Tag Archives: New York Times

Is It Hooray for Social Media or Goodbye to Privacy or Both?

Speaking of paradox and contradictions (as I did with my post here last month), how about the good news/bad news mess of mixed-up emotions with the increasing personalization of advertising.

1984The good news (well, sort of) is less of the traditional shouting and interrupting types of advertising we all grew up with. Nobody really likes the ads that interrupt the flow of television and radio shows. We tolerate ads where we can just not click, or turn the page.

I’d like to think that this is happening because of the gradual growth of the business impact of social media and similar phenomena, in which word of mouth multiplies organically, replacing advertising with relationships and authenticity. That seems like a relatively pleasant scenario.

The bad news is more of the personalization that smacks a bit of 1984 and Big Brother and paranoia. This is what the New York Times called Ads Follow Web Users, and Get Deeply Personal:

“The result is a sea change in the way consumers encounter the Web. Not only will people see customized advertising, they will see different versions of Web sites from other consumers and even receive different discount offers while shopping — all based on information from their offline history. Two women in adjoining offices could go to the same cosmetic site, but one might see a $300 Missoni perfume, the other the house-brand lipstick on sale for $2.”

I have mixed feelings about privacy, particularly when it’s “Privacy” as political motivator and campaign slogan. I’ve seen it used as justification for all kinds of crazy ideas, such as somebody ringing my phone in my house being able to block caller ID (if you don’t want to be identified when you intrude, don’t intrude. Seems simple to me). By the way, have you asked yourself the relationship between privacy and authenticity? In social media?

I also have mixed feelings about our national confusion between ideas, speech, and commerce. I don’t think commercial messages (much less corporations, but that’s a different matter) need to be protected by the Constitution. I don’t think the Constitution gives a damn about which perfume the women see on the commercial site.

And this 1984 queasy feeling… does it still hold when it’s not an evil government controlling thought, but a cosmetics vendor optimizing sales?

Which brings us to the simple discussion of business. Is it good business to customize messages, even business offerings, to match very carefully defined and tracked consumer characteristics?

Gee, You Had to Pay $2, Once, to Get News?

Interesting juxtaposition: while much of the world worries about where we get real news, and particularly investigative reporting, iPhone users are up in arms about CNN charging less than $2, once, for an iPhone app that includes ads.

Journalism MournedMegan Berry posted Do You Get What You Pay For? yesterday on the Huffington Post:

CNN’s new iPhone app is creating quite a stir. First of all, they’re the first major news site to have a paid app ($1.99). Secondly, they’ve included ads in it. Users are in quite an uproar over this. They wouldn’t pay for something with ads in it!

There’s no doubt that the iPhone world is new and strange. I have an iPhone myself, and I love it; but how did $1.99 for an application end up as expensive? In what world? Maybe I’ve been in software for too long. Megan (disclosure: she’s my daughter) adds:

Yet, what about newspapers, magazines, television, and increasingly games? We constantly pay for media that includes ads, and we don’t even think twice about it.

Meanwhile there’s a lot of real worry about what’s happening to journalism, and especially investigative journalism, as newspapers and magazines fade. Within a click or two of that same CNN-iPhone-related post on Huffington, there’s this post in which Arianna Huffington frets over the debate over online news, another about whether the New York Times should charge for news, and yet another titled What Google Can Do for Journalism. I posted about that here just a couple of months ago.

On The Huffington Post, meanwhile, they took a Quick Poll on how people feel about paying for an iPhone application with advertising in it. Almost half the respondents said no: “If I pay for an app, I shouldn’t have to put up with advertising.”

I’m not saying that iPhone users shouldn’t worry about a couple of dollars, but … no, wait a minute, maybe that is what I’m saying. Skip a cup of coffee, once. Not that I even like CNN, but if nobody can figure out how to pay the reporters, we’re not going to have Journalism. I can imagine a world without newspapers, but a world without Journalism would be a lot worse than that. If saving Journalism (note: not newspapers necessarily, but investigative reporting) takes some ads, I can deal with ads.

