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Friday July 13, 2012

Pride, Greed, Sloth, and general incompetence

7 Deadly Sins This week in local cultural malice, incompetence, and shoddiness, sung to the tune of the seven deadly sins. I’ve only got four this week, so I guess we’re not doing so bad

Sloth

I am sure that the Florida Cultural Alliance does important work, and deserves all the support we can muster for them. But when I saw the email they sent out yesterday, I just had to share it as an example of the worst kind of corporospeak, and the worst in online interaction design. Try — just try — to have any sense of what the purpose of the email is and what they want you to do after reading it just once. Not possible. I’ve ready if about a half donzen times and I get it now, and it’s stark. The FCA has apparently submitted SUGGESTIONS to a Florida State government entity. They want you to familiarize yourself with the state program they’re addressing, read their dense PDF suggestions, write a letter indicating your support for their suggestions and fax (Yes. Fax. In 2012.) it to the number provided TODAY BY 5 PM. Doesn’t say who you’re faxing it to, and doesn’t say why it has to be today. But hey — this was dated 1:25 pm, so they’re giving you more than three hours. Get on it.

Oh! And as an afterthought, yeah, you can submit your suggestions for the Five-Year Strategic Plan. Oh wait no, that’s for the Six-Pillar Framework. You do it by clicking into a PDF (this one created by the State) that takes your comments and has a “email this form” button which to me looked suspiciously like just a text box with no functionality.

Pride

It’s not in my nature to wipe lipstick off a pig, but the Jewish Museum of Florida couldn’t hack it anymore and signed it’s buildings and collection to FIU. And that’s fine. The Wolfsonian certainly seems to be thriving under FIU’s wing. But tacking the initials of the university to the organization’s name, which henceforth will be “Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU”, is galling. It makes perfect sense from the institutional ego perspective, but would have been overruled by typographic aesthetics and all-around sanity at a classier organization.

Envy

While Googling around for the previous article, I perchanced to click on a link to a Sun Sentinel article. You will probably not get it, but here’s what I saw:

sun sentinel screenshot

“Hey, you found a link to one of our articles in a search engine! Can we interest you in a home-delivery subscription to our newspaper?” Look at your statistics Sun Sentinel — this is not helping your subscription rates. And I guarantee you that it’s hurting your readership and credibility. And while we’re on it: I understand why your pages need to be choked with ads, but spam popover links? Really?

Greed

Next February, the Arsht Center is hosting a concert tribute to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. It’s part of a series of six concerts, half of which are these condescending “tributes” to Jazz Names You Recognize, which in my opinion are demeaning to the performer, the legendary figure, and the audience. But something (and I’m assuming it’s actually not the Arsht Center’s people) has sunk to a particularly odious level with this, which I received in yesterday’s email:

thelonious monk

Thelonious Monk is died in 1982 after a heartbreaking final few years. He is a hero to musicians and creative people everywhere. And while this concert does include his son, using the man’s name and image like this is repugnant. There is a special place in hell for the people that did this, where they can hang out with the folks behind the John Lennon shirts

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Wednesday October 3, 2007

Also: the Herald’s webmasters had nothing better to do, so they decided to overhaul the site’s misguided mandatory registration system. It went live yesterday and dumped anyone who registered after May of this year. If you’re going to re-register, please use names to let them know how you feel about the system (e.g. “Mr. Fuckyou Assholes”) and MyTrashMail.

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Tuesday September 25, 2007

Miami Herald Digital. Another in a long series of efforts by newspapers to try to make money by making the internet behave more like paper news. “The electronic editions follow similar launches by . . . The New York Times and Washington Post.” — I’m shocked that this passed the laugh test at chez Herald — the New York Times’ online edition launched in 2001. At this rate, the Herald will open its archives in 2013. (via Herald Watch)

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Wednesday August 22, 2007

Developments in the newspaper business

USA Today vote and comment features Two interesting recent stories that seem to signal what lays ahead for newspapers.

#1: Disappointing early results for USA Today’s adoption of social networking. The USA Today tried what many newspapers are considering: bringing their users much closer to their content by allowing them to create profiles with which to comment, vote on stories to rise to the home page, etc. Take a look: USA Today, and it’s hard to miss.

