Saturday, April 29, 2006

Circulation accusations at PC World

A few days ago I had the chance to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and speak to a group of senior executives from IDG about engagement and online communities.
It was tremendous fun, as it always is when I meet with IDG folks.

Shortly after my return, Folio magazine broke a story saying that Teletype Co., a software firm that has accused Laptop magazine and the Audit Bureau of Circulations of inflating circulation numbers, has filed a similar lawsuit against IDG's PC World.

Longtime readers of this blog know that IDG is more than a client to me. Long before I ever made a penny with the company, I was a fan of much of what the people there have done. In a world such as B2B publishing, where I find far too many people of slow wit and questionable ethics, IDG represents all that is good about our industry. I have no reason to believe that anyone at IDG would do anything unprofessional. And I trust that my trust in the people at that company is not unfounded.

Given that, as I said in a comment on my friend Martha's blog a few moments ago, "I'm going to reserve judgment, for now, I'll assume that nothing unseemly has happened. I'm going to act as if this is just a misunderstanding of some kind. And I'll hope that if my optimism is unfounded and someone at IDG has done something wrong, that they are fired promptly."

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Poor use of rich data

Years ago when I worked at the shipping newspaper known as the Journal of Commerce, I was both fascinated and frustrated by the company's data product.
It was called PIERS. And it was full of information that made for compelling stories. But in one of those strange cultural disconnects that often happen at publishing companies, most of us in the editorial department weren't allowed to roam freely in the databases. We didn't have passwords. We couldn't get them.
Instead we had to submit a request to folks in the PIERS department, who would pull up the data we needed.

The end result, of course, was that we didn't ... couldn't ... take full advantage of PIERS. If we knew what we were looking for, we could request it. Thus our stories tended to have lots of good lists -- top imports at certain ports, etc. But we couldn't roam through the database itself. We couldn't play. We couldn't investigate. Thus we never "found" stories. We never stumbled serendipitously on to news.
I have a vague memory of asking for PIERS training and passwords and being told that the company didn't like to distribute the knowledge because of security concerns. Apparently the risk that someone could steal some of the data outweighed the chance that a reporter would use it.
Even more remarkable, I remember getting into an argument with someone at the company who didn't want to send copies of the transportation directories the company published to my office in Chicago. As much as I needed those lists of names and phone numbers to work my beat, this guy was worried about the postage. (I eventually convinced another reporter to steal a set and mail them to me.)

Years later I found myself working at Bloomberg News, where I found a very different situation. Bloomberg, wisely, made sure that every journalist in the company knew how to operate in the company's endless databases of financial information. And nearly every story ended with a "tour" -- a series of on-screen charts and graphics generated from Bloomberg data.
The result, of course, was that the staff produced more valuable work using material that competitors couldn't duplicate.
(It's worth noting that Bloomberg has its own security paranoia. Staff is banned from using Web sites that offer e-mail, for example. Internet use is monitored. And e-mail is blocked if it contains foul language.)

In recent weeks I've heard a lot of talk among B2B publishing executives about "rich data," the new buzzword for the databases owned by many a B2B magazine. And each time I hear the phrase, I wonder how many B2B journalists are able to access the data they need.
What are the policies at your company? Are reporters free to roam the Web? Does everyone have passwords to the company's databases? Does anyone have a password to competitors' databases? Does the company offer journalists the same training it offers data customers?

For a look at a piece about one of my fondest hopes, take a look at this post in which I predict that some wise B2B publisher will soon let people "mash up" the company's data to create all-new products.

For a look at what guest columnist Russell Perkins has to say about B2B and rich data, take a look at this piece on Magazine Enterprise 360, the site I produce with magazine legend Hershel Sarbin.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

AOL moves into microbeats

I've been pushing the idea of the microbeat for awhile now. I love the idea of reporters using blogs as a way to dive deeper into a subject -- creating a "publication" that covers an issue or company in a way that no traditional product could.
Standalone journalists have led the way, creating blog-based products that cover a single company rather than an entire industry. Check out this early trendsetter about Netflix, for example.
Some magazines have launched similar microniche products. For example, I'm a big fan of what Wired magazine has done in this area.

