Tag Archives: media

Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads

So far, 15 bills mentioning the word “newspaper” have appeared in the N.C. General Assembly this session. They range from bills honoring the Rev. Billy Graham to bills allowing cities and counties to publish public notices digitally.

Legal advertisements and public notices, required by law, have been a little-noticed subsidy of local newspapers since Ben Franklin’s time. In the last few years, talk has increased about eliminating the requirement of placing some public notices in newspapers because of the cost to government and the dwindling reach of newspapers. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote a good roundup about legal notices a year ago. I wrote about legislative bills affecting legal notices in North Carolina in 2011.

Some N.C. towns have already eliminated required print legal ads. This year, more towns (Greensboro, Morrisville, High Point) and counties could join them. With the changing face of journalism, including new digital startups, enhanced TV station websites and pay models at established media outlets, North Carolina should rethink how we write laws that require public notices. Our government’s goals should be leveling the playing field, supporting strong independent reporting regardless of the source, and providing government transparency about how legal ads and public notices get placed. The original intent of the ads – notifying people efficiently about government actions that affect their jobs and lives – must remain a key goal. Government websites cannot reach that goal alone.

The word “newspaper” appears 310 times in North Carolina’s general statutes. Rules requiring public notices grew organically over time, lack uniformity and tend to favor established newspapers. Sometimes, another news organization has broader reach, more reporting resources or more local reader engagement. In many cases, the rules allow non-elected officials to choose winners from among news sources, possibly fostering a spoil system that erodes trust.

The North Carolina Press Association keeps its eye on legislation affecting newspapers, and it has opened its doors to new journalism startups including the nonprofit Carolina Public Press in Asheville and the Raleigh Public Record. It must consider its own members’ interests and will likely lobby for rules that continue existing subsidies through legal notices to newspapers, especially newspapers of a certain size. While that support could erode this year, that issue shouldn’t be the only question on the table. Figuring out how to foster the growth of new news startups should also be a consideration in the General Assembly.

Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are studying how to preserve journalism as old business models fail. Journalism school deans from across the country, including the University of North Carolina’s Susan King, have written a statement urging the IRS to quickly approve nonprofit status for emerging news sites as a way to foster innovation in journalism.

At the same time, our N.C. General Assembly members should bring independent, thoughtful approaches to encouraging quality, local reporting, from for-profits and nonprofits.

Steven Waldman, writing in a special report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” for the FCC in 2011, made one suggestion:

“One possible solution that would benefit all parties would be for governments to save money by hosting public notices on their own websites and paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site. The municipality would be able to spread information about the public notices to a broader range of audiences than they would by just publishing them in a particular newspaper. They would generate more traffic for their own websites, provide ad revenue for local news operations and advance the cause of government transparency.”

Posting public notices and legal ads on town and county websites furthers open government. But to reach people in our fragmented information age, using multiple methods (including print for some areas), at lower costs, seems like the right solution. Our new laws should be fair, encourage innovation and provide flexibility as technology and news sources change.

Here are some samples of the words in existing bills filed this legislative session in the N.C. General Assembly:

“The County shall advertise a notice for interested parties to submit qualifications in such form as the County may require for possible selection as the private developer or private developers in the public‑private project in a newspaper having general circulation within the County.”

“Advertise the sale by publication in a newspaper having general circulation in the county in which the property is situated. [AND] Make the following information about the property being sold available to the public both on its Web site and by mail. …”

“…sealed bids shall be solicited by advertisement in a newspaper widely distributed in this State or through electronic means, or both, as determined by the Secretary to be most advantageous… .”

“The secretary‑treasurer shall annually, at a time and in a law magazine or daily newspaper to be prescribed by the Council, publish an account of the financial transactions of the Council in a form to be prescribed by it.”

“The Charter Board shall distribute information announcing the availability of the charter school process described in this Part to each local school administrative unit and public postsecondary educational institution and, through press releases, to each major newspaper in the State. … ”

Disclaimers: I am not employed or paid by any of the news organizations in this post. I’m a former employee of the Charlotte Observer, and I’m working on a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in digital communications. These words are my own.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and U.S. Rep Mel Watt

Rep. Watt on Youtube

Rep. Mel Watt during SOPA hearings.

