All posts by Dale Peskin

Chutzpah: Why Craig can’t save classifieds

In an open letter to craigslist, Steve Outing asks its founders and operators to help save the newspaper industry from itself. My response:

Steve,

It takes real chutzpah to ask Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster of craigslist to help newspapers salvage their classifieds businesses and thus save democracy, or at least the part of it that newspapers presumably foster.

Your clever open letter to them, at the same time congratulating and blaming, misplaces responsibility. It assumes they have the authority to solve a problem that the news industry inflicted upon itself: how to replace a subsidy predicated on controlling and authoritarian business practices.

Steve, I can’t decide if your modest proposal is naive, self-serving or tragically poetic.

Craig Newmark never set out to disrupt the newspaper industry. Motivated only by helping people out, he created a simple list for his friends, initially distributed through email, and later on the Internet when one friend showed him how to create a Web page. Their trust in him, as well as a passion for serving others through technology, gave craigslist its authority.

You miss the magic of craigslist. It is Craig’s “friends” — a community that has grown to 40 million people a month in 500 U.S. cities and 50 countries (larger than all news sites combined by several factors) — who disrupted newspaper classifieds. Call them users, customers, an audience, a market, or marketplace, they discovered that through craigslist they could do for themselves what others charged excessively in order to handsomely subsidize their businesses.

Trust in Craig, still craigslist’s chief customer service representative, remains at the heart of it. So are democratic, open markets: the right of the people to conduct commerce and journalism among and between themselves.

Meantime, newspapers charged premium prices for access to an arcane classification system that published a few, annotated lines of shorthand in very small type at the back of a dense product with limited, daily distribution. The hard-to-find, hard-to-read, one-way advertisements were distributed to parts of a relatively small geographic region for sellers and buyers to discover, at least those who happened to buy the newspaper and read the classifieds section on the very day they were prepared to make a transaction.

For a lousy experience, newspapers in growth markets such as Dallas, Denver and San Jose made hundreds of millions of dollars that drove margins of 30 per cent or more with these high-yield liners.

The experience was not significantly improved by importing this business to the online version of the newspaper. What didn’t work in print didn’t work online.

Newspapers used their profits not to expand their social mission, but rather to drive the stock price of the companies that owned them, to finance acquisitions, to reward management, and to acquire additional wealth through cost-management: death by acquisition accelerated by cutting their way to profitability.

Financing news operations has never been much a part of it; ask any editor who has asked for budget increases or additional staff to cover a society growing increasingly complex and competitive. The moral imperative is a myth perpetuated by editors and journalists, not by the publishers you (Steve) are asking Craig and Jim to help.

Now, other forms and systems – a collaborative, more democratic Fifth Estate, if you will — are emerging to replace an institution that is broken. Almost anyone can deploy the simple technology that craiglist uses. Anyone can participate in its journalism and commerce.

Publishers would be better served by implementing enlightened business strategies with a passionate consumer connection at its core. Until then, they will continue to be cast in a survival drama of their own making.

Newspapers are like a broken satellite falling of orbit. The technology is failing; the mission may soon be scuttled. To stay in orbit, the engineers must repair and update the technology systems. More importantly, the flight controllers must restore trust in the mission and its results by relinquishing control. Otherwise, Satellite Newspaper – classifieds and all — will burn up in the atmosphere.

Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster may be talented astronauts, but they shouldn’t go down with the pilots of their competitors’ obsolete ships.

Amazing

Last night Mary and I attended an outdoor concert at the Wolf Trap Center for Performing Arts with friends. On a perfect summer night, we claimed a patch of grass on the hillside, uncorked a couple bottles of wine with a gourmet picnic dinner, and talked about the things that friends talk about as we awaited Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.

Our friend Mark asked me if I had seen an amazing video. Best catch he had ever seen. Ball girl streaks down the left field line at minor league baseball game, climbs the corner of the wall like Spiderman, jumps and turns to catch the foul ball at the peak of her outstretched arm. She lands softly on the field, casually tosses the ball to the stunned leftfielder, then jogs back to her seat with a wry smile as the play-by-play announcer describes the action in breathless detail.

Unbelievable, said Mark. I hated to break it to him. It was.

The video sweeping the Internet is a masterstroke of deception, a staged event designed to create buzz through viral marketing. Chicago ad agency Element 79 created it for Gatorade. When the ball girl sits down after the amazing catch, there’s a bottle of the power drink at her feet. The implication is that the beverage has imbued her with athletic powers worthy of a Sports Center highlight reel. The payoff is not so much in the subtle product placement, but in the buzz that eventually becomes associated with the product.