The problem is that for whatever reason, this is hurting their page views, which have declined 29% over the last year, while the NY Times and Washington Post have held steady. Perhaps this will make other newspapers *cough*hearld*cough* reconsider adopting social networking. It’s of course likely that the the implementation just needs to be tweaked a bit, or even that the decline in USA Today’s readership has nothing to do with the SN features — maybe they’ve just been sucking compared to the competition.

#2: A plan is almost finalized for Tribune to be taken off the stock market, purchased by a private interest: it would be owned by the employees, in a deal organized and financed by a guy named Zell. This seems to fall into the trend I suggested a couple of years ago of not letting newspapers be publicly traded. Maybe. Hopefully it’s not one of the colorful bumps along the way down for the industry. In any case, it’s far from certain whether the deal will go through after all.

#3 (bonus): As many have heard, the NY Times is planning to drop the pay-wall for some of their content. Hooray, but when?

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Wednesday August 15, 2007

Bob Norman on the edited Herald letter. Don’t miss the comments.

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Friday August 10, 2007

Edited Herald letter

Herald Watch got a hold of a letter to the editor sent to the Herald and compared it to the published version. The letter is by former Herald journalist Paul Crespo, one of the subjects of Oscar Corral’s Radio Marti story. The strikeout text was deleted from the version published, underlined text was added. Interesting:

Reporter arrested / I was amazed -- but not surprised -- by your coverage of the arrest of Miami Herald reporter Oscar Corral. As the self-styled arbiter of ethics in Miami, The Miami Herald is displaying its own lack of ethics and professionalism in this case. In contrast to your front-page coverage of several Cuban-American journalists (including me) in 2006, your microscopic coverage of Corral's recent arrest for allegedly soliciting a prostitute was hidden on page three of the Metro section. / Regarding the front-page story by Corral about our freelancing for TV Marti, your own ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, found numerous flaws in Corral's reporting. Among the many critiques in his report on Corral's article, Hoyt stated that the story's ''hard and accusatory tone and the large and breathless headline suggested something more sinister than the story actually reported.'' What a difference between your piece against us and this minimal coverage of your reporter who wrote it. -- PAUL CRESPO, Coral Gables

What happened here? Well, they haven’t made it sound like Paul is saying anything he didn’t say. They’ve selected one particular point he made and deleted the material that’s tangential to that point. In the process, much of the anger obvious in the original has been sapped. There’s no question that the Herald editors have the right to do this. The question becomes, again, what should newspapers do differently in light of the internet?

A commenter on HW says: “On the web, there is little space limitation. They could have at least published the full version online.” More interestingly, they could publish both versions online, and let us see the edits. Such radical transparency seems to be the direction the internet is pushing all business, and it’s not ironic that newspapers are getting pushed in this direction, too. It will be interesting to see how long they fight this, and to what extent they are willing and able to change.

In the meantime, let’s have more of this. CC Conductor on letters you send to the Herald, and maybe these sorts of revision-revealed letters will become a regular feature.

[Accessibility note: the edited version of the letter is in the image’s alt-text. The original version is here.]

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Tuesday August 7, 2007

So, the Herald got a phone call from Sacramento the other day, and they were all like, “yeah, the McClatchy call centers, that’s what we said,” and the big guy on the other end of the line was all “uh-uh — they’re ‘McClatchy Call Centers,’ and you’re running a correction on this,” and they’re all like “that’s ridiculous, we’re not doing that,” and . . . well, here.

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Thursday July 26, 2007

“Have you noticed that the Palm Beach Post’s Internet site has become the new ‘tip sheet’ for the Sun-Sentinel?”

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Thursday July 19, 2007

“Second quarter earnings for [Miami Herald] publisher McClatchy Co. fell 9.3 percent, a drop the company attributed to weak advertising sales.” The real-estate slump gets a big share of the blame.

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The new Sun-Sentinel website

sun sentinel homepage

A much needed overhaul

The Sun-Sentinel’s website recently went in for a long-due redesign. The new page is much easier on the eyes, with whitespace, gray hairlines between content, and periwinkle headlines. They’ve added some significant features, including modern “article tools” (which allow for resizing text, e-mailing a page, and more), a 5-star system that allows you to “rate” almost everything on the site, and “most viewed/most e-mailed” lists. A handy site index at the bottom of the home page allows quick jumps to any section of the site. The flagship of the re-design is a tabbed box on the home page that allows you to quickly scan headlines from the five most popular sections. To top it off, the design gives a nod to modern design standards; while it doesn’t quite validate, the old table-oriented layout is gone, almost completely replaced with more semantic markup. (If the last sentence made your eyes glaze over, don’t worry, just know that it’s a good thing.) So, the Sentinel gets a pat on the back?

