Thursday, November 19, 2009

Calling all oracles



I'd like to find someone to intone, as Gerald Ford did, that our long national nightmare -- of newspapers closing and journalists losing their jobs -- is over.

Ford's famous line came after he was sworn into office on Aug. 9, 1974, soon after Richard Nixon officially resigned the presidency in disgrace over Watergate.

"I assume the Presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans," Ford said then. "This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts."

OK, so maybe the speedy race to the bottom by newspapers -- some 135 shuttered so far this year and more than 14,500 journalists laid off or bought out -- doesn't quite measure up to what Ford faced. But for those of us caught in the downdraft, it is a recurring nightmare:

* Today, the Newspaper Association of America reported that third-quarter advertising revenue at papers was down 28 percent from the year-earlier period, to $6.4 billion. It was the 13th straight quarter of decline, according to the association, which predicted that full-year ad sales likely will be under $30 billion at newspapers for the first time in 20 years.

* Yesterday, in a Forbes.com story titled "A Perpetual Recession for Papers," Rick Edmonds, a former newspaperman who now studies the business side of the media at The Poynter Institute in Florida, suggested that "more staff cuts will be coming to newspapers next year." His line of reasoning? "When you cut a bunch of reporters from your newsroom in June, that continues to show up as a savings in January. But if advertising revenues continue to fall, you will have to cut again.

"My prediction is that in the coming six to nine months, ad revenues will continue to fall and newspapers will be forced to cut yet again," Edmonds told Forbes.

Yes, this is a time in newspaper history that "troubles our minds and hurts our hearts."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Should we really schedule another meeting?

I wish I had been the first to connect the dots, but I wasn't. So I'll just pass along this observation: that journalism's deep thinkers seem to be spending a lot of time in meetings these days, just as the mainstream media do.

Meetings are as much a part of life at a metro daily newspaper as breathing. What with the morning planning meeting, afternoon planning meeting, Sunday planning meeting, special-section planning meeting, etc., etc., etc., it's a wonder the managers responsible for making sure the paper is published get it out every 24 hours.

(As an aside: Early in my time at a metro, I'd have nightmares about missing these many meetings. So I used to devise elaborate Post-It Note and Microsoft Outlook reminders -- which occasionally flummoxed people trying to use the latter to set up a meeting with me. Oops!)

Is it any wonder, then, with so many meetings, that getting an idea from conception to execution at a legacy paper is more like a marathon than a sprint? Or that the mainstream media seem more like slow, plodding elephants than online's nimble, speedy gazelles?

Surely there's a lesson here as the future of journalism is debated.

Yesterday, the topic at a one-day conference hosted by Minnesota Public Radio was "The Future of News: Creating a New Model for Regional Journalism in America"; last weekend saw a two-day conference at Yale University on "Journalism & the New Media Ecology: Who Will Pay the Messengers?" On the West Coast, there was an overlap with Gonzo Camp, which billed itself as a different kind of conference where "ideas get done." And that followed by a day or so the "hypercamp" sponsored by the folks at the School of Journalism at the City University of New York who are involved in the New Business Models for News Project.

And let's not forget two other conferences this month: at Harvard on "The Future of News" and in Australia, hosted by Media140, "a newly formed global collaboration of journalists, academics and social media practitioners" that says it's staging conferences around the world on the future of journalism.

Whew!

While we learned as children that sharing is good, we know as adults that talk is cheap. (And as journalists, we know that a heavy schedule of meetings can be paralyzing.)

Let's be sure these discussions, near and dear to many of us affected by the implosion at newspapers, lead to someplace other than the next conference.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Are journalists an endangered species?



I'd better hurry up and find a job.

"Journalism is dying," says John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine and co-author with Robert McChesney, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, of "The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again," due to hit bookstores in January.

He's shown above, in a clip posted on YouTube by The Nation, at a July conference of student journalists on the future of the industry, sponsored in Washington by the magazine and Campus Progress, a program of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. (The "dying" comment comes at about 3:13.)

What's more, Nichols says, because there has been an acceleration of job losses in the media -- down 10 percent last year and an expected 15 percent this year -- "...we have about eight years until there are no paid journalists left in America -- period, gone, out of here."

That sure doesn't bode well for a return to the newsroom by me or any of my unemployed cohorts.

But note that he's talking about paid journalists. Because if you listen closely at the top of the video (some context is lacking in the shift to Nichols as the next panelist), you'll hear him mention that writers can "get your stuff out there ... you're just not going to be paid for it."

Pay is an issue that absolutely belongs on the table. Why do you think that legacy newspapers have been trimming page counts and cutting staff? Because their two biggest costs are newsprint and the people who produce the paper.

