Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Future of Newspapers, or Can You Love a Foul Slum?

Many newspapers today are looking for ways to replace the their old business model of advertising and circulation revenue.

The thing that seems most attractive is the membership model.

It's an intriguing idea. People aren't customers any longer, but members.

But what does membership mean?

Newspapers are struggling to find an answer to that question. 

From what I can tell, many are simply taking the old business-customer model and adding a few perks, things like special insider information, e-mails from the editor, access to journalists, or coupons available only to those who join.

This doesn't go far enough. If the membership model is really going to work, newspapers need to re-think their relationship with their readers.

They need to offer something else besides a newspaper, in print or digitally. 

And what is that?

They need to offer something that provides no direct benefit.

Something that is less tangible, that provides an emotional, or even a spiritual, payoff. 

Something that provides a sense of having done the right thing.

Say what? Why would anyone give money for something they don't benefit from?

Actually, it happens all the time. It's called giving to charity.

When people give money to charity, they don't expect to receive something in return.

They give because they want to help others, improve the quality of life on the planet, advance research into a disease, or some other charitable purpose.

They may benefit indirectly because they gave through things like cleaner air, a medical breakthrough for a disease they may get, or fewer people bothering them by panhandling downtown.

But aside from a tax deduction—which for most people is not the driving reason for donating to charity—there is no direct benefit.

People give because it's the right thing to do, and because they believe, or hope, it will make the world a better place.

That, and a feeling of well-being from having done the right thing.

Can something similar work for newspapers?

I think it can.

After all, people already value something intangible made possible through journalism: Democracy.

A survey done earlier this year by Angus Reid found that 94% of Canadians believe journalism is important for the flourishing of democracy.

The New York Times seems to have figured this out.

When they send me e-mails, they don't just offer me X number of days of a subscription for Y number of dollars. 

Instead, they invite me to hold power to account. 

They offer me something real, but intangible, in other words.

They offer to do something on my behalf that I cannot do myself.

And that's the essence of charity. 

If I am moved by the plight of starving people in South Sudan, I give to an NGO that can use my gift to provide them with food.

I will not benefit from this gift. But others will, and I will feel better for it.

Can newspapers take a lesson or two from the philanthropic sector and apply it to their model?

I think they can.

But it will require a change of perspective.

It will require editors and publishers to do what British author and philosopher G. K. Chesterton wrote about over 100 years ago to fix a foul London slum called Pimilco.

Today, Pimlico is a nice place to live. But  back at the turn of the last century it was a vile place. 

Chesterton’s solution was novel.

“The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico,” he said. “To love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.”

If that happened, “then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles,” he wrote.

“If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.”

Some people, he noted, “will say that this is a mere fantasy.”

His answer? “This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great . . . men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

What does this have to do with newspapers?

If we loved our community, then we would want the best for it.

And for a community to be its best, it needs a vibrant and robust local press.

That's why people should become members of a newspaper. Not because they get comics, sports and the crossword, but because it makes their community a better place to live.

In other words, what I might do for starving people a world away I can do for people in my hometown—and, indirectly, myself.

Not because we get something tangible out of it, but because it makes life better for everyone.

In what Christians call the Old Testament, and what Jews call the Tanakh, the story is told in the book of Jeremiah about the people of Israel being taken captive to Babylon.

As it turns out, they will stay there a long time. What should they then do?

Says the prophet Jeremiah: “Pray to the Lord for it,” he said. “Because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

I would say the same thing about local newspapers.

If it prospers, we all prosper.

That's the essence of membership, in my view, at least.

For more information about membership models for journalism, visit the Membership Puzzle Project.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Compassion Collapse," or Why is it so Hard to Help Large Numbers of People who are Suffering?

Hurricane Michael. The Indonesian earthquake and tsunami. Hurricane Florence. Tropical Storm Mangkhut. Hurricane Florence. California and B.C. wildfires.

Not included are other hurricanes, storms and flooding around the world, not to mention the terrible war and famine in Yemen and the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Is it any wonder people today are experiencing what’s called “compassion collapse?”

That’s the term used by Jamal Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory ina recent article in The Atlantic.

Hearing about these disasters, and the numbers of people killed, injured or made homeless can leave people “strangely unmoved,” he writes.

If that’s your experience, he says “you wouldn’t be alone. For decades, social scientists have documented a troubling quirk in human empathy: People tend to care more about the suffering of single individuals, and less about the pain of many people.”

