Chris Krewson

The failure of journalism around Penn State (not where you might think)

Posted in Newspaper by ckrewson on November 14, 2011

Over the weekend, I saw several variations on a theme that goes something like this: Was the media responsible for the Penn State Board of Trustees’ abrupt firing of Joe Paterno?

Initially my answer was “no way.”

I don’t believe the Board of Trustees read the Patriot News’s front-page editorial and decided at once to fire both University President Graham Spanier and Paterno. If anything, this weekend story by The New York Times seems to say Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett applied pressure on the University – he’d lost confidence in their leadership. When the story first broke nationally two weekends ago, I’d assumed both Paterno and Spanier would step down or be forced out in a matter of days, certainly before the next televised football game.

Full disclosure – before starting my gig at Variety, I spent a decade working in newsrooms across Pennsylvania. The earliest part of that tenure was as a cops and courts reporter for the Centre Daily Times, so I have some experience with the people and places that have transfixed the nation for the past week. I spent almost eight years at The (Allentown) Morning Call before a couple of years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Many of my friends and former colleagues have done yeoman’s work covering this huge story. I don’t mean to criticize any one person directly.

But I am beginning to think the media bears some responsibility for the way this mess has borne out, though not because of the reporting immediately following the Grand Jury’s 23-page indictment. My critique starts months earlier, in March of this year.

That was the month that Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim – justly earning praise these days from media cogniscenti first wrote what she said she’d been hearing for years: A grand jury was investigating former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in connection with the sexual abuse of a young boy on campus. Ganim’s first story, and the editor’s note that ran with it, are prescient. While the grand jury report was ultimately more damning and contained the stories and sordid details of more alleged victims, the initial word (and the sensitivity with which the Patriot-News reported it) was pretty spot on.

This should have provoked a firestorm.

Newspapers and televisions stations across Pennsylvania – the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sports talk radio in Philly and Pittsburgh – should have piled on, the former assigning investigative teams to start their own digging, the latter keeping focus on this impending report. At the very least, the state Associated Press should have sent the story out on its wire and assigned resources to look into it. ESPN would have noted the fuss, as would Fox Sports, Deadspin, The Big Lead and the rest of the sports media world.

*Update: I’ve received word that the AP did, indeed, move the story on its state wire – why subscribers across the state failed to pick it up remains a mystery.

That scrutiny might have caused Penn State’s Board to sit up and pay attention, and start asking hard questions of Spanier, perhaps spurring them to start their own probe. Conversations with both the University President and Paterno would have happened outside the frame of football season – more importantly, over the summer, when there are far fewer students in State College.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Instead, all I could find following Ganim’s initial story was one column in the Beaver County Times a month later.

Then, silence. For seven more months, silence.

Why?

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HuffPo vs. The Daily Beast: Leaning forward, leaning back

Posted in iPad, Newspaper, Online video, TV by ckrewson on May 6, 2011

Tina Brown versus Arianna Huffington! It’s tempting to put these two editors in the equivalent of a cage match, as the NYT Mag’s profile of the former implies today:

Ideally, The Beast would mimic the success of The Huffington Post, the Web site that Brown’s friend Arianna Huffington hawked to AOL for $315 million in February. But HuffPo has what The Beast lacks: a tribal identity, one that draws 31 million monthly visitors. With the Newsweek deal, Diller and Brown tethered The Beast to a print landmass — albeit a fairly scorched one — and avoided having to answer the inevitable question of whether The Beast by itself could ever be a viable business.

… but it’s not that simple.

HuffPo is very much like a national newspaper’s Web site (albeit much heavier on the free contributors and aggregation), featuring SEO-optimized headlines, masses of unruly commenters and big, bold story play. I’d wager its traffic follows the normal newspaper com curve – up at 9 AM EST, up again at noon (when the West Coast starts logging on and logging in), down significantly once everyone leaves the office. And that’s the Big Truth about newspaper.coms. People come to them during the workday, when they’re supposed to be, you know… WORKING. So every minute spent commenting on a political story, browsing sites for that “breaking news” headline, looking at photos, etc. is time spent away from full-time jobs. And if you look at the most-viewed lists on these sites, you’ll see just how people are spending this time away from their jobs. This is why time-on-site metrics are dismal so many places; the average amount of time a user spends on these sites is measured in the low minutes.

Its users are in “lean forward” mode. The audience is on the hunt for something. They visit, either through the front door of the homepage or a side door (Google, social media), and they’re gone. We try to keep them around with related stories, if-you-liked-that-you’ll-love-this personalization, or the page-view goldmines that are photo galleries… but they’re after, likely, one thing. And then they’re gone:

The average news reader spends little time on newspaper-owned sites, from a 20 minutes a month or so on the New York Times site to eight to 12 minutes on most local newspaper sites. That’s minutes per month. Those numbers, as tracked by Nielsen and reported monthly by Editor and Publisher, are steady at best, showing, in fact, some recent decline. They are, literally, stuck in time.

The Daily Beast, I think, is after something else. Its stories are longer, its design cleaner and less cluttered. It’s meant to be more of a lean-back experience. That’s an awkward fit in the lean-forward Web world, on the PC your employer is paying for… but on the iPad or tablet, the perfect lean-back medium? It’s something else entirely. Last year, something interesting emerged – traffic coming to Web sites over weekends via iPad wasn’t “normal.” It wasn’t lower – it was HIGHER.

