By paulgillin | February 19, 2010 - 12:22 pm - Posted in Facebook, Google, Hyper-local

This week’s sorry tale of a New York Times reporter being forced to resign for plagiarizing content from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources, apparently over a long period of time, raises questions about how traditional practices can survive the pressures of the online age.

Zachery Kouwe (right) walked the plank after editors at the Wall Street Journal complained that passages in a post on the Times’ DealBook blog substantially duplicated material published in the Journal a couple of hours earlier. The Times published a correction and later suspended Kouwe. He resigned on Tuesday.

In an interview with The New York Observer, Kouwe apologize for the transgression but explained that it was an honest mistake brought on by the need to respond to a rival’s story combined with the relentless pressure to produce weekly output of about 7,000 words. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened,” he said.

There’s never an excuse for plagiarism, but an understanding of the environment in which young reporters like Kouwe work can at least explain his acts, if not excuse them.

Deadlines in Minutes

It wasn’t long ago that reporters at a big paper like the Times had the luxury of turning out a story a day or even less. Print deadlines measured in hours offered an opportunity to check sources and rewrite notes in a timeframe that seems positively leisurely today. A few skilled professionals, mostly wire reporters, excelled at deadline reporting. Their expertise in synthesizing and contextualizing large amounts of information, often in chaotic environments, was the product of years of experience.

Today, everyone who writes news online is a wire service reporter. Deadlines are measured in minutes and anyone who wants to compete has to put speed at the top of the agenda. Not everyone is good at working under that kind of pressure, so it’s not surprising that the quality of deadline news reporting is becoming more erratic. Budget cuts at newspapers have also forced a lot of young, relatively unseasoned reporters to the front lines where their work nevertheless carries the moniker of a 150-year-old trusted brand. Such was clearly the case with Kouwe who, at 31, has developed his journalism skills inside the culture and pressure of the Internet.

The craft of note-taking has also changed. In today’s cut-and-paste world, journalists assemble background information from snippets published elsewhere. Notes are typed rather than hand written. In a document made up of first-person interview notes mashed together with clips from other sources, it’s not surprising that the origins of information can become confused. That’s not an excuse for shoddy note-taking, but it is an explanation for how errors can happen.

Changing Views on Copyright

The standards of intellectual property ownership that have been broadly accepted for so long are also growing fuzzier. Many bloggers don’t even post copyright information on their sites or they choose from one of an assortment of Creative Commons licenses that can themselves be confusing. The nonprofit culture of the blogosphere largely looks the other way when people lift content from each other. Many people use blogs as essentially online notepads, posting everything up to and including their shopping lists. Even if they cared about plagiarism, it’s difficult to spot violations and usually not worth the trouble of chasing the offenders. This works okay in the blogosphere because few bloggers practice their craft for money. In some cases, theft of content is actually considered a compliment to the author.

Then there are the proliferating forms that online communications take. Are Twitter messages copyrightable? If so, then isn’t the coveted retweet a form of copyright infringement? Google Voice has a feature that transcribes phone messages and makes it easy to embed those transcriptions in websites. Is that also a legal problem?

Finally, software tools now enable  someone to republish entire articles on multiple sites without even copying and pasting. Posterous is just one that makes this process automatic. A person using this feature may be violating someone else’s intellectual property without even knowing it.

This is not an excuse for Kouwe’s transgressions. A professional reporter should understand the fundamentals of the craft. However, the freewheeling nature of the democratized information landscape creates all sorts of gray areas. Journalism schools and editors need to do a better job of giving young journalist the tools to living with the growing pressures of deadlines and information overload without violating basic principles of ownership.

New Image Protection

Photographers have a particularly difficult time tracking copyright violations. Search engines don’t index images and the content embedded within tags gets lost as pictures are copied and redisplayed around the web. Watermarking affords some protection, but it also can make the image unattractive to potential publishers.

PicScout is trying to do something about this. Founded in 2002 to market an image recognition and classification technology, the company has a new platform that analyzes images and stores ownership information in a registry. That information travels with the image wherever it’s reproduced, thanks to technology that is capable of recognizing certain patterns within the bitstream. With one click, a potential user of the image can be connected to the license holder to work out terms.

License holders can upload their images to PicScout for indexing. The service then continually scans the Web looking for reuse of that content. License holders get a regular report on potential violations, along with company name and a screen capture. Users can download a free plug-in that alerts them to images that are listed in the PicScout database. The company just signed a partnership deal with PhotoShelter, a website for professional photographers and enthusiasts, that will automatically include PhotoShelter images in the PicScout registry.


If you think the demise of newspapers has killed good journalism, take a look at the list of the 13 winners of George Polk Awards for 2009. The awards, which have been administered by Long Island University for more than 60 years, cover a wide range of national and international accomplishments, ranging the New York Times reporter who documented his seven-month captivity by the Taliban to a ProPublica journalist who reported on the dangers of a natural gas-drilling process that yields carcinogenic byproducts. While the honorees include the usual lineup of mainstream media sources, a few surprises crept into the group this year. They include a team of Stars and Stripes reporters that unearthed a Pentagon campaign that profiled journalists in order to steer them toward positive coverage of the war in Afghanistan and a group of Bloomberg reporters who documented abuses of the government’s bank bailout program.

The Phoenix-area East Valley Tribune just won’t die. Owner Freedom Communications filed a motion with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court this week seeking approval to sell its Phoenix-area publications — including the Tribune — to 1013 Communications LLC. The purchase price is reportedly just $2.05 million. Freedom has been in bankruptcy protection since September and has been trying to unload the Tribune for more than a year. It had earlier announced plans to shut down the paper at the end of 2009, but is keeping the lights on in hopes of finding a buyer.