So I just bought the CNN application for my iPhone.

(Photo credit: cen/Shutterstock.)

FTC vs. Social Media Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

Here I was writing this post about new FTC rules for social media, feeling self-righteous about it, when it occurred to me that Shutterstock.com gives me a free stock photos account, which I use to illustrate this blog. And I’m an Amazon.com affiliate. I accept review copies of books, some of which I’ve reviewed here (although I bought most of the books I’ve reviewed, and I don’t go around asking for review copies, just accepting them, occasionally, when they’re offered). And I’m an employee of Palo Alto Software. So I don’t want to be a pot calling kettles black. Or a wolf disguised as a sheep.

Still, it’s about time. A new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling aimed at blogging and, I assume, Twitter starts Dec. 1. This is from the New York Times story on it:

Beginning on Dec. 1, bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently. The new rules also take aim at celebrities, who will now need to disclose any ties to companies, should they promote products on a talk show or on Twitter. A second major change, which was not aimed specifically at bloggers or social media, was to eliminate the ability of advertisers to gush about results that differ from what is typical — for instance, from a weight loss supplement.

I’m glad they made it specific. I hope they enforce it. The same general idea was previously built into basic journalism ethics and it should have been obvious that it applied here as well. Ethics? I mean what do you think, when people are paying people to blog about their products, tweet about them, and do reviews on social media sites. Making endorsements look like honest opinion, or reviews pretending they’re objective, is ugly. I hope it’s obvious why.

What if some company offered to pay you under the table for talking it up with all your friends? How would you feel to be a walking talking advertisement parading as a person?

But it happens all the time. I got an email last month offering me money to endorse products on this blog. It was blatant and unembarrassed. The offer to shill for money was couched in terms like “business models” and “revenue streams.”  But it was pretty simple: if I would endorse products in my blog, they’d pay me. No, thank you.

Time magazine’s last issue included a story called Brought to You by Twitter, about tweeting for money:

A company called Izea, which made its name connecting bloggers with firms willing to compensate them for plugs on their blogs, has set up a similar service for the Twittersphere. At a site called Sponsored Tweets, Twitter users can sign in, set the price they want companies to pay them for tweeting an ad on their behalf and wait for the offers to come in. Jocelyn French, the mother of a 2-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl, has tweeted for a parenting website, a college-information site and Kmart, among others, at $1 a pop. “I figure, hey, why not get paid at the same time?” French says. On average, companies are paying Sponsored Tweets users $29 per tweet.

I hope you see the problem with that: first, it’s dishonest, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, because it’s presented as conversation.

Back in the 1970s when I studied Journalism in grad school, the generally accepted ethics were pretty obvious on this. Disguising ads as editorial was clearly out of bounds. But that was way before Amazon.com revolutionized consumer reviews, and then there was the proliferation of blogs and now Twitter blurring the boundaries. But still, put it back onto the personal level: if a company pays you to pretend you’re giving a legitimate personal opinion, that just doesn’t feel good. Right?

(Photo: Sarah Heinman/Flickr)

Who Should Decide What News Matters?

Back in the old days editors decided what was news. Not advertisers and not readers. There was this concept called “news values.” Full-time professionals laid out the front page. They tried to highlight important political, economic, and social trends, coverage deemed important, rather than celebrities, fashions, nudity, and violence.

This was a long time ago. Back in the 1970s.

Which is not to say that media don’t play to audiences. The original Yellow Journalism was Pulitzer vs. Hearst in the 1890s. And when I was a mainstream journalist, in the 1970s, playing to readers’ baser instincts was already commonplace. Some words in headlinesnaked, violent, brutal, for example–produced better results than others.

