By Paul Gillin | March 1, 2013 - 8:13 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers, Solutions

Occasionally a tool comes along that is so drop-dead useful that it causes you to change the way you work. We encountered such a tool a couple of weeks ago via an interview with Craig Silverman, founder of the Regret the Error blog (now hosted by Poynter) and the new Director of Content and Product Strategy at Spundge.

Spundge is a tool for content curation, a discipline we’ve written about in the past that helps readers cope with information saturation by aggregating and summarizing relevant material by topic. We think there’s a lot of value in curation, and if publishers can get over their not-invented-here mentalities, they can take advantage of it.

It’s hard to describe Spundge; it’s best to try it. If you consume content by reading RSS feeds – as we do – then its value is immediately obvious. The basic Spundge service includes RSS feeds from more than 45,000 sources that it calls the “fire hose.” It also has publicly available feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and several other social networks. You can add your own RSS feeds by pasting in individual URLs and uploading OPML files.

Users create a “notebook” for each topic and specify keyword combinations that are either required, optional or excluded. We created a simple one for this site that you can see here. You can create as many workbooks as you want and optionally share them. Other people can contribute to your notebook or just watch.

Spundge from Spundge on Vimeo.

Once you specify your keywords, Spundge goes to work filtering the fire hose to deliver items that match your query. Results consist of headlines and the first 500 characters or so of each article. This is usually enough to get a sense of what the piece is about. You can accept or decline each result. Accepted results go into a workspace for later use, while declined results disappear. Spundge is supposed to learn from your decisions and deliver more targeted results over time. That particular feature is a work in progress that will get better with time.

The items you save can be published as embeds on any site that accepts Javascript. Embeds don’t actually live on the target site, but are hosted on Spundge and displayed there. YouTube videos are commonly shared via embeds, and Storify is an example of a popular curation service that uses embedding. We’ve included an embed below that shows you how it works. One cool feature is that embeds are updated every few minutes, so the content actually updates even after you’ve published it.

Everything we’ve described so far is part of the free Spundge service. If you pay $9 a month, you get a WYSIWYG editor that enables you to customize content, write your own headlines, add comments and generally munge content however you want. The resulting HTML can be posted on any website or blog. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

Love at First Byte

We love Spundge, and we’re recommending it to everyone who’s tired of picking through RSS feeds or filtering tweets looking for nuggets of information. We’ve long used an RSS reader to monitor the sites listed in the lower left sidebar of this site. That’s more efficient than visiting each site individually, but the lack of filtering is still a problem. We have to scan each headline and summary manually.

With Spundge, we imported our favorite feeds from an OPML file, specified some keywords and were off to the races. Plus we got to take advantage of those 45,000 feeds that the Spundge developers had already found for us, not to mention Twitter and LinkedIn. Our reading time has been reduced dramatically and we’re discovering stuff we didn’t know existed before.

Spundge is still in development, and it’s not perfect. The workspace can’t easily be customized, so you can’t selectively display items without jumping through hoops. Spundge lets you specify how many items to embed, but not which ones. The service makes it easy to share items from your workspace on social networks, but links go to a copy of the content on Spundge rather than to the source. We think content providers will have a problem with that.

The biggest shortcoming we’ve seen so far is the recommendation engine, which is supposed to “learn” from your choices and deliver more targeted content over time. We haven’t noticed that the quality of our feed is improving, but let’s be fair: Machine learning is devilishly difficult to implement. If Spundge is successful, the investments will come and the quality will improve.

For now, we give the basic Spundge service an unqualified endorsement as a leap forward in technology to filter and organize information. We’re going to experiment with the paid service, and you’ll see the results here. In the meantime, our recommendation is to get thee to a Spundgery.

If you need that link again, Spundge is here.

 

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Media critics have been buzzing for more than a week about “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s feature in The New York Times about a tragic avalanche that claimed three skiers’ lives in the Tunnel Creek area of Washington state early last year. Some people say it‘s the future of journalism, and they’re right – in a way. A loud chorus of naysayers who point out that “Snow Fall” is just the Times showing off. They’re right, too.

