A redesign for you

Three updates and a design note for readers

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Gadzukes, a lot is happening out there. Here, too.

The SaveMyDaily site has been reorganized. With the post count approaching 50, it was time to make the blog easier to read. Please check out the “Pick a Topic” list in the site margin. If your time or interest is limited, click on a subject to see just the pertinent posts. Your humble host hopes the feature will help focus our efforts toward a successful end.

As for doings elsewhere, here are updates to posts previously published.

Fish or Foul? (Newspaper publishers care about what they print — and pay a price for it.): In a Dec. 15, 2017, post on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company’s network is more than an elaborate maze of digital plumbing:

“Facebook is a new kind of platform different from anything before it. I think of Facebook as a technology company, but I recognize we have a greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through. While we don’t write the news stories you read and share, we also recognize we’re more than just a distributor of news. We’re a new kind of platform for public discourse — and that means we have a new kind of responsibility to enable people to have the most meaningful conversations, and to build a space where people can be informed.

“With any changes we make, we must fight to give all people a voice and resist the path of becoming arbiters of truth ourselves. I believe we can build a more informed community and uphold these principles.”Mark Zuckerberg

For more on the steps Facebook is taking to do that, take a look at the company’s “News Feed FYI: Addressing Hoaxes and Fake News.”

Making it clear (Better online news design might regain reader trust.): In “So, is it news, opinion or advertising?,” Michelle Morgante, managing editor of The Merced Sun-Star, points out that readers often don’t know the difference between the three. If online news sites do label every piece with a descriptive design element (NEWS, OPINION, etc.), it might be wise to include a link that explains the difference between them — or a link to Morgante’s column.

Discriminating distribution (Should the distribution method dictate the news content?): The Nieman Lab reports that The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news outlet, has tailored its cop shop policy in recognition of the reach and persistence of internet news. Paul Bass, the paper’s editor and founder is quoted as saying, “With the advent of the Internet, what’s online becomes people’s main or only source of news. People’s reputations are at stake, and often the arrest itself and not the outcome is what is known about them.” (“No mugshot exploitation here: The New Haven Independent aims to respect the reputations of those arrested in the community it covers” —Neiman Lab)

Making it clear

Better online news design might regain reader trust.

Hello. What do you want to read today?

postbuttons-01-31-17

What would happen if every online newspaper had a home page that looked like this?

What if, when you clicked the news button, the next page only displayed news stories?

What if, when you clicked on a news story, the “NEWS” label was repeated top and bottom, so that, even if the story was a 10,000-word epic, or even if you arrived through a side door (say, a Facebook link), you knew what you were reading?

What if every page had the same three buttons on the right margin, offering a constant option to switch from news to analysis to opinion?

What would that sort of a design do? Well, perhaps:

  • reporters and editors would have to identify each piece of content as they prepare it for publication (a useful exercise, to be sure);
  • each reader would have to make a conscious decision—facts, analysis or opinion;
  • ergo, opportunities for confusing the three, particularly facts and opinion, would be reduced;
  • ergo, our readers might learn to trust us again.

The design of print newspapers evolved over years and worked quite well. Only news appeared on the front page. Opinion only appeared on the editorial and op-ed pages. Columns and analytical pieces were labeled as such.

Today, the front page (i.e., the home page) contains every kind of content the paper has. It’s quite easy to begin reading an opinion piece without knowing that’s what you’ve done. And if you don’t realize it’s an opinion piece, you will assuredly detect a point of view. And if you detect the point of view that was deliberately inserted into the piece, and you don’t realize it was deliberately done because — HEY! IT’S AN OPINION PIECE! — you might quite naturally conclude that the publication is slanted.  All of it. News, too.

No matter what business models we come up with, if readers don’t trust us, they won’t read our products. A little more clarity could help.

UPDATE (02/16/2017)

In “So, is it news, opinion or advertising?,” Michelle Morgante, managing editor of The Merced Sun-Star, points out that readers often don’t know the difference between the three. If online news sites do label every piece with a descriptive design element (NEWS, OPINION, etc.), it might be wise to include a link that explains the difference between them — or a link to Morgante’s column.

Reconnecting

When a community stops subscribing, the ties that bind may break.

