Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Two years before the masthead, part 2

That's what I meant to title my original piece, instead of "Two Years a Publisher," with a hat tip to Richard Henry Dana.

But, I'll start that now.

A publishers' meeting in a small newspaper group.

An advance assignment of "10 challenges you face."

Look, we're small town papers. We probably don't have a list of 10. In a small town paper, you face the challenges of:
1. Postal Service getting crappier by the day, especially if you're in a definitely rural area; in turn, old folks born here but now moved away eventually get frustrated and stop subscriptions.
2. Old folks dying, and thus auto-stopping subscriptions.
3. Small towns still recovering from the Great Recession more slowly than cities.
3A. Double this if you're in a town or county with a static, even declining, population.

Asking for a full list of 10 almost sounds like an invitation to publishers to start self-flagellating. Because, anything below this, with the exception of "making sure my office manager/bookkeeper is doing her job," is small potatoes.

Maybe I'll find out differently at the actual conference. Maybe I'll be more optimistic after I get back.

And, maybe I'll vote Republican in 2016.

Re-reading the assignment sheet, I can include editorial as well as publishing issues, and it's called "goals," not "challenges." Maybe I'll think New Agey bright thoughts.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Is the Austin American Statesman even more dying?

The latest sign in the decline of journalism? The Austin American Statesman offered $19.99 full-year online subscriptions yesterday as a real non-fools AprilFools presentation. Either some people "didn't get it," or Cox corporate has the Statesman under pressure for X number of new subscribers, because they're running it again today. And also did so on Friday, April 3.

Or maybe they're "counting" on people missing the apparent auto-renew of $8.99/month after that 1 year, per the link I clicked. Or else, since it's Cox of cable fame, they make you walk through hell to cancel the auto-renew.

That said, if I were a current subscriber and could switch to this, I would.

And then, I'd quit after a year until I got another special offer.

I mean, it's one thing for a biweekly magazine like High Country News to offer $12/year digital subscription (without — I think — auto-renew) but this is different.

If other people, see above, thought like me, the Statesman would be getting to digital only whether it's ready for it or not.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Are journalists about to meet their machine overlords?

According to the New York Times, it's possible.
Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science’s co-founder, estimates that 90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention. If this projection is anywhere near accurate, we’re on a slippery slope.
And, if a bot can already write the lede graf in a pro sports story well enough to fool most humans, we're past the days of police blotter and quarterly financials. And, yes, there's an example of a bot doing just that on a sports story, about eight grafs about that pull quote. (And if that one example isn't enough, there's a quiz at the bottom of that link. I got five of eight correct, double crossing myself on one, but getting a gimme on another, per discussion in the story.)

Now, there will still be room for some time for sports columnists, but beat writers? You could be in trouble. Ditto for news writers.

Because of cost, and looking at this from a selfish personal angle, this is less likely to trickle down to the community level by 2020. Hyperlocal bots specialized to write about the police blotter and real estate deeds are one thing; general purpose bots writing about a contentious city council meeting are another.

Among other things, the bots have to be fed information. If a city secretary is slow in posting meeting minutes, at least the version she transcribes off audiotape, a human's going to knock that out. Ditto if a high school coach is slow on posting game stats.

But, community newspaper editors and writers shouldn't sleep too easily, especially in suburban or exurban vs. rural areas.

One editor who knows the lay of the land on the set of suburbs or exurbs, assuming a company has a group of such newspapers, can polish up the bots' writings easily enough, one would think.

And, one would think that one editor would be expected to do so by corporate hierarchy.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Two years a publisher

Just over two years ago, for the first time in my life, I became a newspaper publisher.

I've been an editor of multiple weekly and semiweekly papers, and at two of them, had either the actual title, or the essential duties, of a general manager, not just an editor.

But, I never had the thrills — and the responsibilities and chills — of overseeing operations. And finances. And finances.

It's not "Three Years before the Mast" or "Twelve Years a Slave." Nonetheless, on the whole, I wish I were in Philadelphia. (I think.)

That said, I have learned other things about the newspaper business, the structuring of newspaper companies and more.

One is that the smaller companies that primarily own "community" non-daily papers, while perhaps adapting more to the expansion of the online media, and "media," world, than their big daily cousins adapted to the traditional Internet, aren't perfect on that.

Facebook, especially, is a big competitor to small-town papers. Local government meetings and other "spot" news get "published right away. And, if the regular newspaper publishes online not just a fatal wreck or an attempted murder immediately, but too much information about a slightly contentious city council meeting, it's undercutting its print version, even with a paywall.

