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The Money-Mad Move to Mobile™: It will cost us dearly

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Got an iPad? iPhone? Blackberry? Any mobile device? Content, formerly known as news, is coming to you at lightspeed. McPaper wants to lead the way — or at least catch up to others.

The migration of content from print to online is hardly news. Neither is the intent of content conglomerates, formerly known as newspaper companies, to send content directly to mobile devices. Got an iPad? Gannett’s corporate site trumpets the 800,000 — and climbing — downloads of the free USA Today app.

Other content providers, formerly known as newspapers and cable news sites, are already parked on your Blackberry, iPhone, Droid, and iPad and have been for a while: I routinely read The New York Times, The Washington Post and on my Blackberry. Get my weather on it, too.

There’s a corporate rush to get content, presumably reported and written by content providers (formerly known as journalists), to you wherever you are right now — and have it return to corporations the revenue that their newspapers, now known as content vehicles, have been losing by the bucket loads for a decade. They want that money back. And in the course of dumbing us down, they’re going to get it.

As that rush of content flashes to us, and despite the vast amount of information available in so many media, we will have far fewer well-trained assessors of that information who credibly separate that which matters from that which does not. This is profoundly disturbing. So, too, is the corporate conflation of news, once assessed separately from all revenue considerations, and advertising into a blended concoction called content.

After losing billions of dollars because of foolish, arrogant business decisions over the past two decades, media corporations have driven almost half of the nation’s daily print journalists from their newsrooms. Now, too, they have dismissed the words journalist and journalism from the lexicon of communication corporate-speak. As a result, the more than 35,000 men and women who’ve left newspaper companies have been professionally de-branded as well.

When USA Today launched on Sept. 15, 1982, intent on being the nation’s first get-it-anywhere-at-6 a.m. national newspaper, conventional wisdom suggested failure more likely than success. Nearly a decade and three-quarters of a billion dollars passed before the newspaper turned a profit.

Yet it altered the landscape of how journalism was presented. USA Today‘s “write tight, write bright” philosophy, its full page of weather, USA Today “snapshots,” and the dramatic, extensive use of color drew scores of imitators. More newspapers, including the old Grey Lady herself, cut front-page story lengths in half and hired talented designers to “make us look like television.” Over the years, its approach to news writing and reporting content provision — and its wholesale imitation by so many newspapers — has eroded the value of critical thought historically provided by newspapers, the nation’s first educational system.

USA Today became the highest-circulation daily in America. As it did, it continually transformed itself. In a publication in which concision and precision initially ruled, longer investigative and analytical stories emerged. The nuances in stories moved from the shallow end of the pool to at least nearer the deep end. USA Today earned a semblance of … grudging respect. And it made money for Gannett.

But that’s over now. Newspapers including USA Today rushed en masse to the ‘Net and gave away the milk for free. That led to unintended consequences, because newspaper companies arrogantly and stupidly refused to recognize the Internet and its subsequent explosion of news aggregator sites as competitors of financial significance. Thus, since 1992, print circulation at approximately 900 dailies fell from about 62 million to less than 49 million in 2008. At USA Today, print circulation has fallen by about 400,000 from 2.2 million. Advertising sales fell 27 percent in June. Gannett’s second-quarter profits tumbled 36 percent.

So another en masse rush by content corporations has been under way — to mobile. In this rush, we may be seeing, as Gannett brands it, “transformation.” But to what? The end of the historical public service mission of journalism? As content-providing companies blend news and advertising, audiences eventually will retain little confidence that the content was judged on its merits rather how well it positions accompanying advertising.

Last month, Gannett announced “a major organizational restructuring” of USA Today and its website in “transformation briefings” with employees. But Gannett also has a new goal for its flagship — speed — and that goal is a sad, significant, digital step backward.

The goal: Get anything that happens to your favored platform fast. Reports Jeremy W. Peters of The New York Times:

The paper’s focus will now be on its digital operations. It will emphasize breaking news on its Web site, aiming to post articles within 30 minutes of a breaking news event. … And it will shift more of its resources toward making content more available in digital form, an effort to win a larger share of the tablet and mobile phone news market. [emphasis added]

USA Today 2.0 (3.0?4.0?) will do this with 130 fewer people, about 9 percent of its 1,500-person workforce. And it will do this in a management environment that has torn down the traditional church vs. state wall between advertising and news. From The Times:

Neither the announcement nor the article said which departments would be affected by the 130 job cuts or how the paper would address conflict-of-interest concerns that might arise from the new editorial-business partnership, which was described in the presentation as ‘a new way of doing business that aligns sales efforts with the content we produce.’ [emphasis added]

“Content we produce”? Not “events and issues produced or affected by others that we record and transmit to readers”? And what’s this “aligns sales efforts”? Who’s running the show? Editors? Or ad managers?