Still, the idea was that editors protected news values. They were gatekeepers. So the front page had important news, that people should be reading, rather than sensational news. The idea was embattled, but treasured. Image by B.K. Dewey on Flickr

Today, however: not so much. Nicholas Carlson posting on Silicon Valley Insider proclaims NYT.com Front Page Editors Ignore Reader Clicks, and he’s not writing about how the editors are intrepidly holding out for news values. I’d like to imagine the crusty old editor saying no, resisting the temptation to appeal to audiences’ taste for gossip and sensationalism, insisting on highlighting important news and analysis. But no, this is criticism. He quotes a New York Observer story:

“In terms of minute-to-minute news decisions, I think that would pretty much drive me crazy,” NYTimes.com’s digital news editor Jim Roberts told the Observer.

“I don’t want people to call up NYTimes.com and feel like that they’ve just landed in an environment that is alien to them,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily The New York Times in print, but it needs to reflect the same attitudes and standards.”

He thinks they’re sadly out of date, and, in the background, doomed. He cites the Huffington Post as the example of the right way to do it, by following the clicks. He says editors have to watch the clicks for two reasons:

  1. It’s the main way readers can show what kinds of stories they care about.
  2. The New York Times is a deeply-in-debt, for-profit enterprise that needs to grow its traffic online in order to survive. Web editors should not pretend that it doesn’t matter how many ad impressions the Times serves each day.

I can argue with that first point. Call me old fashioned, elitist maybe, but I’m okay with Jim Roberts’ comment above. I don’t want the National Enquirer to replace the New York Times. I’m happy to think that humans are still guarding news values. Somebody has to. Right?

But how do you argue about that second point there, in the quote above: the money? What if doing news right is an obsolete business model? It could happen. Could? No, it is happening.

Irony: I’m glad to see that the New York Times made a profit in the second quarter of the year,   but I read that news on the Huffington Post. And I don’t subscribe to the New York Times, either; I get it free online.

(Image by B.K. Dewey on Flickr)

Journalism, TechCrunch, Stolen Information

This — the TechCrunch publishes stolen information flap last week — is why I worry about the gradual disappearance of Journalism as newspapers and traditional advertising disappear.

You may or may not have read about it. Somebody stole documents from Twitter’s computer and sent them to TechCrunch. They stole more than 300 memos, presentations, projections, and lots of private work about the business.

And TechCrunch, one of the premier blogs in the world, on just about everybody’s list of top blogs, decided to publish it. Not because the world needs it, not to defend anybody against anything, just for the fun of it. There’s no public good involved, not that I can see.

This is not Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times with the Pentagon Papers, this is just business voyeurism. Publishing other people’s private stuff.

Why? Simply because they can. And I object. TechCrunch should know better.

I like the idea of professional journalism, with standards. Like what Wikipedia suggests, or, even better, the Code of Ethics of the Professional Society of Journalists. I know that a lot of journalists trashed ethics long before blogs came along. Still, at least there was a general understanding of right and wrong.

It seems to me inevitable that newspapers as we’ve known them, printed on paper, are going extinct. Blogs can replace a lot of what newspapers have been doing. So who says that ethics don’t matter in blogs? Not me. You don’t have to appear in print to be a journalist; but you do have to have a code of conduct. I hope.

Investigative Journalism Under Siege

Do you want to make meaning? Solve a problem? Disrupt the status quo? Then solve this problem: figure out a way to monetize investigative journalism. In the new media world.

No, not just journalism, thanks, but investigative journalism. By that I mean the product of professional journalists paid to dig for (relatively) objective truth, like facts. To uncover the hidden scandals, expose the corruption, clear up the misconceptions, and look beyond the spin.

Don’t confuse investigative journalism with breaking news, gossip, politics, expertise, and opinion. Maybe — just maybe — citizen news and crowd sourcing will compete with straight news media. We’ve got Twitter, news blogs, political blogs, and self-styled expert and personal blogs, among other new media, supplying breaking news and opinion. You’ve probably read the arguments along those lines. I’ve posted about it on this blog here.

Watergate: Flickr image by dbking

The problem is that investigative journalism is real work. It takes digging, research, interviews, and more digging, and more work. Volunteers don’t do it; professionals do it. And the organizations that pay those professionals depend, traditionally, on advertising revenues. And we’re in the midst of a rapidly changing media landscape, in which big audiences seeking impartiality are growing harder to find. The audiences are splintering, dividing into finer groups, getting lost in the long tail.

