Are Newspapers Necessary?

In the movie State of Play, the lead character, portrayed nicely by Russell Crowe despite some cliched lines and really bad hair, is meant to represent old-world media …he’s a rumpled, shaggy, veteran newspaper reporter whose high ideals shine through his gruff exterior as he strives to expose an international conspiracy. As if the ink-smudged symbolism weren’t heavy enough, he’s forced to team with a cute, yet wet-behind-the-ears blogger who never seems to have a pen when she needs it. Facing his adversary at the film’s climax, he even admits, ”nobody reads the papers anymore.”

On top of the Kindle DX announcement, the Future of Journalism hearings in Washington, D.C., and some particularly brutal bylines, I asked myself if we should just accept the death of print journalism. Professional bias aside, is it really necessary?

The answer is unequivocally yes. After combing through the testimony by Steve Coll, Arianna Huffington, and others, what scares me most is to think about what stories might never see the light of day in a future without those that undertake the daily paper chase. Perhaps most stirring was the testimony of David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who’s far better known for his contribution to television – he’s the creator of the HBO Series The Wire. His view is that the demise of the newspaper industry began well before the Web and its assertion that content wants to be free.  He’s right, and there are some lessons for saving newspapers now.

To clarify, we may not need dead trees, but we do need actual trained journalists. Those that have, through diligence and experience, reported on major stories on which elections and cultural changes can turn.  Many of the suggestions floated at the hearings – from easing anti-trust restrictions to tax breaks, to the lightning-rod topic of charging for online news content – are decent ideas.  And, though I see the potential drawbacks of Senator Cardin’s proposal to seek not-for-profit status for newspapers, at least it’s a viable plan that has worked in other industries.

To the extent that they did anything, I hope the hearings accomplished two things. One, to emphasize that it’s a public priority not to save newspapers, but to promote policies that sustain journalism. Two, to convince the industry that its salvation depends on the full integration of new media and emerging technologies into its operations, not its addition as an afterthought.

As Hollywood shows, some stereotypes die hard.  I hope this one lives beyond the movies

Mother’s Day Goes Social – And Socially Conscious

Brandweek ran an interesting feature recently about a M2Moms survey in which 73 percent of moms said they feel advertisers don’t really understand them. While it’s true marketers have lagged in recognizing the purchasing power and social clout of mothers, I feel many are listening to and reaching the so-called Power Moms, on their own digital turf.  Here are a few Mother’s Day campaigns worth watching:

1-800-Flowers‘ “Spot A Mom” campaign is interesting for two reasons. It recognizes 24 mommy bloggers who apparently exemplify certain maternal archetypes, like “Do It Yourself” or “Red Carpet” moms. Supported by (somewhat anemic) Twitter and Facebook accounts, it relies on social networks and bloggers in advance of a traditional ad buy.  Customers can also link to a website at which they can “spotlight” an extraordinary mom, which is a more typical promotional tactic. More interestingly, it markets to the social mommies as customers, not just recipients of floral gifts. Kind of counter-intuitive. 

Phi­losophy and Snapfish hooked up to add color to a promotion to celebrate the relationship between moms and daughters. Through a fairly robust Facebook page and a song by Amy Grant, among other tactics, it encourages women to create a “She Colors My Day” image and photo book at Snapfish. For each book created, Snapfish donates 50% of net proceeds to benefit the Women’s Cancer Research Fund. Visitors can also buy campaign-branded Philosophy bubble bath and download the song “She Colors My Day” by Amy Grant. Philosophy donates 100% of net pro­ceeds to cancer research. There are many elements here, but they’re fairly well integrated, and I like how it bridges two or more generations of women.

The Mother’s Day Every Day Campaign (led by the White Ribbon Alliance and CARE) has a more hard-hitting message. A mother dies in childbirth every minute, and the campaign advocates for better healthcare to reduce fatalities among women and infants. Huffington Post joins the cause with a blog series every day for the week leading up to Mother’s Day. The campaign also features an online “Wall of Mothers” where visitors can post a photo and send an e-card to mom.

My favorite campaign, though, is the simplest. Created by MomsRising.org, a three-year-old grassroots group that advocates for ending economic discrimination against mothers, it’s been a huge hit among my friends and family. This is a simple, customized video tool whereby you can put in your own name, or that of your favorite mom, to create a funny mock salute announcing her as Mother of the Year, complete with Red Carpet celebrity interviews and a speech by President Obama. It’s reminiscent of the viral get-out-the-vote campaign just before the 2008 election, and what I like is that it encourages moms to honor one another, with a nice dash of humor flavoring a message that is never strident or too self-important. 

