Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Everyone Knows PR Writing Is Bad...

Now That We Have That Out of the Way, Does the Industry Have The Guts To Do Something About It?

There's an interesting discussion going on at (and not because I contributed to it) about why many in the public relations business simply don't know how to write well, or how those who do are stymied by clueless superiors.
As Mark Ragan notes: "one of the kids hired by the agencies and billed out at $150 an hour have the slightest idea what they're writing about. They don't understand the product or the client. They have no background in the industry, and they never learned how to write in college."
Exactly. And they are not alone. Their bosses and, probably, their boss' boss, are likely in the same boat.
The problem is several-fold. PR people:

--Put out crap masquerading as a press release because "that's the way it's always done."
--Are often clueless about the media because they often don't have a journalism background, don't read newspapers, watch or listen to the news.
--Often have clients who are just as obtuse, and are afraid to stand up to them or their lawyers, who insist on adding buzzwords, jargon and assorted gobbledygook that make the release all but useless to a reporter.
--Have a stunning lack of hubris and prefer operating in a vacuum.
--Are faced with a shortage of mentors who can show them a better way, i.e. writing an article like a feature or in the style of a news article to increase the chances of verbatim pickup.
--Get hired by people looking for other skills, such as strategic thinking, budgeting and ability to butt-kiss. Writing goes to the back of the line.

Most commenters gave an "amen" to Ragan's view, although there are a few naysayers like "Ray," who is resentful of journalists who love to hate PR people and then later switch careers and "think they can be immediate PR experts."
Chances are, Ray, if you spent a few years in the news business, it wouldn't take long to get the hang of the PR thing and make the transformation from hack to flak. But the other way around? Not a chance. The sooner the PR world -- especially agencies -- owns up to that, and embraces media professionals rather than shun them as no-goodniks, the better.

Food Network Magazine Takes a Real Shine To Its Stars

Paula Deen Never Looked This Good. Never.

Motivated more by what Hearst could bring to the table with Food Network Magazine, than a need to know the inner thoughts of Alton Brown and Tyler Florence, I plunked down a hard-earned $3.99 for the debut issue.
To its credit, the magazine is more than just an infomercial for Food Network, though it is certainly that as well.
The recipes don't require too much heavy lifting --- Cranberry Pomegrante Terrine, anyone? -- but are by no means dumbed down.
There are some quick, um, bites for features, including a fun quiz that challenges you to identify chocolate bars based on a view of their fillings (not as easy as it looks).
I also liked the On The Road section, which features regional food, recipes and items from those who often catch a meal away from home (Virgin America flight attendant Cassie Dole reveals she gets a $1.75 food allowance for every hour she's on the clock -- about $500 a month. And she's able to skirt the security rules on liquids, so she can carry lots of yogurt on board. Good thing: the crew doesn't get fed during flights).
But in the end, everything does center on the network stars, who are all smiles and then some. It was a little jarring and not a little scary to see on page 117 an artificial-looking Deen gesticulating toward us. Whomever was working Photoshop over at Hearst had quite the field day.
Either that, or they borrowed an exhibit from Madame Tussaud's. It's like she's frozen in time -- from 30 years ago.
Let's at least hope those White Chocolate Cherry Chunkies she's making in the photo are a little fresher.

Not Sweating the Details at iPhone Life Magazine

The Premiere Issue May Be The Premier Issue. Or Not.

I already get way too many magazines, but every once in a while head over to a newsstand to see what I'm missing.
Yesterday, with some time to kill in Grand Central Terminal, I stumbled upon a new title called iPhone Life, whose oeuvre shouldn't be too hard to detect.
It's put out by Thaddeus Computing, a small Iowa-based outfit that also puts out Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine.
Whatever the company spent on starting iPhone Life, it came at the expense of a copy editor. Otherwise, we likely wouldn't have been told on the cover that the premiere issue is the "premier issue."
This wasn't just a careless typo, apparently. It's prominent on the Web site as well, and more than once, to boot.
Good luck, anyway. Yes, spelling still counts in publishing -- at least for now.
Thaddeus does deserve props for an unusual blowout card (the same offer is available online), in which it invites people to subscribe for $25 and get all issues through 2010, though it doesn't commit to a hard number, beyond saying it'll be at least eight.
In this environment, it's easy to undertand why Thaddeus doesn't want to commit to a publication schedule, especially when more deep-pocketed publishers are cutting back or 86ing titles altogether.
Still, it's a bit weird. They're holding out the promise of more than four issues a year. But given the sorry state of the magazine business, don't get too excited. Better to content yourselves with the eight issues, assuming, of course, iPhone Life even makes it to 2010.

