Our new paid site was unveiled today. We still have the free site at mysanantonio.com that will offer things like breaking news, entertainment and event calendars. But in-depth stories and other features will now be tucked behind a paywall at Expressnews.com.
I’m not sure how I feel about paywalls on news sites, but I see some upsides. Thanks to the paywall, we don’t have to chase page views, so there’s no link bait or bikini-babe slideshows. There’s no extra cost for print subscribers, which rewards them for buying the newspaper. And the new site looks drop-dead gorgeous. It’s actually a pleasure to read without the distracting flash ads.
This is an interesting strategy. Mysanantonio.com will be free and post potentially viral content, while Expressnews.com will, hopefully, generate revenue from subscribers.
With all the talk about print being dead, you’d think no one actually picks up newspapers anymore to read the archaic things.
Tell that to Elaine Austin Palmer.
Palmer curates the Wesley Peacock House, a historic home built in 1890 near Woodlawn Lake that served as the headquarters of a military academy.
I wrote a brief about the house for the Express-News’ weekly Cityscapes feature. It ran with a photo of the house on the bottom corner of page 2B of the Metro Section — about as hard to find as you can get.
Yet after the little feature was published, the calls started pouring in at the Peacock House.
Palmer emailed me a few days ago and wrote:
For our corner of the paper in the Metro Section, the Peacock House has received over 50 calls, and some still coming in — with the comments ‘How nice to know it’s still in use, I attended the academy, or I remember coming to the House way back when for a tea, etc.!
It’s good to remember the decline of print is primarily an advertising problem, not a readership problem. People still read the newspaper — even itty bitty news briefs.
As corporate honchos try to paint a rosy picture about the New Orleans Times-Picayune downsizing and no longer publishing a daily print edition, I hope this nugget from the newspaper’s editor, Jim Amoss, is more than corporate spin:
Plans call for the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions of The Times-Picayune to be in many ways more robust than each of the daily newspapers is currently. They will contain a richer and deeper news, sports and entertainment report, as well as a full week’s worth of features such as society coverage, puzzles and comics.
One of the problems facing newspapers is that publishing every day is a blessing and a curse. If it’s a slow news day, you still have to go to press. The result: Some days, newspapers really shine. Other days, not so much. Readers have to decide whether that kind of inconsistency is worth the trouble — and money.
So in an ideal world, shedding the demands of the daily news beast could result in print editions that consistently offer substance and depth, while the website would handle breaking news, blogging and everything else a newspaper should be doing online.
I hope that happens. Talented journalists work at the Times-Picayune — it won a Pulitzer Prize for its important coverage of Hurricane Katrina. But the odds don’t look good.
Micheline Maynard looked at what happened to the Ann Arbor, Mich paper that tried the same thing as the Times-Picayune and wasn’t impressed. John McQuaid examined the Times-Picayune’s suddenly very crucial website and found it wanting.
I hope the corporate spin coming out of New Orleans becomes a reality. That city deserve no less.
In the news business, sometimes the worst part about major events is writing about their anniversaries. They arrive year after year with all the predictability and excitement of receiving Christmas fruitcake from your Aunt Helga. There’s usually no new information to offer, and the hapless journalist gets stuck trying to come up with an interesting story.
So I was pleasantly surprised by the Alamo Immortal project published by the San Antonio Express-News, which put a creative twist on the old story of the Battle of the Alamo and its 175h anniversary.
The idea was the brainchild of Dean Lockwood, director of news production at the newspaper. A history buff who knew the big anniversary for the Alamo was coming up, Dean started brainstorming a few months ago about new, original ways to cover the event.
“Sad to say, it’s something that can get a little taken for granted in the media,” Dean told me. “It’s something we cover year after year. You know, the same picture — Dawn at the Alamo.
“We could have gone that route and done the obligatory feature and a couple of other little things and everybody would have been fine with that,” he said. But Dean wanted to try something new, and he brainstormed with art director Adrian Alvarez. (more…)
A great news story tells readers something new about the world in a compelling way. It’s even better if the reporter digs up the story through her own initiative. And it’s even better if the issue is so important or shocking that readers simply can’t put down the paper or — nowadays — their iPad.
Michelle Mondo’s bizarre story about four women who might have been wrongly convicted of molesting two girls certainly qualifies.
Michelle learned of the case when an essay about it was published in April 2009 in Texas Monthly. The author, a Canadian professor named Darrell Otto, had been surfing the Internet and found a 1998 Express-News article about four friends — Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera, Elizabeth Ramirez, and Kristie Mayhugh — who were all serving long prison sentences for a strange crime:
Four young women in that city, acting on their own, had allegedly restrained and, in ritualistic fashion, sexually assaulted two girls, aged seven and nine, over two days. There was no physical evidence tying the women to the assaults, yet the newspaper reported the case against them without a hint of skepticism. It mentioned nothing about mental illness or confessions. Psychology-wise, the only point noted was that the women were lesbians, although academic research clearly shows lesbians are not predisposed to sexually abuse children. I was frustrated by the lack of information.