Today comes word that AOL is moving into the microbeat world in a major way. Take a look at, a series of blogs that cover single companies.
I have to offer my congratulations to AOL on this. I expect these new blogs will generate a sizable audience. Few issues generate as much passion as investing. And personal-finance sites have a history of attracting active users.
That's not to say I'm thrilled with what I've seen in the first few posts at BloggingStocks. AOL has adopted a team approach to the beats. And I much prefer single-writer blogs. Nonetheless, AOL deserves congratulations for this. And I'll keep checking in to watch how the beats develop.
(Click here to take a look at what Businessweek says about the new AOL blogs.)

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Online journalism pioneer Don Fitzpatrick dies

Some bad news today for anyone who appreciates online communities and user-generated content.
Don Fitzpatrick, the television headhunter who became a pioneer in citizen journalism and Web-based communities, has died at the age of 56.

Don started his career helping people such as Meredith Vieira, Leeza Gibbons and John Tesh find jobs in television.
But it's the work he did online that was most revolutionary.
In 1983, he launched ShopTalk, one of the first newsletters to be distributed by email (he used a database system called "the Source.") Years later he started TVSpy Watercooler, an online community in which users could post comments about the television industry.

Don sold TVSpy to the Vault in 2001, and both that community and the ShopTalk brand live on. Click here to visit TVSpy. Read Don's obituary and the tribute from some of the people he worked with. And if you like, take a look at the discussion boards and post a comment...remembering that it was Don and a handful of other pioneers who made that simple act of communicating with an online audience possible.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Improving your publication through murder

Hey, you know that "print' guy in your newsroom?
You know the guy I'm talking about? He can't edit an audio file. He can't upload a digital photo. He doesn't know html. He doesn't know what a title tag is. He can't insert a link. He's ever-so-fond of his writing style, and he's not exactly sure what it means to "repurpose" content or to "write for the Web."
You know that guy?
I want you to take a look at this piece on the Teaching Online Journalism blog. Then I want you to follow the link to the memo that went out yesterday to the staff of the Miami Herald. Then I want you to print that memo. Then wrap it around a baseball bat.
And then beat that guy with the bat until he is, at long last, dead.

And you know that delusional journalism student? The silo student? The guy one without a single new-media skill on his resumé? You know the guy I'm talking about. He wants to be a newspaper man. He wants to be a Writer with a capital "W"? Take that same bat and hit him a few times too. But don't kill him. Maybe just hit him across the knees. Folks like that are too young to die, but may not be too young to save.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Improving your career by drinking

What are you doing next Tuesday?
If you're going to be in New York, you should consider attending the first "Young Editors" evening of "networking and cocktails," brought to you by the folks at ABM.

ABM is promising to "help you transition from hating the boss to being the boss" as "editors from some of b-to-b’s most successful publications discuss advancing in New York’s ultra-competitive media community."

As much as I would like to attend the event, I cannot. I have a previous engagement. Besides, although I share many of the best attributes of youth -- I am, for example, both attractive and pure of heart -- I cannot claim to actually be young.

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Mistaken email about Email Summit

I have a bit of an ego.
So I believed it when I got an email yesterday from MediaPost that asked me to attend the upcoming Email Insider Summit as a VIP guest. The email said the "cost of your airfare, hotel accommodations and conference registration will be paid for by MediaPost."
So I spent a few minutes thinking about the offer. The conference, scheduled for late May, conflicted with a few things on my schedule. I also wanted to know if I was being invited as a consultant, in which case I was happy to have MediaPost pay, or as journalist, in which case I wouldn't let them pay. So I didn't respond to the invitation, and instead made a note to call MediaPost and ask for details.

Then, a few hours later, I got another email from MediaPost. This one said: "
We apologize if you received an email from MediaPost earlier today inviting you as our VIP guest to the Email Insider Summit," it said. "That email was intended to be sent to a list of 50 top brand marketers in the industry, that have already agreed to attend the event."

Now I'll confess that -- despite my ego-crazed belief that all conferences can benefit from my attendance -- I was a little surprised by the original invitation.
I don't know a soul at MediaPost, I've never done any business with them, and I've never been quoted in any of their publications.
But I was still flabbergasted to learn that the invitation was a mistake. And I'll admit that I -- who have made some pretty stupid mistakes in my day -- laughed out lout to find that someone would send the wrong email invitations to a conference about email!

