Karen Hill: 1940-2013

Karen Ann Hill passed away this week after suffering a fall. She was 73 years old and arguably the best known face of recreational fishing on Cape Cod.

For Karen owned Sportsport, the little tackle shop in Hyannis that she inherited from her father, a beloved institution marked by the familiar sight of the Old Salt fishing in the parking lot wearing yellow foul weather gear, rain or shine. I knew the Old Salt before I ever met and became friends with Karen. It was one of those icons I first saw as a kid and have carried with me ever since, despite how much the rest of the Cape changes around me. Some motorist took him out a couple years ago. Karen had sold the shop already and retired. But the new owners knew that Sportsport wasn’t Sportsport without the bearded man in the red boat, and he fishes on to this very day.

I didn’t get to know Karen until 1991 when I first moved to Cape Cod full time to raise my family. Churbucks weren’t a fishing family when I was a kid. My father prohibited fish (aside from frozen Gorton’s of Gloucester fish sticks served to his kids) from ever being served (some old dislike he probably picked up in the 40s when a bluefish was about it when it came to protein for the table) and he certainly didn’t fish but he sure loved to clam. My grandfather wasn’t a big fisherman as I recall.. So there weren’t a lot of the father-son-grandpa-bonding-over-fishing-scenes in my youth. When I did fish it was with my brother, a dropline and a cracked open quahog from the Town Dock for scup and eels, the latter species terrorizing me.

When I became a townie in 1991 I noticed the locals all driving around with fishing rods on their roof racks in the early spring and fall — something was going on that I didn’t know about and I decided I would take up fishing. Obsessive maniac that I become when I really get into something (fishing, Italian bicycles, watching complete archives of a TV series in one binge), I started to really get into fishing, developing a fishing jones I couldn’t appease. I read nothing but fishing books, bought nothing but fishing tackle, and coveted rods and reels like a sex fiend. I woke up at 3 in the morning to fish. I fished at 10 pm in January during a snowstorm on a beach in Sandwich  near the Cape Cod Canal on the stupid hunch that I might catch a tom cod. I didn’t but it was worth it for the story. I risked drowning night after night standing in the foaming surf on sandbars off the beach in Chatham fishing for a “keeper” (a striped bass over 3-feet long) and marveling at the wildness of the stars and the Atlantic all in front of me. I waved a fly rod so much in the wind that my shoulder fell apart and I had to stop for six months of physical therapy.  They say there are 365 fresh water ponds on Cape Cod? One for every day of the year. I tried to fish them all. Livelining, chumming, trolling, roll casting. You name it, I wanted to try it.

I even started “the Internet Journal of Salt Water Flyfishing” – Sportsport was the first advertiser.

And Karen Hill fed my habit. I basically moved her tackle store ten miles west into my garage over ten years, one sinker, one bobber, one hook at a time. I could have betrayed her and gone online, but that would have meant missing out on the unique retail experience that was Sportsport under Karen’s ownership.

First, there was no such thing as “ducking in real quick” for something at Sportsport. Karen never rushed. Ever. Stepping inside the door and getting out again in under 30 minutes was a miracle. The place could get very busy, and Karen would be winding new monofilament on somebody’s reel while a mob fidgeted to pay for their bait and get back to the fish. She had to hang up the phone to swipe a credit card. She totalled up all the little bits of fishing stuff — swivels, lures, buckets of writhing eels — on a scrap of paper, totalled it up on a calculator, and then put the total into the register. She usually swore at the register.

Second, she was the CIA of Cape Cod fish. If there were rumors of fish, Karen heard them first. And to get her to part with this intelligence meant buying something, even if it was a $0.30 lead sinker. eCommerce fishing tackle sites doesn’t whisper to you that “they’re murdering them at Dowses on purple Deadly Dicks” A photo of one’s self on the door of the bait refrigerator meant you were a made man. Cousin Pete and I schemed to freeze an October bluefish until February (they migrate to the Cape in May), thaw it out, drive it to Hyannis, and ask Karen to take a picture of us holding the earliest bluefish of the year for the fridge. I regret we never did it. She would have howled and called bullshit and then taken the picture anyway.

And then there was Karen’s School of Fishing. Feeling bored and beset with cabin fever on a sunny day in early April, weeks before the stripers and blues return? Karen would teach me the ins and outs of fishing for winter flounder and I’d walk out $50 poorer with flounder rigs, a chum pot, and the advice to fill it with crushed mussels and cans of cat food.

