Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Vroom. What Boys Like.

December 6th, 2011

A funny confluence today was a YouTube share on FB of the Waitresses’ I Know What Boys Like. That, of course, was sexual innuendo, but there’s something else boys and men like. That came in news short about Dig This in Las Vegas.

Boys and men, and some women, like or love construction equipment.

The new big-boy playground in Nevada likely appeals even more to guys than driving fast cars does. Pretty much anyone with a credit card can do that. However, watch boys and men as they stare and gape at track mounted motorized tractors (bulldozers to you) and hydraulic excavators. They’re likely to make engine noises while looking too.

At a couple points in the early 1970s when I moved to NYC, I verified that love of huge machines two ways. First, I was along-term temp at MOMA, including working with then Curator of Design Emilio Ambasz. I also got a full-time job later writing for Construction Equipment magazine.

While at MOMA, my main job was as a lackey while he brought the Italian design show (Italy: The New Domestic Landscape) to life. That was great fun getting to work with the brilliant designer and the steady flow of Italian creatives. Beyond that though, I got excited enough to pitch him an idea for making an extensions-of-man exhibit, perhaps in Central Park. I saw everything from prostheses to earth movers. People would be able to be fitted with or use these, anything that amplified or corrected human bodies.

Ambasz professed to like the concept and we spoke of it repeatedly. In the end though, he didn’t want to own it, suggested I strike out on my own and make it happen, and negotiate with manufacturers and bureaucrats to handle the logistics, particularly the huge insurance issues inherent in letting plain folk handle gigantic machinery.

While my only experience in construction had been two summers on a house-building carpentry crew during college, great writer and swell guy John Rehfield hired me for the magazine. When I asked him bluntly why he’d take someone without a civil engineering degree or heavy equipment expertise, he laughed and waved his arm toward the writers and editors. He said sagely, “I can teach you anything you need to know about construction. You’re a good writer. I can’t teach an engineer how to write.”

As the new kid, I had to handle the complex nationwide directory of equipment, bringing it from index cards to computer. I got to apply my journalism studies and newspaper experience to investigative pieces that that the engineers were not comfortable doing. Yet, John was also true to his word and taught me construction as well as sending me on job sites.

In was on the stories of dam projects and the like that I learned that heavy equipment brought out the boys in even the most experienced men. The guys who run those tower cranes, excavators, earth movers far too big to fit in the bulldozer category and more make the noises. Put them in the cabs of the most powerful machines and they are boys again, playing with construction toys, except those aren’t toys anymore.

Actually it was endearing to see and hear the tough and tanned heavy equipment operators having so much fun even after years doing it. They talked about their rigs the way kids do their toys.

As for the extensions-of-man show, John too was intrigued. He also ran through all the complexities to get it done, but thought it possible. Unfortunately, I was in my early 20s and did not have the experience or entrepreneurial bent to go after it. Then Construction Equipment moved to Chicago from across from the Daily News and I had little interest in going with it, leaving Manhattan. Shortly after, John, only in his 40s, got virulent cancer and died.

It was a good idea. Even in its very lesser form in Las Vegas, that subset is also a good idea. Next time I’m out that way, I’ll Dig This.

Turning On and Off the Fans

September 19th, 2011

Arr, know ye all on Talk Like a Pirate Day, me be no football fanatic.

With that out of the way, I am not oblivious to sports. In particular, having started college at the University of South Carolina, I see and hear about it from friends up here in Yankeeland as well as former classmates. Moreover, I was sports editor of my high-school paper (I confess because it was the open slot and I would much rather have run features).

USC logoLately, the Gamecocks have been sports newsy, popping up to 10 or so in the polls. While I honestly think they have been lucky to win both times so far and should be no higher than 18 or maybe 15 in the country, I admit this has been a steady climb. With nearly everyone in power in that state having an undergrad or law degree from the red Carolina, that’s a big deal there and big donations from alumni.

Now their former (ACC) and current (SEC) conferences are big in the sports news. It seems the former snagged two Big 12 teams and adopted a poison-pill-style strategy that any team leaving would have to pay a $20 million penalty. Ho hum, then again ha!

Waaaay back, I arrived in Columbia with little interest in football. Heck, in high school, I covered it as part of the job, but I had been on the wrestling team first then finished as a swimmer. I started college on the swimming team and living in an athletic dorm on a partial scholarship. My only real affection for football was secondary. The badly underfunded swimming team had the right to sell programs outside and inside the stadium and we made a lot of needed money doing do.

Otherwise, Carolina had a hugely successful basketball program under coach Frank McGuire and labored under fantasies of similar success for football. The ACC was the best basketball in the nation and its football was so-so, giving the Gamecock some hope for success. They tried their damnedest, including renting Paul Dietzel, who was doing great at Army after success at LSU. He had one great year, but a losing record overall. That coupled with a sense of victimhood in Carolina basketball and football teams somehow “cheated” out of conference championships when they lost in tournaments. In 1971, a pouting athletic program went independent

As this was brewing, I broke my resolve to avoid sports writing. In the campus paper, also The Gamecock of course, I ridiculed the whole program in a column. In very heavy-handed terms, I wrote that they should drop the pretense and go pro. If they can’t win on an even basis, they should become professional and buy the best and biggest as they tried with coaches.