What’s important isn’t whether this package – which doesn’t fit neatly into the category of article, video documentary or e-book – is a turning point, but rather its importance as an evolution in story-telling. There’s nothing revolutionary about the technology the Times used. It’s the way the elements were combined that makes “Snow Fall” a great experience.Snow Fall Intro screen

For example, some of the graphics unfold as the reader scrolls down the screen, illustrating elements of the narrative in a way that feels seamless and natural. Embedded slide shows appear next to the names of key people in the tragedy, showing them in happier times. It’s a moving tribute to dead and their families that doesn’t seem heavy-handed or maudlin. It’s just part of the story.

Romenesko says the package racked up 3.5 million page views in its first week and that one-quarter of them were new visitors to nytimes.com. Ad Age complains that the ads the Times ran next to the copy nearly ruin the reading experience. Mathew Ingram superbly balances comments from both fans and critics. He concludes that, for all its elegance and beauty, “Snow Fall” still doesn’t address mainstream media’s frustrating fiscal woes. Laura Hazard Owen suggests that the “e-single” version of the feature – which sells for $2.99 – is an important endorsement of the growing mini-book concept.

We dropped by to see what all the fuss was about and ended spending an hour reading every last word and viewing every last video. “Snow Fall” is a visually stunning example of what a well-resourced news organization can produce when it spares practically no expense to break the mold. Few media companies can attempt something so ambitious (although there are some corporate marketing departments that could foot the bill). What’s important about “Snow Fall” is the ideas it introduces – ideas that will be adopted and iterated by other publishers on a smaller scale. We don’t think that’s showing off. It’s just being creative.

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By Paul Gillin | December 21, 2012 - 12:28 pm - Posted in Journalism, Newspapers

Physician and award-winning documentary filmmaker Ben Daitz (now there’s a combination you don’t see too often) Has been keeping us up-to-date on his latest project, a documentary that celebrates small-town newspapers. We haven’t had a chance to watch the whole film yet, but we like the trailer. Ben writes that the film has had “very successful screenings at festivals and J-schools and will be shown at the Newseum” in Washington.

Here’s a description. You can order a copy for $29.95 at New Deal Films.

Smithsonian Magazine once asked the rhetorical question, “Can a weekly paper in rural New Mexico raise enough hell to keep its readers hungry for more, week after week?”

The Rio Grande Sun, published in Española, NM, is considered one of the best weekly newspapers in the country. Bob Trapp, the Sun‘s founder, editor, and publisher, is the quintessential newspaperman—the last of a vanishing breed—a scrupulously honest, fearless, independent journalist, and a mentor to generations of young reporters.

The Sun is known for investigative reporting. The paper broke the story that its own rural community had the highest per capita heroin overdose rate in the country. It has led the fight for open records and open meetings in a county where political shenanigans are the rule.

The film follows the Sun’s
 reporters and editors as they write about the 
news, sports, arts and cultures of a 
large rural county.  John Burnett, a
 National Public Radio correspondent,
 reports on the Sun‘s Police Blotter—“the
 best in the country.” The Sun‘s 
journalists investigate the largest
 embezzlement in the state’s history, and the 
widespread use of tranquilizers in the county jail.

“The Sun Never Sets” is narrated by Bob Edwards, National Radio Hall of Fame and Peabody award-winning news anchor and radio host. It is an official selection of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Ojai Film Festival, and will be screened at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

 

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Two filmmakers who identify themselves as Lenny Feinberg and Chris Foster have released a trailer for what they say will be an upcoming documentary called Black and White and Dead All Over. We haven’t seen anything more than the four-minute clip embedded here, but it appears that the authors have interviewed an impressive cast of journalists and publishers. The trailer presents a sympathetic view of the plight facing the U.S. newspaper industry, pointing out that the information people expect to find for free online has to come from somewhere, and that the institutions that provide it are in peril. As one speaker puts it, ”Where is the Internet going to get its information if the newspaper in your town goes out of business?”

The documentarians provided few details about when or where the full film will be available. The URL for BlackAndWhiteAndDeadAllOver.net goes to a parked GoDaddy page. We don’t even know who these guys are. Maybe they’ll leave a comment and tell us more.

