A whole lot of thoughts on a whole lot of things

Last week I got to speak at one of the most interesting media conferences I’ve ever been to: the Radio Ink Convergence conference, held on the Microsoft campus in Mountain View. The speakers were great and I took a ton of notes.

Here is a link to the story written about my presentation at the conference.

Before the conference, I was interviewed by Radio Ink magazine as a precede to the conference. It was different because it was an audio interview that was transcribed. I say that it was different because when I’m interviewed now, it seems like it’s usually done via e-mail.

Because of that, as I read my responses, I realized there were some things I wanted to elaborate on or say a little differently. What you see below includes those changes.

Here goes …


>> Why do you think newspapers didn’t take off online as we thought they would?

A very good friend once said to me, “Revolutions are rarely started by the incumbents.” With the Internet and online publishing, the newspaper industry was the incumbent. We had so many opportunities to be the ones who started something like Google or Facebook, and we never got onto that. We were always about our own content and what it meant to our legacy business. In most cases that meant just trying to repurpose print content on a website — content that was never really built with an understanding of how the Internet functioned as an ecosystem.

Some newspapers were way more out front than others. Early in my Internet-newspaper career, I used to adore the website of the Lawrence [Kan.] Journal-World because it had all of this fascinating information. This was probably ’98 or ’99. It had really cool and practical things for a college town, like a “Beer-o-meter,” where they would tell you where the drink specials were and other things like what the local bakeries were making that day. Everybody loved it, and I thought, “Man, this is how the Internet should work.”

I was lucky enough to eventually work at that newspaper because I loved the Internet presence so much. But not very many newspapers were thinking along those lines.

>> Can you talk about the reluctance of some CEOs to make a bigger effort on the Internet? They have one foot in each world, and some are afraid to fully commit to either because of the cannibalization of the original product.

It’s not just the cannibalization. Early on, the publisher of a newspaper I loved said, “This is all fine and dandy, but no one has convinced me that this isn’t the second coming of the CB radio.” I remember thinking, “How are we going to overcome something like that?” I’ve met two types of publishers: those who think the most important part of the word “newspaper” is “paper,” and those who think the most important part is “news.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the newspapers that are doing really interesting things online and with new media are family-owned. The Graham family has a controlling interest in The Washington Post, and they’re doing interesting things online. The New York Times, with the Sulzberger family, is doing interesting things online. The Simons family, in Lawrence, Kan., or the Greenspuns here in Las Vegas, are both doing great things with new media.

The publishers of family-owned or family-controlled newspapers are embedded in their communities and they care about them. They think about their businesses in terms of generations, rather than the next quarter. They’re more likely to take the long view and they have the freedom to do so. Yes, they have to operate within economic realities, but it seems to me that they typically try to handle those situations differently than some of their other publishing counterparts.

>> To many radio managers, “convergence” is still about a website and a bunch of banner ads. Do newspapers have the same narrow view?

I’m from a very small town in Kansas — Osage City — small enough that there is no daily newspaper that covers the city. So (recently) when there was a big fire in downtown Osage City, I got all my information from my friends on Facebook. I was in Nevada while this fire was happening and I knew more about it than some of my friends back home. That’s where a lot of this is heading.

How do you integrate social networking and those sorts of things? I think radio stations are poised to do this. Lots of newspapers are all about “community publishing,” where they try to get their readers to submit photos or stories. And that just makes me giggle. I live in Las Vegas now, but even when I lived in Lawrence, how many college students who had an amazing time hanging out with their friends, barbecued, maybe had a few beers, went to a football game, and then said afterward, “You know what, I should upload those photos to the Lawrence Journal-World’s website”?

No one’s ever said that, ever … even for a news organization that is as integrated into its community as the Journal-World is.

But the audience in Lawrence — and every other city in the world — is community publishing. Look at what they’re doing on Flickr, Facebook, Picasa and YouTube. All those sites have really amazing APIs [application programming interface] that allow you to pull that content over to your site, if that user has granted permission for that to happen. The Facebook “Like” button is now appearing on newspaper sites across the country, and Facebook has more traffic than Google. I would think a radio station would want to be involved in that. Certainly, newspapers want to.

