Wednesday, March 20, 2013

‘Glory days’ of journalism? No, yes, no and yes.

In nine years of calibrating the health of the news media in the United States, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism never has painted a bleaker picture of the performance and prospects of the press than it did in the annual report issued on Monday. 

So, why is Matthew Yglesias of Slate smiling? More on that in a moment. But first, here’s a sampling of what Pew had to say:   

Signs of shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report,” said the non-profit foundation in a must-read study that noted  newsroom staffing at newspapers has fallen by 30% in the last decade, that 40% of the content on local television newscasts is devoted to sports, weather and traffic instead of real journalism, that coverage of live events on cable news channels is down by 30% and that the staff at Time, the last-standing print newsweekly, was cut by 5% as its owner prepares to cleave it and the rest of the publishing group from the more prosperous entertainment businesses of the parent company.

Riffing off Pew’s gloomy survey, Matthew Yglesias of Slate proclaimed these to be the “glory days of American journalism,” adding:  “American news media has [sic] never been in better shape. That’s just common sense. Almost anything you’d want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips.”

Yglesias is at once absolutely right and absolutely wrong.  Here’s why: 

Noting the abundance of information produced about the Cyprus banking crisis, Yglesias cites the ready availability of an analysis by Paul Krugman, the Princeton economics professor, Nobel Laureate and New York Times op-ed columnist.  This is the same Paul Krugman, by the way, whose personal bankruptcy in recent weeks was widely reported (Google lists more than 1 million references) all over the web.  A personal bankruptcy, that, um, never happened.  

The false and defamatory story about Krugman, to whom I apologize for bringing it up again, is an excellent example of why it is a mistake to confuse, as Yglesias does, the quantity of infotainment available in the digital media with the quality of the journalism that goes into producing it. 

Real journalists independently report and verify facts and then attempt to produce balanced stories that give the reader or viewer something approaching a full and fair accounting of what they have learned.  These practices have been subjected to a considerable amount of shortcutting in the digital age, where even trained professionals have been known to tweet first and ask questions later. 

The abundance of bloopers in both mainstream and citizen reporting on the Newtown tragedy attests to this.  And don't forget the embarrassingly erroneous CNN and Fox News bulletins on the Obamacare ruling, as detailed by the brilliant (but uncredentialed to cover the Supreme Court) SCOTUS Blog. 

This is not to say that the open-sourcing of the news is all tsoris.  Were it not for a dude with an iPhone and a Twitter account, we would not have the iconic picture of US Air flight 1549 floating on the Hudson. Were it not for a bartender with a video camera, we would not have known about the 47% remark that may well have cost Mitt Romney the election. Were it not for the social and mobile media, we most likely would not have had the Arab spring.  

While we are blessed (or cursed) with at-your-fingertip access to more information from more sources than ever, the ability of anyone, anywhere to be a publisher means that we are in a free-fire zone of information, where the burden is on the consumer to figure not only what she needs to know but also whether she can believe it.   Who produced it?  What is the motivation of the author? How well was it reported? Is it true? Is there another side of the story?  

Beyond worrying about the provenance and veracity of the “news” we know about, I worry even more about the things we don’t know.   With newspapers, news magazines and many broadcasters relentlessly retrenching as audiences and advertising shrivel, the once-primary producers of news are cutting back on the journalists who used to unearth untold stories in City Halls, Statehouses and foreign lands. How much malfeasance, how much misery, how much abuse, how many scandals and how many other compelling matters of public interest are we missing?  There is no way of knowing. And we never will.      

So, are these indeed the “glory” days of journalism?

No, if you worry about the reliability of what you are reading and the important stories you are not being told. 

Yes, if you relish abundance and choice in the information you consume, as well as the frictionless freedom to publish anything that comes to mind, be it truthful, trivial or someplace in between. 

No, if you are a legacy media company hoping to be as powerful and profitable in the future as you were in the past.  

Yes, if you are an upstart journalist with the grit and grist to generate a proper income by building a steady following for your work in the new, and decidedly messy, order of things.  

