Monthly Archives: March 2008

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle, revisited

So The Wire is over, and there’s no shortage of response around the Web. I’ll post my thoughts shortly about the show overall and how it stacks up to Sopranos/Deadwood, but for now I want to address David Simon’s assessment of the ills of modern journalism.

After the season’s first episode aired, Simon responded to Slate’s TV Club discussion of the show by saying: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” Well, he’s had his on-screen say. And all it did was nearly ruin one of the best shows on TV and prove that David Simon has either no clue or simply nothing interesting to say about the very real, very serious problems facing newspapers in 2008.

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Why newspapers make bad decisions

There are a hundred reasons why newspapers are in such poor shape. I’ve discussed some of them here and here: an outdated view of what’s news; an outdated view of readers; major inefficiencies in use of newsroom resources, as seen in the current roles of copy editors, reporters, and line editors. In a great post calling for a tax on newspapers that still publish stock tables, Craig Stoltz points to an often overlooked factor: newspapers seem to be institutionally clueless about how to plan for change. (Hat tip: Publishing 2.0.)

Stoltz argues that “There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables.” There are plenty of other newspaper elements that are beyond justification, or at least deserve a rethinking — box scores and general sports agate, TV and movie listings, op-ed pages. Stoltz’s description of newspapers’ decision-making related to stock tables perfectly captures why other unjustifieds continue to take up space:

I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.

No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. …

No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.

No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.

This is what traditionally passes for strategic thinking at newspapers. So it’s no wonder that at a time when actually making imaginative, forward-thinking, potentially risky decisions is necessary for newspapers’ future, they are singularly unable to make or even consider those decisions.

Consider, for example, the recurring hand-wringing over comic strips. Something as basic as jettisoning outdated and unfunny strips becomes a perpetual exercise in self-flagellation based on a handful of readers who promise to revolt if the paper kills Family Circus. And if newspapers can’t intelligently and pro-actively decide that Marmaduke and stock tables have had their day, they probably can’t make intelligent higher-level decisions, either.

Hey, Smithsonian: How about an American Amusements exhibit?

Over at Kotaku, Maggie Greene highlights a recently launched cultural project: Preserving Virtual Worlds, an attempt to collect and preserve video games before they’re lost to the ages. It’s an important undertaking, and unlike other massive entertainment archives could be relatively easy to complete and bring to the public. After all, video games are only decades old, whereas recorded music and film are more than a century old. And old video games would become the tiniest of files, making it easy to make nearly anything pre-PlayStation available without crashing servers. (Go here for an in-depth look at the project.)

But as far as I can tell, the project only covers video games from the modern era — and the history of video games is much older than Pong. I was reminded of this when I visited Musee Mecanique in San Francisco last year. The attraction is the closest thing I’ve seen to a museum of American amusuments: modern-day arcade games and pinball machines sit beside 80-year-old cast-iron baseball games, penny-movie players, and moving dioramas — nearly all of them playable. I wrote about Musee Mecanique when I returned home:

The saddest part of Musee Mecanique is how unique it is. These games are a vital part of modern America’s entertainment history, but I’ve never seen a place besides this one that understands that and takes the kind of curatorial approach to old amusements that is necessary to preserve and show them to future generations. … It’s tough to think that most of the old machines that haven’t long since been trashed are probably just sitting in someone’s attic fading into a rust-and-dust obscurity.

These days, there are any number of collections of 80s video games available. Anybody interested in seeing what the early games were like can download Joust from Xbox Live Arcade or try GameTap. But the arcade dates back much further, and it’s a shame there are so few places where we can see that earlier history. The Smithsonian should be collecting these cultural artifacts; given the growth of video games in the last 20 years, the American History Museum should have a permanent exhibit dedicated to American amusements and include a room with playable games like the ones at Musee Mecanique so kids can see what their great-great-grandparents played long before there was Mario and Grand Theft Auto.

After reading Maggie Greene’s post, I am officially resurrecting this idea. At first I thought it might be a tough sell to get the government to put its imprimatur on video games, but the Library of Congress is already behind the Preserving Virtual Worlds project. And after major exhibits on Star Wars and Star Trek, not to mention all the pop culture artifacts that are in the American History Museum’s permanent collection, the idea of video games in the Smithsonian isn’t so far-fetched.

What would this entail? For funding, it would be relatively easy to assemble an industry-spanning lineup of companies and groups eager to see video games get the kind of cultural acceptance that only the Smithsonian can bequeath. Say Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, the Entertainment Software Association, plus MIT and Stanford for some academic heft. Get a Henry Jenkins or Ian Bogost figure to co-curate with someone from the Smithsonian.

The exhibit could combine traditional historical artifacts behind glass — like those from the Sackler Gallery’s 2005 Asian Games exhibition — with cultural history (trace the fear of pool halls and pinball to today’s worries over violent video games) and, crucially, a room of playable amusements and video games spanning the last century. Include some pachinko machines and other foreign amusements for some global flare. And bring in Shigeru Miyamoto and Nolan Bushnell for the grand opening. It would be the most popular exhibit the Smithsonian’s ever had (take that, Vermeer!).

