Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More lessons from Main Street

You can't write a blog post suggesting a radical approach to revitalizing an industry without expecting some flack, and yet several days after suggesting that the national Main Street Program's four-point approach to bringing new life to downtowns also might work well for the newspaper industry, I have yet to hear a single response.

Not even a “Ted, what were you thinking?”

That surprises me for several reasons, not the least being that my March 23 post (“Lessons for newspapers from Main Street”) was the third most-read of my blog posts, behind “When your best ain't good enough,” which actually was my second most-read post since I started this blog on Dec. 14 My first post, “First stunned, then pain and grief,” in which I chronicled my layoff, continues to be the best-read post I've ever had.

I am grateful to you who jump on to read my posts. “Laid off at 51: Seeking joy in change” has been far more successful than I would have expected just in terms of page views over the past three months or so.

But it can be difficult to gauge impact. Few people add their own comments to my individual posts, fewer still send e-mails with their thoughts. And I'm surprised that at least a few copy editors haven't written to point out the typos that occur from time to time (any editor worth his salt will admit that perhaps the biggest challenge is editing his own work because he knows what he was trying to write and therefore is likely to skate right past mistakes without recognizing them).

But perhaps the silent reaction is more because so many of you are reading many other blogs like this one, dealing with the ramifications of an industry that fell off the cutting edge long ago.

So as I watched readership spike on my “Main Street” post after March 23, I looked over what I had written to see if perhaps I could find any flaws in applying the national Main Street Program's four-point approach to the newspaper industry.

Quite frankly, the only ones I could come up with are the same types of criticisms, based in ignorance and skepticism, that some downtown merchants voice in many communities looking at entering the Main Street Program. Main Street has proven time and again that, when it's four-point approach is followed directly, downtowns see improvement and are revitalized.

When I first learned about Main Street, I was in Rawlins, a small town in south-central Wyoming whose merchants' prosperity often ebbs and flows with fluctuations in the energy industry. Much of the skepticism I've witnessed about Main Street occurred as that town prepared to adopt the program.

“It can't be done. There are too many interests competing for the same dollars,” or “One organization can't possibly serve all of the business interests of the downtown – their needs are too broad..”

This kind of skepticism is born of fear of the unknown – things like “I don't need this – I'm hanging in there” or “I can't afford this – this is going to cost me” or “I'm busy enough minding my store – I don't have time for this” and other sundry and similar concerns. Ultimately, it sounds like the people voicing these objections actually are afraid of investing time in something in which they lack confidence.

And of course there were some who'd abandoned all hope. "It's too late, we can't recover from this. We may as well just accept it."

Main Street Point 1: organization.

The bottom line that changed the minds of many in these businesses was the realization that their bottom lines had not yet bottomed out but were bound to do so.

Not all, but many newspapers are in similar straights today and might make similar arguments against cooperating and organizing. But the alternative appears much less optimistic.

And I'm not talking about circling the wagons – that's simply a surrender, just hunkering down and waiting for the end, or hoping the bad conditions will improve by themselves. I'm talking about something more proactive and cooperative, to advance the four-point plan.

Main Street Point 2: promotion.

As I mentioned March 23, journalism's image has taken a lot of hits over the years. Some of that is perception. But some is warranted: There are a lot of political pundits out there, for example, who are masquerading as journalists. Further, the Internet has given everybody and their brothers/sisters a platform on which they can air their views with a potential audience that is seemingly limitless. There are many bloggers out there putting out their views and false information.

Some, however, are trained journalists, as I am, and value truth, and opinion backed by truth.

How do we draw a distinction? And how does journalism as an industry convey the importance of that distinction?

A lot of talk about branding has focused on a product, but what about branding the profession itself? It's not like it hasn't been tried before, although I don't think it always has been done particularly well.

Doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, for example, appear to be their own brand simply by definition. There is an expectation of knowledge and training associated with the title “doctor” or “nurse” that generally elicits respect.

Realtor, on the other hand, is a trademarked name intended to convey a greater level of professionalism and training than the term real estate agent. Yet I would argue that not many people outside of copy editors and Realtors truly understand that there is a difference. Many folks use the terms Realtor and real estate agent interchangeably.

But if the industry chose not only to set standards – truth and accuracy, loyalty to the citizens (impartiality and credibility), verification, independence – and set expectations for journalists and news media to live up to, then the industry could being pushing a brand that promotes itself as a reliable and trustworthy source of information. Done properly – and social media would be just one element of such an effort – marketing could help people draw a distinction between nonjournalist bloggers, for example, and journalists.

I once laughed at this idea but understand now that effective marketing can indeed change perceptions. But it has to be sincere; it has to really mean something.

Main Street Point 3: design.

I spent a fair amount of space last week talking about what I perceive as a need for news media to make their online platforms user-friendly. I really have little to add except that I missed an important element in last week's blog that falls under design.

Engaging the community: Drawing readers into the site to interact, to thoroughly read, view and even own the knowledge or the story being presented.

That is something that can be initiated with website presentation – the ability to post comments, rate stories or share the information or images via social media, for example. But engaging the community requires direct interaction, as well. Social media in this instance becomes a tool for engagement as well as for marketing.

Main Street Point 4: economic restructuring.

The need for a new business model for the newspaper industry is readily apparent. And while I do not believe it will work, the New York Times has put a lot of time and money and hope in a paywall that it is implementing this week.

After writing last week about my skepticism of the success of paywalls outside of specialty markets, a good friend pointed out that the publication at which he's employed has seen fair success with its paywall. But its daily publication is in a noncompetitive market – you can get away with a lot when you're the only game in town. Its business publication also is doing well using a paywall, even though it is in a more competitive market.

I remain skeptical, but I am no golden-boy businessman who thinks he knows the answers. I hope for a business model that will eventually put good journalists back to work at a fair wage. That, however, could be a long time coming. More and more organizations are relying on “stringers,” free-lance writers, some of whom are very talented journalists, who get paid a nominal fee for each story they turn in that gets published.

The growing reliance on these contract writers is a boon to the industry: It's a cheaper alternative to full-time employees. So the industry has been laying off the full-timers who come at a greater cost – salaries, benefits, vacation, Social Security and 401(k) contributions.

But the price is steep in terms of the quality of the content -- the stories, photos and other dynamic parts of presenting information to consumers that trained and experienced journalists provide.

When hiring does occur, it frequently favors young college grads who have more training in the digital world, but it is not tempered by the wisdom and know-how that comes with experience. And fewer and fewer experienced pros are still employed and able to share the wisdom they have.

Experienced veterans – both employed and unemployed – are looking outside the field we love for work that is more stable, more reliable, has a more defined future. The departure of these veterans is striking a blow to the profession's breadth and depth of knowledge from which it will take decades to recover.

My greater concern is that the newspaper industry will devolve into some kind of morass of published but too frequently dubious information provided either by poorly paid hacks with little regard for standards, or inexperienced professionals with little oversight or mentoring.