Yelvington with some good ideas

I’ve decided I’m not going to be depressed over the Rocky — after all, True/False is in town and that should provide plenty to distract me.

Steve Yelvington has a really great blog post today that echoes a lot of what I’ve tried to tell people: The newspaper is not competing against other newspapers, or even against TV, radio and magazines. It’s competing against all the entertainment options available all the time everywhere in the world.

I don’t want to steal too much of Steve’s post, but the point is that we don’t often look at our news sites through the eyes of the consumer. The magazine industry, IMO, is better at doing this. That’s at least partly because magazines have known for a long time that they are competing against a very broad market, and that their value exists inside a very specific niche.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have been run generally by news editors — who are some of the best people in the world, but who think of content in terms of exclusivity and value compared to other similar content. The upshot of this is that they tend to have a view of content that says 1) exclusive is better; and 2) if it’s not ours it’s not worthwhile.

There’s certainly value in exclusivity (see: WSJ). But there’s also a lot of value in the “portal” strategy, where your homepage becomes a place to go for every possible bit of something you might want. The Missourian has started to get better about this — we’re understanding the value of linking to KOMU for school closings, for example. But we aren’t perfect at it yet.

Oh, and for the hardcore news junkies: I realize that you don’t mean “news” to be “entertainment” and I’m not suggesting that the Missourian become Maxim. But entertainment value is exactly why people spend time with newspapers. There’s an old truism that says we spend time on things for only two reasons: to solve a problem or to give us pleasure. Does your newspaper do either?

(Speaking of the Rocky, it went out in style by linking to some of its best pieces. Like this.)

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The Rocky Mountain News

I suppose I should have something interesting to say about this, but I’m empty. The paper is closing two months shy of its 150th birthday. The possible good news is that they’re selling their archives and Web site, so maybe someone can soldier on with just the costs associated with the site.

This part from their closing story depresses me more than anything else:

“In the past decade, the Rocky has won four Pulitzer Prizes, more than all but a handful of American papers. Its sports section was named one of the 10 best in the nation this week. Its business section was cited by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers as one of the best in the country last year. And its photo staff is regularly listed among the best in the nation when the top 10 photo newspapers are judged.”

I realize there’s only a tenuous link between quality and sustainability, but dammit, that’s how business is supposed to work — your superior product should outsell everyone else’s. And their product was so much more entertaining than the Post’s.

Maybe I’ll come back to this later. But I can’t now.

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Good stuff here

Long story from the New York Observer with the title “App it out, paper boy.” Once I’ve had time to digest a little I may try to synthesize my thoughts on the topic.

My favorite sentence so far: “If postmodernism came to literature in the ’80s, it’s got to come to journalism now.”

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No, social media isn’t killing you

The New York Times’ Lede blog has an interesting roundup of events in Britain, apparently sparked by a speech in the House of Lords this week by a baroness/neuroscientist. Lady Susan Greenfield apparently feels that spending too much time on Facebook, Bebo and Twitter is “infantilising” childrens’ brains. She goes on to suggest links between ADD and video gaming, among other dire consequences of being plugged in.

Here’s a taste of the Guardian article linked above:

She told the House of Lords that children’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”.

Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: “If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

That’s nothing that we haven’t already heard in the U.S., but her comments are getting some attention in Britain at least partly because Lady Greenfield is a neuroscientist. But here’s the problem with her argument:

Part of what young people are doing on social-networking sites, blogs, Twitter, etc., is creating a sense of identity. The thing that freaks old people out about the Internet is that anyone can be anything online. Anonymity, while it can be scary, is also empowering — consider the going-to-college experience, satirized brilliantly by the Onion, that many of us engage in. Sure, kids manage their Facebook profiles and tweets to fit in with their group, but I don’t see how that’s different, developmentally, than managing your real-life peer group at school, or the outfits you wear, or the music you aggressively blast out of your car, etc.

Now, let’s be clear: There is some real research that says that being exposed to rapidly changing images changes our expectations of what we’ll see in the future. MTV is a good example — back when it used to play videos, the network had an effect on our perception of videos such that directors started using faster and faster cuts. Whether that represents a developmental change in the brain or a change in expectations, I have no idea. But I’d guess it’s an expectations change.

Moving on to another segment of the Guardian story (I bolded one phrase for later analysis):

She also warned against “a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.

“The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”

Greenfield also warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. “Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that playing computer games gives me a sense of pleasure almost like a high. Otherwise, why would we play them? (Also, I’ve always understood that drugs were addictive precisely because they engage our pleasure centers. And is that high any different, neurochemically, from the one we get from reading a book or hitting a ball or climbing a mountain? I’m not sure it is.)

But I’d vigorously challenge her contention that playing games doesn’t engage us in a narrative. Although there are plenty of games (Pac-Man, solitaire, Tetris, flash games, etc.) that are pretty much devoid of content by their nature, there are plenty of other games that have a strong sense of narrative which is integral to the gameplay — including the Mario series where you rescue the princess. Sure, sometimes the narrative is ham-handed and propped up mainly with “interesting” costumes.