Monday, March 11, 2013

What newspapers should cover

Last month, I talked about how newspapers often squander their scarce resources by running stories that are longer than they ought to be.  Today, I’d like to suggest what editors can do with all the space they save by not taxing the time and patience of their readers.

The way to make room for fresh and relevant coverage, as suggested previously here, is to use graphics instead of words; to stop rehashing stories widely broadcast on television and the web, and to quit writing background-padded articles about incremental but unimportant developments in long-running stories.

In the interests of making the most out of the 20 minutes the average reader spends with a newspaper each day, publishers can enhance reader satisfaction in the following ways: 

Be local, not global

Too many newspapers still follow the old formula of putting world and national news in the front section of the paper, even though this sort of news long since has been usurped and commoditized by the broadcast media and the web.  With local news and advertising being the principal value proposition for every newspaper, it is only logical to give up-front treatment to those assets.  Extra inches should be devoted to coverage that reinforces the paper’s unique sense and sensibility of the community it serves.  Not random AP filler. 

Cover people, not process

Too many papers cover episodic, and often dreary, institutional activity, favoring regulatory hearings, legal proceedings, government reports and a wretched excess of unfortunate but largely insignificant crimes and fires.  Instead, newspapers should bring issues alive by reporting on the human dimension – and consequences – of the major events of the day. Rather than covering City Hall politics and school board squabbles, newspapers should write in human terms about how policies and official malfeasance affect individuals and the community.  Rather than talking about abstract subjects like the state unemployment rate, newspapers should provide career and job-hunting tips.  How will a decision to reduce library hours affect users? What are cops and community leaders doing to fight high crime rates?  How does park maintenance in our town compare with the maintenance in others? Think about the things that affect the daily lives of ordinary citizens.  Then, cover them. 

Look forward, not back 

Too many papers feel obliged to provide a rote and reactive recitation of events that already have been widely covered by the broadcast and digital media.  There is a better way forward than putting first-day ledes on day-old stories: Look for local angles, fill in background and, whenever possible, look ahead. To keep the news lively, pertinent and fresh, follow the advice of my late and beloved mentor, Howard M. Ziff, who said, “Just ask yourself what will happen next.”

Show, don’t tell

Public trust in newspapers is lower today than at any point since researchers first started asking Americans about their perceptions of the media in the mid-1970s. Only 25% of Americans had confidence in newspapers in 2012 vs. a peak of 51% in 1979, according to the most recent Gallup Poll. Although I don’t think the press is any less reliable than it was before Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin started sniping at the mainstream media, the best way for newspapers to build trust is to be as open as possible about what they do, how they do it and who produces the news.  Papers should explain their reporting methods, reveal their source materials and introduce their staffs.  This means (a) regular reports from editors on the stories behind the stories they publish; (b) the publication whenever possible of databases, official documents, polling data and other original source materials, and (c) publishing online bios, photos and contact information for every member of the news staff.  Familiarity, in this case, will battle contempt. 

Discuss, don’t dominate

Speaking of openness, newspapers have to do more to engage with their readers than simply accepting comments at the tail end of the stories they put on the web.  Although comments are a start, they are only a start toward building the rich, ongoing dialogue that every newspaper needs to develop in order to become the undisputed forum for the matters that matter in its community.  To engage, build and secure the widest possible audience – which is an absolute strategic necessity for newspapers at a time of dwindling circulation and tumbling advertising sales – publishers and editors need to actively invite community leaders to provide guest commentaries, articles and other contributions to the conversations that newspapers ought to be inspiring at the many points of presence they establish in print, in their own digital media and on third-party social sites.  In other words, publishers and journalists should think of themselves as hosts of an endless series of modern-day digital salons, convening discussions on everything from local politics to home schooling.  But the salons don’t have to be only digital.  There is nothing like face-to-face contact to build community, boost understanding and bring down barriers. What could be livelier than a regular series of live events? 

