Hitting a wall

26 Dec

January 2011 is fast approaching and I’m getting a little depressed. Not because 2010 is ending or anything— 2011 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for me, what with a paid internship secured for the summer and a milestone birthday in the spring. No, what I’m sad about is the dreaded newspaper paywall rearing its ugly head again, this time at my favorite media outlet, the New York Times.

I’ve known that the change was coming for a while now; the Times announced it last January. I’ll  be able to read a  couple of articles for free every month and troll the headlines on the home page. Beyond that, I’ll hit the wall. And while I can still get the physical Times thanks to a newspaper readership program at my university, the multimedia and online convenience of the Times’ website aren’t a part of my future.

In my mind, it looks like this.

As both a journalist and a reader, I have mixed feelings about this. From the journalism standpoint of things, I understand where the Times is coming from. People used to pay for newspaper subscriptions without a problem. They understood that, if they wanted access to the news, they had to purchase it.

It was during the transition to the Internet that things got messed up. Everyone made their content available for free. Once people become accustomed to getting something for nothing, they’re not going to want to go back to the way things were. And I’m not sure that just charging to begin with would have solved everything anyway. The beauty of the Internet is its accessibility and usability. Someone, somewhere might’ve figured out how to get the information out there for free in the end.

Advertisers haven’t fared well online either — we can just dismiss their message with a simple click of a button or a pop-up blocker. This means that the money from paywalls is more necessary than ever — there are people behind the content on those newspaper websites, people who need to be paid for their work. It’s easy to forget that.

It’s not a good situation. Like I said, once people are given something for free, they’re not going to want to start paying for it again. That’s why paywalls have not fared well in the past – look at what happened this summer with Rupert Murdoch and the London Times. It makes me curious to see what will happen with New York. I’ve heard that they’re banking on loyal non-subscribers to pay for a promised excellence that’s hard to find elsewhere. That’s a sort of niche attitude that just might work but, then again, it might not.

His wall started to crumble.

The news industry is, to me,  such an interesting animal.  I believe that people have a fundamental right to know what’s going on in the world. That’s what newspapers are designed to do — inform. If we think that way, making people pay for something they inherently deserve seems wrong. But we can’t forget that newspapers are a business, driven — like every other business — by the need to make a profit. That means charging, somehow, the people who access them, whether online or elsewhere.

I’m not going to pretend to know any of the answers. If I did, everyone would be beating down my door right now asking me questions. I  don’t know enough about the industry to say how we can “fix” things. Frankly, it’s never going to be like it was in the past. Doing more with less is the new business model, and it’s here to stay.

And while I don’t think the news industry is, by any means, going to die out, that doesn’t mean I don’t still worry about the future like everyone else does. I realize that I am going into an industry that isn’t exactly stable. It’s a decision that I’ve made and, sometimes, it scares the crap out of me.

 

And then I start to freak out.

It’s certainly not hopeless. As more and more people become dependent on smartphones and devices like the iPad, I think there’s a great chance to “start over” by developing apps that people have to pay to download/access. And niche websites definitely have a better chance at attracting advertisers. The Patch network of sites, run by AOL, could draw in a lot of community advertisers who normally don’t venture online.  I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens. And then write some more about our own doom.

Twitter Trouble

21 Dec

Oh, Twitter. Here I am, writing about you once again. It’s not your fault, really. You’re just so easy to use. And so full of information that we’re willing to automatically believe.

The issue at hand this time concerns Wikileaks and a website that supposedly dropped service for the controversial organization. Or did it? According to a New York Times article, Wikileaks supporters accidentally targeted EasyDNS for cutting off services to Wikileaks when the company they actually wanted was EveryDNS.

The culprit for this case of mistaken identity? Either a blog post or a tweet that originally misidentified the company. Social media users spread the false info, which was ultimately picked up by the Guardian and the  Times itself.

Well someone's been a naughty bird.

It seems that, in the end, EasyDNS wasn’t harmed that much by the confusion. Unlike with Mastercard, Wikileaks supporters didn’t try to shut the site down- they stuck with nasty comments and calls. And, in an interesting twist, EasyDNS is now hosting Wikileaks domain names on special servers.

I thought this was interesting for a couple of reasons. 1) It reiterates my point that Twitter is a powerful tool for journalism. But it can cause a lot of problems when journalists forget that, at times, it’s just a glorified virtual grapevine for gossip.

It’s a problem that I’ve thought about before, and something I think journalists need to think about. Just as you would (hopefully) double check information you got from a source or a website even, you should do the same with social media. It’s so easy to spy a tasty rumor on Twitter and run off to write a story. If it’s true, that’s great. If it’s not, you wind up with egg on your face, so to speak. (Trust me, we’ve been tempted recently at my college newspaper to rely heavily on Twitter. Thankfully, we’ve stepped back a couple of times and taken information with a grain of salt, which is more than I can say for some more “professional” media outlets in the area.)