Her assistant Mark became a good friend and great fishing buddy. We sort of enabled each other’s addiction and would drive from one side of the Cape to the other just to catch the favorable tides at Menahaunt on the southside and Bone Hill on the north.

But most of all Karen was a friend, a good wise motherly lady in a business not known for a lot of ladies. She was blessed with a great sense of humor, a way of making you feel you were the most important customer she’d seen all day, a great laugher, and a true Cape Codder;  a veritable Old Salt herself.

One of the greats has passed. I’ll kiss my next fish on the head and let it go to swim another day just for Karen.

3 Ways to Write an Annoying “ListLine”™

The recently departed Al Neuharth — the man who gave the world McJournalism when he created USA Today in 1982 — was famous in my mind for two things (no, make that three, because this is a post in part about the magic powers of “three”):

  1. Always publish the tits above the fold
  2. Bulleted lists are better than paragraphs
  3. Infographics that twist statistics and invoke the Royal We into cartoons are engaging

People love lists. Decades ago there was a bestseller entitled “The Book of Lists,” a classic toilet-side tome in many a household. There are  management books about the power of to-do lists.  I must have at least three or four list apps on my phones and tablets and PC. Most horrible is the tendency of the lower life forms in online journalism and especially digital marketing/SEO/Content marketing bloggers to use lists as linkbait. There are so many headlines about “Three Ways to Increase ROI” and “Four Ways Content Marketing Can Engage and Delight Your Customers” that I have to wonder what’s driving this obsession with numerical sequence.  I know that if I click through to actually read the stuff I’m going to read some airhead social media/digital marketing “guru’s” rehashed airheaded jargon twisted bloviations.

Working off off my feeds this morning  I found this actual set of … oh hell, let’s just call them “ListLines™“, e.g. headlines promoting lists:

  • 13 Smart Podcasts That Will Feed Your Hunger for Knowledge and Ideas
  • The 45 Best Restaurants in America (BusinessInsider is a huge fan of  ListLines™, generally cutting up the content into slideshows to pump up the pageviews). They have a daily list which is semi-useful called …..
  • Ten Things You Need To Know
  • 10 Habits of Remarkably Charismatic People
  • We Try 4 New Electric Hot Water Kettles for Coffee and Tea

The king of the numbered ListLine has to be the Content Marketing Institute, which on its home page has the following headlines, and all save one has a numeral in it:

  • 4 Truths About Content Marketing Clients
  • 6 Tips to Start Creating Content on Tumblr
  • 3 Tips for More Effective Content Marketing Visuals
  • 9 Questions to Help You Prioritize Content Creation
  • 12 Roles Essential to the Future of Content Marketing
  • Thought Leadership Strategy: 3 Ways to Leverage Live Event Content
  • 3 Tips for Keeping Your Buyer Personas Fresh and Alive
  • How Enterprises Handle B2B Content: 6 Key Insights From Our Research

McKinsey, the organization that lives on PowerPoint, had an unofficial Rule of Threes during my short stint– as in no slide should have more than three bullet points on it because that was all the typical audience member could hold in their head during the time it took the expensive consultant to present the slide. McKinsey was into numerology in general and the place should have had the Pareto Principle inscribed over the door as its motto (the “80/20” rule). I admit I stick to the Rule of Threes to this day.

My theory about the abuse of the numbered list in online headlines is the corruption of editorial good sense by the scuzzy underworld of Search Engine Optimization and the Tyranny of Metrics. Let’s turn to the experts at the Content Marketing Institute, enter in the search term “lists” and what do you know? In a post entitled “Content Strategy: 9 Secrets for Awesome Blog Post Titles“, Tracy Gold writes in item number 5:

“We all groan about numbered lists in blog posts. But the truth is, they work. In our research, titles that began with a number performed 45 percent better than the average.

“Another approach is to start with a keyword and include a number later in the title. Take “Content Marketing Checklist: 22 To-dos for SlideShare Success,” for example. We tested both title types, and when the headline started with a keyword, it actually performed slightly better.

“While one approach to this method is to work more numbered lists into your blog content strategy up front, you can also use a numbered list in a post after it’s written. Is the post split up into sections? Can those sections be numbered? Boom. But again, don’t mislead your readers — make sure a numbered list format actually fits the content of your post.”