Well then, despite many strong political columns in that extremely conservative state and region, this one hit it. Wealthy alumni as well as sports-oriented students flipped. They took it literally and wrote long, dull-witted letters about why that was not legal. They called the university president, the dean of the J-school, the top editor of the paper, and they wrote to the local daily papers. They even did what I see so often in MA (as with Elizabeth Warren), pulled the parochial he’s-not-from-here routine.

Eventually though, after 20 years of hit-and-miss records, Carolina joined the SEC in 1991. That was fine for basketball, but suddenly they were in with the big boys of football. It took them a long time of being the team that got snapped with the towel in the locker room — rather got run over by bigger, faster, just better players — to get their football act together. They recruited and trained and coached up to where they are.

Now when the team is on the front of the sports section or web pages, I am likely to notice. I’m not all that interested in the far more local Patriots (or any football). I’m not quite as snippy as the Church Lady about it, but honestly, there’s a larger world of greater concerns. Then again, I have my own diversions and distractions when those bigger issues weigh heavily. Let’s not begrudge those with a sports Jones who remain suspended in their college years.

No Kilt Needed

May 11th, 2011

Little black dresses and wee snifters were the props. Whisky was the feature, that is single-malt whisky (Scottish spelling, if you please), which many of us simply call Scotch.

The Mcallan distiller pumps its promotion budget partly into such dram sipping evening here and there in an annual U.S. road swing. For example, see considerable detail in posts here and here. They write sumptuously on it so I don’t have to. The short version is that we got small snifters of 10, 12, 17 and 18 year old versions, averaging about half an ounce per. Each and more get full descriptions on the company site.

The production fascinated me. It also took me back to my early 20s when I wrote for a big construction magazine, a job which included covering the gigantic Con/Agg show of equipment.

My chum John signed several of us up for the free malt tasting, but only he and I ended up downtown at the Royale nightclub in our cute little theater district. There were no loose ends to this fabric. Mcallan folk had it all neatly woven.

Model types in LBDs greeted us and checked us off the list. They are worthy of comment and what first reminded me of the Con/Agg show. It goes on for days and fills the largest exhibition sites in Chicago. With gigantic earth movers and such, it’s not hard to command such spaces.

What was odd to my young 20s self was women as advertising and sales gear. There was an amusing and pleasing incongruity to the huge, metal machinery and hyper-attractive women in tiny dresses and sometimes bikinis. I recall at the first such show I attended seeing a gigantic dump truck filled with water and a half dozen barely clothed models splashing and swimming and generally showing themselves off in its massive bed. In construction terms, the point was that the bed was as big as a swimming pool, hence capable of hauling terrific amounts of rock and dirt with each load. Yet, the almost entirely middle-aged male potential buyers came to look first at the nearly nude women.

I asked my long-tenured editor how the Caterpillar and Euclid folk got all these stunning women for the show. He knew because he had asked. There was a gold rush of sorts many months before each Con/Agg, with the various equipment makers hitting up the modeling agencies. They wanted xx number of leggy lookers, first come first served.


One might think that in the many years since, we’d be getting over all that. Nah. Men and women alike enjoy looking at and being greeted by attractive women. Exposed legs and shoulders seem to still be the norm. In fact, while they apparently did not have quite enough Mcallan issue LBDs to go around, most of the dozen or so women were in uniform. That was an extremely short and very tight dress, with the right shoulder bare and the left one with shiny black rectangular spangles. The shirt portion barely covered the aspirations of the audience.

Maybe 200 folk got seats at the long tables. A few glasses of walnuts were scattered about with the black and gold company napkins. We got a Mcallan token on the way in, which we traded for a wee glass of the 10-year-old malt. That was the method to keep folk from loading up on multiple shots before the show.

The incongruous disco music played for 20 minutes or so as we got our seats. It sure wasn’t bagpipes. The dark space focused us on the lit stage with the traveling exhibit — a counter for the speaker (brand ambassador Randolph [never Randy, yuck, yuck] Adams), tall display cases of nine different bottles of their malts, and a sports-event-sized touch screen. As the slick presentation started, it was describe Scotland, the whiskies, the process and so forth, interspersed with the women bring around trays of small snifters of the various samples.

There’d be two seatings, so they had it down for an opening at 6:30 and clear the room and tables for the next group between 8 and 8:30. Thank you very much. We can call you a cab if you think you need it.

It was a very efficient operation. Adams had the personality and snappy patter for the job as well. He’s certainly someone you’d, if you pardon, have a drink with. He’d never be a loss for an amusing anecdote.