Growth of digital coupons is outpacing growth of newspaper coupons by a factor of 10 to 1, according to a company that has a stake in the digital market. reports that more than 45 million American consumers are now using online coupons, a nearly 20% increase from the 38 million who used them in 2008. “Of that number, nearly a third (13.1 million) don’t clip coupons from their Sunday paper, a 140% increase over 9.4 million in 2008,” said If anyone can explain how the difference between 9.4 million and 13.1 million comes out to 140%, we’d like to hear it.

Questions are already being raised about Apple’s iPad licensing terms and whether its policy of keeping subscriber data close to the vest is a deal-killer. The Financial Times reports that the generous royalty model that Apple uses with book publishers (they get to keep 70% of the take) doesn’t work so well in subscription models.  It’s particularly bad in light of Apple’s practice of gathering all subscriber information and sharing nothing with its publisher or developer partners except download and sales totals.  “Is it a dealbreaker? It’s pretty damn close,” says one senior US media executive. Here’s another opportunity for Amazon. Publishers appear to prefer the Kindle platform for a number of reasons, but Amazon’s licensing terms grant them too little of the subscription revenue. If Amazon would loosen up quickly, it could grab most-favored-reader status in this important market. So far, though, Amazon shows little inclination of changing anything.

And Finally…

“There is nothing more frustrating than having a perfect comment for a conversation the two strangers in front of you are having.”

“It’s never more important to me to look my best than when I’m gonna be around someone I can’t stand.”

“I don’t understand the purpose of the line, ‘I don’t need to drink to have fun.’ No one does. But why start a fire with flint and sticks when they’ve invented the lighter?”

Those are just three of the gems from Ruminations, a website that accepts short, funny, original observations or anecdotes and then encourages its members to vote them up or down the popularity scale.

Reading Ruminations is like listening to a nonstop Steven Wright standup routine. Many of the contributions are hilarious, but some of them make you ponder the odd, illogical and bizarre things that humans do. “How many times is it appropriate to say ‘What?’ before you just nod and smile because you still didn’t hear what they said?” asks one contributor. The site was started by author and comedian Aaron Karo (above), who has a newsletter by the same name.

By paulgillin | February 9, 2010 - 8:46 am - Posted in Fake News, Hyper-local

Yesterday I visited with a journalism class at a major university. This institution’s journalism program is considered one of the finest in the country and its faculty boasts notable veterans of the newspaper and broadcast field. I spoke to a small class for about 90 minutes, devoting the first hour of that time to a discourse on the state of the US media: Why it’s in a predicament, how the story is likely to play out and what it all means for aspiring journalists. The rest of the time was discussion.

My material wasn’t the type of stuff these students are used to hearing, judging by their reactions. About 2/3 of my talk was about economics and business. Among the topics I addressed were:

  • How advertising efficiency is devastating the media economic models that are based on the inherent inefficiency of mass-market advertising;
  • The irony that newspaper readership is at an all-time high even as the industry craters;
  • How the efficiency of online publishing permits new media organizations to operate much more cheaply than their predecessors;
  • Why the 57-year-old average daily newspaper reader is an undesirable target for advertisers;
  • Why advertising costs will continue to go down and why this is a problem for traditional media;
  • Why Craigslist has devastated newspapers’ most profitable revenue source;
  • How the need to sustain high circulation levels has made newspaper editorial content bland, inoffensive and, ultimately, vulnerable to competition.

The students were aware that they’re stepping into an uncertain world but they didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of the media business. Looking at the journalism department’s website later, I could see why. The curriculum lists 29 courses in the journalism program, and not a single one is about the economics of publishing or how to sustain a career as a journalist.

This university is failing its students. I suspect that so are a lot of others.

Learning a Trade

Journalism schools are essentially trade schools. When I was going through a J-school program in the late 1970s, everything was focused on getting the students out into the working world with the skills and savvy needed to get to the top. Judging by my recent experiences with journalism schools, the same career path that was advised 30 years ago is still being recommended today. This begins with a low-paying job at a small daily and proceeds through a series of staff positions at increasingly larger publications. The Holy Grail is to land a job on the staff of The New York Times, which itself has laid off 200 journalists in the last year.

This career path isn’t going to work in the future. Newsroom staffing levels today are 55% of what they were eight years ago. While elimination of high-paying jobs has created some entry-level opportunities, the path for career journalists will increasingly be up and out into the freelance world where they will have to compete on speed, agility and business skills.

The business side of the equation is where the greatest disconnect occurs. Journalism schools mostly disdain the moneymaking side of the house. Students are taught that revenue is somebody else’s job; they are in the position of delivering information. In fact, the ad sales department is often portrayed as a den of evil, full of conniving capitalists who only want to bastardize the product journalists so lovingly nurture.

The failure of the economic model is the reason most news organizations are in such trouble today. Journalists are mostly unprepared to help. The church-state separation that is intrinsic to the culture of newsrooms prevents them from understanding why the business is in trouble. Most journalists I have met still show alarming ignorance of the business that pays their salaries.

I’ve written before about the need for young journalists to develop entrepreneurial skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean going door-to-door selling ads, but it does mean understanding how advertising works, how audiences can be monetized and how diversified revenue streams can build a sustainable income. These topics are distasteful to veteran journalists, who have never had to worry about such things. Unfortunately, they’re very relevant to the students they teach.

Journalism schools need to become small business foundries if they are to continue in their mission of preparing students for the real world. Unfortunately, most of them change slowly, and the rapid decline of media institutions has caught them flat-footed. They need to move quickly to adjust their curricula in order to avoid sending their students unprepared into the tumultuous job market that awaits them.