USA Today isn’t alone in leaping from the sinking print ship to the rising mobile balloon. The Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper owned by a for-profit subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is nearly halving its staff as it moves to mobile. The paper will cut 57 full-time and 28 part-time employees. Listen to the lard in management’s explanation of goal-setting. From MediaNewsBuyer:

The Deseret News team is showing “courageous leadership, not just to make the difficult decisions around costs, but to define a broader and more digitally focused future,” says Mark Contreras, senior vice president of E.W. Scripps and chairman of the Newspaper Association of America.

The Deseret News outlined a five-part plan to become a leader in the industry and “a model for change,” announced Clark Gilbert, the paper’s CEO and president. The plan includes creating a cutting-edge digital team which Gilbert says is on par with “the most innovative new media companies in the country,” though the article didn’t offer specifics. [emphasis added]

What the hell is the definition of a “a broader and more digitally focused future”? Obfuscation, not clarity, permeates corporate accounts of going mobile. Does that suggest these folks haven’t a clue? You know, the same lack of clue when they invaded the Internet, assuming conquest rather than fighting for it?

Here’s what has not dawned on these short-sighted mobile missionaries: Tossing a talented workforce of journalists under the bus and adopting gibberish as corporate-speak will eventually undercut their messaging as a credible, authoritative delineator of meaning. In this new world of content creation, provision, and syndication, will sites like Allbritton Communications’ TBD, with its army of bloggers and a forest of aggregated content, credibly replace the work of seasoned newspaper journalists for today and tomorrow’s audiences? So far, hyperlocal remains merely hype.

But the only question that will concern corporate owners is this: Screw meaning — Are we making money?

Even if this were not a tattered American economy, the shredding of American journalism and reinventing it as content reminds us that it’s cash über alles for content corporations. As in other corporations, satisfying shareholders over the short term drives management thinking. Remember, the media industry has become one motivated by the search for “new” business models that contain content streams that they do not wish to connect to compensation streams. As consumers, we’ll get what we pay for — a product unleavened by credibility that is surrounded by the means to quickly buy stuff via credit card and PayPal.

The new information universe has been constructed with two corporate goals: Train us to believe crap isn’t crap, and to persuade us to part with money because we believe the crap has value.

And more mobile wannabees climb aboard.

The Florida Times-Union, a Morris Communications paper, already has “apps for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows Mobile phones and has one on the way for the Palm webOS,” according to Damon Kiesow at Poynter in an interview with Bill Bortzfield, identified as content manager for

News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s playtoy, plans to “introduce a new national digital newspaper distributed exclusively via mobile handsets and connected devices including Apple’s iPad,” the company announced in early August. Rupert et al. wants to take on The New York Times and USA Today with “with content targeting a more general readership via short, snack-sized articles intended to be read on the go.” [emphasis added]

Rupert’s bought Skiff, a digital content platform optimized to deliver premium journalism efforts across smartphones, tablets, netbooks and ereader devices, and invested in Journalism Online LLC, the venture that provides the means for newspapers, magazines and online-only publishers to collect the ka-ching from their online readers.

“Short, snack-sized articles”? Say goodbye to a fully-thought-out, big-picture meal, as if such had ever existed at News Corp. properties.

So the game’s afoot. But more questions arise.

Mark Coddington at Nieman Journalism Lab posted the presentation he identified as that Gannett execs made to USA Today employees. Let’s return to a significant bullet point:

A new way of doing business that aligns sales efforts with the content we produce. [emphasis added]

What does aligns mean? What will be the relationship between the editors assigning and shaping stories and the managers selling advertising that surrounds those stories? If readers see a positive story on their iPads about the launch of, say, a new electric vehicle from Honda — with an ad for that vehicle parked next to the story — can they be assured that it’s merely coincidence? Hardly.

The Gannett presentation included this graphic.

