Media executives and the fantasy of free content

Will work for freeI know I’m late to the party on this story, but Patch’s “unstaffed sites” decision? We’ve seen this before.

Via Romenesko:

Even though our Unstaffed towns will not have editors, they will continue to receive daily posts from our central publishing team, and users will be able to contribute comments, events and blogs, as well as converse through our boards on the sites. We are also making arrangements to have these sites screened for appropriate content.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s a longstanding fantasy of media executives: ”If we just build a good enough platform, people will just give us content and we won’t have to pay anyone to make it!”

It’s what Nicholas Carr and others have termed digital sharecropping (not necessarily the best term, since posting on your social media account is hardly equivalent to the nasty conditions endured by actual sharecroppers in American history, but the term seems to have stuck).

Anyway, it actually does work sometimes — that is, if you’re Facebook.

It works for Facebook because, as Carr notes, people may be putting effort into content that drives Facebook’s bottom line, but most users are perfectly happy with the arrangement. Facebook provides a platform for largely unfettered expression; people post to serve their own purposes, not the company’s; and the company makes no attempt to wrangle people into posting content about a predetermined subject.

When a media company with a specific focus tries to get people to work for free, the result is a little different.

Michelle Ferrier, associate dean of innovation, research and creative activity at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, talked in a recent Poynter live chat about her experience working on a hyperlocal platform for a legacy media company:

One of the saddest commentaries on journalism today is when I used to go out into the community to tell them they could self-publish on our platform, they said “You never wanted to hear my stories before.”

The lesson:  Yes, reader engagement is good.  Yes, user-generated content is something to be embraced, not disdained.  But people aren’t naive.  They can tell when we really care … and when a media outlet just wants to use them as a source of free labor and cheap pageviews.

The three standards of Sweeps Week

The three standards of Sweeps Week (OK, more like month) for local TV news:

1. “We swabbed restaurant tables/doorknobs/escalator handrails/neckties and found BACTERIA!”

2. “Learn about this deadly new drug craze that’s swelling our youth! It’s exactly the same deadly new drug craze that we’ve reported on every Sweeps period for the last five years, but it’s NEWER! And DEADLIER!”

3. “Oh my God, you guys! There’s PORN on the INTERNET!”

Thought for the day

NewpageWhy I love this job: This week, the Independent Collegian published one of its strongest issues of the year. Full of local content and important topics; hard news mixed with nice features; lots of stuff for students and others to read and enjoy, regardless of what subjects they’re interested in.

And already, the editors are meeting with their writers on ways to make the next one better: more student-focused, displaying more voices, and so on.

In the past year, the IC staff has overhauled the paper and presented themselves to the campus with a new attitude and a new sense of pride. The tone for the year was set at the beginning of the year when two editors set out to personally hand copies of the first issue to almost 300 freshmen at an orientation event; it was evident when a dozen staff members showed up at Homecoming to hand out 1,000 copies of their work at the parade.

That was the framework. Now they’re pushing forward to make the content that fills the framework better and better. And, damn, it’s fun to see.

A metro reporter’s guide to covering small towns

Barbershops like the one in this Norman Rockwell painting do indeed exist in rural America (and elsewhere), but when it comes to spreading news, small-town residents can use Facebook just as well as anyone else.

Barbershops like the one in this Norman Rockwell painting do indeed exist in rural America (and elsewhere), but when it comes to spreading news, it turns out residents of small towns can use Facebook just as well as anyone else. Who knew?

After a decade or so of covering the news in small towns and rural areas, I’ve had more than a few chances to see what happens when reporters who live in much bigger cities parachute in to cover a major story.

Plenty do the job well, while others fall prey to the temptation to pull out every small-town cliche and stereotype they can think of. Here are three tips for the big-city reporter who lands in a small town.

1. No, everybody doesn’t know everybody.

This cliche is a staple of small-town crime stories. Monroe, Mich., a town of more than 20,000 people, became “close-knit” after the death of 5-year-old Nevaeh Buchanan. (These “close-knit” towns are often also “gritty” or “leafy.”)  And if the town has 10,000 inhabitants or fewer, seemingly every visiting reporter from a metro daily can be counted on to gush about how “everybody knows everybody.”

Well, they don’t.

