I know I haven't posted here in awhile, which is why I want to point anyone who does come across this page to my new project: Stranger Than Truth.

It's a fiction blog where several other writers will be posting our work, including our efforts at NaNoWriMo. The Stranger Than Truth team includes me, Ian Worte, Michael Bulko, Cory McCallum, Elizabeth Kurz, Jon Renaut, Tyler Brown and probably more as time goes on. Check it out!
 
 
In my last post, I included a nineteenth century editorial about newspaper patronage that I found in the Google News Archives. This inspired me to go looking for other tidbits of 100-year-old wisdom, and to my delight I found them in abundance.

Since several newspapers today are claiming people need to pay for the news, I started by looking for pieces that discuss the economics of newspaper publishing. Newspapers would love to let readers with no knowledge of the business think their pocket change supports the industry, so they will feel guilty about getting the news free online. But as an 1846 essay on journalism and the London press reminds us, this has never been the case:
Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.
An 1867 article in The Galaxy entitled Journalism as a Profession touches on the subject as well:
Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.
The Galaxy article contains another interesting portion that addresses a different point of contention in modern news. Many newspapers claim that bloggers are ‘parasites’ who unfairly profit from their hard work. Once again, those with real knowledge of the industry know that expanding on the work of others is already an indispensable part of the journalistic process, and that these accusations positively reek of hypocrisy. The Galaxy reminds us that things were no different 142 years ago:
Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.
For anyone involved in journalism the Galaxy article is well worth reading in its entirety, if only because it’s so amusing. As an example I include this next excerpt, not because it is particularly relevant but because anyone who does not at least smile while reading it can hardly call themselves a journalist:
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In thinking about the modern journalism business, I have always reached the conclusion that we are approaching an advertising revolution that will ultimately benefit both the advertisers and the public, by reducing the amount of wasted communication and directing people to the products and services they actually want and need, while providing valuable content in the process. I believe that journalists, advertisers and creative agencies should all be focused on the same goal right now: improving the quality and relevancy of advertising, while maintaining the editorial standards that lend newspapers their credibility in the first place. To that end I leave you with this quote from The Best in Journalism, a speech delivered by the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle to the Sphinx club in 1899:
Of course, I did find this on the very same page:
 
 
This is the second part of my look at Mike Masnick’s Ten Good Reasons to Buy from the perspective of newspapers. If you missed the first part you should read that first.

“6. Tangibility: The granddad of scarcities: physical products.

News on paper is the core physical product at the moment, but that’s not going to be around forever. I suspect that some newspapers will transform into news magazines, since the market for glossy, full-colour formats with good photography and long-form journalism will likely outlive the market for cheap newsprint broadsheets. A nice physical product has always been important to magazines, and people are willing to pay for it; newspapers are designed to be as cheap and disposable as possible, which is why the internet renders them obsolete. This shift to a magazine format might actually make sense for some newspapers, if they can establish a role for themselves as what Devin Coldewey calls the delayed media.

All that being said, the money from selling the physical product has never carried the weight of newspapers or magazines, and it’s certainly not going to start now.

In terms of other physical products, I don’t see any reason why newspapers couldn't sell more merchandise, though I’m not sure how to go about it in a way that would bring in significant revenue. Lots of newspapers sell things like photo prints and keepsake copies, but so far it hasn’t proven to be that lucrative. On the other hand, those initiatives are often old and mechanical, and some may not have had fresh marketing treatment in years – who knows what they might be overlooking?

And if all else fails, the New York Times can just become an authorized Apple retailer.
   
“7. Time (saving or making): People will pay if you can save them time (or give them extra time in some manner).”

Time is especially valuable in business. As far as saving time goes, there might be a market for rapid fact-sheets and summarized reports that supplement the newspaper’s core editorial. Though difficult to sell by themselves, if combined with some level of exclusivity this could be a great revenue stream: customized reports, similar to the aggregator model I mentioned in part one. Some business publications do sell reports, but more often than not these are of the annual reference tome variety, a format that today is about as useful as a phone book. If there is money to be made, it will come from more rapid and direct business services.
   
“8. Convenience: If you make things more convenient, many people will buy, even if free options are available. That's one reason why iTunes has done so well.”

This is what a lot of people in the industry are banking on with the iPad and other tablets, but if they seriously believe the iTunes store will work for newspapers just like it does for music and movies, they are in for a rude awakening. Apple is selling music to people who are used to paying much more for CDs, and they still face stiff competition and had to remove DRM to satisfy their customers. Newspapers have an audience that is accustomed to getting the news for free, sharing it openly on social networks, blogging about it, linking to it and generally enjoying it without restriction. Moreover, while the digital alternatives to iTunes for music and movies are torrents or peer-to-peer programs, the alternatives to iTunes for newspapers will be countless news websites that are equally convenient and which stay free to soak up all the advertising revenue. Very few people, if any, are loyal to a newspaper the way legions of fans are loyal to a favourite recording artist. Convenience is still an important part of delivering the news, but that’s because readers already expect it.

