Friday, November 2, 2012

Newspaper Pay Walls

With the recent conversion of the Globe & Mail from advertising based to subscription based and the Toronto Star about to go this way also, it’s time again to revisit newspapers. When I looked at this issue in June (Newspapers Again) , I said I have mixed feelings about pay walls and I’m not entirely convinced that they are the answer or at least not in the way that newspapers seem to think they are.

I find it a bit ironic that newspapers are having so many problems with the Internet when they were among the first to jump on it. It reminds me of Kodak inventing the digital camera and yet going bankrupt because of digital cameras.

The biggest problem that I’ve seen is newspapers seem to forget that the Internet is layered. Papers have struggled with this for years and they still don’t entirely have the hang of it. For example, how many poorly done videos have I seen on newspaper sites? They have gotten better, but need more refinement. And I’m still seeing too many flat stories, that is stories with no deeper connections. For example an article in the Portland Press Herald Ceremonial ride to mark Downeaster's Maine expansion on the expansion of rail service fails to include a link to the new schedule. The Toronto Star also often fails to include links, for example a story on a new high-tech card for the Detroit – Windsor tunnel High-Tech card will speed travel through Windsor to Detroit toll boths didn’t include a link for further information.

This raises the question that if layering can be done for information why not for pay walls? Online medical journals do this. If I want to take a look at a particular study I have two choices: read the abstract for free or read the entire study for the price of a subscription. Why can’t the newspaper industry follow these examples?

Why does it have it to be an all or nothing deal for them? Why can’t they post a synopsis of one to three paragraphs, depending on the story, for free viewing and if you want to read the full, in depth article, then you’d have to subscribe? For an investigative piece(s) like the Toronto Star’s recent series on Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario Marineland animals suffering former staffers say a newspaper could post a longer shortened version online for free. If you then wanted to read more you get a subscription. They can always post full articles free for anyone to read, like for election night or for storm reports.

And while a pay wall does provide additional income, it also drives away readers. People can go to a t.v. website and get news for free. You can go to the Business News Network and view and read business stories, like the Globe & Mail covers, for free. It seems to me the last thing newspapers need is to further drive away readership.

Finally why can’t I go to one place and get a subscription to a number of newspapers instead of having to individually subscribe to each newspaper I want. There are about five newspapers I would be willing to subscribe to if the price was right and it was convenient for me to do so, as in being a one stop, one payment, place.

I’ll talk about Newsweek’s decision to go digital in a future post.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I confess I really don’t care for Margaret Wente, never have ever since her days at Canadian Business. However, I will not call for her head over her plagiarising a couple of sentences from someone else’s column.

It’s very easy to see how something, like what Wente did, can happen. A journalist is reading and talking and emailing so much that, as Wente herself said, you can make notes and forget to put down where something came from. That doesn’t excuse plagiarism, but it does make it understandable.

What she did was careless, not, it seems, part of a regular habit. And there is a BIG difference between someone like Margaret Wente and someone like Jayson Blair to whom plagiarism and fabrication seemed as regular as breathing.

The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English put it nicely in a recent column, “One can have zero tolerance for unethical journalism, but still possess understanding for the journalist.”

The Globe & Mail did err in its slow response to the allegations of plagiarism. And Wente did not help herself when in her column of September 25th she seems to excuse her behavior by blaming the blogger who Carol Wainio, who Wente says “...has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion.”

Rightly or wrongly Wente feels harassed by Wainio. And while I can appreciate Wente’s feelings, in my view it would have been far better had Wente left out the third and second last paragraphs of her column and just ended with a whoops I goofed.

One final comment, is plagiarism any worse than lying or deceiving? For example the media regularly labels money given to passenger rail and to transit a “subsidy”, while money given to roads is always labelled an “investment”. That is a deception/lie. I’ll deal with this issue and the media’s turning a blind eye on certain issues in a future blog.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Media Framing

Over the past two years there have been two stories that raise the question of the role of the media in framing events.