Friday, November 21, 2008

StoryCorps To Make Black Friday A Time To Listen, Instead of Shop

National Day of Listening an Ideal Alternative to the Malls Next Week

The folks at StoryCorps have chosen the day after Thanksgiving to extend their mission beyond their segments, which are a staple every Friday on NPR's Morning Edition.
They're behind what's called the National Day of Listening, in which people are being asked to record a one-hour conversation with a loved one, colleague, friend, mentor or anyone who intrigues them or has touched their lives. A few examples can be heard here.
I remember doing something like this with one of my grandmothers many years ago. It allowed me to hear her speak about things I otherwise might never have known; the struggles of a young bride, a difficult relationship with a stepmother; remembering her father's final days.
My family and I heard these stories because we stopped what we were doing long enough to listen. And learn. And understand.
We may often view those around us as ordinary people. Maybe they are. But they have often lived remarkable lives, something that StoryCorps, as good an oral history of Americans as any, proves every week.
Now you have a chance to prove it to yourself. I know it works. My grandmother is gone, but her words and her legacy is very much alive.

Effective Marketing Through Anti-Semitism?

It Took Three Days, But Larry Bodine Finally Got It; Law-Firm Marketing Guru Forced to Backpedal For Being More Than Just Politically Incorrect

Larry Bodine is a respected marketing advisor, with a long background in both PR and journalism. But he's proof of how smart people can catch a bad case of the stupids when they think they're being clever while trying to make a point.
Which means he should have known better before posting on his blog Nove. 14. The post reads in part:

I was conducting business development training at Joliet, IL, law firm when the focus turned to "30-second commercials" or "elevator pitches...."
The silver-haired senior-most litigator at the firm came up with the BEST elevator pitch ever. The senior partner said, "when I step onto elevator at the top floor, I size up the other person to see if he is a business man. I know they don't like lawyers."
"When they ask me, 'what do you do for a living?' I answer I'm a Nazi medical researcher." (my emphasis).
The businessman will react with shock. "Then I say, 'I was kidding. I just said that because I'm a lawyer...."
This always gets a laugh from the businessman.

Hardy, ha, ha.

It was bad enough that Bodine had the extremely poor judgment to repeat this for hundreds of other law-firm marketing professionals (and potential clients) to read.
But he dug in deeper when one reader objected to the joke being in "extremely bad taste."
Bodine replied:

Ken: the guy was JOKING. It was humor. To achieve a laugh, one must often exaggerate. The joke may offend you, but it works great for this rainmaker. Everybody's got a different style. You should use the one that works best for you.

Yes, because genocide can be a real knee-slapper in places like Joliet, right Larry?

Well, maybe not. Sufficiently chastened, Bodine posted again three days later to apologize. "In the clear light of morning, it is clear that it was anti-Semitic and repellent."

Ah, so it had been cloudy three days earlier. That explains it.

"A friend called me, recounting how he heard a Holocaust survivor describe being evaluated by Dr. Mengele in a concentration camp," Bodine wrote, "but was fortunate to be passed over. I was horrified and immediately deleted the blog post."

Give Bodine credit for owning up to posting something that transcends dumb, and likely would have gotten him fired if he was an employee rather than running his own shop.
What still boggles me is what was the process that led to thinking this was acceptable discourse in the first place?
If the lawyer had said "burn crosses for the Klan" or "beat up Mexicans trying to sneak over the border," instead of "Nazi medical researcher," it's highly doubtful that even Bodine would have posted it.
Since when did Nazis not on Hogan's Heroes become funny? That's the one part Bodine has yet to explain. Maybe just as well. He's already said more than enough.

The Sky Is Falling, The Sky Is Falling. Whoops, It Already Fell

Chicken Little Already On a Skewer; Looking For A Bottom for Newspaper Stocks? Join the Club. The Situation is Shrek Ugly

As I write, stocks are inching higher, as a few bargain hunters tip-toe through the markets while Citigroup tries to figure out its next move -- merger, sale or none of the above.
Some newspaper stocks, like Gannett, are benefiting, but others, like The New York Times, continue heading ever closer to the crapper. Of course, it didn't help when the Times announced yesterday it would take a meat grinder to its dividend.
You knew things were bad, but until you look at a chart of newspaper stocks, you may not have realized how stinkin' awful the balance sheets are, and how little Wall Street thinks of newspapers as a viable business model.
Belo is just north of two bucks a share. McClatchy is wheezing to oblivion at $1.51, while Lee clocks in at $1.25 or so.
Things could be worse, though, if you held stock in GateHouse Media, lightly traded on the pink sheets at 7 cents, or Journal-Register, which a few masochists are trading for just over a penny. The entire market cap for the company is about $472,000. Somehow, no one's rushing to snap up shares.
And with 2009 showing every sign of being worse than this year, it's a safe bet the list of newspaper stocks will soon be shorter, not because the companies have been delisted, but because they've ceased to exist.