By paulgillin | February 3, 2010 - 7:12 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Paywalls

Alan Mutter is stirring things up again with a spreadsheet that journalists can use to value their work. His thinking: Stop debasing yourself by working for peanuts. Figure out what your time is worth and charge accordingly.

With his characteristic eye for detail, Mutter figures such factors as the self-employment tax and capital expenses in his calculations. The sample shows a fictional reporter charging about 55 cents a word to cover his/her fully loaded costs figuring an average pay rate of about $30/hour, which is union scale in Pittsburgh. Your mileage may vary, of course.

If journalists “don’t put a value on what they do, then no one else will, either,” Mutter declares, noting that media organizations are using the explosion of blogs and citizen media operations to “pick off writers, photographers and videographers on the cheap.”

We have enormous respect for Alan Mutter, but we find ourselves in complete disagreement on this one. In our view, journalists who draw lines in the sand and start charging only what they think they’re worth will find themselves practicing a lot less journalism.

Are media organizations taking advantage of plummeting freelance rates? You betcha. Is what they’re doing wrong? We don’t think so. Supply and demand is the underpinning of a capitalist economy, and if the rules have changed in a way that devalues quality journalism, well, those are the cards we’re dealt. It sucks, but it’s how the system works.

Journalists can try to charge what they think they’re worth, but they’ll ultimately live or die by what the market is willing to pay. With the arrival of Web 2.0-style publishing, millions of people have started playing at journalism and it turns out some aren’t half bad at it. The trouble is that many of these casual journalists don’t make a living as reporters. Their journalism is a sidelight to their day jobs. They may be happy to work for a vague reward defined as “exposure” if it pays off in speaking jobs, consulting work or book contracts.

Mutter is outraged that people contact him asking “to commission an article or reprint a post in exchange for the ephemeral compensation known as ‘exposure,’” but the reality of the market is that a lot of people are willing to work for that (full disclosure: we recently approached Mutter about contributing to a for-profit website in exchange for a modest fee; he politely declined). For example, many book authors write extensively about their expertise for free in exchange for exposure in major publications.

We sympathize with journalists who have seen the market value of their work collapse over the last couple of years. We’ve experienced some of that pain personally and we have many friends and colleagues who are suffering because of it. However, the market has spoken, and the solution to collapsing fees isn’t to insist on getting a rate that employers will no longer pay.

Is there a solution? Well, journalists who specialize in everything from geography to gastroenterology can still command higher prices than general assignment reporters. Also, a lot of journalists work for commercial clients on the side so that they can afford to practice their craft. There’s money in speaking, consulting, writing books and corporate ghost-writing. Some of that work may be distasteful, but at least it pays the bills.

That doesn’t solve the problem of who is going to embed in Iraq for six months at 25 cents a word. That’s a much tougher issue and we wish we had better ideas how to solve it. But drawing lines in the sand is career suicide.

Indianapolis-based freelance journalist Christopher Lloyd sees things our way. He’s passionate about movies and has contributed free movie reviews to some area newspapers since being laid off by the Indianapolis Star. “I knew I wasn’t going to drop my passion for film criticism. If I was going to do it, I might as well have it published,” he writes. Plus, movie studios won’t pay attention to a journalist whose work isn’t being read by anyone. He’s still plugging away and some of his clients are now paying a modest fee. He’s also got a site for film buffs called The Film Yap, where contributors work for, you guessed it…

Speaking of careers, a university professor has analyzed six months worth of recent job postings and discovered that traditional and non-traditional news outlets differ in their criteria for hiring journalists. Dr. Serena Carpenter, an assistant professor in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, looked at 664 online media job postings and concluded that established media organizations such as newspapers tended to favor candidates with solid writing and reporting skills while new media operations looked favorably on what she calls “adaptive expertise.” That includes broad-based experience and creative thinking.

Seth Lewis, a former Miami Herald editor and Ph.D student at the University of Texas, has joined the Nieman Journalism Lab as a contributor (paid?) specializing in journalism education and he’d like to know your ideas for what J-schools should teach. Perhaps stealing a line from the research noted above, Lewis is inclined to recommend a focus on adaptability. He defines that as the skills “to work in unpredictable settings, to generate their own funding as needed, and otherwise learn as they go.” In the process of interviewing for a faculty position at various academic institutions, Lewis says he was often asked what journalism schools should teach, which indicates that the profs at those schools are perplexed as well. Maybe you can provide him with some guidance.


Opponents of government subsidies for media organizations overlook an important detail: US media has been subsidized for 200 years, reports The New York Times. Citing a report released last week by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, the Times notes that government support of newspapers has actually been declining in recent years as mailing discounts have diminished laws requiring businesses to buy newspaper ads for certain kinds of legal notices have been dropped. In fact, the study’s authors estimate that annual government support has declined from more than $4 billion in 1970 to less than $2 billion today.

News organizations are starting to figure out how to monetize social networks. The Austin American-Statesman is charging for tweets and actually booking revenue. Local businesses can buy two tweets per day of up to 124 characters (to allow for retweets). The messages are labeled as ads and must prompt the reader to take action. Huffington Post is experimenting with the same idea. The New York Times is also selling packages of ads against visitors to its Facebook site. Nobody’s making much money at this yet, though.

Gannett executives demonstrated a rarely-seen attitude during this week’s earnings call: Optimism. “”We are very excited by what we are seeing,” said CEO Craig Dubow. Circulation is beginning to recover and profitability is returning to the income statement, enabling Gannett to pay down some of its debt. Profitability was still driven more by cost-cutting than by revenue growth, however. Classified revenues were down nearly 22% in the quarter and digital revenues fell 7.2% due largely to the dismal picture state of employment advertising. More coverage.

