Posts from March 2009

Visiting yesterday’s innovators in Toronto

I was thrilled to be in the storefront studio of CityTV yesterday because I’ve long admired its innovations in local TV and news. Back in 1993, I worked on a plan for a local cable news channel (it was ruined by the cable people) and was inspired by CityTV to propose a storefront studio of a different sort – in a mall – and cameras all around the market to capture video of the people.

Moses Znaimer, the visionary who created CityTV, sold out and left long ago. Now City is just a tenant in its old building, which has been taken over by a competitor, and soon it will move off of once-hip Queen Street. Back in the day, the entire building and the sidewalk in front were CityTV’s studio for its incredibly diverse – far more than the loaves of white bread that populate American TV – and terribly hip and young staff. This, too, was show biz, but it was less packaged and plastic than the TV I was used to, the TV we still have. Broadcast professionals – what a deadly title – sniffed at Znaimer when he made his TV because he broke all their rules. But later those TV people stole many of his ideas and his TV lives on and it’s still popular.

At the building, I was saddened to see the Speakers Corner video booth that had inspired me to suggest cameras everywhere was gone. People used to go in there, drop a dollar in the slot, and make videos that the station used on air: proposals, jokes, songs, political statements, rants, anything. It gave the pop a vox and I loved it. Now it is a blank metal wall.

speakers corner gone

But then I realized that the Speakers Corner, too, has been obsoleted by the internet. On YouTube, we all have our booths now, eh? We’re all breaking the tired conventions of television professionals.

I got to hang out in the studio with the crew, who regaled me with stories of the glory days. It turns out, you didn’t have to put a coin in the slot to turn on the Speakers Corner camera; it was always on. And it captured, well, lots of life – much of it on a tape that’s still hanging around somewhere, they say. One of the guys told me the booth would have to get one helluva good scrubbing before he’d go in.

Someone else told me about working at a radio station where a reporter who’d fallen out of favor was assigned to the traffic copter even though he was deathly afraid of flying. He shouted Ohmygod! a lot. Oh, for WKRP.

I enjoyed their nostalgia. It reminded me of conversations I’ve been having with newspaper people about their good old days, which they know won’t return. Yesterday, I also shared my own story from the day with Toronto newspaper people: the strangest job interview of my career.

My wife and I have long loved Toronto and we tried to move there a few times. On our last attempt, I was offered a job to redo the weekend edition of the then free-standing Financial Post. In the process, I had two interviews with Doug Creighton, the legendary founder of the Sun newspapers who then also ran the FP. The morning interview was a delight. I was to go back for the afternoon. “Oh, no,” people at the paper said, “not the afternoon.” Mr. Creighton had the classic newsman’s lunch, you see. It was worse than that: The lunches tended to go on all afternoon and I didn’t meet him until dinnertime – in a dark, velvet-walled old steakhouse – and more than once, he fell asleep. I still hope it was the scotch, not me. The folks in Toronto love the story because they also loved him.

When Creighton’s paper, the Telegram, folded in 19tk, he stood on the desk and led staff from it to the offices of the new paper he was founding, the Sun. It was a bad-ass tab in a staid media market that also sniffed at him and for quite some time, it was a roaring success, expanding to other cities across Canada. Creighton was ousted from the company and he died bitter about it. Today, journalists in the city told me, the Sun is in trouble, beaten down by free tabs.

The point of this is not to lament good days gone. It’s to focus on how two innovators, Znaimer and Creighton, in their time had the balls to walk down the street, break old conventions, compete with sacred cows, invent something new, and find success for a very long time. What we need today is not nostalgia about their exploits. We need more Znaimers and Creightons.

And we have them. Look at the web. It’s thick with Moses and Dougs who don’t give a damn if the old media professionals sniff at them.

Newspaper with and for breakfast

That’s it: Newspapers’ salvation! Make them edible! More value! No recycling! Fiber for everyone!

No really: An ink company is trying to push newspapers to distribute ads you can taste.

Reinvention, not rescue

I doubt it will get very far, but there’s another well-meaning but ultimately dangerous attempt to provide a government rescue for newspapers: a bill to enable papers to switch to not-for-profit, tax-free status from Sen. Benjamin Cardin. “A Cardin spokesman said the bill had yet to attract any co-sponsors, but had sparked plenty of interest within the media.” Yeah, I’ll bet. It’s doubtful that taxpayers will want to help bail out newspapers, too.

The obvious danger is government certifying what is and isn’t news and who does and doesn’t do it. Should my blog get to be a tax-free, not-for-profit enterprise? Who gets certified? Further, Cardin’s proposal also would forbid papers as charities from endorsing political candidates. That takes more voices out of the democracy. Not good.

But the real danger here is that these rescue attempts delay the inevitable. The sooner that papers reinvent themselves for the new age, the better. If this delays that inevitability, papers will only languish in the past and others will come and overtake them.

This is the problem, too, with the auto bailout and even the banking bailout. We are bailing out the past, not the future. We are forestalling the need to change. Change isn’t easy. It’s hard on people. It’s destructive. It will leave voids and vacuums. But it is inevitable. The smart thing to do today is to run to the change, seek it out, find the opportunities in it, deal with the hard problems it brings instead of avoiding them.

Abooot Google

Reminder: I’ll be speaking at the Rotman business school in Toronto – a favorite city of mine – tomorrow, March 25, starting at 5p. The fee includes a copy of What Would Google Do?. Autographs are free.

: Here‘s a story from today’s Toronto Star.

Ann Arbor News to close, replaced by AnnArbor.com

The Ann Arbor News announced today that it will close in July and will be replaced by a new company and site, AnnArbor.com. (Disclosures: I have been advising the project and used to work for Advance, the parent company.) From the publisher’s letter:

This is a difficult day for all of us at The Ann Arbor News. I’ve announced to my colleagues here that we will publish our last edition in July, when a new company called AnnArbor.com LLC will begin sharing local news and information with the community.

I don’t have to tell you what a special and unique place Ann Arbor is; we get to embrace and experience our community’s vibrancy daily. Our company knows that, too, and has chosen our special city to use as a laboratory to create new ways to share local news and information. Our owners have decided to continue to invest significantly in our market, and will be starting a new online media company to better service our tech-savvy readers and advertisers.

In July, AnnArbor.com will be born as an incredible community resource online, in print and around town. Like Ann Arbor, it will be a special place for everyone in the community to learn about, participate in and share everything that’s going on in our area.

We have shared with you before in our pages the extreme challenges that our industry and our newspaper have faced over the last couple years. Out of those challenges has come a new opportunity. Our new strategy reflects shifting media consumption habits and advertising revenue in the newspaper business, and particularly in Michigan.

As we say hello to AnnArbor.com, we will say good-bye to The Ann Arbor News. . . .

We’ll be building our new product from ground up in Ann Arbor, and we’re excited to work with you to help shape the design and features that will best serve our community and advertisers.

While we are inviting current Ann Arbor News employees to apply for positions with the new company, it is with a heavy heart that I let you know that job losses will be unavoidable. We have an extremely talented staff at The Ann Arbor News and they have done a tremendous job through very difficult times. There is nothing they did or didn’t do that would have sustained our seven-day print business model. . . .

We hope you will embrace this change with us and help us along this journey to shape our new online media company.

They are holding community meetings starting in April to do that. I’ll talk more about the project as its proceeds.