Monthly Archives: November 2008

Kvetch of the Week: Muddled marketing-speak

In trying to expand my understanding of the digital landscape, it’s been necessary and useful to go beyond the world of journalism. Even into professions I’ve sneered at in the past, such as public relations and, gasp, marketing.seth_godin

Seth Godin (with raised carton in hand) is a leading Internet marketer, and I’ve enjoyed reading his blog and recently purchased his latest book, “Tribes,” which advocates that each of us lead niches, or tribes, on the Web. It’s a platform that can be anything you want it to be, so why not carve out a niche and own it?

But sometimes his short, pithy style can be annoying, and apparently I’m not alone in feeling this way. Howard Weaver, a top editor at McClatchy newspapers, was set off by a recent Godin post on missed opportunities by the New York Times, and lets the guru have it, making it the Kvetch of the Week.

Weaver’s beef is that Godin is simply off-base in many of his assertions about how the Times hasn’t quite grasped the Web. It’s a common complaint about the mainstream media, and there is plenty of truth to it, but Weaver jumps on the evangelistic notion that the rabbit-like proliferation of voices will cure what ails journalism as it migrates more online:

“Godin graciously allows that some Times commetary has clout, saying, ‘Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn’t the Times have 50 columnists? 500?’ Well, because 500 columnists would get lost in the mess, Seth. Organizations like the Times filter and verify and authenticate. We pay them to help us sort out the best 25 columnists from the 475 others we’d never have time to read. (Surely Seth knows more than I about brand dilution).”

Is quantity, rather than quality, driving Godin? Weaver seems to think so:

“He notes disapprovingly that ‘Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than (sic) the New York Times can.’ Well, duh. Oprah is actively promoting and advocating for her books; the Times, thankfully, is trying to present honest, independent reviews – hardly the same mission. I want the Times to inform me, not sell me books.”

Yes, sic ’em, indeed. Weaver’s parting shot warms the old print hack soul still churning inside me:

“As an editor, the skill I look for first in journalists is critical thinking. While you’re writing, do you ask yourself ‘How do we know that?’ or ‘Does this make sense, really?’ Alongside basic honesty and curiosity, that’s a fundamental, baseline requirement for producing value-added journalism.”

A couple other items worthy of KOW honors are worth mentioning here, as this was a pretty good competition. Roger Ebert laments the demise of his fellow newspaper film critics (he’s about the only one left, isn’t he?) and celebrity-besotten coverage of “movie stars” in newspapers: ebert460

“The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as ‘a Hollywood story.’ I want to smash something against a wall.”

And young Web journalist Simon Owens, piqued after Jeff Jarvis called interviewing a “form that’s bullshit,” satirically conjures up a scenario in which the high-profile Web journalism sage actually has to do something he’d rather not:

“JARVIS: Hi, I’m from the Examiner and I have a few questions about the indicted officials.

SPOKESMAN: Um, everything you need is in the press release.

JARVIS: Yes, but the press release didn’t include key details and doesn’t address the contradictory statements made by the officials during the investigation.

SPOKESMAN: Hey, aren’t you the one who called for the death of the interview? We even copy and pasted the press release into our new blog on the agency’s website. You’re just trying to ‘hold all the cards in your hand’ like so many other journalists. It really is just egotistical of you.

JARVIS: Well, I suppose I did say that. I’ll just go and reprint the press release that you sent to 30 other reporters –

SPOKESMAN: — and don’t forget published on our blog.

JARVIS: Oh yes, that too.”

Be sure to read a real-life exchange between the two in the comments section. Very good kvetchy fun.

The evolution of an entrepreneurial journalist

Do you have what it takes to be a journalist entrepreneur? Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review profiles his ideal candidates, and says that the folks who fit this bill the least are ” ‘team players’ whom corporate managers love to put in charge of important new projects.”

Music to my ears!!

Yes, I’ve always thought of myself as what he terms a “creative insubordinate,” (or more precisely, a general insubordinate and an inveterate crab!) and the rapidly changing world of the Web and online journalism virtually demands that we think and act this way.

