Monday, February 23, 2009

The gap between young and old

I attended the "Chicago Journalism Town Hall" today at Hotel Allegro downtown.

An esteemed panel of professionals from outlets such as the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chi-Town Daily News, Huffington Post, Gaper's Block, CLTV, WTTW, and NBC were there, as well as professors and experts in digital media.

The crowd of 400+ (expected attendance about 50-100 originally according to organizer/moderator Ken Davis) included journalists, students, bloggers, publishers, advertisers, and public relations professionals. It was a great meeting of the minds to discuss the shift from traditional journalism to online and how to save local journalism.

A topic such as this, in the current economic climate, can be highly sensitive. It was. Emotions got the best of people at times, and conversation really heated up in the third and final hour of the discussion. Some people said things they later regretted and some people went really over the top.

One thing was more apparent than anything else. One thing. It was glaringly obvious.

The gap between the young and the old. The new media, Web-savvy folks and the old-school journalist folks.

This is not meant to be an insult to the professionals there I classify "old-school" and traditionalists, many of them understand the Web well enough to get by, but they simply don't "get" it. And the young people did.

Andrew Huff of Gaper's Block, Ben Goldenberg of Huffington Post, Geoff Dougherty of Chi-Town Daily News -- they all get it. They see where the industry is going. They see where the opportunities are. They've all plugged in those holes with innovative ideas which will likely be a major part of the future of this industry.

Hearing some of the "old-school" folks talk about the need to fund this, or the need to fund that, I just shook my head. No one CARES about much of the content they were talking about! Start writing with young people in mind, the future of your organizations. Start channeling your content to areas most in need, write stories that people are most interested in reading - please.

And do your homework when it comes to the opportunities that online offers. Understand there are ways to monetize the Web. There are huge opportunities out there. And micro-payments, while a good idea in theory, may not be the best way to do it. What are some alternatives? One person at the event, Kiyoshi Martinez, put up this blog afterward on ideas he has to generate revenue on the Web. Some solid ideas.

The saddest part is how tight some of the old-school journalists were clinging on to the past. They showed no interest in even having a dialogue about change. They were so wrapped up in their own ways. Attitudes like that will get the industry nowhere.

It's time to be innovative, to pull out all the stops, to try new things. Because there's no question anymore where the future lies. And that's the Web.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Tribune Co. continues to cut back

It makes no sense to me. These major companies want to make more money, yet they are slashing what is vital to their product existing in the first place - personnel...and...the news! This may be a temporary fix but it's just compounding problems for down the road.

Here's what caused my latest rant on this final weekday of January.

The Los Angeles Times announced today they are laying off 300 jobs, including 70 in the newsroom, according to Bloomberg.

The explanation from corporate is that the cuts are necessary "to tackle record print advertising declines and $12.5 billion in debt."

But what really has people buzzing is the fact the Times announced today it is getting rid of its daily California Section (previously known as Metro), per LA Weekly. Content for the section will get moved to A Section, and inevitably it will be cut back.

Said Times reporter Howard Blume on the news: "I don't really know how this is going to work. The discussions have taken place well above my pay grade. There will still be a newspaper, and some of us will still be working here. And those folks will still do their darndest to put out a quality, relevant newspaper. And the rest of us will be looking for alternative employment. This is Journalism 2009."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

College papers not immune to economic crunch

College newspapers are being hurt by the state of the economy, according to Bryan Murley in a PBS MediaShift article published today.

Some had assumed "college newspapers would weather the storms of the changing media environment better than their peers in the wider industry," according to Murley.

I've heard this assumption in the past as part of the campus newspaper staff at St. John Fisher College and now DePaul University. The thought is that college papers are so "niche" that they are more likely to succeed, and also that the young people running these newspapers are more likely to be plugged into social networks like Facebook to help promote their work.

The problem goes back to advertising. Like other print publications, college newspapers are now suffering from "a decline in advertising revenue" per the article. Free classifieds online and businesses' reluctance to transfer their print accounts to the Web are part of the problem.

General manager of the Daily Pennsylvanian Eric Jacobs said "the drop in national advertising was like falling off a cliff." He also expects declines in local advertising in the coming months.

Murley states that college papers are cutting back costs to deal with the advertising decline. For example, the Daily Orange at Syracuse University and Daily Californian at University of California at Berkeley both dropped a publication day last fall.

