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is consolidating some of its sections in an effort to cut costs. The Metro section, for example, is now part of the main news. 

And on most week days, Sports will now be part of the Business section. Why do these sections belong together, exactly? My more paranoid self concluded these are both considered “guy” things, that in an imperfect world where consolidation is necessary, these two sections are most like each other. Even if this wasn’t the motivation (and I really strained to find a production rationale that made sense to me to explain it), that’s the message it might be sending.

Yes, I know, lots of women love reading about sports. And guess what, lots and lots of women love reading the business section. So why not bring them together? Maybe I’m too preoccupied with my own bias -  my husband grabs ONLY the sports section for his commute, leaving me the rest of the paper. Now he will have nothing, because the Business section is a necessity for m. Or maybe I can learn to live without it. After all, I also get The Wall Street Journal at home. It will probably have a Sports section of its own soon enough.



Staying relevant

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally an angry contact, usually trying to persuade us not to write a negative story, will explode with “You’re not The f*&#ing Wall Street Journal“!

I found the best answer is usually, “Well you’re not [f*#&ing] Jeff Immelt either”. Undignified? Well, yeah…

Even so, the usefulness of our angry reader’s insult might be waning. These days we’re all the Wall Street Journal, or none of us is, not even the Wall Street Journal.  So why aren’t we all taking advantage of this moment, instead of constantly carping about what we are losing? As a spokesperson for media companies that aren’t  The Wall Street Journal, I can see that we’ve never had a better opportunity to enrich our readers’ experience. Most of us are not doing it.

We spend a lot of time in the media worrying about the business model, but too little time focusing on relevance. Relevance is someone getting so angry at your publication that they will resort to silly insults to try and shame you into capitulating. When people stop caring, they stop yelling, and then stop reading.

Relevance is not demonstrated by ad dollars or circulation metrics alone. It is better tested through the relationship of the reader to its outlet, and in all the metrics that we evaluate - from page views to  uniques to good old fashioned pass-along readership - don’t bring us closer to understanding what we need to do to stay relevant.

I believe that many publications are growing more and more out of touch with their communities, even as we seem to be that much more engaged because of the immediacy of our digital networks. We are losing the personal connections that foster truly great journalism. Reporters are so busy blogging and twittering they don’t have time - or, rather, they don’t take time - to venture out and sit across from a table (or bar) from a contact and get at the unexpected, and the real.

I’m not going to round this off with a pithy answer. I just feel in my bones that we are missing a trick, as a media community, at a time when we don’t have to follow the herd to succeed. I hope to delve into this more during the coming weeks. Please note, there are no links in this post. In my all-too-sporadic blogging efforts, I was way too caught up in finding good stories to link to. I almost forgot that I have plenty of material without them.

The Slate Group has launched a new business site called The Big Money , The New York Times today. Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg is charged with creating new extensions to the Slate brand, and evidently plans to launch a few new sites a year.

The USP for the new title, in a market clearly crowded with full-time business news? Among other things, techie tools offered through the site, such as pre-fabricated slides and charts that users can drop into their own PowerPoint presentations. James Ledbetter, editor of the new site, also says that while other business pubs promise “read us and we’ll make you rich”, the new title says “read us and we’ll make you smart”.

Does the world need another business site? Not necessarily, but there is much to be learned from digital natives like the Slate team. There is a nuance to this approach that I think can be seized by those of us who are still figuring out how to tie print and online together. Use your outlet’s access to senior-level elite, the CEOs who are interviewed, the heads of state who are quoted, to gain access to the eyeballs and data of the more junior demographic - the ones who buy things, share information, and are ostensibly open to forging new loyalties to brands and ideas.


The cottage industry of content

A by research company Ipsos found that consumers are generally more tolerant of video ads that run in professionally produced content than they are of ads in “homemade” videos, according to a story in The New York Times today. An Ipsos director opined that homegrown video will attract more advertising down the line. But I think there’s something to this statistic, and that the general public is not withdrawing wholesale from expecting a kind of transaction to take place in their consumption of high-quality content.