This “compassion collapse” is morally backwards, he suggests.

When many people die, our compassion and sympathy should rise, he says. Instead, it does the opposite; it dries up.

And why is that?

There are several explanations, according to Zaki.

Some psychologists say that it’s due to evolution. We can’t feel compassionate towards so many who are suffering; our brains are hardwired against it.

“Human empathy has been built, over thousands of generations, to respond to certain triggers—for instance, a child’s cry or an anguished face,” he writes.

“A single victim produces these signs of distress, which tug at us and inspire our help. Groups give us statistics, which land flat, triggering little and thus benefiting less from others’ compassion.”

(I wrote about this earlier in a blog post titled WhyYour Brain Wants to Help One Person, but not Millions.)

Other psychologists say it’s a choice. Some people choose not to care about needs far away, to look away.

They may rationalize their lack of response by noting their small donation won’t make a difference when millions are suffering. Or they are afraid of burnout; how much suffering can one person take on?

Which leads Zaki to ask: “Is compassion collapse a ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ problem?” His conclusion: It’s both.

“People do empathize more naturally with one person’s visible, heart-wrenching sorrow than with descriptions of massive tragedies, and human emotion does have a limited range,” he says.

But, he adds, “even when people could extend their care toward a suffering group, they often shy away.”

Which is all fine a good from an academic point of view. What can NGOs do to combat compassion collapse?

Zaki has a few suggestions—none of which will be rocket science to NGO communicators and marketers

First, addressing the “can’t” problem, “evidence suggests that focusing on one of the sufferers can jump-start empathy for the entire group, giving them a vivid case on which to hang their care.”

Second, if someone thinks giving aid is pointless (the “won’t” problem), then telling them about the “difference they can make might inspire them to dig into their empathy even amid great tragedy.”

Of course, those of us who do communications and marketing for NGOs know this; we’ve been dealing with compassion collapse for decades.

We know that the best way to solicit support is by telling the story of one person in need. That’s why we always tell a personal story in appeals.

(For evidence of the importance and impact of this, we need only think of the photo of Aylan Kurdi, dead on the beach after trying to flee from Syria.)

Zaki adds on more thing of interest to those who work for NGOs trying to raise funds for development.

We all know that development is a way to strengthen people, a way to make them more resilient so they can withstand and recover quicker from disasters.

But raising funds for disaster response is always easier than raising money for development. Why is that?

Zaki’s response: “Charitable donations tend to be reactive, not proactive—it’s easier to care about the ongoing suffering of many than the potential suffering of future people that could still be prevented.”

In cases like these, he says, “aid and philanthropy should be driven by something else—for instance, objectively reasoned principles about which policies can make the biggest difference.”

(Hmm . . . I’ve yet to see much money generated by “objectively reasoned principles” about policies. Has anyone given that a try?)

Anyway, more food for thought. Comments?

Zaki is the author of a forthcoming book, The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Stressed and Stretched: New Report about State of Charities in Manitoba

Stressed and stretched—that’s the state of the charitable sector in Winnipeg.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Winnipeg Foundation, a registered charity that pools and invests gifts from donors in the local charitable sector.

The report was based on data from 439 Manitoba-based charities, and combined with data from Canada Revenue Agency tax filings, findings from an online/telephone survey of Winnipeg charitable organizations and from three focus groups held with leaders from local charities.

The report notes that while Manitobans are still the most generous in Canada—in terms of percentage of income donated, it led the nation with 0.83% donated versus the Canadian average 0.56%—the number of people in the province making a charitable gift is declining.

This matches trends in Canada as a whole, as reported by groups like CanadaHelps.

In November 2017, it reported that the total amount donated by Canadians was 7% lower in 2015 than in 2006.

In the same timeframe, it said the percentage of Canadian families (not taxfilers) reporting donations dropped from 45% to 40%.

Meanwhile, the Fraser Institute reports that the percentage of aggregate income donated to charity in Canada has declined from 1.26% of aggregate income in 2005 to 0.83% in 2015—a decline of 34%.

It also echoes the findings of Imagine Canada’s report Thirty Years of Giving in Canada, which concluded that “the donor base is getting ever-smaller.”

And yet, although the number of givers is going down, total giving in Canada is up. Which means, the Winnipeg Foundation says, that “fewer people are giving more.”