Now we know the secrets of the masters. My theory is by announcing ahead of time how many pieces of b.s. the reader will have to digest, they figure they aren’t in for a reading of Procopius History of the Early Church and can snack on the info before their Adderall buzzing brain clicks them away.

Before closing, let me digress back to USA Today and my indoctrination into the art of the list.

I worked at a newspaper — The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune — that rented its color presses to print the New England edition USA Today at night, receiving the pages via satellite and then churning out the colorful McPaper so familiar to residents of the Marriott Courtyard Suites. This close relationship unfortunately colored the judgment of Eagle-Tribune editor-in-chief Dan Warner, who decided that Al Neuharth was a visionary genius and that the Tribune’s staff  would learn to write lists instead of stories and develop “infographics” about Why We Love Ice Cream,” complete with a cartoon of a melting ice cream cone, a gushing thermometer and some made up statistic about what flavors “We” preferred.

This was strictly enforced to the point that every story opened with a classic lead (my favorite lead of all time, courtesy of Edna Buchanan, the legendary police reporter of the Miami Herald is cited below*), a standard second paragraph, and then an inevitable list of bulleted items before the jump to an inside page.  I would pile into the newsroom after a scintillating evening covering the Salem, New Hampshire board of selectmen and pound out some lifeless copy (“This ain’t a short story about your dead grandma bub, so get over it” my editor, Al White, told me after taking a machete to my first story about a sewer bond hearing) that always had a bullet list up high where Dan Warner would be sure to see it. Hence:

“In other actions, the board voted to:

  • Ban pit bulls from playgrounds
  • Postpone a hearing on bingo licenses
  • Authorize door-to-door cigarette sales by Brownie Troop 5
  • Commend Police Chief Nickerson for Sunday’s arrest of undercover Massachusetts State Policemen harassing Bay State liquor and fireworks customers

At first the mandate to use bullet lists offended my delicate Strunk & White sensibilities about prose composition.  One of the joys of great writing is a well-written list, contained in a single flowing sentence, ordered just so to delight the ear and paint a picture in the mind’s eye, but alas the world has become addicted to the staccato stack of one-liners preceded by the bold typographical dot and so I have given up all hope of resistance.

But I know in my heart of hearts that William Faulkner never wrote a bullet list in his life or worried about SEO.


*: Calvin Trillin, profiling Buchanan in the New Yorker: “In the newsroom of the Miami Herald, there is some disagreement about which of Edna Buchanan’s first paragraphs stands as the classic Edna lead. I line up with the fried-chicken faction. The fried-chicken story was about a rowdy ex-con named Gary Robinson, who late one Sunday night lurched drunkenly into a Church’s outlet, shoved his way to the front of the line, and ordered a three-piece box of fried chicken. Persuaded to wait his turn, he reached the counter again five or ten minutes later, only to be told that Church’s had run out of fried chicken. The young woman at the counter suggested that he might like chicken nuggets instead. Robinson responded to the suggestion by slugging her in the head. That set off a chain of events that ended with Robinson’s being shot dead by a security guard. Edna Buchanan covered the murder for the Herald—there are policemen in Miami who say that it wouldn’t be a murder without her—and her story began with what the fried-chicken faction still regards as the classic Edna lead: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”


If I owned the Cape Cod Times ….

The Cape Cod Times and its sister weekly, The Barnstable Patriot, are for sale. News Corp has put them on the block, after picking them up as part of the deal that saw the company acquire the Wall Street Journal from the Bancroft Family and Dow Jones.

I started my journalism career at the Cape Cod Times as a “special writer” the summer after graduating from college in 1980, a sad summer spent sorting out my father’s affairs after he died the March before in a car accident. The Times was a refuge for me, an incredibly rich world of facts and deadlines and mordant wit that proved to be just the antidote for a grieving 22-year old. I will always be indebted to Bill Briesky, Milton Moore, Peggy Eastman and Don Brichta for their patience and good humor in teaching me the rudiments of reporting.

A few weeks ago, while speaking to the Cape Cod Technology Council, someone asked me about the Times now that it was for sale. That was news to me. I hadn’t heard, but yes, it is true and ever since I heard the news I’ve occasionally thought what I would do if I owned a local paper in this parlous time of upheaval and transformation in the media world, one I suppose started the summer I worked at the Times when it was only a few months away from moving off of typewriters, scissors and rubber cement to one of the first computerized editorial systems. I take huge pride in having seen the very end of the analog era, of having literally performed “cut-and-paste”, and then hung on as the momentum began building towards the place where papers stand today, devoid of advertisers and readers, their staffs fleeing for shelter.