 

Fake storm photo Hurricane Sandy

The photo at right was one of several that made the rounds on the Internet as Hurricane Sandy lashed the east coast on Monday and Tuesday of this week. It’s a powerful image. It’s also completely bogus, a two-year-old Photoshop mashup that took on new significance when no one had a clear picture of what was happening on the Atlantic seaboard. It was one of many false reports that circulated on social networks during the storm. Although the increasingly Twitter-dependent mainstream media didn’t circulate this photo, it reported its share of falsehoods.

We personally heard the CNN report of three feet of water in the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, live security camera feeds showed that the floor was dry. We also heard media reports that Con Edison had shut off power to all of Manhattan. Also not true. The Detroit Free Press rounds up some of the prominent rumors here.

Instagram was the new kid on the block for this event. The photo-sharing service communicated some powerful images, like the fully lit Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn surrounded by flood waters (left), but it was also used to drag out Photoshopped favorites from years past that reappear with each new disaster. The Verge has a roundup of photos shared on Instagram and Twitter during the storm and the Atlantic put together a great collection of real, fake and questionable images shared on social media.

Are these deceptions proof that citizen journalism sucks, that the ability to reach a global audience tempts people to spread falsehoods and make mischief?

We don’t think so. While social networks spread a lot of rumors during the storm, that’s nothing unique to the Web 2.0 age. Disasters always spawn speculation. Remember the reports of planes flying into buildings in Chicago and San Francisco on 9/11? The difference today is the speed at which falsehoods spread. But another important difference is the speed at which they’re dispelled.

We like John Herrman’s analysis on BuzzFeed. He notes that Twitter users were just as quick to disabuse each other of storm-related misinformation as to spread it in the first place. “Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace,” he writes. “To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

Sites like Snopes.com and Wikipedia are effective at sifting fact from fiction. Although neither is under the same time pressure as CNN, in the long run they get it right. Electronic media are always under the gun during a news event, and have always been susceptible to reporting bad information. To their credit, the news networks are usually good about qualifying unconfirmed information as just that. Any experienced reader of blogs or social networks knows that fantastical claims shouldn’t be taken at face value. New media even have some fact-checking features built in. For example, The New York Times used geo-location to verify that eyewitness tweets were in fact from people who might reasonably be assumed to be eye witnesses.

We think more information is always better than less, even if some of it is bad. As layoffs continue to hack away at mainstream media, those outlets continue to turn to citizens as front-line news sources. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. Rather, the tools for spotting bad information will mature and our bullshit detectors become more refined.

Anyone watching the #Sandy or #Frankenstorm hash tags on Monday and Tuesday read amazing stories from people who taking the storm head-on. Mobile social networks continue to deliver information from blacked-out areas that would otherwise have no outlet. The fact that some of that information is bad is the price we pay for having a First Amendment.

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James Macpherson, Pasadena NowEver heard of James Macpherson? If you’re a veteran journalist, you probably have, although you might know him better as “that asshole who fired his entire reporting staff and outsourced local coverage of Pasadena, Calif. to India.”

We got a note from Macpherson the other day pointing out that recent trends would indicate that he was a trailblazer, not a nut.

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then — and in spite of the Journatic debacle now –  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon…Newsroom outsourcing is inevitable. The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Macpherson also pointed us to a couple of his own blog entries on the subject: “The Outsourcing of Hyperlocal Journalism Is Inevitable” and “And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts.” They’re both worth reading. As we pointed out recently, the price of journalism is being readjusted to a new equilibrium point, and ideas like outsourcing local city council coverage to writers in Manila aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed.

It’s a Business

A lot of debate about the future of journalism has been tinged with emotion, which is understandable given how many jobs have been lost. The harsh reality, though, is that the vast majority of journalism is practiced by profit-making organizations. These companies are struggling with seismic shifts that have changed their business model forever. Advertising costs are in long-term decline, reader switching costs are zero, barriers to competitive entry have vanished and mass media are being displaced by specialized media. Any organization that hopes to survive in such a market needs to do things differently.

The approach to outsourcing that Macpherson outlines in this post is rational and workable in many scenarios: Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a lot of work that doesn’t require people to leave the office. Copy editing is a desk job. So is obituary writing. Editors fill holes on print pages by rewriting wire copy. Sports editors rarely go into a locker room and city editors don’t cover school board meetings. They’ve done all that stuff and graduated to jobs where they supervise others.