Back to the temp help, while there were a couple of nice enough looking  20-something men by the doors, they stayed in the background and let the grinning women set the tone. It was a very 1970s tone at that. Also, being Boston instead  of a huge city, the LBD women were nice looking, but not the you-need-to-be-in-movies/Playboy and I-have-to-take-you-with-me types from the Con/Agg show. In that sense, the evening let the maybe 70% male audience concentrate on the snifters instead of sniffing the servers.

The crowd was mostly young men, but with a fair smattering of older guys, older women and a very few young women. I suspect that this is wise promotional expenditure. They’ll certainly keep Mcallan in the public mind, just as certainly sell their bottles to those who attended the next time they hit liquor stores, and get a better return than a similarly priced print ad to the cost of the evening.

I am not likely to be a convert, even though I enjoyed several of the samples. As never-Randy noted early in his palaver, tastes differ. The Irish invented the distilling process and many folk enjoy the lighter whiskey they favor. He also praised other Scottish malt distillers’ products, while holding the Macallan the best.

He made special mention of Islay whisky, saying some Scotch drinkers prefer the peaty, smoky products like Lagavulin and Laphroig. I am in that group and those are my one and two favorite malts.

If you like brown whisky/whiskey, you’d surely enjoy a Mcallan evening. The anachronistic b-girl tone of the severs really doesn’t distract from the purpose of the evening. It’s free and, hey, it’s better than sitting in front of TV.

iPad? Two Fingers, Please.

February 10th, 2011

Perhaps channeling a prissy boxer, Jack Roach stabbed and jabbed furiously with his index fingers poking out of chubby fists. With an IBM Selectric typewriter (this was before PCs), he could hit 30, maybe 40, words per minute.

Although he was editor of Management Review, the American Management Association’s monthly maggy and he had reported for United Press for a long time before, he had a block about touch typing. He said he could do just as well with two fingers. After being his number two for a bit, I figured that style matched his mental text creation speed. All was well, although text by poke is often loud.

He came to mind as I begin to us an iPad. It’s virtual keyboards are touch-typing hostile. I snicker as I found myself flitting over the device with two index fingers.

The design behind the iPad is typically Apple sophisticated. As much of the work as possible is behind the scenes, requiring expensive hardware and software to work, but easier for the user. You can turn the iPad any of the four planar directions, the screen rotates to match. Then, when you open an app and touch a field that can take text or numbers, ta da!, an appropriate keypad appears at the bottom of the screen.

Applehead warning: If you are a true believer, leave now. candor follows.

ipadpadTo a touch typist, these keypads come with two major problems. The first is obvious and common across several technologies, like netbooks and Blackberries, the keys are small. Even without the second issue, they’d be damned hard to use with adult fingers.

Insurmountable though is that the iPad pressure is binary — on or off. There is no pressure adjustment. Try to rest your fingers on the virtual keys and you are entering characters left, right, top and bottom.

Unlike many aspects of their products that Apple marketing would have us believe, this is not a keen feature, not a better way of doing things. While flexible from a software perspective, this is a throttle.

I note that for my many years of computer and trade press, I had been exposed to or reviewed various versions of touch screens used in design or in factories and warehouses. Some were made for high sensitivity, but most were hardened for rough environments and big fingers. Then in the workstation and PC world came membrane keyboards, many with software adjustments for pressure and sound (the typewriter like click).

The iPad ignores all that silliness and history. What it does instead is pretty much a per-app QWERTY, with variations such as the .com key that appears when you load up the Safari browser. What you get is very useful.

Of course, that comes with the Apple attitude —Take what you get, love it, and don’t ask to know how it works or expect to alter it. So, there you have it, or in this case, I have it.

I first saw and held an iPad in April last year. The day after its release, several members of the Boston Media Makers showed them off. They had waited overnight or from pre-dawn to get theirs. They then apparently spent all their time until the meeting playing with their very own so they could provide prima facie commentary.

The BMM are largely Mac users…and iPhone owners…and iPod listeners. They love nothing more than telling someone he wouldn’t have this or that problem if only he has a Mac Pro instead of a PC. Yet, they each and all quickly commented on the iPad virtual keyboards. Their conclusion in general was you could create a blog post or do some writing with an iPad, but you wouldn’t want to.

I of course had to try. I’ve posted on three blogs with an iPad. Yet, it is more work. You really can’t keep up with your brain hunting and pecking. The screen real estate makes it harder to see what you’re doing. Mostly though, the two-fingered typing gets tedious quickly.

Nonetheless, I do surf with it. Its Safari browser is nowhere near as full featured or even as fast as Chrome on a PC, but it’s fine. I do enter short blog posts with the iPad. I also have added a quarter screen of apps, some of which are cloud ones, so I can share text or other files or whole apps from different platforms.

I am not inclined to spent $50 to $100 for a wireless keyboard or docking station with one built in to essentially create a netbook with iPad works. I have a laptop and a couple of desktops. If I wanted the add-ons to make the iPad into an impostor, I’d likely just spend much less and get a netbook.