Be diverse, not insular 

Paging through most newspapers, you would think the world is run by a bunch of middle-aged white men.  OK, so maybe a disproportionate number of middle-aged white guys still happen to be governors, CEOs, symphony conductors, union leaders and university presidents. But the real world, as we all know, is far more diverse and complex than the universe portrayed in the institutionally driven coverage in most newspapers. Given the well-documented demographic changes overtaking the country, one of the chief things newspapers can do to make themselves more relevant at this pivotal time in their history (and that of the nation) is to feature the faces and stories that reflect the full measure of our wondrously diverse population.  This, incidentally, is not just good journalism. Like all of the ideas mentioned above, it will be good for business, too. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Why retail apps should worry publishers

From Best Buy to CVS and from Kroger to Macy’s, the biggest buyers of newspaper advertising have launched sophisticated smartphone apps to establish increasingly direct and profitable relationships with individual customers. 

These efforts should give publishers the shivers, because this new channel represents a major threat to the retail lineage that constitutes half of what’s left of the advertising sold by newspapers – an industry, lest we forget, whose collective print and digital ad sales are less than half the record $49.4 billion achieved in 2005. 

Smartphone apps appeal to retailers, for starters, because they are far cheaper than buying full-page ads and preprint inserts in newspapers. Perhaps even more compelling to merchants is that apps enable them to precisely target offers to individuals, thus achieving not only happier customers but also fatter tickets at the checkout line. 

At the moment, the most prominent feature in nearly every one of the free retail apps is the local version of the retailer’s weekly newspaper advertising insert. While the presence of the ads provides publishers with a tangible representation of their immediate relevance to retailers, here’s why the apps pose a long-term threat: 

The more consumers interact with apps that know their names, locations and buying patterns, the smarter marketers will get.  The smarter marketers get, the more productive their direct-to-consumer promotions will become. At some point, retailers naturally will begin wondering if they need to spend as much on newspaper advertising as they did in the pre-digital era.  

Here’s what publishers are up against: 

Department and discount – Every national department store or discount retailer puts the local version of its weekly newspaper advertising insert front and center on its app. While some apps are better than others, the typical features include daily specials, store locators, handy shopping lists and registries for weddings, babies and other life-changing events. Many, like Best Buy, let you scan barcodes to get more information about products. Several merchants, like Macy’s, allow you to manage your charge card by monitoring transactions, checking balances and paying bills. For those disinclined to brick-and-mortar commerce, Walmart and others link directly to their online shopping environments, which feature broader product selection than often found in stores, as well as user reviews and – quite often – free shipping.  

Supermarket – In addition to promoting its weekly newspaper ads and daily specials, Safeway, which has had a long-standing and well-developed customer-profiling program, dishes up customized offers based on a user’s demonstrated preferences and past behavior.  App tools make it possible to create and update a standing shopping list, as well as to organize and redeem coupons.  The more you use the Safeway site, the more the company knows about you – and the better it targets the deals you receive. As discussed here, the company is "working hard" to reduce its reliance on newspaper ads. Kroger provides many of the same tools as Safeway with the added incentive of gasoline discounts for those participating in its loyalty program.  Whole Foods takes a different approach to customization, providing a robust app that enables users to plan menus for various occasions – including high-fiber, low-sodium and gluten-free choices.  As you make your dining decisions, the Whole Foods app provides recipes and shopping lists to speed you through the store. 

Pharmacy – In addition to billboarding weekly newspaper ads and daily specials, the apps from CVS and Walgreen’s include quick clicks to refill prescriptions or print photos.   CVS publishes links to its affiliated urgent-care centers and a handy tool to identify pills based on their color, shape and other physical characteristics.  Walgreen’s has a quick link to its customer-loyalty program, so you can monitor and redeem reward points.  It also has a function that plots every item on your shopping list on a map of each store, so you quickly can find hair gel or travel-size toothpaste.  As in-store tracking technology is combined with the abundant personal information carried on most smartphones, it won’t be long before retailers dynamically tune offers to a customer’s journey through the store. 

Home improvement – In addition to prominently publishing their weekly newspaper ads and daily specials, Ace Hardware, Home Depot and Lowe’s are among the national brands providing apps that allow customers to locate stores, scan barcodes and shop online.  A tool on the Lowe’s app allows registered customers to inventory honey-do projects for each room of the house, so they don’t forget to buy a light bulb for the bedroom or paint for the deck.  At the same time the app generates a shopping list for the next trip to Lowe’s, it learns a ton about who you are, where you live, what you bought and what you might buy in the future.  And that’s the whole point of retail apps: creating a personalized relationship with the brand.