Some of this stuff is easy to outsource, and a lot of it already has been dispatched to interns or specialty shops like Legacy.com. The tough part is deconstructing jobs where experience is an asset, like the sports editor. Those jobs should stay intact on these shores, although some of the routine work may be able to be done elsewhere.

Get Me Rewrite

Journalism has traditionally been a vertically integrated craft. The reporter who covers the city council meeting is also expected to write the story, even if that person can’t compose a coherent paragraph. We’ve all known people who were great fact-finders or interviewers but who couldn’t write. Rewrite editors were an early tool to compensate for that. Now technology is taking deconstruction to a new level.

Anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streaming news source. People on the scene can embellish or correct a published account, even if they don’t work for the news organization. Aggregating, summarizing and commenting upon published reports is the essence of what most bloggers do. In many cases, being on the scene isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

Outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a process of optimizing for value. Move routine work to the lowest-cost source and invest in stuff that makes a difference. Businesses have done this with manufacturing, payroll, facilities maintenance, information technology and the many other tasks for years.

But what about quality? That’s the most common objection to outsourcing in general, but we think markets are pretty good at figuring that out. Journalists aren’t the ultimate arbiters of quality; their readers are. If you believe that the public no longer has an interest in quality journalism, then outsourcing is a pretty depressing prospect. However, we don’t think the public is that stupid.

Macpherson is right: These ideas should be developed and not dismissed as lunacy simply because they break with tradition. If someone can put out a journal at lower cost that its audience values and that someone will pay to support, then the market will make it own decisions.

By Paul Gillin | August 30, 2012 - 8:57 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, Newspapers

Jeff Jarvis nails it with this headline:  ”Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?” And he goes it one better by running some numbers that estimate that media organizations will spend $30 million this week covering a Republican convention of which the outcome is already known. Then they’ll do the same thing next week for the Democrats.

Here’s what we’ll get for this investment:

  • On-the-spot analysis of speeches that could be covered just as easily by watching them on television;
  • Interviews with political junkie delegates who in no way typify the American voter;
  • Journalists talking to each other;
  • TV reports that are supposed to look more urgent because the reporter is standing in front of  a sign labeled “Wisconsin.”

All this is happening in an industry that’s in free fall.

Yet what we’ll get over these two weeks is the same political pabulum we’ve gotten for decades, served up to an American public that’s sick of it all.

1952 Republican National Convention via Wikimedia CommonsPolitical convention coverage epitomizes what’s wrong with mainstream media today. Conventions long ago ceased to have any news value. The last brokered convention was in 1952. Since then, the only purpose of the quadrennial party has been to deliver what Jarvis calls an infomercial. Everything is scripted for the greatest possible momentum going into the fall campaign, and the media plays right along.

Why? Well, as Tevye said: “Tradition!”  It’s always been done this way. Conventions aren’t about news. They’re a junket for senior reporters. They’re easy to cover because everyone who attends them is media-trained and has a scripted message. There’s what media needs today: stuff that’s easy.

How can you cover the reaction of voters back at home when all your best reporters are down in Tampa snarfing down shrimp and free booze? Why are the TV networks  interviewing a small number of delegates and ignoring  millions of online conversations between real voters? How can the media, which prides itself on independence, cooperate so willingly with the PR manipulators who script this stuff? How can it possibly spending so much money on something that produces no news?

Let’s ask different questions: What if The New York Times, Washington Post or NBC made a statement in 2016 and announced that it would skip the conventions and invest that money instead in an investigative unit or database journalist? What if the media stopped coming to the conventions entirely and left the coverage to Journatic? Do you think we would be any worse off? Do you think the economy would suffer? Do you think anyone outside of the media would even notice?

Won’t happen. That would be rocking the boat. And for heaven’s sake, why would anyone want to do that?

Update: Andrew Cohen writes about the unholy camaraderie between media and political parties in the Atlantic. Noting that Huffington Post, The Politico, CNN and Bloomberg spend lavishly on receptions for  delegates, he notes, “People are angry about politics and politicians. They are angry about the way the media cover politics and politicians. Can you blame them, in the face of [media-sponsored] spas and sports bars, in the face of the self-promotion, for perceiving some sort of unholy alliance between reporters and the people upon which they are supposed to be reporting?”


