Monthly Archives: June 2010

Judges and lawyers sitting in a tree… playing golf for all to see

This might be a good time to remind everyone that judges are elected officials. They routinely run unopposed and for the most part no one ever knows anything about them.

However, information can always be found around election time on the American Bar Association website or your local Democratic or Republican organization. Also, your state might have organizations like this: http://www.icjl.org which can also provide a wealth of info.

This is why we need media criticism

The Daley Show
“Mayor Daley today convinced Wal-Mart to sweeten the pot – by paying its best Chicago employees $9.50 an hour after one year – to break the stalemate that has stalled the retailer’s $1 billion expansion,” Fran Spielman reports.

Did he really?

“Within a year, if you have good attendance and work habits, they can get you up to $9.50″ an hour, the mayor said.”

But a Walmart spokesman said that most employees get a 40 or 50 cent raise after their first year as is. Walmart’s current proposal would start workers at $8.75 an hour. A 50 cent raise after one year would result in some workers then getting $9.25 an hour. It’s not a stretch to think that a handful of the best workers might get $9.50 an hour without the mayor’s help.

In fact, some will probably get promoted.

In other words, the mayor hasn’t sweetened anything but his own publicity.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you don’t have a good media critic writing somewhere in your market, become that media critic yourself.

What do our customers think?

Woman_reading_newspaper

This is the second interview in the series. The first is here. Please sign up to be interviewed here.

This week I queried Vicki Boykis on her news consumption habits. Vicki is 23 years old, married and lives in the Washington D.C. metro area. Vicki and her husband both work and they have no children. Publishers, pay attention. These are your young, upwardly mobile, urban folks. They are your target audience in many cases as they are the most able to afford your products. They are literate, well-read and interested in the world around them.

So here we go. My questions are in bold and Vicki’s answers are below them.

Q: Have your news consumption habits changed over the years or have they stayed about the same?

Rapidly changed when I discovered how efficient Google Reader is about 2 years ago. Back in the old days of newspapers, I’d read the local newspaper we subscribed to at home every Sunday. 

In college, we had NYT and USA Today for free every day in many locations around campus, so it would be a combination of that and Google News.  

Once I started working about three years ago, it became strictly Google News and websites and now it’s just my Google Reader and random websites. 

Q: Where do you usually get your news from on a daily basis? Specify print or online or both for each source you list.

BBC – Online

New York Times – Online

New York Magazine – Online

Christian Sciene Monitor – Online

Jerusalem Post/Haaretz – Online

Gazeta.Ru – Online [“Gazeta” means “newspaper” is Russian by the way]

Atlantic Magazine – Online

Al Jazeera – Online

L.A. Times – Online

Washington Post – Online

Mashable/TechCrunch – Online only publications

NPR – Radio

I would say those are on average the sources I read every day, but it’s hard to pinpoint where a majority of my news comes from because my newsflashes/breaking news come from Twitter, which are from a variety of sources and usually whatever news I get, I get from just scrolling through my [Google] reader. I also tend to get lots of more in-depth news (for example, for one of my regional interests, Eurasia) from the specialized blogs that I follow. 

Q: What are the things you are most interested in reading about? Are your needs being met by what’s available to you?

The global economy, global trade/international development and the U.S. economy; news from Israel, news from Russia, news from Eurasia (Iran/the ‘stans, Georgia, etc.), tech news and also, if you consider various blogging communities sources for news outlets, those as well.  My needs for economic news are often met, and my need for Israeli news is met by reading a combination of three Israeli newspapers, each with a slightly different political slant, but sadly regional news for Eurasia is often awful. I find this to be true with smaller, more specialized news topics as well. For example, an AP blurb will read:

“100 killed in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is a country in Central Asia and its capital is Bishkek.” 

And that’s all it will have, or something extremely similar to that effect. So for that, I’ll have to dig much deeper. Why were these people killed? What are the regional conflicts in Kyrgyzstan? What are the implications of the fall of the Soviet Union on the country, and how is it impacting development in the country today?  Etc. Etc. That kind of background, you should have on-hand when you begin reporting a beat and be able to have several paragraphs on to insert in the stuff you write. 

 

In my feed reader, I have different layers of sources depending on what level of seriousness I’m looking for from a news source. I realize completely that journalists are on deadlines, but sometimes it’s ridiculous how little information they have before they spew it out in the MSM [mainstream media].

Q: What is your top complaint about the news media?

