Analysis of media outlets in the 29th District.

How the Flexible, Nimble Little Guy Beats the Smug, Plodding Big Guy

Rochester, the birthplace of the Gannett empire, is now the home of another giant media company:  Gatehouse Media.  Gatehouse owns almost every paper in the district, except for the two Gannett papers.   Because Gatehouse specializes in small-town newspapers, it's interesting to compare their little guy strategy with the Democrat and Chronicle's.

Here's one telling example.  When YouTube hit, video on the Internet was suddenly easy.  Both the D&C and a Gatehouse paper, the Messenger-Post, recognized that.  The D&C handled it by hiring "multimedia man", a "backpack journalist", who creates video-only reports which appear in the D&C's walled multimedia garden.    Actually, the D&C is so insecure about this guy that they put him in a walled garden within a walled garden.  His stories appear in a section of the RocMen that I can't even link to.  I can only link to individual video stories in the D&C Multimedia section.

The Messenger-Post took an entirely different tack.  They give their print reporters cheap cameras and had them add video to their stories.  The M-P treats video as a complement to the print story.  One good example is yesterday's coverage of an accident at a local ice warehouse.   Here's a better one:  a feature on a local sword swallower.  You don't have to watch the video to understand the story, but if you're interested in the story, watching the video adds more detail.  It's not always done perfectly, but the sword swallower piece is as near a perfect fusion as I've seen.

All of the M-P's videos are posted on YouTube.  Like the rest of the M-P's content, video is licensed under a Creative Commons license that makes it free for non-commercial use.  In other words, the M-P wants the rest of the Internet to link to, and use, its content.  Their response to new technology is to embrace it and use it to make their stories better.  The D&C's response is to wall it off in an inaccessible ghetto and forget about it.

By the way, the reason I know that Gatehouse gives its reporters cheap cameras is because I read it on Howard Owens' blog.  Howard is Gatehouse's director of digital publishing, an experienced journalist, and a smart, thoughtful guy.  I like the pragmatism of his take on disruptive video strategy.  Money quote:

Here is my brief definition of disruption: “The basic idea of disruption is to start at the low end, fulfilling a job to be done, with a product that is just ‘good enough.’”
  • Rely on current news room staff, who know news and story telling
  • Provide starter training, improving as we go
  • Don't get bogged down in trying to be like TV
The D&C's strategy is the opposite of this, and it shows.   Because the D&C treats video like some kind of obscure add-on, we're unlikely to see video of town hall meetings, press conferences or debates. 

The Smugtown Gazette on the Internet: It Ain't Pretty

The Democrat and Chronicle's Internet presence is, to put it mildly, a mess.  To be fair, the D&C isn't alone.  Newspapers have had a tough time figuring out what to do on the Internet, and many have made a number of missteps along the way.  But the D&C's presence is notable because it clearly costs them a lot of money, yet most of that money is spent for naught.

To keep this post manageable, I'll focus on two of the many issues with the D&C's web presence:  ads and community blogs.

Looking at the D&C's advertising is like setting the wayback machine to the year 2000.  Ads have little relation to content, or to Rochester, for that matter.  An Oreck XL ad pops up on one page, with no mention of a local dealer.  The biggest ad on the home page is for the D&C, and D&C promotions are sprinkled on the page like jimmies on a sundae.  Ads are presented on the bottom of the page even if the story is one paragraph long, where nobody will scroll down to see them. 

The D&C website shows what happens when you take the newspaper model of advertising and try to jam it onto a web page.  A web page just can't tolerate as many ads as the D&C is trying to push, and making some of them blink only exacerbates the problem.  Take a look at the City News page if you want to see better ad placement, or how about this newspaper

I'm no fan of ads, but If the D&C can't master advertising, they will fail.  After we stop reading paper newspapers, a new competitor will come to Rochester and replace the D&C, since you don't need to build a multi-million dollar printing plant to compete in the written media anymore.

Like the D&C's ads, the D&C community blogs reflect the paper's arms-length relationship with the Internet.  The D&C has built a walled garden where "community bloggers" are allowed to exist, but only on strict terms laid down by D&C editors.  From what I've heard, bloggers can't scoop the D&C on important stories, so anything the D&C usually covers is off limits until the D&C posts a story about it.  And the D&C is quick to reprimand bloggers who commit an infraction, real or imagined.