Well, not so fast. When a project of this magnitude comes along, you don’t evaluate it by comparing it to what it replaced — you compare it to what it might have been, to the ideal solution. In some alarming ways, the new redesign is a re-skinning of the old site with a sprinkling of poorly-implemented me-too features cherry-picked from other newspaper sites. On closer inspection: “Most visited/e-mailed” lists are great, but what about “most blogged”? That’s gone over very well on sites such as nytimes.com. The “e-mail” this doesn’t e-mail a copy of a story, just a link to it, so when the story disapears from the website, the e-mail is worthless. And the tabbed “main module” is patched together out of flimsy JavaScript, doesn’t work properly in some versions of Firefox, and doesn’t work at all in non-JavaScript browsers.

But the big deal isn’t what the Sun-Sentinel did wrong, but what they chose not to do at all. What we have here is a content management system that just doesn’t manage the content very well, and doesn’t present it to the user in very helpful ways. Where are the archives? Most of the pages (not all!) display lists of articles only from the present day, but to find something that ran yesterday or a few days ago, you’re relegated to the search function, which, while vastly improved, still often returns way too many results and does not allow the results to be sorted by date. So it’s back to the needle-in-haystack scenario for finding anything but today’s news.

Blogs and archives

Let’s talk about blogs. The Sentinel has about 20, and they’re fine. But the news/blogs dichotomy implies a lack of understanding of what’s happening on the internet. Insofar as this dichotomy exists on almost all newspaper sites, this is a criticism of the industry rather then the Sentinel specifically, but bear with me. Consider that the blogs are the only parts of the Sentinel’s site that get obvious RSS feeds and permanent archives. What could possibly be the rationale, 10 years from now, of making their writers’ fleeting impressions searchable and accessible, while hiding the real news stories behind a paywall? (And no, they don’t get to say that it’s a question of needing to make money.)

The defining characteristic of real-world blogs is their reverse-chronological organization. What newspapers should be doing is to take the aspects of blogs that make them so powerful (in particuar the immediacy) and apply them all their content, not to have two parallel (blog/non-blog) systems. What’s the difference, really, between a short article and a blog entry? In the case of the Sentinel, it’s that the former is gone from the internet after a month, and the latter is permanent and has monthly archives. The Sentinel’s today-only mentality about the news means that even pages that do list older articles, such as Joe Kollin’s column about homeowners’ associations, don’t list the dates for the articles (look at that page and note how many features of a blog it has — does what the Sentinel is doing here really make sense?). Other columnists get a page with dates, but one which seems to observe the one-month rule.

A change in thinking

The problem with most newspaper websites is that the newspapers are trying to make the internet work their way, rather then adapting themselves to how the internet works. Online video on news sites is all well and good (well, actually it’s often terrible), as is PDA/cellphone-friendly content, but what we need is some real thinking about how to use this medium to its best advantage. Adrian Holovaty wrote an excellent article about how he envisions the job that newspapers do shifting in light of the new possibilities of the internet. He pleads for a move away from the “collect information/dump it into a news story” mode of thinking to a way of presenting each set of information in the way most suited to it.

For example, say a newspaper has written a story about a local fire. Being able to read that story on a cell phone is fine and dandy. Hooray, technology! But what I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire — date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive — with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.

What he’s arguing is that data, where applicable, should be stored in a database format that can be re-purposed later with maps, timelines, and other tools not yet envisioned. Write news articles where applicable, but look constantly for more useful ways to present information. Over the years the paper news industry has developed tools that made the most of the newspaper format (including charts, photos, diagrams, and other infographics). It has been painfully slow to do so for the internet. A couple of weeks ago the Sun-Sentinel ran a front-page story about water pumps that had been shut down due to groundwater salt intrusion, accompanied by an interesting diagram. Obviously much more could have been done online, but the website version of the story didn’t even have the diagram!

