Category Archives: Media

Numbers

From a recent issue of The Week comes two interesting stats:

Just 30 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are eligible to become soldiers, according to the US Army. The remaining 70 percent of young people are either too obese or are disqualified because they have a criminal history or didn’t finish high school. – Stars and Stripes

From 2000 to 2013, advertising revenue for America’s newspapers fell $40 billion — from $63.5 billion to $23 billion, according to a new report by the Brookings Foundation. At the same time, Google’s ad revenue has soared to $57.9 billion. – The Atlantic.com

Times, they are a changin’.

Everything Old is New Again

A local news station just ran a story about people being freaked out by something they got in the mail. That something was a direct mail promotion from a car dealer that consisted of a fake news item with a “personalized” post-it note on it saying “Check it out” and signed J. Here’s the deal: that direct mail tactic has been around at least since the mid-90s and I know that because I actually worked on one of those campaigns for a publishing company back then. Heck, we stole the idea from a magazine publisher and I’m pretty sure every human in America received a mailer like that from one company or another around that time.

I’m not sure what irks me more about this story; the lame local take on ‘Rossen Reports’ style of TV news which is itself the dog crap on the bottom of the journalism shoe, or the fact that I’m getting long enough in the tooth that I can remember marketing tactics that are so old that the whippersnappers think it’s something new.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isSlim=1

The Importance of Trust

If you want to know why it’s important that we have  strong, trustworthy government and media in our society then all you need to do is look at the developing ebola situation.

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last six months you’ve seen news about the growing ebola epidemic in Africa and the worldwide angst that has ensued as cased have popped up in Europe and the U.S. Here in America the government – the Center for Disease Control in particular – is under intense pressure and scrutiny after they bumbled in their initial response to the first U.S. case in Dallas. Unfortunately those early mistakes have created a scenario in which people who were already skeptical of the government’s competency will now disregard anything the authorities say about the disease. They’ll also be susceptible to overreacting to suppositions or improbable outcomes ginned up by media outlets desperate for their attention. Here’s an example from Fox & Friends:

http://video.foxnews.com/v/3840172448001/purdue-professor-says-ebola-primed-to-go-airborne/?playlist_id=930909787001#sp=show-clips

So while the story isn’t totally irresponsible in that the interviewee and the Fox on air talent repeatedly say that nothing currently indicates the disease can be transmitted through the air, they also say repeatedly that at some point the virus could mutate and become transmittable by air. While the interviewee couldn’t put a number on the probability he also couldn’t call it a zero probability.

You can guess what happens next. People who will look for any reason to discount the government because it’s led by their arch-nemesis President Obama, and that would be the vast majority of Fox’s audience, take to their social media accounts and start sharing the story and saying things like, “We knew that Obama/the CDC was lying about this to keep us from panicking” or “The CDC is so incompetent that they didn’t know that ebola could go airborne.” What makes it even worse is that the clip that Fox & Friends put on their Facebook page is a 22 second excerpt that includes only the pieces of the interview where the expert says it’s possible for the virus to go airborne. Here’s a link to it.

In my mind that’s just plain irresponsible. They have to know full and well that people will be sharing that clip, that it will spread quickly with their viewers, and it will play into their audience’s preconceived notions about the Obama administration and the federal government. That’s par for the course with just about any topic these days, but it’s especially bad when you’re talking about a public health situation.

Back to the government’s side of this equation. They admit they bungled the initial response to this situation. That’s good, because while people might be unhappy, critical, calling for someone’s head to roll, etc. they will at least be working under the assumption that the authorities are being straight with them. Unfortunately the government has not always been straight with the public (think Watergate or any of the other “gates” that have happened over the last 40 years) so there exists a baseline of distrust in the American public that the media outlets exploit to appeal to their audiences. In other words, no matter how transparent the CDC is on this they will have a very hard time getting anyone to trust them. Just take a look at Matt Lauer’s interview with the head of the Department of Health and Human Services to see how even morning TV shows are disinclined to accept the government’s word at face value:

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32545640

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The really tragic part about all of this is that the public trust has been exploited  to the point that when the American public is confronted by a true crisis they won’t know who to trust.  How will they be able to discern a legitimate threat from a minimal threat that’s been hyped by various media outlets to discredit their favorite target? Hopefully we’ll never have to find out.