This is one of the leading factors that fueled my decision this summer to take a buyout from my former newspaper. Three months after striking out on my own, I’ve done a hell of a lot more than I thought I would have by now (started this blog, accepted a number of freelance assignments, took a website-building class and attended a terrific multimedia and career transition workshop at the Poynter Institute). I’m just getting cranked up!

The sabbatical has been rewarding as I shift gears away from a mindset that governed my 25-year career in newspapers, one that hasn’t been easy to shake, despite my eagerness to do so. Niles underscores the absolute necessity to break free from what has been burnished in the habits of journalists working in traditional newsrooms:

“Successful entrepreneurs bring something new to the market, whether it be a new product, new approach or simply a new promotion. They challenge existing market options. They are, therefore, by definition, not “team players,” but team challengers, destabilizers or ever destroyers.

Niles writes this a few days after Jeff Jarvis laid out a compelling, thoughtful and well-reasoned “scenario for news” that details new business models and delved a bit into the role journalists will play in this future. Sometimes I think Jarvis doesn’t spend enough time on the latter, and some of his critics in a new profile of him in the New York Observer allude to it as well:

“I think he and I part company on a number of points that he makes. One of them is the reliance on whatever the phrase of the moment is — citizen journalism or pro-am journalism — and I think that in his enthusiasm for a new newsroom model he undervalues the worth of good old-fashioned reporting.”

Jarvis (who offers his retort to the Observer piece here) says this about how future newsrooms may be composed:

“Some will be former staff journalists now on their own. Many people will operate independently. Some will be bloggers. Some will be freelancers. Many will need to be paid or they won’t join.”

Well, yes, professionals do like to get paid for their work, even those in a profession that demanded they take a vow of poverty to join. And now are confronted with the possibility they may have to do it again for the privilege of remaining in it.

To suggest that they start businesses and become entrepreneurial, living a freelancing life, makes sense given the declining economics of the news industry, which is going to contract further.

But even my eventual move in this direction is a longer-term objective. And I don’t think there will be many of my generation (I’m 48) or older who will be attempting to do this at all. They’ve got family, health care and retirement issues. They need to replace some, if not all, of the income they lost through layoffs or buyouts.

The excitement I feel as an evolving entrepreneurial journalist is tempered by the reality that it’s just that right now: evolving. Meanwhile, there are bills to pay and other obligations of middle age to consider.

Still, I am thankful that I’m positioning myself at a crucial time in the transformation of the news, and that, unlike thousands of journalists laid off this year, I had a choice in doing so. I’ll find out soon enough whether the moves I make will be the right ones, and if I’ve got the chops to be one of those “creative insubordinates.”

But I do love the sound of that phrase!

Newspapers cut costs, eviscerate value

The day after Web marketing guru Seth Godin suggested that the New York Times missed the boat in not vastly expanding its network of blogs, among other things, the author of its invaluable “Shifting Careers” blog notified her readers today that the Old Gray Lady was shutting it down:

“It is hard to call this a layoff since I’m not an employee of the Times and I will likely still contribute to the paper occasionally. Yet I have been feeling a lot like someone who has been laid off. For starters, I have tried to build a narrative based on the little information that was shared with me by my editors, who have told me they were nearly as surprised as I was about this decision. As in a layoff, the decision was made in response to the economic realities of the media industry, which is a polite way of saying that newspapers are in difficult financial shape.”

The irony of this move, at a time when thousands of workers in all industries are being given pink slips, is incredible. The Times is suffering badly on Wall Street; its price per share plummeted below $6, then rose slightly today when the company announced a sharp dividend cut.

The Times, like so many media companies in free fall, is chopping costs regardless of what value gets tossed aside in the process. Even those workers — or in the case of Marci Alboher, freelancers — who thought they brought an indispensable skill set to the table are finding out that value is now regarded as a luxury:

“As an online journalist focusing on work and careers, and as someone who fervently believes that embracing new technology is crucial to surviving as a journalist, I too felt like one of the safe ones.”