Other opportunities missed

There is a hostility to the notion of someone getting their news from multiple sources working here which again turns a blind eye to the realities of the internet. Want people to make your page the first place they visit? Why not make it customizable? No need to go as far as iGoogle — how about allowing folks to choose what their favorite sections are and put those on the front page? How about RSS feeds from other news sources? Outlandish? Works pretty good at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: their traffic page is a marvel of maps, live cams, RSS feeds, external links, and articles which — helpfully — have a headline, short summary blurb, and for articles from before today, a date!

So, they changed the layout. Great. Some bloggers do this every few months, to abate boredom. No doubt the Sun-Sentinel spent in the (low) tens of thousands of dollars for their new layout. Is it an improvement over the old site? Well, duh (on a good day, my cat can vomit up an improvement over their old site). But have they addressed any of the challenges facing them and their fellow businesses on today’s internet? No, natch. They’ve dressed a dog up in a slightly more practical and less baroque dress.

Update: I have more nit-pick thoughts that I’ll add as they occur to me:

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Thursday May 24, 2007

Rene Rodriguez and Bob Norman are upset about the loss of a local film reviewer. As it pertains to the general erosion of local reporting, I get it. But taking a movie critic and assigning her to work on other local stories hardly seems like a tragedy. You’d have to argue that there’s some sort of local perspective that makes a difference about whether you’ll like a movie or not, which, except for once in a blue moon is absurd, no?

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Tuesday March 6, 2007

It's all the readers' fault

Carl Hiaasen says and Bob Norman agrees. That the Anna Nicole Smith incident is revealing some sort of new low in our culture. “But this is the new New Journalism, which is steered by a core belief that people would rather be smothered by seedy gossip about dead ex-Playmate junkies than be bothered with the details of North Korea’s nuclear program.”

I call bullshit. That people are more interested in trivial gossip than weighty news is as old as humanity. I see no evidence that the internet is intensifying this whatsoever — 30 million people mentioned Anna Nicole Smith. Big deal — most of those hits were probably from blogs mentioning her in passing (like I just did). She’s an interesting celebrity, and she just died — what does Hiaasen expect?

This is just a newspaper guy frustrated by the fact that his industry is dying and blaming it on readers’ alleged preferences. The truth is that readers skim the Smith article and then they skim the North Korea article, and they know the difference. The real problem is the newspapers. I picked one up yesterday (the NYTimes, actually), and boy was it a disaster. The content is great, but the delivery system stinks. A big heavy clump of wood pulp gets dropped on your lawn every morning, and you’re expected to flip through hundreds of huge flimsy pages, skimming articles to try to find what’s of interest to you. Stories jump around from page to page, making you unfold, flip, refold, and generally wrestle with the stupid thing.

And newspapers’ web sites are no better — the Herald’s front page gives you a hint of what’s behind the link for exactly two stories. For anything else you have to navigate to sub-pages or guess from short cryptic headlines. Navigable archive pages are non-existent, searching is rudimentary, and all articles disappear behind a paywall after a few months. The Herald has a mess of blogs that don’t integrate with its regular site, and many are on Blogspot. I’ve repetedly implored the Herald to look for new ways to use the internet, and it’s just not happening. The NY Times has a new state-of-th-art website, but it’s chosen to put its columnists behind a paywall, so I’m not sure how much of a leader they’ll be.

Look, there’ll always be a demand for serious news, and there’ll always be news organizations to meet the demand. The only question is whether today’s newspapers are smart enough to make the changes to become those organizations. But their blaming their audience for their troubles suggests they are not.

Update: In the comments, Dan Sweeney just proved that Hiaasen isn’t just wrong about his conclusion, he’s wrong about his facts, too. Herewith, a series of graphs demonstrating that Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t the biggest news story the week she died by a long shot.

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Thursday January 11, 2007

Bob Norman breaks down the recent changes at the Sun-Sentinel: 1, 2.

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Wednesday October 4, 2006

More about the future of newspapers

A great article about the dangers and opportunities newspapers face in case my rant from Monday wasn’t long enough.

Internet advertising revenues account on average for no more than 10 percent of total ad revenues because online readers of newspapers still have small value for advertisers. Newspapers need to expand their Internet readership very substantially and, particularly, persuade their online readers to stay hooked to their digital versions much longer. The way to do that is to embrace the cultural change.”