The Foundation concludes: “Donors are very special people, and becoming harder to find.”

To promote giving, “every effort must be made to thank those who give and to demonstrate the impact so we can rebuild the donor base in our province.”

For Manitoba charities, the challenge is a big one.

65% of groups surveyed say they will not be able to function in the future without a more stable funding situation.

The challenges include lack of a meaningful reserve fund; inability to attract and retain qualified staff (partly due to lower salaries); and an uncertain funding environment (both government and private funding).

Based on the findings, The Winnipeg Foundation is drafting its 2019-2021 Strategic Plan with a focus on strengthening the sector by enhancing capacity-building opportunities including professional development and promoting charitable giving across the province.

It will also support the exploration of potential collaborations, mergers and partnerships in the sector and convene the sector to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices.

In the end, the Foundation notes that while charities in the province are stressed and stretched, they are still standing.

The question is how many of them will still be standing 10 years from now. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Curiosity: The Most Important Thing for Communicators

A young friend—a student in a creative communications progam—recently asked me to name the one skill that has been especially useful to me in my career.

“It seems that the communications world is changing so much that some of the skills I put time into learning might not be as valuable years down the road,” he said.

“Can you think of skills that you've always improved upon that haven't gone out of style?”

What would you respond?

What I told him was that the most important thing for me in my 37 years of doing journalism, communications and marketing is not a skill at all.

It’s curiosity.

For me, if there is any one thing that separates great communicators from good or average communicators, it is being curious about the world.

Curiosity is not a skill; it is a quality of your personality, something you develop and nurture.

It is always asking: "Why?"

Fortunately, many of the people attracted to careers in journalism or communications are headed that way because they are curious—they want to know why the world works the way it does, or why people behave the way they do.

As for the skills needed to do communications, those will always be changing.

I have seen that up-close during my career.

Since I started in 1981, I've gone from the world of Gutenberg to the world of Google; from mailing press releases to fax to e-mail; from pasting up magazine pages to graphic design programs; from land lines to cell phones; from printed newspapers to social media.

It’s been an amazing and dizzying trip. So many changes! 

But one thing has always stayed the same for me: Being curious about the world, and then telling the stories I find along the way.

And when you are curious, there's no end to the stories you will find.

My friend Steve Bell put it this way, in the context of songwriting.

When people compliment him on the songs he writes, he demurs, telling them that the songs are all out there—he just bumps into them because he has his antennae up.

Similarly, good communicators are people who have their antennae up. They can’t help bumping into stories, no matter where they go—because stories are everywhere.

Of course, having good skills is also important, especially at a time when the way people receive information is changing so fast.

But just knowing how to use the latest technology isn’t enough. I have met skilled communicators who turn out pedestrian work.

The best communicators, in my opinion, are the ones who see stories that others don't. They have their antennae up all the time.

They are always alert and alive to the story ideas that are all around them; they can't stop looking for them.

After finding the stories, they need to know the best ways to tell them. That's where skill comes in.

But it all starts with curiosity, so you can use your skills to tell the stories you find. 

One of the best quotes about the role of technology versus storytelling comes from famed American journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Murrow, who died in 1965, never got to see how computers changed the way we communicate. He never knew about something called the Internet.

But he saw enough to know what they could—and couldn’t—do.

Said Murrow:

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.

That, and how to be, and stay, curious. 

Image above from The Hans India. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Pink Gorilla Suits, or Getting Media Attention for Charity Runs, Walks and Whatever

A friend wrote recently to ask for advice about raising money for cancer research.

His children were planning a run in a local park to raise funds in memory of their child—my friend’s grandchild—who had died of a brain tumor.

He wanted to know: How could he get media attention for the run to raise funds for other children and parents in the same situation?

After expressing sympathy for the loss of his grandchild, I told him the truth: It would be very hard.

The best way, I said, would be to tell the story of the grandchild, or what his loss meant to the parents, or about others facing the same thing.

But even then, it would be tough.

It’s not that the media are jaded, or don’t want to help people raise funds for good causes for things like this.

It’s just that there’s so many of them. It’s impossible for the media to cover them all.

I know; as a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, I get e-mails from people who want me to write about their fundraising efforts of various kinds.

There just isn’t enough time or space to write about every one.

