Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Quick Hits

Random thoughts from a Tuesday morning:

  • John McIntyre, who runs the desks at the Baltimore Sun and has taught us on his blog how to tie a tie, fold a pocket handkerchief and make a martini, finds himself the subject of a Christian Science Monitor article on copy editing.
  • Bloglines Beta rocks. I especially like the quick view that shows all the feeds in a folder at once.
  • Read Tom Grubisich's analysis of local news sites over on Robert Niles' Sensible Talk. Grubisich does a nice job of skewering sites like Topix and OnLocal, which I also don't find all that useful (disclosure, we do pick up the Hartsville Topix feed on HartsvilleToday just because Topix does grab news from the Florence area). Follow the links at the bottom to the other stories on the "Cracking the Local Market" topic. Tom Noonan's is especially noteworthy if for no other reason than he hits on cookie-cutter Web sites, which I think are just death in the local-local market. (The one is almost a month old. It's been sitting in my "to do" pile. Sorry for the delay.)
  • Just finished reading the Quill's SPJ national awards issue, and I don't care what people say about "writing to awards." After I get done I always feel inspired, not only to go out and do better journalism but with the reassurance that lots of great journalism is being done. The unfortunate part, to me, is that in today's media cacaphony, too much of it doesn't get the respect it deserves.

Steve Outing has opened a can of worms with his open letter to the founder of Craigslist suggesting ways the free classified site and newspapers might cooperate -- the goal being to sustain newspapers until we can figure out what comes next. The responses are fairly predictable, with a big dose of "newspapers have brought it on themselves with their sloth, so let 'em stew." There's a kernel of truth there. The only thing I have to add to the conversation, though, is wondering whether the innovation the industry needed could have taken place simply because of the industry's structure.

Remember, newspapers were largely individual or family owned proprietorships well into the last century. Now, not minimizing the industry's absolute pitiful record of any kind of change, the reality also was that a publication's or small chain's idiosyncrasies were often prized, not just by the owners but, in a kind of tut-tut fashion, by the communities they served. Nowhere was this more evident than in the long, slow grind to establishing the Standard Advertising Unit (see 1981 NYT article abstract and obit of its designer, Frank Savino) and the complaints for decades by national advertisers about how difficult it was to buy across markets.

Fast forward to the digital age. Papers have consolidated into chains -- but don't let that fool you. The majority of papers are still owned by individuals or families. The chains, of course, have never heard of the letters R&D, and for that they should be suitably censured. But the idiosyncrasy factor is still at work; even inside chains, most papers are left to their own devices as long as they pump out the necessary profits. Under those conditions, how much innovation can we really expect? Sharing is a dirty word, and the myriad publishing systems, etc., make it unlikely an innovation could be scaled to the point where it would do the "industry" much good. (Case in point, the Lawrence Journal-World, one of the most innovative newsrooms, but generally not emulated elsewhere.)

None of this is meant as an apology for an industry that positively has sucked at innovation. It's just worth noting, I think, that from their birth, newspapers evolved into an industry almost doomed to failure, and industry structure may have been a significant contributing factor.

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