It goes on to suggest customization as one way to embrace cultural change. In one way, the Herald is doing this: they have hundreds of RSS feeds, so anyone who knows about RSS can get a customized version of the Herald. Which makes me wonder: why not a customized home page, ala My Yahoo?

Unfortounately, even the RSS feeds are slightly snafu’d: right at the top is Liz Donovan, who hasn’t written for the Herald since July. And just this morning, when I clicked an item from the Local section’s feed for a brand new article, I got this error message page. Great, I guess I’m back to wading through web site. Good thing I caught it today, because by tomorrow I’d be forced to use the dreaded search engine. (thanks, Val)

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Monday October 2, 2006

The future of newspapers?

Time magazine wonders about the future of newspapers:

Damp or encased in plastic bags, or both, and planted in the bushes outside where it’s cold, full of news that is cold too because it has been sitting around for hours, the home-delivered newspaper is an archaic object. Who needs it? You can sit down at your laptop and enjoy that same newspaper or any other newspaper in the world. Or you can skip the newspapers and go to some site that makes the news more entertaining or politically simpatico. And where do these wannabes get most of their information? From newspapers, of course. But that is mere irony. It doesn’t pay the cost of a Baghdad bureau.

Yes yes, touché, Time. Hey, what’s that you’ve got there? Maybe you should be writing about the future of the home-delivered weekly magazine, eh? But no, Time magazine didn’t write that essay — Michael Kinsley did. The focal point of the article is the recent struggle at the LA Times.

The LA Times is owned by the Tribune company, which is controlled by shareholders, who care about one thing above all else: the change in their stock price from one quarter to the next. This makes it possible for a very successful newspaper (which LAT was/is) with very healthy revenues and profits (which LAT had/has) to look like a weak performer. So the stockholders demand changes — ie increases in their stock price, ie increases in profits, ie decreases in operating costs, ie layoffs in the news room. Anyone can see that that may lead to an increase in stock prices from this quarter to the next, but not in a sustainable increase. But there it is.

So anyway, when the brass at Tribune recently demanded more staff cuts, the LAT’s editor, Dean Baquet, and publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, refused. While Tribune insisted that insubordination would not be tolerated and they could not stay in their positions unless they make the cuts, so far they haven’t been fired.

Kinsley suggests that local ownership of newspapers would go a long way toward avoiding situations like this, but in a world where large holding companies make offers on devalued properties, a local interest has no guarantee of being able to hold on to a newspaper trying to navigate through the stormy waters the industry is in. I’ve suggested considering non-profit ownership of newspapers in the past. Non-profits are much more likely to resist buyout offers, and their structure is, at least in theory, more in line with newspapers’ stated goal of working for the public good. (The only two newspapers I know of that are non-profit are the St. Petersburg Times and the Christian Science Monitor.)

The bigger issue is that the whole “newspaper model,” of publishing one issue per day, is not ideally compatible with the internet. And in many ways newspapers are making large steps to try out new models. Articles are published around the clock almost universally now, and newspapers are experimenting with interactive features, blogs, instant feedback, and lots of other stuff. Kinsley again:

The “me to you” model of news gathering—a professional reporter, attuned to the fine distinctions between “off the record” and “deep background,” prizing factual accuracy in the narrowest sense—may well give way to some kind of “us to us” communitarian arrangement of the sort that thrives on the Internet.

In other words, newspapers should try to take part in the larger online conversation. I would argue that an important part of that is dropping this bullshit about paid archives. I don’t know how much the Herald is making from their archives, but I expect it’s minimal: nobody’s going to pay $2.95 for an old article unless they really, really need to. On the other hand, old articles can be very useful if they’re free, open, and searchable. Again, I don’t know how much ad revenue the Herald averages per article impression, but it strikes me as self-evident that the finances for open archives work out a lot better then for closed.

Putting old stuff behind a paywall not only doesn’t make business sense, though — much more importantly, it belies a lack of understanding of how the internet really works. Links that expire do not exactly encourage linking.

Let me give you an example: a study was recently done about the future of highways in the US. Transit Miami commented on it, and I mentioned it briefly. We both found the study through Larry Lebowitz’s Streetwise column, but, while we linked to the page, our discussions focused on the study itself, and largely ignored what Larry had had to say about it. Of course this is a shame, because Larry probably knows more about South Florida traffic then anyone else, but that’s exactly what happens when you can’t trust a link to work more then a couple of months. The study will stay online, and our comments will stay online, but the Herald column will not; it’ll be excluded from the record.

