Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can we afford fact checkers?

I was interviewed recently by Mark Lacter, the former editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal for a piece he is writing about the Los Angeles Times for Los Angeles magazine. (There are a lot of Los Angeleses in that sentence).

A few weeks after the interview, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as a "fact checker" for the magazine; she wanted to confirm a few facts in the article--most were right, a few needed to be tweaked.

It all seemed so quaint.

Who has time and the finances to support a fact checker? Not in the current world of immediate blogging. We rely on "user generated content" online, in real time, to correct the "facts."

Way back in 2003, in the July/August issue, the Columbia Journalism Review, ran a piece by a "fact checker" that explained how necessary it was for even that reputable magazine to have fact checking. Ariel Hart wrote that in her three years of fact checking, she had never found an article without errors, and that the piece with the most errors was one from a Pulitzer Prize winner.

It turned out that the article she "fact checked" with the least errors was "written by a former Los Angeles Times lawyer." (Yup, that was me.)

As the magazine business model changes, the few remaining fact checkers will be eliminated from newsroom budgets, if they haven't been already. Which will eventually make the magazines no more credible that a web site, I suppose. (But without the corrective impact of online comments!)

Yet, another reason that the print model will slowly wither away.

What do you think?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fixing the Los Angeles Times--Students' View

How to fix the Los Angeles Times?

Well, running a front page advertorial is not gonna do it.

The Los Angeles Times has many of the same problems as any big city metropolitan newspaper, except that it's parent company, Tribune, is in bankruptcy court, and in the last twenty years the average tenure of one of its publishers has been about two years.

I asked the students in my graduate course on media business strategies at USC's Annenberg School (they are receiving a masters in management and communications) what factors have contributed to the downfall at the Los Angeles Times, and then gave them the assignment of writing a memo to the publisher advising how to fix the paper so that it could grow and sustain itself.

The students, all generation Y twentysomethings, (all of whom "live" on the web and rarely read print publications) came up with a list of factors that are causing the demise of newspapers generally, and then a separate list of those factors unique to the Los Angeles paper. Generically, newspapers are all dealing with the following, they said:

--Resistance to change
--Classified categories hurt by economy and internet
--Lack of relevance
--Lack of timeliness
--Online searching more effective
--Internet offers diversity and no geographic boundaries
--Public ownership
--Internet has unlimited ad inventory
--No time to read
--Web has targeted, measurable and effective advertising
--Family rituals (e.g. reading at the breakfast table)disappearing
--High debt
--Mass media doesn’t work anymore
--Free is better than cheap

As far as those things that were unique to the Los Angeles Times, they came up with:

--Role of the Chandler family
--Los Angeles itself (complex, diverse market with 85 cities)
--Ridiculously high debt
--No mass transit
--No national edition or strategy
--Arrogance and risk averse culture

It's a lot easier to explain the problem than to come up with a solution, but here are some of their (sometimes overly simplified) cures:

"There is no ownership continuity and no sense of personal responsibility."

Acknowledge that print is dead. "It's not challenged, and it's not struggling--it's dead and ready for internment."

Phase out the print newspaper.

Modify the print product to a slimmed down "express" newspaper that directs readers to the web site for the full story.

The print edition will be no more than "fries accompanying the burger."

Raise circulation prices, make consumers pay for the luxury of delivery.

Plan to publish a print edition once, or maybe only a couple days, per week.

Buy the Los Angeles Daily News and get consolidation savings.

Develop a lean overhead and a local, conversational focus.

Develop a Lakers fan application for mobile devices, using Sports section content.

The LAT web site is unimpressive, not creative, does not allow for enough interactivity and isn't translated into Spanish.

Partner, partner, partner.

Be the authority on local.

Offer one stop integrated advertising for print and web. Buying advertising "should be no more difficult than shopping at"

Monetize white papers, research papers, and in depth analysis with selective consumer pay models.

Develop new revenue streams from delivering news content and geo-specific advertising to mobile and other devices.

Expand audio visual advertising formats on the web.

One student summed up the challenge: "Turning the Times around and preparing it for the next wave of information technology innovations require more than strengthening the Times online presence and using the same old print business model to bring in the revenues....The Times has to watch the technology market closely, collaborate with device makers, be on the forefront of the art and science of digital delivery (e.g., user interface designs), and begin developing revenue models for a range of scenarios."

Well said.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Newspaper Arrogance: Who Knows Best

I had hoped it might have been weaned out of the system by the current crisis, but I keep running into what I'll call newspaper arrogance. It is that only those journalists in the newsrooms of our nation's newspapers really know the TRUTH. One journalist who spoke to my graduate class at USC's Annenberg School recently said something to the effect: I'll admit that there is a lot of diverse information on the internet, but 80% of it is moronic.

I've had the exact opposite experience reading blogs and web sites. I learn a lot from not very well known, but sometimes very smart observers. Yes, the original beat reporting may not be as well done, (or could even disappear given the economic state of newspapers and that is a problem) but on the web you can get information directly from the horses mouth, so to speak.

I agree with Robert Niles latest post: Newsrooms can't expect j-school graduates with one 200-level econ course to their credit to be able to attract an audience covering the business beat when they are competing with bloggers who have PhDs in economics, or years of industry experience.

Yes, the reader has to ferret out the bias, understand that a particular blogger may have an ax to grind, or an industry to protect, but the ability to actually get at the raw data, the survey results that the journalist summarizes, the congressional report that the reporter references, make the internet a better source of accurate information in the long run; it's just that you don't have an editor as gatekeeper or proof reader to guard against mistakes, bias and omissions, so you have to do it as a critical reader. Yourself. And that's a little more time consuming, but not so awfully bad.