May 17, 2014

Austin American-Statesman — another paper making errors in #digital

Update, Jan. 13, 2015: Six months after passing me by,  possibly for age-related reasons, the Bastrop Advertiser's managing editor has spit the bit, and it's hiring again. I may apply again, but if I do, I'm going to insist on some information up front, related to the original version of this post.

Meanwhile, the Austin American-Statesman, running second to the Dallas Morning News in digital world idiocy among major Texas papers, has almost totally folded the Advertiser's website into its own. 

I don't like it for two reasons.

First, it undercuts what's left of the "community newspaper" idea.

Second, I do NOT like the "Microsoft Surface/Windows 8" type website layout in general.

Now, back to the original post.

Due to some unintentional misassumptions on my part, I've learned that the Statesman has a few IT/web errors that I know of with its community papers.  And, due to why these misassumptions came about, it's led me to look at more of the Statesman's other digital problems, and ....

To wonder if "social media skills" as a hiring tipping point is related to intentional, or unintentional, age bias or discrimination.

Why this happened, the website errors? I have some reasonable speculation. (I'll then get to my missamptions, etc.)

On the websites of six of its seven community papers — the Bastrop Advertiser, Pflugerville Pflag, Lake Travis View, Round Rock Leader, Westlake Picayune, Smithville Times — their Facebook, Twitter and G+ links are all for the Austin American-Statesman social media sites.

I later was shown that the Bastrop Advertiser has a Twitter feed. And, per a friend on a Facebook conversation, a Twitter feed, too. I'll assume that all the other papers above have their own social media pages. But their websites don't link to them.

These papers all had their own websites until just over a year ago, when they were rolled under the Statesman's umbrella as subsites.

Here's my guess as to what Statesman web staff probably did. They took the Statesman "main" site pages as a template 1 year ago when doing the rollover/wrap-in, and never replaced the Statesman links. The fact that this switch took place for all on the same date reinforces that in my mind. That's doubly so since this is less than six months after a major change at the Statesman, that may be connected.

First, if I'm the first person to both notice this and point it out in a full year, how much are people going to the community papers' social media feeds via the community papers' websites? Notta lotta? At least not among people new to Bastrop since the May 8, 2013, switchover.

So, Statesman? If you're going to emphasize social media, perhaps you need to further comb through the community papers and make sure there aren't other bugs. The reason I did what I did, and a rabbit hole of apparently, unintentionally, misguided thinking in doing so, has left me frustrated. And, if you want an ME focused on that, you probably should ask about that more in "conversation."

(That said, per what I found out about their online subscriptions, I'm not sure this is even true. Instead, the Statesman may be dumb enough to actually want Statesman social media feeds on its suburban papers' websites. And, it's been five days since I directed a query to this end to, er, somebody, and haven't heard back. So, I'll keep connecting dots in my mind, and blogging about them as desired, including a possible follow-up post.)

Beyond that, if either the Statesman, or its Cox Communications parent, is so dumb as to say it will, and I quote, "never" have paywalls for the web versions of its community newspapers? If you want to piss money away, that doesn't help the financial bottom line.

As to why this happened, beyond the speculation of a copied, and incompletely edited, template?

As part of its money-saving, Cox canned the entire Statesman copy desk late in 2012. All of its sections are paginated at other Cox papers. As far as I know, despite Austin being the Silicon Valley of Texas, they may do some Web and IT stuff for the Statesman elsewhere. I mean, I've been in Texas long enough; I know Cox was trying to unload the Statesman, along with all its other Texas holdings, for a few years. (And, from what I've seen, without eyeballing the Statesman on too regular of a basis, I'm not a total fan of over-consolidation. Besides, if you have to still have a "bridge desk," how much money are you really saving?) That said, with the over-consolidation, Cox will never be able to sell any of its large dailies individually now. Nobody wants to buy one daily paper and start off by hunting up copy desk staff.

And, beyond that, it looks like the Statesman isn't sure what to do with its outlying editions. All of them except Bastrop and Smithville are suburban, not exurban, now, and most of them are suburban. And, because Bastrop and Smithville are exurban, not suburban, their websites, unlike the other four, shouldn't have been rolled up into new Statesman versions, IMO. The other four? Given that they, in print, may be nothing more than zoned-like pages inside the Statesman within a decade, that's different. But, those two should have been kept separate. Again, whether a Statesman decision or a Cox one, not smart.

Who knows? Maybe Cox is doing its own version of what newspaper analysts rumor is Advance's endgame ... spending out to the finish line. 

Update, May 18: Jeeesuhus H. Christ on a crutch, it gets worse.

Try to subscribe to one of their suburban papers from that suburban paper's website, and you can't. Even if you enter the zip code appropriate to that suburban or exurban area. It tries to sign you up for the Statesman itself, and it offers the web option first.

