Friday Photo: The Wallace Line Edition

The Wallace Line
Printers Row journal with The Wallace Line standalone supplement.

There is a special thrill to seeing your name in print that electrons will never be able to replace. Books and newspapers are physical objects. They are permanent. And they exist in the real world, not the virtual one.

Which is why I was delighted to get this awesome package in the mail. It’s my short story, The Wallace Line, which was printed as a standalone booklet in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row. My tale of a trip to Komodo that goes horribly wrong was a finalist for the 2013 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction.

And my name above the fold in Printers Row! That was a wonderful surprise that I will cherish for years to come.

What Jeff Bezos Should Do Now

The winter of the Washington Post’s discontent.

Congratulations, Jeff Bezos, you just bought yourself a newspaper.

Even the most stalwart defenders of The Washington Post would agree that the current business model is untenable. It was high-minded journalism made possible thanks to the generous support of low-brow classifieds. Garage sale ads paid for Woodward and Bernstein.

But Craigslist stole that income stream years ago. Newspapers thought they were better than that. They were wrong.

For a while, the paper made do with support from its test-preparation service and other dubious schemes while it flailed about for a winning strategy.

It never found it. Print subscribers deserted the paper and digital ads never amounted to much. The Post used to be the paper of record, augustly informing the imperial capital what was news and what wasn’t.

Those days are over, and thank god. Instead, readers have the power. We decide what’s important.

Still, a city needs a newspaper, right? Wrong – we need journalism. It doesn’t matter whether it’s paper or electrons, tweeted or printed, we need the old-fashioned work of writers, editors and photographers.

Bezos buying WaPo is an endorsement of that view. He bought journalism, with an eye for reinventing it like he reinvented online shopping and book publishing.

What should he do? As a DC resident, long-time reader of the Post and freelance writer, I’ve got some ideas:

lost and found
How brilliant is this?

1. Create a weekend edition of the Express

Reading the Washington Post Express is a daily routine for tens of thousands of Washington commuters. We get up, pick up a copy of this free paper, and then read it while we’re stuck in the Metro. We’re literally a captive audience, stuck underground, as we endure the latest Metro calamity.

But it’s a Monday-Friday paper and underutilized asset. I suggest creating a weekend edition, targeted to a different audience – tourists and people coming into the city for the weekend. Make it a fun guide to the weekend’s events, something that people can take with them.

And include a map in each issue, to help people navigate Washington’s yuppie delights.

2. Double the pay of Express distributors

Rain or shine, you can find a friendly face handing out copies of the Express every weekday morning at Metro stations. With a stack of papers and a hearty hello, they are Washington Post brand ambassadors – and deserve to be paid accordingly.

Double their pay as a goodwill gesture. Reward the face of your brand. Doing so will address the accusation that Amazon is anti-worker. Also, these brand ambassadors might just solve the last-mile problem. If they can hand out papers, they can hand out other things as well.

3. Fire Ezra Klein

No one embodies the mediocre state of the news like Ezra Klein. A reliable stenographer for Washington’s elite class, he is a journolist who got caught trying to fix news coverage. He and his cohorts sought to deny the rest of us the truth.

Straddling the line between reportage and advocacy, he exists in the chummy East Coast world of liberal groupthink, where Washington insiders pass seamlessly between politics, media and government.

Let him pursue his inevitable destiny, as a lead-in for hoaxer Al Sharpton or as a particularly mendacious Obama press secretary.

4. Hire Glenn Greenwald

With his NSA exposes, Greenwald is a true muckraker who lives up to the crusading ideals that the Washington Post was once known for (where was the paper, BTW?). Greenwald risks Gitmo to get the story. He believes in something and is willing to put his life on the line to cover it – how many DC reporters  would do the same?

He’s prickly, and an asshole, but isn’t that what you want a journalist to be?

5. Kill the paywall… forever

The paywall is twenty years too late. News has escaped its bounds and can now be found everywhere. Why pay for something I can get for free?

And like many of the Post’s digital initiatives, the paywall is a sloppy, second-best effort full of holes and loopholes. Work in government – no paywall for you! There are so many exceptions that I wonder who the fool is who actually pays for the paper online.

Kill it. And swear that it will never return. Like Facebook, promise that the Washington Post will always be free online.

The Washington Post has been a part of my whole adult life. I read it in college between classes. Coming home late at night, I used to see the trucks lined up outside the building on 15th St, ready to deliver papers to the Washington region. Seeing my first article published in the paper was a special thrill.

I’m also an Amazon fan and a supporter of the Internet revolution. I’ve self-published two novels with Amazon. I own (and love) a Kindle Paperwhite. I work on web sites for a living.

Jeff Bezos, I wish you luck. With your customer-centric philosophy and history of innovation, you’re just the man to figure out how to make the news survive as a business. Newspapers may no longer be printed on dead trees but journalism must endure.

