Saturday, January 28, 2012

Listen to your Readers

Every newspaper I've been affiliated with, at some point, had some sort of reader rant line. In Manteca, we called it "Tell it to the Bulletin." In Turlock and Merced, it was "The Red Phone." The idea was that readers could call a phone number and leave a voice recording, and eventually that recording would be reviewed and transcribed for the print edition. You can imagine, in the days before web sites and anonymous story comments, it was one of our more popular features.

A couple of years ago, we tried a web version of it on We called it "The Squawk Box."   We used a now-defunct service called PhoneBlogz to set up a telephone line that dumped mp3 files directly into our content management system, which were publicly accessible once I had a chance to screen the calls for vulgarity and slander. At the height of its popularity, The Squawk Box was receiving dozens of calls each week.

It was never a huge traffic driver, but it did generate a loyal audience. I liked that readers were able to respond to each audio message on the site using the Sun-Star's commenting system. If I had to do it again, I'd probably incorporate some sort of transcribe setting, similar to LiveJournal's "Voice Post" options. I'd also reverse-publish the best comments into print to give the feature maximum exposure among our print and online audiences. A reader of former McClatchy Newspapers VP of News Howard Weaver's blog wasn't so sure this was a good idea, but suggested using the audio clips in some sort of podcast. I like that idea too.

PhoneBlogz ended its service a while back, marking the end of our experiment. Still, there are other services, such as Evoca, which seem to offer similar functions. A free, though more time-consuming, alternative could simply mean setting up voicemail on an unused phone line and using a digital recorder to manually transfer messages to the website.

Let me know if you know of any newspaper or website that has tried an online reader rant line. I'm curious to see how it'd play in other markets.

Using Caspio's Searchable Databases for Newsy Stories, Big Web Traffic Boosts

Caspio's databases are great if you're hoping to immediately and drastically raise page views on your news website. There's a bit of a learning curve, but once you've figured out how to turn an Excel spreadsheet into a searchable database, you'll see instant results. And here's the cool thing -- a lot of times those databases can turn into pretty good news stories, so this isn't simply a traffic play.

An example: About six months ago I sent a public records request to the Merced County Library, asking for an Excel document showing the names and amounts associated with all outstanding library fines in the county. The library had some privacy concerns, of course, but once the lawyers determined this information did, in fact, constitute a public record, the Excel spreadsheet was emailed to me and it took 10 or 15 minutes to massage that data into a searchable database. And that's when I discovered that Merced County library patrons owed more than $135,000 in fines and fees and that there was little being done about it.

We've also used Caspio's searchable databases to track the county's home sales, government salaries and Census data. We even had one allowing users to check if the IRS owed them money.

And sometimes, the data is already on the Web in database form. If it's on a government website, it's pretty safe to collect that information and present it as your own -- appropriately attributed, of course. That's what we did with a recent restaurant inspection database. Merced County's environmental health department has a frequently updated public database of restaurant inspection data, so I was able to simply scrape all that information for our news site. My hope is that one day we'll be able to combine the searchable database with user reviews and food content.

You can do a lot more with Caspio if you've got the time and training, but most small operations don't have such luxuries. Fortunately there's so much data out there just waiting to be reported you may never need to worry about adding the bells and whistles. The key is to think about what kind of data is being collected by the agencies you cover and simply file the request. Are school districts tracking absences? Is the local court system keeping data about jury duty? Does the fire department log addresses with false alarms? Chances are there will be some concerns about privacy, but it doesn't hurt to make the request. A denial is the worst that'll happen, and then you'll have to decide if it's worth proceeding through legal channels. One tip: Make sure you ask for specific information. Don't expect the government agencies to volunteer information you didn't request.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More Names, More Faces: A Small Newspaper's Counting Exercise

Local names and faces.  A publisher at a former newspaper couldn't get enough of 'em. Each morning, I counted each name and face that appeared in that day's edition of the paper so I could tell him that, yes, we were hitting whatever number he had determined was appropriate -- I think it was 300.

It sounds ridiculous, but we were counting every name and face that we could find. It didn't matter if it the picture was the mayor's headshot, a crowd of people at a football game or a grainy still taken from security camera footage of a bank robbery -- if I could find two eyes, a nose and a mouth, it counted for the total.

Eventually, I grew to appreciate the exercise because it forced me and the rest of the newsroom to remember that our paper needed to be more than a good read. It had to be locally relevant to our readers.

We made it a point to shoot the Rotary Club fundraiser dinners and elementary school student-of-the-month ceremonies. We loved getting perfect attendance lists and Little League box scores.