Friday, November 14, 2008

You Knew Journal Register Was Bad. But This Bad?

Turns Out The Company Was Being Run By Idiots Even When Its Stock Was Worth Something

As word emerged this week (see below post) on the likelihood of Journal Register shutting down two dailies and 13 weeklies in Connecticut, it could have been construed as just another casualty in the latest annus horribilis that's overtaken the news business.
But in reading an insightful blog post from Rick Edmonds, it turns out the company was already busy digging its own grave a year before the nationwide downturn in circulation and ads.
This is a company that was proud of the fact that managers would check reporters' odometers to make sure they weren't padding expense accounts.
This is a company where "you would be fired if you left before your work for the day was finished, but you would also be fired if you put in for overtime."
But Edmonds gets to the heart of the matter, namely that running a news organization on the cheap may allow you to temporarily curry favor on Wall Street. However, all that penny-pinching would soon be evident to readers who'd see their papers became ever more mediocre.
"It also left the company little wiggle room to cut more in hard times," notes Edmonds.
That's why Journal-Register stock is delisted, and is selling for just over a penny. In fact, you could buy ALL of the outstanding shares in the company for just $462,000.
But why would you want to?
Yet, no reason to feel sorry for the J-R chieftains. They helped create the mess they're wallowing in, after all. Save your sympathy for the employees of these papers, who've soldiered on in spite of immensely difficult conditions. Dealing with heartless management is the least of their problems when faced with losing a job.
And suffer the readers. Even if the J-R papers are a shell of their former selves, at least they are there when needed. If they go, there's no one or nothing to replace them. Like them or not, their absence will be conspicuous, especially when no other media organization steps in to fill the vacuum that will be inevitably created.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Journal Register Killing Its Newspapers In Order to Save Them

Another Chapter in this Media Miasma as New Haven Register Cuts 20 Jobs

When your stock is selling just north of a penny of a share, and has been delisted, it's understandable when you need to take drastic measures to survive.
But it's one thing to take drastic measures. It's another thing to simply slash and burn because you're in a state of panic and haven't bothered to come up with a coherent business plan. Such appears to be the case at Journal Register.
Its latest move today, according to the Associated Press: get rid of 20 jobs at its flagship -- such as it is -- property, The New Haven Register, including five in the newsroom. That represents about 7 percent of what's left of the newsroom staff.
True, that's wholly in line with what lots of other newspapers have been doing. But it indicates a Defcon 5 situation at Journal Register. Instead of shoring up its biggest papers, it's cutting from all corners.
And that can't be good, especially in light of news earlier this week that the company would close two smaller papers, the Herald in New Britain, and the Bristol Press unless -- in the unlikely event -- a buyer was found by January. A similar fate awaits 11 Connecticut weeklies put out by Journal Register.
The sad part is these moves, given the company's crushing debt load, resemble more of a Band-Aid and less a tourniquet.
But at this stage, Journal Register probably can't afford tourniquets.

Media Misery Loves Company

Things Suck In The U.K. Too

A crappy economy combined with ultra-leveraged fat cats in over their heads is a big reason the U.S. media business is so sickly.
Of course, changing tastes and consumer habits are also big contributors to the mess we're in.
But maybe because we don't hear as much about it on this side of the pond, it was easy to assume that media elsewhere was not as vulnerable, especially given that in many countries print media circulation is actually increasing.
Assume no more. It's a small, interconnected world, after all, judging by the Guardian's media page.
To wit:
The Daily Mail's parent company is axing 300 jobs.
Haymarket is slashing 50 jobs at its U.K. properties.
The London edition of Time Out will shed 13 positions.

And so on.

If you've been on the receiving end of a media downsizing in the U.S., it may be little comfort that you have plenty of company.
But when you see how quickly and perniciously the contagion has spread, it's at least more understandable.