Apparently a Pulitzer Prize is no protection against the ravages of the marketplace. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, and the Syracuse Post-Standard will reduce print frequency to thrice weekly beginning in January. They follow the lead of their Advance Publications brethren in New Orleans and Alabama, which scaled back this spring. The news is particularly disappointing because the Patriot-News  won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for its coverage of the Penn State scandal. These are not small marketers. The two papers have a combined Sunday circulation of nearly a quarter million. They’ll keep publishing on Sunday. The other two days of the week haven’t been decided. Expect more members of the Advance family to follow.

Update: A tipster says he’s been told there will be a 50% staff reduction at the Post-Standard starting next week. “That’s 200 lost jobs in an already hard-hit community.”

Sweatshop in Ludlow Street Tenement, New York via Wikimedia CommonsWe got a come-on from one of those content-farming services the other day, but instead of throwing it away in disgust, we decided to run the numbers instead.

The e-mail promised us the possibility of earning $80 per 400-600-word article! That’s right, that statement ended with an exclamation point. We’d normally be insulted at the prospect of being offered less than 20 cents a word, but when we took at look at the site we’d be writing for, we thought heck, one could actually make a living at this.

We can’t identify the site because our revenue from Adwords doesn’t permit the luxury of retained legal counsel, but there are plenty of services out there that provide low-cost, keyword-optimized articles for businesses that want to attract search engines. They all work pretty much the same.

The particular site we looked at is focused on a vertical B2B market. It publishes 12-15 articles a day from an impressive assortment of freelance writers. We’ve never heard of any of them, but most of the contributors write one or two articles per day for this site, and presumably also write for other sites supported by the content farm.

The stuff they write follows a predictable format: The writer reads three or four stories in an industry trade or business publications and summarizes what they say in a kind of a news roundup format. The more experienced writers may add a dose of their own opinion, but for the most part no one strays too far from quoting the industry pundits.

There is no original reporting to speak of. We scanned about a dozen articles and didn’t see any evidence of primary research beyond repackaged analysis from industry trades. In the new journalism, first-person sourcing is less important than linking to source material online.

Doing the Math

We figured a fast writer with a working knowledge of a vertical industry could pound out five or six such stories a day without breaking a sweat. Heck, we’ve sometimes posted 1,200 words to this site before 9 in the morning. So do the math: Five stories per day at $80 per story equals $400 a day. That’s $2,000 a week. That’s $100,000 a year. That’s a decent living.

What makes this possible is the near total lack of quality control. It doesn’t appear that anyone is reading the stuff these writers post. There were typos and formatting problems that would have been caught with even a minimum of editorial oversight, but the publisher doesn’t care. As long as the keywords are in the right place and the search engines are delivering, everything is fine.

What matters is speed. Frequently updated sites get more attention from search engines, and this particular site focuses on breaking news. The idea is to get something into the news stream while interest is high so you can get in on the page-view bubble. After a couple of days, most of the interest has waned, but the search engines are still paying attention to you because you post so frequently. Long-tail search typically delivers about one-third of the traffic to news sites.

We don’t mean to imply that the content on this site was junk. Quite the opposite: Some of the writers clearly follow the industry closely and chose their topics well. Considering that no one is editing them, the copy was impressively clean. For a business audience that is challenged to keep up with the news, you might even say the site is valuable.

These are the new economics of the working journalist: Pump out a large volume of keyword-laden stuff with minimal guidance or oversight. None of this work is ever going to win a Pulitzer, but it is enabling a few writers to actually sustain themselves by writing. And who knows, maybe they can do some serious reporting in their spare time, or perhaps someone at a name-brand publication will notice their work and offer them a job.

Either way, it’s a living.

Maybe it’s the summer slowdown kicking in, but the news has been mostly bad this month.

New York Times Building

Why must all media coverage of newspapers have a photo like this?

David Carr writes about a little-discussed liability that’s nearly as damaging to the newspaper industry as its mountain of debt: Pension obligations. Gannett pension fund is under-capitalized by $942 million, McClatchy’s by $383 million and The New York Times Co.’s by $522 million. Carr says the hedge funds that bought up newspapers at bargain prices over the last few years are running for the exits, but they can’t find anyone to take the properties off their hands. Pensions are one reason why. The only investor who’s shown confidence in the industry lately is Warren Buffett, but Carr notes that even he stuck Media General with the retirees when he bought a bunch of its titles.

