Dave Allen

MyDigitalO – not so exciting

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I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.” – Henry David Thoreau: Walden.

It would appear that Chris Anderson, the publisher of our hometown newspaper, The Oregonian, has tired of attempting to overhaul his enterprise by keeping employees in their old clothes. After the shedding of what is rumored to be 45 plus jobs last week, the O as it is known, is moving to a digital-first model and reducing its printed home delivery service. Those laid-off employees apparently can apply for a new job within two new companies that have been set up – The Oregon Media Group and Advance Central Services Oregon. That “exciting” fact was delivered, after news of the lay-offs was already broken, in an email from Anderson:

Dear colleagues:

Today we are unveiling exciting plans for the future of our company.

On October 1, we will launch Oregonian Media Group and Advance Central Services Oregon, two companies that will work together to expand our products and services for consumers and advertisers of The Oregonian and OregonLive.com. We will strengthen our digital focus in particular. At the same time, we will continue to publish The Oregonian. [The whole email is here]

Peter Aimes Carlin has a response to this “exciting news” put as a series of questions. Carlin points to the ridiculous name MyDigitalO that was chosen to represent the bold future of the “newspaper,” a name that will now be discarded apparently, after the inevitable tittering in the back channels. Clearly Anderson’s future plans are capable of being changed on a whim as evidenced by that stumble out of the gate.

Meanwhile, The O’s music journalist, someone I followed in all the online social channels, Ryan White who was let go in the cuts, has left his own, brave and respectful farewell letter here. Ryan is just one of the talented journalists to be let go, which makes me wonder – 1. Why, when he surely fits the idea of digital-first? And 2. How will the new double-headed enterprise manage to create the necessary content that is required in an always-on, 24 hour news cycle, when the talent has been sidelined? The news that Peter Bhatia, vice president and editor of The Oregonian is getting a new title – vice president of content for the new company, sounds rather ominous – why does he require a new title? Are print editors not in charge of the newspaper’s content? Does VP of Content sound more “digital”?

In these dire times for newspapers, our first thoughts must always go to the O’s talented and, under the circumstance, extremely loyal employees who ended up losing their jobs. Our second thought might be that it is incredibly important in a democratic society that journalism be allowed to thrive. Of course, how journalism will survive, and in what form, is still open to debate; that doesn’t mean journalism will disappear.

And is Anderson looking to the future or ignoring the reality of the present? Or are his hands tied by the Newhouse family and its company Advance Publications, the current owners of what will soon be a different version of The Oregonian?

For example, Advance Publications also owns The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that decided to focus on digital a year ago. David Carr of the New York Times tells the tale of how well that didn’t turn out:

Newspaper Monopoly That Lost Its Grip
Published: May 12, 2013

A year after announcing a plan to reorganize The Times-Picayune of New Orleans into a more digitally focused enterprise that produced a newspaper just three days a week — enraging local residents — its owners have added a new innovation: they will go back to producing a printed product every day.

“We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print,” an advertising executive at the newspaper said in the announcement.

You don’t say.

This daily newspaper thing may be catching on. Last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer announced that it would begin selling a Saturday edition on newsstands after a nearly two-year hiatus.

The much ballyhooed unmaking of daily newspapering seems to be unmaking itself, and there’s a reason for that. Most newspapers have hung onto the ancient practice of embedding prose on a page and throwing it in people’s yards because that’s where the money and the customers are for the time being.

The industry tried chasing clicks for a while to win back fleeing advertisers, decided it was a fool’s errand and is now turning to customers for revenue. But in order to charge people for news, you have to prosecute journalism. [Article]

Note that phrase used by that unnamed executive as the paper backtracks into pursuing its lost print readers – “We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print.” Again, exciting? How is any of The O’s misguided adventure “exciting”? It surely isn’t exciting for the remaining employees, or at least those lucky enough (or brave enough) to get a job at those other new companies. They may well find themselves having to endure the whipsawing back and fro from digital to print too.

“Our print products will be driven by our digital focus,” The Oregonian’s publisher and president N. Christian Anderson III said in a staffwide meeting Thursday morning. “More than ever, we’re going to be a digital-first company.”

Two decades after the advent of the world wide web that’s not an “exciting” idea. And if this is the result of their “digital focus” I’m not going to hold my breath.

Floyd McKay of Seattle’s Crosscut has an interesting point to make about the lack of The O’s past digital strategy here.

[...]that period was good for newspapers in general. Then along came the Internet, decimating traditional newspaper revenue sources such as classified advertising and auto sales, and giving readers new sources for news. Some newspapers adapted with top-quality web sites that attracted readers and revenue; The Oregonian failed the web quality test.

OregonLive.com is a kludgy, poorly organized disaster. One of the nation’s top experts on news web sites, Joshua Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, told Willamette Week last year, “There’s a part of me that wants to applaud them for trying something substantially different. But I don’t have a lot of faith in Advance’s ability to do anything worthwhile on the web. Their sites are among the worst in newspaper journalism. Their sites are always broken. They’re clunky. They all look like they were built in 1998.”

I think it’s fairly obvious that The O and other news/media organizations are facing an “enterprise” collapse, not a collapse of journalism. The imposing edifices of journalism no longer support journalism in the way they have historically, as the news now jumps rapidly (and cheaply) across Twitter and other social media, and where the audience is increasingly mobile. In that daily white-noise, investigative reporting and long-form journalism can find ways to trump the social channels – this is where print still has a place for those who desire newspapers (see the NY Times or The Guardian.) For the digerati, that content can be made available in mobile-friendly forms, or on sites like LongReads.com and also in synchronization services such as Instapaper, Storify and Pocket.

Chris Anderson says that he is dedicated to “…continuing the strong enterprise and investigative reporting that The Oregonian and OregonLive.com are so well known for.” That’s all well and good, but how will this important and necessary reporting be presented?

One way it cannot be presented is in the way The O currently presents its content on the iPad or even on the desktop.

This is clearly a work in progress.