Congress is considering a bill that would place restrictions on the Internet, and Charlotte’s Rep. Mel Watt is one of the co-sponsors. Industry heavyweights like Google have lined up against the bill, which has other heavyweights like the Motion Picture Association of America on the other side.

Watt’s coming under some heat because of his statements during discussions about the bill, which could resurface Dec. 21. He has said, “It’s not worthy for us to be talking about who got bought off by whom.” That statement, of course, sent people to look at his political contributors. Here’s a summary.

From Phoenix Woman at Fire Dog Lake:
“Mel Watt Has Over 130,000 Reasons to Like SOPA.”

Alex Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, reported in real time from the markup hearings on Dec. 15 for the bill. Here are two tweets of his from his @digiphile account, with more than 110,000 followers:

Alex Howard tweet 1

Alex Howard tweet 2

Others responded to Watt’s “I am not a nerd” statement during hearings:
“Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.”

Here’s Watt saying, “I am not a nerd,” on Youtube, with reaction.

What the bill does: Lifehacker’s quick version: “All About SOPA: The bill that wants to cripple your Internet, very soon.”

The deep dive on the bill, from Zack Carter at the Huffington Post.

Discussions about the bill could resurface as early as Dec. 21. Here’s where it stands.

Current contributors to Watt’s future campaign efforts include the Communications Workers of America, Microsoft, Cisco, the Motion Picture Association of America, News Corp., Qualcomm, and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Here’s more from OpenSecrets.org on Watt’s campaign finance numbers.

Happy birthday, Charlotte Observer. Applause for your staff.

Charlotte Observer newsroom staff at a picnic circa 1980

Charlotte Observer newsroom staff members pose at a picnic circa 1980.

The Charlotte Observer celebrates its 125th birthday today with a fine retrospective section.
Here are three posts I’d like to add to the mix, celebrating some key people in the news organization’s development in the last 30 years.
Roger the rock, the copy desk chief who shaped standards of accuracy and ethics at the paper for about 20 percent of the paper’s life.
Steve Snow, a driving force behind the news organization’s early jump to online, with a vision of what community should be.
The Motley Crew of 1980, otherwise known as the Boomers when they were young. Their spirit lives on, and some like my first boss, Greg Ring, have survived in the newsrooms to pass on standards to the next generation.

The people of The Charlotte Observer made it strong. Let’s hear a round of applause.

N.C. legislators turn back effort to take legal notices out of newspapers

screenshot of legalnotices.org
A legislative committee turned down efforts to stop requiring local governments to place legal ads in newspapers this week.

Polls in North Carolina of county plus town and city governments show local governments spent about $6 million last year on legal ads and public notices, according to the Associated Press.

Discussions about the notice requirements ran hot and heavy among Charlotte Twitter people. Discussions centered on the print and online circulation numbers for established media as well as the lack of online access for specific groups.

The Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists will likely put the issue on the agenda of a future meeting.

Here’s the full story on legal notices in newspapers in North Carolina.

TriadWatch has used freedom of information requests to gather some numbers about public notices and legal ad spending. Here’s part of what they found, matched up with audited print circulation numbers for the newspapers that benefited:

The City of High Point spent $49,000 on public notices in Fiscal Year 2009-2010.

The High Point Enterprise had a Sunday print circulation of 18,300, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ending March 31, 2011.

The City of Greensboro spent about $128,000 in public notices in two local newspapers since January 2010.

The Greensboro News and Record, which has received about $96,000 from the city since January 2010, has a published Sunday print circulation of about 86,500, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Online numbers would be higher. (I don’t know if they provide legal ads online.)

The Carolina Peacemaker, which received about $31,000 from the City of Greensboro, appears to have a print circulation of about 5,000, weekly, though those numbers could be out of date. On its own site, it lists a readership of 60,000, likely including online numbers.