Tasty.

2) I don’t know if the government – as much as it wants to – will ever be able to shut Wikileaks down. Supporters have already shown what they’re capable of. And the internet is so nebulous – you can’t lock it away in a filing cabinet like the old days. Maybe, instead of focusing so much on punishing someone for something that can never be undone, the government should focus on more closely protecting what secrets it still does have.

And anyway, I don’t necessarily agree with the bullying tactics. As far as my First Amendment knowledge extends, Wikileaks is perfectly within its rights to publish leaked information – it just can’t be going out there and stealing those files itself. Just like the situation at Columbia University (where students were originally advised to not even discuss Wikileaks online) prior restraint does not fly in this country. And we can’t stand for it.

They did not write the Bill of Rights just for their health, people.

No booze? We lose.

14 Dec

This post was inspired by an article that the editor-in-chief of my college newspaper posted in a group on Facebook.

The issue at hand? Alcohol advertising in college newspapers. More specifically, the Supreme Court refused to review a case in Virginia involving a ban that two college newspapers have contested as unconstitutional.

It's like Prohibition, baby! Kind of.

Now, I’m no legal expert. My experience with the First Amendment extends to a three-credit hour class that I just finished taking. (Shout out to Professor Reinardy! Holla.) But I have some questions about the constitutionality — and above all the logic — of bans like these.

For one, these ads aren’t promoting anything illegal. Sure, a portion of college newspapers’ readerships can’t legally drink. But I bet well over half can — once you count the faculty, staff and non-traditional and graduate students. And anyways, if it’s truthful and valuable information (and I’m sure some people consider this to be valuable) then it receives limited Constitutional protection.

And if it’s binge drinking the legislators are trying to stamp out by doing this — which I’m sure it is — I say they have about as much of a chance of succeeding as Hell does of freezing over.

Not the one in Michigan.

They’re taking on a college culture that has been set in its ways for decades.  I don’t support binge drinking, but I certainly don’t see it going anywhere. Not even if you take away advertising like this. Because any good college student already knows where the good drink specials are. And where to get cheap beer. And which liquor stores are most likely to accept your fake ID. Sorry, but it’s true.

Plus, newspaper ads aren’t the only way “happy hour” information can be found. There are entire websites and smartphone apps dedicated to this sole purpose. Good luck controlling the Internet.

In the end, laws like these won’t hurt drinking establishments or the popularity of binge drinking; they’ll hurt college newspapers. We need this advertising revenue. Sure, we have a relatively captive market. And most of our staff works for free (I can attest to this firsthand.) But we still need to make money, and alcohol advertisements are a large part of this. There’s a weekly drink special chart on the back of our newspaper’s sister magazine. It’s big bucks.

Gosh, I hate it when I have this problem at the grocery store.

And legislators are forgetting the crusade many college newspapers have waged to help curtail binge drinking. I know our newspaper, for one, has written many articles on the activity and its dangers. Most recently, we covered the debate on Four Loko, a popular energy/alcohol drink that has since been taken off of the market.

In a nutshell, legislators are making a big mistake with this one. I ask them to think back to their own college days. Would a ban like this have made a difference to them or their friends? I seriously doubt it.

Latest ACES article.

14 Dec

This is a piece I wrote about Patch.com — online only, hyperlocal news coverage. Check it out!

http://www.copydesk.org/news/society/2010/patch/

SEO…get in the know!

28 Nov

Shame on me…I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve sadly been occupied with the usual — work, interning, school. Excuses, excuses, I know.

But I’m back and with a topic that’s been coming up a lot lately both in my classes and in my internship: SEO, or Search Engine Optimization.

In English, that means writing in a way that will get your article at the top of the heap in a Google search. More specifically, it has to do with writing a headline while keeping in mind what words and phrases someone searching for your article would type into Google to find that article.

Bow down before Lord Google...

I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about SEO, which is something that I’m hoping to change in the future. But there are some things I’d like to say about it.

For one, this is clearly an issue that concerns copy editors. We’re the ones writing the headlines and teases that Google picks up on in its searches. Not only do we need to make sure keywords end up in those places, we need to make sure they end up in the front of those places, a practice known as “frontloading.”

The lede, too, becomes even more important than it was in the past. When Google pulls up a news article, the lede often appears right after the headline. An editorial director at Yahoo, whom I interviewed for an upcoming ACES article, hit the nail on the head when he said that “People are only going to spend a few seconds before they click on your story or not and when they’re clicking on it, they’re making an assessment of whether they’re going to spend time on that or not.”