It will be interesting to monitor long-term affects of the economic crunch on college newspapers and how the conditions improve as the economy recovers.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Minneapolis Star Tribune files for bankruptcy

News of the Star Tribune's filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy broke late this evening on the ST Web site.

The article says that "Minnesota's largest newspaper will try to use bankruptcy to restructure its debt and lower its labor costs."

Most interesting was Publisher Chris Harte's statement: "'We intend to use the Chapter 11 process to make this great Twin Cities institution stronger, leaner and more efficient so that it is well positioned to benefit when economic conditions begin to improve,' Harte said in a statement."

Leaner? We all know what that means.

This comes off news that my former employer Gannett is implementing a furlough program. Nearly all of its employees will lose a week's time without pay, according to the Editor & Publisher.

What will happen next?

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Uncertainty in Seattle

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has served its community for 146 years, but right now the publication is on pins and needles.

Yesterday, a painful countdown began for Seattle P-I and its 170 staffers. Sixty days. Its parent company Hearst announced Friday that it is putting P-I up for sale, and if there is no buyer after 60 days, the publication will either go Web-only or it will cease to exist, according to the Associated Press.

P-I reporters Dan Richman and Andrea James wrote about the developments for the paper's Web site. They say that "[e]conomic reasons have forced the state's oldest morning newspaper into a sale," according to Steven Swartz, president of the Hearst Corp.'s newspaper division, and that the publication lost about $14 million in 2008.

Richman and James continued: "Today's dismal climate for newspapers means no buyer is likely to emerge, several sources said."

They painted a picture of the grim atmosphere: "P-I employees were silent as they listened to the announcement, which lasted about 10 minutes. Some shed tears. Others held up cell phones or voice recorders in news-conference fashion. Phones rang unanswered and the police scanner buzzed on."

The blog Newspaper Death Watch called the unfolding events the "Seattle Surprise," noting that rumors had been "floating around for months" that another paper, the Seattle Times would shut down. The Times apparently has been having its own trouble in recent years, and its future is also very uncertain.

I can't help but hope on this that somehow, someway, the Seattle situation turns out OK. While I'm well aware a buyer is unlikely to emerge, I'm a guy who loves to fight the odds until the absolute last second. Wouldn't it be great for an independent business owner to step up and save this critical piece of history in the Seattle community? If not, here's hoping P-I can at least restructure to have an on-line only product, so that it can at least survive in some form.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Some optimism for 2009

The new year is here and John Morton provided a new way of looking at the newspaper industry now that 2008 is behind us: "It Could Be Worse."

That was the name of his article in the Dec. 2008/Jan. 2009 American Journalism Review, fresh off the press and in my mailbox when I got back to Chicago just a few hours ago.

Morton writes that the print industry's numbers for 2008 "sparkle compared with the staggering losses reported by, say, the domestic automobile companies and the airline industry."

He adds that, "the newspaper industry as a whole remains profitable" and that the average operating profit margin "is still above what is typical for most non-media businesses."

Morton concludes, "the beleaguered newspaper industry's financial health has been weakened but remains healthy by most measures. In this environment, that is an achievement."

Perhaps it's not something to celebrate, but it's a much more optimistic way of looking at the media's recent woes, headlined by the fall 2008 wave of newspaper layoffs. What better way to start 2009 than with hope that this could be the year things will turn around?

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Saving the newspaper industry

Just about everybody in newspapers readily admits that the current business model isn't working, but few seem to have solutions.

A few alternative models are gaining steam in recent months, such as not-for-profit and crowd-funding, but they're tough to get going with Big Boys like Gannett and the Tribune Co. still running the show.

Then, there was this: Just a few hours ago, Stanford University professor and former New York Times foreign correspondent Joel Brinkley offered up a way out of this mess, with the current corporate structure in place, that just might work. It's at least something that really makes you go "Hmmm" and there hasn't been enough of that yet.

He outlined a really compelling argument in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial yesterday. Yes, newspaper Web content to date has been overwhelmingly free. One reason publishers have been reluctant to charge for Web content, he says, is that such a move would likely just lose customers to other, competing papers.

But what if the newspaper industry as a whole went to the Justice Department "for an antitrust exemption that would allow publishers to collaborate on a decision to begin charging for their Web sites"? He says the price could be debated, and that's not really the issue. The point is getting enough people to the table, and consent from the government, to begin instituting sweeping changes across the board.

It might just work. The most intriguing scenario I've seen tossed out there yet. I hope Brinkley gets his column to the right people who can get the wheels in at least explore this very interesting idea.

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