Who To Trust

One of the real problems we have in the Information Era is that so much information is just, well, wrong. Back in the pre-Internet dark ages we used to be able to easily identify the folks who distributed craziness as news, and just as importantly, the people who accepted that craziness at face value. We simply looked around us while in line at the grocery store and if we saw someone reading the National Enquirer, or one of the other tabloids, and he wasn’t laughing then we knew that was someone who shouldn’t be trusted to walk and chew gum simultaneously. Now things have gotten a little more complicated.

Case in point is how a blogger/nut-job could post a completely unfounded story related to the Ferguson, MO protests and in short order it morphed into a story on a national “news” network (Fox):

In short order Hoft’s story spread throughout the right-wing blogosphere. The right-wing media machine was cranking up. Early in the afternoon of Aug. 19, the right-wing libertarian site Before It’s News cited Mark Dice’s YouTube report, which in turn cited Hoft’s story…

Soon the story had been picked up by pretty much all of the right-wing noise machine, including Matt Drudge, Breitbart, Right Wing News, the Washington Times and the New York Post.

Now that the story had broken into the wild and had been reported by numerous sources — all citing Jim Hoft’s original report as well as each other — Fox News decided it had enough cover to report on Hoft’s bogus story.

They ran the story every half-hour with a flashing “ALERT ALERT” image at the bottom of the screen and cited , yep, Jim Hoft’s report.

Say what you will about the “mainstream media” at least back in the day there was an effort made to be a reputable news source and to prove to readers/viewers/listeners that the news being reported was accurate and had been confirmed by multiple primary sources. There was actually angst about using unnamed sources, and it was done only when absolutely necessary. Were the news outlets perfect? No, but for the most part you could expect that behind whatever editorial slant an outlet might have they were at least supported by verifiable facts. Unfortunately those days seem to be gone.

This is not just a national story. Right here in the Piedmont Triad there’s an increasing level of concern about one local newspaper’s lack of diligence in policing its Letters to the Editor for at least a modicum of accuracy, and quite frankly the quickening demise of local newspapers is more frightening than anything because they have traditionally been the only source of coverage of local governments. Without them who’s going to be the Fourth Estate?

All this brings to mind something my kids learned when they were doing research projects in school. Times had changed from when I was in school. In my day we had to go to the library to review books, encyclopedias, magazines and articles on microfiche (if you’re under the age of 35 look that up and be amazed) for our research. You could be pretty confident your sources were solid because a librarian had vetted those materials, but still we were taught to use multiple sources to support our thesis. Then the internet happened and all of the sudden kids had the ability to do research from the comfort of their own homes, but without the protection of a librarian vetting their sources. So guess what? A big part of their lesson was in learning how to identify good sources of information, and subsequent to that, verifying that information by finding multiple sources. I’m thinking that should become a required course of study in our society, because without it our populace will be led around by its noses by a bunch of charlatans. It’s already happening and it will only get worse.

 

The Impact of Editing

I get the print version of three daily newspapers, mostly because I’ve been doing it for so long that my morning coffee would feel weird without them, but also because I like the way I read the print version versus online. Something about the ability to skim headlines, the way the layout of the paper causes my eyes to move from item to item, I find to be a better experience than the digital version. That’s why I was reading the print version of the Wall Street Journal this morning and came across an interview with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Chancellor Dr. Carol Folt. In it she came across to me as a little too PR-y, skillfully responding to questions with what I call “mush-mouth” replies. I thought I’d send the article to some journalist/ex-journalist friends to get their reaction, but when I pulled up the online version of the article I noticed some small differences between it and the print version that altered my opinion.

Here’s an example of one Q&A that was edited down for the print version. First the print version:

WSJ: Does the tension between athletics and academics need to be addressed at all schools?

Dr. Folt: People want to know if you can have big-time athletics and education, and if students that participate in athletics can still be considered credible students. That is the broader question.

If you look at the revenue sports [like football and basketball], I think something like 95% of students do not go on to become professional athletes. Even if you go on and play in the NFL, you’re going to spend most of your life not as an active football player. We are preparing students for a lifetime career. 

That’s why the reforms [in academic advising] could help everybody. We could do a better job in our advising, do a better job in helping them be successful in developing throughout their career.

Now the digital version:

WSJ: Does the tension between athletics and academics need to be addressed at all schools?

Dr. Folt: People want to know if you can have big-time athletics and education, and if students that participate in athletics can still be considered credible students. That is the broader question.