Ever since Terry Fox tried to run one-legged across Canada in 1980, there have been multiple runs, walks, rollerbladings and whatever else across the country, or in most any locality.

All of them are well-meaning, done for the best and most altruistic purposes.

And all of them want media attention.

Frankly, it’s impossible for the media to do that, especially considering the downsizing that has occurred at most media outlets lately.

A gimmick helps, like the man who is rollerblading from Manitoba to the Pacific Ocean in a pink gorilla suit.

(Although the publicity didn’t necessarily help in this particular case, since reporters also discovered he has been charged with fraud—not exactly a stirring endorsement for someone who wants you to donate to their cause.)

As for cross-country charity walks, runs and whatever, not only are they hard to do and get media attention for, they often fail to raise as much funds as hoped.

This was addressed by the National Post in 2017.

In an article titled Why your noble plan to cycle or run across Canada for charity is probably a bad idea, author Tristin Hopper notes that some of these efforts fail to even cover expenses.

A cross-Canada marathon “remains lodged in the Canadian psyche as a noble and surefire way to support a cause, but it can be one of the least efficient ways to generate money for charity,” he writes.

In many cases, participants “would have generated more cash for their cause if they’d just stayed put, gotten an entry-level construction or resource job and donated the paycheque to charity.”

Which raises another important point; the media is wary of lending its support to charitable causes today—they don't want to be accused of promoting efforts that defraud donors.

So don't be surprised if reporters want to know if causes are connected to reputable charities, have the proper permits and approvals, and can explain how expenses will be covered.

So: What to do if you want to do a run or walk or something else for charity?

Plan for it as if the media won’t cover it. Use social media, personal networks, word-of-mouth, whatever.

And if they do cover it, be prepared for anything—even if you have a gimmick like a pink gorilla suit.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

New Story Formats to Attract Younger Readers Online

It’s the Holy Grail for communicators today: What will attract the attention of readers online, and then hold it?

(And if you don’t know what a Holy Grail is, then I’ve either piqued your interest or you’ve already moved on.)

That’s the quest the BBC set out on. (There’s that Grail image again.)

Over a period of eight weeks, the British broadcaster tried various new storytelling formats to see what kept younger people engaged.

In an article titled 12 Prototypes, Eight Weeks and Lots of Tapping, What’s Worked and Hasn’t in the BBC’s Quest for New Storytelling Formats, the broadcaster spent two months testing new ways of appealing to younger readers.

As Tristan Ferne, the lead producer for the BBC’s research and development unit put it: What could they do to “make online news more accessible, engaging and relevant to young people?”

Their goal was to move beyond just publishing several hundred words.

With a traditional article, “there is no interaction,” said Ferne.

“This audience is spending all their time in Snapchat and Twitter, where there’s constant interaction in the interface. There’s stuff to do with your thumbs: You can swipe, scroll, tap. We found that [users] expected that.”

What Worked

And so what did they find worked the best?

When readers see a highlighted text, they can click on it to pop out some more information. (Like above, with the holy grail, but keeping them on the page.)
With expanders references to various terms, events and ideas can be expanded to give readers context, definitions and additional information to help them understand the story better.
Jump Offs.
Don’t want to read the whole article? Readers can jump off by clicking on a different way of getting the same content—a video or audio clip, for example. It could be video or audio of the author saying, in his or her own words, the main point of the piece.
Fast Forward.
Not only should the video they jump to have subtitles, it should be easy to speed up or reverse. Skimmable video, in other words. (As in the image above from the BBC.)
After all, most people can read faster than others can talk. So why wait for them to say it?
Through viewpoints, readers are invited to share their opinions or vote on an issue. For example, after presenting an issue two points of view are expressed; readers are asked to vote for the one they favour, and share their own ideas.
What Didn’t Work
Not everything they tried worked, like the ideas below.
Setting the stage with background audio when users started reading an article was too distracting for testers. And maybe a bit cheesy, too.
Drawing In.
“We tried to present a story like the intro to a movie,” says Ferne. “We started with background sound and blurry visuals and as you scrolled it came into focus and there was a bit of background video, like the scene of the story before the story came in.”
But it didn’t work—people wanted to know right away what the story was about before investing time in it. No teasers!
                                                      *     *      *
Looking at the list, I feel tired; who has time to do all that? But if that’s the way communication is going, communicators will need to follow.
What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Nine Ways Newspapers Can Reconnect with Readers

It’s no secret the media is in trouble.