Meantime, one new-media business model getting some traction (and criticism) relies on content produced by writers and editors who are paid pennies for their work but get to "share" in revenue resulting from the ads or clicks connected to it. (That's a subject for a future post.)

Nichols falls into the you-get-what-you-pay-for camp. He and McChesney, who together founded the Free Press website, which champions broad media ownership and universal access to the Internet, have written extensively on the need for a government role in the press -- like the one provided by the Founding Fathers years ago.

"If there is to be journalism, there must be government intervention," he told the student journalists.

An in-depth essay by Nichols and McChesney on that theme is here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brother, can you spare $20?

If you weren't paying close attention, you might have missed it: an article in today's New York Times' Science Times that was produced by a freelancer whose work was underwritten by Joe and Jane Mainstreet.

The story, both online and in print, offered this italicized explanatory note: "Travel expenses were paid in part by readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit Web project that supports freelance journalists."

It represents another kick-the-tires effort to see what new revenue streams might fund journalism in the future, now that legacy newspapers are struggling to make ends meet.

You may recall an earlier piece by Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt in which he discussed the proposal proffered by freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw to travel in early fall to what's known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of plastic, rope and other detritus, aboard a boat skippered by Charles Moore, who discovered the garbage floe a dozen years ago as he returned from a sailing race in Hawaii.

Hoshaw proposed to take pictures for the paper and perhaps write a story, according to Hoyt. The Times agreed to look at the results, but declined to underwrite her expenses -- estimated at some $10,000 -- in keeping with the paper's standard freelance policy.

So Hoshaw turned to Spot.Us, a Web site that posts story pitches to which everyday people can donate. (Hoshaw's pitch raised $6,000 from 116 donors -- a technical glitch prevented resetting the fundraising clock to $10,000, reports site director David Cohn -- with many throwing in $10 or $20; Hoyt is listed as giving $50.)

The concept is called crowdfunding, which, like crowdsourcing, works to harness the power of the many to accomplish a task. Whether it's the future of journalism is still debatable; even Hoyt sees the Hoshaw article as one experiment among many at the Times.

Read Cohn's take on Hoshaw's fundraising here, which he says was Spot.Us' biggest to date. His young site isn't alone in trying this model, and he has some good insight into lessons learned to date here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Humor in the face of outsourcing

Journalists are among the funniest people I've ever met.

They're razor sharp, have a dry wit, and can mimic with perfection the mannerisms and speech of many of the newsmakers they cover.

So I had to laugh out loud at the drubbing given to Toronto Star Publisher John Cruickshank at the hands of his paper's copy desk -- the same people whose jobs likely will be outsourced by management to save money.

The Star, Canada's largest-circulation daily, announced plans last week to restructure through buyouts and other actions, including outsourcing and layoffs. The outsourcing -- moving copy editing and page-layout duties outside the company -- could affect 100 newsroom jobs, according to the union representing the workers.

So in a bit of tit for tat, one (or several) of the creative folks on the copy desk took a red pen to the publisher's memo to staff. To the uninitiated -- and those of the digital-only age -- that means marking up the text for style errors, jargon and a missed opportunity on leading with the news. Gawker got hold of a copy of the red-penned text.

(Full disclosure: I remember when editing was done with what was called a red grease pencil (shown above), which subsequently became a red fine-point marker. I received a framed, red-penned "story" as a going-away gift from a reporter when I left one editing job for another at a cross-town rival. I guess the reporter didn't think so highly of my thoughtful tweaking of her work. I laughed then, too.)

The Star incident was full of the gallows humor that newsrooms are noted for. But, unfortunately, it masked a more serious issue: the continued pummeling of print journalists as newspaper companies scramble to make money. The Star is no different than its U.S. counterparts in reporting ongoing losses for its print holdings in the third quarter.

And it's not alone in trying to find new staffing patterns: The Nieman Journalism Lab today published the text of an address last week to the New York Times newsroom by Executive Editor Bill Keller in which he touched on several money-saving ideas, including the need to find new efficiency in staffing the copy and layout desks.

The one bright spot, though, was his statement on endless belt-tightening: "The idea that you can do 'more with less' is, in my view, one of the four great lies. ... What you can do with less, is less."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Can journalists make a living in the 2.0 world?

Here's today's food for thought:

" ... in most newspapers, the mood is like death. [And] a place where people are worried about losing their jobs during the worst recession in 70 years with little hope of working again in their chosen profession is probably not the best environment in which to encourage risk-taking and innovation."

Ouch.

The emphasis is mine, although the sentiment comes from Judy Sims, former vice president of digital media for the Toronto Star Media Group, owner of Canada's largest daily newspaper and thestar.com online.

