Saying Goodbye To Thanksgivings With Newspapers

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Thanksgiving at my house in White Plains wasn’t just the day that you could hear the trumpets and trombones warming up at the old stadium for the annual high school football game, or when grandmothers and grandfathers from both sides, aunts and uncles and cousins showed up for Mom’s turkey feast. It also was the day that the Reporter Dispatch thumped onto the driveway, a holiday newspaper stuffed with advertisements and inserts.

It’s still that way in some communities. But the ad-stocked Thanksgiving newspaper just like the daily newspaper itself is — in the parlance of the day — a content dissemination platform whose time is fast coming to an end. 

Earlier this month IBM Global Business Services published a study based on an extensive survey of 2,400 consumers and 80 advertising executives that predicted 30 percent of the advertising revenue now being spent on traditional media — particularly television and print — will shift online in the next five years. Advertisers, aware of the ability of consumers to get what they want when they want it on the Web, also want their products placed where the consumers are. Advertisers look online to platforms and techniques that enable them to see what’s actually happening in click throughs, time spent on Web sites, time spent viewing and reading, the analytics that mainstream media can’t provide.

As a writer and public policy specialist who made the transition to online journalism and communications in 1998, none of IBM’s findings are surprising. They just confirm what is happening in my world. I spend much more time online working, reading, viewing, communicating, learning, and being entertained than I ever did with any other media. I earn my living reporting and editing online. I’ve developed a nice consultancy building the online capacity of individuals and organizations.  My wife is enrolled in online college courses. My kids spend almost all their free time online, and a lot of time besides that. 

But it’s also hard to watch daily newspapers, truly great civic institutions, get hammered by the online transition. What this means for civil society is still playing out. I see it as an opportunity and not a civic tragedy. Still, the near certainty of a day fast approaching when daily newspapers cease to be is producing painful career uncertainty for my friends in the business. Some have joined the thousands who’ve been bought out, laid off, dismissed, and forgotten all over the country. 

Nancy Nall Derringer, who spent 25 years as a daily reporter, 19 of them as an editor and columnist in Indiana for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, published an essay last year that is among the most perceptive pieces on the subject that I’ve read. Nancy is a newspaper refugee. She lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, where she freelances. Her husband, Alan Derringer, is an editor with the Detroit News

 “I think about someone else I’ve been paying attention to lately,” Nancy writes at the essay’s end, “a young Fort Wayne native, Nathan Gotsch. In late spring of 2005, he started a weblog he called Fort Wayne Media Notes. A few months later he changed the name to Fort Wayne Observed (now edited by Mitch Harper) and widened the focus accordingly. Like most blogs, he started out slow and tentative, linking to published reports and adding a few comments. Soon, though, he was finding and breaking stories – not every day, but often enough that you wanted to check the site daily, just in case. He had a fresh and clear writing style, an eye for a story and obviously knew how to cultivate sources. Plainly, he understood the Internet. And he was unemployed, in the ebb tide after college graduation. In other words, he was the sort of bright young man a newspaper editor should be wooing with candy and flowers. It so happens that as a film school grad, Gotsch was more interested in making movies in Hollywood than journalism in Fort Wayne.”

New Midwest Online News Entry

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John Bebow, an active member of the association of newsies-who-became-public-interest-advocates, sent an interesting item in his weekly email alert about the emergence of online news organizations in the Midwest. John diverged from a decorated daily news career,  that included stops at the Detroit News and Chicago Tribune, to become the executive director of the Center For Michigan, a nearly two-year-old non-profit that focuses on state economic and competitiveness issues that was founded by Phil Powers, the founder and former owner of a successful chain of newspapers in southern Michigan.

Mr. Bebow notes that “traditional newspaper newsrooms continue to shrivel. In Michigan this year, the Booth papers closed their Lansing bureau. Gannett papers in cities ranging from Battle Creek to Detroit are cutting staffs with buyouts and, in some cases, layoffs. And Detroit News Business Editor Mark Truby, widely respected as one of the very best journalists in the state, left for a corporate job at Ford and, in the process, became the latest in a long line of veteran journalists (including your newsletter author) to leave newsrooms for other opportunities. In the face of these declines in traditional media, new kinds of journalism — funded by philanthropy — are cropping up all over the place. Michigan is ripe with great stories waiting to be told and meaty issues deserving of in-depth coverage. Journalism funded by philanthropy is a great hope for the future of public discourse in Michigan.”