It should be noted separately that the concept of Convenience also ties in with the custom business services I propose under Time and Exclusivity.

“9. Belonging: Never underestimate just how important a sense of belonging to a group or a tribe is – and being able to provide that in an authentic manner can be a true scarcity.”

A sense of belonging stems from the attention I discussed in part one. I talked a lot about comment sections, but those aren't the only form of audience engagement: Twitter is an extremely valuable tool, and I've often wondered if good old fashioned forums might have some potential on news websites.

But I think the real goldmine could be participatory journalism: there are a lot of citizens out there who want to get involved in the reporting process, and the concept is gaining steam, with YouTube and CNN getting on board among others. So why aren't there more people out there training citizen journalists? I bet newspapers, especially at the community level, would have an easy time finding groups and clubs that would pay for reporting workshops and seminars. Or they could try something like the PPF Group in the Czech Republic: opening hyperlocal newspaper-cafés where editorial staff will interact with the public (and partnering with Google in the process.)

And yes, I know that's an NYT link. It's ironic on two levels.
 
“10. Patronage: Definitely depends on the situation, but there are some people who just want to support an artist, no matter what. And that presents a scarcity.”

Out of curiosity I searched “newspaper patronage”, and I found this highly amusing editorial in an 1878 edition of a New Brunswick newspaper from the Google News archives (don't you just hate the way Google is destroying our culture?)
 
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“Many long and weary years have forced the conviction upon us that newspaper patronage is a word of many definitions, and that a great majority of mankind are either ignorant of the correct definition, or are dishonest in a strict Biblical sense of the word. Newspaper patronage is composed of as many colors as the rainbow, and is as changeable as a chameleon.”

Several comic caricatures of different types of newspaper patrons follow, and then:

“Now isn't newspaper patronage a curious thing? And in that great day when the gentleman in black gets his dues, as he surely will, how many of the patrons enumerated above will fall to his share? Now it will be seen that while certain kinds of patronage are the very life and existence of a newspaper, there are other kinds of patronage that are more destructive than deadly night shade.”

I suspect the same will prove true today.

 
 
Yesterday on Techdirt, Mike Masnick posted a concise list of Ten Good Reasons to Buy – one of two essential elements in the Connect with Fans + Reason to Buy strategy that he has been observing and helping to define for some time. These reasons were brainstormed at Midem 2009, so they focus on the music business – but CwF+RtB has potential in all sorts of industries (Techdirt itself employs it), and so does this list.

So, with the New York Times going metered and rejecting a proposed membership model that would have been much more CwF+RtBish, I thought it might be worth looking at Mike’s list from the perspective of newspaper publishing. Though some of the ideas are more suited to musicians, it still qualifies as Ten Good Reasons to Buy.

(It should be stated from the outset that I believe advertising will continue to be the primary source of revenue for newspapers, and that I think paywalls and meters are doomed to fail. See my post on Techdirt and my extensive ramblings on good.is for more on why. That being said, if newspapers can CwF+RtB in truly innovative ways, they might just turn the whole industry on its head. Stranger things have happened.)

“1. Access: Access to the actual content creators is a real scarcity and one that can often be used to make money in ways that make fans quite happy.”

Sometimes newspapers do this backwards. When fundraisers and events and the like seek media sponsors, newspapers will request a hosting spot for one of their writers or editors as a condition for the sponsorship. In other words, the content creators buy access to the fans.

This isn't always how it goes though – it depends on the event in question and the profile of the staff. In some cases the newspaper seeks sponsorship for their talent, and throws in event appearances and panel discussions to sweeten the deal. But in all cases, the main purpose of the whole shebang is to sell more subscriptions.

There might be lot more opportunities here. Why just panels and events? What about workshops, custom reports and analysis, even one-on-one attention? The thing to remember here is that the fans in question, or at least the most profitable ones, are business fans. Businesspeople read newspapers because the information and expertise has direct and immediate value to them. Connect finance writers with traders, legal writers with law firms, tech writers with software developers – with some creativity, there could be money to be made.

I can think of some ideas outside the business sphere too, but I have gone on for too long already and I'm only on Reason #1.
   
“2. Attention: One of the most important scarcities in the digital age. Attention is incredibly scarce, and if you've got it, you can do a lot with it.”

This one is simple: active, vibrant comment sections where writers, columnists and editors regularly participate. Many newspapers see some of the trash that inevitably turns up in every comment section and go sour on the whole affair, allowing their columnists to shutter their comments when they should be requiring them (and paying them if necessary) to get involved. They will quickly realize that online communities become self-moderating once rational, intelligent debate is established and readers know they have the writers’ attention.

