Monday, April 30, 2007

Failing to learn, failing to teach

Many of the journalists I know have adopted a strange, delusional vision of their value. I could say that they are in a state of denial. But that hardly describes the sorts of things I hear from people.
Rather, I think it's fair to say that these folks -- veteran journalists with years of experience -- have moved from denial into fantasy.
They've gone from being stubborn about adding new skills to being rigidly opposed to any change in their job description. And they cannot see the damage they are doing to themselves, their peers and their publications.

Consider the editor who told me he wouldn't think about providing headlines for mobile devices because "no reasonable person needs more than a PC to stay connected."
Or consider the reporter, told by his boss to include links in his copy, who insists that his publication "has to hire a specialist to do hyperlinks for me."
Or consider the managing editor who told me she'd fight any attempt by her staff to launch new online products because she liked her job and her schedule "just the way it is."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these people is that they have survived for so long. While news of layoffs keeps coming, there are still people in newsrooms across the country who believe that their old skill set is enough. They entered the profession at a time when being able to report, write and edit for a print publication was all they needed. And they cannot accept that this is no longer true.
And what is strangest about so many of these people is that they seem convinced -- absolutely convinced -- that they will survive even as hundreds of others lose their jobs.

Last week I met with an old friend who told me that his newspaper, like dozens of others across the nation, is moving to a Web-first model. And management, looking to boost productivity online, tried to transfer a number of print reporters to the online department.
But it was too late.
The online department rejected them. The print reporters didn't have the skills or the understanding to work online. And no one in the online department had the patience anymore to teach them. Instead, the online department has requested that the paper hire some recent graduates and some programmers.
And thus the print reporters will be laid off.

I've been thinking about that a lot since reading a post by one of my favorite young journalists, Meranda Watling. Meranda finds herself at a newspaper where most of the old-timers -- the people with the institutional memories that she needs to tap into -- are gone.

Take a look at Meranda's post and think back to what it was like to be the new kid in the newsroom. And perhaps you'll agree with me that the saddest thing about the stubborn old-timers is that because they haven't been willing to learn, they won't be available to teach.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Times, TED and the business of B2B

As Rex said today in a bookmark, "It's not everyday the New York Times does a story on the economics of business-to-business media." So I felt obliged to read the article and link to it.
So here, take a look.

As you'll see, the Times is making note of the decision by TED, the Technology, Entertainment and Design organization, to begin offering videos of 100 of its famous 20-minute presentations. It's a move that the Times says puts TED "at the vanguard of a trend in the conference industry, where organizers have begun to exploit assets that in years past evaporated as soon as speakers left the stage."
And it's worth noting, as the Times does, that TED's decision comes as the latest data from American Business Media indicates that revenue from trade shows has surpassed revenue from print publishing for the first time.

Note: Some of TED's videos have been available online for quite some time. For an earlier post of mine that links to my all-time favorite TED video, click here.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Gatsby," writers and new media

Come morning I'll be on the road, visiting three states in eight days.
And on this trip, when time allows, I'll be reading "The Great Gatsby."

I've read Fitzgerald's masterpiece before, of course. And like many writers, I went through an obsession with the book -- reading and re-reading it constantly back in high school (Hunter Thomson claimed to have retyped the entire book in an effort to absorb Fitzgerald's talent.) But obsessions fade, and it's been at least two decades since I last read "Gatsby."

So why now, at 48 years of age, am I returning to "Gatsby"?
A few weeks ago I was in my car listening to NPR when I heard a wonderful piece about "Gatsby." It featured actors reading selections of the work. There was audio of a trip to Long Island with a Fitzgerald expert. The host and his guests discussed movie versions of "Gatsby,"dissected the book's influence on writers, Fitzgerald's understanding of America and his mastery of the craft, and looked at the Gatsbys of our own time.
At the end of the show, there was a reference to more material available on the Web. When I got home, I logged on and looked.
And by the time I finished absorbing the multimedia presentation, I was obsessed again.
I'd urge you to take some time to do the same. Visit the Web site of Studio 360. Drill down. Follow the links. Listen to the audio.
And then come back to this post.

In the past few weeks I've heard from a number of folks who are upset -- some of them tremendously so -- by two recent posts of mine. In those posts I downplay the usefulness of clips in making a hiring decision and I celebrate those young journalists who take the time to master new skills.
The critics, if I understand their complaints, think I should put more emphasis on the ability to "write" and less on the mastery of new media.
Now it's easy to dismiss some of these critics as morons. (Consider, for example, the ridiculousness of the comment in this post, in which an anonymous person demonstrates an inability to think or write.)
But not every criticism comes from an idiot. Rather, most have come from reasonable folks with a love of good writing. Most, in fact, have come from folks who write for a living and do so with some skill. In other words, most of the criticism has come from folks who have likely had a "Gatsby" obsession, or a "Vonnegut" obsession -- folks just like me.

