Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chicago Reader deathwatch part 1000

Fitting perhaps that on the day that the Chicago Tribune redesign went live, the year-old owners of the Reader, Chicago's long-running alternative weekly paper, announced they were filing for bankruptcy protection.

Now the sale of the Reader is a topic I've covered extensively here, so there's a lot of backstory to catch up on. The short of it (for those not willing to follow those half-dozen links) is that the once-profitable paper was at the center of a converging media landscape that had the Tribune's Red Eye commuter paper on one track, Time Out Chicago on another, and Craigslist on a third. There was no real expectation of survival--the paper's prime had long passed it by--and the owners sold the paper to the Tampa, Florida based publishers Creative Loafing who still, just over a year since I first learned their name, causes a cringe in me every time I hear it.

Now bankruptcy protection is different than bankruptcy itself (yes, by all of one word) as Creative Loafing (ugh) owner Ben Eason is quick to point out to the Chicago Reader's own Michael Miner. "This isn't a failing company," he says, spinning in the manner most media CEOs have become quite accustomed to. If you don't believe him, he's got a few more for you: "This is a profitable business." No? How about "The company has a good cash flow. It has a good market position. Online revenues more than doubled in the last year." In other words, filing for bankruptcy protection is, like, the bestest, most awesomest thing ever!

So why, in the face of all this good news, is it happening? That one's easy! Let's take the Internet for 1000, Alex: Creative Loafing (ugh) finds themselves "caught squarely by this challenging economy between old media and new media." If that sounds familiar, that's because a little over a year ago Eason was touting (ugh) Creative Loafing's actions in "pioneering the opportunities offered by convergent print, web, and new media applications." Seems like that didn't work out quite the way he planned, huh?

But the future is bright! Just ask Eason! On an internal memo leaked on Miner's blog, he explains "Bottom line is that once this Company becomes a digital company. The money will follow our transformation." As proof, he touts that last year alone "our online business grew from roughly $200,000 in revenue to a run rate of $1,200,000 currently." That the declining print side of the Chicago Reader alone makes many times that seems to be omitted from the memo, though he does admit that the Reader and the Washington City Pages (originally a Reader property) make up half the profits of the company. Which is all well and good except that it's going to be a hell of a lot easier to become the defacto "going out" website in Sarasota than it is going to be in an oversaturated local web market like Chicago which hosts any number of homegrown alternatives to the Reader's tired website. The Reader stopped being the only game in town decades ago; online it's barely even an also-ran.

But dispite the tough times, Eason is promising no liquidation and no layoffs, and really why not believe the guy? It's not like credit isn't easy to come by right now--the banks are just giving money away, aren't they? Oh wait... What's that? Biggest stock market crash ever? Oops.

Update: As pointed out in the comments, I apparently had Craigslist on the brain when I called (ugh) Creative Loafing's Ben Eason "Craig" accidentally. I've made the change.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

MEGO site update: moved to Disqus commenting system

In order to begin to centralize the comment management of the various sites I oversee, I've moved the comments for MEGO over to Disqus, a distributed commenting system. Old comments should be in place but starting with this post we should be running on a new system

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chicago Tribune redesign announcement makes me hesitant to truly believe "it's a whole new day"

To much fanfare this week, the Chicago Tribune has announced their redesign/reimagining. I will hold off on an actual look at the redesign until next week when it goes live (but I will say that this prototype didn't make the cut, thank god).

Today, though, I want to give a couple tips on how not to present your content in a way that makes you seem old and out of touch with "the kids." To do so, I will use the Chicago Tribune's redesign announcement, where they proclaim that "it's a whole new day" at the Tribune Towers (a better slogan that the one that currently greets employees as the head to work at the tower every day: "Change is Inevitable").

Tip One: You should have your announcement not exist completely within the context of an embedded web video that won't load on a mobile phone. The kids these days like their phones. I was forwarded the link while I was away from the Internet for a day, but did have access through my phone. But the video wouldn't play--in fact, the page just returned a big blank box where a nice graphic could have gone. So I just stared at a big blank box for an entire day, wondering what it could possibly hold. Speaking of that big blank box...

Tip Two: a 320x240 video is really, really tiny nowadays. On YouTube, their videos run native at 480x360. On Vimeo, I can embed a video many times that size. In HD even. But nope, for the Tribune to make their big announcement--the complete redesign of their flagship paper--a postage stamp-sized video was good enough. Look how silly it looks, swimming in that sea of white:

But pay no attention: It's a whole new day at the Tribune. They swear! Sure, they may not have a site that works a damn on a mobile phone, and yeah, they clearly don't totally understand that web videos can be bigger than the 2002 standard size, but hey. It's new! And it's a day! And they have a section called Play! With the exclamation point! Yay!

You know that time you said, "What I'd like is a social network centered around the New York Times"

... remember that?

Maybe it was a long time ago?

Perhaps you'd drunk a lot of wine?

Or you might have been doing air quotes under the table when you said "like"?


Well, someone must have said it because the Times announced TimesPeople this week.

