Sunday, February 3, 2013

365, 12, 7, 24

Well Friday marked another milestone in the life of this Digital Notebook blog of mine.

That was the day that marked a full year of daily posts.

It was on Feb. 1 of 2012 that I began my experiment of seeing if I could post something every day.

The experiment has proven its possible and, often enough, exhausting.

"Why would I do such a thing?" you ask.





To be honest, the real reason was fear.

Like a lot of guys, I don't like facing uncertainty sitting on my hands. I like to try to do something to address it, face it, possibly affect it.

And, as many of you likely know, the company that owns The Mercury is in bankruptcy for the second time in the 15 years I've been here.

Now this particular bankruptcy has more to do with shedding debt and selling ourselves to a newly created "stalking horse" subsidiary, than crash and burn financial distress -- but still....

Newspapers around the nation are closing, reducing days of publication or trying to go the full digital route.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that journalism is going through a major transformation. The key question is: "Into what?"

Easier to answer is the cause -- as it always has, it's technology that is bringing about this change.

It was the printing press (combined with an burgeoning education system) which transformed reading from a magical skill understood by a few learned monks and aristocrats to the next big thing in mass communication since the town crier.

It was a reliable postal service which made it possible for the founding fathers to keep the public informed enough about what was going on elsewhere in the Republic to establish the geographically largest successful democracy the world has ever seen.

(Newspapers from one city were shipped to another, where they were gleefully cut up and the news stolen for re-publication in the new location.)

Cheap newsprint and even better public education made penny newspapers ubiquitous in major cities and then radio made news and communication instantaneous.

Television provided the instant images and the TV news anchor was born.

But throughout all of it, the people who controlled the technology controlled the information.

Not just anyone could buy a printing press, a radio station, or television network.

Throughout it all, there were professionals who decided what was important enough to tell people and, in an information market, what they wanted to know.

What this latest wave of technology has changed fundamentally, I've come to understand, is that anyone can use it. No longer are the decisions about what and when information will be provided in the hands of a few, trained professionals, often called "the gate keepers" in Journalism 101.

Anyone can start a blog, for example, and many, many, many have.

In the information marketplace, those with the best blog, best tweets, best Instragram, Tumblr or Pintrest pages get the most readers.

This is neither good nor bad, it just is.

Well, to be more precise, it is both good and bad.

On the good side, Pottstown does not have just three reporters anyone; it potentially has thousands albeit part-time.

This means when a storm hits, we can get information from people all over the place; what's flooded, what roads are closed, where the is power out. That makes for better instant information.

It also means that stories we may once have ignored can be presented by readers, or at least that readers can advocate for their publication. In other words, it makes it easier to "give the people what they want."

On the bad side, few of these people have any kind of professional experience.

They are free to post anything they please; rumors, calumny and even outright lies, and they may well have agendas and motivations for what they are doing which are more than just a desire to inform the public.

Worse still, they can do it anonymously. Unlike professionals, they often are not accountable for what they write or broadcast.

Also, because these new digital newsies rarely make money doing it, or enough that they can do it full-time, what they produce is often a sideline and rarely sustainable over the long-haul.

A lack of consistency works primarily to the benefit of those in authority. They can just wait out someone nipping electronically at their heels in the reasonable belief that soon enough, they will just go away.

(Joe Zlomek's Sanatoga Post is the admirable exception to these observations and I continue watch with interest how his model is growing and succeeding.)

Now I've used the word "professional" a couple times here and I should note that like any industry, journalism needed a shake up.

For many journalists, the idea that you are pursuing and presenting the truth as best you can discern became a belief that because they say it or write it, it's automatically the truth.

Add on the awards that journalists like to pat themselves on the back with (hey, if we can't get rich at least we can pin medals on our chests) and you have a recipe for eventual upset. Any market hates complacency and we were long overdue for our wake-up call.

Having a lot of upstarts scoop you, come up with business models that make yours look like a steam engine and surf the fast-changing wave of technological changes with such skill that you look like the 98-pound weakling standing on the shore, will do one of two things.

If its all too much, it may make you give up and start eyeing your pension (if you're lucky enough to still have one.)

I've seen some of the journalists I know simply dig in their heels and refuse to recognize that change is not only coming, it's already here and it's kicking their ass.

It's enough to make me want to pull out what's left of my graying hair.

Or, these shake ups may motivate you to remind people that despite all the bells, whistles, touch screens, pop-ups, apps and tweets, you still bring a bedrock value to the game -- credibility.

I've always thought the key to adapting to change is recognizing what new things bring value to what you do, without losing sight of the values and practices you can't afford to give up.

Now, it's understood that "credibility" can seem a bit flimsy when journalism has been undermined in recent years by the need to compete and make money.

