The Changing Face of Local Publishing

Everyone knows by now that the publishing industry is in a period of massive flux.  Revenue (and circulation) have fallen off precipitously, and the increasing presence of the internet has proved to be one more giant conundrum faced by corporations whose long-standing livelihood is dependent on being “the” location for information.  Cut-backs and layoffs have been well-documented, and the transition to any future at all has been filled with obstacles.  Recently, we’ve seen the results of some of these changes in the local industry, and I’d like to discuss a couple of those.

Also, if you’ll notice, I’ve placed a collection of links to various print publication websites on the side-bar.  This is by no means a complete list, and it will no doubt grow as I do a little research.  Basically, it’s the ones I could think of off the top of my head.  This area, for being a former rural, agricultural community, is very rich in print publications.

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We’re All Screwed!

Have you heard, the recession is over!  We’re in a recovery, woo hoo! I was reading the “good” news this morning while pouring $45 worth of gas into my car because the price has shot up almost 30 cents a gallon in the past month or so, while trying to figure out how in the hell I’m going to pay for timely skyrocketing fuel oil to keep myself and my dogs from freezing to death this winter.  At least they have heavy coats.

Besides the fact that the job market is still non-existent, and layoffs, wage freezes, furloughs and cutbacks still abound everywhere you look, the economy somehow managed to show a modest quarter of growth.  I guess that’s progress.  If we can keep that going and build off of it, then we might be all right.

Whoops,  I spoke too soon. Any progress we have or may make is going to be snuffed out in a big way by this catastrophic nightmare disguised as good public policy.  I don’t think I could sit down and come up with a more comprehensive plan to virtually destroy any and all possibility of a rebound than this waste of perfectly good trees (or pixels, as the case may be).

I am not a Republican, but I have to tell you, the best thing that can possibly happen to us as a country at this point is for the GOP to figure out a way to beat this horrid thing back into the black hole of good intentions and intentional money and power grabs it came from.  I’m not going to get into specifics with what I think is wrong with this possible legislation; I don’t have three weeks to sit here and list them all.  Let’s just say that I don’t really want to be spending most of paycheck for health insurance the rest of my life.  Some estimates claim that this bill could possibly triple insurance premiums in some places, and those may be extreme, but I don’t think so.  We are all going to get stuck with an enormous bill here in terms of higher taxes, lower wages, insane insurance premium costs, higher medical care costs and a significantly lower standard of living for everyone.

Way to go, Obama!  I guess change isn’t all its cracked up to be after all.  Sorry, had to rant there for a moment.  I’m going back to writing about the NBA.  Politics is just too depressing.

 

Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 6:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Newspaper Link of the Day: Competitive Balance

Competition is indeed a beautiful thing. See, when papers have to compete, its good for everyone.  The companies have to step up their game, and that pays off for readers, advertisers and the companies themselves, if they do it properly.  It’s the American, free-enterprise way and it works.

Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It’s Fan-Tastic! NBA Season Tips Off

After a few days of some weightier issues, I thought something a little lighter might be in order.  Last night marked the tip-off of the new NBA regular season.  I’m a big basketball fan, and as such, I’m going to put down some of thoughts about the upcoming season.  Just for the record, I did the same thing last season on a blog on Foxsports.com, where I picked the Houston Rockets to beat the Detroit Pistons for the NBA title.  Hey, I can’t always be right.

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Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 2:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Falling Off A Cliff: Publishing circulation following revenue into the tank

The sky is falling. The days of sky-high newspaper circulation, anyway.  These numbers have always been pretty bogus, even the audited ones, and you can bet if the audit bureaus are showing steep drops in circulation, the real numbers are likely (at least) 10% greater still.  This isn’t totally unexpected, with the cutbacks that have been going on, and many publishers have been making (rightly so) targeted cutbacks on unpaid or very low paid circulation to save money.  But this has to sting, particularly at a time when struggling with ad revenues.  It’s got to be tough to hold the line on your rates when your circulation (advertiser’s potential exposure) is falling.