Or at the very least, our news organization in Las Vegas wants to be a part of that.

The idea is that all of our stories have a “Like” button, and we know your Facebook account so that it can easily put our content on your Facebook page if you want. So when you hit “Like” or “Share” it automatically moves our story over to your profile pages so all the people in your social network see it, along with your “Like.” They click on the story to see what it’s about, and they come back to us.

The problem is that it seems like many people in mainstream media — or at least those in a position of power in those organizations — don’t really understand the rules of the Internet. If you play by the rules of the Internet, you have a much better chance of winning on the web. But so many people say, “We need to do community publishing on our site.” It’s like they haven’t even heard of Flickr, and they don’t realize that the most visited photo site in the world is Facebook. Why would you try to go against that? Why would you not work with them?

Say you’re a rock station in Kansas City. At the Van Halen reunion show at the Sprint Center, there’s going to be hundreds or even thousands of people who take photos on their little camera phones and upload those images to their Facebook pages. Why would you not use that Facebook or Flickr API to pull over all those photos? You can do a great service to your audience because you’re going out and finding the pictures for them, in a fairly automated way.

>> Any Joe in his basement can create a pretty robust news website that competes with a local paper. So why do we need these big media organizations?

We spent a tremendous amount of time building a new local website, which will launch later this summer, based around the idea that where you live is really important. You type in your ZIP code and it gives you all the crime committed in your area, it tells you all the homes that have sold or are for sale or that have been foreclosed upon. It tells you when the high school’s basketball game is. It tells you what news stories have happened in the neighborhood. It tells you if somebody’s got a lost dog. It shows what movies are playing.

But it also ties you to local advertisers who can’t afford to buy a $5,000 full-page ad in the local newspaper. They can’t even afford to buy a big ad on the local newspaper’s website. But targeting the ZIP codes where their service is available, that can be very affordable and effective. And then you tie that into mobile, which we think is really the future.

We talk about people going to websites, but many more people in the United States have a cellphone in their pocket than have a computer at home. Three or four years ago, the idea that you would target your content to cellphones sounded like a joke, and now I’m watching Kansas City Royals highlights on my iPhone.

On my phone, if I could know what deals are happening, or which restaurants are open at this particular moment — this is the sort of data we’ve been collecting at the Las Vegas Sun to build a really, really relevant local website.

>> If you were a radio station today, where would you focus your digital strategy?

Unlike newspapers, which try to be a little bit of everything to everyone, radio stations don’t try to do that. They’re country or jazz or Top 40 or classic rock. If I were a talk radio station that was primarily sports, I would build on that brand and make sure I owned sports in the market. The newspaper websites have been the dominant sports websites in their markets probably since the late ’90s, and then ESPN launches ESPN Chicago and ESPN Dallas. I think the newspaper industry was shocked at how quickly ESPN overtook them.

I would focus on my niche. If I’m all about classic rock, then I’m owning that. If REO Speedwagon is coming to Topeka to do a show, I’m breaking that story. I want to know what my niche is and make sure nobody beats us on that. Because on the Internet, passion is what drives traffic. People go to the Internet for the things they’re the most interested in.

>> For somebody who’s struggling to run a radio station today and fighting the economy, it’s pretty tough to make the commitment to have sufficient staff to do the things you talk about. Is there a way around that commitment?

Let’s say you are the flagship station in your town for the local Division I college team — or let’s go even smaller than that, let’s say you’re in a town that has five high schools and you do a high school game a week. You could partner with your local newspaper so that you both co-own this and can co-sell it. The newspaper is doing part of the heavy lifting, but you are, too. Don’t underestimate the value of your broadcast archives, and the archives of your interviews with the players. You may not have to build completely new content as much as you have to do a great job of repurposing what you’ve already done. When you take what you’ve done and what the newspaper has done and put that together, that seems pretty compelling.