I could never figure out why this stunt did not get
Geraldo fired. Then I remembered, it's Fox News
It's lead to everything from TV spots about how great the news NBC season will be or, what I like to think of as the beginning of the fall -- Geraldo Rivera revealing the empty contents of "Al Capone's Vault."

The blending of entertainment and news has made it ever more difficult to draw the line between news, opinion and fluff.

This is, of course, one of the dangers of letting the market decide everything.

It has given us hour after agonizing hour of "reality TV," as if you've ever seen anyone act completely normal while facing a television camera.

Seriously? I mean seriously?
Let's face it folks, "Honey Boo Boo" would not be on TV if no one watched it.

All of which is enough to put a little fear of irrelevance into the heart of anyone who believes that it actually serves democracy to have an independent entity that questions authority, exposes stupidity, corruption and waste and is able to present it with enough credibility that the people believe it, and act to correct it.

A little fear can be a good motivator.

Which brings us back to this Digital Notebook blog of mine.

Given that a newspaper only has as much space as the advertising pays for, I thought I might try this digital experiment of my own.

This is not the kind of "bell and whistle"
I meant folks.
It started by creating a place that, just like the newspaper, is new every day, where all the news that doesn't make it into the paper can be posted for people to see, or not.

It has also provided, as regular readers know, a place for me to spout off column-style from time to time.

So what insights has this experiment revealed.

Well, to a certain extent, it has primarily reinforced things I already knew.

That in local news, people like news about themselves.

Parents like to see their kids triumphs proclaimed, teachers like to see their work appreciated and people like to see those in authority held to account and, more than a little occasionally, ridiculed.

This is, of course, nothing new to someone who has been in local news for 25 years now.

"People like news, always have," was the sage observation boss lady Nancy March shared with me, with a smile, when I told her I was contemplating this post.

As to the daily pace, that was a little harrowing. Good thing I have been working at a daily newspaper for 15 of those years.

Nancy has another saying you get used to hearing during a typical newsroom morning, as we look over the paper, admire our handiwork and pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness, thoroughness or enterprise.

"Yeah, that was a good story," she'll say brusquely, followed by the inevitable: "What have you got daily?"

And so it was with this blog, planning how to get through weekends and, especially vacations.

Also, one advantage of this technology is that rather than rely on received wisdom, you can actually count which posts get the most interest.

The tireless John Armato
And so I saw the self-evident evidence that when John Armato sent me a press release with photos (I could never have made 365 consecutive posts without his steady stream of good news about Pottstown Schools) and I dutifully posted it.

He would then dutifully send out a link to all district employees, which translated into lots of hits.

Another hit generator is a daily e-mail that comes from Lawrence Feinberg, from the Keystone State Education Coalition. It contains education news from all around the Commonwealth and, when I had a post about education issues, I would send him a link.

Lawrence Feinberg
If he thought it worth sharing, he would and, again, my "hits" would go up.

All of this, of course, is the basic lesson of distribution. You can have the nicest or the cleverest blog in the world, but if no one sees it, what's the point?

It's the newspaper equivalent of giving a party to which nobody comes.

Finally, those posts which seemed to draw the most attention whose source was not obviously from someone with a wide distribution list sharing the link, were those not much different in subject from what I regularly write about in the newspaper.

This blog gizmo shows the most popular posts right on the page you're reading this (presuming you've gotten this far) and you'll see the three most popular posts come from distribution lists.

But the four and fifth place finishers are about Pottstown Borough considering new core values and a new mission statement; and a photo and ruminations on downtown facades.

These are not exactly the kind of subjects that would have a tabloid headline writer drooling. But they are, apparently, the kind of things people want to know about their community and what their leaders are doing.

All of which is to say that I spent a year in this dogged experiment and found out a whole of things I already knew:

1) People like local news about their community, and they like when it comes from a trustworthy someone who doesn't have something to gain by its distribution.

2) A good distribution network is as necessary for building audience for an electronic news vehicle you read on a screen as is is for a one you hold in your hand.

3)  And maybe we don't have that much to fear after all. We just need to be smart, and pay attention to how each new different vehicle works, what advantages it presents, and which paths it may take us down.

4) And finally, we need to figure out how to continue to provide this often-unappreciated function so vital to democracy in such a way that someone can make a living doing it.

And so, 365 posts later, on-line 12 months a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and having garnered several hundred hits shy of 75,000 hits, we bring the experiment to a close.

This does not mean the blog will end folks, merely that I am not so sure that I will continue my daily posting.

I have made no decision about it one way or the other, just wanted to state that having run the course of my experiment, I am releasing myself from the pledge to do so.

Who knows? Maybe that will turn into an experiment as well.

It's not like any of this is planned or anything.

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