Part of John’s post is personally satisfying. Of the five independent online news organizations he cited, I’ve been deeply involved in two, the Michigan Land Use Institute and Circle of Blue, both based in Traverse City. They reflect the ability of talented journalists, editors, producers, and graphic designers to make the complex simple — land use and economic policy in the Institute’s case, the global freshwater crisis for Circle of Blue — and produce consistently compelling work that is reaching large audiences. The 21st break-up of mass — mass media, mass audiences, mass marketing — has opened the opportunity for news organizations to be small, nimble, very good, attract significant numbers of visitors, have influence, and be financially successful. 

The other side of that trend, of course, is that the large news organizations of the 20th century, designed to reach the masses, are struggling to develop the new business model. 

The New York Times, which literally shrunk the size of the pages of its print edition a few months ago, is likely to survive as a global news organization because it is great, and it is building an exceptional Web presence that attracts seven or eight times more readers to its online report than its print newspaper. But it’s only a matter of time, probably sooner than later, before the Times decides that all that infrastructure — forests, paper plants, printing plants, delivery trucks and the rest — needed to deliver a paper edition to roughly 1 million readers a day is just not worth the trouble. About 20 percent of what I write for the Times now heads to what editors call the “web-only”  report. 

Regional daily newspapers and many general interest magazines, though, may not survive in print or online. The cost of maintaining 50 or 100-member newsrooms at roughly $100,000 a person (including taxes and benefits) is just too high.

The other intriguing portion of John’s alert concerned a number of prominent old-school journalists in Minneapolis who say they’ve raised over $1.2 million to open Minnpost.com, a new online daily set up as a non-profit.  The roster of staff and contributors numbers 45 people. Though just a handful are full or part-time payroll employees, and the rest freelancers who will earn from $100 to $600 per piece, that looks to me like a sizable weekly and monthly churn. I have no doubt that what Minnpost.com publishes will be useful. Journalists love adventure and challenge and Minnpost.com is both. I wish the group great success. 

But as an observer of new models I have a question. Will this distinctive mixing of strategies — large numbers of reporters seeking to succeed financially in an online news world that rewards compact newsrooms — survive? And if it does, will Minnpost.com have invented something important for readers and their communities?

The new online journalism models that have been successful — Grist, Alternet, MLUI, Sightline, MetroMode, Truth DigTalking Points Memo, Newwest.net, Voice of San Diego, and others — thrived because they were good and small. A few editors, a small number of journalists, a graphic designer or two, a Web producer, a multi-media producer. That is especially important for the online non-profits because attracting donors and foundations is hard work. Though foundations say they admire communications, and call on their grantees to pay attention to what they say and how they say it, grants for communications are some of the toughest money to find. The measurements of success, as defined by philanthropies and donors, can be murky. Is it readership, page views, changes in policy? 

One small news operation that became large is Slate, which operates on a profit model, is owned by the Washington Post, has 59 editorial staff members, and was fortunate to have Bill Gates’ money to get started in 1996.

I don’t know of any independents, especially a startup online non-profit daiy news operation set to launch on November 8, that ever had as many journalists ready to go as Minnpost. com. It is for that reason alone that if they’re still here a year from today it’s a potentially enormous breakthrough for regional media. I join a number of my colleagues in the online news world in wishing our friends in Minneapolis the best.

1Sky, Step it Up, and the Citizen-Media Campaign to Prompt Action on Climate

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When it came to reaching large numbers of people in the 20th century, it was all about mass. Mass marketing. Mass audiences. Mass communication. Journalist David Halberstam published an important book in 1979, The Powers That Be, that documented the influence of a handful of large publishers — Time, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times — and a broadcast company — CBS — in setting the cultural, political, and social agenda in the United States. 

One of the primary trends of the 21st century Mode Shift is that mass has been replaced by groups, communities, individuals. Hastening that development, of course, is the advent of the Internet and all of the attendant global dissemination platforms, readily accessible to individuals and small groups, that the Web spawned. It’s no accident, for instance, that solving global climate change is now the first or second most important international priority.

From 1988, when James Hansen appeared before Congress to alert the nation that global warming was in progress, until 2003, when broadband became widely available, the discussion about global climate change was largely confined to the elite media, the scientific press, academia, environmental organizations, and right wing radio. Broadband made it possible for tens of thousands of new voices, many of them just as nuanced and knowledgeable, to report additional facts and draw more penetrating conclusions about the climate, often accompanied by video and motion graphics. Online audiences were huge. Al Gore used that independent communications infrastructure to help market his message and turn An Inconvenient Truth into a global phenenomen, so much so that the Nobel committee cited the online communications strategy in awarding Mr. Gore the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.   