Here’s an analysis of the declines, but the part I find most interesting is a rather spirited discussion in the comments section about why newspaper websites can’t charge even decent rates for online ads.  I have a theory about this; it’s all in the numbers (an over-reliance on them, anyway.)  As questionable as print circulation figures typically are, readership numbers for websites are worse.  Sure it seems like a good idea to be able to track traffic and itemize every click to within an inch of its life, but in this case, it has turned out to be counter-productive.

Unique visitors, click through rates, page views, time spent online, etc all are numbers that can be misleading and can over and under-estimate your regular audience at the same time.  Basing your ad rates on these figures is, to put it mildly, quite completely insane.  For one thing, the results of advertising for the customer are not so easily quantifiable as the number of people who click on your ad.  And just because your web ad didn’t generate tons of click-throughs doesn’t mean that tons of people didn’t see it.

Unless your selling your old TV in a classified ad, advertising is not about instantaneous results; never has been.  A good advertising plan is about exposure and recognition, not immediate sales figures.  It’s always better to run ads consistently over a long period of time than it is to run once in a great while when you have something immediate to sell.  If, as a platform for advertising, we’re basing our rates on the number of people who actually call (or click) a given ad,  we’re screwed.

There’s a big push of late amongst media companies to enhance these mythical and largely pointless numbers to boost ad rates by incorporating technology that harvests personal data from web surfers, up to and including tracking other sites you visit, with the intent of using that information to further target ads to specific people.  While I find the notion of anyone harvesting my web surfing habits to help their bottom line appalling and a little frightening (Ever seen Minority Report?  The day they start using those iris scanner deals to transmit ads into a person’s brain is the day I move to a deserted island), it may be a moot point.  There’s already a much-needed push in congress to strengthen the rights of individuals in the face of this kind of egregious personal information collection that can put a serious damper on any such plans.  And well they should.

This whole mess illustrates something I believe is the biggest problem with publishing.  If you can’t quantify something clearly on a budget sheet, the decision makers see no value in it.  This is an industry that functions on many subtle levels of unquantifiable information.  The cutbacks to (almost) exclusively content producers is a result of this.  There is no clear way to equate a quality print product with revenue on a financial spreadsheet, so content and the people that produce it look like giant black holes of expense that bring nothing to the table.  That couldn’t be further from the truth, but try to explain that to a bean-counter exec who’s likely never even read said publication.  I have.  Trust me, it’s pretty frustrating.

Until we get away from this reliance on numbers, there won’t be much progress.  You simply can’t quantify what ad space is worth by siting page views, just like setting print ad rates based on raw circulation numbers is a losing game.  It’s not that simple, and to do us undervalues advertising space on the web by a large margin, and puts print ad rates at further risk of decline.  Especially as print circulation continues to fall, due not just to the economy, but now the decline in product quality from all the cutbacks.

All of this is indicative of an industry in its death throes.  We’ve failed to adapt to changing circumstances, ignored serious competition to our great disservice, and now, finally faced with the reality of having to deal with the internet, we’ve continued to let others drive our decisions, and make mistake after mistake.  Numbers can be manipulated lots of different ways, some to our benefit, some not, but they are far from a certainty.  To attach something as basic as ad rates to them is suicidal.  But based on the continuing stream of bad news and monstrous declines in the industry, you probably already knew that.

Published in: on October 27, 2009 at 5:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My newspaper’s bigger than your internet :P

I always enjoy a good discussion when it comes to publishing.  And nothing is more exciting than when I come across someone who’s point of view seems oddly slanted beyond reason.  I ran across this list of 10 reasons why newspapers are of lasting value. (Full Disclosure:  I work as an independent contractor for the same parent company).  The article itself online is behind a pay wall, so if you want to read it, you have to pay up.  Otherwise, I’d like to refute points 1-9 while agreeing with point 10.  (By the way, I apologize for the tongue-sticking-out icon I stuck in the headline.  It’s just that I couldn’t write that line without imagining a 10-year-old kid sticking his tongue out.  Juvenile, I know.)

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Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 6:12 pm  Comments (4)  
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Signed in Blood: Beware of Deals with the Devil

So here’s an interesting one; a company who has spent the past year cutting back on employee vacation time asking its employees to donate some of what they have left to other, sick employees who no longer have any paid leave.  How very generous of them.  It seems to me that it would make for significantly better employee relations and morale if the company itself actually gave back some of the time it has taken for the ill, but I guess the point here is to continue to eat away at whatever vacation time all employees have left rather than any actual humanitarian purpose, or genuine desire to help.