In the summer of 2010 the pastor of a small Florida church proposed to publicly burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9-11. The church, known for its anti-Islam and anti-gay views, had not received much attention until a short article appeared on a site called Religion News Service in July. From there it was gradually picked up by other, bigger, news sites, eventually being picked up by the international media, which in turn help stir up riots and escalated things still further. The pastor, Terry Jones, was being interviewed by print and broadcast media.

It raised serious questions about the role of media in reporting stories. The executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, was quoted in his paper as saying, “The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.” In this had the general media chosen to ignore the story, there would not have been riots, lives would not have been put at risk and American reputation would not have suffered damage.

A year after this story, in July, 2011, the media were all abuzz again. This time it was over Carmageddon, which would result from the 53 hour closure of a 16 kilometer stretch of highway (Interstate 405) in the Los Angeles area. According to the media the shutdown of America’s busiest highway would result in complete and utter traffic chaos from the mother of all traffic jams. And what happened? Traffic in the Los Angeles area actually declined by 65% during this period.

It nicely illustrates the media’s (and society’s) obsession with cars. And it shows in the language used by the media: trains chug, cars are vehicles, public transit and passenger rail are heavily subsidized, no one considers the massive subsidies given to the automobile, roads and highways get investment, rail is obsolete, while cars are considered a necessity. Given this it’s no wonder that the media can only picture catastrophe with the shutdown of a major highway.

These two stories nicely illustrate how the media can take a small story and blow it WAY out of proportion: the first with very serious consequences, the second providing comic relief and a window into the North American obsession with cars.

In a future post I’ll talk about how the media has taken BIG stories and blown them WAY under proportion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Mixed Legacy Of Helen Gurley Brown

A special post on the death of Helen Gurley Brown: In her day Brown was certainly a powerhouse and a pioneer of sorts in the publishing business.

One cannot help, but admire her gutsiness in rising to the top, despite not having had any higher education. She had her wits and a flair for publicity. She took Cosmopolitan from decline to super stardom among magazines. Ad revenues were a mere $1.5 million when she took over in 1965. Two years before she left, in 1997, they were $159 million. As Jane Francisco, editor of Chatelaine, put it, “She (Brown) brought glitz and glam into women’s magazines.” A look at women’s magazines around the time Brown took over Cosmopolitan readily verifies Francisco’s comment. In a word they were dull.

Another thing Brown did was to bring discussion of women’s reproductive health out into the open. It’s hard to imagine now, but at one time a person could be jailed for promoting birth control. Even after it became legal birth control still tended to be talked about in hushed tones. (And I’m not talking about abortion.)

However, Brown had her downside. Before she left the American editorship of Cosmopolitan (She remained editor-in-chief of the international editions until her death.) she downplayed the danger of aids to heterosexual women. She also disregarded the issue of sexual harassment on the job.

As a Christian, I certainly cannot agree with her quip, “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.” (Bad girls do not go to heaven.) I agree that by the 1960s a frank and open discussion about sex was and still is needed. However, I felt that Cosmo under Brown went way too far and promoted sex for sex’s sake. I remember picking up the magazine and seeing an article on having an affair with your boss. Cosmo promoted extramarital sex and casual sex, which I cannot condone.

The whole image of Cosmo seemed to be to promote women as sex objects and to do what they can to please a man sexually. This seemed to be setting up vulnerable women to live in abusive situations. Some critics felt Brown made women cartoonish.

Brown said she wanted her legacy to be, “She created something that helped people.” In my view she left a mixed legacy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Deflation Update

Fourteen months have passed since I last warned of a new great depression and in those fourteen months have things gotten any better? No. The situation in Europe has gotten a lot worse. Italy, Spain and Cyprus have joined Greece in needing bailouts. The Americans have not done a thing to reduce their debt, which continues to get worse by the day. The banking industry comes up with scandal after scandal.

Economists, for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, say that Europe is now in recession. Even China’s economy, considered the powerhouse of the world, is slowing.