Washington Post, What Happened to You?

Washington Post, what happened to you? You’re the paper of Woodward and Bernstein, a beloved local institution and a veritable fourth branch of government.

Coming home after a Saturday night carousing, I used to love to see the trucks lined up outside your building on 15th Street. Back then (the 90s), the paper was printed right next to the Post’s HQ. Blue trucks would be double-parked along the street, waiting to deliver the news to the region.

And if I stayed out late enough, I could pick up the fat slab of Sunday’s paper while it was still technically Saturday night. There was a weird thrill to this, getting the news ahead of everyone else. The Sunday paper was an event, something everyone read.

This is all gone now. Where once stories were reported, fact-checked, edited and edited again before the presses rolled, news these days emerges in electronic form, often-rushed and incomplete. This is a good thing. I am for more news, more information, for the great cornucopia of the web. No more gatekeepers, let the public decide what matters.

But the Washington Post is an institution. It is a brand expressing journalistic quality and integrity. When they publish something, I expect it to be true.

I don’t expect the Washington Post to be running a digital sweatshop, where young journalists are expected to churn out regurgitated news items in the mad pursuit of impossible traffic goals.

How does this fit into the great tradition of the Post? The strength of the paper is its ability to really delve into issues. Why are they trying to be like some smarmy blog?

And getting a few hits on your site – what is that really winning you? Traffic rushes in to click on a link and then rushes off to some other site.

At the What’s Next DC conference, I watched Katharine Zaleski, the paper’s digital news director, give a presentation on the strategy. Coming from the Huffington Post, she brought a relentless focus on metrics. News was to be measured. And the measurement was site traffic. She had charts showing how traffic to the site had increased as the Post increased its “buzziness,” with efforts like news aggregation and blogging.

Does the Washington Post really want to emulate The Huffington Post? Do they want to “surf the trend waves on the Internet”? Shouldn’t the paper be making waves rather than trying to catch them?

And are ephemeral bursts of web traffic the right metric to follow? If so, why not just turn your site over to cat videos? But the Post is more than that, isn’t it?

Stay true to your mission – quality journalism. It’s what you do best. Stop trying to be cool. Don’t go for viral. Avoid “buzziness” and all its advocates.

Instead, simplify. Be the Apple of newspapers. Don’t add more web gimmickry to your cluttered and unusable web site. Focus on what you do best.

Don’t measure web hits – look at engagement. How long do people stay on the site? How many stories do they read? Try to duplicate the loyalty readers once felt toward the paper that they lovingly held in their hands. Better to have 100,000 devoted readers than a million casual followers.

No more second-rate social media. It’s beneath you, Washington Post. Simplify, focus on your strengths and pursue engagement with readers to be true to your news-breaking legacy.

The Disintermediation Moment

With the advent of the Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader and the growing acceptance of e-books among readers and writers, it’s safe to say that we’ve reached what I’d call the Disintermediation Moment. This is the time when industries collapse, driven by changes in consumer behavior and expectations. Technology offers new solutions, eagerly adopted by ordinary people, but resisted by middlemen and gatekeepers who want to retain their status, control and income. Continue reading “The Disintermediation Moment”

Clay Shirky on the End of Newspapers

Like it or not, newspapers are going away. Printing day-old news on dead trees and then shipping the results to subscribers by gas-burning trucks seems antiquated and inefficient, a process that has become obsolete in our lifetimes.

I love newspapers. One of things I like about living in DC is the heft of the Washington Post. Weight seems to connotate authority, a “real” newspaper for a real city, so different from the flimsy papers of smaller towns. However, that distinction is changing as the Post eliminates sections and physically shrinks while raising the newsstand price. Continue reading “Clay Shirky on the End of Newspapers”

No More Washington Post Book World?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that one of life’s joys is to sit down with a good newspaper.  Though I’m someone who’s spent a career working on web sites, there’s some really special about a quiet morning with a paper.  And some coffee.

A newspaper is easier on the eyes than a glowing screen.  It also offers the chance of serendipity, of stumbling upon some article you never would’ve read, just because you have to turn pages to find the article you’re looking for.  A newspaper is also mostly distraction-free (no videos blaring, no animating ads) which, IMHO, makes reading an article in print a richer and more rewarding experience.  Things I really want to absorb, I need to see on paper.  

Today comes the news (ironically, from The New York Times), that the Washington Post is ending Book World, its Sunday books supplement.  Economic reasons are cited.  I find this hard to believe.  Washington is one of the most literate cities in the country, filled with readers, and writers, too.  Hop on the Metro, visit a coffee shop, stroll through a park and you’ll find scores of people lost in good books.  The city is home to excellent and popular bookstores, like Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose.  With the wide range of books that people in DC read, there’s got to be a need for book reviews. Continue reading “No More Washington Post Book World?”