Tag Archives: New York Times

Will Web Metrics Kill Professional Journalism?

The crumbling of mainstream journalism worries me. But am I just being nostalgic? Was it really that good in the past?

newspapers, Journalism, mainstream journalism, trends in journalism

The Portland Oregonian, one of the grand old daily newspapers they used to use an example when I was in J-school in 1971, and is still printing big paper newspapers every day, is changing the game for its reporters. They’re going to be paid for traffic. They have to post often on the live website. The should “stir up conversations among reader.” (More on that below)

David Carr followed the announcement with a thoughtful New York Times post on the underlying trend. Old-guard journalism seeking new-world eyeballs. (more on that below). 

Paying journalists for traffic, and eyeballs? Carr suggests ironically:

Gee, it’s almost like news is supposed to be a business or something.

I’m worried too. I’ve posted about my worries for journalism occasionally on this blog for years. I’m most worried about who pays for local coverage and investigative journalism as advertising fades out of journalism and into other media. 

But, trends aside, in respect for truth, when I was mainstream journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico, during the 1970s …

  • In the wire services agencies, Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), we got scores for every major story. Literally. While I was a foreign correspondent for United Press (1971-1974) my workday began with metrics. They tracked how many newspapers used our story against how many newspapers used the AP story for every major story. The scores looked like football scores, 15-10, 7-3, and like that. 
  • When I was a foreign correspondent for McGraw-Hill, writing for Business Week and other McGraw-Hill magazines, I got paid by the column inch. The more inches published, the higher the monthly check. 

Was it the same thing then, like now? No. There was a conceptual firewall back then. Although we all knew our salaries depended on our employers’ revenue, but we didn’t connect that to the quality, content, length, or frequency of the stories we submitted. By “we” I mean me, my colleagues at UPI, competitors at AP, friends in the correspondents’ club who worked for major newspapers, magazines, and television networks. 

And back then we believed in Journalism as a profession. We cared about the quality of the news and being objective, and — yes — having facts and attribution. Those of us who didn’t get that like I did, in grad school, got it from their peers. I mentioned the foreign correspondents’ club in Mexico City. We met once a month. We also played squash, and chess. And when there was a big story, we’d see each other at the scene, and share stories. 

Here’s more detail on the new trend: 

Here’s what Willamette Week (a competitor) reported

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com.

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.
In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

“On any post of substance, reporter will post the first comment,” the policy says. “Beat reporters [are to] solicit ideas and feedback through posts, polls and comments on a daily basis.”

The Oregonian will hand out yearly bonuses—if the finances of the company allows it—to reporters who exceed these goals. The policy says “final performance ratings will determine merit pay.”

David Carr’s post was this one: Risks Abound as Reporters Play in Traffic – NYTimes.com. He identified a trend, and cited multiple indications of it. He said: 

The availability of ready metrics on content is not only changing the way news organizations compensate their employees, but will have a significant effect on the news itself.

And this:

And journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs. A viral hit is no longer defined by the credentials of an individual or organization. The media ecosystem is increasingly a pro-am affair, where the wisdom — or prurient interest — of the crowd decides what is important and worthy of sharing.

Pop Quiz: Why Do Men Need Women. Business Perspective.

Yesterday my sister sent me the link to Why Men Need Women, a New York Times opinion piece by Adam Grant. This morning one of my daughters sent it. It starts with this:

New York Times Opinion Why Men Need Women

New evidence reveals a surprising answer. The mere presence of female family members — even infants — can be enough to nudge men in the generous direction.

Grant, a professor at the Wharton business school, cites a collection of interesting studies where researchers drilled down into details, discovering:

  • A Danish study showed CEOs reduced average salaries after having a son, but not after having a daughter.
  • An American study showed American legislators with daughters vote more liberally. A UK study showed voters did the same.
  • A Dutch psychological study using game methodology showed that players having sisters were more generous than players who didn’t.

Grant, a popular prof at Wharton, also the author of Give and Take, draws some logical conclusions about gender balance in school and workplace:

What would happen if every classroom followed the jigsaw structure, with mixed-gender study groups providing boys with the opportunity to learn from girls? In addition to gaining knowledge, perhaps they would learn something about teaching, helping and caring for others.

