(Cross-posted from my Tumblr.)
I can see a lot of folks are coming here because they’re searching for Bruce Nolan. I mention Bruce down below — he taught me a ton when I was a kid, and I’m grateful to him — but I suspect you’re looking for the audio of Bruce’s passionate, angry, broken-hearted speech about the changes at the Times-Picayune. You can find that here, via David Carr in the New York Times. You should hear it — everyone in journalism should. After you do, I hope you’ll come back and read this.
This fall, the New Orleans Times-Picayune will cease publishing print papers daily and move to three print days a week, stepping up 24-7 operations on its web site. According to the New York Times’ David Carr, editor Jim Amoss will leave once the transition is complete, along with two managing editors. There will be staff cuts, size to be determined, at a paper that’s already seen its newsroom shrink in the aftermath of Katrina.
Which makes this a sad day for newspapers, and for me personally.
I’ll get the me stuff out of the way first: My first professional journalism job was at the Times-Picayune as a summer intern in 1989, and I may possibly have been the greenest intern in the history of green interns — not to mention one of the most mouthy, arrogant and generally obnoxious.
I was redeemed, to the extent that was possible, by attention and instruction and firm correction from a lot of folks at the Times-Picayune: Besides Jim, who took a chance on me, there were Peter Kovacs, Bruce Nolan, Jed Horne, Keith Woods, Paul Bartels, Jeannette Hardy, Chris Cooper, John Pope, Jonathan Eig and others I’ve shamefully neglected to mention because of age and time elapsed. Most of all, there was Kris Gilger, my first bureau chief and the kind of mentor every kid should pray to get. Kris was formidable and not to be crossed — I was terrified of her — but she also had your back, no matter what.
My two summers at the Times-Picayune put me on the right road as a journalist, and I’m forever grateful to the folks who pointed the way and taught me to steer. It’s heartbreaking to think of that newsroom being much reduced, particularly in a city whose peculiar institutions need aggressive, tough, full-time watchdogs.
Yet at the same time, I object to the reflexive view among news observers that fewer days in print is the same as the death of the Times-Picayune. That’s unfair to those who must keep the paper going as more of its operations shift to digital, and it’s unwise given the tidal wave of change remaking the news industry.
The signs of trouble for the newspaper industry have been abundantly clear for years. The print business is disappearing, to be replaced by a flock of digital experiments whose most optimistic outcome still guarantees smaller newsrooms. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not, and that’s been obvious for a long time. Yes, I mourn the news about the Picayune. But that isn’t the same as thinking Newhouse is wrong — in broad outline — about what needs to be done.
The question, then, is exactly what Newhouse will do. And that makes me worried all over again. The Times-Picayune was profitable — which doesn’t exempt it from the overall industry’s future, but ought to have argued for less-radical surgery. Instead, that surgery reportedly will follow the procedure Newhouse used in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s a plan I thought was unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic AnnArbor.com felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city. And the disrespect shown for T-P staff, most of whom learned about their paper’s future through the New York Times, is deplorable.
Given all that, I can’t think of any particular reason for optimism that Newhouse will get it right this time. And that’s a double dose of unhappiness.
Some quick thoughts on recent topics making the digital-journalism rounds:
Gawker is changing the template for its sites, and a while back Nick Denton explained the thinking behind the new look. As always with Denton, he makes a lot of very smart points and dresses them up in a fair amount of showmanship.
The foundation of the Gawker redesign is that it’s ditching the traditional reverse-chronological blog design. Now there’s a splash story presented in full on the left and a scrollable series of headlines on the right. Denton notes that “every inside page will hew to the same template as the front page. No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere, he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items.”
In other words, depending on your philosophical bent you could say there will be no home page, every page will be a home page, or both. (The waning importance of home pages is a subject of longstanding interest to me.) I discussed what this means for sports sections in my weekly column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, but the basic lesson is the same for any news organization: Any article can be a window into a site, and in our era of search and social media, the model built around a homepage and navigation is increasingly out of step with the fragmented nature of how we find and read news. As Denton himself notes, “referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the start of the year; and audience spikes appear to be larger than ever before. We can turn more of those drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page.”
It’s hard to imagine this trend reversing as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous, which means all the sweat and pain going into site redesigns is increasingly a misallocated effort. In a funny way, news people are a poor choice to design newspapers: We tend to be news junkies, and as such we have a well-honed understanding of how to navigate a newspaper in physical or digital form. But a lot of casual readers aren’t like us. Their home page is increasingly likely to be Facebook, and they may never see the front page of Gawker or the New York Times or whatever organization is the source of a story.