Mr. Gore made an appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last month. And while he warned of the awful consequences that await people and the planet if we waste more time studying and not acting, I noticed that my good friend, writer Bill McKibben, was involved in an intriguing and promising national civic action to do just that. It is called 1Sky, and it is intended to “galvanize a national movement to deliver real climate solutions and launch a sweeping transition to a clean, secure energy future.” One of 1Sky’s primary tools is the online media — mainstream and new, chatboards, forums, email, video sharing, social media, blogs, and Web sites. The idea is to “assemble a broad cross- section of American constituencies and leaders in an unprecedented campaign to move the US federal government to deliver policies that will create 5 million new green jobs through a massive efficiency program, cut emissions 30% from today’s level by 2020, and put a moratorium all new coal plants.”

Bill McKibben’s involved because he’s already tapped the online world. Last April he used the Web to  help organize 1,400 “Step it Up” rallies across the country to pressure Washington to begin aggressively cutting carbon emissions and protect America’s right to an optimistic future.

Bill and his Step it Up organizers are planning another day of rallies on Saturday, November 3, and this time they have a novel theme. Step it Up is asking people to organize rallies at a spot in their communities that commemorates great leaders of the past. Bill writes that people have committed to climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and rallying outside the Rhode Island church where John F. Kennedy was married. There will be a rally honoring Navajo elder and activist Roberta Blackgoat, who inspired the fight against coal development on tribal land.

Organizers are asked to register their rally on http://stepitup2007.org

Step it Up says it will help gather crowds and invite politicians to local rallies. And mindful of the collaboration with 1Sky, political leaders will be made familiar with the 1Sky priorities. “Basically,” writes McKibben, “we want to find out who is simply a politician and who’s ready to be a leader.”

We’ll also discover once again the power that ordinary people are acquring through adept use of online media to set global priorities.

Online, Televised, Blogged, YouTube and More New Media at the Clinton Initiative

NEW YORK — Live television images from the various plenary and working sessions are everywhere at the Clinton Global Initiative. They appear on screens as big as king size bed sheets in the main conference hall. They illuminate flat screens that stand in the halls and smaller meeting rooms. A row of small screens decorate a refreshment area close to the lobby of the Sheraton New York.

This demonstration of televised ubiquity is just the leading edge of a communications strategy that also includes a well-designed and easily navigable Web site, live web casting of every panel discussion that also is archived and retrievable. There are five interior Wi-fi channels for conference participants and a small army of writers and videographers, most of whom represent online publications and networks, few of which — like treehugger.com — that you’ve ever heard of. 

It’s noticeable that the mainstream media is barely here. The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times did nice wrapups Friday morning. Forbes and Fortune are covering the conference on their Web sites. The New York Times, though, published just three Associated Press and Reuters pieces. The major papers are still useful as arbiters of importance, but as sources of information about the nuances and transitions and ideas explored here this week they played no role whatsoever. The reason: In the age of the Internet and muti-media, it’s not only essential for organizations to tell their own stories, but they now have the tools and skills to do it better than traditional news organizations, and they can reach huge audiences with their own media.

The Clinton Global Initiative, staged by Scott Givens, understands those lessons well. The initiative generates the sort of idea excitement that translates well on television. Invite interesting and knowledgeable people to talk about vital ideas. Carefully set lights and cameras at the right angles. Array the conference with various kinds of titans — movie stars (Jolie and Pitt), media stars (Martha Stewart), political and diplomatic stars (Tony Blair, Al Gore), business luminaries (Larry Page) and grassroots heros (Jane Goodall). Then turn the conference into an eight-hour-a -day talk show broadcast live on the Web.

The beauty of the Web is that all of that content can be archived and readily downloaded for those who didn’t watch in real time. Then producers supplement the video with digital photographs, blogs, and various other print formats — including a running compendium of commitments. The result is that the online visitor can see for themselves on YouTube, MSN, the CGI Website and elsewhere what happened and generate their own narrative. If they need help, they can search the dozens of blogs written here and brought to the fore by Google and Technorati. The combination of self-generated media, mainstream media, new media, all of it instantly available, provides the hundreds of thousands of online visitors who are paying attention this week a kind of instantaneous digital access to this very hopeful global event. Bill Clinton said this afternoon that MSN put the initiative events on its home and that YouTube’s archive of the initiative had generated 500,000 page views. cgipixtv.jpg

Also this afternoon, as if to emphasize the presence of new media here, Larry Page, the Google co-founder, shared the stage with Mr. Clinton and YouTube co-founder Steve Chen to talk about a new section YouTube is building to help non-profits raise money.  The company’s news release described the new project this way: “YouTube’s 2007/2008 Clinton Global Initiative commitment enables nonprofit organizations (in the U.S. those with 501c3 tax filing status) that register for the program to receive a free nonprofit specific YouTube channel where they can upload footage of their work, public service announcements, calls to action and more. The channel will also allow them to collect donations with no processing costs using the newly launched Google Checkout for Non-Profits. YouTube’s global platform enables nonprofits to deliver their message, showcase their impact and needs, and encourage supporters to take action.”