Why is this important?

The iPad is starting to eat into usage of PCs at home. Sales of the iPad are growing by leaps and bounds. Usage of video – another Web goldmine, at least from a revenue potential standpoint – is much higher. And where would you rather advertise – on a Web site people visit for a few minutes a day, in the middle of their work? Or at their leisure, when they’re most receptive to receiving every kind of message? (There’s a reason that prime time TV commands high advertising rates.)

HuffPo is bigger; BeastWeek looks to be trying to succeed at a different kind of metric.

Digital journalism in Philly.

Posted in Newspaper by ckrewson on October 14, 2010

I spent two great years working for Bill Marimow at the Philadelphia Inquirer, so – as you’d imagine – it was tough for me to see the news that he’s no longer the editor of that great paper. It’s entirely the prerogative of the new owners to install the editor of their choice, as Bill rightly noted.

When I was hired, Bill was the editor of The Inquirer, Michael Days was the editor of the Philadephia Daily News, and Mark Potts was just beginning his tenure as interim editor of Philly.com – the shared website for both newspapers. In a situation relatively unique to Philly, Bill never oversaw Philly.com, which remains the shared Web site of both newspapers. Its staff did not report to him, and he could not influence things like story play, headlines, etc.

Situations like this are tough. They’re made more tough when – over objections from many inside the building, including Bill, Mark and yours truly – the staff of Philly.com relocated to an office space half a mile away. (The new regime is rightly moving Philly.com back into the Inquirer and Daily News building.)

A second note – we’re talking about digital journalism in a place that published using incredibly outdated equipment, which quickly had to adopt to a standalone site after McClatchy bought, then disassembled, Knight Ridder. When then-candidate Barack Obama visited the Inquirer newsroom before the 2008 election, he turned, surveyed the bulky monitors cluttering desks, and said “Geez, where do you guys keep the Commodore 64s?”

But it’s lazy shorthand to say Bill was “not digital enough.” Bill hired me to help The Inquirer be more digital, and I’m proud of my time there. For that time, Bill’s record for digital journalism is also my record of digital journalism, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished.

An example: For the primary election between Obama and Hillary Clinton, we turned to a blog, and – in this case – reporters and editors for The Inquirer and the Daily News contributed election items from around the city and around the state. (You can read more about that effort here.) We would post a news item from a location on the city, and minutes later watch CNN or MSNBC reporting live from the scene of our blog post. That was heady stuff, and the audience responded, with tens of thousands of views to the blog during its peak hours.

Months later we provided the same type of coverage when the Phillies won the World Series (and caused minor mayhem in the city), and when Obama won the general election. Both caused spontaneous parades past the newspaper’s headquarters on North Broad Street. Users found more up-to-date coverage of those events on our website than any other source provided.

Another example:  The liveblog of the corruption trial of a former State Senator, Vincent J. Fumo. Liveblogging the trial was Bill’s idea, and for months, a reporter functioned almost stenographically, posting action from the courtroom as it happened. When the verdict came in, that liveblog provided the only real-time way for newshounds to follow guilty count after guilty count. Thanks to his iPhone, intrepid reporter Bob Moran was able to keep updating users through Twitter through the inevitable reception problems the day the verdict came down.

It was such an essential resource that a local TV station ripped and read from the liveblog on the air:

We also launched several groundbreaking interactive projects: A stunning site showing off the revamped Please Touch Museum, and projects that showcased investigations, as well.  The projects drew audience, and garnered awards. One is a finalist for an Online Journalism Award this year.

One of the last things I did before leaving was launch a Web site aimed at college students, called Student Union 34.  Now defunct, the site was updated by students at St. Joseph’s, Temple, Penn and Penn State, and was sponsored at launch by Comcast. The New York Times liked the idea enough to blog about it.

There are many more examples – it was a busy two years! – but I’m proud of the digital journalism we accomplished.

We did not do it in a vacuum. Many reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, Web producers, developers, IT staff and many more worked very hard on these and many, many other efforts – efforts done on a shoestring budget, for a broke and then bankrupt business.

It’s not the whole truth to say Bill Marimow wasn’t digital enough. In Philadelphia, he never got that chance.

The Daily Bugle, on the iPad

Posted in iPad, Newspaper by ckrewson on September 2, 2010

Rupert Murdoch made headlines when he announced a plan for an iPad-only newspaper. This week came the name: The Daily Planet. So the newspaper that employed Perry White, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Clark Kent is the inspiration for the new breed of daily electronic news outlets.

Well, let’s take that a step further. It’s – at least in the Superman comics I’ve read – a serious, sober broadsheet. In Bryan Singer’s movie, at least, it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner. Presumably it’s won them before. So the model, it would seem, is a New York Times / Wall Street Journal-style outfit.

What if we took another approach, from the pages of another comic book, and presented a competitor? The Planet is a broadsheet; let’s go tabloid. The Planet is text-heavy; let’s go big on photos. The Planet is a prizewinner; let’s be the voice of the people.

Let’s put the Daily Bugle on the iPad.

Offer suggestions and follow along as we test the idea here.

(Yes, this is coming from the guy who uses this as his Twitter avatar. That’s the inspiration here. Wouldn’t it be fun, though?)