Monthly Archives: September 2010

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.

Print design in newspapers: Accept reality

photo of cogs
About seven years ago, I had long philosophical discussions with Ted Yee, a visionary design leader at The Charlotte Observer, about how web design would affect print. We thought about shapes, type and page orientations, but not about process.

We were so off base.

Now, it’s clear that the processes of the web have affected print much more than shapes and typography have.

News organizations have learned how to borrow processes from web production to make print less costly. Tribune, Gannett, McClatchy and Media General have all taken steps to somewhat automate print production and to streamline costs. The changes have pushed some design thinking earlier, to setup of templates for routine content, across newspapers.

That thinking has become more like wireframing for websites.

The Society of News Design wrapped up its annual convention in Denver this week, and one session focused on templates and print production hubs for newspapers. Gannett’s Kate Marymont was on the panel, which talked about the new hubs being rolled out by Gannett and the other legacy news chains. Print production for several newspapers will happen in a centralized spot, perhaps hundreds of miles away from the communities served by particular newspapers.

That panel discussion is important beyond newspapers, for people interested in journalism and in journalism education, because it opened windows to redefined roles at legacy news organizations.

Some traditional print jobs have permanently changed. We need to accept it and move forward.

Since 1999, I’ve taken special assignments at various times working on setup of the CCI content management system (pardon my jargon). CCI has evolved into a system for print and web production, and it enables the templating and sharing of news for Tribune, some of McClatchy, some New York Times properties and for Gannett. I know of one startup using it for sponsored local content.

I’ve emerged from that work (and after a year away, learning the freelance world) focused on niche community news without traditional job definitions, still using CCI. I work with a team where everyone knows how to layout pages, write headlines, crop photos and edit copy. Traditional desk jobs don’t exist. We’re not part of The Desk, but rather a separate operation focused on small zones, generally within 30 miles of the office.

But those on The Desk in some other newsrooms face a different reality, of more specialized roles, designed to streamline production in a Henry Ford sort of way. And much of our journalism vocabulary, our job descriptions and our education programs haven’t quite adapted. I salute SND for tackling the issue head on, in an earlier Q&A and an open letter, and I hope the organization can find ways to support those adapting to the new world.

Spinning off that SND panel, here are a few realities about design in newsprint now:

  • The definition of “designer” remains in flux. Pay attention to the skills and responsibilities within job listings rather than titles. The bulk of the jobs at Gannett’s future print “design” hubs and at other editing and design hubs could include responsibilities and be on a pay scale more appropriate to those trained at community colleges than at traditional four-year journalism or design schools. That’s reality. The print production hubs remain here, in the United States, instead of overseas because the pay scales in some U.S. locations can compete with internationally outsourced work.

  • Future good, creative jobs will emerge for developers, collaborators and trainers who specialize in content management systems for print newspapers. Gannett’s MaryMont said during the SND panel that she hopes for a clear career path for those working in the new Gannett hubs. Those with futures and interesting jobs will have collaboration skills, coding skills, process management and documentation abilities, troubleshooting skills and comfort with databases and continuous learning. (Sounds similar to web skills, right?)
  • Front-line editors and reporters will need new (or old?) skills in design principles, basic layout and visual thinking. Budgeting stories and meeting pre-set story lengths in visual building blocks will matter.
  • Specializing in print design is a dangerous path. Freelance designers will tell you the same. Some sweet, creative jobs will survive, for those who are exceptionally good or exceptionally cheap. Are you as good as Martin Gee? Then go for it.
  • If I were a new journalist interested in design now, I’d grab the skills needed for tablets and phones and would not invest my time solely in legacy print software. Likewise, legacy news companies that want to attract design talent for new platforms will need to decide whether to define or preserve jobs that attract that talent. But their bankers might not let them.
  • Balance sheets and debt payments matter more at publicly traded companies than good intentions.

The SND panel on print design templates came a day after Block by Block, a gathering in Chicago that supported new local news websites, and it preceded the annual Online News Association meeting at the end of October in Washington, D.C. The best thinking for the future of news and its presentation will bridge ideas from all of those conferences, across platforms. Those who can relearn fast and look forward clearly will survive.

Honest, open words will help.

Photo credit: kevinzim, through Flickr, with a Creative Commons license.

Real data and real choices for journalists

Montpellier wedding

A wedding in Montpellier, France

This photo grabs a street scene from a wedding in Montpellier, France, and was originally captioned with these words:

“future job: wedding photographer in france?”

Not long ago, serious photographers sneered at shooting weddings. But in the last few years, that sneer turned to respect as the market changed. Some of the best photojournalists from the past are now running their own businesses and shooting weddings, portraits and even pet photos.

Things change.

Of course, the price reset for photography has also hit other “content providers,” especially desk journalists, focused on headlines, visuals and print. The ramifications are broad, including the rise of newspaper print production hubs at large chains and pay-per-piece companies.

It’s capitalism at work.

Freelance journalist Carmen Sisson has pointed out on Twitter a journalism job listing that says,

“If you are as good as you think, you won’t be deterred…that we are offering starvation wages.”

At least the job listing was transparent about the rate: $20,000 to $25,000. That transparency in job listings is rare.

You can read plenty of theory about those changes elsewhere and what they mean for the future of journalism. But when all that theory hits your house and your job, it becomes a matter of math and quantitative, personal decision-making. The myth and romance of poverty-stricken artists only go so far.

You need hard-to-find data.

You can get a sneak peek at salary levels from GlassDoor.com. The organization has an interesting crowdsourcing model, with a requirement to contribute information in order to get more than a sneak peek.

Or you can check the University of Georgia’s annual survey of journalism and mass communications graduates, partly financed by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Annual national membership for SPJ costs $72, and helps provide real data for people like you. That’s money with a decent return on investment.

Armed with data, you can decide whether to shoot weddings in France or to do photojournalism in the United States. You can do piecemeal work from your couch or fight for a spot at a new or old media company.

It’s your choice. The sneers are gone.

Background:
Financial information, including 2009 Form 990, from the Society of Professional Journalists

Photo credit: Sarah Acuff (my daughter)