The only thing that continues to hold up the markets is optimism, optimism that somehow the central banks of the world, particularly those of Europe and the United States, can somehow turn things around. So far all their quantitative easing and twists and printing of money and keeping interest rates low (They don’t have a choice with interest rates.) haven’t worked. Neither have all the meetings of the European leaders to resolve the debt crisis worked. The Germans are growing increasingly tired of sacrificing their economy to save the economies of their weaker neighbors.

It is a given that Greece will formally default on their loans and will leave the Euro Zone. Other European countries, such as Spain, are likely to follow. Once this begins to happen it will trigger an even bigger banking crisis than in 2008 and global economic crisis. As part of this process the Euro will collapse,possibly along with the European Union.

It’s not just me who is warning of this, Elliott Wave International (where I picked this up from), Weiss Research and Comstock Partners, to name a few, are all warning of deflation and depression. They are also all saying we haven’t much time left before this economic crisis happens.

To totally switch gears here, hearty congratulations to Silver Don Cameron for being awarded the Order Of Canada. For anyone not knowing who Silver Don is, he is a great and highly respected writer of long standing. I have nothing but admiration for the quality of his writing skills.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Advertising Saturation Point?

Have we reached advertising saturation point? I think so. I turn on the t.v. and I’m watching two minutes of advertising for about every ten minutes of programming. During those two minutes I’m seeing at least 10 different ads. I go to watch a video on YouTube (I’m a big fan of rail videos.) and I’m forced to watch five seconds of advertising (up from three seconds). I turn on the radio there’s advertising. I go to a newspaper web site and there’s advertising. I look at a bus and see advertising inside and out. I watch sports there’s advertising. I’m being advertised to death.

It`s so bad that I`ve long since tuned out advertising. When I watch t.v. during commercial breaks I turn down the sound and pick up a book or magazine to read. The only time I leave the sound on is when I go out of the room to do something else. On YouTube I`m waiting to click the skip ad function and turn down the sound on the ones I`m forced to watch. I never click advertising on newspaper and magazine web sites. Most advertising that comes to the door gets immediately put in the recycle box.

Don`t get me wrong, I`m not against advertising, as it pays the bills and can inform the public about a product, service or sale. I`m against being bombarded with advertising day in day out. I`m also against advertising that holds absolutely no interest for me.

I find that most of the advertising is totally meaningless to me. For example I don`t drive a motor vehicle. In fact I don`t have a driver`s license. Therefore ads for cars, trucks, motorcycles and their products don`t interest me. Ads for mortgages don`t interest me. I own my house outright and have zero debt. I`m not a woman and so products geared for women don`t interest me. Finally I don`t gamble and so ads for casinos and lottery tickets don`t interest. Of the advertising that does interest me I`ve been so bombarded with advertising that I usually also tune it out as well.

I`d like to see less advertising, one third to one half less advertising. I`d also like to get to pick at least some of the advertising I see. For example newspapers could have three classes of readers: limited free access, subscription and free access that requires a person to look at so many ads, but allows you to choose the types of ads you`d like to see.

With t.v. shows, why not return to the early days of single sponsor shows or at least in place of the ten or so different ads now seen during commercial breaks, show no more than five. Fewer ads would allow for longer individual commercials, which in turn would allow for more information to be placed in each one. I`m sure there are other ideas that would cut down on audience tune-out.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Newspapers Again

What do such papers as the New York Times and Hamilton Spectator have in common? They’ve both decided to limit the number of free views to 10 stories each 30 day period. Both were formally totally free and then limited the number of free views to between 25 and 35. Now the Globe & Mail is thinking of limiting the number of free views too.

Frankly I have mixed feelings about it. I understand and am sympathetic towards newspapers seeking to improve their revenue. It has been eroding since the Internet came on the scene. Advertising income is down and so are subscriptions. Staff have been laid off and papers closed or reduced. Just this past week Postmedia announced it was cutting jobs and eliminating the Sunday editions of papers in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa and the National Post will cut Monday editions during the summer. Obviously something has to be done to stop the bleeding.