Other bloggers have taken a different approach to disappearing articles. Herald Watch, for example, frequently reproduces the full text of articles he’s addressing. These sites often offer the following “Fair Use Notice”:

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of political, economic, and scientific issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research, educational and informational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use,’ you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Now, you don’t need to be a legal scholar to know that reproducing a work in its entirety does not constitute fair use under the law. Yet newspapers routinely allow this to go on. Why? Because they, like Mr. Kinsley, recognize that their survival depends on being part of the conversation, and they’re muddling through, trying to figure out the best way to do that. Clearly, though, the obvious solution is to make their content more accessible, open, and searchable.

And yes, the search functions on most newspaper web sites is atrocious. Actually, I take that back. The Herald has a very powerful search interface for the paid, older content. The search for the free stuff is a dumb search box at the top of every page. Not good. More Kinsley:

Newspapers are not missing the blog boat. They are running for it like the last train out of Paris. They hold their breath and look the other way as their most precious rules and standards get trampled in the rush, and figure they’ll worry about that later.

oRLY? Well, the Herald is certainly serious about blogs if you go by quantity: they currently sport 19 of them. But then why are some of them hosted on Blogspot?? That’s just plain weird. A cursory examination of their blogrolls indicates that they’re much much better at linking to “Other Herald Blogs” then to anything in the outside world (one or two do link to a handful of local blogs). Overall, the Herald’s portfolio of blogs is very much “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.”

But these are minor quibbles. The fact is that the very “real newspaper” / “blogs” dichotomy reveals a poverty of imagination on the part of management. 100% of the Herald’s bloggers also write “real” articles for the newspaper, and use their blogs for short snippets, to test out ideas, and sometimes to simply duplicate their regular writing. This is the sort of no-brainer, obvious way to set things up. The problem is that this is a huge, super-important organization in a huge, super-important industry. We should be getting much better, more creative, and non-obvious approaches to things. Why aren’t a reporter’s articles instantly linkable from their blogs and vice versa? And why should regular articles and blog entries be treated so differently, anyway?

The Miami New Times recently launched a new blog, and overall their approach, while not perfect, indicates that a lot of thought went into how to set it up, and integrate it into the workings of their print publication. While the approach would not translate to the Herald, something along its lines might.

The Herald has recently been purchased by McClatchy, and so there is reason to believe that attempts at innovation are down the line. We may be approaching the period when the phase during which the new owners get comfortable working with the management of the paper, and begin to explore major changes. At the same time, McClatchy is not publicly traded, so an LA Times type fiasco is not going to happen here. The Herald has recently hired a top-level executive who will be charged with re-assessing the paper’s online efforts as a whole. Let’s hope this person brings in a team of smart people, and they really examine and rethink some major things. And let’s hope the management gives them the leeway to try some unconventional things.

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Wednesday July 5, 2006

McClatchy in the house

Herald on cover of McClatchy magazineLet’s take a moment to acknowledge the passing of the reigns over at the Miami Herald last week. The sale from Knight-Ridder to McClatchy has now been executed, and we’re now officially in the hands of the new guys. This all happened very quietly in the newspaper, with just one little article suggesting plans for the web site, and a feel-good opinion post about how great everyone is, what an opportunity this presents, blah blah blah.

The mood inside the newsroom (yes, I know about these things) has been one of cautious optimism; nobody’s sure what McClatchy’s going to do, but they’re mostly glad to see Knight-Ridder gone. What with the, shall we say unsettled state of the newspaper industry, everybody knows that new thinking is required, and McClatchy is seen as maybe being capable of some new thinking. We can check out the sites of the Star Tribune and Modesto Bee to see what they like to do. The main thing to notice is how different the sites are, which lends credence to the “reflect regional design and flavor” line. Let’s hope they fix what’s broken (the archives, the search, browsing of past issues) and not what ain’t.

There were some murmurings about a possible piece in the Bee that was supposed to slam Knight-Ridder, but instead we got this ho-hum overview of the deal.