Otherwise, if the Net in general, and things being free, were a death knell for dailies, Facebook, or free blogging software plus Facebook, is a gut punch to community newspapers.

Oh, and e-editions are reaching the dead end stage. Community papers don't have the money or resources to emulate daily brethren and create reformatted e-editions for smartphones and tablets. (I personally think it's a money- and time-waster for big dailies to do that, but that's another issue.)

The biggie, though, is that community papers, like their larger brethren, have found a variety of ways to legally organize themselves. LPs, LLPs, LLCs, etc., aren't limited to the oil business. Nor is robbing Peter to pay Paul, if you own your own printing presses, or have centralized graphics shops, let alone pagebuilding, doubly let alone "content," whenever that hits the non-daily world.

Newspapers have always been a business, above all else. Doubly so at the community level, at least since we got past World War I and the image of newspapers got spiffed up and away from its yellow journalism past. Of course, there, too, newspapers were ultimately a business, just a bit more louche about it.

Meanwhile, as more daily papers shut their presses and get printed at other dailies, community newspapers that still have presses can charge other companies' community papers more. Or, per what I said two grafs above, have enforced rates on their own papers.

Of course, I have worked for a couple of larger chain newspapers, but not outside the newspaper business. Yet.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Columbia Journalism Review officially shark-jumps on IFLS

First, CJR senior writer Alexis Sobel Fitts writes a five-webpage cover story about "I Fucking Love Science" and its founder, Elise Andrew.

In doing so, she commits these cardinal errors:
1. Writing the story about herself as much as Andrew.
2. Ignoring Andrew's seeming very deliberate violation of not just journalistic ethics, but ethics in general through not honoring copyright of NUMEROUS science-related photos, including a number by Google+ friend of mine Alex Wild.
3. Not talking to anybody who could and would have told her about this. (Wild is among those commenting on the page.)

In other words, it's shoddy journalism for being:
1. Self-centered
2. Lazy
3. One-sided

And, other trade publications and blogs are weighing in, too. Here's Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

For starters, the profile appeared in a journalistic publication, written in an unjournalistic way, about a person whose work is not journalism. Go ahead and debate what that J-word actually means in the comments, but I’d argue that several of the fundamental tenets of journalism – such as accuracy and unbiased reporting – are missing from the CJR piece (which also happens to be this issue’s cover story).
 Instead of taking a measured, balanced look at the person behind a media phenomenon, the profile came off as an overly sunny PR puff piece. After all, Andrew is not journalism’s first self-made brand. And, oh, by the way, the profile mentions almost as an aside, there is a history of copyright infringement and plagiarism accusations being directed at IFLS.
That's about right. 

Meanwhile, doesn't CJR have a managing editor? Who let this crap be printed? Let alone, who decided this was the magazine version's cover story?

Well, these people let this crap be published:
Editor in Chief & Publisher
Elizabeth Spayd
Deputy Editor in Chief
Brent Cunningham
Associate Editor/Production Editor
Christie Chisholm
Associate Editor Kira Goldenberg

Click here to email them. Or here to suggest this, their own piece as a "dart" under the mag's "Darts and Laurels."

Worse, who made the decision to let Fitts double down on her indefensible writing with a follow-up that's even worse in some ways?

As for the claims that Andrew's not gotten any "boosts" or "helps," one of Fitts' new, additional claims? Uhh, wrong!

From a March announcement by former national late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson:
Science Channel greenlit new series “I F-ing Love Science,” executive produced by CBS’ “Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson. Ferguson made the announcement via a videotaped message at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas on Saturday.
So, please, that's not even close to being true.

Just stop it.

Fitts is doubling down on being:
1. Self-centered
2. Lazy
3. One-sided

Hence my comment on the follow-up piece:
I'm a journalist who didn't study journalism in college, and I didn't train inside one of "legacy media's great institutions," but I still know ethics, including of attribution. So, Alexis, does Ms. Andrew deserve a "free pass" on ethics? Copyright issues apply across all streams of journalism, and communications beyond journalism, including public relations, non-journalistic book writing and more.
And, if Fitts likes the snarkiness of "new journalism," I added:
Can I copy your mugshot for for-profit use without attribution? How much of your original piece can I copy without attribution? 
So, in addition to that comment, I asked CJR on those pages to fire Fitts. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Newspapers are dying, at least in Austin

When I'm in the library in the big city, or nearest thing to one that's nearby, I like scanning metropolitan dailies to see just how they're faring on ad inches.