I believe a strong civil society needs a newspaper in some form: paper or digital or whatever.  I am an idealist who clings to those Jeffersonian ideals of an independent fourth estate that informs the electorate, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. I don’t believe in journalism schools and I don’t regard journalism as a profession but see it more as a craft.  I applaud a world where anyone with the ambition can try to become a citizen journalist. I pay for good news. I can’t imagine living in a community without a definitive source of news. Without one the world will quickly become a darker, more ignorant place.

If I owned the Cape Cod Times I would do the following things:

  1. Stop printing it. I’d  have the presses in Independence Park  dismantled, placed on barges, and towed away and give them to a third-world country that needs a big honking press. Rip off the bandaid.
  2. Sell the trucks and fire the drivers. No press, no paper, no trucks, no drivers, no gas.
  3. Double down on local news. Put a reporter in every town on the Cape and Islands. Let them work from home, but get them as local as possible. It’s all about local and local is the only thing unique to the franchise. Not the AP wire. Not the Red Sox scores. But the local sports, the local planning board, the church socials and the bake sales. It’s local local local. The thing that has been weakest about the CCT in recent years is its local coverage at a time when it was the only defensible turf the paper stood on.
  4. Pay the staff a decent base salary with the usual performance modifiers based on traffic and comment engagement.
  5. Have reporters moderate their readers’ comments and engage with the mob directly.
  6. Provide a citizen’s blogging platform and use it as a farm system for full time talent to join the masthead. Extend the platform to any group, advertiser, or gadfly who wants it under a liberal acceptable use policy
  7. Launch a digital news radio station and go on the offensive
  8. Push harder on video. Eric Williams and CapeCast is the diamond in the rough I think.

And how would I pay for it all? Well, if wishes were fishes and all that ….

  • Drop the paywall. I hate paywalls. The New York Times can get away with them, but the Cape Cod Times needs as many readers as it can get and charging the loyal readership is like penalizing an act of goodness.
  • Local advertisers are already in bad shape thanks to eCommerce hammering local retailers. There are too many alternatives where they can spend their small ad budgets, so rates need to be slashed on display which are largely programmed buys via ad networks anyway. I’d kill display advertising to tell the truth. The banner is dead or dying.
  • Bundle a SMB digital marketing service and re-sell it to the advertisers: Lexity for ad buys, Hubspot for digital marketing, etc.. Offer digital marketing services as a value-add to the advertisers and wean them from local radio (there’s is very little local TV on the Cape to worry about). SMBs are starving for help with digital.
  • Restructure the rate card around sponsorships and give the advertisers ownership of a topic or section. Get away from run of site and give them some “adjacency” to the editorial
  • Provide lead generation support to advertisers emphasizing one-time unique coupon redemption for attribution and ROI justification

That’s it. Who knows if it would succeed, but I am convinced an emphasis on local news/sports, digital radio and video, and a big commitment to SMB digital marketing services could carry the Times forward until the next big unforeseen disruption. What do I think will happen? Some private equity-backed community newspaper roll-up will probably buy the Times for a song and gut it on the altar of efficiency and centralized management.

Broken news: the lesson from Boston’s journalism school

When the President of the United States tells the press in a nationally televised address that it needs to get its act together, you know the Fourth Estate is in very, very bad shape.

“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations. That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.”

David Carr, my favorite media critic and the most perceptive reporter covering the transformation of the news business, moved from his customary home on the lefthand column of the New York Times’ Monday business page to a position of unmistakable prominence in the center of the page, leaving no doubt in my mind that today’s column is one of the more important ones he’ll ever write.

“The pressure to produce is ratcheted up accordingly. Editors and producers begin leaning on their reporters, and they, in turn, end up in the business of wish fulfillment, working hard to satisfy their audience, and meeting the expectations of their bosses. It creates a system in which bad reporting can thrive and dominoes can quickly fall the wrong way.”

Throughout last week’s blur of news and news about the news, was a constant theme of how social media had transformed the news for ever, how citizen journalists with their shaky cell phone video, crowd-sourced forensic vigilantes on Reddit and 4Chan, and a torrent of tweets from law enforcement, reporters, and excited observers were killing the news beast and replacing it with something new and raw and immediate.