Pension funds became an albatross around the necks of the steel and auto industries back in the 1980s. Faced with retiree obligations that were, in some cases, significantly larger than annual revenues, companies like U.S. Steel had not choice but to shaft the recipients. A lot of newspapers set up generous pension funds when times were good in the 70s and 80s, and now those workers are retiring. It’s a frightening replay of history, particularly if you’re nearing retirement age.

Carr’s piece is kind of a mid-year health check on the state of the industry, and there’s very little cheer about. He opens with accounts of some recent printed blunders that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The situation in the print world is so bad that when the New Orleans Times-Picayune offered jobs to some of its editorial staff on the new three-day-a-week print edition, many said no, thanks. They included a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the editors who anchored the paper’s Hurricane Katrina coverage.

The Thin Line Between Journalism and Typing

Carr reserves some of his most acerbic comments for Journatic, an editorial outsourcing firm part-owned by Tribune Co. that is suddenly getting a lot of scrutiny for practices that would make a professional journalist’s stomach turn.

Read Ryan Smith’s insider account on The Guardian for a look at how far the newspaper industry has fallen. Journatic lives under the radar (its sparse website is actually designed not to attract search engines), providing copy to client publishers that is mostly produced by a loose network of freelancers who work for pocket change. Many of its writers are in the Philippines, which means they speak decent English and work for less and a dollar an hour.

Most of them can’t write very well, though, and Smith recounts stories of barely rewritten press releases that crossed his editor’s desk ready to go into some of America’s finest newspapers. Press releases are Journatic’s bread and butter, along with obituaries from Legacy.com and real estate transaction listings. These are rewritten by its far-flung editorial staff and turned in to U.S. copy editors who make $10/hour. The practice that’s drawn the most criticism is Journatic’s practice of putting fake bylines on articles. The company says it adopted the tactic to protect employees, but that doesn’t sit well with its clients, who are now abandoning ship in the wake of negative media coverage. Hundreds of bogus bylines have already shown up in the Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Chronicle, writes Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

Oops.

Journatic produces original content, too. It farms out local stories to U.S. freelancers who report by phone from 1,000 miles away while pretending to be at a desk in the newsroom across town. Reporters need to work quickly. Smith says he was offered $24 for an 800-1,000-word story, $12 for 500 words and $10 for a Q&A. Most of the work went unedited into major newspapers as if reported by a staff journalist.

I’ve copyedited or written news stories for a handful of major US newspapers over the past 18 months – the Houston Chronicle in Texas, San Francisco Chronicle in California and Newsday in Long Island, New York and others – yet it’s doubtful that any of the editors or senior executives for those news organizations could pick me out of a police line-up. In fact, it’s unlikely they could tell you a single personal detail about me or the other journalists behind the bylines of countless stories that appear in their print editions or on their websites, as provided by my employer.

A number of big dailies have quit using Journatic in the wake of recent unflattering coverage, but you can bet this model is far from dead. “Journatic’s approach — and the change it represents — is not going away,” writes Craig Silverman on Poynter.org. That’s because the economics of the news industry are in such dire straits. Whatever work can go offshore will go offshore as newspapers struggle to keep their print properties viable. With revenues spiraling down at 8% to 10% per year, quality will only get worse.

But it’s not just print. As the Times’ Carr points out, no one has yet cracked the code of making online local news profitable. In fact, Journatic’s stronghold is local media, which simply can’t afford to hire full-time reporters any more. So they lay off staff and farm out coverage of the local football team to a stringer. In Manila. (Hat tip to David Strom)

Tablet Salvation

The good news is that tablets will save the day, right? Possibly, but don’t count your winnings just yet. A new study by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the University of Missouri finds that lots of people use their tablets to keep up with the news. In fact, news-reading is the fourth most popular activity by tablet users, behind communication, entertainment and Web search.  Users’ preferred source of information is news organization websites by a nearly 8:1 margin over social media. Interestingly, 53% of the 1,015 survey respondents said news-on-tablet was a better reading experience than ink-on-dead-trees, compared to just 18% who favor printed media.