Newspaper readership continues at record levels when you factor in online traffic, according to the latest results from Nielsen Online and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). More than 72 million people — about one quarter of all Internet users, according to the NAA — visited a newspaper site in the fourth quarter, racking up 3.2 billion monthly page views. The NAA declined to provide year-to-year comparisons, citing a change in Nielsen’s measurement technique.

By paulgillin | January 20, 2010 - 8:16 am - Posted in Google, Hyper-local

Watching the heart-rending images and stories coming out of Haiti over the last week, we’ve found ourselves worrying not only about the human tragedy but also about how much we really know about what’s going on down there.

The Haitian earthquake is a vivid example of how the world still relies upon the mainstream media to tell the stories that no one else will. The news media is often guilty of overkill, such as when Tribune Co. sent 14 reporters to cover a Super Bowl in which none of its hometown teams played or when reporters jam-pack a Presidential press conference to report on the same thing everyone can see on TV. Haiti is different. A natural disaster needs to be told through many images and personal accounts. There can’t be enough reporters in that devastated region right now.

Who’s going to fill that role as news organizations shrivel? We have more information available to us today than ever, but we rely on organizations with fewer and fewer resources to tell us about important events like the Haitian earthquake. Few bloggers are going to travel to an impoverished and devastated region on their own dime and the participants in the tragedy are too focused on survival to tweet what’s going on around them.

Calculating Media’s Value

A new research study dramatizes the continuing value of mainstream media, albeit in a small domain. The Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at the news ecosystem in Baltimore for one week last summer and followed six major narratives that dominated the headlines. It concluded that while there was lots of chatter going on, eight out of 10 stories merely repeated or repackaged information published in mainstream media and 95% of all new information came from traditional media sources.

The most important source of original reporting was the Baltimore Sun, which contributed nearly half of all original news reported in the area. However, the study also found that the Sun produced 32% fewer stories than it did in 1999 and 73% fewer stories than in 1991. The good news is that researchers found 53 different outlets disseminating news. Unfortunately, “83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information,” said Digiday Daily.  “Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.” Radio accounted for if a pitiful 7% of all original news.

Perhaps news organizations in the future will mobilize groups of stringers to cover momentous events while cutting back on pointless trips to political conventions. Or perhaps they won’t. A 2008 survey found that, faced with shrinking staffs, newspapers were actually consolidating their coverage on fewer stories and shedding the special interest stuff that didn’t draw large audiences.

An interesting side note is that the Pew study also found that 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, most notably the police. Since those institutions generally don’t talk to anyone but the traditional press, perhaps a bigger issue is how to democratize access to the sources of information.

Public relations blogger and new media expert Shel Holtz contributes some interesting perspective. He points out that while social media is serving as an effective means of accelerating knowledge of a news event, “it’s not panning out as a replacement for professional journalism.” Social media has had considerable value in the Haitian disaster as a fund-raising vehicle, but not as a primary news source.

The Newspaper Association of America might consider how it could use the public’s fixation on the Haitian disaster to tactfully point out that it was mainstream media that brought this story to the world. Perhaps the industry can use events like this to warm consumers to the idea that these services have value and deserve to be supported.

By the way, Google has used its satellite imaging service to dramatically document the devastation in the region. The Google Earth images are available here and will be continually updated.

By paulgillin | January 15, 2010 - 12:05 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

It’s now generally accepted wisdom that, at some point, the population of people who are willing to pay for printed newspapers will decline to the point that print will no longer be a viable medium. Alan Mutter hauls out the spreadsheets and applies his trademark statistical eye to the data in a two-part entry that establishes a likely endpoint for daily print frequency.

Mutter points out that the core newspaper audience of people over 50 years of age today represents only 30% of the population. He projects that half of them will be gone by 2025 and the other half by 2040. Mutter enlists government lifespan projections in his estimates as well as survey data about the percentage of young people who read newspapers. He believes printed newspaper consumption will fall by at least 27% over the next 15 years and 50% in the 15 years after that.

“The projections clearly indicate the publishers pursuing a business-as-usual approach may find their current operations… to be unsustainably unprofitable within five years,” the Newsosaur concludes. Some variables in the calculations could change, though; advertising rates could suddenly start rising. If you believe that, we’d recommend a 12-step program.

Mutter presents three scenarios and only the most optimistic forecast has newspapers printing profitably on a daily schedule five years from now. The more likely outlook is that most papers have to cut back from daily frequency in order to remain viable, as has been done in Detroit. We believe that print newspapers will exist for many years, but we doubt that the major metro daily model has more than about 10 years left in it. Mutters calculations tend to support our opinion.

Charles Apple points out that surprisingly few newspapers featured the massive earthquake in Haiti on their front pages today. Perhaps that’s because deadlines have been moved up and design staffs cut in the name of cost savings? Apple points to one paper that featured a graphic headline that almost made light of the tragedy. Check out his blog and see what you think. We tend to agree with Apple.

Apple also notes that Jim Hopkins, the publisher of the popular Gannett Blog, has quietly returned to the field and is publishing as busily as ever. Hopkins shut down the blog last fall with considerable fanfare; in fact, some people thought his countdown to closure was overplayed. Just as we were becoming accustomed to a post-Hopkins existence, we learn that Hopkins is feeling more energetic and has a renewed commitment to keep the tone of Gannett Blog more civil. Here’s a brief interview on Jilted Journalists. In the months leading up to last summer shutdown, tensions between the blog and Gannett had reached a fever pitch.

