Professional Journalism is its own worst enemy

Step aside son. This is a job for PROS.I’m angry.

Professional journalism will never save itself unless it gets off its pedestal. Since this is a nearly impossible human task, I have no hope that the answers to forces destroying professional journalism will ever come from inside the institution. It’s just not going to happen. We have seen the enemy, and he is us (but we can’t admit it).

I come from a unique class of television professional journalists, having worked in the industry both before and after it was taken over by corporations, corporate lawyers, shareholders, and the rules of being a profit center. I can honestly say that it was all about gathering the news before (see my 1998 essay “The Lizard on America’s Shoulder”), but it drifted to the industry of managing audience flow afterwards.

This was brought to mind this morning after reading yet another Chicken Little account of the collapse of professional journalism, and I need to point out a few things (again). “Without professional journalists,” wrote Tom Glaisyer and Sarah Stonbely for CNN.com, “who are paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest, the very health of our democracy is in peril.” This statement is absurd on two grounds. One, professional journalists aren’t paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest. They are paid to help their owners make a profit. That’s not cynical; that’s simply the truth. Two, and this is the most damaging, the people, the audience whose trust they assume, know it. Puh-leeze!

That which is important has taken a back seat to that which is easy and that which will attract, for the core mission of any business is to make money. In today’s business climate, things are really problematic, which applies even more management heat to control costs and earn more, more, more. The bottom line runs everything, and those who write stories warning of dire consequences for journalism and democracy are not examining the facts and, therefore, simply demagoging for attention. C’mon, people. Read the signs. People are sick to death of what we’re feeding them, and they’re revolting. That’s the problem, not our precious mission.

Once again, here’s the Gallup data. We’re at an all-time low in press trust. Note that the decline in press trust began in 1976, not 2000 or 2004.

Gallup trust in media 1973-present

Glaisyer and Stonbely’s piece (which you should read, BTW) concerns the FCC’s recent report on the state of the news, specifically television. That, of course, they govern, but the problem is much deeper than just TV. Moreover, the FCC report is highly biased, because the government has the deep pockets voices of the Telecom industry tickling their ears about using those public airwaves for broadband. Nevertheless, the article drones on about journalism.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is impossible to ignore the inequalities created by changes in media or the harmful effects of the loss of journalists, newsrooms, and oversight. Local communities are suffering from a vacuum of relevant local news and accountability in news coverage.

I’d argue that the opposite is true and that communities are beginning to be served as never before — from the bottom up — by people who aren’t bound by the same corporate necessities of the pros. If I lived in Lewisville, a neighboring suburb near me, I’d be VERY grateful for the work of Steve Southwell, for example. Steve’s blog, whosplayin.com, has kept the heat on a school board that needed heat and has since been largely replaced by informed voters. How were they informed? Steve. Is he a professional journalist? He makes enough money to pay for his hosting, so I guess so. Did he go to school for it? No. Does he work for a big media company? No. He simply performs, as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and many others call “acts of journalism” that have resulted in elected officials being held accountable.

Steve’s not alone. This is taking place all across the country, mostly in small ways so far, but journalism is alive and well in the U.S. Only the fatted calves of corporate journalism are being whacked.

The Great Horizontal is responding to the Gallup numbers, because they know that we’ll never do anything about it.

Media 2.0 101: We’re all hyperlocal media

We're all hyperlocal mediaThere’s been a lot of noise in the past 18 months about the concept of big local media companies creating neighborhood or “community” sites or sections in order to offer ad inventory that is geographically-targeted. In some cases, the content comes from aggregating existing sources, while in others it comes from volunteers or paid people who write about news in their areas. The results have been, at best, hit or miss, and it really depends on your view of what determines “success.”

I have never fully recommended this concept, because I think to chase this path is to distract our attention from pursuing what really matters. It certainly works in some places (especially Fisher’s Seattle concept at komonews.com or Media General’s Tampa community), but the term “hyperlocal” is being tossed around today like some simple plug-and-play application. It’s not, but that hasn’t stopped more and more local news executives from thinking it’s the Holy Grail — not because it really is, but because their competitors are doing it, and that’s what makes it right.