The reaction to Denton’s explainer was interesting. Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke down the likely effects of the new format on Gawker’s page views, predicting it will lead to a decline in views (because there will be fewer clicks to reach what you want to read) and kill Gawker’s sponsored posts, since the flow of reverse-chron news is marginalized, making it less likely that sponsored posts will be encountered within the flow. “There’s a whopping irony here,” he noted. “Denton was the first person to turn blogging into a large-scale commercial venture: he bet on the potential of the blog medium earlier than anybody else, and to a large degree he’s personally responsible for the reputation that blogs have among the population at large. He then brought on [Chris] Batty to try to sell ads against this strange new reverse-chronological stream of disparate posts. Now, however, it’s Batty who is fighting for what he calls the ‘narrative carrying capacity’ of that reverse-chronological stream: it’s Batty, the ad guy, fighting to preserve what you might call the essence of blog. And it’s Denton, the original Blogfather, who’s aggressively throwing it away.”
And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton started off with a very interesting historical parallel, showing a century-old NYT front page that’s a hopeless jumble of text and fonts, without the cues of modern newspaper design that help us navigate. “This change happened at The Times — and at other newspapers — over a number of decades as designers and editors figured out that readers didn’t want more news, but instead wanted a more concise culling of news,” he writes. “Now we’re starting to see these types of design and editorial changes take place with blogs and Web sites online.”
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Earlier this month, Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton walked an audience at the INMA Transformation of News summit through his blueprint for digital-first newspapers and tackling the necessary organizational and cultural change. I can’t do better than the 140 characters I used to call it out on Twitter, so here it is again: “If someone could only read one thing on changing the future of #newspapers, I’d have them read this.”
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Finally, here’s my take (also from NSJC) on whether the web is changing the rules for how news organizations deal with profanity.
I’m quoted in Dylan Stableford’s very good piece about Demand Media and other so-called content farms over at TheWrap. (There’s some very smart stuff in the comments as well.)
For those who’ve arrived here because of that article, you can read my first post on Demand Media here, and a more-nuanced take looking at articles it supplied to USA Today here. I also did a roundup of posts about content farms here that may be useful for further reading.
Anyway, a few more thoughts.
I don’t think what Demand and its ilk do is “evil” — “unfortunate” is a better word. And my concern isn’t that companies like Demand and Associated Content will drive down writers’ salaries or that the compensation built into their model is “too low,” whatever “too low” means. That’s unfortunate, sure, but it’s just the pitiless economics of supply and demand at work — there would have been some other actor if Demand had never existed. Rather, what bugs me is the quality of the stuff these companies produce, and what it does to search. (See Daniel Roth’s Wired article for a deeper exploration of that.)
Nor does it bug me that content-farm bosses and writers aren’t journalists, which is a charge you’ll find tossed around here and there. First off, a lot of their writers actually are journalists who are trying to get by in extremely trying times for the profession. Second, I think it’s elitist nonsense to say you need some fancy degree or seal of approval to practice journalism. Third, the captains of the news industry don’t exactly have a glittering record when it comes to figuring out their own business.
Demand and AC produce some helpful articles, particularly step-by-step processes and tutorials. I can never remember how to take a screen shot on my Mac, for instance, and inevitably wind up at the same eHow article reminding me how to do it. That’s valuable information that I’m happy to get from them, and that could complement news organizations’ offerings nicely.
My objection is that when you get beyond tutorials and simple how-tos, the quality of the content produced by Demand, AC and others is mostly poor. (That’s my opinion — your mileage may vary of course. Go look at the USA Today travel tips and draw your own conclusions.) Granted, there’s a lot of poor content out there — but content-farm stuff is specifically shaped and molded to game Google and appear higher in search results, which wastes people’s time. And the real problem, as I told Stableford, is that the business model makes it very difficult to produce good content. There just isn’t time to do it profitably.
A commenter on Stableford’s article raised a good question: “Has anyone read copy with an editor’s eye in small- and medium-sized newspapers? With the exception of the NY Times and the Washington Post (the LA Times can’t even compare these days), most of the stories read as first drafts. They’re poorly written and grossly undersourced. The quality of writing and reporting has gone down the toilet.”
Sadly, this is too often true. But I’d say that’s an unfortunate product of years of cost-cutting and an industry in terrible distress — it’s not supposed to be that way. With the economics of Demand and its ilk, though, it’s the logical outcome.
This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.