It was scrapbook journalism at its scrappiest.

Of course, there's nothing novel about papers that practice such pedestrian reporting. Every small town has one. Or had one, anyway. But I think we found a happy medium. We still found time to cover the big stories. The counting exercise simply made us think harder about how those stories affected our readers. It forced us out of our comfort zones in our reporting as we talked to more people affected by those controversial city council decisions and other front page story staples. Really, it resulted in better and more well-rounded news coverage.

 Start counting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Webcomics Solution for Newspapers

Comics were the first thing to go in 2003 when I was asked to convert the daily Turlock Journal into a twice-weekly publication. The syndicates were too expensive for a small paper's budget, for starters. But even without the cost factor, it just didn't make sense for us. We were attempting to project a new image for the paper, and carrying those stale titles -- Charles Schultz died three years prior but for some reason we were still publishing both Peanuts and Peanuts Classic -- didn't fit our plans for the new version of the Journal. So they got chopped. B.C. was history. Hagar the Horrible was sunk. The Born Loser? Lost.

With the exception of one editorial cartoon on the Journal's Perspectives page, there were no comics in the paper. And it was noticeable. I was haunted by my own conscience, having learned to love newspapers years earlier by reading the comics each morning at my parents' kitchen table. The paper just didn't feel complete without that page of four-paneled irreverency. And of course, readers complained.

Without a budget to pay for new features, I took a chance and dashed off e-mails to two of my favorite web cartoonists at the time: Scott Kurtz of the strip PVP, and Chris Crosby, author of Superosity and founder of the web comics consortium Keenspot. I outlined the Journal's situation, and asked if either would be willing to let my little paper republish their comic strips in some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement. Kurtz, who at the time was supposedly offering his comic for free to whatever newspaper wanted to run it, never responded. Crosby did, months later. Crosby liked the idea of helping out the paper while offering his stable of cartoonists a chance to get published in print. He proposed what eventually became the Keenspot Comics Page, a pre-paginated full page of comic strips offered free to the paper in exchange for a strip of ad space at the top. Likewise, there was a strip available at the bottom of the page for the newspaper to sell its own advertising.

The Keenspot Comcics Page debuted Sept. 25, 2004, with 15 offerings ranging from the clever one-panel "Rumblestrip" to the charming "Count Your Sheep." It was the most innovative comics page to hit newsprint since MediaNews' ANG added color to its dailies a decade earlier. And of course, readers complained.

Where were the comics they grew up with? No Sally Forth? No Wizard of ID? No Garfield? When it comes to comics, I learned readers are creatures of habit who don't handle that kind of shock particularly well. Things settled down after a few editions, and we kept the page running for more than a year.

Even though it was not a success, The Keenspot Comics Page ranks as one of my favorite newspaper experiments -- And I still think there's merit to the idea, even if it didn't work for our little twice-weekly paper.

I don't think the paper's management or advertising staff knew what to do with it. I remember our group publisher at the time describing the page as "a good space filler." That was the first bad sign. Our ad manager was slightly more enthusiastic, and upon the page's debut he had secured four sponsors for the six-column banner at the bottom of the page for $300 a pop. But one by one, those advertisers dropped out and weren't replaced-- and even though the Keenspot features were being offered for free, it was hard to convince the finance people to keep a whole page open when there weren't ads to support it.

Likewise, I know it took a lot of effort from Crosby and the Keenspot crew to put that page together twice a week, and though a few other newspapers also eventually picked up the page, I don't think it ever got near the numbers needed to attract the type of advertisers they were seeking. The Keenspot page suffered from a lack of consistency. Comics would occasionally disappear from print, replaced by new strips with little indication about what happened. While this was probably a good way to give more exposure to the dozens of comic strip artists at Keenspot, it served to irritate many readers, who, as stated earlier, tend to loathe the new and unfamiliar.

To make it work, both sides could have benefited from more flexibility. A couple of size options, for instance, would have made it easier to fit into the paper. It was probably too ambitious to think we could get away with a full page -- print space was at a premium even in 2004. A half page or quarter page would have been easier to budget. Similarly, I think the layout was overwhelming for the Keenspot folks, but offering their comics to newspapers on an a la carte basis would have been easier on everyone -- and perhaps more appealing to other newspapers who wanted to experiment with new comics without devoting an entire page of space to the idea.

I'm still convinced there's potential to Keenspot's newspaper experiment. Perhaps today it work better as branded content on a newspaper website with some kind of revenue-sharing agreement, or as a print insert supported by advertising. I'd love to see somebody make this work -- and laugh all the way to the bank.