At work, we sorely need more women in leadership positions. We already know from considerable research that companies are better off when they have more women in top management roles, especially when it comes to innovation. Professors Dezso and Ross have recently shown that between 1992 and 2006, when companies introduced women onto their top management teams, they generated an average of 1 percent more economic value, which typically meant more than $40 million.

And he adds:

We recognize the direct advantages that women as leaders bring to the table, which often include diverse perspectives, collaborative styles, dedication to mentoring and keen understanding of female employees and customers. But we’ve largely overlooked the beneficial effects that women have on the men around them. Is it possible that when women join top management teams, they encourage male colleagues to treat employees more generously and to share knowledge more freely? Increases in motivation, cooperation, and innovation in companies may be fueled not only by the direct actions of female leaders, but also by their influence on male leaders.

What do you think?

The Difference Between a Journalist and a Blogger

What’s the difference between a journalist and a blogger? I see this from both sides because I was mainstream journalist for 10 years in the 1970s, then entrepreneur and consultant, software guy, and lately I blog a lot. 

A real journalist tries to tell the objective truth, reports facts fairly, strives for balance, and discloses bias. Technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals. 

Real journalists have opinions. Editorial writers and columnists are also journalists, not just reporters. But if it’s real journalism, opinions are framed as opinions, declared openly, and not masked as facts. 

So I say lots of bloggers are journalists. And a lot of people writing for or appearing on mainstream news media are not. 

Earlier today I posted Are Tech Conferences Distorting the Business News? over on smbplans.com. I linked there to a trio of posts debating the ethics of the New York Times Dealbook conference, which brought tech company leaders together with opinion leaders and journalists. 

Dave calls this “access journalism.” He makes it seem sinister. He quotes the New York Times’  own columnist Margaret Sullivan writing, in her column, that the event made her “a little queasy. It didn’t include …

…A great deal of distance between sources and those who cover them — something traditionally thought to be a bedrock journalistic idea.

Dave links back to the early days of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and some run-ins he had with journalists and the dark side of popularity, plugs, and mixing business relationships with news reporting. 

And I say that’s been going on forever.  There are some very practical natural phenomena related to what Dave Winer is calling “access journalism:” 1.) Good journalism wants to quote legitimate sources to turn opinions into reporting. 2.) You can’t quote people you can’t reach. 3.) Good quotable experts and well-positioned people are good to know; access to those people is good to have.

In fact, tech conferences notwithstanding, What I love about these days in reporting and journalism is that access is orders of magnitude easier today than it was when I was doing it in the 1970s. We depended on phone calls to gatekeepers (assistants, receptionists, etc.) and treasured relationships that have us a direct telephone number, which was as good as it got. Journalists these days, who can easily use email and Twitter, have no idea how good they have it (in comparison to then). 

The ethics haven’t changed. Accessibility has.

Do You Like Working Alone, in Teams, or Both?

Did you perhaps catch The Rise of the New Groupthink on the NYtimes.com last week? Here’s author Susan Cain’s interesting lead …New York Times Page

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by …

It’s not that teamwork is bad, but rather that alone work isn’t bad either. It feels like we need to respect both, and the need to approach different problems in different ways. When pendulums swing too far, we go back.

Confession: when I was in business school I avoided group projects as much as I could get away with. When assigned to a team, I sometimes negotiated breaking off a part of the project that I could do by myself.

Susan cites Apple and Steve Jobs and the early history of the company as a good example:

In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.

I’m going to finish this with Susan’s choice of quote from Steve Wozniak’s autobiography:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Think about it. Alone.

Disturbing Look at Search Engine Innards

I was browsing the NYTimes online yesterday when I discovered Search Optimization and Its Dirty Little Secrets. I couldn’t stop reading. Author David Segal investigates the dark side of search engine optimization in a story that blends mystery and suspense while it gives good background of something that affects most everyone who owns a business.

Segal starts by setting the story:

PRETEND for a moment that you are Google’s search engine. Someone types the word “dresses” and hits enter. What will be the very first result?

And from there, introduces the mystery of JC Penney’s seemingly inexplicable search-engine success:

The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

What happened? That makes for great reading — about search engine black arts, cheating the algorithms, manipulating links, fly-by-night stealth sites, and big business. And it seems like good investigative journalism as well. The Times paid a search engine expert to drill down into JC Penney’s success, and what he comes up with was surprising to me. Especially when I thought about how much is implied but not actually said.