Think of places in your life that have had populations of, say, 2,000 or 5,000 or more.  The college you went to. Your neighborhood. An office complex where you might have worked.  Did you know every single person there? Or even half, a quarter or a tenth of them?

It’s true that when a small town is confronted by tragedy, people have a way of pulling together to support each other.  It can be at once terrible and wonderful to watch, and reporters want to convey that to their readers.

Here’s the challenge: Get the point across without cheapening it by resorting to tired (and inaccurate) old cliches.

2. It’s time to go somewhere other than the barbershop.

Yes, we know. The barbershop is where all information is exchanged in small towns — most of us just aren’t hip to that new-fangled Facebook thing — but, really, it’s time to give that cliche a rest.

Of course, the barbershop isn’t the only place subjected to this treatment. You can also go to a nearby eating establishment, gawk at the locals, and describe the menu in loving detail. (Salisbury steak! How quaint!)

But please don’t.

3. That photo you found online of the crime suspect and/or victim dressed in camouflage and holding a gun?

It doesn’t mean he was a killer in waiting or a troubled soul.

It just means the photo was taken during deer season.

You also can’t draw too many conclusions from the fact that somebody owns a gun (or has a concealed-carry permit, or whatever). Every so often you’ll see this fact breathlessly reported about a crime suspect, even one without prior criminal history, as if it’s a shocking revelation — something that disturbing in and of itself, regardless of any external circumstances. Maybe it’s an urban/rural cultural divide, or maybe it happens when a reporter with a personal abhorrence of guns lets his or her personal prejudices seep through. But in large swaths of this country, firearm ownership is nothing unusual, and acting like it is makes the narrative that much harder to take seriously.

Small-town or rural reporters: What would you add to this list?

New opportunities

Cross-posted from other places:

I’ve accepted a position as professional adviser to the staff of the Independent Collegian, the independent student newspaper at the University of Toledo. I’ll be in Toledo a few days a week initially, remaining at The Daily Telegram part time through sometime this summer, and going full time at the Collegian shortly before the start of fall semester.

I plan to stay in Adrian and remain involved with Art-A-Licious, Adrian First Fridays and Friends of the Adrian Public Library.

My first day working with the Collegian staff was yesterday. I’m looking forward to new challenges working with some very talented students at an organization with a rich history and great potential for the future.

Feeding election totals directly into your website from Google Docs

Google gadgets can make it easy to feed live totals straight from your internal working documents to your website.

Like most newsrooms, we track vote totals precinct by precinct over the course of an election night, with some precincts reporting almost as soon as polls close and others taking two or three hours. Our web platform includes a nice-looking election ticker function, which we’ve used in the past, but having to go back and forth from our spreadsheet to the content management system, entering data manually the whole time, was a time-consuming process and we inevitably fell behind.

This year, we used Google Docs for the spreadsheet, allowing us to share it between multiple users in the newsroom, and fed the data directly from the spreadsheet into a widget on our homepage. All you need is a Google account, a working knowledge of spreadsheet formulas, and the ability to embed wild HTML in your site.

1. Set up your tracking spreadsheet. We had one countywide proposal that we were tracking and a number of local races that only had a few precincts, so this made our spreadsheet relatively simple. For the countywide question, we had four columns for each precinct: Yes votes, no votes, total (calculated by formula), and a column where we would simply enter “1″ for each precinct as it reported. This last column allowed us to automatically display how many precincts had reported and also calculate the percentage reporting.

2. Set up the data you want to display. The area where you enter all your data will probably be far too complicated to display conveniently, so you’ll want to have a section where all the data is displayed exactly the way you want to feed it into the site. You can make this pull data directly from the area where you’re making all your calculations, so you don’t have to enter anything directly into this area if you don’t want to.

Create a gadget to display your data.

3. Create a gadget to display your data. Go to the “Insert” menu, then select “Gadget.” In the menu you get next, select “Tables” on the left, then select the gadget titled “Table.” Google will ask you to select the cells you want to display. Highlight those cells, click “OK,” then click “Apply and close.”

4. Adjust the layout of your spreadsheet if needed. We had to try several different configurations to get the gadget to look good — in particular, if we had a header above the first race, the gadget kept trying to grab that header as part of the header for the entire chart, so it may take a few tries to make Step 3 yield a gadget that looks the way you want it to. (It’s also possible to use a separate gadget for each race you want to track, or to add gadgets that display selected data as pie graphs, etc., but we found that sticking with a single gadget was more attractive and took much less time to load.)