The real story is how marketers can use social media to manipulate consumers as well as reality. Ball girl is actually stunt girl Phoenix Brown. Film director Baker Smith shot the “catch” after a Fresno Grizzlies-Tacoma Rainiers game last month by attaching Brown to wires and having two stunt men yank her up the wall. Smith combined footage taken during and after the game, then created the illusion of the spectacular catch on his computer using software known as computer-generated imagery (CGI).

The marketing manipulation is so slick that Element 79 never released the video, thereby distancing itself and its client from criticism about the video’s true motives. “Ball Girl” was posted on You Tube by a filmmaker associated with the agency. It has been viewed about 4 million times, has received a glowing review from Advertising Age, and been featured on CNN and ABC’s Good Morning America. Now word is spreading at a concert outside Washington, D.C.

Gatorade has acknowledged that the video has reached critical mass and helped associate its brand with popular culture. While many now know the spectacular feat associated with a power drink is a special effect, a Gatorade spokesperson says millions are still entertained by it.

But many web watchers are still fooled. From the top returns on Google:

Break.com
: “A minor league ball girl makes an incredible catch on a foul ball in left field. Her coach later informed her that there is no crying in Baseball.

Digg.com: “Warning: The Content in this Article May be InaccurateReaders have reported that this story contains information that may not be accurate.”

Feministe: “Love this.”

And, of course, You Tube, the top return: “Amazing ball girl catch. This is the most amazing thing ever”

So we lay back on the lawn, gazed at the stars above, and listened to Lyle and his gifted ensemble elevate our souls with true music and poetry. Pure, real, amazing ….

Catch on a string at PdF

At this week’s Personal Democracy Forum, a sponsor distributed a low-tech, but highly effective stress toy to attendees willing to listen to their pitch: a rubber ball on an elastic string that connects to a velcro band. Strap the band to your finger and you can play catch with yourself. Which is what I came to PdF to do. To my surprise, I also liked the pitch. The sponsor, a division of Washington-based public affairs consultants, uses the Internet, software and analytical brainpower to track story lines and news coverage to measure influence. Which, in a way, is what I do, too.

I discovered that a lot of folks came to PdF for the same reasons. They played catch with familiar ideas. And they used the event to measure influence, familiar and emerging. PdF soared with both activities. An impressive roster of speakers from the converging worlds of political action, civic technologies and individual empowerment stimulated, and occasionally stirred, a network of Web buddies and budding online politicos.

Missing an Aha! moment that changes the world, PdF is more noteworthy for its momentum. At this moment, you can feel democracy shifting amid civic engagement enabled by technology. PdF is a forum where you can almost get your head around that big idea. Organizers Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifrey deserve as much praise for their impeccable timing as their star-studded roster of speakers. In two days of dense programming, content frequently rose to the level of the venue, the stunning Frederick Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center overlooking New York’s Central Park.

Playing catch on an elastic string, a few highlights and insights:

– FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, high-profile tech execs and industry advocates launch an initiative to make broadband access a national priority in the U.S.

– Lawrence Lessig touts the Change Congress movement by using every distracting feature in Keynote.

– Arianna Huffington declares that she knows The Truth that others don’t. About 50 people in the audience who blog at Huffington Post say they agree with her.

– Jay Rosen likens professional journalists to a migrating tribe in the midst of a survival drama.

– Mayhill Fowler demonstrates why she’d be irrelevant without a tape recorder. Did anyone actually read her story (lead buried somewhere in the 7th graph)?

– Virtual Reality pioneer Mark Pesce forecasts that the future looks nothing like democracy “because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.” The brilliant-but-huh? text here.

– Obama Girl, because she was there.

– Elizabeth Edwards charms the conference via Skype from her living room because her flight is canceled. Husband, John, the former presidential candidate, wanders into the room and is surprised to find his wife talking into a computer.

– Mark Soohoo, the deputy internet director of John McCain’s campaign, defends his boss for not personally understanding how to use a computer. Tracy Russo, Soohoo’s counterpart on Edwards’ former campaign, takes issue. Then fireworks. The video:

A test of leadership

I’ve suggested, among others, that leadership – or, more accurately, the lack of it — is at the heart of the news industry’s woes. The current generation of CEO’s and publishers blame unforeseen external forces – impending changes in media, economics, technology and society that were clear to others more than a decade ago — for their precipitous fall from grace in the marketplace and diminished public confidence.