Like me, Sims lost a career in journalism to a layoff in July. She describes herself now as "an independent online media consultant while waiting for the right permanent position." Sounds optimistic enough.

Her blog dates to the spring, when she says she decided "to finally become a part of the conversation" about old and new media, then picked up momentum when she didn't have to worry about a day job.

She's thinking hard about Journalism 2.0 on the site: "Top 10 Lies Newspaper Execs are Telling Themselves"; "Dear Editors and Publishers: Please start a blog, open a Facebook account and start Tweeting";  "A Tale of Two Strategies -- AOL vs. Newspapers."

It's from the latter that "the mood is like death" observation comes. She fancies how AOL has bulked up staffing in preparation for its disentanglement from Time Warner to stand on its own as a news and information site rich in content. Newspapers, though, have taken what Sims sees as ill-conceived forays -- talking about erecting paywalls for content, e.g. -- led by factions loyal to print.

She has other pearls for folks like me, too: fewer paid journalists in the 2.0 world.

"To survive, news organizations will have to focus on what they can do better than anyone else in the world. That’s producing high quality, original, local or national (depending on the site) news reporting and analysis," she says. "That’s a much smaller content pie, and it will mean fewer journalists."

Ouch again.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Magic 8 Ball says 'ask again'

Some advice to those of you trying to be helpful to us unemployed journalists: Please stop.

Or better still: Please stop, listen and look.

I'm talking about the neighbor who suggests we seek out a government job. ("I know the XYZ Dept. could really use some editors.") The career counselor who offers Fortune 500 names for our resume list. ("You can help ABC Co. get its message out.") The former colleague who says he'll put in a word with a PR bigwig he knows. ("I can put you two together fast.")

Thanks but no thanks.

You asked us what we wanted to do and we told you: news. PR is not news; marketing is not news; "internal" or "external" communications is not news.

News is... Well, it used to be newspapers, but they're closing or trimming sections or cutting the number of days they publish because the revenue and expense sides of the ledger no longer line up.

Nowadays, news might come from a just-launched online-only operation backed by foundation money, or one that has a bit of time under its belt and follows the public broadcasters' pledge model. Or it oozes from the noisy and ever-expanding blogosphere.

All of which leaves me ... somewhere that I can't quite put my finger on yet.

That's why I have no neat answer to friends' and relatives' inquiries on what I plan do next: Solo blog? Seek employment at a news website? Find a niche newspaper that's hiring?

The future still is murky as various pundits ponder it.

So while they hash out the new model and I try to wrap my head around how I fit in, maybe I'll sneak off here every now and then to see whether the Magic 8 Ball has any better answers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Shtickless in the blogosphere

I'm jealous of Ann Powers.

Make that Jayne Lytel, the blogger who created Ann (left) as the saucy alter-ego to life as a 53-year-old unemployed divorcee and mother of two.
Jayne lives in the basement in-law apartment of the family home in Washington, D.C. Her ex-husband, who's also unemployed, and the kids live upstairs.

Ann, on the other hand, contemplates a new career as a mini-skirted 30-Second Girl in Vegas, one of the bleach blondes who holds up a sign to alert the motocross pit to time ticking down before the big race. Or she makes plans to find her soul mate on MillionaireMatch.com.

As confusing as all this sounds, it's modern Americana, made more messy by the Great Recession.

I don't envy Jayne her life -- heavens no! Hers is the tale of a once-comfortable existence headed downmarket -- a future anyone who is unemployed and honest will admit to fearing. But I do envy her Ann, the gimmick that's getting her clicks on her blog.

These days, it seems, everyone has a blog -- and many of the newcomers are unemployed writers (journalists/marketing mavens/PR practitioners) cut loose by the economy. We blog because we used to make a living by writing, so continuing to write makes us feel like we're still steering the ship thrown off-course by layoffs and buyouts. (Although in blogging we no longer make a living.)

It took me awhile to start this blog because I lacked a gimmick. Early on, I had stumbled on the blog of a former newspaper reporter and editor in Chicago who wrote about his layoff and the state of journalism. But he always included factoids on corn and soybeans --"crops" this onetime Iowa farm boy was trying to grow in two planters on his condo rooftop, located near his beloved Cubbies (about which he also blogged) and Wrigley Field.

That was his shtick, which I was certain I couldn't top. Had I run into Ann Powers then... Well, let's just say I'd still be contemplating my navel.

The skinny "patio" tomato plant I had this summer yielded all of three red orbs -- hardly worth writing about. And try as I might, I can't seem to channel Ann Powers. But I'll keep an eye out for any new, original gimmicks that might bring in the clicks.