Comments of the Week

March 1-5, 2010

At the end of each week, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we’ve received that week. Think we’ve missed something? Well… comment!

Amped Up About NPR

The March/April issue of the magazine includes Jill Drew’s detailed look at National Public Radio, which asks: can Vivian Schiller, NPR’s new president and chief executive, build a journalism juggernaut?

It would be good for the new folks at NPR to know of two mistakes in NPR’s own past. Through some bad decisions, NPR single-handedly created its competition. (1) By refusing to consider carriage of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” NPR spurred Mr. Kling and some collaborating general managers to create Public Radio International to distribute the variety show nationwide. (2) NPR employed and helped Ira Glass develop his extraordinary talent, but failed to support him when it came to developing “This American Life” which is distributed by PRI. (3) By NOT paying attention to the world of business and commerce, NPR left an opening for PRI to create “Marketplace.” Later, when NPR decided NOT to acquire Marketplace for fear of a lawsuit, APM did acquire the program (and a lawsuit, which was settled out of court). I wish NPR and their public broadcasting competitors well — the world is enriched by their programs. But, sometimes what appears to be a small mistake can blossom into a game-changing result.

— Jim Russell

The news portion of NPR will thrive if it focuses on gathering and disseminating facts and reasoned analysis. Don’t chase ambulances and don’t follow other reporters to the day’s or week’s sensational new story, no matter how big it is. We can get our fill of such “news” elsewhere. The recent report of an analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s database of sudden acceleration complaints is a good example of what NPR News should be doing. It’s not expensive (no flying reporters around the world) but very high value. Get good at collecting, analyzing, putting in context, and reporting the facts and listeners will beat a path to your door. No one else is doing it.

— Warren Tighe

One of NPR’s problems is that its programming is often confused with that from Public Radio International and American Public Media. And those producers have some excellent content, too, but they also have dreck such as the Howard Stern-eque “The Takeway” - one of the worst uses of the spectrum and airtime imaginable.

— Bill Johnson

The spawning of APM and then PRI gave programmers at LOCAL public stations and NPR affiliates a bigger store. Listeners really don’t see (well, hear) all these entities as competing with each other. Listeners are the winners, as each local station can buy, or not, the likes of This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion.

— stillfresh

Making Sense of Magazine Sites

The new issue also includes “Tangled Web,” a survey of practices at magazine Web sites that finds few widely-accepted standards for fact-checking, copy editing and other tasks. The magazine story and the full report went online this week, and commenters started weighing in.

I think in many ways the study mirrors what’s been going on in the newspaper industry— similar questions about standards, the relative lack of editing, online expertise, business models and profitability.

I’d like to comment on one point mentioned briefly in this article but explored in greater depth in the full report. There’s a clear implication (It’s Agenda item #1 in the report) that staffing and staff online expertise is a big issue. Much is made about how prior Web experience does not seem to be a significant criterion in hiring. I agree that it’s a good idea for the Web operations of print media to have staff who have more technical expertise (that is, who know how to do more than simply dump text, photos and videos into a CMS).

But it’s not necessarily problematic that many staff members who work “at least some of the time” for the Web don’t have Web experience. Many, if not most, newspaper reporters and editors work “at least some of the time” for the online product. If you look at what they are doing, though, you’ll find that many, if not most, are doing very little that requires much, if any, prior Web experience—writing news stories and updates, captions, producing photo galleries, blogging, etc. I suspect the same thing occurs in magazines. For people who work in more Web-technical areas, coding, interface development, multimedia reporting and production, Web experience would be much more important.

— John Russial

I found the article’s discussion of mission, or mission statement, perhaps the most interesting. It’s such a simple thing, most online writers or editors are likely to take it for granted. Whether transitioning from print media to online media, or conducting research or journalism between the two, the mission really must adapt. The medium is different, which means the models and methods for production and delivery are different, the way your audience absorbs (and processes) information is different, and the shelf life of your research and information is vastly changed as well.

Merely overlooking or even refusing to adjust or adapt a mission/purpose statement will be the source much indecisiveness and insecurity for editors and publishers.

— Aaron B.

Sweeteners Leave Sour Taste

On Monday, Ryan Chittum of The Audit took note of some data in the latest earnings report from Scripps to argue that the online advertising picture is even bleaker than it looks, because “a very large percentage of [newspapers’] online ads come from people who advertise in the print edition and are given online ads as a sweetener or ‘upsell.’”

But seriously, on-topic: “up-selling” isn’t limited to on-line ads. You also have the phenomenon of existing newsprint publications spinning off other, similar newsprint and/or glossy things for perceived niche markets. Any content therein is most often provided by existing editorial and production staff, and any and all ad-selling is accomplished by existing sales staff. Voila! “New revenue.”

— edward ericson

I am one of a hand full of newspaper classified industry experts. And yes, what the Scripps report says is true; however, it is not some dirty secret nor any accounting trick.

This is all part of the transition of print to Web. When newspaper classifieds first started online, it was hard to convince any advertiser of the value of the Internet. It was too new and many advertisers just did not understand it.

So at first, in order to get print advertisers interested in online, we offered the “upsell”—sometimes free, sometimes for a minimal price or sometimes included in a package price. This slowly got print advertisers used to the online products. Now it is starting to reverse, whereby we are selling online with a “print” upsell.

As long as there are print subscribers, the combined package is ace for the advertiser as they get the best of both worlds and a whole lot more eyeballs seeing their message. However, in almost every scenario I have worked with, customers can request just one or the other, but rarely do.

Behind the scenes “accounting” for this revenue is merely a reflection of the classified front-end system’s ability, or sometimes inability, to parse out the ads to different online and print products and then to the accounting interface. The more sophisticated the front-end system, the easier it is to parse out the revenue into the correct buckets.

— Janet DeGeorge

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.