The need for an exhibit like this will only become more pressing as video games become ever more popular and sophisticated. And old, forgotten amusements are only going to get rustier. Movies, TV, and comics have all been embraced by the curators of American culture. It’s high time video games had the same chance.

Choose your own grammar

In honor of National Grammar Day, John McIntyre has a nice post explaining why much of what we have been taught regarding grammar and usage rules ultimately amounts to a “proliferation of bogus advice on language.” It’s an interesting historical overview that explains how

without an Academy to determine an authoritative English, and without the ability of dictionary makers to “fix” the language, the task of establishing principles of grammar and usage has fallen to a mixed group authorities of varying reliability.

So all those ironclad rules about split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions that teachers harped on, and much of the stuff in the AP stylebook, is basically derived from little more than self-reinforcing cycles of personal preference. Good times.

McIntyre also links to a fun anti-Grammar Day post at Language Log. Both well worth checking out.

Worst. Justification for copy editors’ existence. Ever.

I recently proposed a new vision for copy editors in the newsroom of the future, in response to a provocative Alan Mutter post asking whether papers can still afford editors. My basic prescription: Have reporters and line editors take responsibility for some basic things they’ve traditionally left for copy editors, which would free up empowered copy editors to also take on more responsibility.

I took issue with some responses to Mutter’s post that essentially argued for the status quo because a)”that’s the way it’s always been” and b) reporters and line editors are so lazy and useless that copy editors are needed to pick up their slack. Now comes an even lamer version of the latter argument, in the latest American Copy Editors Society newsletter. ACES president Chris Wienandt writes:

I’ve just been hit with another reason copy editors are indispensable: We know how our computer systems work. …

When a story goes missing in the system, who’s the person who can find it? When a reporter doesn’t know how to generate the character ä, who’s the person who can tell her? When two versions of a story are floating around, who can spot which one is actually going into print?

[large snip]

So when these little glitches … no, snafus … crop up in your newsroom, it’s great that you can fix them. But be sure to take that next step: Let someone in authority know … that there was a problem, and that it was the copy desk that solved it. It’s another demonstration of how valuable we are. (italics mine)

Is Wienandt serious? Newspapers are hemorrhaging cash and he’s trying to justify keeping copy editors because they possess the most basic technological knowledge? I’m sure Wienandt has written plenty of other pieces about why copy editors are important as editors rather than as IT cheat sheets, but come on.

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Why don’t newspapers make Craigslist obsolete?

TechCrunch had a recent post about eBay’s free classified site, Kajiji, angling to take down Craigslist (even though eBay owns 25 percent of Craigslist). Kajiji thinks that Craigslist’s dated look and interface don’t cut it anymore, and that a classifieds site with better options and security — one that can afford to expand and improve by selling ads — can draw people away. Seems plausible to me; I use Craigslist, but would definitely jump ship if something prettier and more useful came along.

But here’s something I often wonder: If Craigslist is vulnerable to a challenge, why are newspapers letting eBay get in on the action? Why don’t newspapers actually try to challenge Craigslist instead of just whining about how the site killed their revenue?

What if a newspaper offered a robust, intuitive, user-friendly free online classifieds site supported by advertising? I’m talking about targeted ads relevant to the searches, products, or services at hand.

Now, for example, the classified page for furniture at the St. Petersburg Times Web site has two ads on the page: a banner ad at the top for Verizon Wireless and a side ad for Weight Watchers Online. (Disclosure: I work at the Times.) The merchandise classified page at the Dallas Morning News has a banner ad for real estate and side ads for a Hannah Montana ticket giveway, a coupon book, and DMN’s news site. The merchandise classified page for the Rocky Mountain News/Denver Post has a banner ad for Capitol One credit cards and a side ad for U.S. Army recruitment. (On subsequent visits, these ads have changed; but they’re all still banner ads that appear to be site-wide and not specific to the classifieds page.)

These and other papers seem to have learned nothing from Google. Web ads work best when they’re unobtrusive and, most important, relevant to what the user is already searching for. If I’m looking to buy a TV, I’m not going to click on an Army or Weight Watchers ad — but I might click on an ad for a local electronics store that’s having a sale. Google’s ads are also perfect for smaller businesses that can’t afford giant banners or print advertising — an area that newspapers are notorious for overlooking online. Creating a robust free classified site would be a great way to experiment with targeted, relatively inexpensive online local advertising.

I’d love to hear from people who have a better understanding of the business side of things, the economics of online advertising, how much papers still actually make on classifieds, etc. But it seems to me that making all online classifieds free — and probably print classifieds too — and creating a targeted-ad-supported, user-friendly classified site could begin to drive people away from Craigslist and back to newspapers.