The Public Relations Society of America suggests that tablets could revitalize the evening paper, since so much iPadding takes place after 5. But they’ll have to convince Rupert Murdoch of that. The media mogul has reportedly put The Daily on watch. The iPad-only zine is losing $30 million a year, The Politico reports, and its viability will be reassessed after the Nov. 6 election. This despite the fact that The Daily broke the story of Pink Slime, the ground beef additive that triggered a hysterical reaction in the U.S. earlier this year before the USDA stepped in and said that not only is the ingredient safe, but we’ve been eating it for a decade without knowing.

BTW, the most interesting item in the Politico story may be the comment by Martha Jo Peters, whose Facebook profile simply says, “Intend to live alone the rest of my life.” Evidently Murdoch is at least partly responsible. Sad.

Twitter’s News Ambitions

Mathew Ingram thinks Twitter wants to be a media company, and that means its role in the media ecosystem will get more complex. Twitter faces the same challenges that Google has been struggling with for several years: Its basic value is as a filter and organizer that quickly sends people elsewhere on the Web, but it’s hard to make money when your visitors are always leaving so quickly. In essence, the  publishing model that is failing so badly in the traditional media is the model that the biggest new-media startups are seeking.

Twitter appears to see its future as being some kind of newswire. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, CEO Dick Costelo said, “Twitter is heading in a direction where its 140-character messages are not so much the main attraction but rather the caption to other forms of content.” Remember that quote, because it’s really important. It means that in the future Twitter wants to host more content instead of sending people away. But where’s the content going to come from? A lot of it will be from media companies, which have come to value Twitter as a traffic-driver but who may now have to re-evaluate that relationship. Like Google, Twitter is both their best friend and their worst enemy.

If you’ve noticed there are a lot more dead third-party Twitter sites lately, there’s a reason: Twitter is locking down its famously open set of application interfaces and trying to control more of the user experience. Ingram notes that Twitter has had great success with its mobile ads and promoted tweets, and it would like users to stay a little longer on its site. The acquisition of Tweetdeck, as well as several recent improvements to the Twitter.com user experience, are part of that campaign to capture more of the visitor’s time.

Miscellany

Another daily newspaper has joined the ranks of newspapers that are not-so-daily. The Anniston (Ala.) Star will cut its Monday edition beginning in the fourth quarter. Poynter’s Julie Moos has more than you probably want to know here.

Has your local newspaper trimmed frequency from seven days to something else? We’ve had a few inquiries recently from people looking for a list of such journals, but we’ve  never seen one. If you have, please provide a link in the comments, or simply tell us if your local paper has been affected. This will start a list of some kind.


A little good news: The New York Times is more than making up for declining advertising with growth in paid subscriptions. Ad revenue was down 8.1% in the most recent quarter, but circulation revenue was up 9.7%, thanks largely to the success of a new paywall program. Forbes reports that the International Herald Tribune and Boston Globe are also seeing promising results from their early paid digital subscription initiatives.

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Stuff we’ve bookmarked recently.

Warren Buffett Buying Newspapers by the Bushel

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett
(New York Times photo)

The world’s ultimate value investor – Warren Buffett – has apparently decided that there’s untapped value in newspapers. His Berkshire Hathaway has just purchased 63 of them along with a 3% stake in Lee Enterprises, and Buffett says he plans to buy more. Newspaper lovers should applaud Buffett’s interest. A self-described newspaper “addict,” he believes in an intensely local editorial focus and a sustainable business model. His interest in the newspaper industry could be a boost for paywalls. “The original instinct of newspapers was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model and certain of our papers are already making progress in moving to something that makes more sense,” he wrote in a letter to publishers.

The New York Times traveled to Buffalo to check out The Buffalo News, which Buffett has owned since 1977. It found a profitable operation that has scaled down intelligently over the years through buyouts rather than layoffs. Buffett has little personal involvement in daily operations, but his philosophy of investing in local coverage and skimping on overhead is evident everywhere. Media Audit says The Buffalo News has the second highest audience penetration of any newspaper in the country. Part of this could be because the Rust Belt population of the area is older than the typical demographic, but it’s still remarkable that more than 70% of Buffalo households have read the paper within the last month.

