Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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Monthly Archives: May 2009
- The professionalization and creation of "objective" journalism in the 1920s
- Movies, 1920s
- Radio, 1930
- Mass migrations caused by Great Depression and World War II, dislocating communities and families
- Television, 1950s
- Birth of suburbs, automobile, decline of mass transit, 1950s
- Shoppers, i.e. PennySaver, (not sure when they started, but let’s put them in the 1960s)
- Unrest of 1960s, distrust of mainstream institutions, rise of alternative press
- Wal-Mart and other Big Box retailers in the 1980 and 1990s, putting out of business traditional newspaper advertisers (at higher margins than pre-prints from Big Boxes), often with help of government subsidies.
- Cable television, and not just more news, but more choices.
- Digital media and all that comes with it — more choices, greater competition for attention, craigslist, more competition for advertising dollars, etc.
If you fail to look at the decline of newspapers in context of the historical arch of events, and you fail to see that the same forces driving down circulation are the same forces decreasing community involvement and civic engagement, then you’ll never have a clue how to solve the problem. If you don’t see the whole picture, you’ll look for quick fixes like government aid or legislation, grants and annuities, paid content or just whine about "society can’t function without us."
The solution lies in figuring out why increasingly society is deciding it doesn’t need us and fixing that problem, not in hair-brained schemes that attempt to force journalism on the masses.
Why didn’t I watch Senate hearing today? Because I’m busy working on journalism’s future, not worrying about its past.
Proved quite popular this evening.
I posted it in light of news about the Senate Subcommittee Hearing today on the future of journalism. For months (years?) we’ve been assaulted with notions of "saving" newspapers — should we give them non-profit status, issue some sort of taxpayer bailout, make Google pay, relax anti-trust laws … etc.?
There’s a whole host of proposals out there to "save" newspapers that any real capitalist should find not only laughable but horrifying.
Let’s be clear: If a newspaper can’t compete in the free market it’s not worth saving. If a newspaper needs aid from the government to survive, it’s not worth saving.
A newspaper is a business, just like any other business. It’s not a church. It’s not a social services agency. It’s not a civic organization. It’s a business.
When a business model is broken, or a strategy is flawed, or time has just passed it by, that business – even whole industries — die. It’s a process of evolution. It’s necessary for the ecosystem of society.
Journalism will not die, though every newspaper might stop printing and some companies that now spew ink to tell the news will cease. Journalism will not die.
If businesses that support journalism are now are not able to compete in the free market, if they are unable to adapt to the changes in the market, they simply do not deserve to survive.
The only thing that will save journalism is the free market. Any other solution will lead to ossification and ultimately will greatly damage democracy, because citizens will become only more jaded and distrustful of a press that through government-backed monopoly power suppress entrepreneurial competitors.
I work my ass off every day — 14, 15, 16 hours a day — trying to create a sustainable online news site. Maybe I’m on the right track, maybe I’m not, but as an entrepreneur I feel I have a right to put forward my ideas, my business model in a free market and see if it works.
If it doesn’t, fine, but I shouldn’t have to compete against media companies that are given government favor through changing anti-trust laws or granted special privileges.
The free market should decide what journalism will be in the future, not some gray-haired Senator or government bureaucrat.
Maybe it’s time your newspaper reconsidered its Web site’s commenting policy.
If the same group of people are dominating the discussion and ganging up on newcomers who aren’t part of the clique, maybe it’s time to reconsider your policy.
If flame wars are frequent, sock puppets obvious and informative discussions rare, maybe you need to reconsider your policy.
If you cringe every time you see a new comment has been posted on one of your stories, maybe it’s time to reconsider your comment policy.
Those among you who have followed my career for any length know I’m an advocate for comments on news stories. I believe conversation and news are two great tastes that go great together, like beer and chocolate or peanut butter and apple.
And while I’ve noted that comments can help increase page views, I’ve never advocated comments purely as a cheap way to drive up banner impressions. To me, it’s always been about building community.
Unfortunately, for many newspapers, comments are more like the mother-in-law who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn’t very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she’s probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband’s parents.
If you aren’t managing your comments well, you’re doing your newspaper more harm than good Your advertisers question the wisdom of associating their brand with yours — at least the smart ones do — and your readers are questioning your professionalism.
This issue came up on the Online-News discussion list this week, so I know many newspapers are struggling with comment management at the moment. It also came to a head this week in Batavia, where the Daily News was hit by a particularly ugly comment thread in which a socket puppet attacked fellow elected officials, one politician is posing as a defender of said politician, and a community activist brought to light unfounded allegations against a city councilman (I won’t dignify the charge by repeating it here, and because I know these people, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who).
I don’t bring this up to bash my competitor — in fact, I rejected (so far) the idea of discussing this issue on The Batavian for fear it would come across as petty — but the struggles the Daily News has with comments (and granted this is something new for them) illustrates a point that has implications across the industry.
If you allow behavior in your comments that would never fly in your news columns, even your letters to the editor, is your comment conduct really ethical?
Just because the law protects you from libel claims arising from comments on stories, should you really allow libelous statements to stand, especially when submitted anonymously?
Here’s how you fix your comment policy:
- Assign one person on staff — ideally, make this a full time job — to be community site manager. This person will participate in the community, both online and off and be known as a person of authority and friend to the community.
- Require every writer to read and respond to comments on his or her own stories. Journalism online is more than a "I publish and you read" job. Reporters need to be part of the conversation. This leads to more civil discussions and more fruitful discussions.
- Require real names. This is hard to enforce perfectly, but not impossible to make a consistent feature of your site. The smaller the community – where reputations can be broken so quickly — this is especially important. People will often say anonymously (you’ll note none of the garbage in the Daily thread has appeared on The Batavian) won’t they won’t say when people know who they are. Real names also serve as a check against sock puppetry, which has no place in a local community site.
- Act swiftly to remove libelous statements. The law doesn’t require this, but journalism ethics does. This is also why you need a pro managing your comments. All kinds of grey areas arise when deciding what comments to delete, and even after more than a dozen years of managing online communities, I’m not sure I always get this right.
- A subtext to all of this — make sure the community knows you take the community conversation seriously and expect it to be productive.
If you’re unwilling or unable to take these steps, you should seriously consider turning off comments. They are likely doing your newspaper more harm than good.