Once we got done making jokes about the name, one of the more amusing aspects of the iPad’s launch was how many people made up their minds about the product’s worthiness and market fate without the benefit of using one for very long, if at all. The iPad was a closed computing system that was an insult to people’s intelligence, a walled garden appealing to publishers’ retrograde tendencies, a perfect-for-Grandma gift combining an e-reader with a good digital picture frame, and a brilliant new device that would free us from the twin annoyances of peering at smartphones and gazing at desktop monitors. As well as most every other point on that curve. (The New York Times’s David Pogue cleverly squared the circle by running two reviews in one.)
I was as guilty of this as anybody else. Annoyed with the techie grousing about the lack of multitasking, cameras and HDMI ports, I pointed out what I thought such critics were missing: Techies weren’t the intended audience for Apple’s new device. The iPad, I predicted, would let people do at least three things a lot better than current devices: watch a movie, read a book, and casually surf the Web. And those improvements alone would be enough to make it Apple’s new device a hit, since (a) a lot of people like doing those things, and (b) our enchantment with being able to do those things on a smartphone or computer has blinded us to the fact that we can’t do them very well. It’s amazing to be able to watch a movie on a phone or use the web in bed; it would be a lot more amazing if you didn’t have to peer at a screen the size of a deck of cards or leave your legs sweating beneath a laptop’s heat and weight.
After swearing I’d wait for version 2.0 of the iPad, I wound up buying one, and waiting eagerly for it to arrive. (As always seems to happen, the case and the dock arrived first and sat around for a forlorn, purposeless few days.) So after a couple of weeks of using it, how closely does the device fit my preconceptions? Pretty well, for the most part — but with one exception. The thing is, that exception has made me think about apps and publishers’ hopes for them very differently.
I initially treated the iPad like an iPhone that couldn’t make a call — which, thanks to AT&T, is also an excellent description of my actual iPhone. I spent a couple of hours looking for iPad equivalents of my iPhone apps, downloading iPhone apps that didn’t have iPad versions yet, transferring photos and music, and futzing with settings. Then I downloaded a handful of news apps for the iPad — WSJ, New York Times Editors’ Choice, USA Today, AP News, and BBC News. And then I found a comfortable spot on the couch and played around.
As I’d suspected, reading a book and watching video was very different than on my iPhone, laptop, or desktop. Ebooks were finally an intimate experience like reading physical books. Videos felt big and bright. Games were a joy — gathering my impressions was delayed by my son’s love of Flight Control HD and Sparkle HD. Battery life is impressive — I had to train myself to always keep tabs on my iPhone’s battery indicator, but the iPad does fine if it’s plugged in every few days. Using the iPad is generally a comfortable, pleasurable experience — a good design scaled-up to a useful size — and using mine quickly became part of my daily routine.
What I hadn’t considered was the browser. We’re used to subconsciously pausing to twiddle our thumbs after visiting a web page, because we’re waiting for it to load. But web browsing on the iPad is startlingly fast. And the type in particular looks great. I’d figured I’d spend some time using my iPad to lazily surf when I didn’t feel like getting up and using a laptop. But I found myself doing that more than anything else.
Which brings us to the first round of news apps. As others have noted, some are good and some aren’t — though all deserve to be assessed as the early-stage experiments they are. I think USA Today did the best job bringing its aesthetic to the Web — I like the clever navigational trick of using its section banner to switch between News, Money, Sports, and Life. (But where’s Technology?) The Times’ photos look beautiful, and the navigation feels intuitive, but the content is so paltry that the entire app feels like a demo for something still in the works. As a Wall Street Journal veteran, I appreciated WSJ’s wink to tradition by billing the app as the paper’s six-star edition, but the navigation borders on incomprehensible.
Some of the confusion is to be expected — it will take a while for standards to emerge that utilize the iPad’s new vocabulary of swiping, pinching and expanding views. And apps will get richer and deeper.
But I keep coming back to the browser.
After about a week of using the iPad, I started deleting apps, because the websites themselves were perfectly adequate. This is the reverse experience of the iPhone. On the iPhone, the browser was used only in emergencies, and apps ruled. On the iPad, at least for now, the opposite is true — the browser is superb, and renders many apps superfluous.
That complicates things for news organizations. Many have already put too much faith in the idea that being able to charge for apps will reinvigorate their financial prospects. Now, they have to confront the reality that their apps may compete with their own websites — and right now the apps don’t win that competition.
Yesterday morning, like most everybody else, I sat down to read James Fallows’ Atlantic cover story on Google and the news industry. When I saw it was six screens long, I sighed. Then I reminded myself, and reached for my iPad. As I walked to the couch, I looked for an app from The Atlantic, mostly out of duty. There wasn’t one. It didn’t matter.