What the blog gods giveth they also taketh away, and McClatchy Watch is the most recent casualty. This online watchdog, which was cast in the image of Gannett Blog, went dormant two days before Christmas. We can’t say we’re going to miss it. While McClatchy Watch was once a valuable source of intelligence about the company it follows, in the past year it’s taken on a conservative political agenda that has been distracting to the point of irritation. If the anonymous author who publishes it ever decides to come back, we hope he/she will focus on the topic at hand.

The Los Angeles Times, which maybe the most troubled title in the Tribune Company portfolio, is addressing its online competitors by moving its deadlines earlier. LA Observed says the Times‘s effort to save money by shuttering its Orange County presses and taking on production of The Wall Street Journal has forced the paper to move its news deadlines up by as much as five hours. This means that in a world in which competitors publish information in seconds over Twitter, the Times will now have a 6 PM deadline for a newspaper that hits readers’ doorsteps more than 12 hours later. Please don’t follow this example.

No matter what you may think of Google — and a lot of newspaper publishers think it’s the great Satan — you have to hand it to the search engine giant for announcing that it will pull out of the China market rather than continue to censor its search results. Google’s complicity with the Chinese government’s repressive policies has been a black eye for some time, but there are good financial reasons why it’s been reluctant to stand up for its principles: Its stock price would get hammered. In light of that fact, the decision to draw a line in the sand deserves praise. Jeff Jarvis, who recently published a book about Google, puts it in perspective. He expects Google to suffer Wall Street’s wrath but pays tribute to the company for putting its principles ahead of its stock price. Lots of discussion on that post.

Speaking of Google, did you know that it has severed its relationship with the Associated Press? That’s right: Google News doesn’t have any AP stories dated after December 23, 2009. Google isn’t saying very much, but publishers might want to keep an eye on this divorce to see if it has any lessons for their own deadly embrace with the search engine company. CNN Money points out that the AP doesn’t derive much revenue from advertising, so the loss of the Google business isn’t significant. Still, AP may be in a good position to provide its members with data on what the Google breakup has meant for its traffic.

The latest on Tribune Co.’s plans to exit bankruptcy are that the event is likely to happen in the first half of this year. Tribune chairman Sam Zell made that forecast in an interview with CNBC this week. Zell has been unspecific lately on when the troubled media company, which has been in bankruptcy for a year, would reemerge. The news of a pending reappearance should be a boost for Tribune employees, since the company has avoided massive asset sales in order to bring its books into line. Instead, it has relied on layoffs and surgical cost cutting.

A new Harris survey says that 77% of American adults would not be willing to pay to read a newspaper’s content online and the 23% who would pay won’t pay much. If you extrapolate the results, they indicate that less than 1.5% of online adults would pay more than $10 per month for a newspaper. This can’t be good news to the smattering of papers that had recently erected paywalls.

John McIntyre takes issue with a Washington Post headline that a lot of people apparently think is brilliant. We agree with McIntyre that it is more at cryptic than clever. We also agree that the example of a brilliant headline that he proposes — “Freedom’s Just Another Bird With Nothing Left To Lose” — is a thing of beauty. Reald the blog for background on how that one came about. Lots of people are weighing in on this discussion. If McIntyre isn’t in your RSS reader, he should be.

By paulgillin | January 12, 2010 - 12:46 pm - Posted in Layoffs, Solutions
Adam Chadwick and Bill Loerch are two filmmakers who are trying to chronicle the decline of the US newspaper industry for a documentary film called Fit to Print. Chadwick is a laid-off New York Times copy editor and Loerch has spent most of his adult life making films. We spent several hours with them on Saturday and came away very impressed with their knowledge and ambition. What they mainly need now is money. Here’s a video interview that tells a little bit about their venture. Below is the description in their own words.

Fit to Print” is a documentary film that takes the viewer on a behind-the-scenes journey through the current upheaval of the newspaper industry. As subscriptions dwindle and ad revenues decline, newspapers are scrambling to establish their relevance. The newspaper business lost $7.5 billion in ad revenues in 2008, and has reduced spending on journalism by $1.6 billion per year over the past several years. But what does this mean for the individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by the crisis? If the newspaper business is changing, how are journalism school graduates adapting? What happens to career reporters after being laid off? How are newspaper publishers surviving? What is being lost as new media replaces old?

Fit to Print” will ask these questions and tell America’s newspaper story. It will take the audience through the upheaval in the newspaper business through three very distinct perspectives: A newspaper publisher, a career reporter and a journalism school graduate. Anybody who cares about journalism has been exposed to a spate of stories and figures about the decline of the traditional newspaper business. This has spurred much debate about what comes next and how to adapt journalism to a world in which the digital word is quickly replacing the printed word.

But such stories are mostly abstractions. Newspapers are a business, they are crucial to the functioning of a democratic society, but they are often more than that. They are a way of life for those who are a part of them – ordinary individuals contending with turbulent times. “Fit to Print” will tell their story, which is rarely seen in any broadcast news brief.

The numbers so far this year have been startling. Over 100 newspapers have been shuttered. Over 10,000 newspaper jobs have been lost. Print ad sales fell by nearly a third in the first quarter alone. Of the top 25 newspapers, 23 reported circulation declines between 7% and 20%. “Fit to Print” will show the viewer the human side of these numbers. It will ask the question: what is being lost, and what comes next?

If you want to reach either of these filmmakers, contact Adam Chadwick or Bill Loerch.

Update 5/23/19: The most recent trailer is available here. There appears to be no embed option.


By paulgillin | January 8, 2010 - 8:32 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local

We don’t entirely agree with Michael Kinsley’s piece in the Atlantic this week criticizing newspapers for verbosity, but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it (briefly). Kinsley (below right) eviscerates both The New York Times and the Washington Post for their coverage of health care reform by dissecting lead paragraphs and quotation choices. Are all these words really necessary? Kinsley thinks not.