What idiocy. Is this related to my first guesstimate of why they have Statesman social media links on suburban pages? I'm not sure. I know the Statesman went to an online paywall shortly after the roll-up. That said, given the "never" quote about paywalls for online versions, that wouldn't matter.

So, the Statesman's web staff could have been dumb enough not to do a switchover here, either, but that seems highly unlikely.

Instead, per the Zip code entry observation, and per my earlier comparing Cox to the Advance group (New Orleans Times-Picayune and all its stupidities being the closest Advance paper, Texas readers), it seems like this is just another "write-off" of the suburban papers.

It's also another write-off of print papers in general, it seems.

Beyond that, selling subscriptions to an e-edition for a Nook/Kindle? Not quite as bad as doing that for an iPhone, but, as I've blogged before, nobody in his or her right mind is going to read newspaper-page PDFs on an e-book reader. They're not even likely to do it on a full-size tablet, but on an e-book reader, forget it?)

As for their level, and particulars, of use of social media, I'm not that impressed at Bastrop. It's nothing really out of my pay grade, and not bad for a paper that size, but nothing to set the world on fire. If I were to be managing editor at a place like that, I might be a bit short on video skills, but  that's about it.

The "misassumptions" and ageism? Read below the fold (an increasingly quaint idea).

Finally, I had started by wondering if the Statesman, in looking for a managing editor with social media skills, but not emphasizing that desire for social media skills, wasn't flirting with age discrimination. (You can read between the lines about how I know all of this, and made these misassumptions, and why.) I still haven't totally dismissed that idea, though it has certainly diminished. 

And here's why. The "misassumptions" and wondering if there's anything further in the world of ageism behind them.

I was in the Metroplex when, as part of the "bleed," in 2008 or 2009, the Dallas Morning News canned a bunch of older staffers, almost all of them columnists and critics. It got sued — I haven't Googled in a few years to find the results. In the filing of the suit, the plaintiffs mentioned that computer skills, or alleged lack thereof, and ability to learn and/or improve them, or lack thereof, were among the reasons for the dismissals, and that these were "code phrases" for "get rid of the older people."

I'm not saying that's what was happening here. I am saying that, in conjunction with their Web staff's screw-up, for reasons I postulate or others, and with the background I just mentioned? It was a possible conclusion. That's even more the case since I don't recall the Statesman, in its ME for Bastrop search, being THAT interested in social media skills.

And, discrimination can be done unconsciously or subconsciously. I recently read a great book called Blindspot, by two psychology researchers. They have online tests, using series of pairs of photos, to test for unconscious bias in race, sex, age, and sexual orientation. One of the two authors, in fact, was dismayed that the author's self-testing showed more bias than the author wanted to believe. 

And, Bastrop is now hiring for a staff writer. Yes, it could have just, coincidentally, had a staff writer leave.

But, I have no doubt it hired from within. One of the younger writers that may have needed mentoring, allegedly. That said, the AME, who was running the smaller paper in Smithville, could be decent enough to move up.

That said, I can't prove said person was hired because he's younger. Nor can I approve it was assumed that, being younger, he might work for less. But I can sure as hell speculate. And, given that I hadn't received an answer by the end of day Monday on the social media links either being wrong or dumb, and I also saw that new ad, I'm speculating!

If nothing else, I consider this precautionary for myself and advise it to be precautionary for other print journalists who may be above "X" years of age. Even if you're not asked, play up social media skills in your interview, and even your cover letter. If you're not asked about them during an interview, raise the question yourself of how they're valued.

This is even as Facebook is continuing to choke the reach of for-profit pages, Google+ continues to look like tumbleweeds and Twitter has seemed to plateau. The newspaper biz, when it's not stuck behind the curve on things like paywalls, chases fads without asking whether the for-profit folks on the other end of the fad might not wind up doing a bait-and-switch.

Beyond that, leaning too much on Facebook, especially if you're a larger community paper, or even worse, a daily? Soon enough, you just have people reading Facebook, not your paper. And seeing Facebook ads, not your paper's. (That's if they don't have AdBlock Plus, so they don't have to see your ads OR Facebook's.) And, your web traffic drops. And, your ad rates drop more than they already do. 

Of course, if they can't figure out how to subscribe to the print version of their community paper from what should be their community paper's website — or they simply can't subscribe from there — they're screwed anyway, aren't they? 

Update, July 12: I know the person that Bastrop hired. He's not bad; he might be better than me in some ways. He's younger than me by a decade ... ahem ... and he's bounced around the business even more than I have, and not due to forced reasons, like newspaper closure. Beyond that, and without slighting that person or, I think, overly bragging, I was a better choice. But, of course, an older one.

In that case, their one staff writer didn't get moved up, which is interesting in and of itself.

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