My general complaints are that the print/tv news media treats the Internet as some disgusting thing under a microscope that it has to handle with kid gloves all while not knowing anything about it (see any mainstream report on Twitter, tumblr, etc, which are always way behind the curve). It’s painful, like watching a baby deer trying to walk for the first time. 

 For online media, my complaint is that often the writers don’t understand the topics they’re covering. Best recent example of this is this post (or “news item”) because they’re on such short deadlines that they don’t stop to examine and analyze why what they’re writing about is important to the news consumer. You could be writing about a new toaster that cures cancer for all I care. Please put some context behind what you write.  
 

My overall complaint for both print AND online is the bias. Oh, God, the bias. As a writer, I realize it’s impossible to write without bias. But if I have to read CNN AND BBC AND a local paper while referring to this handout to find out what the problem is with the oil spill, you’re doing it wrong. 

 

******

On a personal note, even though I will turn 30 later this summer I share many of Vicki’s sentiments. Perhaps it’s because we’re technically still of the same generation, we are both married, well educated and, as it so happens, both of Eastern European descent. 

Specifically, I agree with her assessment of how the news media treats the whole of the Internet. “It’s painful, like watching a baby deer trying to walk for the first time,” she said. I cannot think of a better metaphor. 

Writers not understanding the topic they’re covering is another oft heard complaint. My husband is a trader and he frequently says that the so-called financial press have no clue what they’re talking about. A CNBC reporter at a recent conference he attended basically admitted as much. Speaking of my husband, he is himself an astute media critic and has brought my attention to at least one notable matter thus far.

Other insights to be gleaned from Vicki’s interview can hardly be called insights. She consumes all her content online with the exception of NPR. News consumers younger and older than her are doing the same. Publishers have obviously not ignored this, but there is still a great deal of confusion about what should go in print vs. online, whether online should be the first or last priority, how reporters should interact (or not) with their audiences and much, much more. In all these areas and others, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. 

Vicki also pointed me to a comment thread on a website where problems with the media were being discussed. This comment in particular caught her attention (and mine as well):

I stopped listening to news when I was about 4 and I saw the headline “Teen plays Grand Theft Auto; Kills Cab Driver”. Now, if you read the rest of the article, it says they found a GTA game in his room and assumed it was his, he played it thta morning, and that was why he killed the cab driver. The newspaper could have just as easily said “Teen eats breakfast cereal; Kills Cab Driver” but no. The media is so ridiculoulsy full of crap and biased it’s not funny. Recently we had a commercial for the “7PM Project” in Australia, saying “This laptop is waterproof, indestructable, solar powered and free. And we’ll show you how YOU can get one.” If you watched the actual show, you’d find out that the government was giving them to poor Aboriginal students in outback communities. So, unless I wanted to deliberately lose all of the money my family has, move to the outback and somehow change skin colour, I can’t get one. Thanks, helpful news program!

I’ve also seen “public opinion” studies about football teams. They had a poll on which AFL team had the worst anthem. They held the poll in Melbourne. At a football ground. At a Collingwood Vs. Carlton game. Now if that isn’t a biased selection I don’t know what is.

Since all of that, I have listened to the news every day, just so I know what didn’t happen. “Gang attack kills 2” probably means “2 pasty white guys with a baseball bat died trying to attack a police officer”. Yes, that’s actually been on the news. Since when was 2 people a gang, and how do their deaths increase the amount of people they killed?

Another example: “Australia most obese country on Earth.”. Now, if you do research, you’ll find the article is trying to say Australia is the most obese Western Society surveyed country. Of which there were 5. Do some more research and you’ll find that it’s percentage of overweight people they based it on. However, if you take the average BMI (the standard they used for the test, which is flawed(A muscly person will have a huge BMI)) America is nearly 1.5 times more obese as Australia, which would have come 4th out of the 5 countries. Do even more research and you’ll find that Australia is actually fairly close to “healthy” weight (i.e. a low deviation). However, America and, to a lesser extent, England have not only a large amount of obese people, but also even more incredibly skinny and bulimic/anorexic people. Whereas Australia has a relatively small number. 

And I know I’ve gone a little bit off-topic, but I really need to show how full of crap news programs are. In EVERY aspect.

 


 

Obama’s Chicago Network

Representative @JohnFritchey says goodbye to the Illinois House

“I was sworn in on Tuesday and thought I’d change the world by Friday.”

This should remind us all that some politicians really get into it for the right reasons. And hey John, I don’t have the pedigree for any of the stuff I’ve done (or plan to do) either 😉

A caveat

Since I’ve written the first piece in my What Do Our Customers Think series, I feel it’s time to make something clear. The premise on which the series is based, as you’ll recall, is that news is a business. I wrote that “…if news IS a business, then it naturally follows that news content is, to some degree, a product. Thus, we should know what our consumers think.” 

