New York. Since then, AOL has taken Patch to key suburban areas in California and is currently planning to launch a number of sites in suburban Chicago.

And that could be bad news for local publishers, many of whom have written off hyperlocal as not a big moneymaker. Unfortunately, most of that thought falls on the failure of early ventures during the mid-part of the last decade, when the Denver-based YourHub and the independent Backfence unsuccessfully tried to expand on the user-generated local content model.

So what makes hyperlocal so interesting now? Well, local news has always been big among readers, no matter what the platform. And, as Mutter points out, Yahoo’s targeted audience model would provide big national advertisers with laser-point advertising in local markets that they are unable to get through traditional media (Likewise, AOL’s customer database also provides a pinpoint local portal with national advertising, and has successfully provided that at some of their original Patch sites).

So, unlike its predecessors, the new hyperlocals have the potential to generate revenue from bigger clients as well as the mom-and-pop operations.

What will be interesting to see is whether Yahoo’s local efforts turn into a local collections of bloggers, a la, or follow the Patch (and the Backfence/YourHub) models as becoming a combination staff-and-user generated local news site.  In either case, you won’t see the enterprising and expose journalism that local newspapers are re-adopting, but you will see an increase of the ‘virtual refrigerator door’ type of news that readers … especially suburban readers … still crave.

(As an aside, it will also be interesting to see if AOL can leverage its brand in Chicago, where the Tribune Company has been doing hyperlocal for a few years with its TribLocal web and reverse-to-print products, and other local sites linked to traditional brands exist. Can Patch gain reader loyalty in an area that already has established local brands … especially in a market where the readership still associates AOL with ‘you’ve got mail’ and as one Twitter follower pointed out to me, should be renamed ‘AWOL’?)

But if Yahoo, AOL and others (Google, maybe?) can capitalize on hyperlocal, it will spell big trouble for publishers who are still clawing to hang on to its remaining readership.  As I noted in past blogs, the hyperlocal site that has the deepest and most dynamic local database will be the one who owns the market. Yahoo and its like know databases … and know how to make big money off of them.

And that could be the worst news for publishers on their strongest level.