If anyone can figure out how to make a newspaper profitable, it’s Warren Buffett. He built an estimated net worth of $44 billion by buying distressed businesses at the bottom. His interest in this industry would indicate that there are better days ahead.

US Newspaper Ad Revenue Continues Sickening Plunge; Online Growth All But Halted

First-quarter 2012 total expenditures totaled $5.18 billion, down 6.86% from $5.56 billion a year earlier. Online revenues grew by just 1% to $816 million, which was the smallest for any quarter since 2009 and not nearly enough to offset the 8.2% drop in print revenues, to $4.36 billion. The Newspaper Association of America previously revealed that print revenues (in absolute dollars) fell by half between 2005 and 2011. And there is no end in sight.

Oregon Publisher Puts Happy Face on Frequency Cut

“There are a lot of new things to like about today’s Observer,” writes Kari Borgen, publisher of the Observer of Union and Wallowa counties in Oregon. Borgen goes on to celebrate the Observer‘s new design, added features and bonus puzzles, among other goodies. What she fails to dwell upon is the fact that the issue that “seems bigger and feels heavier to you today” is that way because frequency has been cut from five days to three. The Observer eliminated Tuesday and Thursday editions and now publishes only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. No one has yet gotten around to updating the About page with this information.

Tribune Co. Edges Closer to Bankruptcy Exit

Details of the legal wrangling between stakeholders, negotiations with the FCC and the likelihood of judicial approval of a restructuring plan will leave your eyes crossed, but the bottom line is that the company’s three-year stay in Hotel Chapter 11 may finally be nearing a conclusion. There’s still regulatory and legal wrangling to be resolved, including a petition to transfer Tribune Co.’s broadcast licenses to a group of banks and hedge funds that will own the company. There’s also a challenge from a group of junior bondholders who are challenging the restructuring plan and who might sue 35,000 former Tribune Co. shareholders to recover more than $2 billion in claims.

Whatever happens, the likely outcome is that Tribune Co. will be carved up and sold off piecemeal by the banks and hedge funds that assume ownership. The real value of the company is in its portfolio of 23 TV stations and some other equity investments. The newspaper business is barely a rounding error on the balance sheet. The story in the Tribune notes, “Before the Zell deal, Tribune Co. entertained offers topping $2 billion for the Los Angeles Times alone, but today, according to a recent valuation analysis by Tribune adviser Lazard Freres & Co. the entire publishing group of eight newspapers, including the Times and Tribune, is worth about $623 million.”

By the way, the Chicago Tribune is considering a novel approach to paywalls. Instead of charging for access beyond a certain number of articles per month, the paper would charge for bonus content, as ESPN does. The tactic has worked well for sports addicts, but observers question whether it can succeed in local news. It hasn’t done so anywhere yet.

Blowing Up the Article

The always-provocative Mathew Ingram writes about why we need to reconsider the concept of the article in publishing. This traditional approach to packaging information is rooted in the limitations of printed media where hyperlinking was impossible. Now, however, we have the ability to deliver only what’s new and link to the rest.  Jeff Jarvis has been beating this drum for some time and in a post entitled “News articles as assets and paths,” he suggests that articles will devolve into component parts that can be mixed and matched according to need.  Why reinvent the wheel with hundreds of words of background every time we update a story? Simply provide the new information and link to the rest. Jarvis has even suggested that new kinds of media organizations could emerge that specialize in different kinds of assets, such as news, multimedia or background. An example of the latter is Wikipedia, which is a great source of background information for many timely events. Reddit is building this model with its Ask Me Anything forum, which has become a coveted destination for book authors. Basically, Reddit is becoming a specialist in Q&A assets.

Media Consolidation: The Infographic

Everyone is doing infographics these days, and we’ve never seen a bandwagon we couldn’t hop on. This one was actually created by Frugal Dad last November, but it popped up on Business Insider last week. Some of the information is out of date. For example, GE no longer owns NBC, so the sixth company is now Comcast. And Time Warner got rid of AOL. But the main point still holds: Media consolidation has reached a pinnacle, with only six corporations controlling 90% of media in America. And 250 million bloggers and Twitter users controlling the rest.

Media Consolidation

 

Source: Frugal dad

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