BUT…

News isn’t really a product the same way Coke or Pepsi is. What’s more, the treatment of news content as such has led to some of the problems that the media now finds itself in. Like literature or art, news or, more aptly, journalism is something that is “other.” Don’t you think?

A little perspective for all my fellow technophiles

99.8 Percent of Americans Have Not Yet Ordered the New iPhone

On the first day that the iPhone 4 could be ordered, Apple received more than 600,000 orders. At one order per person, that means 0.2 percent of the American public requested one of the newest gadgets.

The number of Americans who were not in that first wave is roughly equal to the number of Americans who live somewhere other than Alaska.

According to other Census Bureau figures, an American is slightly more likely to die of a heart attack this year than to have ordered an iPhone 4 on the first day it was available.

Also 960,000 Americans attend at least one tractor pull, truck pull, or mud race each month.

I especially like the heart attack bit.

Actually, if one was scanning Twitter on the first day the new iPhone could be ordered, it seemed like all the people trying to order it were going to have heart attacks. Not sure how that would affect the stats…

Fit to Print

What can a blogger do that a journalist can’t? Take criticism, for one thing

A Culture Problem

I would argue that the difficulty American journalists have with hearing or responding to criticism lies in the profession’s pathological heritage of self-abnegation. We say, “To err is human,” right? But journalists too often work inside an institutional culture which says to them, “Be inhuman.” Do not have opinions — and if you do, for God’s sake don’t share them. Do not attend protests or take stands on issues. Do not vote; or, if you do, don’t tell anyone whom you voted for.

The “good soldier” journalists buy into this acculturation. They suppress their own individuality and perspectives. They subsume their own work into the larger editorial “we,” and learn to refer to themselves as “this reporter” instead of using the personal pronoun. When something goes wrong with the system they are a part of, when the little piece of journalism they have added to the larger edifice comes under attack for some flaw, they count on the edifice to protect them.

But no longer. Reasonable criticism of news coverage can now be published as easily online as the original reports, and the public expects media outlets to respond. Many editors and reporters understand that a new approach to accountability simply makes sense. So the institutions have begun, haltingly but significantly, to open up.

But many individual journalists find themselves at sea when called upon to explain mistakes, defend choices and engage in discussions with their readers and critics. Nothing in their professional lives has prepared them for this. In fact, a lot of their professional training explicitly taught them that all of this was dangerous, unprofessional, bad. They grew up thinking — and some still think — that the professional thing to do, when questioned in public, is (a) don’t respond at all; (b) respond with “no comment — we stand by our story”; or if things get really bad © your editor will do the talking.

Unfortunately, this means that the typical blogger has more experience dealing with criticism — measuring a reasonable response, managing trolls and restraining the urge to flame — than the typical newsroom journalist. That, I think, is why we regularly see the kind of journalist freakout that the New York Times’ James Risen visited upon us (and very quickly apologized for).

As per usual, please take the time to read the whole piece. The comments over there are good as well.

What do our customers think?

Reading-the-newspaper

This is the first in a series of what I hope will become a regular interview with a different news consumer each week. As I’ve mentioned before, there isn’t nearly enough information about what readers and viewers want. In general, there isn’t enough treatment of news as a business although that’s changing. And if news IS a business, then it naturally follows that news content is, to some degree, a product. Thus, we should know what our consumers think.

I will be looking to talk to people who are not themselves employed by any media organization and asking them about their news consumption habits, what they think of the current state of news and journalism, etc. I already have someone lined up for next week, but if you’re interested in being interviewed in the future, please fill out this form.

I found my first interviewee, Bob Meinig, on Twitter. He replied to something I posted and that got the discussion going. It then moved to e-mail and that’s when I came up with the weekly series idea. In the coming weeks, I will be formatting these profiles in a Q &A format. For this one though, Bob’s own words speak for themselves. I asked him to describe his news consumption habits and how they’ve changed over the years. Here’s what he wrote to me in an e-mail:

Where to start . . . I was an early reader, my mother says that I could read basic Dr. Seuss books when I was two.  So in context, I’ve always been a fan of the written word.

When I was a kid, my parents would go bowling on Saturday nights and bring back the early Sunday edition of the Tribune.  I’d spend hours reading as much of the paper as I could — the business section, the Sunday magazine, everything.  During the week we received the Joliet Herald-News.  The difference between the two in content, style, and tone was striking even to a grade school kid.