The Post, for example, leads its story with 13 words of pointless Presidential rhetoric and then proceeds to quote other lawmakers making equally vapid statements. Readers don’t care if legislators are “answering the call of history,” Kinsley notes. They want to know what happened. Unfortunately, reporters and editors have been trained to frame everything within the bigger context of “what it means,” and in the process have obscured news of the actual event.

Michael Kinsley

Perhaps the most controversial point in the piece is Kinsley’s criticism of the standard journalistic tactic of attributing analysis where attribution really isn’t needed. He cites a recent New York Times story about the unintended consequences of regulatory crackdowns on Wall Street bonuses. It turns out some executives who were forced to take stock instead of cash are now making a killing as financial stocks rebound. The reporter clearly considers this irony, Kinsley notes, but she’s not allowed to say that. So she digs up a quote from an obscure trade editor to validate what everybody already knows.

This last point is a slippery slope for news organizations. Facing competition from bloggers whose stock in trade is opinion, journalists are redoubling their efforts to sound impartial. Of course, impartiality doesn’t really exist, so reporters search for third-party sources whose opinions validate their own. Bloggers have no such limitations, so they are free to get to the point, state an opinion and move on. This has the effect of actually making blogs more efficient to read than stories in the mainstream media.

We don’t think it’s that simple. The most common complaint we hear about the decline of mainstream media is that people don’t know whom to trust anymore. By at least taking a stab at presenting an unbiased view, mainstream news organizations can save readers from having to triangulate multiple perspectives to form their own opinions. The risk, as Kinsley accurately observes, is that reporters pick and choose analysis that matches their own. That’s worse than misleading; it’s downright deceptive.

We have always believed the smart people have the capacity to hold opinions while also fairly representing multiple points of view. We see nothing wrong with the reporter in the Times piece writing a separate opinion, whether as a blog entry or something else, that states the view of an informed observer. If anything, that should encourage a reporter to present a more balanced perspective in the piece that’s labeled news. Just don’t mix the two.

Freelance Free Fall Threatens Quality

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Rainey laments the freefall in freelance compensation that is forcing writers to scramble to make a fraction of what they made two or three years ago. With publishers paying as little as five cents a word for assignments advertised on Craigslist, journalists are finding they can’t afford to practice their craft and are fleeing the profession.

The problem is systemic. Advertising doesn’t pay the bills the way it used to and online publishers have to shovel information into a bottomless pit in order to generate revenue. As advertising gets cheaper, the pit only gets deeper. Amateur writers and offshore competitors who work at a fraction of the traditional freelance wage are attractive new sources of words.

But what are those words about? As the pressure to generate traffic intensifies, online publishers are tempted to push out anything that will drive page views. So the news is increasingly dominated by sex, drugs and “Twilight” instead of investigative or interpretive journalism.

This is a real problem. And there are precious few ideas what to do about it. There will always be an elite cadre of journalists who can command a living wage for what they do, but the vast middle class of meat-and-potatoes reporters are seeing their livelihood seep away. A lot of publishers are working on ways to make advertising more profitable through better targeting and contextual relevance, but until those new models emerge, the freelance market will become less and less appealing for quality journalists.


Usage of newspaper websites is trending slowly upward, although the numbers reported by various sources remain surprisingly small. The Readership Institute says the percentage of people who never use newspaper websites has dropped from 70% in 2003 to 62% in 2008. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers says about 20% of the population accessed  a newspaper site in the past 30 days. On the other side of the equation, Scarborough Research reported a couple of months ago that  74% of American adults read a paper in print or online during the past week. Pew Research reported a year ago that 35% of American rely primarily on newspapers for news. Each survey examines slightly different slices of the public, but the discrepancy between the figures from all four sources indicates that someone is asking the wrong questions.

Hyperlocal news site EveryBlock added its first major enhancements since its purchase last summer by Visitors will now be able to post their own announcements, which will show up in the localized views that the service provides. asks what the appeal of advertising will be if advertisers can simply publish their own notices for free. Presumably they’ll get some kind of enhanced placement.

Speaking of PaidContent, it’s hiring. The website is seeking reporters with specialties in either digital entertainment or the combination of tech, media and finance. Both jobs are based on the West Coast.

Former Baltimore Sun copy chief met John McIntyre continues to document the declining investments publishers are making in copy editing. He notes that Media General will consolidate the copyediting of three of its largest newspapers into one desk and that the Minneapolis Star Tribune is cutting 30 editorial jobs, with more than half of them coming from the copy desk. The paper says it won’t sacrifice quality. “Uh-huh,” McIntyre comments.

They’re taking the concept of hyperlocal seriously in the Netherlands. Telegraaf Media Groep has moved the former editor-in-chief of the Dutch tabloid Spits to lead a new venture that will create a network of hyperlocal information platforms. Details are still sketchy, but Bart Brouwers says the venture will ideally incorporate existing local bloggers. He also has some interesting ideas about slanting advertising to be written in more of a blog style to engage the audience rather than pushing messages. Imagine that.

By paulgillin | January 4, 2010 - 11:04 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

Apple tablet conceptThank goodness we have something to fill up the cold, light-deprived days of January: speculation about a new Apple tablet computer. Apple’s got a big press event scheduled for Jan. 26 and the blogosphere is overflowing with rumors that it will announce a flat-screen portable computer that’ll make the Amazon Kindle look like an Etch-a-Sketch.