I was standing in the barn doorway the other evening, talking to the farm’s manager. A cold wind was pulling blond tendrils from her ponytail, whipping them across her face as we relaxed and talked about horses, until the beauty of the moment caught my attention.

“What a gorgeous sky,” I said, looking west. The manager turned and looked up at the crescent moon. A planet sparkled, just to the left. The fresh wind on our faces, we began to guess the planet’s identity.

“I used to get the Kent County News,” the manager said, referring to the local weekly. One of her former teachers, she went on, wrote a column for the paper, telling everyone what they would be seeing in the night sky. She missed reading the column. She missed reading the paper. “I feel disconnected,” she said.

The Kent County News is still published here. But, as with many in the community, the barn manager’s life has become complicated and busy. Her subscription has lapsed.

“WHEN men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Not so today. Today, we have a president who is using a social media platform, Twitter, to drop his 140-character thoughts into the minds of millions of people at the same moment.

He does not control the distribution channel. He does not control Twitter. If our president-elect were to become a true despot, a danger to our nation, would the managers of Twitter shut him down?*

Ah, but then what if he bought a majority interest in Twitter — what if he did own the distribution channel?

Our traditional newspaper business model, literally, puts everyone on the same page, enabling all readers within a given community to share a common base of knowledge.

Another benefit of the original model, though, and one that’s sorely lacking now, is that it was robust enough to finance standalone monopoly newspapers, individual businesses, successful one-town, one-city, one-region papers.

It is the existence of thousands of independently owned and operated newspapers that helped keep our democracy strong up until now. A Donald Trump would have had to buy ads in every paper in America to try to achieve the reach he now has, for free, on Twitter.

I’ve recently begun asking new acquaintances how they get their news. So far, I’ve asked three. The responses were Twitter, Twitter, and Facebook and Twitter.

It is readily apparent that developing new, sustainable news models won’t be enough. The news product that the models produce must be so good that, as my husband once wrote, readers can’t afford to miss it.

Our task is not one, but two: Build the water tanks and fill them, and then convince the horses to drink. So that we all may be — safely — reconnected with each other and our communities.

*UPDATE:  Well, well, well.  On January 12, The Verge published a story saying that the employees of Twitter have, indeed, discussed the idea of banning Trump’s tweets.  See “Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump.”

Save a day for print

Newspapers inform and entertain by design.

It’s Sunday, and yours truly has taken a break to peruse a small stack of newspapers.

I pay for two online subscriptions, to dailies in Maine and Massachusetts. Yet, whenever I dart into the grocery store for a bag of carrots or a half-gallon of milk, I still find myself swerving to the dark hall just outside the restrooms where a rack of print editions stands against the wall. Depending on the change in my pocket and the weakness of my will, I’ll buy a Washington Post or The New York Times and one or two of the local weeklies, and then grab any of the free circulation publications that look interesting.

I read a story or two as soon as I get home, but invariably I’m called to other pursuits, and the newspapers stack up on top of the bookcase until I return to them, later.

Later came today.

In addition to a briefs box explaining how 403(b) plans work (ah, for financial clarity!) and recommendations about health insurance for overseas travelers (I wish!), the stories I read this morning included:

  • “A 9/11 Parable, Staged for Samaritans” (on reactions of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, to a new show about their generosity as unexpected hosts of the passengers and crews of 38 planes grounded in their town after 9/11), NYT, 11/1/2016;
  • “Absentee votes don’t change outcome” (election results for the local county, including absentee ballots counted on Nov. 10), Record Observer, 11/18/2016;
  • “Weathering the Storm” (the role abortion policy seems to be playing in fetal defects due to the Zika virus, Colombia versus Brazil), NYT, 11/1/2016;
  • “In Defense of the Donkey” (the history, role and fate of donkeys), NYT, 11/1/2016;
  • “For Standing Up, Scorn” (Chobani’s founder faces threats and online taunts for hiring refugees), NYT, 11/1/2016;
  • “Taking the Plunge Into the Podcast Pool” (a description and opinion piece about the Times’ foray into podcasting), NYT, 10/23/16;
  • “A Detailed Political Geography of the U.S.” (a two-page spread showing 2012 presidential election results by zip code), NYT, 11/1/2016;
  • “Go Midwest, Young Hipster” (on the increasing concentration of Democrats in blue states and Republicans in red, as like moves toward like), NYT, 10/23/2016;
  • “PA municipalities begin uphill paddle to reach runoff goals, one stroke at a time” (on steps taken by some of the state’s 700 communities that lie within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to meet stormwater runoff goals), Bay Journal, November 2016;
  • “Can He Have Your Attn:, Please?” (an online entrepreneur’s topical videos drive attention to issues), NYT, 10/23/2016;
  • “Under the Din of the Race Lies a Once and Future Threat: Cyberwarfare,” NYT, 11/7/2016;
  • “How States Moved Toward Stricter Voter ID Laws,” NYT, 11/6/2016;
  • “A Coup Against the Supreme Court” (editorial), 11/7/2016;
  • “Europeans View Obama’s Exit With Mix of Admiration and Regret,” NYT, 11/7/2016.

Fascinating stuff. And what a pleasure to read it in the flesh, as it were.

I’ve always regarded a good newspaper as a college education for a quarter (well now, it’s $1.25 for the local weekly and $2.50 for a weekday edition of the NYT). Sure, everything I read this morning was available online, and more. But it wasn’t half as much fun to read it there; nor, I wager, would I have retained as much from reading it on screen. I may not even have found the stories at all, for serendipity plays a role when one leafs through a printed newspaper. In a recent online piece, Jack Shafer of Politico explained some of the reasons why printed papers work so well:

“… Print—particularly the newspaper—is an amazingly sophisticated technology for showing you what’s important, and showing you a lot of it. The newspaper has refined its user interface for more than two centuries. Incorporated into your daily newspaper’s architecture are the findings from field research conducted in thousands of newspapers over hundreds of millions of editions. Newspaper designers have created a universal grammar of headline size, typeface, place, letter spacing, white space, sections, photography, and illustration that gives readers subtle clues on what and how to read to satisfy their news needs. …”Why Print News Still Rules

(Please consider reading all of  Shafer’s piece — it’s terrific.)

A post we published earlier this month (Time for a reboot) concluded that online distribution must be part of sustainable newspaper business models to come.

Yup, but God willing, online and mobile news will remain only a part of the model. For there are few pleasures as worthwhile and inexpensive as just spending the morning with a printed paper.

The benefit of Capitol coverage

We need newspapers to keep their eyes on our public servants.

You might surmise from my last post (Too much of a good thing, II) that I think our national leaders need only be covered by a few journalists, to avoid cluttering up the internet with similar reports on identical topics.

Au contraire. One of the benefits, in fact, of the traditional newspaper model as it worked in the past was that even dailies from midsize cities could afford to post a reporter in our nation’s capital to cover the state congressional delegation.

A state’s senators and representatives work a long way from home. A full-time reporter working the Capitol Hill beat can keep an eye on them, sending back stories explaining what they’re up to and why.

However. We’ve been seriously slogging away at the topic of saving the news business for two months. Shall we take a break?

Oh, let’s. I invite you, gentle reader, to divert your attention to the C-SPAN video of President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held on April 30.

It’s a hoot.

My favorite joke begins just after minute 11:30, when the president thanks the “award-winning reporters” present — the stars of the movie “Spotlight” — and then goes on to say he’s just joshing the crowd:

“… As you know ‘Spotlight’ is a film, a movie, about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable.

“Best fantasy film since ‘Star Wars’. …” —President Barack Obama

At the end of his speech, the president turns serious, acknowledging the differences he and the press corps have had.

“… But we’ve always shared the same goal, to root our public discourse in the truth. To open the doors of this democracy. To do whatever we can to make our country and our world more free and more just, and I’ve always appreciated the role that you have all played as equal partners in reaching these goals. …

“… At home and abroad journalists … engage in the dogged pursuit of informing citizens and holding leaders accountable and making our government of the people possible. And it’s an enormous responsibility. And I realize it’s an enormous challenge at a time when the economics of the business sometimes incentivize speed over depth and when controversy and conflict are what most immediately attract readers and viewers.

