First, congratulations are in order. NN.C’s BFF Deb’s husband — are you following? — was the editor of one of the Pulitzer Prize winners announced yesterday. This one. So that’s good. Also, our virtual pal Gene Weingarten won for feature writing. I’m sure today’s regular chat will be something, if he can fit his head through the door.
This, however, is bad: The Seattle Times is cutting 200 positions, 49 in the newsroom. Part of me wants to see the end of the ink-on-paper newspaper, if only because I want to stop fearing the next thing and just see what the next thing is. (The other part doesn’t want to lose 65 percent of our household income, not to mention our health insurance, followed by our house and all of our possessions.) I keep thinking that once you take ink, paper, presses, Teamsters, gasoline, trucks and all the rest of those costs out of publishing, maybe the decreased ad revenue will cover a few meager salaries for those of us who provide content. Or maybe not.
The other day I took a left turn (oh, never mind how) and happened upon a porn blog. Immediately I was served a banner ad offering to hook me up with some hot babes in Grosse Pointe. Their adware had figured out a way to access my Zip code — fine with me, and not because I want to meet hot babes in Grosse Pointe. I want the newspaper industry to continue in one form or another, and needless to say, this does not happen when I land on the Free Press or News sites. Let’s check now and see who is advertising there. A bank and the lottery on the home page. A house ad — an ad for the paper itself, one that doesn’t return revenue, in other words — on the first inside page I visit. Elsewhere, not bloody much.
If a pornographer can figure out what Zip code I want to meet hot girls in, why can’t the newspaper ad staff figure out a way to sell a similar ad to a local bakery having a sale on muffins? Why doesn’t the ad say, “36 garage sales in Grosse Pointe this weekend! Search the listings by clicking here!” Just wondering.
Bossy is a humor/domestic-life blogger. I’d call her a latter-day Erma Bombeck, but I always hated it when people compared my column to Erma Bombeck’s, so I’ll just say she’s like a far, far hipper great-grandniece thrice removed from Erma Bombeck. She writes about home and family life and trying to get a decent haircut, and she knows intuitively how to write for the web, how to use photos and strikethroughs and different colors and styles of type to enhance the story she’s telling. Go ahead and poke through her archives if you don’t believe me. At the moment she’s on a road trip, one lap of America to meet her readership. And guess what? Somehow — she hasn’t revealed how — she got a car company to sponsor her. Yes way, as Bossy would say. Saturn is loaning her four — four! different! — hybrid vehicles to make her drive in. I don’t know if she has some agreement with them to feature the vehicles in any particular way; I will say that so far (she’s on vehicle No. 3, the Sky) what she’s written about the cars
hasn’t seemed intrusive or product-placement-y. has been a little product placement-y, but at least in an amusing way. So my question for you today is, if Bossy, one little non-corporate blogger somewhere around Philadelphia, can figure out a way to get a major GM brand to give her four cars to drive around the country in, in return for the exposure they’ll get in her little non-corporate blog, why can’t the professional sales staffs of the nation’s newspapers figure out a way to rework their advertising the same way? I know at least part of the answer — accepting the loan of a car for a week for a road-tripping writer would taint their holy journalistic integrity — but that’s not the whole answer. At least some of the answer is: They don’t know how. If the people running newspapers had half a clue, one would have hired Bossy by now. They wouldn’t have her coming into the building, but they would have some sort of arrangement whereby they link to her blog, feature her on their site, and figure out some mutual back-scratching financial arrangement.
And Bossy is just a humor blog. Imagine what could happen if newspapers took the time to find independent partners in the rest of the community, the ones they have trouble penetrating anyway — ethnic groups, young people, enthusiasts of this and that. What if there were big, clickable badges on related newspaper pages, and a regular monitor to tell the paper’s readers, “Bossy has a great story today; be sure to check it out.”
As some of you know, I have a part-time job that requires me to spend a great deal of time visiting newspaper websites. I’m becoming intimately acquainted with all the ways I can be served ads on a website. Many of them are annoying. Some are clever. All are necessary. Most are rare. But I want to see local papers trying them all, and then some. I can’t think of the last time I had to pass through an ad screen (like you do at Salon, and several other big sites) at a Detroit newspaper, if I ever did.
But worse than all of this, newspaper journalists show few signs of “getting” the web; that is, they don’t know how to add links to their copy, or embedded photos, or even of adapting their prose style to a itchy-click-fingered readership. That’s because they’re not writing for the web, but for their main product, the ink-on-paper version. And it shows — in the columns that go on too long because they have to fill a hole, in the turgid writing that has to stay turgid so some old lady in Warren isn’t offended, and so on.
The Online Journalism Review put a provocative headline on this piece (It’s time for the newspaper industry to die) but all Robert Niles is arguing for is the death of the old ways of thinking. The meat of the piece is a discussion of comments on individual stories, an idea the industry has only recently adopted. Niles points out what has bugged me since it started — how quickly comments sections can veer off-topic, and into rantfests dominated by two or three posters with nothing better to do. (One of the things I marvel about on my own little blog is how good our comments are from day to day, how I can leave for a day to attend a funeral and come back to discover a lively discussion has broken out in my absence, and I just want to sit down and listen for a while.) Where are the monitors, the guides, or, failing that, the Slashdot-type rating systems that shove the irrelevant and annoying posters to the back of the queue? (I’ll tell you where: Doing three other people’s jobs. You might have heard that staffing is way down.)
Well, this is now officially a trainwreck of a post. We started out talking about advertising, and now we’re back to writing, which I persist in believing will save us, at least a little bit. I apologize. But everything is happening so fast now. A decline I thought would play out over 10 years is now down to three. Roy is only the ten millionth smart person to point out the obvious —
Despite all the grand claims made for the groovy blog revolution, the phenomenon is still basically parasitic. Few bloggers do primary reporting. Why should they? The doomed dinosaurs do it for them, and all the bloggers have to do is link to them, occasionally adding some variant of “I call bullshit.”
Were the Times to fold, and all the other big pubs to be drawn down into its maelstrom — a consummation devoutly wished by wingnuts everywhere — these bloggers would have nothing left to talk about except one another, and reports from large rightwing publications which would presumably, as honorary non-members of the MSM, survive.
— but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in. Every day, I read someone online saying, “I cancelled my dead-tree paper because I don’t need it anymore. I read all my news online!” Well, good for you, then. Check back in a decade and tell me how that’s working for you.
Once again, you can financially support the family of our late NN.C community member, Ashley Morris, here. If that makes you nervous, I’m sure Ash would appreciate a donation to a worthy New Orleans charity, perhaps Habitat for Humanity.
And to end on an amusing note, Improv Everywhere calls its latest stunt “Best Game Ever.” I agree; be sure to watch the video, which is tremendous. If you aren’t in tears by the time the Goodyear Blimp shows up, you aren’t human.