Friday, November 07, 2008

With Section Consolidation, N.Y. Times Sports Coverage Less Colorful

Gray Lady Really Is Gray; Meanwhile, Hockey Coverage Takes Yet Another Step Toward Irrelevance

One consequence of The New York Times consolidating sections to save money is that the once-standalone section fronts often have black-and-white photos instead of color.
This is often the fate of the sports section on the four days when it runs inside Business Day. It looks cheap, and given that there's often some compelling art, the section is less of a grabber and makes stories easier to overlook.
I remember thinking how unthinkable color photos in the Times once seemed. Indeed, the paper was relatively late to the game, but has since made the most of the technology. The Times needs to make sure it doesn't lose that edge in sports.
Then again, it's just another slap-in-the-face for sports in the Times. It's been well-documented here about how the paper has cut back on coverage of many local teams. Regular hockey coverage is down to a single writer, Lynn Zinser, who mostly covers only New York Rangers home games.
But now, not even that. Last night's Rangers 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning was noted on page B-17 by an A.P. story. The Times couldn't even muster one of its stringers, like Dave Caldwell, to cover the game, though it did send veteran photographer Barton Silverman to the game.
Somehow, the St. Petersburg Times had enough its kitty to send a reporter on the road to cover the Lightning. So did the cash-starved Tampa Tribune, along with at least five other New York-area papers.
But not the Times. When the team with the best record in the N.H.L. is playing about seven blocks from your newsroom, that's pretty sad.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

With Election Over, Mitre Wants Lloyd Constantine To Knock Around HBO

Libel Brouhaha Over "Real Sports" Report About Child Labor For Soccer Balls

If you never got to see the devastating report on HBO's "Real Sports" back in September about how top soccer-ball manufacturers use contractors in India to "employ" children to stitch soccer balls, time to find it on a rerun, YouTube or a podcast.
It was a damning indictment of an industry that conveniently looks the other way, while kids as young as six years ago effectively become indentured servants.
The report delivered a glancing blow to companies like Mitre, which saw its business wilt in the U.S. It is not amused. And they are suing HBO, claiming the children and their families seen in Bernard Goldberg's dispatch were paid to appear in the story and were never employed by the company.
Mitre is employing high-profile Lloyd Constantine to take on HBO, with what Mitre says is video rebutting the HBO report.
Even if you find Goldberg's politics and view on the media execrable, you still need to give props to his reporting chops. Watching his work on "Real Sports," it takes no effort to believe that he's indeed keeping it real. It's what he's been doing for three decades; no reason for him to stop now or risk everything for a good soundbite.
Goldberg's no stranger to child-labor issues. His 2004 report on boys illegally being used as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates won an Emmy.
Mitre may have video. But so what? It could well have come from fearful people, exploited all their lives who were pressured to speak in order to hold on to what meager earnings they get. And if Mitre claims are based on the fact they didn't employ those seen in the report, then they should watch it again.
Goldberg never makes that claim. Rather, it's the use of contractors and subcontractors who carry out the dirty work of Mitre and other manufacturers. They are well-insulated for a very good reason. True, some companies do have child-labor policies and employ people to police their vendors. But as "Real Sports" demonstrated, that's a lot easier said than done, if it's done at all.
Just because you hire an attack dog like Constantine doesn't mean you have a case. Perhaps Mitre's money would be better spent ensuring 6-year-olds in India aren't stitching soccer balls being kicked by 6-year-olds in the U.S.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Now That It's Happened, Media Tries To Relish Its Own Obama Moments

Random Thoughts As History Is Made

--Interesting watching black reporters and commentators on TV reacting to the Obama win. Byron Pitts on CBS was eloquent in describing a conversation he had with his mom tonight and asking her how she felt. "Glory, halleleujah," she said. Pitts also held up a picture from his office, of the Memphis garbage workers who Martin Luther King Jr. had come to support before he was killed 40 years ago. A long road indeed. Roland Martin on CNN -- a steadfast Obama supporter, was choking back tears as he talked about what tonight meant to him. Before Obama went over the top in the electoral college, meanwhile, a black McCain supporter on WCBS-TV was asked what it meant to him that an African-American could be president. He was resolute. It's important, he said, "but I still don't think he's the right man for the job."
--Headline from the The Sun in the U.K. -- in its typically understated fashion: "Obama Slamma."
--Hed from the Sydney Morning Herald: U.S. voters reject George Bush nightmare
--Karl Rove, taking a break from crocodile tears, said on Fox it wouldn't be a black family in the White House, but an American family. Thanks for sharing.