Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

November 28, 2009

My local newspaper (or, more correctly, the website associated with the local newspaper) recently put out a call for reader input. How, the bloggers asked, can we make the newspaper better? How can we bring you back? How are we doing?

You can see the suggestions here (hint: though the article was posted a month and a half ago, there’s not a single response).

I like to help and I do still hold a place for newspapers in my heart. So here are my suggestions and observations:

1. Stop asking me how to run your newspaper.
I’m a reader. I’m not I’m paid to run your newspaper; you are.

These pleas for public comment have been going out for years, especially as newspapers began to see their readership numbers decline. In my years in newspapering I was guilty of making similar overtures. The idea, of course, is that it makes the paper look like it cares what readers think — that it allows readers a greater stake in the newspaper. It doesn’t.

Instead, it makes newspapers look pathetic and lost. It makes them look rudderless and incapable of solid decision-making. You are supposed to be an organization of trained journalists. Don’t whine and beg readers to make your decisions for you. If you do, you undermine your authority, and your readers’ trust in you.

Speaking of undermining your authority…

2. Stop dumbing down your design.
There’s a reason everyone wears jackets and ties on TV news: Authority.

If new anchors wore T-shirts and jeans, you wouldn’t look up to them, would you? So why have all our newspapers gone from the stately, authoritative nameplates and designs to T-shirt and jeans equivalents? When I started in the newspaper business, the big metro daily’s flag screamed authority, in stately capital letters that demanded respect. The last two redesigns have reduced that nameplate, first to a friendlier font with lower-case letters and now, well, it’s become just initials, tucked away into the top left-hand corner.

Beyond that, the paper has moved to more digest items, fewer long-form stories, bigger photos, and all the little things readers have said they wanted for years. Guess what? It ain’t working.

3. Stop trying to prove you’re cool.
I’m glad you’re on Twitter. For me, the easiest, fastest way to catch up on the news of the day is to follow news outlets I trust, grab their headlines in my Twitter feed, and hit up the stories I’m interested in. So that’s working for you.

What doesn’t work are the news stories about Twitter, the constant references to your Twitter feeds in the newspaper, quoting Twitter feeds in the newspaper. It wastes valuable newsprint and it alienates readers who aren’t on Twitter — and that’s the majority of your readers. In fact, it’s more than 80 percent of your readers.

Speaking of Twitter…

4. Stop cluttering your Twitter feed with stories you didn’t write.
I don’t follow you for world and national news.

The Associated Press is a great resource for newspapers, if used properly. A good newspaper will include bits of world and national news of importance, and local writers and papers are just not equipped to cover that stuff. But national stories do not belong on local news websites unless they’ve been localized. I get my national news from sources with the resources to cover those stories. I follow them on Twitter, or I visit them daily. Including such stories on your websites and feeding them to Twitter waters down your strength, which should be covering local news.

The same really should go for the newspaper as well. More care needs to be put into what wire stories are chosen for the print editions, and in every possible case, those wire stories should be localized. If there’s not a local angle, why put it in the local paper?

I am a fan of newspapers. I spend every Saturday and Sunday morning with mine. And every weekend, I struggle with whether I will continue my subscription. As the quality of local coverage drops, the paper’s usefulness declines as well.

Unfortunately, nearly everything they’ve done to bring readers back drives readers the other way.

So maybe they really do need help.

Cuz it’s almost too late.

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AP just doesn’t understand the Internet.

July 29, 2009

If the Associated Press wasn’t so important, I would laugh hysterically at the utter foolishness it’s been displaying. Unfortunately, we need the AP, despite the arguments to the contrary, which makes the organization’s complete lack of understanding the Internet quite terrifying.

AP claims the Internet is stealing the news. Of course Google is the big, bad bully in the equation, but even bloggers, AP says, are stealing journalists’ work, by posting headlines and links to the original stories. To counteract the thievery, AP says it will roll out DRM on the news, with some bizarre news registry idea that will use tracking beacons and other Big Brother technology to tell AP exactly how its news is being used.

Look, I understand the fear of the Internet. I come from a newspaper company that was terrified of spreading news online. But by the time I left, the online division I headed up was generating revenue, drawing readers, and building value. I never worried about whether Google was stealing my headlines. In fact, I wanted Google to index my headlines.

What AP doesn’t seem to understand is that Google drives traffic; it doesn’t steal traffic. Google has no content of its own; it merely directs users to the content you’ve got. AP should beg, borrow and steal to ensure its stories are linked up properly to drive readership. Instead, we get this.

The AP’s job is to bring together and disseminate the best, most important journalism. To do that, it must take advantage of all possible mediums. I argue that AP’s mission (and the mission of every journalist) should be to serve the public’s best interest — not its own. Any time you try to keep the news from the public, you are abdicating your responsibility to those you’re supposed to serve.

Not long ago, the AP contacted a member organization, demanding the paper remove an embedded AP video from its website. The paper, of course, was dumbfounded: The video came from the AP’s own YouTube account, and an embed code was provided.

I think that vignette shows everything you need to know about AP’s understanding of the Internet. You can’t report news and horde it. You can’t get attention and credit if we can’t link to it. And you can’t get paid if nobody cares anymore.