Connecting in rural America

A Democratic Party exile lays out a strategy that might work for news, as well as candidates.

It had a familiar ring — a frustrated advocate decrying the lack of:

  • a hyper-local, comprehensive strategy, including
  • attention to issues such as local health care and the condition of roads and bridges, conveyed through
  • in-person contact with the community, to “talk to people about these things.”

It sounded like a prescription for solid daily news coverage, the kind that might help a local newspaper thrive.

But the man urging that those needs be addressed is not a newspaper publisher. His name is Matt Barron. He’s a resident of Williamsburg, Mass., who has left the Democratic Party after 41 years of active membership because, he says, party leadership refuses to hear and act on the obvious — that it has lost and will continue to lose rural voters if it doesn’t mend its ways.

I read about Barron this morning in the online edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass. And as I did, I wondered whether the newspaper industry ought to pay him heed. Many have wondered whether the press has lost its audience, particularly in red state America.

“Barron noted that when politicians say ‘go to my website for information or assistance,’ it does two things. First, it prevents many rural voters from getting that information as they have no internet access. Secondly, it reveals a complete lack of understanding of one of the biggest issues in rural areas today — the unavailability of broadband.”  “Democratic Party leader Matt Barron leaves party over neglect of rural areas”

Hmm. We talk about news business models on this blog. All good business models begin with an assessment of who one’s customers are. In the case of a newspaper, that assessment needs to include how easily they can access whatever platforms the newspaper is using — print, website, mobile phone.

Barron touts the use of rural radio and newspaper ads as an inexpensive and effective method of reaching constituents. Perhaps if more candidates would buy display ads, local newspapers would be healthier. But one wonders, too, whether they would be healthier if they devoted more cash to basic, local news coverage.

A redesign for you

Three updates and a design note for readers

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)

Fish or Foul?

Newspaper publishers care about what they print — and pay a price for it.

Thus far in our discussion of newspaper business models, we’ve posited that being the gatekeeper and owning one’s distribution system is desirable, for two reasons.

1) It guarantees that the publisher has control over the news product and can ensure it’s of sufficient quality to fulfill its public service role.

2) It enables the publisher to wring every cent of profit from the distribution of the news product and the sale of ad space, which subsidizes the cost center that is the newsroom.

What would happen if news publishers no longer cared about the first reason, and didn’t have to subsidize any newsroom at all? Certainly seems like a lucrative model.

Are we watching it happen? Not by traditional newspaper publishers, but by new companies playing a mutated form of the traditional role?

Which brings us to the recounting of a robust discussion your host recently had with a dear friend, a former ad director of a daily newspaper, now retired.

In the comfort of his living room, over glasses of wine shared with he and his wife (who remained tactfully quiet and admirably pleasant), the question of whether or not Facebook and Google are publishers boiled over.

I argued that they are; my friend contended that they are not.

The companies are a new form of business, my friend said, a glorified pipe through which content generated by others passes, with a certain amount of revenue, of course, staying behind to build more pipe and fatten the wallets of its owners.

I countered that, since their algorithms dictate which ads and content their servers send out, Google and Facebook are exercising discretion and are therefore acting as publishers, not just pipes.

It’s nary impossible to build a sustainable business model if you don’t understand the marketplace and the nature of your potential competitors. So let’s noodle on here.

A newspaper printing press and its circulation department are akin to the internet service providers (ISPs) that computers use to communicate around the world. Both the press and circulation system and an ISP act as a conduit, a smooth-bore pipe.

The staff of the newspaper, though, determines every bit of news and advertising that does, or does not, go through that pipe. Newspaper publishers exercise discretion.

Google and Facebook do too — your news feed doesn’t just happen, you know — algorithms (which are just coded forms of human logic) create your feed.

Newspaper publishers accept responsibility for what they publish. Google and Facebook don’t even describe themselves using that term.  They are neither fish nor fowl, neither a smooth-bore conduit nor a publisher wholly responsible for the content their servers send out.

We may cry  “Foul!” but theirs is a business model with which we must now compete — or use to our advantage.

UPDATE (02/16/2017)

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.

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.

Ads at any cost?

Can algorithms be trusted to fill ad space with discretion?

Warning: This post is going to begin in one place and wind up in another. Hang onto your hat!

An opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times, “How to destroy the business model of Breitbart and Fake News,” details the work of a Twitter group called the Sleeping Giants.

The group is building one dam after another in the river of online ad revenue that flows to Breitbart News.

Advertisers may not know their digital ads are appearing on the site, for the ads are placed by an automated ad-serving process. The Sleeping Giants enlighten the advertisers, by sending them screenshots of their ads as they appeared, right next to Breitbart content.

The last thing an advertiser wants from a marketing campaign is for the ads to appear with content inconsistent with the company’s brand, confusing or even alienating the very consumers the campaign is designed to attract.

“The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys,” says the Times piece.

Any business that depends on ad revenue to survive is in trouble when that revenue dries up because advertisers walk away. Will Breitbart’s business model be weakened to the breaking point? We’ll see.

But wait. What happens when the problem runs the other way? (Yes, here’s that turn we warned you about. Stick with us!)

What happens when a website yields its ad-space inventory to a remote, automated ad-serving vendor, and then discovers that some of the ads running on its pages are contrary to everything the website stands for?

One of my daily pleasures is to read the online version of an award-winning New England newspaper, a leading light in traditional journalism circles. I was floored one morning when I saw, next to an excellent story I was reading to the bottom, an ad that shouted, “Should Trump Put Hillary in Jail?” Yellow letters over an unflattering headshot of Clinton proclaimed her “GUILTY!”