And, the Tuesday, Aug. 26 Austin American Statesman?

Not faring well at all.

Now, Tuesday's not a great day, but, it's not quite as slow as Monday.

But 12 percent? Four pages worth of paid ads in a 50-page paper? That's sad, and ugly.

(One week later, they were up to a full 15.5 percent for Tuesday, Sept. 3. That said, the paper had been cut to 32 pages. And, some of the paid ads were tax-and-budget season legals.) 

Add to it that, as fluff, the Statesman's copy staff (which aren't even in Austin, as all but the sports pages are built at a sister Cox paper, the Dayton Daily News) had two pages worth of house ads. That many house ads, compared to that few of paid ads, stand out like a sore thumb.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Social media, or social overkill?

My newspaper company (privately owned, one just-acquired small daily, and a couple of dozen or so nondailies) recently held a day-and-a-half seminar on social media and related website issues.

Other than the question of why it was more than one day in length, with lodging costs for staff from papers not close to the headquarters, as well as just the time length, I did learn some things about some of the "newer" social media, like Pinterest and Instagram. However, it was probably a fair amount of "bleah," and, it was bloated. Beyond larger issues, I know other reasons the timespan was bloated and don't need to comment more.

Here's, tentatively, the rest of my observations.

First, it’s “interesting” at least, but ironic at most, that a seminar about social media in particular and best Internet practices in general, is loaded with dead trees handouts.

Second, it’s also “interesting” that, as part of the seminar is about how all of us are getting busier, a lot of the presentation was about all of us doing “more” for our papers on social media. Related to that was the irony that other people are “ingesting” more and more social media how? By either becoming more addicted, or compulsive, about use, or else by “goofing off” on the job more even as “content provider” employees are expected to spend more time not goofing off and feeding that beast.

Third, as papers continue to age in readers, it’s “interesting” to have a presenter talk about some social media having users who are so young that “they’re not yet readers” of our newspapers or papers in general.

Fourth, the ways of getting around the worst of the social media world, or the worst of the commercialized online world, were not discussed. AdBlock Plus wasn’t discussed. A search-history free, and Google-free in general, search engine like Ixquick or DuckDuck Go, wasn’t discussed. Ghostery to block tracking cookies wasn’t discussed.

Fifth, the presenter noted that Instagram, Vine and Snapchat don’t support links. So, that makes them worse. However, doesn’t that challenge the blogging-era prime’s claim that “it’s all about the links”? Is this true or not? Should it be true or not?

Sixth, it seems that a small to medium-small media company with small-sized individual outlets should recognize that economies of scale would involve headquarters expanding its IT/web staff, for less commonly used social media, like Pinterest, setting up newspaper accounts and adding to them from stories on each paper’s website.

Seventh, none of the discussion covered the narcissism angle of some social media, especially ones that “trend” younger in user demographics. I mean, we all have some degree of selfishness, but selfishness is not the same as narcissism.

Eighth, is blogging social media or not?

Above and beyond all of this, is there a "narcissism bubble" in the world of social media that will burst someday? After all, a medium is a mode of interaction. Traditional media's interaction was weighted fairly in one direction, as in "Here's what we've decided you'll see/read/hear." Things like selfies/geeky videos seem to have the same mentality, even if coming from individuals, not companies.

This narcissism bubble has nothing to do with newspapers  in particular or media in general, of course. However, it does relate to their current and future decisions as to what to do with the world of social media.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A day and a half to discuss social media? Uh, sure

Picture a small newspaper company. About 2 dozen papers. All non-daily community papers.

Having a day and a half seminar on social media use and "tactics." Yes.

Uh, yes.

Right. That's what I thought, too.

I'll remember to bring my laptop, so I can pretend to take notes. Maybe there will be some free or non-secure wireless I can pick up.

Beyond the day and a half being overkill on time, it's a waste of money.

At a group of small community papers worried about money wasting money, monitoring individual newspapers' spending, and now blowing spending on overnight lodging, too, or else a second day of travel costs for closer newspapers. And, it's the brainchild of a higher-up person, who expressed surprise two months ago at Facebook's increased "choke" on corporate page posts' reach.

Here's my partial starter list of the seminar:

1 p.m. Thursday -- get to know other participants purely by looking for their personal Facebook pages. (Since almost all my info is hidden to anyone but friends, that will make it harder for them.)