The Prince, The Frog, And The Rainforest

My kindergarten-aged daughter brings home a stream of stories, hand-drawn art, and songs with a “green” theme – all part of the not-so-subtle propaganda that I dearly hope will lead to an entire generation of more environmentally-aware adults. But as she explains, wide-eyed, about how and why we need to protect the Earth, I’m struck by how little of that childlike wonder survives in the marketing of “green” behavior and actions to adults.  Eco-marketing tends to make uninspired use of celebs and other personalities and can at times take on an “eat your vegetables” tone.
That’s why I found Prince Charles’ public service announcements to save the rainforest so freshing. The Prince is joined by his sons, Prince Harry and Prince William, and a diverse lineup of luminaries that includes Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Pele, Robin Williams, and the Dalai Lama in a new video promoting conservation of the rainforests.
“Our aim…is to build an online community to call for urgent action to protect the rainforests, without which we will most certainly lose the battle against catastrophic climate change,” intones Charles. But the gravity of his words is lightened by a whimsical computer-animated frog sitting next to him.  In fact, the green guy upstages the stars in every frame.  It’s a lovely touch, and one that adds a little magic to the spots, and to the message.

The Future of Ink, Part 2

Finally, the newspaper industry is fighting back.  At least that’s how it feels, and it feels good. As yet another storied paper teeters on the edge of extinction, and Warren Buffett rubs it in, there are some hopeful developments. As noted in a previous post, Hearst Corp. is backing a Kindle-like e-reader created to handle digital downloads of newspapers, magazines, and the ads that support them. 

Suddenly, there’s lots of ink being spilled about Kindle rivals. Gannett’s USA Today and the Financial Times are among the newspapers signed with Plastic Logic, which is expected to launch its Readius e-tablet early next year. And, the rumor is that Apple is also jumping into the e-reader category with its own device, just as News Corp. is exploring a potential investment in another Kindle competitor. All this while Amazon’s set to unveil a new, 3G version of the Kindle that’ll have a large screen for reading….yes, newspapers.

There’s already been criticism of the new, large-screen Kindle, and there’s a lot to wonder about in all the recent announcements.  Most optimistic may be the implication that we readers, who are accustomed to getting news and other content free via laptops, blackberries, and i-Phones, will pony up subscription fees because of the new, presumably more convenient and pleasing form factor of a larger device, just as everything else seems to be shrinking. And, with so many e-readers hitting the market, there’s huge potential for confusion and consumer pushback.

But, that’s the beauty of the marketplace. I find it encouraging that so many players are getting into the e-reader space. If history’s any guide, the formats that don’t work will go away, the surviving products will get better, and prices will go down. As noted in a recent article on the e-reader space, what’s really interesting about multiple devices is the “possibility they’ll be accompanied by multiple experiments with business models, which would increase the possibility that someone will find one that both keeps the users happy while keeping those that produce the content in business.”   This last is from a recent story in Portfolio, a victim of a changing business model and truly terrible timing, which was shuttered last week. 

Michael Vick And PETA: Like Cats And Dogs?

When it showed up on my Twitter feed, I thought it was a joke.  Michael Vick, the onetime NFL star who went to jail, while his public image went to the dogs, after being convicted of particularly disgusting acts of cruelty to animals, is reportedly in talks to become a public spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Ad Age weighs the pros and cons of a possible PETA gig as one step in a long-term image rehab for the disgraced NFL player.  If he’s sincere – which is a big “if”, considering how he handled the matter when the news broke, it does seem like a creative way for Vick to fight his way back into society, and possibly the League. What could be more buzzworthy, or more potentially useful, than a public conversion to PETA spokesperson by such an infamous figure?

But what strikes me as even more exciting is what a potential Vick partnership could do for PETA. The group is certainly no stranger to buzz, but some of its attention-grabbing tricks, like dousing fur-coat-wearers with animal blood or dumping a dead raccoon on Anna Wintour’s luncheon plate, have earned it a fringey, left-of-center image that doesn’t entirely mesh with mainstream America.  In fact, its purported interest in Vick may just be more of the same, since it’s been insisting Vick be tested for psychopathology and has been petitioning the NFL not to readmit him.

Yet, a truly cooperative partnership with Vick, a fallen icon from the quintessential all-American spectator sport, could drive more mainstream social acceptance for PETA even as it does the same for Vick.  It’s definitely the craziest idea I’ve heard today.  Crazy…but brilliant.