Curious, I hovered my computer’s cursor over the ad and read the line of code at the bottom of the browser window. The ad was served up by Google Ad Services. I clicked on it and landed on a self-proclaimed news site that was, if not a purveyor of fake news, certainly a slinger of clickbait headlines and one-sided stories.

I wondered whether the paper I’d originally been reading was aware it had sent me to a news site that was the antithesis of traditional journalism.

So.

We’ve jumped from the role of the befuddled advertiser into the role of the befuddled publisher. Still with us? Sweet.

Here’s the business model question: Are all ads worth running?

If a news business model restricts ads to those served up by the paper itself (as in the old days), then the paper maintains control.

If a news business model depends on revenue from remote ad-serving processes and vendors, it must rely on whatever rules the vendors allow one to impose, as well as the vendors’ interpretation of those rules.

That seems to be a riskier proposition, all the way around.

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.”

For Jon

One editor’s notes, shared

Tonight I am violating two rules. I’ve written and will post these words after imbibing two small glasses of red wine (that’s the no-alcohol rule I’m breaking), and I’m going to get a bit personal (that’s the let’s-keep-it-professional rule being ripped asunder).

Today, this night, December 2, 2016, my husband, Jonathan Kellogg, would have turned 70. It was not to be. He died without warning on August 17, 2015.

Last night and again tonight, for comfort, I read some of the bits and pieces of his life’s work, papers gleaned from our attic archives last winter. They are relevant to this blog, these bits and pieces. He didn’t originate all of them; he kept them to remind himself of why he did what he did, of the standards he worked so hard to sustain during his lifetime as an Associated Press reporter, editor and bureau chief, and as a newspaper managing editor and executive editor.

The rest of this post is composed of some of those bits and pieces.

First, one that he wrote:

“What will keep newspapers successful … is the ability to find and deliver information that readers truly need in a format that is accessible and clear. … Failing newspapers will content themselves with simply reporting events. The successful newspaper will be loaded with stories that surprise readers with information and insight. It will satisfy readers’ curiosity about themselves and their world. It will be a newspaper that readers can’t afford to miss.

And now, other bits that he kept, most of uncertain origin:


People who own stocks, read stock pages. People who live in a community, own stock in the community. They read the newspaper to determine how their stock is doing. The function of the newspaper is to get as much of that day’s news as possible into the paper.


Editors can only respond. They cannot command a story.


People are a long-term investment. Treat them that way. Evaluate the work, not the worker. Show the worker how his habits and attitudes relate to the work.


On interviewing:

  • Do your homework — know the right questions.
  • Listen — get the answers right.

On writing: Two functions — entertain and inform. Writing that fails either test loses readers or wastes their time.


Love the reader. Write stories that mean something to the reader.


Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian who wrote “Democracy in America,” wrote of newspapers: To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization.”


Indianapolis is the same distance from Washington, D.C., as Chernobyl is from Moscow. Yet the people of the Soviet Union knew nothing and did not even begin to get information until the cloud drifted over a foreign country. Can you imagine the Canadians telling us about a nuclear power accident in Indianapolis?


Secrecy is the hallmark of totalitarian government. The Soviets allow secret arrest, secret trial and secret imprisonment. Any, I repeat, any, movement in that direction strikes at the very foundation of a free society.


Who has the power in society?
The municipality collects taxes.
The sheriff can jail you.
The state can execute you.
The president can send you to war.

The press can tell you the truth about these powers.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment guarantees the right to publish. It does not include the right to be free from criticism or from paying a price of irresponsibility.


Article 22 of the N.H. Constitution: “Free speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state: They ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.”

Inviolable: to secure from violation; secure from assault or trespass.


Article 15 of the N.H. Constitution (in part): “No subject shall be arrested, imprisoned, despoiled, or deprived of his property, immunities, or privileges, put out of the protection of the law, exiled or deprived of his life, liberty, or estate, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.”

The key phrase is “judgment of his peers.” Arrests must be made public, detention that could lead to any court action or deprivation must be made public. It’s not the right of the press, but the right of the public. It is the media that preserves this right by informing the public of decisions of government and actions of police.


Frank Batten, chairman of the board of Associated Press directors and president of Landmark Communications, explaining the AP policy on member assessments, Feb. 9, 1984:

“The AP has been — and remains — the backbone of the information system of this nation and a large part of the world. The AP has a tradition of honesty and objectivity and of dedication to member service. In a world of glitter, the AP keeps its eye on substance, reliability and dependability. It evokes loyalty and devotion from hundreds of journalists and technicians we have never met.

“Some go in harm’s way. Some work in cramped and disagreeable places. All of them keep the watch — keep it so faithfully and surely that we might tend to forget their contribution to our newspapers and to the concept of a free press and an informed public

“I say these few things about the AP because without them the rest of the message this morning is hollow, a complex recitation about money that might seem remote from your real interests. I have said them so that we might all remember why we are here.”


And lastly, because, in addition to being a very serious newsman, my husband loved what he did, loved life and loved to laugh, here’s one more bit, Jack Germond’s story on why things are not always as they appear:

An accountant woke up early one morning dreaming of a huge number five. He was startled because he was a man who liked the ponies and often was looking for signs after which to fashion bets.

He looked at the clock; it said 5:55.
As he left the house, he checked the temperature; it was 55 degrees.
When he got in his car, the odometer read 55,555.
He drove to an auditing assignment at 555 Park Avenue.
The balance sheet he did for his client came out solid fives across the bottom.

He could stand it no longer. He grabbed a cab and said, “Take me to Belmont!” He went to the $50 window and bought five win tickets on the number five horse in the fifth race.

 The horse came in fifth.