1:45 p.m. Thursday -- send friend requests. (I send none, refuse to accept those sent to me.)

2 p.m. Thursday -- "share" about our experiences. (I keep my mouth shut.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Austin American-Statesman - mistakes in digital, possibly beyond

Due to some unintentional misassumptions on my part, which started after, well, a recent "conversation" in Austin, I've learned that the Statesman has a few IT/web errors that I know of with its community papers.

Those that I don't know of, who knows?

Why this happened? I have some reasonable speculation.

But first, what the actual errors are.

On the websites of six of its seven community papers — the Bastrop Advertiser, Pflugerville Pflag, Lake Travis View, Round Rock Leader, Westlake Picayune, Smithville Times — their Facebook, Twitter and G+ links are all for the Austin American-Statesman social media sites.

After raising this issue with a person with whom I had, well, "conversed," he later showed me that the Bastrop Advertiser has a Twitter feed. And, a friend on a Facebook conversation showed me a Twitter feed, too. I'll assume that all the other papers above have their own social media pages. But their websites don't link to them.

These papers all had their own websites until just over a year ago, when they were rolled under the Statesman's umbrella as subsites.

Here's my guess as to what Statesman web staff probably did. They took the Statesman "main" site pages as a template 1 year ago when doing the rollover/wrap-in, and never replaced the Statesman links. The fact that this switch took place for all on the same date reinforces that in my mind. That's doubly so since this is less than six months after a major change at the Statesman, that may be connected.

First, if I'm the first person to both notice this and point it out in a full year, how much are people going to the community papers' social media feeds via the community papers' websites? Notta lotta? At least not among people new to Bastrop since the May 8, 2013, switchover. And, you can't blame this totally on the "demise of the homepage." There's social media links on each story page, and again, they all go to the Statesman, further reinforcing my theory.

So, Statesman? If you're going to emphasize social media, perhaps you need to further comb through the community papers and make sure there aren't other bugs. The rabbit hole of apparently, unintentionally, misguided thinking in finding out these are only erroneous links, rather than that your community papers don't have their own social media feeds, has left me frustrated. That's a lesser frustration to never having my social media skills, or theories, discussed in detail during that "conversation."

Beyond that, if either the Statesman, or its Cox Communications parent, is so dumb as to say it will, and I quote, "never" have paywalls for the web versions of its community newspapers? If you want to piss money away, that doesn't help the financial bottom line.

As to why this happened, beyond the speculation of a copied, and incompletely edited, template?

As part of its money-saving, Cox canned the entire Statesman copy desk late in 2012. All of its sections are paginated at other Cox papers. As far as I know, despite Austin being the Silicon Valley of Texas, they may do some Web and IT stuff for the Statesman elsewhere. I mean, I've been in Texas long enough; I know Cox was trying to unload the Statesman, along with all its other Texas holdings, for a few years. (And, from what I've seen, without eyeballing the Statesman on too regular of a basis, I'm not a total fan of over-consolidation. Besides, if you have to still have a "bridge desk," how much money are you really saving?) That said, with the over-consolidation, Cox will never be able to sell any of its large dailies individually now. Nobody wants to buy one daily paper and start off by hunting up copy desk staff.

And, beyond that, it looks like the Statesman isn't sure what to do with its outlying editions. All of them except Bastrop and Smithville are suburban, not exurban, now, and most of them are suburban. And, because Bastrop and Smithville are exurban, not suburban, their websites, unlike the other four, shouldn't have been rolled up into new Statesman versions, IMO. The other four? Given that they, in print, may be nothing more than zoned-like pages inside the Statesman within a decade, that's different. But, those two should have been kept separate. Again, whether a Statesman decision or a Cox one, not smart.

Who knows? Maybe Cox is doing its own version of what newspaper analysts rumor is Advance's endgame ... spending out to the finish line. 

Jeeesuhus H. Christ on a crutch, it gets worse.

Try to subscribe to one of their suburban papers from that suburban paper's website, and you can't. Even if you enter the zip code appropriate to that suburban or exurban area. It tries to sign you up for the Statesman itself, and it offers the web option first.

What fucking idiocy.

As for their level, and particulars, of use of social media, I'm not that impressed at Bastrop. It's nothing really out of my pay grade, and not bad for a paper that size, but nothing to set the world on fire. If I were to be managing editor at a place like that, I might be a bit short on video skills, but  that's about it.

