Monday, May 30, 2011

Quick reads for the holiday - and a dustup over legal ads

A few things worth reading today:

  • Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner tells Ad Age that magazines are a bit insane if they think they can duplicate online what they can in print. His particular target is tablets and what he calls "sheer insanity." Give it "decades" before there's a successful migration, two generations at least, he says. I'm not so sure he isn't stretching that time line a bit. I give it a decade if - a big if - we get a more robust mobile broadband system. I think a huge shakeout/shakeup in the telecommunications sector is brewing. It may involve government involvement, and it will be cast as a matter of economic security.
  • A reminder of how bad things have been in some places - a report that half of San Francisco Bay area journalism jobs have been lost in the past decade. (Of course, the economics student in me asks were there too many to begin with.)
  • Twitter has moved the lists and favorites off the home page. That has Shea Bennett wondering if Twitter plans to do away with them. I hope not. I need all the organization I can get my hands on. Bennett thinks it's because mostly only "power users" were using them. I'm hardly one of those, but aren't power users the ones most likely to pay for the service? So why bury a tool they use? Here's a suggestion: Instead of dictating my layout, give me an option to move these to the home page, if I want.
As for the legal ads

Newspapers, fearful yet another revenue source will melt away to online, have been fighting a rear-guard action to keep the right to publish -- and charge generously for -- legal ads, those arcane, legalese things buried in the paper that, if you really read them, could be a source of decent story leads (not to mention a heaping dose of voyeurism over who's getting sued, kicked out of their place, going bankrupt, etc.)

A Pennsylvania Patch opinion writer throws down the gauntlet over legal ads (we'll run 'em for free to attract audiences) in response to yet another newspaper column trying to block a possible shift of the ads online by the Keystone State's legislature. (Another recent newspaper meme: Link rot could make such online ads useless.)

As to that last point first: So how many of us have been to our - supposedly on paper? - newspaper morgues lately to look at some old, yellowed legal ad? (Uh huh, thought so.) In fact, try finding that morgue at your local oracle's offices. It's all been digitized, folks. And have you ever checked out the link rot on newspaper sites, what with paywalls and archives and all that? (Gimme a break.)

As to newspaper editor Stan Huskey's first set of points, which pretty much parallel the industry line:
  • News flash. Not everyone has a computer. Nope, and lots of people don't read newspapers, either. It's standard rhetorical bluster to cite a figure for newspapers - actually to imply a figure for newspapers by saying more people read them than watched the Super Bowl (111 million) - and leave out any comparisons with online (where, unlike newspapers, you can precisely track how many people look at the ads).
  • Public notices cost municipalities very little money, and in a lot of cases, nothing at all. Well, not quite true. Huskey has a point that some ad costs are baked in to what the government charges people like developers. But the Patch commentator has posted PDFs of his local county's ledger (provided through an open-records request), that shows it paid  $200,000 for such ads last year. Who pays for all those ads from "voter services" for instance?
  • And do we really want to take jobs out of the private sector and put them in the public sector? Isn’t government big enough as it is? Putting aside the tea party-type argument about big government for a second (guess you'll be willing to give up any tax breaks on paper, ink, etc., Mr. Huskey?), the nub of this whole conflict is in the first sentence. Huskey elaborates on it later: Let’s peel away yet another layer of the onion in an attempt to find out why our state legislature would continue to present bills that would harm the newspaper industry.
    And, technically, another layer of the onion would be the jobs that would be lost if legal notices were taken out of newspaper.

    So, why would some state legislators feel the need to harm, perhaps retaliate against, newspapers?

    Could it be because we hold them accountable?
Uh, yes, it probably is. And one of the reasons the industry is vulnerable on this is because journalists are largely inconsequential to politicians unless they think the journalist has the suasion of public opinion/outrage behind him or her. The newspaper biz - actually, the journalism biz in general - has lost a lot of that in the past decade, the result of numerous scandals, consolidations that made clear to the public that in most cases this is a business first and a public service second, etc. Nothing wrong with its being a business, but it makes trading on the "public service" argument just a teensy-weensy bit harder.

This isn't going to make me a lot of friends among the press associations I know and love, but they and their members have got to stop trying to play this card game with half a deck of truth.

Yes, there are good public service arguments to be made - and there are good counter-arguments on the digital side. Personally, I think the ads should be in both places because it's a multimedia world. Digital gives me easy access and the ability to search. Papers give me portability and a sense of semi-permanence.

But the real issue is money. Publishers don't want to give up what is as close to an annuity in this business as you can get. You don't have to go out and sell these things - the law mandates that the governments bring them to you - and because of the legally enforced stranglehold, you can charge a decent dollar.

Go ahead, frame it as a "save good journalism" and good journalism jobs argument, but acknowledge it for what it is - you need the money to help prop up a troubled business.

Just don't try to show half a hand and bluff the public. In the game of public opinion, the stakes are high. Eventually, they'll discover it (I think they're actually pretty cognizant of the truth so far), and you'll be labeled a cheater. That's a PR hole you don't want to be trying to dig out of.

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At 5/31/11, 12:41 AM, Blogger triadwatch said...

would love your permission to repost this article for all to see in the triad area of nc. I have a blog and would like to add this to my posts on in nc they want to pass a electronic public notice bill and the nc press assoc. is on a all out assault against it. Take care and i will link back to your blog in post as well.

At 5/31/11, 5:57 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Sure. No problem.

At 5/31/11, 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our local governments are broke. In a perfect world we would publish notices on radio and TV because there is an underserved part of the community that can not read. But that would be ridiculously expensive. So are newspapers. We have to make choices based on cost. Luckily there is a solution. Look at this site .

It is FREE-You don’t have to subscribe to a newspaper to receive the notices THE NOTICES COME TO YOU-. No more hunting for notices in the back of the newspaper. They e-mail alerts based on preference of both type of notice and locality. (“Please e-mail me whenever there is a zoning hearing in Camden".

Set it up once and forget it. -IMMEDIATE-The local government doesn’t have to wait for the notice to be published in the newspaper for it to be published on line. The government employees can upload it straight to the site.

-BETTER DISCLOSURE-They link to the original documents (zoning maps, bid specifications, providing way more information than a notice in print. In addition, they map to the localities-DOCUMENTATION- they provide affidavits of publishing. -GREEN- No cutting down trees to publish these notices. -PERMANENCE- The notices stay on line forever. In newspapers, they are published in a few editions and then are gone. COST SAVINGS- The local governments will save 90% of what they spend in notices. The newspaper’s publish the notices for only a few weeks.This issue is playing out all over the country. Read . Newspapers do a lot of things really well. But so do a lot of businesses. It doesn’t mean as taxpayers we should overspend for a service that is now inferior


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