Then everything broke and I’m not talking about breaking news.

Alexis Madrigal, one of the smartest voices writing about technology as senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote a scathing indictment of the fools who pinned the crime on a missing Brown student, tormenting his already panicked family with a self-fulfilling series of tweets that spilled from one misinformed source to more credible ones. The New York Post put, on their front page, the pictures of two innocent men circled by the crowd at 4Chan as likely suspects, leading one to turn himself into the authorities to plead his innocence.

As Carr writes in the Times, the biggest blunder, the most inexcusable, was committed by CNN on Wednesday, when John King erroneously reported a suspect was in custody. As Carr painfully reminds us, CNN is the source we’re supposed to turn to during times of crisis, the journalistic institution that defined the new 24-hour, constant news cycle. Instead, it was painful to watch, to watch and hear talking heads trying to fill the tyranny of dead air with babble, conjecture, recap and opinion. One look at Al Sharpton and I was done with MSNBC. Fox never came on once. I avoided the television and stuck to a stream of WBUR the national public radio affiliate in Boston and of course, Twitter.

On Friday evening, as the Governor declared an all-clear and let the people of Watertown out of their lockdown to stretch their legs, my wife and I switched on CNN to laugh at the network’s cluelessness and discomfort. I jeered the rugged looking reporter standing on a sidewalk behind the Arsenal Mall, laughed at how he kept trying to tame his wind-blown haircut, and told my wife, “These guys have just been making it up all week and they’re getting pounded for it.”

Then the reporter stopped talking, removed his ear piece and cocked his head like a dog hearing another dog bark in the distance.

“Do you hear that?” he asked. I laughed. CNN was delivering the drama as expected.

“I think I heard gun fire.”

The irony is that he had heard gunfire, the shots as the police converged on the shrink-wrapped boat in a nearby backyard. He performed the single act of pure reportage I saw all week from the media, he heard something first-hand and he reported it.

In the end, it wasn’t the Globe or the Herald or CNN that gave the world the news that it was all over. That was a tweet courtesy of the Boston Police Department.

My point — as an ex-reporter who worked in a city newsroom well before the Internet, back when newspapers were still healthy and secure; as a former hack who ducked under yellow police tape and stood around asking questions of cops and bystanders with a camera around his neck and a spiral reporter’s notebook in his hands — is the old journalistic craft of knocking on doors and asking questions, of checking facts and verifying sources, of biding one’s time until one had the story nailed. of risking the loss of a scoop in the interest of accuracy was underscored last week by those reporters and editors who sat on rumors despite the pressure of the moment, who took the time to confirm before speaking.

The moment of the blasts was first reported on Twitter, and the news-dinosaur haters crowed that it meant a new era in news because the Times and the Associated Press and the “mainstream” media took another 15 to 30 minutes to get the news out. Well, the reason is simple. When they did report it they had confirmation, not speculation to go on.

There have been some big, unforgettable moments in post-Internet journalism, mostly catastrophes that grabbed everyone’s attention,and held it for hours if not days. The last pre-Internet news moment, I argue, was the first Gulf War, when CNN came into its own. The first Internet news moment was the explosion of TWA Flight 800 south of Long Island, the first time the audience could get news on demand and not wait for the trucks to deliver it. 9/11 …. a whole other story. During all of those events the press rose to the occasion and used the new medium to good effect. But Boston was a study in failure all the way around.

PC sales swoon, I yawn

Lots of retweets and links to this morning’s IDC report on the PC industry falling off a cliff in the first quarter — sales are down some 13% from the previous year. Stowe Boyd blogs that the analysts need to get over it, stop using words like “worrisome”  and embrace the better world of cheap touch devices in this “Post-PC Era” that happens to coincide with the third birthday of the iPad.

“Personally, I think we should be cheering the transition to more convenient, lower-cost, gesture-based tablets. It’s not regrettable. But the IDC analysts are obviously rooting for the past, and we’re zooming into a future they don’t like much. I think they should side with the people shifting to tablets.”