To be sure, hyperlocal news is a new reality. It is, however, in its infancy and many, many people are currently writing the book on how to be a neighborhood news organization. The rules are very different, because, well, it’s hyperlocal. You can’t pretend to be the New York Times when writing about your neighbors. I love, for example, what the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell, Montana does with its police blotter. It nails what interests people at the neighborhood level without embarrassing anybody — gossipy kinds of one-liners delivered with a factual tone that often comes off as downright humorous.


Flathead County Sheriff’s and Kalispell Police Reports

Family Problems

Monday 6/13

8:58 a.m. An Evergreen woman has a theory involving her ex-boyfriend and her missing dirt bike.

10:44 a.m. A resident on Highway 35 in Kalispell complained that their drunken neighbor “flipped out” on a dump truck driver and stole his keys.

11:09 a.m. A drunken Kalispell man called in and claimed he was naked and diabetic. He said his fiancé, also intoxicated, was refusing to give him insulin.

12:25 p.m. A man called from Arizona to report that the caretaker of his condo in Bigfork has been letting family members live at the residence.

12:39 p.m. Someone on First Avenue West reported receiving a box containing thousands of dollars in fraudulent checks.

1:22 p.m. The driver of a maroon truck was seen driving northbound in the southbound lane of Highway 93 North.

2:00 p.m. A woman on Cynthia Road complained that people were messing around with the tent she has set up in her yard.

2:13 p.m. A Columbia Falls woman reported that her family won’t stop calling her.

3:59 p.m. A storage shed on Killdeer Lane was broken into. Stolen items included tire chains for a tractor and tools.

7:06 p.m. Someone was suspicious that the driver of a pickup doing donuts in the “mud lot” near the mall was intoxicated.

8:24 p.m. A Kalispell woman complained that she has been getting “text bombed” for the past few months.

8:58 p.m. The owner of a business in Hungry Horse reported that cardboard figures had been torn off his building, flowers were damaged and beer cans were strewn about the property.

10:39 p.m. A man claiming to be a patient attempted to have a lewd conversation with a nurse.

2:24 a.m. Many drunken men fought over a sign at a bar near Columbia Falls.

The point is that the idea is being innovated today, from the bottom-up. Media companies are top-down driven, and we’re a long way away from quality hyperlocal content throughout the media world. However, that hasn’t stopped media companies from jumping aboard today.

Why would anybody pursue this? Because it’s an easy sell for media account executives. Live by the CPM, die by the CPM. It’s a reach/frequency play, which is what media companies know and understand. Never mind that with the right software, you can target geographically by individual browsers. Is that too sophisticated for us? No, we just assume that by having a news section for a certain suburb, people in that suburb will flock to the content, and we can sell ads around that. We want to be the news content portal for everybody, but the more we try and do that, the more we become a portal for no one. Remember, AR&D’s research shows that up to 90% of the users of the typical TV station website represent that stations’ own viewers. So what’s the use?

The use is that everybody else is doing it. “If they’re selling it, I’m selling it.”

This will forever keep us functioning as TV stations and newspapers online, when we all can do so much better. The disruption, remember, isn’t about content; it’s about advertising. The more we keep insisting that it’s all about content, the deeper we sink into the hole we’re digging for ourselves.

Besides, the hyperbole of hyperlocal isn’t sufficient to mask what’s really wrong with the concept. Here are five reasons I think this is not a smart move for media companies.

  1. It’s not sustainable. The nut of this whole thing is that media companies want to provide this kind of content at virtually no cost to themselves. This might work if your town is just swimming with local news and information blogs, and you can sell those bloggers on the idea that the traffic you provide is worth their participation. But really, a simple RSS reader will do the same thing for users and without all the extra clicks. If you’re going to actually pay people to create the content, well it hasn’t been established that that’s a viable business. Remember, the expectations of a one-person start-up will always be different than those that come with a “job.”