So what, exactly, is a social network built around the New York Times--besides a colossally strange idea? Well...

It's not a social network like Facebook or MySpace — you won't have Times friends, and it won't get you Times dates.

Which is too bad, because the ability to accumulate friends and get dates is pretty much the entire driving force of most successful social networks.

But no! Instead:

Instead, you'll assemble a network of Times readers. Then you'll be able to share interesting things on NYTimes.com with others in the network.

Because, apparently, sharing via a social bookmarking site like Delicious, sharing straight links with your friends on Facebook, or doing social recommending on Digg didn't quite cut the mustard for the needs of New York Times audiences.

Look, I get it: technology is neat. It's technically a very cool idea that you can sift through a paper as dense as the Times in a social way. But is there really a need to do that?

It feels to me like a misunderstanding on how people are consuming news online: People read widely. They share links already, via e-mail, blogs, and the other sites I mentioned above (and another bakers dozen of sites I didn't mention). News is spreading virally more and more. And friends are trusted sources at a time that the media is becoming less trusted on a daily basis.

But nobody reads one source--even a "paper of record," like the Times. People, especially the kind of news junkies that TimesPeople would want to attract, read dozens of news and opinion sites, increasing their touch even further with aggregator sites tossed into the mix as well.

So why then would anyone take part in social news sharing that locks you into a single site both in terms of content, but also in terms of access?

If I want to share a Times story using TimesPeople, I can only do it with other TimesPeople users. That's a pretty limited scope. But beyond that, if I have a nice network of TimesPeople users and I want to share with them a related story from another site, I'm SOL on that as well.

It's such an outmoded way of thinking--the site-as-an-island mentality of the 90s--that I've literally combed the 41-point FAQ a few times over to make sure I'm not missing something. But as best I can tell, I'm not. That's it: a lockbox for your Times links, accessible from nowhere but the Times and sharable with nobody but other people on the Times site (though they do allow a feed out to Facebook, another walled garden. Have fun with that. I'll stick with Google Reader and Delicious.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

journalists talking about the web framework Django

Sure, it's an hour long and, yes, it's very "inside baseball" (it is, after all a panel at a web framework conference), but isn't it refreshing to hear journalists talking about creating things again?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

mind suitably blown

It takes a while to get to the good stuff, but when she shows you how thin this thing is, you realize that there maybe is a future for this type of reader after all.

Now if they could just figure out how to get rid of that annoying flash between pages.

Friday, September 5, 2008

the kids are alright

I'm writing this post about a half hour before the last class of my first week of teaching. Unless this last class--only 10 students enrolled, thank god--proves me wrong, I have not had a single killer in any class. It's always my unreasonable fear before walking into a classroom, that it will be filled with killers. Once again, I'm proven wrong on that front.

But something else has been proven wrong as well: The idea that people, especially teenagers, no longer give a shit about journalism. If the swelling enrollment of my department is at all representational, I can tell you they care--a lot. There are over 250 students enrolled in the Intro to Journalism class--so many students, in fact, that they have to offer 12 sections. Almost 800 students in the entire department. It's the largest department in our school (the Media Arts college) after the Film Department, and it's been growing for years now.

And I asked the kids in my intro class this week why they wanted to get into journalism, and you know what? It's the same reasons I did and you did and we all were pulled into this calling. They still believe in a just society, in an informed populace, and in speaking truth to power. And sure, they may not (yet) understand that the Nancy Graces of the world aren't truly committing acts of journalism, and they don't have a real grasp (yet) of the myriad of changes that will directly affect their livelihoods the same way they've affected ours. But they have a passion and the excitement for this work that reminds me of, well, me way back when.

So yes, journalism is at a crossroads right now and many of us are having to face some of the harsh realities of that crossroads. But in the long run, if the kids I've met this week have any say in the matter, journalism will be just fine.
When was the last time you heard someone say that?

the words most spoken

I'm beginning to realize that, if they needed to, the New York Times could probably cut back to just being an infographic producer and I would engage with their output at the same level as I'm doing now. Who needs a crossword when you have this:

NY Times Infographic on the words spoken at both the DNC and RNC.

Monday, September 1, 2008

MySpace Muckraking

Yesterday, when rumors began to swirl that all may not be as it seems with GOP VP pick Sarah Palin's family, I said the first thing I'd do if I was investigating the story was to find the MySpace and Facebook pages of daughter Bristol's friends. While you can scrub your family's past to a certain degree, the social graph is too deep to clean completely. If there were secrets to be found, they'd be lurking in teenage exhibitionism. All it would take is someone to look.

Well, someone(s) did.

If you expect it to help clear things up, it only makes things more confusing. But it does show the power of an individual blogger to do an end-run around much larger news organizations and discover some hidden truths about a family that gets more complicated by the day.

Four years ago, that wouldn't have been possible. Four years ago, it wouldn't have even been thinkable.

But today, it's clear that a run for higher office holds any number of web 2.0 pitfalls--including your kid's boyfriends sister's MySpace page. And that you're facing not just oppositional researchers and well-funded news organizations, but also anyone who wants to ask why.