But anyone who’s played the Zelda series, or Resident Evil, or KOTOR, or GTA, or even (God forbid) Halo knows that the narrative is part of the game. Metal Gear Solid has always felt like a movie, to the extent that MGS4 was rumored to have 90-minute cutscenes. (The fact that this was plausible tells you something about the strength of narrative in games).

And let’s not dwell too long on her contention that the point of reading a book is to find out more about the princess herself. Sure, there are some books for which that’s true. There are other books that are more, uh, escapist.

The point is, let’s not decide that the media kids consume has some final defining effect on their futures. If that were true, all we’d need to do is ship underachieving kids en masse to the ballet. Poverty solved!

And not to pile on further, but I’ll let you take a look at Lady Greenwood and decide for yourself.

(As an aside, I’ll say that I always hated newspapers/magazines that make a point of having headlines asking SCARY RHETORICAL QUESTIONS??? when the answer is no. It’s just cheap.)

(As a second aside, that’s a pretty good photo illustration from the Guardian. Beats the heck out of the stereotypical online illos we see from a lot of U.S. newspapers.)

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AP still doesn’t get it

You can see the details here and here, but the nut graf is that the AP is considering putting its online content behind a pay wall, and requiring news orgs that use its content to do the same. Leaving aside the predictable discussion/rant (news “wants” to be free) there are at least two immediate practical results of such a move:

1. Many small newspapers would have to drop AP content online, further cutting the organization’s shrinking profit margins. The Missourian is among a fair number of small newspapers without an e-commerce site, and so we and other small newspapers couldn’t force people to pay for AP content. (We pay extra for our online content under our existing contract, which also has stiff penalties for canceling — yay.)

2. Competitors would rush in to fill the void — CNN is considering launching a wire service, and Reuters, Bloomberg, et al have to be salivating at this prospect.

I hate to sound negative, but IMO this is just more proof that the AP doesn’t understand the economics of online news consumption. I’m all for content being behind a pay wall, as long as it’s content worth paying for. No offense to the AP, but 95 percent of their content is commodity news and can be replaced instantly by any other wire service.

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ESPN launches local sports sites

There’s still time for small- to mid-sized newspapers to capitalize on their local franchises — especially in sports. But it’s starting to erode, and quickly.

The Worldwide Leader is launching “local” sports sites, starting with Chicago. They’ll have not only a Chicago sports focus, but also a Chicago-centric version of SportsCenter.

It’s already bad enough that I can’t get Mizzou basketball on my iPhone from anyone besides The Network. Or that neither local newspaper can seem to post/update/tweet news during MU basketball games (props to the Missourian for their online football coverage this year.) But this is getting ridiculous.

Yes, sports have traditionally been less profitable than other sections of the newspaper, because men don’t generally make buying decisions. But sports blogs like Rock M Nation are building a franchise that’s being ignored by local newspapers, and they have advertising on their site. Most of their content is produced by three guys, and a thriving group of users. It’s not rocket science, folks.

Now, I don’t anticipate that ESPN will start a Columbia site. We’re not a big enough market — yet. (Or, put another way, they likely don’t have the scalability to make this work on a lower level.) But they can certainly launch a site/show in St. Louis or Kansas City that covers Mizzou sports.

Bottom line: We cannot afford to ignore our local strengths. We cannot afford to be complacent about what we have to offer because it’s “too local” for anyone else to care about. And we have to aggressively expand into areas where we own the market, to make sure we keep owning that market.

Buggy makers didn’t die because someone else made a better buggy — they died because another technology stole their core business. Why don’t journalists get this?

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WIN for the Missourian

Update at Jeremy’s request:

I wasn’t around for the whole Twitter episode he describes, but what I saw went like this: Our assistant city editor on duty this morning came back to the copy desk while I was working on Jake Sherlock’s computer.

She told our staff editors that she had a newsburst ready to go about the controlled burn going on at A.L. Gustin today, and just wanted a quick read on it. One of the editors — either Joy Mayer or Laura Johnston, don’t remember which — suggested she tweet it. (At this point I didn’t know that Jeremy Littau had given us the original news and that Joy had picked up on his tweet.)

The ACE said she didn’t know how, and Jake told her to come get trained. He had her log into the Missourian’s Twitter site and write a sentence about what she knew. She read it back; Maggie Walter, who was passing by, reminded us that it was an “odor” not a “smell,” she corrected that and hit Update.

That’s it — it really is that simple. Now she knows how to tweet, and we got some news out there.

We also did something else I like a lot — put a news burst up and actually took it down after a couple of hours. All too often, we’ll leave one up all day or all night, even if it’s made redundant by other content. We’re starting to think of our Web site more creatively, and more of our editors are buying in all the time. What worked here: There wasn’t a high-level decision or several layers of editing. There was just a quick decision — we got some info, verified it and passed it along.

Original post: Jake Sherlock and some other folks at the Missourian have been on the Twitter bandwagon for a while now. We did something good today. It’s a little thing, but kind of a big thing, because it worked like it was supposed to. I couldn’t say it better, so I’ll link to it.

And if you want to follow the Missourian on Twitter, just go here

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