Newspapers, in particular, are really on the ropes.

The main reason is the loss of advertising revenue. For decades, newspapers built their business model on businesses buying ads.

Circulation was still important, especially since it helped establish the price of ads. The more subscribers you had, the more you could charge for advertising.

But circulation wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

As the old adage put it, circulation paid for the paper and ink, but ads paid for the journalism.

When its business model fell apart, newspapers were in trouble.

Faced with the loss of advertising revenue, newspapers turned to the other source of dollars—readers.

But circulation was in decline, too.

At the very time newspapers needed readers to help them survive, they found many of them were gone.

Now they want to get them back, and attract new ones.

But how?

A new book out of Denmark offers some suggestions.

Titled The Journalistic Connection, the book is the result of year-long research in Europe and the U.S.

The authors visited 54 media companies pioneering new ways to connect with their audiences and communities and came up with nine suggestions for ways forward.

1. From neutrality to identity.

In order for people to relate and identity with the media, they must show “what you stand for,” the researchers say.

“Show them who you are, and from which perspective — geographically, socio-demographically, or politically — you view the world.”

2. From omnibus to niche.


Apart from a very few media with global reach, all media can be considered niche operations. However, many broad-reaching legacy media hesitate to openly show and communicate which niche audience they seek to engage.”


Targeted niche media show it “is possible to create both quality journalism of high public value and cater to targeted audiences at the same time.”


3. From flock to club.


Gathering people around the news media, in clearly defined communities — clubs — is a strategy gaining momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. This implies transforming what were formerly known as subscribers, users, or readers into members, that must either register or pay to join the inner circles of the crowd around the news media.”


4. From ink to sweat.


“Many media companies are pursuing new ways to create physical journalism in the form of public meetings, festivals, events, and stage plays. Live and engaging. And yes, they consider it journalism.”

(The Winnipeg Free Press experimented with something like this, with its cafe, as in the photo above.)


5. From speaking to listening.


The legacy media business often has the character of a walled fortress more than of an open and accessible house. But both in the U.S. and Europe, news organizations are increasingly opening up — physically and mentally — in order to be more accessible to the citizens they serve.”


More than anything, “this means listening to citizens and creating more transparency in editorial matters. This can be done through direct personal dialogue, through physical presence in communities, or through the systematic use of small and big data.”


6. From arm’s length to cooperation.


“In order to maintain independence and neutrality, modern journalism has kept its distance, holding everyone outside the newsroom at arm’s length: citizens, interest groups, public institutions, private corporations, decision makers.”


However, “this pattern is clearly changing. More and more newsrooms are involving citizens directly throughout the journalistic process: from ideation to research to delivery of independent content to the subsequent debate of published stories.”


Without giving up editorial gate keeping, a number of media are working with local groups, NGOs and public institutions “as a way to create a both substantially deeper and more engaging journalism.”


7. From own to other platforms.


The consensus in the media today is that it “weakens business opportunities of the news media and their journalistic control when they put their content on social media.”


And “using social media is a double-edged sword. [B]ut handled in the right way — maybe more as a way to cooperate than distribute — social network technologies have big potential to enhance and deepen engagement, while at the same time creating stronger journalism.”


8. From problem to solution.


Even the most hardcore investigative journalists have discovered they gain greater impact if they add a solution-oriented level to their work.”


Also known as solutions journalism, constructive journalism “creates more engagement among readers, users, viewers. They read more, they are more likely to share content, and they express more interest in knowing more about the issue when the piece has a constructive angle.”


9. From observers to activists.


Several news outlets are testing “whether they can create a new relevance to their readers, users, and viewers through activist campaigns or journalistic advocacy. This move is particularly controversial for many journalists.”



The researchers conclude that the media which are most successful at creating and maintaining ties with their readers, users, listeners and viewers “will increasingly be media that dare challenge some of the journalist dogmas of the last century: the dogma of arm’s length; the dogma of neutrality; the dogma of objectivity; the belief that journalists have a special ability to find and choose what is important for citizens.”

For journalism to be relevant for citizens in the future, they go on to say, “it will to a large extent need to challenge these deeply rooted professional dogmas, thus creating a media landscape that is more varied, more lively, more organically open to the citizens and much more diverse than the news industry we have seen for a hundred years.”

Challenging words. What do you think?