It’s important and representative of the current media age that this event, which is defined by news of opportunity and promise, is taken so seriously by the new media. The news conferences are dominated by bloggers and independent news organizations from around the world.

The transparent and unavoidable conclusion is that the 20th century American journalistic principles and values — if it bleeds it leads — don’t fit here. The BBC broadcast a half-hour talk show from here that featured Mr. Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg discussing the green economic development strategy that has revived the city’s economy. No American national news broadcaster devoted even a few minutes to the initiative’s ideas or personalities. 

The sort of transactions that occur at this conference — funders putting projects together with government and non-profits to do such things as educate women in Africa — are understood as vital to the world’s progress by the new media. They’re not, however, seen as news by enough conventional American news organizations. As a writer who contributes to both I worry. The old media’s frame needs to adjust to new conditions. The new media’s capacity to develop the revenue streams that enable its writers and producers to really dig in needs to improve. The unmistakable conclusion I draw is that with the complexity and confusion that abounds in helping the world understand itself, people just need solid facts and real stories. The world, in short, needs great media in whatever form it’s produced. 

Climate Change Is A New Global Organizing Principle

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NEW YORK — The X Prize Foundation, which developed a new philanthropic idea called “revolution through competition,” told participants today at the Clinton Global Initiative that it would commit $300 milion in the next  seven years to help solve global crises in each of the four CGI focus areas. The foundation said it is developing new prizes to increase access to renewable fuels, improve energy efficiency, and promote use of cleaner fuels. It also will have new competitive prizes to improve cancer detection and treatment, improving schools and curriculum, and stimulate market-based strategies to produce jobs in poor nations.

The announcement was among the stream of innovative ideas, fully funded, designed to respond to global problems that defy government’s abiity to solve. Other commitments described by Mr. Clinton today include the Sabin Global Health Institute’s $25 million commitment to treat neglected diseases, the Dell Foundation’s $25 million commitment to improve education in poor countries, and Intel’s $300 million five-year commitment to expand and improve its online curriculum to train teachers in developing countries.

The clear priority and focus this year is action to impede climate change, illustrated by multi-billion commitments made by big players. Yesterday Florida Power and Light announced a $2.4 billion energy efficiency and clean energy initiative that includes constructing a solar-powered electric plant. Today Standard Chartered Bank committed to spend the next five years underwriting $4 billion to $5 billion in debt for renewable energy projects with a total project value of $8 billion to $10 billion. The bank said it will target clean energy projects in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and focus its  efforts in areas such as wind, hydro, geothermal, solar, biomass and coal bed methane.

Duke Energy and a coalition of other utilities — Consolidated Edison, Edison International, Great Plains Energy, Pepco Holdings, PNM Resources, Sierra Pacific Resources and Xcel Energy — pledged to increase their collective investment in energy efficiency to serve 22 million customers in 20 states. The collaboration was valued at $3 billion over three years. Mr. Clinton said it will  lead to the elimination of 30 million tons of green house gas emissions per year-the equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road. With the Edison Electric Institute, the companies also will establish the Institute for Electric Efficiency, enabling them to share and promote best practices in energy efficiency.

I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years, and elements of this one mimic those. Panels of leading figures in industry, academia, business, and the non-profit communities regularly convene in panel discussions that occasionally divulge some interesting tidbit that you’ve never heard of seen before. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee greeting yesterday was priceless. 

But I’ve never been to a conference devoted so thoroughly to making things happen, and so much money committed to supporting change that will make a difference. The competition for ideas and attention here is fierce, and the players, particularly the industrial executives, are unexpected. Many of these same suits — Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott, for instance, devoted all of the previous years of their careers leveraging the status quo to make billions and contribute mightily to the global environmental crises they seek to solve today. Many of these same people voted for George Bush, no friend to energy efficiency he, and some of them did so twice.   

Redemption, though, is a powerful motivator. And we’ve been told this week, most pointedly by Ted Turner, that there’s money to be made in solving any one of the global problems discussed here — energy and climate change, education, poverty, and health.  

I’ve also never been at an event, national or international, so closely tied to the personality of an individual. The spirit of collaboration and intelligence and adventure that distinguishes the Clinton Global Initiative reflects its founder. Mr. Clinton was on time this morning for a news conference in the press room here at the New York Sheraton and responded this way to a question from a French journalist who wondered “what drives you?”

“I think I should spend my life trying to give back to my country and the world for the great life I’ve had,” said Mr. Clinton. “I owe it to future of the world, children, and my country. I didn’t lose interest in these matters when I stopped being president.  And, frankly, I like it. The reason I do it is I find it immensely rewarding. It’s more interesting than anything I can imagine doing.”