And it includes a lot of background that’s good to know. Most businesses depend on search engines and search engine placement. And some of this is scary.

Read it: I dare you.

Twitter is the Brush, Not the Painting

On one hand, twitter offers a positive change in business landscape, a brave new world of business possibilities, and you’re crazy to ignore it. On the other, it’s just a distraction, a shiny new thing, that gets in the way of the real business.

Can both hands be right? Yes.

The one hand: I spend hours every day now watching, playing, posting, and reading twitter.  That’s gotten me mentions in Business Week and The New York Times. I find myself speaking up for social media on public forums, spouting phrases like “changing business landscape” and “you’re crazy to ignore it” and “great new low-cost road to market” or “marketing tool.” Twitter is essential to my blogging. Its a window to what’s going on and who’s doing and saying what.  It’s great for my business.

The other hand: You can use it to send useless text clutter to nobody. You can use it to pretend you’re working when you’re just watching the world go by in cute sayings, headlines, and interesting pictures. It can be a total waste of business time.

The synthesis: Twitter is the brush, not the painting. It’s a tool for a new kind of self publishing with a different kind of reach. Talk of business benefits of Twitter are like talk of business benefits of the telephone, or of conversation, or of advertising. It’s all in how you use it. Who or what are you trying to be in Twitter, and what does that have to do with your identity, your message, your business, your self.

Tools enhance power. What matters is not the tool, but what you do with it.

(Image: enhanced from a photo by Victures/Shutterstock)

Your Brain on Drugs? No, Your Brain on Computers.

Remember the “your brain on drugs” commercials? You’d see the egg frying in the pan, and then the announcer’s voice would say “this is your brain on drugs.” What do you think of the Your Brain on Computers take on this?  It makes it sound almost as bad as your brain on drugs.

That brain on computers theme is from the New York Times piece earlier this week, with the full and scary title:  Your Brain on Computers – Overuse of Digital Devices May Lead to Brain Fatigue. This is not a pretty picture, but it’s the New York Times.  And it cites research. So we have to believe it. Have to.

Author Matt Richtel (of the San Francisco bureau, of course, part of the Silicon Valley … everybody is petting their phones constantly) notes how people fill every last minute with connection. Waiting in line, exercising, they are also checking email or linking somewhere on their phones. He warns (with research studies to cite):

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

Me, I hate waiting in lines. No, come to think of it, make that HATE waiting in lines, with more emphasis. If I get trapped waiting for something, anything, I’ve got my phone in an instant. If I run out of email, then there’s twitter, or, if I’m really desperate, that novel I’ve been reading. 

But studies, or so says this story, indicate that it’s not that simple. I should breath deeply and reflect on things, absorb things, maybe – God help us all – think. Here’s another quote:

Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university [of California], where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.

This would have worried me, if I’d stopped to think about it. Instead, I turned to my phone to check email.

(Image credit: Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock)

With or Without Paper, the News Lives On. I hope.

As the newspaper business seems to die slowly, I console myself with the idea that journalism isn’t dying with it. The Huffington Post is booming. The New York Times will bring in about $350 million this year. The new iPad shows us how we can spread the paper in front of us with coffee and a newspaper in the morning. There’s hope. They capped the stupid oil spill overnight. Maybe they’ll cap the journalism spill too. Eventually.

I wish I knew who I’m quoting here, but I don’t. Somebody mentioned this quote to me recently:

I don’t care about newspapers. I do care about journalism.

iPad NewsWhat if news didn’t come on mashed-up trees? What if it came online instead? What if the iPad is the future of the daily newspaper? I can still sit with my coffee and page through the news. Sort of.

Can we survive with a few big online news organizations, but no newspapers?

In that case, who’s going to cover the city council meeting? Who’s going to spend months doing investigative reporting? And who’s going to pay the salaries of the people spending months on investigative reporting?

Meanwhile the Huffington Post, by far the most successful news business of the last half decade, is paying journalists full time incomes to develop the news. They have a handful of their own correspondents. That’s not the answer to those questions, but it is a start.

And I read this morning on TechCrunch how Ex-Google News, Bing Engineers Set Out To Build ‘Newspaper Of The Future’. Oh the irony: my stream of consciousness goes from TechCrunch to blogs to declining print advertising to slow death of newspapers; and I read about it in TechCrunch.