However, newspapers, once friendly towards freelancers, have turned hostile, demanding all rights, while not increasing pay rates and not negotiating contracts. A few newspaper unions have been hostile towards freelancers too. As a result of all this the freelance community is not too sympathetic to newspapers.

Then there is the question of are they cutting their nose to spite their face? That is by limiting too much the number of free views are they destroying their audience? I no longer read anything from the New York Times or Hamilton Spectator due to their restrictive policies. Basically I can’t afford to subscribe to the online editions of the 15 or so papers I have regularly looked at.

Newspapers have tried ads, but they always seem to put the wrong kinds of ads up for me. For example one newspaper chain forced me to endure popup ads for brides. I got news for them – I’m not a bride. I’m not even female. (Some people say I’m not human, but that’s another story.)

Here’s something I don’t think has been tried – online papers offering viewers a selection of no more than three or four ads to view per visit no more than 10 seconds each. If a viewer is interested they’ll spend more than that looking. Have viewers select the types of ads they want to see. I’d really be interested in seeing grocery store ads, which I have yet to see advertised on a newspaper site.

In the meantime I think the newspaper industry needs to come up with a better model or perhaps a variety of models, one that is fair to freelancers, as well as staff, the owners and the readers. The restrictive model being tried I don’t think is the answer.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Kodak Moment

Have you ever had a Kodak moment? I used to back in the 1980s and 1990s, but I don’t anymore. I’ve long since gone digital. However, it appears that too many publishers today still have Kodak moments. These are publishers who still have one method of publishing – the traditional method of printing so many copies and hoping for the best.

According to the Association Of American Publishers (E-Books Drive Revenue Growth Across Book Trade in January 2012), e-book sales accounted for 27% of all book sales and 31% of all adult trade sales in January. E-books accounted for $128.8 million in sales out of total sales out of a total of $503.5 million, up a whopping 76% from January of last year. They’re projecting that e-books will account for 20% of all book sales this year and 75% of all book sales by 2025.

David Begland of Radiax Press (in E-Books vs. Print Books to Stabilize at 50%?), said that for small publishing houses, like his, e-books already account for 60-70% of all sales.

What does this mean for publishers? According to John C. Dvorak, writing in PC Magazine, it will make book publishing more profitable. He claims that e-books will encourage sales of printed books that people really want in the same way that Napster encourage sales of music CDs.

Dvorak goes on to say that e-books give more creative control to producers and writers took books. They allow books to be tweaked chapter by chapter and filter out the really good books from the not so good ones. By cutting down on editing, copyediting, design, etc., they will boost the profit margins of publishing houses.

There is another potential source of revenue for publishers and writers - the sale of sections of a book, which isn’t practical with printed books, but is with e-books, especially for reference books and guidebooks.

So where does that leave traditional publishers who ignore e-books? – left behind in the trash heap of failed businesses.

I hope to deal more with this and role social media can play in publishing in future posts.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic's News Legacy

This is a special edition of my blog in memory of the enduring legacy of the Titanic and, in particular, why it continues to make news today 100 years after it sank. In essence it’s a partial answer to what is news.

Why does the Titanic live on in popular memory, while hundreds of other shipwrecks and disasters do not? The Titanic was not the worst shipwreck in history, the Wilhelm Gustloff was. It was torpedoed by a Russian sub off the coast of what is now Poland on January 30, 1945 with the loss of about 9,500 people. Nor was the Titanic the first ship to hit an iceberg and go down.

What makes the Titanic so special and why we continue to remember it today are a combination of things: its name – Titanic, the way it sank – bow first on an even keel, not enough life boats, filled with rich and prominent passengers, being labelled unsinkable by the popular press, striking an iceberg, being on its maiden voyage, being in the well-travelled North Atlantic, sinking in calm weather, a ship nearby that failed to come to the rescue and the length of time it took to sink leaving time for hundreds of mini-dramas to be carried out.