Regardless, the iPad is fun and adequate to its tasks. It is also seriously light and portable.

The keyboard limitations hark back to when workstation and PC users used to refer to the Apple products as MacinToys. That was unfair then, as so many graphics folk proved with their understandable loyalty to systems that served their needs better than the Intel-based world could.

When I use the iPad, my index fingers fly. Sometimes, I’ll think of Jack. He managed an entire successful career as writer and editor just using two fingers. Worse things could happen.


Dose of Kloss

August 27th, 2010

weeklossNosing about for contract technical writing still, I checked some of my clips and portfolio yesterday. Part of the mini-thrills for an alter kaker journeyman journo is finding totally forgotten pieces. One such was of electronics wizard Henry Kloss.

While dead for eight years, Kloss was a charming chap as well as driven innovator. I’d had a few interactions with him before the profile I wrote for Electronic Business 26 years ago.

WABAC notes: EB was a Boston-based Cahners maggy, moved with the company from Cahners Place in the South End to Newton Corner to sale to the UK Reed folk (by the bye the world’s largest toilet paper maker at the time) to dissolution with other trade books last year. While I usually took my own pix, the one with the article was by local photog Ted Fitzgerald (cropping above).

Other profiles and obits speak to Kloss’ visionary work in sound and TV. Few note that he willing sacrificed huge wealth for pretty big wealth. He got his joy from creating the new and best, not from making mass markets in the OK.

Otherwise, I think of NYC cabs and kittens when Henry comes to mind.

In the late 1960s, I was in college and living in Cambridge on a grant. I filled in cash flow with a couple of jobs, including making speakers by hand at his new Advent Corporation. They were damned good speakers.

He actually accidentally designed the new standard of stereo speakers. He was developing projection TV technology and just wanted cash flow for that from the speakers. He ended up vastly improving on his older KLH technologies and establishing new standards for sound. Also, he had a skunk works project going for a farther out ideal, 3D TV. The word in house was that he had one, with the drawback that you needed a radiation suit to sit in the room with it for any length of time. That never got to market.

Meanwhile at Avent had a huge room filled with QA women verifying woofer, tweeter and switch components. He gave them exacting standards. Then a small row of us assembled the speakers. I connected the wires for the controlling switches on the back, then piped glue and power stapled them to the panels. They were great speakers and I think each of us bought at least one set at employee prices.

My little value added here is first that he drove to work in his old, still functioning Checker. That’s the same clunky, sturdy gem that was the standard NYC taxi of the time. His current one was his first, a 1948 model.

That said a lot about what he expected and created. He wanted the best of its type. He expected it to last a long-time if not forever. He’d do what he thought his customers should, pay for good stuff.

Also, one day his wife showed up and cajoled us workers. Her way of dealing with an unexpected and unwanted litter of kittens was to squeeze employees. She appeared with a box of them and offered them. I heard at least one QA woman say she owed her job to the Klosses and felt obligated to take one, even though she neither wanted one nor particularly liked cats.

Together, the Klosses were epitomes of New England frugal.

I can’t say I begrudge him that at all. He turned his mindset into products we were happy to make. I recall years later living in New York City being at a dinner party where the hosts went on about how much they loved their stereo speakers. Peeking behind one of the big Advents, I was pleased to see that it was one of those I had made.

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Becker Badgers Beeb Style

August 17th, 2010
Beyond winger media, the BBC style of guest badgering seems rampant. This very morning, I was surprised to hear WBUR’s Deborah Becker play silly adversary with Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral. Eh?

If you watch or listen to the Beeb TV or radio, you get the behavior that subsequently became the norm of FOX and more recently even MSNBC (think Hardball). The ill-bred plug uglies like Bill O’Reilly make their living at nasty irrationality and Chris Matthews is not far behind in exhibiting British-tabloid sensibilities.

The routine is to bring on knowledgeable guests, ideally one at a time, and hassle the devil out of them. This is asking a pointed question and then talking over the attempted answer. When the guest does state facts or positions, contradiction is in order, fast, repeated and at high volume. The talking head should act like the expert revealing hidden truth.

Yet what we should have learned from hearing and watching our parents, teachers and clergy sorts holds. Silencing someone with shouted, iterative gainsaying does not mean you are smarter or right. It means you are loud, repetitive and ill mannered.

I want the ideas and information out there. If the host’s aim is to end up feeling smug, that is a huge failure.

While it’s not daily or two hours at a stretch, we do our interviews at Left Ahead. For the past three and one half years, we’ve had someone join our podcast about every other week. We tend to have one guest at a time and explore in depth.

Even with those whose political and personal views are quite different, we aren’t in the business of gotcha. Perhaps that makes us wimps in contrast to the current style.

Nah, nah, nah

This morning’s example related to the Philip Markoff suicide was not as strident as a FOXNews segment, but close enough. You can catch the six-minute segment here.

Becker started out like a real journalist and quickly went tabloid on Cabral. She clearly came in with her conclusions and was not about to let truth or knowledge interfere.