Otto was convinced the women had been wrongly convicted. Express-News Metro Editor Jaime Stockwell read the essay and asked Michelle to look into the case.
This wasn’t press-release journalism that critics of the media rightly complain about. Michelle spent 18 months on the story, whittling away at it in her spare time as a crime reporter for the Express-News. It wasn’t easy. When I stopped by her desk last week to ask her about it, the beeps and sporadic radio transmissions from the police scanners she was monitoring occasionally interrupted us. Try investigating a possible wrongful conviction when at any moment you have to drop everything and run out to a structure fire.
Michelle stuck with the story. She dug up old court records, tracked down family members, interviewed the convicted women, and waded through “accusations and counter accusations involving different famlies in different states,” she said.
Her findings were published on the newspaper’s front page:
A San Antonio Express-News investigation — including interviews with witnesses and experts and a review of police reports, medical studies and thousands of pages of trial transcripts and other court documents — raises troubling questions about the scientific legitimacy of medical evidence deployed against the women, whether authorities checked a previous rape allegation made by the girls and whether anti-gay views prejudiced Ramirez’s jury.
In two trials, the defense called no witnesses to rebut the testimony of pediatrician Nancy Kellogg, then as now the medical director of Child Safe — at the time, it was called the Alamo Children’s Advocacy Center. But research available when she examined the girls classified the three signs of sexual trauma she found as either normal, inconclusive or impossible to identify as a scar, as she did.
On and off the witness stand, the girls changed their accounts of the timing, weapons, perpetrators and other basic details of the assault every time they told it to authorities, records show.
The girls’ family was mired in conflict before and after the trials, with members making abuse claims in two Texas counties and in another state. It wasn’t the first time the nieces had made a rape outcry.
The trial of Ramirez, held separately from the other women, showcased her sex life, and her jury foreman, a minister, had told attorneys that homosexuality was wrong on religious grounds.
When Michelle interviewed the convicted women for her story, they maintained their innocence — and wondered where the media had been all this time.
“All four of them asked me, ‘Why was I doing the story now?'” Michelle said.
It’s a fair question. Had reporters failed to scrutinize this case in the 1990s when it really mattered?
I checked our news archives. There were about a half dozen stories about the trials, including one with the headline: “Defendants say accusers made up story of assault.” The stories described the crime as a gang rape. I couldn’t really find any in-depth coverage — the articles ran in the Metro section and the longest one I found was about 500 words long. At the time, I had been at the paper for about a year but today I don’t even remember the trials. It looks like the charges were part of the depressing, never-ending stream of twisted child abuse and murder cases in Bexar County that we keep having to write about. Most of the time, those heinous crimes really did happen. Most of the time.
This being Texas, Michelle is doubtful the women will be freed any time soon. But after the story ran, she’s heard from the women and their families. Maybe it’s too little too late, but it means something when a third party like Michelle comes in, spends a lot of time looking at the evidence, and publicly points out inconsistencies in a criminal case that shattered the lives of the defendants.
“For them, it was a very big deal for somebody to point out, ‘Wait a minute, these women aren’t what they were portrayed as,'” Michelle said.
American Journalism Review delved into the declining state of investigative journalism last week with articles and videos that quantified what’s been lost — and what might be gained:
Investigative shortfall: “Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether.”
The nonprofit explosion: Investigative nonprofit news organizations are sprouting up across the country. But there are pitfalls: “Whether carried out by a CEO or a development pro, fundraising is a consuming and never-ending quest at journalism nonprofits, as much a part of their business as advertising sales are to a publisher in the traditional media world. With the task come issues that are foreign to newsgatherers. Precisely what money to take under what conditions requires often thorny ethical decisions. Just because money comes from civic-minded foundations or deep-pocketed do-gooders does not mean it is free of strings or baggage.”
Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic offered a compelling example of the trait that differentiates a blogger or activist from a newspaper reporter:
Or more precisely, getting paid to spend the time to find out what’s really going on in your community.
There are many talented bloggers out there. But the vast majority of them don’t get paid a steady paycheck to go down to City Hall, spend all day at council meetings, scrutinize campaign finance reports, and do all the things you need to do to hold officials accountable.
Friedersdorf contrasted the work of a concerned citizen versus a newspaper reporter in California:
Let’s expound on the difference between Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times reporter, acting as a government watchdog, and Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker, trying to do the same thing. Consider the task of getting the credit card bills that document graft in Lynwood. They are public records: state law mandates that the city turn them over to anyone who asks.