Publishers hoping to expand – or, at least, retain – their share of local advertising dollars need to find a way to join the retail-app revolution.

© 2013 Editor & Publisher

Monday, March 04, 2013

So long again, Chicago Daily News

On March 4, 1978, the presses fell silent for the last time at the Chicago Daily News, an iconic and crusading newspaper that was unable to adapt to changing times. The following article, which originally appeared here in 2005, is reprinted as a reminder of what happens when a paper runs out of readers, revenues and ideas.

"It's fun being the publisher when things are going well," squeaked the young man who stumbled awkwardly to the top of a battered desk in the unusually silent newsroom of the Chicago Daily News. "But it's no fun today."

Swallowing a nervous giggle, Marshall Field V cleared his throat and read the assembled staff the short, typewritten death warrant of one of the most distinguished newspapers in American history.

An agonizing month later, on March 4, 1978, the Daily News signed off with the jaunty banner, "So long, Chicago."

The line was written by the late nightside copy desk chief, Tom Gavagan, a chain-smoking, working-class Irishman who seemed to own only two shirts -- one in burnt orange, the other in avocado green. The tears in Gav's eyes weren't from the smoke.

Although it happened 35 years ago, the story is worth telling today, because many of the zany, brainy people who made that paper sing aren't here to talk about it any more. They were my mentors, comrades and friends, and I cherish their memories.

But this isn't just ancient history. It is a valuable reminder to today's media companies of what happens when you run out of readers, revenues and ideas all at the same time.

The Daily News, like most afternoon newspapers, succumbed at the age of 102 to a declining audience and rising expenses.

Its readers had moved on. On to the suburbs, where delivery trucks couldn't reach them with a paper that didn't come off the press until afternoon. On to the sofa, where they favored Three's Company on television.

There were no home computers, no Internet, no iPods and no cellphones to get between our readers and us in 1978. Still, circulation dropped. The management was changed. Circulation dropped. We redesigned the paper. Circulation dropped. We tinkered with the product. Circulation dropped.

In the end, there was nothing left to do. Some 300 people lost their jobs, and Chicago lost a great newspaper.

The Daily News, in its best days, was a cutting-edge conscience in conservative Chicago, a husky, brawling town that wasn't always ready for reform. The paper stood fast against official incompetence and government corruption and stood tall for civil rights and the little guy. For years, the Daily News stubbornly held its price to a penny, so as to be affordable to laborers heading home from work.

It was one of the first newspapers to have foreign correspondents, to print photographs or to cover that new-fangled medium, radio. Its widely syndicated coverage won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, including three for meritorious public service.

The Daily News cultivated a limitless array of talent over a century, including Eugene Field, George Ade, Ben Hecht, Finley Peter Dunne, Carl Sandburg, Peter Lisagor, M.W. Newman, Lu Palmer, Lois Wille and our latter-day franchise player, Mike Royko.

The list is too long to print here. But the Daily News, in its classy way, printed the name of everyone working on the staff on the day the paper folded.

My name was on that list. It remains one of proudest, and saddest, moments of my life.

Friday, March 01, 2013

‘We’re working hard to get out of paper ads’

It’s hard to overstate the velocity and magnitude of the shift from mass to target marketing in an era when, as ComScore reports, 50% of mobile users have smartphones and 37% of digital page views occur on mobile screens instead of desktops. 

But don’t take my word for it. Instead of attempting to characterize the disruptive impact of these changes on newspapers and other mass media, I am sharing today the actual comments of a major newspaper advertiser who candidly states: 

“As people become more digital, there’s an opportunity – which were working hard at – to actually get out of the paper ads, and make the ad itself personalized for every household.”

The intention to shift from mass print advertising to targeted digital marketing was articulated by Steven A. Burd, the chief executive of Safeway, in an earnings call with securities analysts on Feb. 21.  