This is par for the course in today’s media atmosphere.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen some rosy predictions spouted that the worst is behind us, things are starting to turn around, the bottom lines are looking brighter, etc.  It’s all complete bull.  We continue to see more and more layoffs (entirely confined to skill positions of writers, graphic designers, etc) and while the financial losses have slowed somewhat, they are still far outpacing any level with which cutbacks can keep up for long.  I’m still waiting for the headline that reads, “Major newspaper chain lays off 100 executives.”  I think I’ll be waiting a while for that one.

Which brings me to my point for today:  as skilled employees, what exactly are we holding on to with these jobs at this point?  It feels like we’re dying of consumption out here, losing a little more ground every day with no end in sight.  I know I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for good paying full time work to come along for over a year and a half now.  I think it’s time we come to grips with the reality that it’s likely not coming back.  Publishing, and print newspapers may indeed have a future, but our positions as content creators for these companies have accepted severe concessions to the point that any future work will almost definitely be of the independent contractor status, with significantly less money, no benefits and limited freedom to diversify our workloads.

Normally, I’m not opposed to independent contractor work; it allows a good bit of freedom of scheduling, and you can handle several jobs for different entities at the same time.  But the manner in which the atmosphere of communication is changing, with increasingly overlapping areas of competition, I expect that one of the banes of my personal existence will soon become more prevalent than it, unfortunately, already has; the non-compete agreement. (more…)

Published in: on October 22, 2009 at 9:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Best Science Fiction Shows of All Time (In My Humble Opinion)

I’m going to show off my inner dork here, so bear with me.  I just spent about a half-hour checking out this list of (supposedly) the 20 best Sci-fi television shows of all time. It’s a pretty good list, with what I consider to be a couple of glaring omissions.  I also have an issue or two with the criteria used for what makes a show sci-fi.  Three of the shows on the list, The X Files, The Twilight Zone and Lost are amongst my favorite shows, but I’ve never considered any as sci-fi despite undertones and elements in each.  For all it’s alien conspiracy jumble, The X Files was at its best as more of a horror show with Mulder and Scully hunting down the monster of the week.  The Twilight Zone and Lost, on the other hand, defy easy description, but science fiction isn’t my first thought with either.   So, reveling in geekdom, I’ve decided to make my own list of the best sci-fi television of all time. (more…)

We Deserve To Get Paid

The above headline is a quote from A.P. chief Tom Curley during his rounds at the recent media goings-on in China, and I think it illustrates perhaps more than any other argument possible, exactly why these guys have no clue whatsoever.

They actually believe that just because they create something, no matter how useful or useless it is, that they are entitled to get paid for it.  Have they really been out of the risk-reward loop for so long that they think this is how life really works?  There have been many instances in my life where I deserved to be paid a helluva lot more than I was for work I’ve done.  Hell, I’m settling for 40 cents on the dollar from what I used to get paid for the same work today.  It sucks, but that’s life.  It seems like Tom may need a lesson or two in reality-based economics.

Back when these guys were cranking out millions if not billions of dollars in profits, the writers whose work they were using unquestionably deserved to get paid significantly more than they were forking over, but somehow I don’t think the “deserve” argument would get anyone very far with them.  What we get paid is often due to a combination of factors from scarcity of skills, need of employers, and circumstances under which employment is sought.  Very rarely, if ever, does deserve factor into it.  Most of us out here in the real world understand that.  Tom Curley, on the other hand, apparently does not.

It’s interesting watching the Associated Press complain about people not paying for their work.  For as long as I’ve been in this business, the single most common complaint I’ve heard about newspapers has been, “It’s filled with nothing but AP wire stuff.”  To the average reader, A.P. material isn’t highly sought after content, but rather needless filler that is one of the main reasons why newspapers have been on the decline, in both reputation and value.  To Curley, however, his organization’s material is irreplaceable and the public has an imperative to pay him for it.  It’s a disconnect common amongst old-guard newspaper executives; over-valuing their material and importance and under-appreciating the new atmosphere of competition we all exist in now.