But a newspaper reporter has the time a lampshade maker doesn’t to go down to city hall during business hours; if the City Clerk wants to charge for photocopies, the reporter can expense it to the newspaper, whereas the lampshade maker pays out of pocket; should the City Clerk refuses to hand over the documents, the reporter can have an attorney at the newspaper draft a convincing letter, and write an article in the newspaper hammering the city for breaking the law; should the city clerk dally further, the reporter can have an LA Times attorney sue the city, and write another scathing story; and if the lawsuit drags on, he can stick it out, though that is seldom necessary, because when your legal adversary is correct on the merits, buys ink by the barrel, and cultivates a reputation for sticking things out, you rarely put them to the test.
Miguel Figueroa did far more than most Southern California residents ever would merely by pursuing the matter — it took him two years to get the credit card records. What did he do next? He called Richard Marosi, who launched an investigation, documenting enough abuses to sell his editors on a front page story, and creating enough of a public stir to take on the crooks in Lynwood. What would have happened if there weren’t any LA Times reporter assigned to that beat?
I wrote a story about the dangers of police chases that was published in Sunday’s paper. If you’re a subsciber to the San Antonio Express-News or bought Sunday’s edition, you could read my story. But you can’t read it online — it’s been embargoed for a few days.
I like the Internet. But I like newspapers, too. So I like this new experiment of putting an Internet embargo on a big Sunday story to encourage people to buy the newspaper. It’s actually one of the few innovative ideas generated from our higher-ups. Usually, the only change we hear about in the newsroom is an announcement every once in awhile that there’s going to be some lay offs or a whittling down of the paper, which in turn hurts our quality and gives readers fewer reasons to bother reading our stories.
But I actually like this idea of embargoed stories. It’s about time we give subscribers a reward for sticking with the paper. We’re jacking up rates yet giving away our content online for free, so we really need to give loyal readers a carrot instead of a stick. And it’s not quite the same thing as a pay wall — my entire story about police chases will be posted online in a few days. We’re just saying: If you pay for the paper, you get first dibs.
It’d be nice if we take this experiment to the next level: Give subscribers exclusive online content. When my Sunday story is posted online, it will feature a video of a chase taken from a police helicopter; a map of pursuits in San Antonio; a copy of a pursuit-evaluation report for a chase that killed an innocent bystander; and a link to the raw data we analyzed for the story.
The whole story was based on these primary resources. So if we’re really going to embrace this embargo concept, it’d be cool if we allowed subscribers to go online and check this exclusive content for themselves, before it’s released to the general public.
Maybe non-subscribers would consider signing up for this type of deal and subscribe. Or, for those who don’t want to receive the dead-tree version of the newspaper, we could allow them to pay a reduced price to sign up for online access to the exclusive stories that are published every Sunday.
Like I said, I like the Internet. But I also want to figure out a way to share online content, and reward our loyal subscribers who stick with the newspaper. Maybe this is a good compromise.
Nothing about a physical newspaper inherently makes it better suited for doing great reporting. Print and online are just mediums, and as consumption patterns shift towards online, we should see more of this in the future.
As Yang notes, it’s unclear whether blogs that aren’t affiliated with a newspaper would be eligible to win the prize under the current Pulitzer rules. But putting that issue aside, Yang is right — there’s nothing stopping a blog from producing top-notch journalism. All it has to do is generate enough money to produce top-notch journalism. And there’s the rub.
Fink was paid $33,000 plus $10,000 in expenses for her Kaiser fellowship, according to Steve Engelberg, her editor at ProPublica, where she’s been for 14 months. Engelberg, who was kind enough to go through these figures with me, said, “Fourteen months of salary plus benefits for us easily gets you north of 100 plus, 100, 150 or something.” He threw in another $20,000 to $30,000 for travel expenses, in addition to three months of editing and lawyering at ProPublica and the Times, which also spent $25,000 to $30,000 on photographs, he said.
Those sky-high expenses are simply out of reach for the majority of bloggers who care passionately about their niche, but who blog on a part-time basis, and often for little or no money. That doesn’t mean they can’t produce an interesting, valuable blog. But it does make it exceedingly difficult to devote the time and effort it takes to interview sources, unearth hard-to-find records, overcome legal hurdles, and tell compelling stories. That takes time — and money.
Let’s say you care about local politics and you blog about your local city council. If you’re like most people, you’re blogging as a hobby and you have a full-time job. Right out of the gate, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have the luxury of attending the weekly city council meetings that usually last all day. Not to mention the countless subcommittees that meet every week. And you can’t capitalize on all the time spent hanging out at City Hall, where you meet sources, learn new things, get story ideas and tips, and start really understanding what makes City Hall tick.
Newspapers have traditionally paid the most money in their communities for reporters to pay attention to what’s happening at City Hall. And the police department. And the local utility. And so on. That’s why the slow demise of newspapers worries people like Clay Shirky, who argues it could take a very, very long time until anyone figures out how to consistently produce the kind of expensive, accountability journalism that newspapers funded but are cutting back:
Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.
This YouTube video features Shirky’s entire talk — it’s worth a listen.
Shirky isn’t arguing that we need to save newspapers to preserve journalism — we just need to preserve journalism. And there’s the rub.