Thursday, October 21

Reading off the Marketing Radar

Matt Haughley, the Oregon Web developer behind Metafilter--who blogs on his own account at A Whole Lotta Nothing--is cited as an example of a behavior I find myself engaging in, in the lead graph of a BusinessWeek article on the economics of "content."

Matt Haughley, a Web developer in Portland, Ore., registered for access to The New York Times' Web site years ago -- he can't remember when exactly. But he does recall patiently plowing through questions about his household income and his job title. Then, either he forgot his password or the Times lost his records. He was locked out of the site, and he wasn't about to go through the aggravation of filling out another lengthy registration form. Instead, Haughley found that someone else had voluntarily posted his or her own registration information online -- on a message board or a blog, perhaps even his own mega-blog, MetaFilter.com. Thanks to the shared information, Haughley avoided the bother of registering again. "Who wants to fill this [stuff] out," he says. "I just want to read your dumb story."

Automatic form fill-in keeps me logged into the Grey Lady and the WaPo, but I have given up on the Tribune and the L.A. Times. I find them very passive-aggressive, these registration screens. It's as if you're saying, "Well, you can't expect the seamless usability and portability of stacked and folded newsprint if you're not going to help us make back our distribution costs by paying for something, now can you?"

Less technically adept than some, I generally register my discontent by misrepresenting myself as a 95- or 12-year-old female from Arkansas or Afghanistan with a net worth of over $100 million. Funny, I was just talking with Omar the art director today about how all the value in media companies resides in their databases.

The site Haughley uses to bypass compulsory registration is Bug Me Not, which you can also install as an extension to Firefox or the late, great IE.

We were just talking about setting up a blog for our publication and reserving posting privileges for subscribers. See, that I understand: I'm willing to identify myself and stand behind my words when I going to write something on your site. But to go through the hassle just for the sake of reading your daily fishwrap? I can usually pick up used copies on the subway. And there are these aggressive old-school newsies handing out free papers at the strategic Bowling Green stop. I can, and do, read bits and pieces of dozens of newspapers a day now. The magic of RSS lets me mix and match. I still like to feel in my hand how much free paper you get with the Village Voice, or find the Nation or Harpers in the snail mailbox, but the fact is that with electronic distribution I can transcend the limits imposed by print distribution, which frees me to pursue and expand my own standards of quality in the realm of daily prose. The Scotsman covers the same international stories most papers do, and I like the writing. I can follow the newspaper wars in Rio de Janeiro and S�o Paulo, then turn straight to the Brooklyn Papers for the latest on Metro Tech. If you flub a story that the WaPo gets right, I am thinking of the WaPo first the next time the subject comes up.

In other words, best practices are not something I have to go to a conference to watch PowerPoint slides about anymore: I can build case studies at will in my tabbed browser just by starting from Google News and draw my own conclusions.

Moral of the story: Professional news organizations should invest in the one thing that sets them apart from the blog rabble: professional writers and editors. Recruit the very best people, network them together, and keep the marketing suits out of the way while they do that voodoo. I need to know there's a critical mass of good writing in a newspaper or magazine before I subscribe to it or buy a copy, or that it provides solid intelligence available nowhere else. But of course I would think that way: It restores skilled editors as the gatekeepers of your relationship with your readers, gives them a certain entrepreneurial glamor again. Editorial voice will drive the brand again, instead of branding driving the voice. Yes, and that thing that Wayne says to Garth. Sigh.

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