The sheriff said several times and clearly that:

* Markoff had been on suicide watch over a year ago and exhibited no behavior to justify it since
* The sole psychiatrist for the jail, holding over 700 prisoners, had cleared Markoff
* Guards check on inmates every 30 minutes
* The jail has numerous mental health professionals in addition to the psychiatrist
* Suffolk’s suicide rate is less than half of most other jails – five in eight years
* Markoff exhibited zero signs verbally or otherwise that he wanted to do himself in

Becker’s increasingly hostile questioning showed her bias. One psychiatrist was not enough. 40% of inmates have “some sort of mental health” issues; I’d say that the general population is higher and criminals may arguably be nearly 100%. Becker somehow linked the hypothetical that Markoff might have been married for a year had his fiance not quit him after his arrest to his needing extra attention, even absent any acting out or statements. Becker clearly liked the concept of and term trigger.

To her credit, Cabral was cool in the face of iterative implications. When Becker seemed not to hear her stats and judgments, returning to Becker’s view that Markoff was somehow shortchanged of counseling and monitoring, the sheriff calmly said there might be a misunderstanding or that she (Cabral) was not sure “exactly what you’re asking.”

So it goes with the badgers. Don’t listen, come in with conclusions and stick to them, contradict when possible, talk over answers you don’t want, and above all, show that you know better than the expert.

It’s tiresome and I wish it would run its course. I don’t want my ideas pre-digested.

Cross-post: This also appears at Marry in Massachusetts.

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Crackling Anniversary

February 8th, 2010

Today marks a year since my tib/fib fractures of my left leg and one day short of the surgery to pound 14.25 inches of titanium rod into the tibia thorough the knee. (My misadventure and recovery are more than covered in posts available in this blog’s Health category.)

A sipped a couple of bourbons on the rocks for the occasion. In light of my relatively successful rehab, this is a celebration of sorts.

Yet, this has been a lost year in many ways. I was already pretty depleted after 19 years as a tech writer/editor/manager. The economy and the region’s high-tech industries already were in their own rehab units, with fewer jobs and most employers trying to buy or rent cheap. My last company was one of many sold and dissolved. Then there was that financial meltdown thing. The few employers who had guts and felt personal responsibility to keep their section of the economy perking then seemed to lose all courage and conviction — understandable perhaps, but hard on us contract tech communicators.

I’ve had phone and in-person interviews for contract and permanent jobs, but no offers, just as close as second choice from a long list. That was with a hiatus of several months when I was in hospital, using a walker, on opiates, on crutches, with a cane, and doing other things. Other things included:

  • Remembering that I had switched as necessary from newspapers to trade magazines, from one industry to another, to computerized everything, to high-tech reporting and reviews, to telecommunications, to  hardware and software manuals and on and on.
  • Thinking about what I would like to write.
  • Blogging, podcasting, roughing out food and other articles and books, and church volunteer work.
  • Realizing that I turn out computer manuals superior to the vast majority (I know, not too hard, but I do know how to think like a user and like a network admin — very useful and unusual skills).
  • Realizing that I could do more manuals and help system well and quickly, but that the thrill was gone.
  • Allowing myself some meditation time.
  • Accepting that another set of talent in the cooking and broader food categories are more interesting.
  • Admitting that trying to switch to food writing would mean establishing myself from scratch…yet again…with all the emotional overhead there.

In my year, we had many other stresses, like a son in a distant college and a move from my long-term Boston neighborhood to another (JP to HP). Fortunately, my wife’s job was stable and sustains us.

So there I was yesterday at the Boston Media Makers meeting putting out a group query about how to promote myself as a food writer. I got one biz card and I’ll put a query to the group. I’ll ask video blog/group founder Steve Garfield about the video blogging he does for his food-writer wife friend Nina.

I already blog here and there and podcast over here (coming up on three years of weekly poddies).  I remain intrinsically shy, but I don’t feel I have any shame left and no longer mind blushing. I think even I can self-promote.

I have the article concepts and roughs. I have a couple of books in various forms of preparation. Moreover the best part of a move like this would be the unqualified comment. As a tech writer, I always felt I had to say something to the effect I wrote computer manuals and help systems, knowing it wasn’t exactly writing writing.

There’s nothing like a lost year, is there?

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Papers Paywalls

February 1st, 2010

Windsor walls

Online payments are the big battle for beleaguered billionaires and their slightly poorer near peers. The Rupert Murdoch types cannot abide the idea that somewhere someone is getting something they touched for free.

No doubt that the basis of capitalism is that people or corporations own goods or services they make available for a price. Anything short of profit is called charity or foolishness (often the same to some capitalists). Yet publishers in this world only want conditions to be immutable so long as their profits are as higher or higher than they have been.

Lackaday,  that very naughty net has made them look up from their counting tables.

Kind of Disclaimer

I’m prejudiced here. I have always loved newspapers and want them to flourish.