Note the overlap of the three rings signifying audience, content, and advertising. Advertising is symbolically primal. It is the only full circle. Forty years ago, if a newspaper’s ad rep had walked into the newsroom and even whispered a story idea, editors would have shot him. But in The Money-Mad Move to Mobile™, new executive titles at USA Today reinforce the demise of the wall between church and state:

• Vice President of Business Development, heading a department that develops and secures new business opportunities and partnerships including brand licensing, content syndication, acquisitions and joint ventures.
• Vice President, Strategic Planning, Analysis and Support, which will oversee financial analysis and modeling for USA Today brands, including planning for and analysis of business and development opportunities.
• Executive Editor, Content Distribution and Programming for USA Today’s print, online and mobile news and information platforms.

In the corporate release, the word news appears only twice — once in a revealing historical context. From David L. Hunke, president and publisher of USA Today:

When USA Today first launched in 1982, we led the news and information industry in aligning our content with readers and advertisers. I’m confident these key executive appointments in new and current departments will continue our legacy as a vital, valuable media brand across print, digital and mobile platforms.[emphasis added]

There’s that word align again. What does it mean in the boardroom of Gannett? And what does it mean in the USA Today newsroom? Or will newsroom and boardroom be combined into one very large room in which content and advertising are pronounced as reason for revenue?

And why does content alignment recall that execrable exercise in media convergence called repurposing?

What about the perceived need for speed? From the Gannett presentation:

The first 30 minutes of covering a news story is [sic] critical (think Web-first).

Why the rush? Just to be first?

Grammatical errors aside, management’s desire to place what happened on the paper’s website or a reader’s mobile device within 30 minutes sets USA Today‘s newsgathering content creation back nearly a century. This goal mirrors the get-it-first-or-get-shitcanned mindset of Associated Press versus United Press International of much of the 20th century. Speed often overwhelmed accuracy and analysis. Getting news on the wire first mattered most. Why return to that? Will what happened be followed 30 minutes later with what it means? Probably not, because assigning meaning no longer matters — that takes too much time and money.

Remember the corporate mantra: We need revenue. We want more revenue. We want as much profit as we can get.

Cut staff. Use fewer editors. Have fewer eyeballs see the news content before it goes online or mobile. Risk error for the benefit of mere minutes gained. So, too, is the lack of definitive meaning the price of speed.

We’ll have fewer editors (i.e., managers) and fewer edits on a story or graphic. And copy desks will more often be the first read on a story headed for online. [emphasis in original]

According to the astute Mark Fitzgerald at Editor & Publisher, “coverage will be themed among content rings including ‘Your Life,’ ‘Travel,’ ‘Breaking News,’ ‘Investigative,’ ‘National,’ ‘Washington/Economy,’ ‘World,’ “Environment/Science,’ “Aviation,’ ‘Personal Finance,’ ‘Autos,’ ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Tech.’ ”

Gee. Much of that stuff is fluff. Listing it in series implies equality among the “themes.” But just how much “investigative” will hit mobile platforms compared with “entertainment” and “personal finance” and “your life,” given that the goal is get it there in 30 minutes? “Investigative” is expensive. That takes time. “Entertainment” is cheap and takes under 30 minutes. Thus, expect more ContentLite™ married to ConnectedAd™ rather than actual news that voters and consumers need to make intelligent political and purchasing decisions.

Will the rush for speed cast aside the critical thought a society needs? Or merely provide what readership surveys say readers want?

It is a canard that the intended audience, presumably those 25-49 with disposable income, for The Money-Mad Move to Mobile™ is even permitted to be discerning. Mobile content is pushed at them relentlessly. Much will be chaff, commingled by a dubious liaison between the VP for content syndication and the editor-cum-manager charged with content assignment and alignment.

Wait? Did you hear that whispering? It sounds like USA Today head honcho Hunke and Apple CEO/guru Steve Jobs in a darkened parking garage.

Hunke: Listen, we’ll pay you $200 bucks a unit for iPads.
Jobs: $250.
Hunke: Okay, $225, you greedy bastard.
Jobs: What you gonna do with them?
Hunke: Hey, it’s the subsidized cell phone scam. If someone buys a three-year mobile subscription to USA Today, we’ll sell ’em the iPad for $100.
Jobs: Crap, you’ll make money doing that … Why didn’t I think of that first?
Jobs slinks away into the darkness, making a note in his iPhone to call to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He thinks, “I could get $300 each from those clowns … Maybe more.”

Steve, better call Rupert fast. He’s in a buying mood. Better do it quickly, before Jeff Bezos reconfigures his Kindle and calls Rupert first.

We carry in our pockets and purses the means to obtain — or have thrust at us — endless gigabytes, even terabytes, of information. And so much of it will be meaningless. We will pay a hefty price for that.

h/t: Dr. Samuel R. Smith

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 6, 2010 at 8:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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