Breaking news? We get that in the new media world. In-depth reporting? Not so much. New York Times online? Washington Post online? Maybe. But your local town government? Who covers that? And are a few online sites of former great newspapers enough? Will the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report generate budgets and credibility for proactive in-depth reporting? What do you think?

So, in this new world, is somebody going to sponsor true investigative journalism? Will the Watergates of the future  be uncovered? For that matter, who’s going to go to those town council meetings?

So there’s a problem; a need. Do you have a solution?

Is Journalism Dead, Dying, or Just Faking It?

I feel like I’m watching Journalism fall apart; watching with interest, horror, and dismay … but just watching, like watching a fire from far away, powerless.

Photo by mphotos on Flickr

Like you do, I read about the newspapers folding, falling like trees in a rotting forest. Even the New York Times is in trouble. Many of the newspapers I grew up with are either dead or dying.

News flash: this isn’t new. It’s been going on since I can remember. It was already a big deal in the 1960s. (News at 11!)

We blame it on different things: blogs, 24-hour news networks, mainstream network television news, declining education, apathy, the Web, Fox News, Huffington Post, the new president, the old president, whatever.

I got a grad degree (MA) in Journalism, with honors in fact, in the early 1970s. That was so long ago we actually called it Journalism, not communications.

Back then newspapers were already dying because television network news was killing them. People liked their news in 30-second bite-size pieces. Professors wrung their hands about the loss of analysis and in-depth reporting.

And we all worried a lot, back then, about the impact of television violence in general. And sensationalism. Like that would turn the news business into show business. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen, right? (Show of hands, please).

Not that it was ever just academic for me. Before I reached my 30s, grew up and sold out (I became an entrepreneur, got the MBA), I spent eight years as a journalist. I was a foreign correspondent, based in Latin America. I worked for UPI, freelanced for Business Week, Financial Times, etc. Even after business school I wrote columns in several magazines, although mostly computer magazines.

It’s also a bit of the present for me as well, because of my new job blogging and writing. You can see that here on the right column: I’m on the Huffington Post, USNews.com, plus several business blogs.

So where does that leave us? With this:

Accident of history: journalism and business

We tend to forget that journalism grew up to fill pages between ads. It wasn’t about the the sanctimonious needs of society, or the fourth estate, or fundamentals of democracy.

They needed readers to sell ads. And in the old days, before Fox News or Huffington Post, when freedom of the press was limited to those who owned presses, the best way to get and keep readers was to do real news; to pay Journalists to investigate and report.

In the heyday of great journalism, bias was bad business. So the owners paid the reporters and, with many very well known exceptions, tried not to meddle. Good journalism was also good for business.

And we got professional news reporting because that was good business. They paid somebody to attend town hall meetings, and somebody else to travel the globe covering wars and revolutions, because that kept the readers happy and, because of that, the advertisers happy.

Journalism wasn’t about the public good. It was about making money.

Fast forward to the Internet, the Web, and the collapse of the printing press and big owners as the oligarchy of the “media.” Suddenly the media is splintered up into hundreds of millions of websites, in infinite variety of degrees of professionalism or lack of it. And even on the television, far less free, it’s six hundred channels instead of three, so we have the Fox News people talking to their tribe, and the Jon Stewart-Bill Maher people talking to their tribe, and CNN talking to whomever has 24 hours a day to listen, and NBC and CBS and ABC news trying vainly to compete with Joan Rivers and Entertainment Tonight. All bets are off.

And there’s this other trend mixed in: Even before the Web, while few people noticed, newspapers spent the last generation or two cutting costs by cutting news staff and using AP and UPI, and lately, Reuters.

So what happens next? Who’s going to pay whom to sit through those boring town council meetings, or risk their lives in wars and revolutions, or report politics and democracy fairly?

I don’t know. But, in the time-honored tradition of the back side of journalism, I’m going to tell you anyhow. Later. Not now. News at 11.

(Photo by mphotos on flickr)