The truth is that my critics and I share a love of writing. That's why we got into the world of journalism in the first place. Where we differ is on how we feel about the new forms of storytelling. I adore the new forms, and I accept that they are superior vehicles for conveying a story online. Furthermore, I accept that what makes for good writing in print is vastly different from what makes for good writing online.
Consider, if you will, "The Great Gatsby." It is arguably, the greatest piece of American writing in history. In fact, for the sake of argument, let's say that it is the greatest piece of writing in American history.
Now click here and try to read it.

What you'll find is that even "Gatsby" cannot sing on a computer screen. On a computer screen, a multimedia presentation about Fitzgerald's masterpiece works better than the masterpiece itself.
Writing well is about choosing the right medium as much as it is choosing the right word. And the computer screen (or a PDA) is not the right medium for Fitzgerald. Nor, in fact, is the computer screen the appropriate place for most types of long-form writing.

So yes, when I think about hiring young people, I'm not very interested in their ability to write in long form.
I care more about reporting ability. I care more about ambition and entrepreneurial spirit. I care more about multimedia skills than print skills because I accept that young journalists are entering a business where the page is not as important as the screen.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years" I dreamed that I would write like Fitzgerald. I dreamed that I would create a book that was wondrous and beautiful and without peer. I may do that yet. And if I do, I pray that you read it in print and not online.

In the meantime, I'll look for the next generation of long-form writers in the bookstore and I'll look for the next generation of journalists online.
And I'll continue to try to do what I hope I have done here -- writing well for online by telling a story, making a point, uploading a photo, linking elsewhere and beginning a conversation in less than 800 words.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Birth of a magazine

If it stops raining by morning, I may walk up to the corner newsstand, where I'll buy a copy of Conde Nast's new magazine -- my second such print purchase of the year.

Yes, tomorrow marks the debut of Portfolio magazine. And I suppose I'm moderately excited. Not so much because I want to actually read the magazine, but because I've sort of enjoyed the marketing campaign.
Conde Nast has done a masterful job of building buzz by acting secretive and hush-hush about the whole thing. For weeks, the company didn't say a word. Then, as launch date neared, Conde Nast began giving "exclusives."
It's worked ... at least on me and the handful of other obsessive magazine junkies that I know.
(For more of my thoughts on Portfolio's non-marketing campaign, check out this article in Folio magazine.)

So come morning, I'm likely to be one of the first folks to buy a copy of Portfolio.
Unless of course, the rain keeps coming.
No magazine is worth drowning over.

For a look at what the ultra-secret cover may look like, click here.
For more on the Portfolio story, click here.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Unstuck in time

I've been thinking about an idea for a post.
It's about writing. It's about "The Great Gatsby," the future of journalism, our delusions as wordsmiths, the advantages of multimedia, and a few other ideas.
I'd planned to write it today.
But moments ago I heard on the radio that Kurt Vonnegut had died.
And suddenly I don't feel much like writing about writing.
I only want to write about Kurt's writing.

For those of us of a certain age, Kurt was the greatest of writers. He spoke to us in a way we longed to be spoken to. He was older, but unlike so many of his peers in the Vietnam era, he was wiser too.
And for writers of a certain age, he was what we aspired to be. He was brilliant and unusual and self-depreciating and lovely and gentle and fierce. And he had transcended the rules of our craft -- creating stories that were nothing like what had come before.

If you know Kurt's work, you know how difficult much of his life has been. His mother committed suicide. He was a prisoner of war in the second World War. His son developed schizophrenia. Kurt tried to kill himself in 1984. He was heavy drinker, a compulsive smoker and he struggled with depression.
But when he wrote -- God, when he wrote -- it was perfect.

The opening line of Kurt's best-known book, "Slaughterhouse Five," is "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time." It's a reference to the hero of that book -- a POW who moves back and forth in time. It was also a reference to Kurt's often-stated belief that linear time was an illusion (He liked to "prove" that point by saying that if time progressed, then it was logical that he would be a better writer in his later years than he was in his early years. But since there was no suggestion that he was getting better, there was no reason to believe that time moved in one direction only.)
But if you've read "Slaughterhouse Five" you know that it's about more than time or war. It's about the enormity of small lives. It's about what is implied by becoming unstuck in time -- an understanding that all things are happening at the same time for all time.

And if you accept the premise of that book, than you know not to mourn. Because if everything is always happening, has always happened and always will happen, then Kurt is still writing. Just as Kurt is still a POW, just as he has always been dead, has always been a new father, always been a struggling businessman, always loved his wife, and always, always been lighting a cigarette.