  2. Its revenue source is banner display ads. I have nothing against banners, but people do (they don’t even see them), and one day advertisers will stop paying for them. Legacy media people believe that hyperlocal is magic, the ability to place messages in front of a special audience, but those messages just aren’t effective, and the people formerly known as the advertisers have many other methods of reaching the same people we can reach. Moreover, unless these invisible ads are sold on a flat rate, the nature of the content won’t produce enough traffic to justify the CPMs being requested.

  3. It’s a mass-marketing play. The Web is a direct marketing machine, and it doesn’t work well with mass marketing concepts. This is especially true, because the numbers at the hyperlocal level are so insignificant that it’s hard to justify any reach/frequency play. For advertisers, they don’t need news and information content to reach their customers or potential customers anymore, and the more we sell this, the more we deceive ourselves.

  4. It’s popular, because we understand it, not because it makes good strategic business sense. The world of content marketing when coupled with something as simple as a QR code allows merchants to reach people via portable devices. The only real reason they need us anymore is for SEO. The idea that “suburban weeklies” are the only thing that can sell to a suburban audience is archaic. However, that’s our business model, so we need to be innovating in areas beyond it, or we’ll be left behind as the people formerly known as the advertisers advance in their knowledge.

  5. It doesn’t satisfy from an audience standpoint, only from a business perspective. This is the biggest problem with the hyperlocal concept, for unless the people creating the content are motivated, the pages we’re using to attract an audience won’t be compelling enough to do the job. Let’s face it. There are start-up hyperlocal websites that do a fabulous job covering their communities, especially in the Northwest, but they’re not necessarily motivated to be connected with somebody else’s brand. Aggregating the content of others generally leaves people unsatisfied, for there’s no advantage to reading neighborhood news on, for example, a TV station’s site.

Of course, these are all offset by the reality that it’s quick, easy money — for awhile. That’s an attractive proposition, but unless it’s accompanied by a strategic, aggregated approach, I’m convinced it’s a dead-end for most places.

Please don’t confuse this with advice that strongly suggests aggregating all local voices and providing filtering for what is generally an enormous volume of potential news and information content. That’s one of the key places we need to be focusing attention for the future. Hyperlocal, as it’s positioned today, however, is strictly an old school “serve ads next to targeted content” business play, and it’s potential is extremely limited.

p.s. If you’re going to do hyperlocal, get it away from your brand.

Those people formerly known as advertisers

A web application for realtors that’s been around awhile challenges the traditional media company role (and anybody else’s, for that matter) in the creation of hyperlocal information sites. Those media companies trying to execute a hyperlocal strategy will likely find Connecting Neighbors websites already in place in at least some of the communities they’re trying to reach. Connecting Neighbors targets neighborhoods and operates 14,000 websites across the country.

sign advertising hyperlocal website in Huntsville, ALIn a remarkable example of how anybody can be a media company today, the sites are managed and sponsored by realtors, who use them to mine for potential clients. While declining to provide site statistics, Connecting Neighbors Marketing Manager Lisa Knight told me that the sites do very well, especially with a sponsor who dedicates time and resources to marketing it within the neighborhood. Simple yard signs (like the one pictured on the right in Huntsville, Alabama), postcards and word-of-mouth are all it takes.

Connecting Neighbors offers you the opportunity to become the exclusive Neighborhood Expert in your targeted market, while locking out your competitors. Begin building relationships in your market today!

The sites are simple and spartan, but packed with useful information and opportunities for user-generated content. There are publisher disclaimers throughout the site where users interact, just like you’d find with any other media company. Classifieds are free, local news comes via Topix.net (note: your local news is likely being presented on these sites via Topix), a directory, recipes, lots of referrals and links, and the general “feel” of a community site. The difference is that it’s run by a realtor who’s using it to mine for clients. How terribly smart!

A few sites serve communities beyond just a neighborhood, and the company has experimented with aggregating neighborhoods. Some of the content is provided by feeds, but the quality of the sponsor’s marketing is what makes the difference in generating content from residents of the neighborhood.