They care about Google, too.

In the past, we fought to keep people interested in our story. Now, we fight to get them to read it at all. In this sense, we’re becoming more a part of the “advertising” process than ever.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing — it makes us consider what our audience wants more than ever. And doing away with more “creative” heds doesn’t necessarily weaken a story. Subject-verb-object has always been one of the strongest sentence constructions.

But focusing on a handful of search terms for headlines and teases does have the danger of encouraging repetition, especially when a lot of articles on the same subject are all lined up in one spot.

Go to The University Daily Kansan’s website and you’ll find that “Jayhawks” appears in five out of the six sports headlines on the homepage.

Jayhawks 5, Opponents 0.

Redundancy like that would never fly in a newspaper; I ‘ve heard debates in the newsroom about whether or not we can even have contractions in two separate heds that are on the same page.

Does it matter on the internet? Do readers even care? I guess it’s something we’ll have to find out about in the future, but I can say right now that it does chafe me a little to see the same word over and over again.

And if we’re so focused on what people are searching for on Google, how long is it before we base what we’re writing off of what is “trending” on Yahoo or Twitter? It’s not that much of a stretch and I’ve read articles discussing the possibility before. Right now, Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore are two of the top listings on Yahoo. No offense, but I don’t really want to spend the rest of my days writing about celebrities (although I’m certainly guily of reading the Hollywood gossip as well.)

I'm still mad at her for marrying Ryan Adams.

I think being able to connect with readers online is a great thing. And we should be listening to what they want. But, newspapers have been in charge of deciding what’s newsworthy for so long, I guess I worry: What if the American people don’t really care about anything important? But what is “important” anyway — the things people want to know about or what we think they should want to know about?

For most of these questions, the answers aren’t really out there right now. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Say what, Kansas? (Part two)

3 Nov

I recently wrote a post about the Kansas Board of Education potentially cutting high school journalism funding. I did some digging, and while some sources say the cut is definitely coming in 2012-2013, others aren’t so sure about what’s going on.

I expect to have something definite to comment on in the near future.

I hope it's good news. Otherwise, Dana will be angry. And smash. Grunt.

In the meantime, my father recently e-mailed me an article from the Kansas City Star, which actually gave me some heart, especially since it features my alma mater — Shawnee Mission West High School.

In a nutshell, the article explores how convergence journalism — being able to write and film and edit and make a graphic, etc. — has finally come to area high schools. At West in particular, the school now offers a “Convergent Media” class. Broadcast and print are working together for the first time, the students are finally maintaining a website and even business classes have pitched in to help drum up advertising.

If this doesn’t scream to educators that high schools are trying to enter the new realm of journalism and stay relevant — one of the conditions they have to keep journalism funding — I don’t know what does. Are high school newsrooms a little behind the rest of the country? Sure they are. But movements like this naturally trickle down — from large media institutions to smaller ones and colleges to high schools, at the end of the line.

When I was attending West just three short years ago, I never would’ve dreamed of doing anything like this. It was 2008 and we didn’t even have a website, to my knowledge.

It was totally like this.

High school journalists are clearly taking great strides. From experience, I can honestly say that a setup like this would’ve benefitted me before I came to KU. Sure, I’d heard about convergence journalism while in high school but the idea was something far off and misty. Me, produce video? You’ve got the wrong girl. Things didn’t hit home until I was standing, video camera in hand a year ago, trying to figure out how to load a tape and hoping I’d bought the right kind from Wal-Mart.

To stay on track, high school journalists need all of the money that they can get. I’ve said it before, software, video equipment, computers, teachers with journalism education degrees, it’s all necessary and it’s all expensive. We need to support high school journalists because their experience dictates, to a degree, the future that college and professional organizations face. If they aren’t exposed to journalism or aren’t exposed properly, they won’t pursue it in the future, quickening the so-called “death of journalism.”

Because, in the end, journalism matters. Bloggers are great, but they oftentimes provide commentary, not news. We need professionally trained journalists out there doing it  right. Just because people are buying less newspapers doesn’t mean they no longer want to know things — they’re just cheap.

Scrooge: The poster boy of American news consumerism.

I hope the Board of Education weighs its choices heavily before coming to a decision on this matter instead of giving in to the “doom and gloom” voices around it. It would restore my faith — at least a little bit — in the future of this state and my profession.

ACES article!

23 Oct

So for those of you who don’t know, I recently started an internship for the American Copy Editors Society. I help write articles for ACES’ website and newsletter. It’s a nice way to find out some of the things that are going on in the industry and make some good contacts. Plus, I get to dust off my reporting skills!

My first article recently was published online, so go ahead and check it out!
http://www.copydesk.org/news/features/2010/new-business-stylebook/