>> What about user-generated content?

We have awesome club photo/party-pic pages on LasVegasWeekly.com, and we have great photos that have come from the actual people partying at those clubs. But our dirty little secret is that we don’t get them from the readers directly; they come from Facebook, Flickr and Picasa. Two years ago, we actually had a snowstorm in Las Vegas. We had tons of photos that we got through the Flickr API.

Don’t feel like you have to invent this technology on your own.

If I were doing video from scratch and couldn’t afford video servers, why would I not just create a channel on YouTube or Vimeo and use the embed function to put that video on my site? That’s the kind of mentality I would be using right now. There are such great tools out there that make this stuff way easier than it was even two or three years ago. I think you can do a lot of this for free. You don’t have to have more people or more resources, you just have to be clever.

>> How do you deal with the privacy and permissions issues?

Well, it’s something you have to pay attention to. With Facebook, the user has to grant you permission to grab the photos, then the site allows you to move them over fairly seamlessly. With Flickr, you have to pay attention to if you are actually permitted to use the images, which we handle in an automated way through the API. If you do have permission, then it’s pretty straight-forward.

We’ve found if the license isn’t granted to let you use the images, you can contact the person who owns or shot the images to ask permission. Sometimes they give you permission and sometimes they just ignore your request. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

It probably sounds complicated, but it’s really not.

>> A lot of people are saying there’s going to be a resurgence of newspapers, although perhaps not necessarily in print.

I believe in my heart that I’m at a newspaper and a news organization that really could experience this type of resurgence. I don’t think we have it completely figured out, but I think we’re a whole lot closer to right than we are to being wrong.

I spoke at a journalism conference for a bunch of college students, and it was the same day of the big earthquake in Chile. Because of the timing of that earthquake, the newspapers in the United States didn’t have the story in print in that morning’s papers. I told the young journalists in the room, “If you want to know what’s wrong with newspapers, we’ll all get to see it firsthand tomorrow. How many newspaper editors across the country, in their Sunday paper, will act as if you didn’t know about this story until you read it in their newspaper? How many newspapers are going to commit this sin tomorrow?”

And, of course, tons of newspapers across the country committed that very sin in print the next morning. Way too many newspapers are amazingly awesome at pretending you don’t know a story until they run it, and that’s foolish. The Las Vegas Sun takes a much different approach. We don’t focus completely on the who, what, when, where, why and how. If there was a big fire yesterday morning, we assume you already know, and we focus on the how and the why. The editors for our print edition actually realize CNN has been around for 25 years and there is this thing called the Internet.

But online, we do act like the paper of record. If there is smoke on the Las Vegas skyline, within minutes, LasVegasSun.com will tell you where the fire is. It’s a very complementary strategy. You’ve got print explaining why things are happening, and online telling you what just happened. We’re not trying to recreate what each medium does best.

More important is that here at the Las Vegas Sun, we have a publisher who is a realist, who doesn’t say things like, “When this all turns around in two years and our circulation is starting to grow again and our revenues return …”

He talks about five years from now, when our newspaper circulation in Las Vegas has maybe gone from 200,000 to something like 25,000 or 50,000. His view is, instead of working on what that newspaper will look like five years from now, why don’t we just build it now? Why wait?

It’s such an overused quote, but our publisher is basically reiterating Wayne Gretzky’s classic quote that we need to “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

When you look at the Las Vegas Sun’s strategies, they are custom built for each medium. Our strategy in print makes sense in an ever-changing newspaper world. Our strategy online makes sense for a computer that is always connected to the Internet. Our strategy for mobile makes sense for waiting in line at the DMV or trying to figure out where to eat lunch. We didn’t just take our long-form print stories and smash them into our website and call it a day.

And what’s really remarkable is that our readers really understand that. In some ways they may even understand these different strategies better than we do in our own newsroom. To them, the Las Vegas Sun is all of these different things that simply keep them informed throughout the day whether they are at their kitchen table, on their computer or on their phone.


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Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.