Since D&C management has made it clear that they're comfortable only with a steady stream of drivel,  for the most part, community bloggers provide it.  The Pittsford blogger, an elderly gentleman who likes to bold the first few words in every paragraph, writes about leaks in his house and luncheons he attends.   Just read a page of the Chili blog and tell me if it represents what's happening in Chili.  There are exceptions, like Gates, but they're rare.

I don't mean to be snarky and mean to a group of unpaid workers, but much better has been done by unpaid area residents.  A prime example is Jason Crane's new blog, Rocbike. In politics, Mustard Street, the Water Buffalo Press and Rochester Turning are head and shoulders above what the D&C publishes.

In addition to the dull content, the setup of the blogs in general is technically incompetent. The D&C doesn't offer RSS feeds for any of its blogs. Instead of posting "permalinks", the reader needs to work figure out the URL of the post, so it's hard to link to their content.  The D&C uses a major blogging tool (Blogger), but they've removed all of the Blogger features that let blogs interact easily with the parts of the Internet.  It's hard to believe this was done by accident.

It's just obvious from the content and the presentation that the D&C hosts community blogs out of pure duty.  They wish this "whole blog thing" would just go away, but if it won't, they're going to make sure that it isn't a threat to the "real journalists" at the D&C.

Next up:  A small local paper shows the D&C how it's done.

Gannett, the D&C and "You"

To understand why the Democrat and Chronicle is losing readers, one needs to understand the formula it used to attract them in the first place.  That formula is a common one for all Gannett papers, and it's based on the success of USA Today.  Like USA Today, the D&C looks bright and inviting.  It is full of big graphics, color pictures, and "news you can use".  The graphics and color are fine.  It's "you" who's the problem.

Gannett's big insight in the 80's was that readers are more likely to buy papers that contain news relevant to their lives.  As a result, Gannett doesn't print what "you" ought to read -- they print what "you" want to read.   Unless something really big happens, at least one or more of the front-page stories will be designed to catch the attention of one or more of "you".

This strategy was a great one back in the 80's, a time when the dinosaurs of mass media ruled the planet.  When Al Neuharth launched USA Today in 1982, MTV was two years old and cable TV was relatively rare.  The Internet was a year off.  VCRs were just starting to be used widely.  In other words, "you" had little choice, and a paper that hit a few of your interests was better than one that ignored them all.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the dinosaurs are feeling some heat.  "You" are becoming used to reading and watching what you want, when you want.  And what you want is far more specific than the generic, formulaic categories envisioned by Gannett. 

To understand these categories, consider Gannett's other properties in Rochester, each of which is targeted at a different segment of "you". For Gannett, "you" consists of 20-somethings, Women, Men, Latinos and Moms.  The 20-somethings get the Rochester Insider, a free weekly paper full of pictures of 20-somethings drinking (because 20-somethings don't have a lot of money and only want to party).  Women get herRochester, a glossy magazine. (Because she doesn't want to get her fingers dirty on newsprint?)   The rest of "you" aren't important enough for print.  Men get, "Your home for all things manly".  (Not a joke, unfortunately.)  Latinos get ConXion.  ("Tu Conexion a todo la basura de Rochester.").  And Moms get  Gannett must think Mom is an adulterer or single, since today's top story is "The beginnings of dating".

When a paper divides the world into these giant interest groups, and then tailors content to appeal to them, they invariably write dull stories.   Consider this week's paper D&C.  On Monday, the "you" story on the front page was Thanksgiving travel foul-ups.  On Tuesday, "you" needed to know that the Public Market will be open on Sundays in December, and "you" needed to know it so badly that it was by far the biggest story on the page, accompanied by a huge color photo. 

These stories weren't  newsworthy -- they were written solely for "you".  Monday's story appealed to all of "you", because "you" need know that "you" weren't alone in getting hassled when traveling through the Rochester airport.  Tuesday's story was for "her", because "she" wants to shop on Christmas, and "she" needs to know that the Public Market will indeed have special Christmas hours for the thirteenth year in a row.  

There's nothing exciting, interesting or new about travel screw-ups or the Public Market. What's worse, these pieces divert reporters and photographers from real news to write puff pieces that serve nobody's needs.  If you need to know whether the Public Market has holiday hours, a quick Google search will get you that info.  If you're wondering whether your flight is screwed up, you'll probably look on the airport website.  Gannett might as well be selling thin ties, shoulder pads and Flock of Seagulls tickets, because their main product is written as if its still 1982.

Next in this series:  the D&C's dysfunctional approach to the Internet.