Just as somewhere out there, I have always been doing this -- sitting at a computer, typing a line that Kurt had written on a cartoon tombstone in "Slaughterhouse Five:" "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."
Just as I have always been hoping, always will be hoping, that it is true.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Ethics and awards

There are few things in journalism I find as absurd or as dangerous as the notion that publishing on a computer screen rather than on a piece of paper exempts us from the norms of ethical behavior. Yet it seems that nearly every day someone makes exactly that claim.
Consider, if you will, the case of Bambi Francisco at MarketWatch. Francisco has left her job after it became clear that she had violated the ethical standards of parent company Dow Jones. And although I have no intention of defending Francisco's actions, it should be pretty clear that she was given "permission" to turn her back on the ethics guidelines by her boss, who has said "the rigid rules of the past may not always apply to the new media."
(For more on the Francisco scandal, check out what Matthew Ingram and Staci Kramer have to say.)

If I have accomplished nothing else in writing this blog, I would like to think that I've helped to remind the world of B2B journalism that the rigid rules of the past do apply to new media. Or, as I've said in earlier writings and in public appearances, "the rules haven't changed online, and you shouldn't let them."

So it pleases me to see that the American Society of Business Publication Editors has been named to the Folio 40 list for having "put together one of the most comprehensive editorial ethics guidelines for online."
Folio magazine is correct: "few organizations have tackled the subject of online ethics as thoroughly as the American Society of Business Publication Editors did in the May 2006 release of its updated ethics guide." I congratulate ASBPE for the honor. And I applaud Folio for naming the association to the Folio 40.

(Disclosure One: Bambi Francisco and I worked together briefly at CNNfn, the financial news network of CNN, which now exists only as CNNMoney. I don't remember her well. And she may not remember me at all. But in the time we worked together, I thought of her as both professional and ethical.
Disclosure Two: Longtime readers may remember that I began urging ASBPE to update its ethics policy roughly two years ago. The first reference I can find to that call is in this post from July 2005. And thus I feel some pride in ASBPE's accomplishment. To read my reaction to the new guidelines in May of last year, click here.)

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The next big problem in B2B publishing

My friend Clyde at ProHipHop sent an article about how the News & Observer newspaper in North Carolina is putting a new emphasis on local coverage and online publishing. Clyde assumed, correctly, that I would be interested in reading how the staff was struggling with the new realities of the publishing industry.
But as I read the article, I found my thoughts wandering.
It's true that we've seen dozens of stories like this about dozens of newspapers and magazines trying to adjust to the Web. The story of the N&O is no different. There is nastiness and misunderstanding. There are folks with their heads in the sand; there are folks with their heads up their butts. There are turf wars and defensiveness. And too few people on the editorial side seem excited about the possibilities.
And as I read the article -- hearing of the same old problems at yet another publication -- it occurred to me that I knew something important. I knew what the next big problem is going to be in B2B journalism.

Almost everywhere I go these days -- clients' offices, universities, industry conferences -- people ask me different versions of the same question: What will be the next big thing? What they're looking for is some clue as to where they should put their efforts. Everyone wants to get a jump on what's next. No one wants to duplicate the struggles of the print-to-Web transition.
I tell them that I don't know what the next big thing will be, although I have some rough ideas. I tell them I expect someone will soon build an "iPod of reading" -- a new, portable device that changes how we read in the same revolutionary fashion that the iPod changed how we listen. I talk about epaper, and a "newsroom in your pocket." I talk about new interfaces that blur the line between creation and consumption. And I say that hundreds of people, much brighter than I, are building remarkable things. And one of those things will become the next big thing in media.
But what I don't mention is that it's unlikely that any of the people who are about to change the content world actually work in a content company.

Perhaps the great lesson of the print-to-online shift has been that traditional content companies suffered and struggled during the transition because they were structured in such a way that suffering and struggling was all they could do.
And content companies are still structured like that. Even the newest, Web-based content companies are structured like that.
And that's why our next big problem is going to be our inability to respond to the next big thing.

A few weeks ago I re-read Clayton Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma," which was first published in 1997.
Christensen is brilliant and complex. So I'll ask his fans to forgive me for the following brief and simplistic summary of his work.
Christensen argued that there are two types of technological advances. Sustaining technologies "foster improved product performance." While disruptive technologies, which eventually alter an industry, lead to short-term drops in product performance. Disruptive technologies generally "underperform established products in mainstream markets" and are generally "cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use."
Christensen's central argument was that good management practices -- listening to customers, investing in high-margin businesses, researching markets before entering them, etc. -- made it nearly impossible to respond to disruptive technologies.
In other words, a well-run traditional company is structured in such a way that it can't respond to the next big thing.
If you want to read more about Christensen's theories, you can order the book, read this summary, or check out the Web site of his consulting company.
And it's worth noting that although Christensen, as far as I know, has never examined the B2B publishing industry, he has studied the newspaper business. And he's recommended a "portfolio solution" that magazine publishers should be familiar with. In that plan, a newspaper should create a "suite of products and services in addition to the newspaper, intersecting the population on a variety of planes. The goal is to create new audiences of individuals who are not necessarily interested in the newspaper’s contents."