But what about advertisers? How discerning are they about the quality of the content they sponsor? Very, I think, even now. I recently had a conversation with a web company that is looking to start packaging online articles on its social network as a way to attract more advertising. But the company did not see the value of adding an editorial layer to direct, commission, or produce additional content, believing it could simply package and showcase content already being contributed by its community members.

There are stars in the blog world, no doubt, and the history of the Web is littered with stories of small-time bloggers or video artists who hit a cultural nerve, and then the jackpot (such as the mommy bloggers highlighted in another Times last week). The problem for journalists, video producers, and publishers too, is that much of the value they add to the product is intangible, and so-called amateurs can make the most of the ambiguity.

The content supply chain

Advertising Age had an interesting this week by Simon Dumenco on how the blog universe relies heavily on images commissioned by traditional media. Basically, many blogs count on getting away with not being challenged over the rights, some even citing wobbly “fair use” as an excuse. “This is because bloggers have come to believe,” Dumenco wrote, “and copyright holders have mostly not disabused them of this notion — that “quoting” pictures to comment on them amounts to “fair use” under copyright law.”

As more MSM outlets cut costs, in the form of original photography, blogs will have to turn more to alternative sources for images. But it seems unlikely that we will see even the most “big media” blogs start to commission original photography en masse. For one thing it simply isn’t worth it, because digital cannot yet match the reproductive quality of print.

Traditional media, regardless of its limitations, still sits at the top of the content supply chain, simply by virtue of the resources it marshals to produce publications or broadcast programming. Having teams of photographers, copy editors, fact checkers, and art directors may increasingly be seen as a luxury that few can afford, particularly if the greatest beneficiaries of the investment are bloggers.

Links to content are a big part of the traffic engine, but that only fulfills only one narrow part of the publishing objective. Without tangible returns on the investment that only “big media” is so far prepared to make, it is likely that marketers - now content providers in their own right - will increasingly fill in the gaps.

21st Century Reporting

I have been a terrible blogger, as the redoubtable Wes Pedersen would be the first to tell you. The basic reason for this is I have always done my writing in the mornings. But my lifestyle (enter baby) no longer cooperates the way it used to, so I  must refocus my energies to other times of day. Let this be the first entry of the new era…

David Carr’s in Monday’s New York Times struck a nerve, celebrating a whole new approach to reporting that is finding its way into newsrooms everywhere, citing a colleague’s recent story: “On Saturday, Mr. Stelter’s wonderful article in The New York Times on how people were working around the blackout on the Olympic ceremony began as a post on Twitter seeking consumer experiences, then jumped onto his blog, TV Decoder, caught the attention of editors who wanted it expanded for the newspaper and ended up on Page One, jammed with insight and with plenty of examples from real human experience.”

PRWeek’s own excellent reporting team is using Twitter, and blogs, contact management systems and social media, and myriad other methods to explore topics with the public relations community and beyond. No doubt these tools have enabled already great journalists to find even better ways to work. Thus did word processing replace the typewriter, only a true Luddite could object to the progress that continues to be made.

But reporters risk becoming their efforts becoming commoditized even further than they already have been if they avow that these tools are changing the fundamentals of journalism. In fact, part of the challenge for journalism ongoing will be to tune out the clamor and find the hidden stories, the unwilling sources, the unpopular topics - the “boring but important” stories, to use The Week’s wonderful section name - that no one but the most dedicated reporter will commit to seeking out.

WSJ watch

“Most news organizations in the U.S. and around the world are in retreat,” wrote Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, in a to staff. “But Dow Jones is expanding its reporting resources, rapidly developing its digital content and providing journalism of the highest integrity to an ever larger audience in The Wall Street Journal. ”

Thomson’s memo set forth his new editorial team structure, designed to create greater “co-operation” between print, online, and newswires. that Laurie Hays, deputy managing editor, is leaving.

The real story beneath the memos will be revealed as the Journal’s evolution from specialist to generalist continues. There is something about this structure that reminds one more of a broadcast outlet than a traditional print company.  The so-called “news hub” is designed for speed, not for comfort. As more of the Journal’s old guard departs, we will see how well it can sustain quality and balance as well.