Every transportation disaster since then has been compared to the Titanic, like the recent wreck of the Costa Concordia and the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The finding of the wreck in 1985, Walter Lord’s book A Night To Remember and the movie Titanic has only added to the interest and to mystique.

No doubt in another 100 years we’ll still be talking about the Titanic.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

I’m shocked. The local southern Ontario Sun Media
newspapers* have suddenly changed. They’re no longer plain, boring sites. They’ve actually become quite interesting.

For too many years their websites have consisted of a list of news articles, with the odd picture and the even odder video, with lots of ads. They didn’t seem to care. They didn’t seem to want business. Maybe that’s why the sudden change. They decided they actually wanted readers and that the only way to get them to spruce up their web sites.

The new sites are dominated by photos. Yes they are all from the same template; the head photo is of a local area, for example St. Paul Street in St. Catharines and the Main Street Bridge over the Old Welland Canal in Welland. The opening page still has ads, but they don’t dominate the way they did previously. You also get the current weather at the top now. For the most part it’s much easier to navigate. They’ve added community events, which is a nice touch.

The news section could stand to be improved by returning to the previous menu section that allowed you to go to local, national and international news from the opening page. Now it’s just news. You click news and then from the news page you get the subdivisions, which seems a bit awkward to me.

The recent VIA train derailment at Aldershot, Ontario, was reported in the same story shared by all the updated papers. However, local stories covering the local angles were also covered. There were photos and videos as well as stories. In past there would be only words with the odd picture.

Local sports and entertainment are now featured daily on each web site, along with bloggers, events and readers’ contributions. (In later blog I’ll discuss the citizen journalist and the ethics of contributing to media sites.

The big question is whether the changes have come too late to make a difference? I think they have, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

*I regularly look at the following papers: Brantford Expositor, Chatham Daily News, Niagara Falls Review, St. Catharines Standard and Welland Tribune, along with the Barrie Examiner, Kingston Whig-Standard and
Woodstock Sentinel-Review, which I occasionally look at as well. The Barrie Examiner, Chatham Daily News and Kingston Whig-Standard haven’t yet changed, but hopefully will soon.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Dose Of Reality

I interrupt my regular journalism blog with a dose of reality, my reality. Life has a habit of doing things like this as I'm sure you know. The reality is I've had a heart attack. The scary thing is I don't know when I had it.

Between 40 and 60 per cent of all heart attacks are silent, like mine. They're silent because the symptoms, such as shortness of breath and nausea, are either ignored or attributed to something else, like indigestion or stress. They're also twice as deadly as non-silent heart attacks and the risk factors are the same, such as lack of exercise, high blood pressure and smoking.

My heart attack was found while being checked out by a specialist for an irregular heartbeat, which, it turns out, I don't have. I was having an echocardiogram done when scar tissue was discovered. The good news is that my heart attack was small and the scar is at the back of the heart not the front where it would be cause for concern. The other good news is that my heart is otherwise in great shape, meaning no blocked arteries and no evidence of heart disease.

The doctor also told me that my heart attack wasn't recent, which I took to mean not within the past month or so. My best guess is that it may have occurred sometime in 2008 when I was under titanic stress from caring for my father, who was alive and still at home with probable Alzheimer's. (He has since died.) However, it might have come last fall when I bought a load of earth and moved it around, something which I do at least once a year. It may have come at some other time.

Receiving the news has come as a shock to me. Now every twinge I wonder if it's another heart attack. Hopefully this hyper-alterness will soon die down. I am trying to change my diet and to lose a little weight. There are many other things I'm doing right and don't have, such as exercising regularly and not smoking. I'm also not diabetic and don't have high blood pressure.

I write this as a warning to others to pay attention to your body. Journalists are often guiltier than others of poor habits. Whether it's poor earting, not exercising, smoking or some other bad habit, make time to change. Remember the life you save might be your own. And as I've learned, it can happen to you.