And, then, without hesitation, I signed up for both the apps mentioned, Apollo and Pulse, to go with my New York Times, Huffington Post, CNN, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and SkyGrid. So it’s not like I won’t have news. And local news? That icon in the lower left of my iPad picture above is the Eugene Register Guard, which is my local newspaper. Now, as long as the local paper can figure out how to survive on its online revenues … sigh…

No, I’m not suggesting the iPad is the big answer or magic solution. It’s mostly just a good illustration. This is a long-term change of worldwide news landscape, and the iPad is significant here because this is how things are going to be. The iPad will have good competition soon enough. Let’s hope it does, and that the competition generates money for news organizations, so that the journalism survives.

It’s Not the Technology That Makes You Dumb. It’s What You Do With Your Time and Attention.

Yesterday I posted WSJ vs. NYTimes on How Dumb You Are or Aren’t on Huffington Post, tracking conflicting opinions on whether technology makes us all smarter or dumber. Smarter because it’s a lot of print, creativity, and intellectual work; dumber because of multitasking, distractions, shorter attention spans.

I find the debate interesting, but I go with the commenter to that post who summarized:

Seems to me that the Internet can do both. It probably depends on the person…

Amen to that. Don’t confuse tools with how they’re used. I think we all have that friend who’s petting the phone, reading email and doing instant messages while pretending to listen, and we’re all guilty of that sometimes (well, I am). But we also have that other friend who’s now writing seriously on their blog, taking up haiku via Twitter, and reading and writing like never before.

I grew up without all this. I was in my 30s before there was email, in my 40s before I got a cell phone, in my 50s when the dot-com world crashed, and in my 60s when I fell in love with Twitter. Back in that distant past, we still had endless choices of distractions and amusements vs. thinking and working. We still made choices. We still had to choose between staying late at the office, getting things done, or not. There were a lot of good business reasons not to take vacations. Today I find myself turning away from the computer at times, while talking on the phone, to focus on the conversation, without the IM interrupting me. And I find myself not doing that, wandering out of the conversation and looking at email, turning dumb.

The power of it all, these days, the instantaneous communication or whatever you want to call it, it’s just plain amazing. I love it. And yes, I misuse it all the time, just like you do.

But in the end, today as in the 1960s, what you value, who you are, and what and who you care about is a matter of how you spend your time. It’s a matter of focusing attention. You aim attention, or fail to; it doesn’t just happen.

And attention is time, and time is the scarcest resource.

(Image: HomeStudio/Shutterstock)

Business Plan Contests Grow Up and Mean Business

It’s time to note a major change. Just a few years ago business plan contests were an academic oddity, a dress-up exercise at a few business grad schools. Suddenly, or so it seems, they’re pretty much for real. Some very powerful new businesses are appearing at business plan contests, winning significant money, attracting investors, getting funded, and turning into real businesses.

Rice ContestFor milestones, try this: last weekend Rice University hosted the first business plan contest to offer $1 million in total prize money. This is a serious event now. If you’re at all curious about how strong some of these businesses are, read Lora Kolodny’s ‘I Want This Drug on the Market by the Time I Need It!’ on her You’re the Boss Blog at the NYTimes.com.

How important are these contests? How real? Well Lora wasn’t the only journalist at Rice last weekend. Fortune and CNN are covering that contest in detail. Expect to see some of these major contests in the Wall Street Journal.

Brad Burke, head of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, chief host and organizer of the Rice contest, likes to point out how many of the teams entered have gone on to be successful:

More than 97 past competitors have gone on to successfully launch their business, including 33 of the 42 teams from the 2009 competition. In total, past competitors have raised more than $220 million in funding.

Moot Corp, meanwhile, the first of these competitions, started in 1984, has trouble keeping up with all of its Moot Corp success stories. Moot Corp will be taking place in Austin again this year, in early May, gathering together the winners of several dozen other competitions.

And at the University of Oregon’s annual New Venture Competition, of which I’ve been a judge 12 times, all four of the teams in my semi-finals track looked like real companies with good probability of making it in the real world. That’s impressive. I’ve seen a lot of good companies in that one before, but never before have I done a track in which all four of the four groups seemed likely to be real viable companies in the real world.