“The good news is there are so many of you that are pushing against those trends. And as a citizen of this great democracy, I am grateful for that. …” —President Barack Obama

The benefit of controlling distribution

Traditional print newspapers own their own circulation pipe.

“Disrupt” seems too benign a word to describe the effect of the internet on the news business. Of the synonyms offered up by Sisson, “shatter” would have my vote.

Say it out loud. Shatter. The word implies an exclamation point, sounds like breaking glass. Shatter. Shattered.

Well. We’re here to pick up the pieces.

Today’s post is about the benefit of owning one’s own distribution pipeline.

In the traditional newspaper model, the paper is distributed from the press to the subscriber by the newspaper’s carrier.

The traditional newspaper model distribution system

The actual distribution system is quite complex — think thousands of papers that must be hand delivered to thousands of homes every single day.

But, if one takes the two-mile-high view, the traditional print model is simple and direct. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That’s the traditional model — and the newspaper owns the line. It can control what the paper looks like, when it arrives and the costs associated with the distribution system, and it can exploit its daily contact with readers by showering them with excellent customer service to keep them happy.

Alas. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Bell points out that this is no longer so.

“… Two significant things have already happened that we have not paid enough attention to:

“First, news publishers have lost control over distribution.

“Social media and platform companies took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to. Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable. …”Facebook is eating the world

The title of Bell’s article refers to Facebook, but to illustrate her point, we’ll use Google News, because we discussed it in an earlier post (see The new gatekeepers).

One version of the Internet distribution system

1-Google News crawler is sent to paper’s web server to search for news. 2-Crawler returns with news links for Google News search engine. 3-Reader clicks on browser bookmark for news.google.com; fetch command sent to Google. 4-Google News server sends Google News home page (with search box). 5-Reader types in search term; fetch command sent back. 6-Google News algorithm spins, search results are sent back to reader. 7-Reader clicks on headline, sending fetch command to newspaper server for story. 8-Newspaper server sends story to reader’s computer.

All the pipes are owned by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The Google News search algorithm is a series of computerized decisions that only Google controls. How the news appears when it’s delivered is subject to the browser settings on the reader’s equipment and on that equipment’s capabilities.

And that’s a vastly simplified version of what’s happening.

(At least, I think it’s what’s happening. If you know better, please comment.)

The benefit of peer associations

Regional and national organizations encourage high newsroom standards.

It happened over 20 years ago in the elevator of the Gannett Building, then the headquarters of The Portland (Maine) Newspapers.

As we reached the newsroom floor and the doors opened, my editor, Bill Nemitz, and his boss told me that I’d won the daily analysis category of the Maine Press Association Better Newspaper Contest, for a series I’d written on the state of the city’s waterfront.

I jumped for joy. Literally.

Journalists may seem a tough lot, loners who ruthlessly cover their beats, impervious to criticism, unfettered by fear.

Perhaps a few are, by many are not. Many, in fact, are full of self-doubt, constantly wondering whether they’ve asked enough questions, drawn the correct conclusions and explained it all with clarity and grace and verve. Could they have done it better? Did they do it well enough?

Which is why, when a journalist’s peers applaud a particular piece of work, the satisfaction is profoundly felt.

Traditional newspapers support state and/or regional press associations. Enlightened publishers allow reporters and editors to volunteer company time to help lead the associations, and the papers also pay the tab for contest entry fees and the travel expenses incurred to attend meetings.

Why? Because the associations provide continuing education that raises newsroom performance while reducing libel and other risks.

Typically (at least in New England (I confess I’m not familiar with practices elsewhere), association meetings include presentations about stories gone wrong, ethics seminars and training sessions on the basics: interviewing, writing, editing. Hard questions are asked, fears are expressed. Many learn something new. Most are comforted by the apparent fact that they are not alone.

Reporters and editors return to the daily grind with a new understanding of how to do what they do — better.

I was reminded of this benefit by emails I received this week. The New England Newspaper & Press Association (NENPA) sent a link to its latest e-Bulletin. The New England Society of Newspaper Editors (NESNE) sent an invitation to its 2016 Awards Ceremony. Good examples, both of them, of the opportunities provided by peer association in the newspaper business.