The price to the sponsor varies and is based on the number (and in some cases, the prices) of homes in the neighborhood being served and the services the sponsor chooses to offer. “On average, our one time setup fee is $1.65 per home,” added Ms. Knight, “and on average our monthly hosting fee is $0.09 per home.” The Connecting Neighbors website lists the following options:

  • A Neighborhood Website that allows residents to connect with one another, read community news, post free classified ads, share pictures, and more.
  • A Neighborhood Newsletter that features information specific to the neighborhood and is emailed to residents each month.
  • A personal Neighborhood Marketing Coach assigned to help announce and promote the program to neighborhood residents.
  • Quickshow multimedia presentations to engage and welcome residents to their Neighborhood Website.
  • MLS data integration (where available) to constantly provide up-to-date real estate information.
  • Relationship Manager feature (where available) for Members to manage all of their communications with their new prospects!

This provides two important lessons for media companies. One, anybody can be a media company today. Any. Body. I have been harping on this for years, but those of us in “professional” media feel we can take our time in exploring niches, when we really can’t. The discovery of a company such as Connecting Neighbors, to me, is like getting to the end of a voyage to plant a flag on some distant land only to discover there’s at least one other flag already there. Two, the people formerly known as the advertisers are spending money that used to go to us in order to bypass (expensive) filters and speak directly to potential customers, something about which I have also written in the past.

We may look at these sites and feel a sense of well being, because they’re not “up to our standards” or they don’t carry “a trusted brand,” but in the end it’s all about meeting information needs. Connecting Neighbors does that well, and the users (a.k.a. the people formerly known as the audience) could give a hoot if it’s sponsored by a realtor or not. Moreover, if a media company did this, they’d likely look to realtors, among others, to sponsor them the moment they were launched.

The message here is loud and clear: certain well-funded advertisers don’t need us anymore.

(NOTE: Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel client newsletter)

Chris Anderson’s “Vanishing Point theory of news”

The Long Tail guru has an interesting way of stating a reality that those of us in the news business have known for a long time, that up close and personal “news” has value far beyond what journalists tag as important. This discussion is important as everybody scrambles for the “hyperlocal” market.

For instance, the news that my daughter got a scraped knee on the playground today means more to me than a car bombing in Kandahar.

Am I proud of this? No. But it’s true. And it explains why I’ve stopped listening to NPR (I can’t think of a worse way to wake up than to a news report that begins with the words “Another bombing in Baghdad…” when I know that one of the main reasons for the attack was to get covered by the international media in the first place. Plus it no longer counts as news to me.)

I call this the Vanishing Point theory of news.

There’s nothing new about this (it’s a truism of the American newsroom that Paris, Texas counts for more than Paris, France), but it bears repeating. The future of media is to stop boring us with news that doesn’t relate to our lives. I’ll start reading my “local” newspaper again when it covers my block.

This is why the “news” on mySpace is more compelling to young people than the news from 30-Rock, and it’s a cornerstone of Media 2.0. The disruption is all about people, folks, informed, empowered and enabled people who are taking matters into their own hands, not just because they can, but because they reject the manipulation that so often passes as “real” news. This is not to say that we are culturally irrelevant, but we need to find ways to relate what we know to the people at home and not just in our marketing.

To be the purveyor of hyperlocal news is a good thing, but our mission is more than simply providing information to smaller masses based on geography. Type of information that goes there is important, but our job is also about relating broader picture matters to the smaller groups as well.

It’s about the database, baby

Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News in Dallas, offers terrific advice in an article in Online Journalism Review for those planning hyperlocal plays. I like this graph:

On the local level at least, data is what drives visitors. Stories bring additional pageviews, but more than 75% of our traffic is data — interactive calendar listings, band profiles, restaurant listings, political campaign contributions, drink specials and the like. Most of our listings aren’t found on the other local city guides — something for both traditional media and upstarts alike to think about. We’re always gratified when people dig deep into stories or blogs, but we know that the reason most people come in the door is to find out where to go and what to do. It’s our job to compel them to stay longer with good narrative content.

We’re in the database business these days if we’re in local media, and I find this is something most companies don’t realize. Local database creation and management is where it’s at for the reasonable future. Like Mike suggests, our act may be spectacular, but data is what gets people in the tent.