Finally, I had started by wondering if the Statesman, in looking for a managing editor with social media skills, but not emphasizing that desire for social media skills, wasn't flirting with age discrimination. I still haven't totally dismissed that idea, though it has certainly diminished. 

And here's why.

I was in the Metroplex when, as part of the "bleed," in 2008 or 2009, the Dallas Morning News canned a bunch of older staffers, almost all of them columnists and critics. It got sued — I haven't Googled in a few years to find the results. In the filing of the suit, the plaintiffs mentioned that computer skills, or alleged lack thereof, and ability to learn and/or improve them, or lack thereof, were among the reasons for the dismissals, and that these were "code phrases" for "get rid of the older people."

I'm not saying that's what was happening here. I am saying that, in conjunction with their Web staff's screw-up, for reasons I postulate or others, and with the background I just mentioned? It was a possible conclusion. That's even more the case since I don't recall the Statesman, in its ME for Bastrop search, being THAT interested in social media skills. So, an interview could have been more focused on that. Besides, there's this.

As for the claims of not noting my social media background? Per the top 1/4 of the first page of my resume:
• Quark  • Photoshop  • InDesign  • Office • Video • Web content  • Social media • QuickBooks
Last I checked, "social media" was spelled as, uh, "social media"! So, that's undercut right there. Plus, "Web content"? That means that, using either a house-based system or a third-party web host, I have experience (and it's extensive) in website "publishing" for various newspapers. I've done that for years.

And, discrimination can be done unconsciously or subconsciously. I recently read a great book called Blindspot, by two psychology researchers. They have online tests, using series of pairs of photos, to test for unconscious bias in race, sex, age, and sexual orientation. One of the two authors, in fact, was dismayed that the author's self-testing showed more bias than the author wanted to believe.

If nothing else, I consider this precautionary for myself and advise it to be precautionary for other print journalists who may be above "X" years of age. Even if you're not asked, play up social media skills in your interview, and even your cover letter. If you're not asked about them during an interview, raise the question yourself of how they're valued.

This is even as Facebook is continuing to choke the reach of for-profit pages, Google+ continues to look like tumbleweeds and Twitter has seemed to plateau. The newspaper biz, when it's not stuck behind the curve on things like paywalls, chases fads without asking whether the for-profit folks on the other end of the fad might not wind up doing a bait-and-switch.

Beyond that, leaning too much on Facebook, especially if you're a larger community paper, or even worse, a daily? Soon enough, you just have people reading Facebook, not your paper. And seeing Facebook ads, not your paper's. (That's if they don't have AdBlock Plus, so they don't have to see your ads OR Facebook's.) And, your web traffic drops. And, your ad rates drop more than they already do. 

In short, newspapers in general? You can hire for newspaper editors and reporters, or you can hire for social media writers. The choice is yours. Sadly, I expect most newspapers will make a choice that is at least partially incorrect. 

I'll admit that part of this is personal frustration, too.  

And, I want to say that I was shown courtesies during the interview process. At the same time, I've been shown courtesies during other interview processes that were even more "formulaic," at best.

Overall, my estimate is that is was about 40 percent no "fault" anywhere, 40 percent age discrimination, even if primarily unintentional or subconscious, and 20 percent bad interviewing. I felt a good rapport with my interviewer. But, as noted, "social media" is at the top 1/4 of the first page of my resume. And, I was never asked detailed questions about social media; in fact, I don't recall really being asked at all about it. Some, something, somehow, is kind of rotten in the state of Austin. 

As for their commitment to social media, it's been five days since I asked why, if they're so committed to social media, all their community newspapers have links to Statesman feeds, and I've not heard back yet. Sorry, Thomas Jones, but, especially since you said you like people to be outspoken, and I assume that would include "outspoken" questions, then I'd like an answer. Until then, I'll keep connecting dots in my mind, and blogging about them as desired.

I think I was likely the best candidate for the position. I've had that reinforced by knowing that I've won additional first-place awards in this year's Texas Press  Association newspaper contest. And, I wasn't given the full opportunity to show that, in my opinion. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

I'm a winner again!

Dunno for what, but I took at least one first place in this year's Texas Press Association newspaper contest. Take that, any newspaper seemingly possibly practicing age discrimination in hiring against me by saying the "winner" seemed to have better social media skills, after not asking me any detailed questions about social media skills. And, yes, there may be more details forthcoming.

But, today, I'm a winner.