Circulation numbers, in print and online, are difficult quantitative measures of reach these days. Some news organizations have free print products with large circulation numbers not included in the ABC numbers. Many news organizations measure their online reach in ways that are not comparable. Much of the Twitter discussion in Charlotte the past week centered on these numbers; I’d suggest moving the conversation up a level or two to look at all the possible futures of public notices before focusing on specific ways to compare influence and reach.

Noted by TriadWatch: The Charlotte Observer partners with legalnotice.org to display legal notices in a somewhat searchable way, supported by advertising. The screenshot above is from a search through the organization. The “About” page gives little details about the company. The company also provides subscriber services.

Worth consideration: More granular, searchable, open information could enable more detailed search information, provided in more accessible, easy-to-use interfaces, available to more readers and new companies, perhaps even local startups.

Here’s traffic data from Alexa for legalnotice.org:

“There are 829,298 sites with a better three-month global Alexa traffic rank than Legalnotice.org. Visitors to the site view 2.9 unique pages each day on average. Visitors to the site spend approximately 45 seconds on each pageview and a total of two minutes on the site during each visit. Search engines refer approximately 22% of visits to the site. Legalnotice.org has been online for more than twelve years.”

Also from Alexa: 170 sites link in to legalnotice.org, and its traffic rank in the United States is 143,925.

For this legislative session, the issue is off the table. But it will arise again.

We should talk more and include experts in a variety of fields. We need to move beyond thinking the issue of the cost of public notices and legal ads is merely two-sided, with established media on one side and with cash-strapped taxpayers and governments on the other.

Strengthening North Carolina’s media ecosystem, from the ground up

weeds

Fiona Morgan and Ryan Thornburg issued a call to arms for citizens to become the media in today’s Raleigh News and Observer. Thornburg expanded the idea with a list of steps that communities can take to fill the gaps in news as legacy institutions operate with smaller staffs.

The call to action is remarkable in these respects: It comes from two people in academia, without financial interest in seeing more citizen participation in the media, and it calls for journalistic thinking from ordinary people. It also focuses on North Carolina and local civic news.

When news organizations, local governments or new marketing websites ask for participation from ordinary people these days, many folks react with cynicism:

“Oh, they just want free content.”

And for coders who can help parse data, the cynicism is even greater. These folks get paid to code, and we’re asking them to work for free?

But the call to action from people outside the media shows the civic pain at a time when distrust of institutions runs high. Morgan and Thornburg also bring theory down to specifics.

Their ideas echo projects proposed through the Knight News Challenge as well as the mission of the newly named Knight School of Communication at Queens University in Charlotte.

What I don’t want to see from their call to action: Yet another conference. We have plenty, even in North Carolina, planned for 2011.

What I would like to see: Specific projects or small meetups, with cross-discipline teams, aimed at small slices of the news ecosystem that are uncovered now.

Demos, not memos. Or even blog posts.

At the same time, we have to find ways to pay ourselves for the work. Foundations and nonprofits can jump-start projects, but finding business models is part of the challenge.

Background:
Fiona Morgan’s study of the news ecosystem in the Triangle. The report is long, but worth at least skimming for an understanding that news comes from a complex system rather than one place.

How to share news photos: A guide for anyone who finds themselves with a camera amid news events

Mamiya camera

Thousands marched in Montpellier, France, this weekend to protest pension law changes. My daughter was there studying abroad, camera in hand, but a bit stumped about whether her images had commercial value and how she could share her images with possible paying clients. She uses Tumblr and sometimes Facebook to share images with family and friends, but this case was different and she was seeking a broader audience.

We now have the capabilities to share images from around the world, while traditional news organizations have fewer staffers capturing images. Thousands of students are studying abroad, gathering thousands of images, but knowing how to get that work seen and possibly bought is still tricky. Establishing connections and getting good work found remains as hard as it ever was, and perhaps even harder with information overload.

Quick phone images can be shared immediately with the world through services like Twitpic, but controls on use and the ability to caption and tag well are limited. Sharing on Facebook can be fast too, but the terms of service can disturb anyone who wants to maintain control of their images.

Flickr offers the best ability to be seen, to share and to protect ownership.

To start, here are a few steps that will prove valuable for anyone who finds themselves amid news events with camera in hand. I’d love more tips, corrections or alternative advice from others who have found themselves in similar situations.