Windows 8 and its lukewarm welcome is taking some of the blame. Not having upgraded myself I can’t bring myself to trash an OS that I haven’t played with, but I hear over and over that the upgrade is particularly frustrating on older, non-touch enabled PCs. In a talk I gave to the Cape Cod Technology Council last Friday morning, I led off with the obvious observation that the PC paradigm shift is the most massive upheaval the tech world has seen in thirty years, comparing the disruption of tablets on PCs to what Wikipedia did to the Encyclopedia Britannica ….. an analogy Stowe cites as well.

It’s not an all-or-nothing transition. PCs are not going to become the typewriters of tomorrow. The advantages of large screen/awesome keyboard composition will prevail. My microprocessor and storage might one day live in my phone which I’ll snap into a desktop cradle and wirelessly connect to a bluetooth full size keyboard/mouse and a big flat panel display, but as far as I’m concerned the PC experience comes down to the size of the screen and the awesomeness of the keyboard. The box itself — whether it is a clamshell laptop, a Yoga multidevice like the Surface, an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard or a big tower I built myself from parts bought off of Newegg — is irrelevant. Not to the companies that make them of course, but the “paradigm” of sitting in front of a monitor and banging on keys will remain the same for all professionals. Touch is nice for consuming, but hell on creating.

Down Around Midnight

I confess a morbid fascination with plane crashes. I’ve watched enough of them on YouTube to know I will never go to an airshow, fly on a Russian airline, or find myself in the grandstands at the Reno air races. The funny thing is I’ve never been afraid of flying and have grown to actually enjoy severe turbulence as a perverse airborne amusement park ride.

I take that back: I was afraid of flying from 1995 to 2000 when I flew between Hyannis here on Cape Cod and New York’s La Guardia airport on a little regional airline, Colgan Air, and its fleet of Beechcraft 1900s. I nicknamed the planes “The Flying Cigar Tubes of Death” – not because they were infamous, but because they were cramped little things that one sort of crouched down and crawled into. I always made it a point to sit in one of the exit row seats over the wings, not wanting to wrestle some old lady for the right to be first off should the pilot have to put it down in Long Island Sound or the woods around Hyannis. There were some wild rides on those planes, true white knuckle oh-my-god flights with people screaming and praying out loud as we rocked our way blind through the fog in a March noreaster, convinced we were moments away from meeting our Maker.

The worst thing about that commuter airline was the fact that there were two takeoffs and landings on each leg. The flight always stopped at Nantucket, an airport allegedly built on the foggiest part of the island by the Navy so student pilots could practice in the worst conditions.

This past weekend I indulged my secret vice for plane crashes by reading Cape Cod author Robert Sabbag’s Down Around Midnight, his account of surviving the crash of Air New England Flight 248 one foggy June night in 1979 while returning from LaGuardia. He was in his early 30s, riding the fame of his book Snowblind, a best-selling non-fiction account of the world of cocaine smuggling. With $5,000 tucked into his sock, Sabbag was minding his own business as the DeHavilland DHC 6 Otter made its approach over Yarmouthport into Hyannis around 11 pm in a thick fog. Up front, at the controls, the pilot, George Parmenter, was at the end of a 14 hour day. Tired, of questionable health at the age of 61, the vice-president of Air New England made his last mistake and put the plane into the thick woods of a Boy Scout camp near Willow Street and Route 6. Right on page one of the 200-page book, Sabbag gets to the point:

“The plane hit the trees at 123 knots. It lost its wings as it crashed. They were sheared off, taking the fuel tanks with them, as the rest of it slammed through the forest. In an explosion of tearing sheet metal, it ripped a path through the timber, cutting through thick stands of oak and pine for a distance of three hundred feet. Whatever memories time erases, it will never erase the memory of it.”

It took Sabbag thirty years before he could tell the story, pushed into confronting the event by the discovery of an old day planner he found in a box of personal financial records, the pages soaked in fuel, leaves and pieces of twigs from the woods still in between the cover slashed by some violent force. He goes through the story as any good reporter would, interviewing the other passengers in the cabin (those that would talk to him), but he also doesn’t hide his own biases and theories as to who and what were to blame for the Cape’s worst commercial air disaster.

Underneath the lurid details of an aviation catastrophe lies one of the better stories about life on Cape Cod, a perceptive and accurate look at the regular people who live here year round, the nurses and the firemen and EMTs who found him, back broken in the woods, and carried him out to a long recovery.