Growing up, we had two to four dailies delivered, depending on the pickings where we lived. I was a newspaper delivery boy. I went to j-school, climbed the ladder as writer, columnist and editor of the student paper (high school and college) and then worked dailies and weeklies in the South. As an adult, I’ve always gotten daily papers, as well as numerous news, literary and specialty magazines. I’m a print guy first, one who has simply added computers and net technologies on top.

I love the feel and smell of good books and magazines.

Survival of the Most With It

All that written, I have no doubt nearly all U.S. newspaper publishers and top editors are atavistic.  They have also moved in recent decades with all the speed of a sloth and the judgment of an oat tree.

I’ve touched on this a few times, like here and part two here at Marry in Massachusetts. We got a different view in a Left Ahead! podcast with Martin Langeveld. He was a newspaper publisher and has quasi-retired into among other thing a principal at CircLabs, which aims to help publishers figure out this pay-to-view thing.  (Another slight disclaimer is in order; he and his wife were classmates of mine in high school. I disagree with some of his positions, but I know and like them both.)glacier

For this part of the discussion, the big point is that newspaper types saw the internet and its effects coming and coming and coming. It was much less like a train and more like a glacier. Unless you got out of the way or rode that glacier, it was going to take everything in its path. You had lots of time, but you had to decide what to do.

They have remained fairly paralyzed with inaction, indecision and more than a little delusion. Like watching that glacier, they saw new advertising options appear. They heard ad customers say Criag’s List was cheaper and more effective for classifieds and that online advertising offered highly targeted demographics with verifiable click through counts to ideal customers. They even heard to their humiliation that their favorite disdained group, bloggers, were getting snippets of ad revenue that should rightfully be theirs.

One type of response was to try to ride that glacier. Nearly all papers are online in one form or another. While screaming haughtily that they owned the news, damn it!, they responded to their declining ad money in exactly the wrong way — cutting expenses from the bottom, notably reporters.

Duh, as the yellowish Mr. Simpson says. Think, our product is better and worth reading and advertising in, even though we are giving you less of it, less local and foreign news, nothing unique, and nothing you can’t find in dozens of other places.

After slashing their differentiating advantage, reportage, they had yet other dumb tricks to perform. One we have seen even in our stodgy Boston Globe, is blogging.  While on the one had ridiculing and demeaning blogs, even refusing to link to those whose ideas and leads they steal, the glib Globe has its own set.

From the beginning of this reaction, we see how out of it newspaper editors and publishers can be. The model is to take decent reporters and columnists and heap blogging duties on them. At the same time there are fewer writers, the remaining ones are supposed to do that on top of their jobs. Rather than giving the writers a chance to pick up a new skill, this looks from the outside at least, like the old “you’re lucky to have a job at all and will do as we tell you” routine.

The blogs show the coercion. Their posts are uniformly boring, show little effort and take no advantage of the medium.

Money, You Say

There’s a credible argument that most existing newspapers need to and should die. Their functions actually would be better performed by new media that understand reasonable financial models, the technology to deliver great stuff in the right formats with the right content, and some courage. The latter would be to do what’s necessary to provide salable product, without being immobilized by a primitive capitalist’s terror that someone might get something of yours without paying for it.

Yet, almost to a one, print publishers seem to have tiny brain pans, more driven by emotion than intellect. You can see that in how lamely they try to extract money from readers and advertisers to make up for their losses in the past decade or so (don’t lose sight of that glacier!).

Consider the scheme too many tried to maintain their many decades old system of high cash flow and higher rates of return. Those are the realities that changed due to the net and most publishers refuse to accept that. Instead:

  • Some came online after many other papers and immediately put up a solid paywall. Almost all content was in headline or incomplete form, requiring a subscription or per-article fee to view.
  • Others, like the Boston Herald here,  showed its delusions like raggedly underwear. It tried to charge to read its columnists online. Let’s not even get into the value of a given piece by any of their writers, but suffice it to say, that failed quickly and totally.
  • Still others look at mixed models, offering full access to subscribers and small payments for beyond a monthly limit (the metered model). The FT reports that The Guardian has considered six paywall models.

For complete paywalls,  your content has to be damned superior and useful to make a go. The number one fantasy of net-come-lately publishers is that if they pay to produce content, everyone else should be delighted to buy every morsel from them. News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch is the troll under the bridge here, threatening, popping up, then withdrawing. He rants everywhere that news is not cheap and that anyone putting anything from his publications online anywhere without his permission and payment to him is simply stealing.Page 3/free mix

He even wants to charge for online access to the sleaziest of his pubs, The Sun. Yes, the Page 3 bare breasted babe rag is that valuable, Murdoch would have it.

Amusingly enough, one of his properties, the Wall Street Journal seems to have learned enough from the Financial Times to make some cash online though.  In its announcement two months ago that it would copy these two somehow, someway, the New York Times seemed unsure whether it would be micro-payments or some other model. Its bosses do want some kind of paywall though.