I looked in vain through that second email for a sign that MediaPost found the whole thing funny. But there was no acknowledgment of the humor in the situation. MediaPost did "
apologize for the confusion and inconvenience that error may have caused you." But it didn't say anything about how funny this particular error was. I think that's a mistake. I can't be the only person who got the wrong email and found the situation hilarious. I would think that the right way to handle the error would involve showing a sense of humor.
Nor, for that matter, did MediaPost offer me a discount on the Summit or offer some other form of restitution. And that's likely a mistake too.

second email did tell me that attending the Email Insider Summit would cost me $2,495 plus airfare and accommodations. Needless to say, I won't be going. And that's too bad. Because I would like to know what the marketers who fork over $2,495 to learn about email think about the error and how MediaPost handled it.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Hedes for bots

A few months ago I wrote a post about headline writing in the age of RSS. In brief, I suggested that there was a growing need "for expertise in all types of ultra-short writing. Certainly news organizations will look for writers who can create headlines to pull in RSS users. But advertisers will too. If text ads, paid links, etc. continue to grow, then the guy who can write a three-word phrase that generates a click is of value."

Today the New York Times suggests that there's another skill that writers need in the new era -- writing hedes that search engines like. You can read the Times piece here. And take a look at what Fine Young Journalist and the Poynter Institute have to say on the subject.

As for me...I still like the short and pithy concept. And I'd suggest that B2B journalists adopt the two-tiered approach used by the BBC. Use the hedes on the home page to attract humans, and use the hedes on the article page to lure bots. "Some news sites offer two headlines," the Times says. "One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles."

And don't ignore an article's title tag, like the knuckleheads I mentioned in this earlier post did. Title tags are a great place to put the less-than-pithy phrases that bots love.

Friday, April 07, 2006

More on ethics and press releases

It appears that the problem I complained about a few days ago -- publishers pretending that press releases are news items created by staff writers -- isn't confined to B2B journalism.

Television news programs are suffering from similar shortcomings, according to an investigation by Free Press and the Center For Media and Democracy. In the TV business, press releases often come in a so-called video news release, or VNR, a sort of pretend story and/or B-roll background footage. And according to the investigation, at least 77 stations aired VNRs without attribution and branded them instead with the station's graphics. (You can read about the investigation here or here.)

One thing worth noting -- and worth applauding -- in the VNR scandal is how the Radio-Television News Directors Association reacted. The RTNDA issued this statement, urging stations "to review and strengthen their policies requiring complete disclosure of any outside material used in news programming." The RTNDA also reminded members that the organization's ethics policy prohibits such activity.

At present there are no such outright bans in the ethics policies of the ASBPE or ABM. But perhaps it's not too much to hope that one or both groups would consider addressing the issue.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Folio picks its 40 most influential people

Folio magazine has published its Folio: 40 list of the most influential people in publishing. And I'm just thrilled to see that Jon Udell of IDG's Infoworld has made the list.

I'll take a wee bit of credit for this. The folks at Folio magazine were kind enough to seek my input to the Folio: 40 this year. They asked who I thought "represented the state of the art in the new world of b-to-be edit." And Jon was the first person who came to mind.

If you're a B2B editor, Jon is the guy you should try to emulate. He does all the things that his peers do -- writing, reporting, editing -- and he does them better than most. He's also the creator of all-new forms of storytelling (screencasting) and content organization (Infoworld metadata explorer.) And as Folio points out, Jon's blog is "powerhouse of knowledge that incorporates information with video and audio, essentially the next generation in online communication resources."

Take a look at the rest of what Folio said about Jon here.
Take a look at the entire Folio: 40 list here.
And while you're at it, check out this column, which quotes from an earlier post to this blog.

(DISCLOSURE: IDG is a client of mine. But I'm afraid I can't take credit for anything that Jon has ever done.)

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Objecting to objectivity

There's an interesting piece in Slate that raises interesting questions about the future of journalism, and observes that objectivity "is less an ideal than a conceit."

Longtime readers of this blog won't be surprised to hear that I agree with Slate's Michael Kinsley on this. I've been talking about post-objectivity ethics and urging folks to read the work of Dan Gillmor for quite some time.

Kinsley goes on to say that "No one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business. The uncertainty is whether it will only change the method of delivering the product, or whether it will change the nature of the product as well."

And although I agree that there is uncertainty among many of the journalists I know, I would argue that this uncertainty is misplaced. To me it seems obvious that online media -- particularly blogs -- will change the way journalism is practiced. Certainly objectivity is growing less important. But I'm far more interested in the other changes that new media brings.

Hang on to your objective style as long as you like. It won't bother me. But please -- please -- accept that you must adopt the core practices of blogging-- external, agnostic links; feedback functions and conversation; and multimedia storytelling -- if you want to continue to keep working in this industry.

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