Not your father’s advertorial

Every trend, fad and meme has its day and “branded content” is having its moment now that the New York Time’s Monday business section has discovered the phenomenon of publishers further blurring the lines between journalism and marketing in its piece on 4.8.13 by Tanzina Vega: “Sponsors Now Pay for Online Articles, Not Just Ads.” The usual publications are cited: Forbes.com and it’s “BrandVoice” (“Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience”), the Atlantic Monthly, Business Insider, Mashable just to name a few. I think a bigger trend is being ignored:  and that’s marketers going direct to readers and building their own audiences, cutting publishers out entirely except to rent their traffic and push clicks to their own media.
Forbes has taken its share of criticism for being one of the first old-school publishers to open up its digital pages to advertorial, but Chief Product Office Lewis D’Vorkin isn’t apologetic. His e-book on the Forbes.com editorial/advertising model is a convincing argument against the old church/state Chinese wall model of advertising-supported but segregated-independent-objctive journalism. In his treatise, D’Vorkin goes right after the old-school editorial purists and essentially wishes them good luck as they slowly starve to death while the old interruption model of advertising further withers under the impact of AdBlocker and Tivo-ad skipper technologies.

The Times article cites one dissenter, Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic: “I am aghast at this…Your average reader isn’t interested in that. They don’t realize they are being fed corporate propaganda.”
Average reader? At least they’re reading and not rotting their brains with a diet of Bravo staged-reality shows about Real Wives and Hoarders. Getting into the sanctimonious mosh pit of editorial objectivity and journalism ethics is to enter into a surreal religious war on a pointless par with the dyophysite controversies of the fifth century: no one cared except the patriarchs and metropolitans but nevertheless wars were waged and people died.
The Internet Advertising Bureau and the Magazine Publishers Association have long been setting down the rules for making it clear to readers what is pure and impure. Putting tinted boxes around marketing content, sticking the word “Advertisement” atop the headline …. I ran into this issue as early as 1996 when Forbes.com sold daily content sponsorships and gave the advertisers a tall vertical unit we invented called the “Skyscraper.” The smarter sponsors used the space to run a story as opposed to an animated Punch-The-Monkey ad, and before long we had to revise our terms and conditions to ghettoize the more egregious offenders with the scarlet letter of “Advertising.”  Digital advertising models have long looked for the online equivalent of the little word “Advertorial” that magazines used to segregate special sections bought by the Economic Development Commission of Mississippi (“A State To Grow In!”) away from the serious, independent stuff. Now even Google News is trying to keep the sponsored stuff out of its pages.
I think the Times missed the bigger trend: marketers going direct to their prospective buyers by becoming their own publishers, producing their own media and using professional editorial placements only to rent names, just as marketers have been renting circulation lists for decades to drive their direct mail campaigns. Here’s some early manifestations and enablers of the Marketer-As-Publisher trend:
Corporate-in-house produced newsrooms: Ever since corporate websites became de rigeur in the 90s, corporate communications has always carved out a loney section of the brand’s main website to post press releases, executive bios, and the usual investor relations information. Now some are going right into the business of publishing stories – not the usual releases for the press, but content for the customers – under the rubric of corporate newsrooms. Best example I can think of is what Intel has been doing for years with its newsroom at newsroom.intel.com. Cisco also has a newsroom. These are being used as white paper libraries, curated collections of relevant industry news links, and original daily news and commentary, all backed up by some form of community/social participation function.
Branded partner produced content: these are sites produced in partnership with a media company. Intel is in a partnership with Vice.com called The Creators Project. Red Bull is also into it this sort of advertainment.
Online “magazines”: these are the digital evolution of the type of print product that companies such as IBM or the Four Seasons Hotel chain would hire Forbes Custom Publishing to produce and distribute to their customers. Now the digital version  of “vanity” magazines live under their own domain identity (vs. being an extension of the core brand’s domain like the Intel newsroom) Now they produce them with their own editorial staff. A great example is Adobe/Omniture’s CMO.com:
Talent: A lot of inexpensive and talented business and B2B editorial talent displaced by the digital disruption in the their former newsrooms is available with some prominent tech talent crossing over to corporate gigs – and not in the usual PR/flak capacity but as corporate staff writers and editors. From the highest end of the mastheads with people like Fortune’s Rik Kirkland going to McKinsey a few years ago to edit the McKinsey Quarterly and oversee the firm’s editorial strategy to Steve Hamm, formerly of Businessweek, going to IBM to become a communications strategist, or Dan Lyons leaving Read, Write Web, Forbes, and the Daily Beast to join Cambridge digital marketing startup HubSpot…. the talent is out there looking for some relief from the churn and chaos of the traditional press and the sweatshop conditions of the blog networks.
Cheap tools: web development used to involve a lot of enterprise software licenses for content management, analytics, etc. Say goodbye to Vignette and Interwoven and hello to WordPress and Drupal. If the tools are good enough for AllThingsD and The Economist, then they are good enough to a corporate content marketing site. And they have the added appeal of being cloud/SAAS based so the more daring marketers can side-step the corporate web mafia and the CIO’s office with their brown-suited procurement standards and office of project management  and start publishing immediately.
Drivers: in closing, what’s driving chief marketing officers, heads of corporate communications, and digital marketers to launch their own editorial efforts?