A short-term answer may well lie in the partial success of the WSJ and FT experiments. They were not foolish enough to block and drive away casual surfers with solid firewalls and total blocking of content. Instead they provide an example that even the dullest publisher can profit by emulating. They charge for real value.

You don’t have to be in the financial press to consider what they do. Yet, it is obvious for them because it can translate into reader benefit. Some of their articles and columns have specialized and even unique information and analysis. Those who pay for a print or online subscription have a little (or arguably sometimes large) advantage. They are happy to pay.

So, while publishers watch the glacier some more and figure out in what direction to move, publishers can ask themselves what value they can add to attract paying customers (and loyal subscribers). The answer most certainly should not involve firing their writers. Honestly, what were they thinking?

Likewise, many local dailies and weeklies used to be best at hyperlocal content or sports or photography. They have done their best in efforts to cut costs that they eliminated the staff who could maintain those selling points.  Moreover, to use a local example, when Bostonians want hyperlocal content, they are more likely to click on UniversalHub, an aggregator of local blogs and other news, plus some original reporting. Such concentrations of news are what the net can excel at and newspapers have largely ceded.

They need to produce content so useful or so entertaining or so whatever they can be best at that people will pay for it. That may seem obvious, but publishers so far have largely tried to replace old advertising and subscription revenue with increased charges for diminished content. I like to compare that to switching your high-end chocolate chip cookie ingredients to milk instead of bittersweet chips, mystery fat instead of butter and while you’re at it, making them smaller. Oh, and raise the price. Think. Think. Think. Why would fewer people be buying your cookies?

Those who continue to fantasize that they can charge everyone for any crap they publish might think of The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger. As part of a recent talk, he included, “It would be crazy if we were to all jump behind a pay wall and imagine that would solve things.” He is looking at many financial models, including some version of limited paywalls, but he does not seem to delude himself.

(Tip of the toupee to the FT’s John Gapper for the source of that quote.)

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Honors on the Cheap

December 17th, 2009

AMA storm paperweight

To paraphrase Patrick Henry, the next gale that sweeps from the West shall bring with it a hell of a snowstorm…

In early February 1978, the Northeast got it, cripplingly so and in two waves. Boston and New York City in particular were paralyzed. I wouldn’t move to the former from the latter until the next year. In 1978, I saw cross-country skiiers high above the normal road level poling by my West Village windows.

Then I went to work.

My wife and I worked in mid-town a little over a mile apart, she at Scholastic Magazines and I at American Management Association HQ in the publishing part, AMACOM. Unlike trolley and car dependent Boston, New Yorkers moved by subway. The underground was just fine, thank you very much, even though sidewalks were more a hidden concept than anything visible.

Most AMA employees lived in the sticks suburbs. They were stranded. A subset of us in town struggled our way to the subway stations and the short distance to the HQ on the other end. The Scholastic/AMA attitudes to the loyal do-bees holds a management lesson.

In perspective, this AMA had long been addicted to rewards on the cheap. Their main business was providing educational programs for executives, with an underlying motive. Companies paid for the managers to take a trip to the site, charge some meals and hotel, and just maybe come back a tad better at what they did for a living. Companies understood that the price was a bargain — it was a one-off that didn’t add to the base salary package and thus have to be built on annually.

Not the Same

At Scholastic, the slogging workers who kept the shop open got catered meals and when all returned public acknowledgment from the big shots — plus a bonus. At AMA, we got (beat, beat) ta da! a Plexiglas paperweight.

Click on the thumbnail above to have a closer view of this 5.5 x 3.5 inch treasure. Revel in its power.

I had forgotten until we moved recently. I found it along with several similar tchotchkes.  I now vaguely remember keeping it for its absurdity value.

AMA’s president, Jim Hayes, appears on it in the form of his stock signature. Come to think of it, there were so few of us in the storms, it would have been a small thing for him to sign the cards individually before each was encapsulated for “short-term eternity”.

Nah, we at AMACOM often heard that it was a great place to be from…that it looked good on the résumé. That was true enough. Yet, like soldiers, slaves, peasants and other minions, we did not get our rewards in our daily lives. We had lower wages than others in Manhattan for similarly skilled writing, acquisitions and editing. For many of us, the from AMA could not come too soon.

On the other side of Fifth Avenue, Scholastic treated its loyal snow workers as though they had done the company a favor. On our side, we had “demonstrated commitment to the AMA spirit of service and quality (and thus were) deeply appreciated.”

We can measure the depth of that appreciation today in the 5/8th inch of plastic. The message was that we did what was expected of us.

Take What You Get

I had a slightly more personal stake in the paperweight as well. Many months, I played that same James L. Hayes in my small, subservient way. Most of my work was on the monthly magazine, Management Review.  I acquired and edited some main articles, was totally responsible for the separate little magazines inside in their domestic and international editions. Also, many months, I ghosted Hayes’ president’s column in the front of MR.