Past is Prologue
In the past few months I've noticed a problem. It's the same problem that Christensen has studied. It's the same problem that plagued us as we moved from the print world to the Web:
Our companies aren't structured to respond to the next big thing.
I've met with dozens of people from dozens of content companies. Some of these companies are newly Web-focused. Others are Web-only companies and email newsletter companies born in recent years.
And I'm seeing the exact same attitudes, beliefs, work rules, chains of command and silos that I saw in the print-only companies that failed to respond to the Web. I meet email newsletter folks who don't know what RSS is, because "that's not our business." I meet Web journalists who don't think about widgets "because our customers aren't asking for them." I meet managers of online companies who laugh at mobile content ("our readers want more detailed analysis than you can get on a Blackberry,") roll their eyes at online communities ("those are for teenagers") and won't visit a virtual world ("our audience are high-end serious people. None of them play computer games.)

So what's the answer?
Christensen suggested that "creating an independent organization, with a cost structure honed to achieve profitability at the low margins characteristic of most disruptive technologies, is the only viable way for established firms" to harness the forces at play.
In other words, he suggests a "skunk works," a separate company/unit that isn't about the existing product line and that doesn't serve the existing customer base.
Or, as I say at the end of this video interview with Sara Sheadel from ABM, "somebody has to think about and play with every silly idea that pops up ... and then, after you've played for awhile, you can make a determination about whether or not there is a value there."

The thoughts of others
When I think about what I should play with next, I often turn to the work of Danah Boyd. If the next big thing is related to social networking, young people, or community, Danah will know about it long before I do. Check out the text of a speech she gave at eTech.

Sometimes I think the next big thing will be a series of little things -- taking what we do and making it smaller, portable, mashable and shareable. Here's news of a development in that area involving Penton.

Finally, I want to welcome the newest voice to the B2B media blogosphere. Check out the new blog from John Schwartz, general manager of Dentalcompare, an online buyers guide.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Coverage of my presentation at ABM

Last week I spoke at American Business Media’s Digital Velocity conference, where I had the chance to share some of my thoughts on the next generation of journalists. If you were there, you heard me talk about what we should, and should not, be looking for when interviewing recent grads.
If you weren't there, don't worry. Folio magazine was kind enough to send a reporter. And you can read Folio's coverage of my presentation by clicking here.
And heck, even if you're not interested in what I had to say, you should still take a look at the Folio article. Because it also quotes one of my co-panelists, Jason Brightman. And in the less than a year that I've known Jason, I've come to believe he's one of the smartest guys in our industry.

And as long as I'm talking about quotes, my ego dictates that I also point to this post, where Bryan Murley calls me a "one-man quote machine."

(Addendum: As Sara from ABM points out in a comment to this post, there's now also a video available of an interview with me from the Digital Velocity conference. Click here to take a look.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Folks with resumes need not apply

Last week I wrote about how clips provide little value in helping me make a hiring decision.
Now it appears that Wired has gone a step further -- telling prospective hires for at least one job not to bother sending a resume, but to instead forward a blog post.
I'm not surprised by Wired's move. And I suspect we'll see more situations like this in which employers screen applicants based on their access to Web tools and sensibilities. (For example, why would any radio station hire anyone who doesn't have a podcast?)

It's also no surprise to me that I heard about the Wired job through a post on Ryan Sholin's blog. I first came across Ryan's work back when he was a student. And I often used him as an example of how young journalists should approach the new world of media. Ryan has since graduated. And he's become central to the debate over how to educate the next generation of journalists. He's also become one of the people that helps me follow -- and make sense of -- the changes in journalism.

In my post last week about clips, I also made reference to three things that I think make a college kid worth hiring for an entry level job. And number two on that list was that the student be "self-taught" -- picking up skills that weren't taught as part of the curriculum.
Well Ryan is the king of self taught. And his graduation didn't change his belief that he needs to constantly expand his skill set.
Take a look at this piece from his blog in which he takes "an informal poll on what I should learn next."

(Personal note: I experienced some problems with email last week. Several hundred old emails were lost. And for about 24 hours or so, new incoming emails simply disappeared. The problem seems to be resolved. But if you sent something to me last week and didn't get a response, please try again. Thanks.)

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