So far this isn't a reason to buy – at least not for the readers themselves. Advertisers are another story. An engaged community of readers is worth a lot more than the impressions they bring to a website – savvy advertisers will want their ideas, not just their eyes. See Techdirt's IT Innovation blog for a prime example of this.

“3. Authenticity: This one also includes ‘trust. The ability to be authentic carries tremendous weight and is quite scarce at times. But if you can provide something that is authentic and valuable, it's often a very strong reason to buy.”

Authenticity is what everyone already touts as the strength of newspapers and the reason that people will consent to pay for their content. But newspapers are far from perfect, and in a world where transparency is becoming as important as trust their reticence about sources and methods is starting to seem old-fashioned. If newspapers continue to resist the linking culture, and continue to leave out details that could easily be added in appendices and footnotes online where space is unlimited, they risk being left behind. Moreover, if big names leak too much talent to more innovative startups, they could quickly lose authenticity (and surely someone will say they've jumped the shark.)

So I guess what I’m saying is: yes, without authenticity none of these other RtBs matter in the slightest – so dont go sacrificing it now.
   
“4. Exclusivity: Many people value having something that very few (or perhaps no) others have.”

This is essentially what has allowed the WSJ paywall to succeed where so many others have failed. At the business level, and especially in finance, exclusive information has significant value, and the paywall created a certain sense of exclusivity. Ultimately the flimsiness of that exclusivity could be what brings it down – but what about something truly exclusive? Custom news aggregators for businesses have been showing some success – what about exclusive news aggregators managed by a team of the newspaper's respected editors? That's just one idea of many.

Outside the business world this is a tougher nut to crack. Financial news gets more valuable with exclusivity, but most news is the opposite: a big portion of its value comes from sharing it. Nonetheless, there may be certain forms of exclusivity that avid readers will pay for. It will come down to individual newspapers knowing their strengths and their audiences, and seeing ways to offer them something they want. If anyone has any creative ideas, I'd love to hear them.

“5. (New) Creation: The ability to create something new is a scarcity. This often confuses people, because a digital good once created is no longer scarce -- but the ability to create it is still very much a scarcity.”

Most newspapers understand that gathering information and creating content is what they do, so there's not much to say here. Newspapers that are drastically cutting back reporting staff and ramping up the wire content should remember that, while distributed reporting makes a lot of sense in many situations, every publication needs to continue creating something new that has value, or all is lost.

Continue to Part Two...

 
 
BigThink.com has a video of John Irving talking about the future of the book and today's prospects for new authors. They gave it the title Advice to Aspiring Novelists: Don't Shoot Yourself, which is funny because he says no such thing:
He speculates that he might be tempted to shoot himself if he were in the shoes of an aspiring author, he talks about how much easier things were (and are) for him, and then he just kind of trails off. There's no "advice" whatsoever – if anything, it sounds like he's encouraging young writers to shoot themselves.

Irving's skill as a novelist aside, I think he's painting an overly bleak picture here. If I'm being honest, he comes across as a confused old man who hasn't bothered to follow the changes in an industry where his success is already assured – and that's fine, but he shouldn't make it his business to discourage the next generation. Notice that he doesn't even explain why he thinks things are tougher now: he just knows that they aren't exactly the same as they used to be, and that scares him.

Admittedly this clip is only part of a longer interview with Irving, and I haven't watched the whole thing. Perhaps I should, but based on this it doesn't seem like he has much to say.

Rest assured, young authors, there are plenty of opportunities out there. The publishing industry may be in turmoil, but people still love stories, and they always will.
 
 
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I've been seeing more and more coverage of the new "text ed" program for Canadian students. Spawned out of the media scare about "sexting" (because the media loves a good teen sex story), it's a curriculum and accompanying website designed to teach kids how to be responsible about electronic communication.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that idea but, as you might guess, there are about a million things wrong with their execution. I won't go into the fact that the whole thing seems to follow a similar model to abstinence education, which has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective, or the fact that by teaching this course in grade seven they will probably only succeed in giving the kids new ideas. Instead I'm going to make fun of something fairly superficial that nonetheless demonstrates just how hamfisted the whole plan is.