Huffington Post relates rumors that Apple has registered the domain iSlate, presumably because that’s the name of the new device. However, iTablet has also been suggested. Pocketlint has a collection of 56 concept images that have been posted online, just like the one at right. Most depict the tablet as being an oversized iPhone, which we hope it isn’t. One of the most appealing factors about the iPhone is its light weight and hand-feel. There’s no more reason to believe the iPhone will scale larger  than there is to believe a Cooper Mini would make a good SUV.

The New York Times’ Alice Rawsthorn notes that while a lot of people like their e-readers, few people love them. “If a really great e-reader appeared, the market would explode,” she writes. And she adds, “If it comes through, demand for electronic books, newspapers and magazines should soar.”

That’s one reason publishing pundits are so hot on this rumored product. The iPod/iPhone has managed to crack the code of creating successful paid content models. The Kindle has legitimized that concept in the book and magazine publishing world, although Amazon’s onerous licensing terms irk publishers. If the iSlate or iTablet or whatever it’s called can create explosive demand for a universal media player, then content producers may have a chance to develop meaningful subscription models around it.

To get some ideas about where this whole trend could go, read Mark Potts’ essay. “Most of those speculating about Apple’s tablet aren’t thinking big enough….I believe the Apple tablet has the potential to strikingly transform large swaths of the media business, from newspapers to television to movies, pretty much all at once,” he writes. Potts goes on to suggest that a successful portable media device could unify the various platforms by which people now receive information into a single experience. For example, TV programs could be downloaded to the device for playback anywhere, with the video automatically switching to a high-definition TV in the home when the viewer enters the room.

And if you think about the possibilities of what some people are calling “augmented reality,” then portable TV is just a start. Information will be combined from multiple sources to create a constantly flowing river of data in different forms. Think the cacophony of a cable news channel screen, only clickable and aware of its location.

Yes, Apple has had failures in the past, but under Steve Jobs they’ve been few and far between. Our guess is that Jobs would never just spring a bigger iPhone on the market. He’s got his people thinking bigger and whatever results will certainly have the potential to be game-changing. It will certainly give us something to talk about between chattering teeth over the next few weeks.

A Giant’s Sudden Passing

We never met Deborah Howell, but anyone whose passing merits moving remembrances from the likes of Ken Doctor and Jeff Jarvis must have been someone special. Howell, 68, was the former assistant managing editor of the Minneapolis Star and executive editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Most recently, she was ombudsman at the Washington Post (we did note one of her Post columns almost two years ago to the day). She died last Friday after being hit by a car while crossing the street near Blenheim, New Zealand. The trip had been a lifelong dream.

Ken Doctor remembers her as an editor with “a hard edge and a soft heart.” She was prone to expletives and the occasional “because I said so,” but she also gave him advice that has served him for a lifetime: “Every once in a while, a voice will say, hold on, check it again, is that what you really want your newspaper to say?”

Jarvis remembers her as a veteran of traditional journalism who was caught up in the maelstrom over the shift to online. While a staunch defender of traditional values, he also remembers her as someone who embraced new ideas with fervor. When they recently worked together on a controversial project to take the Ann Arbor News online, “I was the one holding Deborah down as she grabbed new ideas with the fervor of a convert and fretted that we weren’t being radical enough.”

Tim McGuire has a moving tribute about his lifelong love-hate relationship with Howell. The New York Times’ David Carr shares a remembrance of how Howell once dressed him down at his own awards banquet and how he later came to love her.

Politico On a Tear

An eagle eyed editor at spied an opportunity in Allbritton Communications’ recent earning announcement to get a glimpse at the financial picture of The Politico, a new-breed Capitol Hill publisher that many people think will serve as a model for future news organizations.

Reporter Rafat Ali says this is a one-time deal; Allbritton has distributed shares of The Politico to a family-owned holding company and won’t have to break out the financials again in the future. The 2009 numbers show dramatic growth over the last three years, with The Politico likely to easily top $20 million this year. Revenues are on a $6 million quarterly run rate and the operation broke into the black in 2009. Much of the revenue comes from the print issue distributed on weekdays, demonstrating that there is life for news on paper if it hits the right audience with information they can’t get elsewhere.

By paulgillin | December 24, 2009 - 10:22 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local

Animated_Christmas_TreeThe Guardian’s Dan Kennedy has an intelligent piece about why the great newspaper collapse of 2009 didn’t pan out as expected. If you remember, early this year there were dramatic closures in major markets like Denver and Seattle, along with threats of similar harsh medicine in San Francisco and Boston. But as 2009 comes to a close, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe are still alive and kicking and there have been no major newspaper shutdowns in nine months. Kennedy points out that publishers took strong action to reverse the tide after that scary first quarter, cutting back sharply on expenses, boosting subscription prices and finding novel new ways to generate revenue. They also had considerable success whittling down the debt that has paralyzed many of their operations

Most daily newspapers, in fact, operate in the black but massive debt accumulated during multiple rounds of consolidation earlier this decade were threatening their existence. The threat is still there, but it looks like there was more fat in newspaper operating budgets than many observers had believed. Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth has pointed out that her paper employs twice as many journalists as it did during the Watergate years, even after multiple rounds of cutbacks.

Time to celebrate? Hardly. This industry is not a growth story and probably never will be, but it does appear that publishers are finding ways to gracefully manage their print operations down to sustainable levels. Early experience indicates that online news publishers can the profitable at about 20% of the expense level of their print counterparts. It’s likely that some publishers will figure out ways to get there without shutting down the brand entirely. Of course the price of advertising is also in decline, but that’s a different problem entirely.