In reporting on the conversation, Advertising Age noted that Safeway, which is the 10th largest retailer in the country, cut its newspaper ad spend to $20 million in the first 11 months of 2012 from $33 million as recently as all of 2010. See selected metrics below. 

At the same time, Safeway has boosted the membership of its Just for You digital loyalty program to 45% of its base of 12 million customers, according to Ad Age. Burd’s goal, reports Ad Age, is to get some three-quarters of his customers into the program, which sends targeted offers to individuals based on their carefully monitored consumption patterns.  

Thanks to Seeking Alpha.Com, here are the relevant excerpts of the comments that Burd and his colleagues made in the recent earnings call:   

Deborah L. Weinswig, Citigroup analyst: Steve, you say that Just for U has been better than expectations. Can you talk about the components of that and what you think the key drivers have been?

Burd: Well, when I say better than expectations, we’re delivering about 50% more on – of added weekly sales per household – than we had anticipated. And what’s happening is, our best customers are becoming increasingly more loyal and buying more items per trip. And thats been true now for – since the beginning of Just for U. Did that help you?

Weinswig:  Yes. Are you seeing that youre getting kind of more loyal customers?

Burd: Yes, our loyal customers are becoming more loyal, and customers that were less loyal are entering into that more loyal category.

Robert L. Edwards, Safeway president:  Yes. And Deborah, I'd also add that mobile users are higher than we had predicted. Well show you some slides at the Investor Conference in a couple of weeks, but were very pleased with the percentage of Just for U users. Theyre using mobile technology because their incremental spend is higher and more frequent as well.

Burd: In fact, it's higher by about 40%. And we have – I think since our last call, weve  maybe we launched the iPad application.

Edwards: Right.

Burd: So we basically are on all smartphones, plus an iPad application, which is quite different from the pure mobile application. And its attracting a lot of users. Still, I would say, the majority of users are still at the desktop stage. But we think that will change over time.

Edwards: I think weve also been surprised at the amount of digital coupons that people are accessing on the website. Well, again, well show you some data on that in a couple of weeks. So that's been a very positive feature of the program.

Weinswig: And how has your relationship with your vendors changed as a result?

Edwards: Very positive. Again, weve got some slides prepared to show you some incremental sales that our top CPG [consumer product goods] vendors are realizing relative to rest of market. And so the participation has been quite high. And so I think were pleased, but more importantly, our major CPG vendors are very pleased as well.

Burd: You might recall that we started Just for U with about seven or eight of our key vendors and only recently have expanded that to the broader group.

John Heinbockel, Guggenheim Securities analyst:  Steve, if you think about Just for U, and the impact of payroll tax and more recently – I guess two reasons — the rise in gas prices, do you think Just for U has offset that impact, or the impact from those negatives have not been nearly as great as we might have feared? What do you think it is?

Burd:  Yes, I think that Just for U has clearly had an impact. When you look at our numbers, we can’t really see any decline that resulted from the payroll tax going up. Keep in mind that a Just for U user can save anywhere from 10% to 20% off normal Club Card pricing. And so that puts you right down there with the dollar stores and mass and everybody else. And so I think that Just for U has really helped. We cannot see any blip in our numbers as a result of the payroll tax kicking in.

Edwards: I think actually that if disposable income is down because of higher payroll taxes or fuel cost, I think it actually plays to the strength of Just for U, because we can target specific individuals based on their shopping patterns and what we think is happening with their disposable income, because it doesnt affect all of our customers equally. And so I think it actually plays to the strength of Just for U.

Burd: The other thing, John, is that Just for U applies to people of virtually all income levels. Talking to people at really some relatively high income levels, even the so-called top 1%, theyre using Just for U because they all have iPads, they all have iPhones. And it just seems crazy not to take advantage of pricing tailored to the individual household.

Heinbockel:  And one other thing related to Just for U: At some point there should be a benefit for you in terms of pulling back some promotional spend more broadly. When – I know were not there yet – when do you think we get to the point where it does have a positive impact on gross?

Burd: I think that we could get there probably late in 2013. Also, as people become more digital, there’s an opportunity – which were working hard at – to actually get out of the paper ads, and make the ad itself personalized for every household.