The website, texted.ca, includes a glossary of acronyms and text-speak. I'm not sure exactly why they put it on a site aimed at kids, since it is clearly written for adults who are snooping in their children's cellphones. It seems like they tried to strike a balance between basic and advanced, and ended up landing on totally insane. There are all the standard LOLs and AFKs, and then there are choice terms like these:
  • AWC: After awhile crocodile – has anyone ever said this, much less abbreviated it?
  • BIO: Biology Break or Bathroom Break – what? what?
  • BIOYN: Blow it out your nose – there is no way kids are saying this
  • CRBT: Crying really big tears – okay, maybe this is a thing, but I hope not
  • ETA: Estimated time (of) arrival – wow! kids are abbreviating all sorts of wild stuff these days, huh?
  • GIRL: Guy in real life – this just seems confusing
  • GMBO: Giggling my butt off – if anyone ever actually says this to me, I will definitely start GMBO
  • MKAY: Meaning "Mmm, okay" and MMK: Meaning okay? (as a question) – I had no idea text-speak had such complex usage rules
  • MTFBWU: May the force be with you – the kids texting this to each other are not the ones having sex
  • PBOOK: Phonebook (e-mail)  – I get the first step of this definition, but I am baffled by the second
  • QLS: Reply and QSO: Conversation – these are ham radio codes. I have no idea why they are here
  • RIP: Rest in peace – this is just getting stupid
  • RMLB: Ready my lips baby – I'm sure this is supposed to say read, but it's much funnier this way
And these last two I'm just going to let stand by themselves, because I really have no idea what to say about them:
  • SWAG: Scientific wild *butt* guess
  • YWHNB: Yes, We Have No Bananas
So watch out, teen sex! A new curriculum is coming to get you!

Incidentally, texted.ca includes this page, which has a detailed explanation of Canadian sexual consent laws for various age groups at the bottom (it's actually the first link on their menu). So it seems teenagers might get some use out of this website after all.

 
 
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Synesthesia is a neurological condition that causes people's senses to behave in unusual ways. If you've heard of it, you've probably heard wrong – but it is a fascinating phenomenon that is rarely detrimental and often somewhat enjoyable to those who experience it.

According to Wikipedia, synesthesia is commonly misrepresented in literature. I'm not surprised by that, as most high-profile conditions (neurological, mental and physical) get a clumsy handling in the world of fiction, and genuine portrayals are few and far between.

I'm working on the novel I started during NaNoWriMo (no, I didn't get to 50,000 words  not even close) and the plot that has been rolling off the top of my head includes a lot to do with synesthesia – both the real synesthesia, and a fictional related condition. The thing is, while I don't want the portrayal of real synesthesia to be seen as totally ignorant, I also want it to be somewhat whimsical and hyperbolic. This is mainly because I like a dash of whimsy in just about everything, but also because the character in question is highly intelligent and imaginative and exhibits a rarer, more curious form of synesthesia: ordinal linguistic personification.

Of course, NaNoWriMo is all about writing without editing as you go, and even though it's over I intend to continue in that spirit, so I'll address these concerns later. Hopefully I won't write myself into a hackish hole.

 
 
James Roday as Shawn Spencer and Dulé Hill as Burton Guster
On the surface, USA Network's Psych is just another fun show. As a detective series it's not especially groundbreaking: a quirky detective constantly flouts the rules, but the cops put up with him because he gets results. The plots make liberal use of tried-and-true mystery tropes, and a lot of episodes follow a predictable first body, second body schedule.

At the same time, each cast member is quite charming in his or her own way, and together their chemistry is perfect for the catchy (if sometimes unrealistic) dialog. It's also laden with fun '80s references, though only about a quarter of them make sense to me since I spent most of the '80s on a five-mile-long island with cobbled streets in a country that censored Michelangelo's nunchaku.

But none of this has anything to do with why I love Psych. I love it for what I see as the core principle of the show: an unwavering commitment to skepticism and science.  

The premise is simple but clever: Shawn Spencer was raised by his super-cop dad to be the perfect crime solver, and as an adult he possesses incredible observation and deduction skills. He is too undisciplined for life on the force, so he ends up tricking his way into solving crimes alongside the police (and his best friend Gus) by pretending his snap assessments are in fact psychic visions.

That's great just by itself: in this world where mediums, ghost hunters, 2012-ers and other deluded folk are getting unprecedented media exposure, Psych is a popular show about someone making it all up.

But it doesn't end there. After becoming famous as a "psychic detective", Shawn's agency periodically gets contacted by all manner of loons seeking his assistance with ghosts, werewolves, mummies and other bumps-in-the-night. In these episodes, things inevitably escalate until Gus starts seriously considering supernatural explanations - but never our trusty hero! In fact, Shawn immediately mocks his best friend every time he brings up "real" oogly-booglies as a theory. He utterly refuses to talk about impossibilities when there are plenty of mere improbabilities still on the table. And he's always right in the end.

Boy that's refreshing.

I should point out that when I say Psych is committed to "science", I really mean the principles of science and reason. Sometimes the details get fanciful, and complex concepts get a TV-makeover – but it's always done with comedic grace, and the final message is simple and lovely: psychics aren't real, but that doesn't make the human mind any less impressive.