So did I, in my former newsroom. What she and I, and many others have been told, essentially, is that critical mass in the newspaper industry is virtually here. I hope Marci will continue the blog somewhere else because it’s a niche that obviously has a growing audience.

As for the newspaper industry, I want to believe it’s not too late to avoid a total collapse. But my doubts are growing. I don’t agree with all of Godin’s ideas, because like many new media sages he sounds overly simplistic in the face of a grueling reality (more on his absolute worst bone-headed suggestion about journalism in a future post). Then there’s this:

“The people I know at the Times are smart, driven, honest and on a mission to do great work. The people didn’t fail the system, the system failed them.”

Newspaper companies have been busy cutting, in addition to personnel, expensive fixed costs — especially those related to the manufacture and distribution of the printed product — for quite some time. But to slash blogs from contractors on its Web site, where its future rests, makes no sense at all. To cut a popular, useful blog just to save a little money is yet another system failure.

Kvetch of the Week: Obama’s media hucksters

There are times when I’m reading a juicy media kvetch that I don’t may much attention to the byline until I’ve reached the end. Who wrote that?

That was the case today as I came across a piece in Editor & Publisher slamming media organizations for making more than a few bucks off the historic election of Barack Obama. For a moment I hesitated to use this piece because it was written by a former colleague at my paper (we worked in different departments and rarely crossed paths. He covered the military and defense issues, I was a sportswriter. He took a buyout last year; I followed suit three months ago.). But the über-kvetchiness off Ron Martz’ diatribe is too good to be passed up here, earning it the latest Kvetch of the Week honors. A few excerpts:

“Ombudsmen and reader advocates who are supposed to examine individual media organizations rarely do an adequate job because more often than not they are employed by the very companies whose dealings they are supposed to scrutinize. Who is going to take a chance on making the boss angry and being relegated to a dead-end job, or being jobless, at a time when so many journalists are out of work?”

And this:

“It is one thing for private entrepreneurs to get into the business of making a buck off Obama. More power to them. But the media, who have set standards for others, now refuse to live by their own standards.”

Go read the whole thing. My take: I’m not entirely surprised that the press has gone ga-ga over all this, since I’ve lived through plenty of “big” memories in my experience (Braves win World Series, 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Sept. 11th) that my paper and other news outlets jumped on like a dog on a bone. For quite a while we’ve been guilty of going overboard promoting merchandise stemming from a major news event. However, I was taken aback at how expensive some of these trinkets are. Then again, I’m not spending my money on stuff like this given the economy and my status as a newspaper refugee.

Gripes about the coverage of the presidential campaign by The New York Times I found a bit over the top. They took away from detailed descriptions of the media’s milking of the Obama election (and what the L.A. Times has pocketed, for example) that are quite revealing on their own.

But there would have been one less really good kvetch in a piece oozing with them.

A journalistic ideal that won’t change

The Poynter Institute’s “Standing Up for Journalism” workshop has been engrossing (and busy!), so much that this week has been one for light posting. We’ve been heavily into video shooting and editing, and will have a final project tomorrow that I’m eventually going to try to post here.

Today we heard from former Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor Butch Ward on “Surviving Change.” Echoing many of the familiar tactics of job-seeking networking (my career coach despises the term) that we have been hearing and learning to adopt, Ward also stressed the practice of lifelong learning, or “boundary spanning. Don’t be defined by your own boundaries.” This is going to be our reality for for the rest of our careers:

“What does surviving mean now? It doesn’t mean you’ll keep your next job. [It does mean] having options in a situation and knowing how to respond.”

After Ward regaled us with “glue pot” stories from his days at the late Baltimore News-American — the memories endure, because they gave those newsroom folks a proud identity — he underscored that the core objectives of the profession remain the same, even if the tools and business models are in flux:

“Why do we do this work? What you do is important but it’s so much more powerful if you know why you do it.”

A similar message was sent to University of Tennessee journalism students who, unlike my Poynter classmates and me, have grown up in the digital age:

“Whatever technology knowledge or skills we need today are only the enablers to do journalism.