Taylorism meets Journalism

The New York Times’ about the Tribune Company’s impending cuts included insight into the value placed on editorial contribution, and how the company measures - in column inches, seemingly - success. “[Tribune Company COO Randy] Mr. Michaels revealed that the company had analyzed the volume of material produced by each reporter, and the per capita production at each paper; it concluded that many people were not pulling their weight and would hardly be missed.”

It reminded me of the principles of Taylorism, which (according to Wikipedia) is also known as “scientific management”, whereby a standard method for performing work tasks is implemented, based on analysis of individuals performing tasks, designed to increase productivity and consistency. The cost, according to detractors, is initiative, morale, and fundamental humanity.

Productivity is not a term often used in conjunction with the newsroom. Had Woodward and Bernstein been judged in terms of work volume, I have a feeling that they would have abandoned the low-yield Watergate investigation in favor of far more lucrative topic.

Of course, it is the job of the journalist to supply stories and feed the beast. But any sense that a reporter’s precise contribution can be judged by the number of words he or she squeezes into a story is ludicrous. Unlike manufacturing, you can’t assume that by applying a certain level of energy to one story will achieve the same result, and deliver the most, or best, content.  

As a fan of pith, of fewer words-better chosen, I can’t help but worry that comments like this will send mediocre reporters out to pad their copy beyond the limits of editorial need. Meanwhile, the real problem - that of dwindling ad revenue even as content strategy is more targeted and reactive than ever - remains unsolved.

Staying special

Robert Thomson has been managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Too bad. I was looking forward to seeing how his publishing role developed as self-proclaimed  particularly as the Journal swings fully into its new direction. Moreover, it is a signal now that a new, more uncertain day is dawning at the title.

This is not because Thomson lacks integrity, talent, or credibility, or because the standards per se will take a precipitous drop. The Journal retains a powerful brand and impeccable editorial reputation. No doubt the company will continue to hire from the top ranks of reporters and editors. But its move towards the mainstream is a mistake, and Thomson’s coronation is confirmation that this trajectory will accelerate.

As PRWeek learned long ago, it is better to be a leading specialist than a competitive generalist. We learned by trying to direct every interesting mainstream story through the prism of PR, to come out with our own take on the news that people could read anywhere. The problem was, our take was quite often not different enough to make it truly a PRWeek story. Now our standards are much more strict for how we define a PRWeek element, however much attention the topic gets in the pages of USA Today and on GMA.

The Journal has an even bigger problem. The public has simply too many resources for mainstream news today to make meaningful distinctions between them. And the standards by which the general public judge their media outlets now is abysmally low, as evidenced by the dumbing down of network news, and the proliferation of celebu-journalism. Thus The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the election, for example, will not automatically create converts to the brand, who are already more than happy to read about the election in everything from the Washington Post online to the Daily Show on television. The distinction of Wall Street Journal reporting will not be immediately obvious outside its business bailiwick.

The Wall Street Journal has long held firm to its tradition of stolid, in-depth business coverage at the expense of more mainstream appeal. Thus it created an elite and enviable community, which will no doubt feel somewhat betrayed by its paper’s shift to the same grid as the few other national papers. Will its circulation numbers rise as a result? Probably. But what will be the value of those readers, and where will its community go if it feels the Journal does not deliver what they want any more?


Entertainment junkies now hooked on politics?

Sorry, but I don’t think so . Rather, media has turned the primary race INTO entertainment. American Idol move over, Tim Russert is the new Simon Cowell. The ABC team was excoriated for going lowbrow in the debate, but the fact is that coverage by and large has pandered to personality and drama. Ask voters to define the differences in the health care plans of Obama and Clinton, and most would be stumped. But their bowling scores? Oh, sure.

But is that fair? Personal tidbits are always more interesting to readers. Any columns I write that have a personal anecdote always get a bigger response than those without - the personal is an irresistible hook, and often provides invaluable insight into character, which does count in a political runoff.

But once a media outlet moves down a particular path it will find it very difficult to reassert a more sober, policy wonkish tone. With an Obama/McCain battle looming (sorry, Hillary), how much further will media go in order to keep their audiences entertained, rather than simply informed? 

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