In one of my regular lashings of the Herald, I suggested that the newspaper (and maybe all newspapers) should be run as non-profit organizations (I’ve since learned that the St. Petersburg Times is run by a non-profit). Well, that’s obviously not going to happen now. Still, this is interesting: the Herald building is on the cover of the most recent McClatchy magazine. It turns out that the paper is now the biggest in the organization’s portfolio (total: 39 papers). Maybe being the flagship has its privileges. Maybe the Herald will be given some opportunities and resources to really stretch out and look at what a newspaper is in the internet age. Hopefully it’s more then just crappy little online videos and photo slideshows. One person I spoke to at the Herald used the phrase “manage the decline,” and I hope that isn’t true. We need information, and if the Herald can focus on the local, and look at ways to use the internet properly, there’s no reason for any decline except in paper pulp consumption.

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Saturday April 29, 2006

Some clarification on the Herald’s hiring of a PR consultant during the DeFede firing mess is up over on the Daily Pulp. It seems the truth is more complicated then originally thought, but only a little more: “But newspapers aren’t routine businesses — they work in the truth market, where P.R. firms are looked upon with a jaundiced eye. There’s a reason the Herald wasn’t forthcoming at the time about hiring Rubin. And the newspaper clearly should have disclosed in every article quoting Rubin on unrelated issues that he had a financial relationship with the newspaper.”

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Thursday November 24, 2005

Should newspapers be publicly traded?

Drawing of the proposed Watson Island Shangri-La, criticized by the Herald

Happy turkey-day, folks. This morning, we’re looking at an essay by our man Michael Lewis, “Just when we thought we’d outgrown childish name-calling …,” written in response to this article in the Herald. The whole thing is worth reading, but his basic point is that the Herald is taking three people’s unsubstantiated accusations and giving them inappropriate legitimacy.

What’s not proper is a headline that states that the hotel has communist ties – because that’s what “Hotel plan bashed for communist ties” says. It doesn’t say “alleged communist ties” – it assumes that if “activist and radio personality Ninoska Perez-Castellon” and city commissioner and radio commentator Tomas Regalado bash it, it’s got communist ties. That’s worse than allowing name-calling in print – it’s not only dignifying the ridiculous in a major newspaper, it’s accepting the name-calling as fact.

Michael ends with a riff about how we live in a free country, people are free to say what they want, newspapers are free to print whatever they want, he’s free to respond anyway he wants, and “[y]ou can decide which media sources you also want to skip.” And that is precisely where we have to disagree.

Now, Miami Today does some wonderful reporting (mostly on business), as does the New Times, the Sun Post, and other local weeklies. But Miami remains a one-paper town. For whatever its flaws, the Herald gets a lot of reporting done that nobody else is in a position to do. The people who criticize it the most are also the people who care the most about newspaper reporting, and so the people most likely to read it. This very blog relies on the Herald for some of its content.

The Herald has bigger issues, though (in fact, the entire newspaper industry does). Knight Ridder, the company that owns the Herald, is up for sale. Why? ‘Cause of the shareholders. It turns out, though, that the company is not loosing money. In fact,

Despite the gloom about the business on Wall Street, Knight Ridder and other newspaper companies remain profitable. In the third quarter of 2005, Knight Ridder reported operating income of $96.3 million, down from $126.5 million for the same period last year. Revenue for the quarter grew to $723.8 million from $708 million a year earlier.

Doesn’t sound so bad, right? The problem is that the company is publicly traded, and stockholders don’t care about a newspaper’s level of service to its community, or even, amazingly, about profits — they care about their stock prices. When the stock prices go up, they’re happy. When they go down, they demand changes, even if those changes are bad for the company in the long run (in fact, shareholder demands sometimes lead to the dissolution of companies).

There’s nothing wrong with newspapers being for-profit organizations, but when that for-profit status hurts their long-term success, maybe a transition to non-profit status is the answer. Think about it — the newspaper could continue to operate as it has, collecting ad revenue and subscription fees (in fact, it could solicit philanthropic contributions), but it’s board of directors would be replaced with a board of trustees, who’d have the community’s best interests in mind, along with the organization’s (those interests seem pretty compatible for a newspaper). We’ve heard of non-profit newspapers starting from scratch, but never of such a transition. In fact while the internet is full of stories about non-profits becoming for-profits, the only instance we could find of the reverse was a little software firm. Is it a good idea? Is it even possible? We welcome our readers’ input: the comment boards are open.

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