If you look at the revenue sports [like football and basketball], I think something like 95% of students do not go on to become professional athletes. Even if you go on and play in the NFL, you’re going to spend most of your life not as an active football player. We are preparing students for a lifetime career. To the student who comes in fencing and wants to go to the Olympics, we can say ‘Great, but what do you want to be [after]?’ That’s the tension.

That’s why the reforms [in academic advising] could help everybody. We could do a better job in our advising, do a better job in helping them be successful in developing throughout their career.

The two sentences that are in bold type were edited out for the print version. To me they didn’t really change the substance of her answer, but they did serve to add some context and that second sentence, “That’s the tension” to me was particularly important because without it she almost seems to be dancing around the question. It’s a minor thing, but boy did it highlight to me the impact that what is, or is not, included in a story can truly change the reader’s perception.

Information is Power, Sharing it is Trust

“Information is power. When I have it and won’t give it to you, it signals that I don’t trust you to know what to do with it. In turn, it erodes your trust in me.” John Robinson

The quote above is from an excellent blog post by John Robinson that argues for more transparency from our government. It’s not long and it’s worth the couple of minutes it will take you to read it.

News and Record’s Weak Pricing Logic

The Greensboro News & Record announced a new digital subscription model that its editor explained in a front page piece of today’s paper. After explaining that all 7-day print subscribers will get digital access for free he described the digital subscription model:

After a special introductory period with rates as low as $9.99 per month, a digital-only subscription will cost slightly more than a seven-day print subscription.

The reason for that variance? A print subscription permits us to subsidize the cost of content by providing access to your home or business for preprinted advertising circulars. A digital-only subscription lacks that advertising subsidy.

Readers who have no subscription may view up to 20 articles or photo galleries every 30 days at no charge. There is no limit on viewing selected content, such as many wire service stories and classified ads.

Here’s the thing: consumers don’t give a sh** why you’re pricing your digital subscription at whatever level it’s priced, they only care that the product is worth the price. What matters to them is whether or not they are getting bang for their buck. Is the content that the N&R is producing worth the price of admission? If so then people will gladly pay it, if not then they’ll find what they need elsewhere or just go without.

I’m willing to bet that part of the thinking is that people will just decide to get the print subscription, and thus opt in to the advertising subsidy, if they price the digital-only higher than the print+ option. That’s logical in a way, but ignores the reality that they have to produce content that’s compelling enough for people to pay for it whether it’s print or digital. They might think they’ve lost a ton of subscribers because those subscribers believe they can get the N&R’s content at the N&R website, but it’s more likely that they lost subscribers because much of the content readers used to get exclusively from the paper – stuff like syndicated columns, wire reports, classified ads, national news, etc. – is now available from a variety of sources. That means the N&R’s only unique product offering is local news/data/information and the last time I looked they hadn’t expanded their local coverage or deepened their editorial bench, which makes it hard to imagine the product being perceived as worthy of the price they’re asking.

Hype vs Hyperbole

A few weeks back the folks at the Greensboro Coliseum started hinting to the press that they would have a “historic” announcement. What was this historic announcement? That Paul McCartney would play a concert there as part of his US tour this fall. Sure McCartney’s a big act – a huge act to many folks – but is one concert date on one tour really historic?

Compare that with yesterday’s announcement that downtown Greensboro will be getting an 850-seat venue affiliated with House of Blues. Much less hype for something that will have much more impact on Greensboro in the long run.

Some local folks got their panties in a twist when other folks got a little snarky about the McCartney announcement. They took it as a slam on McCartney when really it was an indictment of the over-the-top PR push by the Coliseum folks. There’s a reason people don’t trust marketers/advertisers and the Coliseum folks provided us with a perfect example when the crossed the line from hype to hyperbole.

Back to the Future in Publishing

Dana Blankenhorn makes a good argument for publishers turning back the clock:

Back in the print era, journalism meant organizing and advocating a place, an industry or a lifestyle. It should mean that again.

Newspapers could prove to car dealers that of the X number of people driving past their stores each day, Y% took the newspaper. Magazines could show that of the X number of decision makers in the business Y% took the magazine – they would have names, titles, addresses. Filling out the “qual card” got you the publication for free, while others had to pay for it. And the more important readers got copies without even sending in the qualcard. Consumer publications could survey their readership and prove to people selling to that lifestyle that X percent of their market, with Y amount of buyign power, subscribed to the publication…

Journalism is not a trade, and it's not a profession. It is the creation of markets. It's putting buyers and sellers together, aggregating and organizing both sides so that you have well-informed buyers hitting the buy button, and getting satisfaction from their purchases.