It turns out that shares a Gannett Corp. were a heckuva buy in March when they plummeted to $1.85. The stock hit $15.49 on Wednesday as a leading analyst upgraded his outlook for the newspaper industry, saying December could be the industry’s best month in three years. Well Fargo Securities analyst John Janedis said the slide in advertising is slowing and that ad revenues could be down only 8% or 9% next year, compared to more than 30% this year. Janedis raised his rating on Gannett to “outperform” from “underperform” and on New York Times Co. to “market Perform” from “underperform.”

Not in Our Back Yard

We continue to be amazed at how newspapers bury the lead when announcing bad news about themselves. Check out this press release from the Washington Times as reprinted on Talking Points Memo:

The Washington Times today announced that it will begin producing a more focused Monday through Friday edition designed to feature its most distinctive news and opinion content.

Offered as a combination controlled market and paid general interest newspaper at a price of $1.00, the new print edition will be available at retail outlets and newspaper boxes throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. The current newspaper’s last Sunday edition will publish on December 27.

That’s right: the news is that the Times is killing its Sunday edition. This is on top of laying off 40% of its staff a few weeks ago. The paper is also reportedly considering eliminating its sports section entirely. Perhaps the Times reporters wouldn’t bury the lead on this particular story, but the PR department surely did.


Slate’s Jack Shafer throws cold water on publishers’ love affair with e-readers. Citing slick recent demos by magazines like Sports Illustrated, Esquire, GQ and Wired of their content running on handheld tablets, Shafer harkens back to the days of the Washington Post‘s experiment and Newsweek on CD-ROM. Publishers thought those delivery vehicles were going to reinvent their business but the efforts crashed and burned for reasons ranging from the public apathy to the relentless commoditization of information. E-readers are simply another delivery device, Shafer asserts and the tiny sales generated by iPhone apps aren’t going to replace revenue lost from print advertising. The devices also negate the tactile and visual appeal of a print publication, reducing the editorial product to just another stream of content.

The New Bedford Standard-Times becomes the latest paper to start charging readers for online access. Its rather convoluted plan announced this week gives readers three stories per month for free, seven more stories if they register and full access for $4.60 per week. That package also includes a print subscription, which usually costs $4.23. So online access for existing readers comes at an additional charge of $.37 per week.

If you’re looking for an inspiring message to give journalism school students, you can’t do much better than the one NewsLab’s Deborah Potter invented for graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today’s journalism professionals need to be inquisitive, resourceful and versatile, she says. Yes, news organizations are contracting and pay levels are shrinking but journalists have an unprecedented opportunity to reach a global audience. You’re on your own more than you’ve ever been, but that can be energizing as much as it’s terrifying. The future of journalism is “what you DO, irrespective of where you do it…your credibility depends on HOW you do what you do, not where you do it.” Believe, us it reads better in context. Potter’s also confident that revenue models will emerge that make journalism sustainable.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about augmented reality, Jeff Jarvis has a nice collection of video clips showing different ways in which the commendation of images, databases and mobile access can make the world around us more accessible. Here’s one:

By paulgillin | December 18, 2009 - 10:30 am - Posted in Google, Hyper-local

One of our favorite year-end delights is the annual publication of Craig Silverman’s Crunk awards. Silverman, whom we interviewed about a year ago, devotes hundreds of hours each year to documenting the missteps of media organizations large and small on his Regret the Error blog. Each year around this time, he publishes the high — and mostly low —  lights of the previous 12 months of media messups. It’s a half hour of reading pleasure.

Silverman’s award for the “Correction of the Year” goes to the Washington Post for this brief but symbolic beauty:

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

The misstep gets the award because of the torrent of reaction it sparked. The Post‘s error was ridiculed in leading online publications like Techdirt and Huffington Post and even sparked a twitter hash tag (#washingtonpostcorrections) in which thousands of people have posted satirical corrections based on literal interpretations of popular songs.

There’s a serious side to the story, however, and Silverman provides some perspective at the top of his lengthy retrospective.

dekalbhookerNews organizations can be forgiven occasional lapses under the burden of deadline pressure, but it’s unfathomable that basic errors of historical fact can occur when the truth is only a Google search away. This reality was brought into sharp relief in July, when The New York Times published a stunning correction of eight errors in a reporter’s retrospective on Walter Cronkite’s career. They included such Wikipediable factoids such as the date of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Such careless disregard for easily verifiable facts doesn’t do news organizations any favors at a time when their credibility is at historic lows. Silverman points out that the media watchdog function has passed into the public domain and sparked several efforts at self-regulation by media companies. Newspaper correction columns have long been a casual afterthought that did little to address the pain and humiliation that the original error may have caused. Publishers  could get away with that in the days when they owned the channels of information. Today, bloggers and tweeters can turn an error into a persistent chorus of mockery.

In the case of the Post‘s correction, the lyrics of the Public Enemy song were easily available online, along with interpretations. The abuse that the newspaper earned for the transgression may have been extreme, but hopefully it turned a few heads among the ranks of top editors.

Turning back to the Crunks, there are too many good ones to summarize here, so read through and choose your favorites. You can also show your support for Silverman’s efforts by buying a copy of his book. Our personal favorite comes from the Advertiser in Australia, which published an editor’s dummy copy as this Thought for the Day:

This is the thought of the day and this is where you put the thought of the day as if anyone has a thought for the day. And can’t work out what the hell is going on. But who knows what is happeningishness. – Jesus Mark 7:21-23 (Bible for Today)

We suspect that nearly every veteran journalist can relate to that one.

We’d like to quietly note that this is the 500th post on Newspaper Death Watch since this blog launched in March, 2007. Thanks to the nearly 1,000 people who visit this site on a typical weekday. Your many comments and messages of encouragement do far more to keep us motivated than the sporadic beer money from Google AdSense.

Comments Off on Celebrating the Crunks