As one way to try to understand the state of leadership in news and communications, I’m attending the renowned Wharton Leadership Conference at the University of Pennsylvania. Here executives from more than 400 companies are considering “emerging trends in the search for leadership.” The first two speakers – former presidential advisor David Gergen and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault — identified critical qualities of leadership at a time of turbulence:

Gergen:
Intelligence and judgment (formerly enough, but not anymore).
Character.
Vision.
Hairy audacity (attributed to leadership guru Jim Collins).

Chenault:
Integrity as expressed through words and actions.
Courage to manage openly.
Collaboration and constructive confrontation.
EQ: Executional Quotient.
Concern for “people” (current bizspeak for employees).
Ability to adapt.

Gergen and Chenault contend that true leadership emerges during challenging times, and that real leadership drives change. Here’s a test based on questions they posed at Wharton. Take it yourself or apply it to your executives:

Are you accountable for results?
Do you articulate a true understanding of issues?
Do you define reality and give hope?
Do you provide a narrative of purpose for your organization?
For your community?
Do you deliver on the promise?
Do you inspire peers and employees?
Do you have a concern for people (again, they mean employees)?
Do your have hairy audacity?

How to do it

An isometric landscape, Web Trend Map 3 pins down nearly 300 of the most successful and influential websites plotted against the metaphor of the greater Tokyo area train map. Different train lines correspond to web trends such as innovation, news, social networks, and so on. Whimsy and inside jokes add intrigue and fun to the interface. The bottom layer includes a rating of brand experience analogous to experiences at various types of Japanese restaurants. Here’s a designer (Oliver Reichenstein) who knows how to create an original and creative experience, one that applies fundamental design principles of simplicity, clarity, character, feedback and interactivity.

Number Three

OrlandoSentinelMockup

The thing about innovation is that you know it when you see it.

One version comes from Tribune Co., which has been exuberant about becoming “an oasis of creativity.” Newsies have encouraged us to watch Tribco’s Orlando Sentinel where Sam Zell’s new regime of former broadcasters is touting an innovation model for newspapers. The first sighting: a redesign of The Sentinel leaked by “oppressed” journalists at the Los Angeles Times, also a Tribco paper. Alan Mutter calls the radical format “scary.”

Desperate may be a better word. Radical is fine, but bad is bad. This kind of “innovation” not only gives design a bad name, but it is a cynical assault on real change. Design isn’t the problem at The Orlando Sentinel or most other newspapers. Relevance is. Innovation and creativity are ways to change that story. Tribco could have started by distinguishing its journalism, then designing inspired products that make it immediately accessible and relevant. Instead, Tribco’s shock jocks seem to have taken their lead from the Broadcasters’ Easy Guide to Change: One, change the management. Two, replace the “talent.” Three, after One and Two exacerbate the problem, change the set.

The next big thing comes from, ah, you

Nokia, which is obsessive about consumer research, is showing the world how to innovate from the outside-in by collecting ideas globally for free at or low cost.

At Nokia Beta Labs, the Finnish handset maker lets users test the latest smartphone software. Instead of people recording silly Web cam videos for YouTube or inventing frivolous advocacy groups on Facebook, they help make the mobile Internet more useful.

At Nokia Trends Lab, creative thinkers push the boundaries of how to use mobile technology as part of the creative process through film, music, photography and design. Thousands attend collaborative events and independent experiments around the world, all designed make Nokia devices and products more valuable to them.

At Nokia.com the company allows users to share and rate applications they have created such as screen-savers or games. Over the past year, Nokia designers have traveled to the developing world to ask users to sketch their own dream cell phones.

At its public Research Center, Nokia posted a mobile phone application called Sports Tracker designed to let runners and cyclists take advantage of the global positioning capability included in some Nokia models. Users can record workout data such as speed and distance, and can plot routes. More than 1 million people downloaded the widget and used it for sports the developers never dreamed of, such as paragliding, hot-air ballooning, and motorcycle riding.

A fresh spin on news

Check out the News Cube on the redesigned Washington Times site. Click the arrows on the left or right and the Cube flips to the top stories of day, presented magazine-style with strong photos, headlines and links. Click the bottom and the Cube delivers related stories or “Dig Deeper” choices. Click the “Dig Deeper” logo and you get themes related to the story, a more graphic and appealing version of Amazon’s “if you liked this book, then you’ll ….” technique of mass customization.