First, understand that speed is crucial. If it’s a big news events, its primary value comes in the first few hours after an event. Share quickly.

Sign on to Flickr. Go to the You menu. Upload photos and videos. Tag photos liberally, thinking about the keywords that people would use to find photos. Use all languages that are appropriate.

Be brutal in self editing your work, only adding three to five of your photos from an event, mix of vertical and horizontal. Be brutal in length and quality of videos. Upload speeds can be slow; make sure size is large enough for print but not so large it makes upload time unbearable:
Resolution: minimum of 200 pixels/inch, 300 pixels/inch is better
Pixel dimensions: width of at least 1000 pixels, up to about 1600 pixels

If you think you have enough quality photos for a slideshow, you can upload more photos: 10 to 15. Flickr can make an automatic slideshow and give you a link to it that you can share. But keep in mind that each of those photos needs an accurate, unique caption, and that’s likely to take much of your time.

Captions must include who, what, when, where, maybe why, maybe how much. If the photos are taken in public places, groups of five or more people don’t require individual identification. If fewer than five people are in the photo, get names. If it’s a news event and you can’t get names, you can still upload the photo, but it might not get used. Be honest about what you don’t know. Photos taken on private property are a different matter: Did you have permission to be there? Did the people in the photos give permission? Then you’re covered. Otherwise, legal issues could get sticky.

Include your name and e-mail (a real e-mail that you will check for any questions or queries later) in the caption information. It should be an e-mail that you’re OK with being public and that you do check. If it’s an e-mail address that’s almost not functional because it’s too overloaded, use some other method of contact: public, permanent phone number, unique Facebook name, something that will find you.

Doublecheck the licensing of the photo after upload to make sure it’s some rights reserved, with noncommercial use. With that license, people who want to use it commercially should contact you and offer to pay. You could also mark it “All rights reserved.” People can still offer to pay for it, but it won’t get reused by noncommercial sites.

Consider using social media to link to that Flickr account to get the word out.

Ahead of time:
Check the default licensing on your account for noncommercial use or all rights reserved.
Check your contact settings to make sure people can get in touch with you.
Have a Flickr account, either free or pro, spend some time becoming familiar with it, check settings such as the “license through Getty” setting and remember how to sign in to it.

More ideas? Let me know.

Fighting and dying: A few quick words on community news competition from Steve Buttry

Dandelion weeds

I planned a long post back in mid-August on competition between large companies like AOL’s Patch and homegrown local news sites for MediaShift or this site. For clarity and context, I called Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for TBD.com, a local news site in Washington, D.C., financed by Albritton. Buttry was a bit busy with a launch, but he took the time to talk, and his wise words soothed angst.

Then I got derailed by some other work. So as the buzz heats up again about competition in local online news, I’m dumping his words out of my notebook. I told Buttry I wouldn’t waste them, and they’ll do more good out here:

“I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game, especially if media companies are smart enough to expand beyond advertising and start trying to become a digital marketplace for the community.”

AOL’s Patch is launching several sites in the Washington, D.C., area.

“I think every competitor is a potential collaborator or customer (and I include the Washington Post in that statement, not just Patch).”

Buttry said TBD will aggregate information from the two existing local Patch sites from the start, as TBD aggregates from other sources throughout the metro area.

“Clearly there is some fighting and dying going on,” he said about new business models for news and niche sites. “But I don’t see media competition as a fight to the death. Look at how mobile communication has grown from its tiny (and competitive) start. Lots of fighting and dying in the process, but the market is exponentially bigger than it was a couple decades ago. I think we have plenty of room to grow the market for community media.”

Context: The Internet will likely overtake newspapers as the second largest U.S. advertising medium in the coming year, according to a June report by PricewatershouseCooper, reported at the Wall Street Journal’s Digits.

More context: J-Lab’s report on its New Voices grant participants. 36-page smart PDF, including information valuable for universities and other educational institutions on Page 23 or so.

And even more context: My initial angst about this new competition, remembering the local wars of earlier days. But back then, the ad market was more finite.