Another View of the D&C

The Ontario GOP has posted his take on the D&C's shortcomings.  His view is that the D&C shares what he sees as a well-documented liberal bias.  His post is worth a careful read, because it cites a number of studies and polls on media bias.

I agree that the D&C's editorial page generally supports Democrats.  As for the news pages, I'm not as convinced.  What I see there is a fear of offending the party in power, and that party is the Democrats in the city of Rochester. A good example of this desire was the D&C's uncritical support of the Fast Ferry project.  The Ferry was a pet project of the Democratic mayor, and it was only after it failed that the D&C began to investigate some of the questionable decisions behind the project. 

Nothing to be Smug About

Reader Elmer sent me some interesting information about the Democrat and Chronicle.  According to his analysis of numbers issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the D&C's circulation has fallen precipitously in the past year.  Circulation for the daily D&C is down 4.3% in a one-year period.  The Sunday D&C is down 5.6%.

In comparison, the Buffalo News' daily circulation is down 1.1% for the same period.  The Syracuse Post-Standard is down 2.1%.  The Sunday loss for Buffalo is 2%, with Syracuse losing 2.2%.

The newspaper business is going through a rough patch, with readers moving from paper to the Internet.  So it's not surprising that the D&C is losing subscribers.  What is surprising is the size of the loss, more than double that of nearby cities.   The differential must be due to something more than just Internet competition.

One hint at the problem is the other newspapers losing readers.  There are six Gannett newspapers in New York.  Most of them are losing far more readers than the average upstate newspaper.  Circulation loss for the upstate dailies in Elmer's cohort averaged about 3%.  Gannett papers, in general, did much worse than that.  The Westchester Journal-News lost 8.8% of its daily readership in the past year.  Elmira lost 5%, Ithaca lost 6.6%, and Binghamton lost 4.1%.  Only Poughkeepsie beat the average, losing 2.8% year-over-year.

In my next series of posts, I'm going to look at the "Gannett Way" of running a newspaper, and I'll try to understand why it's bad for the public and bad for business.

The Smugtown Gazette

Half of the population of the 29th district reads one paper, Gannett's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  In the coming weeks, I'm going to ask some hard questions about the D&C, and show how the 29th is affected by its lackluster performance in a number of areas.  To kick things off,  I thought it would be interesting to hear another voice on the state of newspapers in Rochester:

Emigres from less conservative climes find the Rochester newspapers conspicuously lacking in any semblance of metropolitan journalism.  They find it far simpler to compare them with the weekly newspapers of the small town -- only with more advertising.  Robust phrasing, critical estimates of civic efforts, personalities, or mores, are frowned upon. [...]
They are without serious competition.  There is no necessity to crusade and therefore increase reader interest and circulation.  Thus they content themselves with the role of mere documentation.  As one critic puts it -- "The dullest stuff from the AP wires (all of which you heard on the eleven p.m. newscasts the night previous), a puff for the Republican administration, a report on the activities of four garden clubs, the list of speeders and four columns of obituaries."

This estimate is more accurate than cruel.  Fortunately for those who must read the customary comics and day's inaccurate weather forecast, [...] there is one rewarding feature -- both newspapers have fast-moving, easy-reading and nearly complete sports coverage.
This quote is from the book Smugtown, U.S.A, published 50 years ago by Rochester newspaperman and gadfly Curt Gerling.  When he wrote, Rochester was a prosperous town dominated by Kodak.  Much has changed since then.  A firm he knew as Haloid, ("obsessed with an idea called 'Xerography' which if you can believe what you hear, is a coming thing") has risen and fallen.   Rochester has gone from "safely Republican" ("even the moderately intelligent realize that big business and Republicanism mix even more magnificently than scotch and soda") to a mix of city Democrats and county Republicans.  

Yet, amidst all this change, most of what Gerling writes about Gannett is as true today as it was 50 years ago.   Since the Times-Union closed over a decade ago, only the use of the plural form keeps the following analysis from sounding as if it were written yesterday:

Whatever may be the weakness of the Gannett publications as newspapers, they are still a monopoly and as such we are stuck with them.  [...]  [T]oo often what seems like news to them is not news to the national radio or television commentators nor the New York Times.  Rochester has not only learned to live with it but expects it.
Though Rochester is feeling less smug nowadays, I don't think its main newspaper has gotten the message. I'm not deluded enough to believe I can change the D&C, but I hope to point out how it could change, and why the 29th deserves better.
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