He was a charming and affable fellow, a perfect association president, and a great spontaneous speaker on general management subjects. Alas, he was an awful writer. To his credit though he knew that and certainly had enough managerial skill to be sure that a couple levels below him was enough talent to take care of that for him.

Hayes was fond of my ghostwriting. My references and quotes from ancient Greek and Roman as well as more modern European writers and philosophers made him look well read and analytical.  There really wasn’t any harm in such veneer, as underneath, he knew the business theory that AMA members craved.

Those snows of nearly 32 years ago long ago melted. The paperweight remains. In its little paper box (no expensive lid, thank you very much — just a plastic bag), was an unsigned note on embossed AMA note paper. It reads:

This plaque speaks for itself. I hope that in the years to come, it will be a reminder to you of my deep appreciation for your outstanding efforts in the winter of ’78.

I am reminded and chuckle once more. The snows were deep, the appreciation shallow.

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Circus on Your Computer

November 23rd, 2009

Lo and woe! Technologies insidiously let us be boorishly unaware.

WWI era circus posterInternet radio has joined blogs (I’m doubly guilt here) in shameless self-expression. The phenomenon surely goes back to movable type or perhaps beyond. Digital photography falls in the class, but is nowhere near as guilty as the introduction of desktop publishing (DTP) several decades ago. Make personal expression easier and we humans just can’t resist.

For good and ill, we have all seen and perhaps perpetrated this for as long as families left a communal space. This includes holiday and travel letters.

While she never yielded to the tourist version, my mother did produce annual Christmas letters. In fairness to her, we did move every couple of years and had friends and relatives about like so many prairie dogs in this hole or that. Back in the days of stencils and mimeographs, she’d create annual updates with little pictures of the three of us and some basic events of the year.

Being a mildly repressed WASPy sort, she never succumbed to either the bragging or whining varieties that are so easy to ridicule. Yet, given the limits of typewriters and copying technologies in the ’50 and ’60s, even the long and self-indulgent versions were not hard to look at.

My father did not raise my sister and me, instead remarrying and plying his paternal craft on two other sons. What he did share were ghastly travelogues of trips he and wife took. They were lifers, a.k.a. Army officers, which goes a long way to explaining the incredibly detailed, yet significance-free letters.

I recall one that I must have somewhere about a long Egyptian trip. It begins along the lines of “0820 Leave SEATAC” and continues in military lingo about the most trivial of non-events. They would travel almost exclusively to stay with families of other officers they had known over the years. The actual commentary invariably was like a Monty Python sketch.  Cairo in particular and Egyptians in general were dirty, dangerous and untrustworthy. Other than a good time in New Zealand, those letters didn’t indicate any fun had by anyone.

Typical of the WWII generation, they never made the switch to DTP when it popped out suddenly in the 1980s along with PCs.  Many, far too many, others did jump into it with 10 fingers though.

That hasn’t stopped. Now everyone is an editor, writer, art director and publisher. Cheap or free software along with the computers, digital cameras and color printers enables all our related fantasies.

We in journalism school in the 1960s got warnings from professors about the snares of technology. Ours was when the newspaper and magazines industries switched from hot metal to offset. The old lead in a frame metal system had lots of limits. Sure, you could vary type sizes and styles, within boundaries. With offset came a cornucopia of fonts and the ability to lay out a page with strips of paper with the type and images. It virtually guaranteed tacky personal expression. We suddenly were all art directors.

In j-school, the resulting pages of many contrasting fonts and sizes alone were cause for disdain. It was what the profs called circus layout, for its similarity to old traveling-show posters.

Offset and later DTP paid no attention to guidelines based on experience as well as what would come to be known a usability studies.  A few for example include:

  • Too many varied headline styles are distracting to the reader.
  • Tombstoned heads (in adjacent columns) confuse readers.
  • A mugshot in profile should direct the reader’s eye by looking into the text.
  • Put the article you want to be sure the reader sees in the upper right of a newspaper page and on the right page of a magazine spread

From the moment we first put 5 ¼ DTP software into our primitive PCs, we went mad with our options. Ivy-vine headlines? Sure. Heart dots on the i’s? Why not. If two headline fonts were adequate, surely a different one for each block of text would be better!

An amazing aspect of all this is that most of us are oblivious to why such docs are so damned hard to look at, much less read. A real answer is that we aren’t trained to see what’s right or wrong for our eyes/brains.

chocolatesThe wee irony here is that nearly all of us do see the same flaws elsewhere. For example, we just watched the sappy but well done Away We Go on DVD.  The male lead can be socially clumsy, even inept. A visual cue to this is showing him wearing various combinations of plaid clothing. That’s a fabric version of bad DTP that girls eventually tease their brothers and boyfriend out of wearing.

There likely is no similar cure for Facebook pages jammed with eye-shocking crap anymore than people stopping flinging every option at personal (or church) newsletters, blogs and web pages. Like a Wittman’s sampler of chocolates, you might start with the legend on the box and pick your one or two favorites. Suddenly you are stuffing everything into your mouth.

It’s too easy.