Curley and the A.P. would clearly rather return to the days where publishers held all the controls and paid him and his group.  Readers never really were paying for A.P. material.  Now that Curley has to appeal to readers for payment rather than publishers, he may find a less-than-enthused customer base who have long thought of A.P. content as filler.  While Curley may believe he deserves to be paid, the average reader likely believes just the opposite.  And whatever either side feels, the market itself will eventually dictate who gets paid and who doesn’t.

As Clint Eastwood said in the movie Unforgiven, just before shooting Gene Hackman in the face, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”  Right on, Clint.

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 5:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: Paranormal (Lack Of) Activities

Let me get this out of the way:  I liked The Blair Witch Project.  I thought it was original for its time, creative and genuinely creepy.  I never really understood the backlash that came out against the movie later on.  I kind of enjoyed Cloverfield, with the giant unexplained creature trashing New York.  I was somewhat indifferent about REC (and appalled by the Americanized version, Quaratine).  So, suffice it to say, after seeing the new hot movie of the moment, Paranormal Activities, can we please knock off the pseudo-documentary, hand-held camera schtick?  Ten years ago, it may have been clever and original.  Today, it’s just a lazy way to look edgy.

I was really looking forward to seeing this film.  I bought into the hype, and had heard from numerous people that this was a genuinely frightening film.  I saw it with a girl who doesn’t go to many horror movies.  I had to talk her in to going, convincing her that a good scare isn’t a bad thing.  When it was over, on the way out of the theater, she turned to me and said, echoing my own thoughts, “What the hell was that? That wasn’t scary at all.”

If you don’t know by now, Paranormal Activities details the experiences of Micah and Katie, a couple who have experienced strange goings on in their home.  Micah even went out and bought a video camera to document the bizarre acts, setting it up on a tripod in their bedroom to keep vigil over their sleep.  The movie starts out slowly, with only a few loud noises, occasional unexplained footsteps, and a bedroom door that opens and closes a few inches on its own.

After consulting a psychic for help, we learn that Katie has been followed by these types of things her entire life.  The psychic, who’s appearance later in the film is actually a genuinely funny moment, informs Katie that she’s being stalked by a demon and leaving the house won’t help because the creature will just find her again.  It’s a setup to explain why the pair doesn’t just flee at the first sign of trouble, but it’s an unconvincing one as she explained that the odd things happened when she was 8 years old, then again when she was 13, then periodically over the years.  It seems to me that it made more sense to move and buy some time for the demon to find her again rather than just hole up exactly where it knew she was, especially when the strange happenings started to escalate.

Early in the film, the nighttime scenes in the bedroom were somewhat scary, but by the 14th or 15th time, it was pretty clear that when the counter at the bottom of the screen stopped moving in time lapse speed into real-time, something was bound to happen.  There was never any real tension in the film precisely because of this.  Every demonic moment was clearly telegraphed and predictable.  It was like watching a flip book horror film, with each night progressing slightly more than the one before, from softer to louder footsteps, light shadows to darker, more defined ones, and the actual physical activities, like bed sheets moving on their own or doors slamming getting slightly stronger with each occurrence.  By the film’s end, the conclusion had been foreshadowing to within an inch of its life, leading to what seemed more like the inevitable rather than genuinely surprising.  In fact, the only thing that surprised me was that Katie never snatched the video camera from Micah’s hands and smacked him upside the head with it.

I will say that last few minutes of the film does have the only two  “jump” moments, and the very end is at least somewhat creepy, if predictable.  The only real tension in the entire film came after it was over.  A short copyright notice came onto the screen, Followed by black with the slight freight-train sounding buzz in the background, leaving me to wonder if something was coming.  The black screen lasted for almost two minutes, the lights still dimmed in the theater, all the while steeled up for something to appear and shock us, but nothing ever happened.  Just like the film itself, waiting and waiting and waiting for something scary or unexpected to happen, only to be left disappointed.

That being said, this isn’t a horrible film, just bland and a little slow.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably worth a look for a buck from a DVD vending machine down the line, but don’t waste the high price of a theater ticket.  I have a feeling that the theater experience actually detracted from this movie anyway, and it might be more effective watched alone in a dark room.

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 3:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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