First – developing an audience of loyal readers is no different that developing and attracting the attention of prospective customers and building loyalty among existing ones. Corporate content is about going direct to the right audience and cutting out the editorial middle-man.

Second – digital marketing is all about the content that a marketer pushes through the distribution channels available. YouTube for corporate video. Tweets, Facebook pages … this stuff demands a steady supply of fresh content and getting that content from an agency or third-party is like trying to perform surgery in a haz mat suit with robotic arms. Why depend on a third party when you can own the capability internally.

Third – agility. Corporate publishing is about reacting, not just to opportunities like tweeting about random blackouts during the Superbowl, but to crisis communications when every second counts. When your offshore oil platform catches on fire, the world isn’t going to the New York Times for your mea culpa and updates, it’s hammering on BP.com. (I’ll get into “dark site” production in a future post.)

So what? I think the immediate impact of corporate content isn’t journalistic ethics but the challenge it places on the professional service firms that  feed clients with editorial services. Namely the PR firms writing releases, CEO speeches, white papers, etc. and the digital agencies that build custom microsites and other digital initiatives for marketers unstaffed to handle the challenge of staying technically adept. And finally– the traditional and not-so-traditional “objective” press. They will either produce the content as a service to the corporate advertiser or see their former editors and reporters get hired away to do it under the more stable umbrella of a big organization with deep pockets. That the press is now selling the opportunity to publish corporate content next to their own reporting is a foregone conclusion. Hand wringing and saying one is ethically “aghast” is the personification of the cliché, “pride goeth before the fall.”

The Flipboard 2.0 Vanity Press

I’ve been digging into the market for custom publishing services for digital marketers, and hence have been focused on content management systems, distribution models, and other production tools to rapidly build and nuture a custom “magazine.”

The Monthly MeconiumIntroducing my testbed for Flipboard’s new publishing tool: The Monthly Meconium (the name is a long story involving my penchant for weird words, one of which was turned back on me in 1981 when I was a bartender and given the nickname of “Mec” after sharing the definition of “meconium” with the day shift), a fitting title for a first effort at something that is destined to be flushed away.

The tool is a clipping service. One drags a “Flip It” applet into the Chrome toolbar and when you’re on some content worth sharing, you hit the little “+ flip it” button, add a little commentary, and it’s added to your personal FlipBoard magazine.

Flipboard, if you’ve been sleeping under a rock, is the amazing graphical, touch-friendly feed aggregator that takes all of your social feeds — Twitter, Facebook, Google +, YouTube, and Flipboard specific titles from publishers like GigaOm and AllThingsD — and brings them together in what has quickly become my favorite browsing app on my smartphone and my tablet.

There’s a bit of a Tumblr/Pinterest feeling to the whole experience. This isn’t a content creation tool as much as a curation took. Sort of a cooler updated version of a paper.li custom newspaper for a swiping, touch enabled experience.

I have no idea how to subscribe to The Monthly Meconium. I’ve been messing around with Flipboard trying to find my freshly launched effort, but nothing brings it up. I’m assuming it needs to be crawled, indexed, reviewed, and then listed by the Flipboard crew.

This should be standard fare for any reporter trying to build traffic to their stuff or for any digital marketing trying to build an audience to their brand’s content.

When I actually figure out how to subscribe I’ll up this post. In the meantime I’ll try to get more adept at the techniques and actually use it to share stuff of interest.

Update: Flipboard 2.0 is only available for Apple’s iOS – an Android version is coming, so I can’t even read my own creation. Nice to see Paid Content agrees with my opinion that this should cause a severe case of incontinence for publishers.

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