The site was designed for The Times by Roger Black Studio and DaniloBlack with consultation by the SEVEN26group. It is a visually-striking approach to news that is packed with content: pathways to 400,000 story topics, say Times editors. An impressive marriage of design and content, the site is notable for allowing users to control their experience and choose levels of engagement. A companion redesign of the newspaper relates it to its website and extends the “themes” approach.”

We’re all in this together

A lot of people have emailed me about my remarks, considered provocative by some, at the Interactive Media Conference in Las Vegas. Here’s what I said:

“We trust people to drive moving vehicles at high speeds on our highways. We arm them and ask them to fight wars in the name of democracy. We put life and death decisions in their hands as juries deciding the fate of their fellow citizens. But we don’t trust them to participate in the news and information that impacts their lives? What’s up with that?”

Then I told attendees, mostly managers of news web sites, that “putting a wall between you and your audience is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

In our “debate,” my old friend Arizona Daily Star publisher John Humenik generally supported the idea of “user-generated content,” but had grave concerns. “UGC on our site is essential — but not if it threatens the credibility of the environment it is built on,” he said. “Don’t allow your news brand to be somebody else’s graffiti wall.”

Why do newspaper publishers always seem to frame the debate over participatory media in terms of isolated bad behavior on their online forums — a problem that is easily managed these days?

Publishers can only discover opportunities that are as good for business as they are for democracy when they change the environments they’ve built and begin to respect their audiences.

Stage One: Newspapers are a growth business

No need to fret over those troubling layoffs, sinking revenues, tanking valuations, migrating audiences, declining influence, or even that pesky Internet. Newspapers are a growth business. So proclaims World Association of Newspapers CEO Timothy Balding. Inky execs apparently like Tim’s story. They turned out in record numbers for WAN’s annual meet-up in Gothenburg, Sweden. Our man Andrew is checking out the story, conspicuously, amid the grey suits and tall blondes.

The stages of grief: Denial, Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

The burn

Last week we described the newspaper business as a satellite falling out of orbit. This week it appears to be burning up in the atmosphere.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report showed a 3.5 percent drop in circulation – to about 50 million — for the largest U.S. newspapers over the six-month period ending in March. That level is the lowest in more than 60 years. The population has more than doubled since that time, so the market share for the “mass” medium known as newspapers in the U.S. is now about 18 percent or less.

The news on the advertising front is worse. The downward trajectory of revenues and ad share for newspapers is so steep that Advertising Week, the bible of the advertising industry, initiated a front-page installment called “The Newspaper Death Watch.”

While some news enterprises are finally embracing digital media, albeit somewhat reluctantly, that window of opportunity seems to be slipping away, too. Revenues from online products are about 10 percent or less of the declining print pot. And for the first time, pure-plays dominate the local ad-revenue marketplace where newspapers once reigned.

None of this seems to phase the industry trade-group Newspaper Association of America, which has cranked out press releases about the “jump” in online newspaper advertising and audience, or the World Association of Newspapers which trumpets newspapers as “a multi-media growth business” in a promotion for its World Newspaper Congress in Sweden next month.

See Also: A Satellite Falling Out of Orbit

How to be an editor

Christy Bradford, who taught me how to be an editor, died late last week at her home in Kansas City. She had been teaching journalism at the University of Kansas since 1999.

I love the description of Christy by her students at KU: “combination den mother/drill sergeant.” It was the same for us in her newsroom, a creative yet disciplined place where Christy gently demanded — and usually got — our best.

I suppose that many of us look back at a time when people, relationships, and work converged in a moment that we were meant to be a part. I had more of those moments in Detroit than I deserve, and Christy was at the heart of them. In a place as tough as a Detroit, she could find the deeper of meaning of events that became the hallmark of coverage at The Detroit News for a few extraordinary years. It was never easy, but it was always intoxicating. No one understood the ingredients of a good story more than Christy. No one had more fun stirring them into something meaningful or fun. She was a friend who taught me to be a good editor, and a editor who became a good friend.

Never sentimental, she understood that when it was time to go, it was time to go. Too soon. Too soon.

Typecasting

“There are now about as many different varieties of letters as there are different kinds of fools,” said the early 20th Century designer and writer Eric Gill. I’m one of them. Two, fun, font games test the fool in you.

The first is “Font, coffee or baby name.” I was five for five (I think). I’ll reveal answers and score later.

The second, The Rather Difficult Font Game, is for those fools who think they know the difference between Goudy, Gaudi and gaudy. Not a good test for MySpace designers, but my 24-out-of-34 was disappointing, too.

All of which recalls the priceless zefrank video send-up, “I knows me some ugly.”