“It’s still about knowing a story, getting the story quickly and accurately, and playing it correctly that ultimately matter.

“No matter the tools or the medium, it’s knowing what is a story and the telling of it that turns information into journalism.”

Getting a good multimedia workout

The first full day of this week’s “Standing Up for Journalism” workshop I’m taking at the Poynter Institute has been a blast, with instruction in audio and slideshow editing and my first stab at shooting video.

Some of the things I wished I would have done while I was still working! Tomorrow: Making chicken salad out of what I recorded today. I haven’t decided to burn the tape or save it posterity and get as good a laugh out of as I did while it playing it back.

Our group (which includes 16 laid off or bought out journalists) next will dive into some serious video editing, and our instructor penned an in-depth profile of journalists who’ve taken their multimedia skills onto the web from other platforms.

“Journalists with certain skills suddenly have options they haven’t had, and they are taking chances on jobs in a new medium as a way to grow their careers and maintain passion for their work.”

As I told one of my classmates over dinner, the Web work I did at my former employer gave me the confidence — and whetted my appetite — to embrace the messiness, frustration and steep learning curve involved in multimedia training. It’s absolutely imperative for anyone who wants to stay in this profession, and there’s really no way around it.

I don’t think there is much time to waste, but the newspaper braintrust busily continues to dog-paddle against a storm tide. This boggles my mind almost as much as the devastating cuts in newsrooms that drain away the very people who have given the print product its chief value:

“Having missed the implications of the Web and allowed both their content and their audience to be scraped away by aggregators and ad networks, newspapers are now working furiously to maintain audience, build new ad models and renovate presentation. But they won’t stay relevant to readers with generic content ginned up by newbies with no background in the communities they serve.

Here’s one suggestion to start a “National Journalism Foundation,” similar to the science boom that began in the late 1950s, to generate new ideas, business models, multimedia skills development and other tools for journalists — and ultimately the citizens they inform and involve — on a grand scale. Many of these things are already happening in micro fashion and will probably continue to incubate:

“Our main goal: We want to put journalism back in the caring hands of journalists. No matter what the medium.”

So what is that journalists can do?

One of the constant refrains I hear from folks who’ve left journalism is how easily they’ve learned to translate their skills and experience in ways that are often difficult to contemplate from inside the newsroom.

And there isn’t a whole lot of constructive reinforcement out there, especially in light of a fresh men-will-be-boys feud over whether journalists are to blame for their fates. None of this is helpful for those of us looking to reinvent our journalism careers, or who just want to get another job, and soon.

My longtime tribe, sportswriters, can be a particularly bitter lot, and many, many posts on the popular message board reflect some of the most notorious kvetches in the profession.

But a recent topic thread there is devoted to “success stories” from some ex-journalists who’ve made the transition into other fields, and I found this one in particular highly encouraging. I include that post nearly in full below, but read through the entire thread for some very helpful ideas on how to market your talents and zero in on some meaningful work in a new venue (if not profession):

“We can juggle several projects at once; we can complete them on deadline and with a healthy degree of accuracy; we can write well, and you’d be shocked by how rare that is; we can type quickly and usually have above-average computer skills; we are generally experienced at being civil and getting information out of people who are upset or don’t particularly want to talk to us; we are used to putting in a hard day’s work, usually for far less reward than most real businesses would dare pay their employees; most of us have more investigative skills than we probably think we do; most of us have college degrees, again it’s shocking what a rare commodity they are in the real world.

“Putting stuff like that on your resume gets it more attention than just saying ‘I was a staff writer for Podunk Press’ and expecting them to understand the kind of work that entails.

“I don’t think it hurts to look at non-traditional sources when you’re searching for alternate employment. I spent months slamming my head against the dying print wall before I finally started applying to other sources. I landed a job auditing liar mortgage loans (the one growth industry in the economy). I was surprised at how well my skills translated.

“Some newspapers have a way of emotionally devaluing their employees and making them believe they’re less skilled and that their work is less difficult than it actually is (yes, I am bitter). Don’t let the bastards win.’ ”