As an interesting aside, we found that if the column we used for percentages had nothing but divide-by-zero errors at first, the “#DIV/0!” message showed up in the gadget, but if that column had even a single legitimate value in any of its cells — such as the 0 resulting from dividing by the total number of precincts — the error message wouldn’t show up in the gadget.

Choose "Publish Gadget" both to grab the embed code and to update your data.

5. Get the embed code for your gadget. Once you’re comfortable with the way the gadget looks, click on it and go to the “Gadget” pulldown menu right above the display. Select “Publish.” Google will give you a block of code that starts with “<script src=…” and ends with “</script>”. Copy this code into a blank text document. Toward the end of the block of code, you’ll see “&height=(number)&width=(number).” Replace the automatically generated height and width numbers with whatever is appropriate for your data and the region on your site where you’ll be displaying it.

6. Embed the code in whatever way is appropriate for your platform. This will vary depending on your CMS.

A Google gadget in action on

7. Enter your data and update your gadget. The data in the gadget will update whenever you change the data in the spreadsheet that it’s pulling from. Important: In order to push the updated gadget out to your site, you need to go the menu at the top of the gadget, select “Publish Gadget,” and click “Done.” The display on your site will not automatically refresh — your readers will still need to reload the page — but the updated data will instantly be there, without you needing to touch anything in your CMS.

Modified from a description originally written for

Learning Web development: The sequel

New reading material.

I just discovered, via Greg Linch, Lisa Williams’ blog about learning to program as a summer project. Despite the best intentions, I’ve fallen behind on my own plans in that area, so Lisa’s project inspired me to take stock of where I’m at and set a few goals.

There are three main areas I’m trying to learn more about:

  • HTML and CSS.
  • The ins and outs of WordPress themes.
  • PHP scripting.

There’s one small project that I think I can take in stages that will hit all of those areas. It’s creating a “Quick Links” section below a site’s main navigation to add prominence to important pages without interfering with the logic of the site’s navigational structure.

A "Quick Links" bar on

We have this feature on our website at work and it’s really useful, so I wanted to find a way to duplicate it in WordPress.  (The image above is from the website for Art-A-Licious, an art festival in downtown Adrian. Gratuitous plug: If you’re in southeast Michigan or northwest Ohio, come to Adrian on the third weekend of September. It’ll be a great time.)

My first step was the clunkiest: Going into the theme’s header.php file and dropping a block of HTML code in there. It worked. But navigation links are part of a site’s content, and any solution that requires you to edit the template files just to update content isn’t a very good one.

The next step was to remove the need to go into the template to edit the content. Following one of the lessons in Smashing WordPress Themes, I added a widget area to the header in the Twenty Ten theme (basically retyping lines of PHP from the book without any real understanding; the comprehension comes next). But all the styling for the Quick Links menu is sitting right there in the widget, just waiting to be messed up by a typo or a mouse click in the wrong place. So what’s next?

The next step is to learn how to move the styling into the theme’s stylesheets, where it belongs. But after that — how much better would it be if, instead of having to manually type all the a href=blah blah blahs into the widget, you could use WordPress’ existing menu functionality to reduce the entire process to a drag-and-drop operation?

And after that, how much cooler would it be to create a plugin that would allow anyone to add a Quick Links menu to their site, without needing to write a single line of code?

So that’s the project. I’ve loaded up on books and I’m becoming good friends with the W3schools website. It feels good to learn something new. And if anyone has any great beginning PHP books to recommend, please let me know.

Recent reading

When I helped a college newspaper get set up with WordPress a few years ago, I kept running into little ways in which making WordPress work for a multi-person news organization was … well, usually not impossible, but often a little awkward.  So it was great to stumble across this post about how the Bangor Daily News made it work, including making WordPress work with Google Docs and InDesign to make everything part of a single workflow.

The post includes a list of some good plugins for news sites using WordPress, some of them written by the BDN for this project. The blog about the transition is an interesting read.

I also spent an afternoon this weekend going through about four years’ worth of archives on Mario Garcia’s blog, including posts about experimenting with front pages, designing better ads, and completely rethinking a newspaper’s organization.