That was 30 years ago.  I don’t think I’ve ever gone terribly long without having a (physical) newspaper subscription.  At college I had to have the Trib student subscription.  Usually one of my buddies would have a Sun-Times subscription.  Every now and then someone would bring a New York Times in — reading it was like entering a different world.  Over the past 15 or so years, we’ve had the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Daily-Herald, and now the KC Chronicle delivered.

Back in the late-’90s, I ran a small website that critiqued the Chicago sports media.  Through that I sat on press row for a few sporting events and talked with a few people within the industry.

Even since the advent of basically free news on the Internet, I’ve still kept delivery of the physical paper.  But my expectation of what I get has changed; I expect to get pure “this is what is happening” news via the various news feeds on say, Yahoo or CNN.  The analysis of what events mean is a bigger job, and for that I’m willing to wait a bit.  Also, local news is worth getting from the local paper.  I can’t expect that it’s very cost-effective for the Tribune or the STNG to cover Kane County like the Chronicle does — and even if they tried to, they wouldn’t have the focus that the Chronicle does.  I’m OK with that.

I did cut the Trib subscription back to Sunday-only when the layoffs picked up steam and the redesign of the paper obliterated relevant sections.  Seeing talented writers leave in favor of lower-priced talent was the wrong way to keep my business.  I know that there’s two sides to that story; many people wanted to leave and took the opportunity offered to them.  And since costs certainly needed to be cut, labor is going to be the first and easiest area to make cuts in.  But the product was greatly devalued at that point.

What I’m not able to grasp is really where the Tribune or the STNG fits in the news world now and in the future.  I might be in the minority — heck, probably — but what I get from the NYT’s Technology section just absolutely blows away what the Trib or S-T does. Same for the Health or National News sections.  The Trib’s business section is now a shell of what it once was — I can blow through it in a few minutes.  Local?  I skim it, same as I do with the National section.

(I will say that the Trib has started to rebuild its sports section with some decent writers.  That’s one section that will probably always resonate with readers, so business-wise that’s probably been a smart decision.)

So given that on one side the local paper does a decent job at covering the truly local news, and CNN or the NYT (just to give two examples) typically provide better and more insightful national-level news and commentary than a Trib or S-T does, where does that leave those two?  The Trib wants to be a regional paper (or maybe more accurately, a paper that purports to be state-level), but is that really sustainable?  Is that something that any paper can do well?  How are the blurry lines defining the Tribs’ position in the landscape defined?

Wow. 

He went on to add the following:

I can’t count the number of times we haven’t even taken the Sunday Trib out of its bag before Monday night or Tuesday . . . or just pitched it into the recyling bin, unread on Wednesday morning.  Even on the days I do read the Trib, it takes me about 15 minutes or so to skim through the whole paper.

The Chronicle gets read every morning.

Here I was nodding along because I admit that our Sunday Chicago Tribune receives similar treatment. If I’m being honest, most of the paper never gets read by me. We’re keeping it for now so that my husband has something to read on his Metra commute (though he too could chuck the paper and read it on his iPhone). I read things mainly online. Only books are read in their physical form.  

But back to Bob.

Realizing that his age might play a role in his opinions, I asked him how old he is. 41, he answered. That would mean that his age group, like all others, is reading newspapers less. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll turn 30 in late August and my husband is 33.

Obviously what we’re getting at here is that Bob isn’t getting what he wants from the Tribune and Sun-Times. Other than a few bright spots, I can’t say that I feel too differently. Having recently talked to more and more people about this, I’ve been told that the newspaper used to really be something. Some reporters or columnists were truly a must-read. How many people like that are working in newsrooms now?

I went on to ask Bob if he perceives his experience to be similar to those of others. He responded thusly:

Not sure about how most people feel — there’s not too many people who give much more thought to the media other than what used to be the “Mariotti/Bayless/Page/Thomas/etc sucks” type of argument.  I do know that my wife doesn’t spend anywhere close to the amount of time reading the paper as she used to.

It’s a time of great change in the industry (as it is in many industries), but there’s something about the news media that hits me hard. We need it to function well, but we’re also seeing businessmen like a Sam Zell (for instance) that don’t really understand the product, and what it means to people.  It seems that what they think the business model is doesn’t equate to what I think it is.  And I’m not sure who is right, but then: who is the customer?

BINGO.

What are your thoughts? I’m particularly interested in hearing back from Tribune or Sun-Times employees. You may remain anonymous if you’d like.

Don’t forget to come back next week to learn what another news consumer thinks. Or just subscribe to the RSS feed.