Dayton Daily News on life support

If the Dayton Daily News was a patient in a hospital, the doctors would be trying to move it to hospice as fast as possible so it won’t die in their hospital. It didn’t have to be this way, but, there never has been anyone digitally savvy in charge and it’s getting worse (as if that was possible) daily.

The old argument not to argue with anyone who buys ink by the barrel went away when they sold their print center in Springboro and started printing in Indianapolis. That moved the final news deadline to 6 pm. A few months ago, they switched to printing in Detroit- cutting another hour off their deadlines. Calling it the Dayton Daily- when it was more like the Dayton Day-Old was bad enough. But, in a grand cost cutting move, they then killed off the Saturday print edition, and started shrinking the newspaper, little by little.

The problems started long ago, when venture capitalist started to pick the Cox news empire apart. Not, that Cox knew what it was doing- the envious position of having the number one tv station, the number one FM station, the number one news talk AM station and the newspaper in the same market should have been the keys to the kingdom, except, none of the pieces wanted to work together, and there wasn’t a leader that understood the fact that these were no longer multiple entities- but one, just with different viewports.

Instead of doubling down on their extensive multi-media capability, they kept expanding their footprints- with different websites for each. Here’s the sad and honest truth- good websites are hard enough to build and maintain, and doing many is just a giant sucking sound for your resources. There never should have been a, a a etc- it should have just been and done. Video, audio, news, restaurant reviews, classifieds, obituaries, real estate, legal notices all in one. With all the talent, working around the clock to continue to have one site with the mostest, up-to-datest, latest, greatest coverage of everything from high school sports to the courts and even the old “if it bleeds it leads” news that they still think is the thing for local TV news.

The biggest crime has been their total lack of value in their collective historical content stretching back over 100 years. No, this isn’t just for the little “this day in history” half-page, it’s about unlocking the foundational stories that built this city. Knowing who did what and how it happened is almost as important as today’s news. They’ve seemingly sold off their history, killing one of the best reasons to subscribe and “be a member” of their community.

I tried early on to talk to their then digital genius- Ray Marcano, about the advantages of using the open source content management system- WordPress (the backend of this blog), to manage their nascent digital footprint. He blew me off- he knew what he was doing. Apparently, his overly expensive proprietary system was so much better. Turns out, there’s a little newspaper in New York that not only started using WordPress- but invested heavily in it- you might have heard of that paper- the New York Times.

And while it’s taken the New York Times 2 decades to refine their digital offering, they still haven’t fully figured out how to replace and optimize the advertising revenue that content manufacturers like good news organizations used to depend on. With more choices of where to be “infotained” hiring great talent and making destination worthy content isn’t cheap. You can’t just find writers like Tom Archdeacon on every corner. Sadly, really bad content created by amateurs is raking in the bucks while news organizations are struggling to keep their lights on. You know, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube have all figured out how to monetize their digital sharecroppers who post cat pix and dance videos, while necessary journalism sits sad and brokenhearted on the info highway off ramp, with a sign “will work for food.” And yet, their content is being scraped and marketed with impunity by the Technorati.

Recently Reddit had their IPO- and made a whole bunch of billionaires- all with User Generated Content- while the Dayton Daily still can’t figure it out- and keeps making their content less valuable and desirable.

They’ve had a string of Chief Marketing Officers who don’t understand marketing, editors who don’t know what real news is, and reporters who don’t have enough time or institutional knowledge to tell stories worth reading. I remember campaigns trying to tell people to buy the paper because the coupons are worth more than the subscription. Seriously. The only bread and butter content of value for them now is the state mandated pages of legal advertising (which is absolutely worthless) and the obituary page where they overcharge and under deliver the eulogies to the last of their die hard readers. That realtors still buy ads in the Sunday paper “real estate” section is quaint, as their once proprietary listing database has now been co-opted and their commission structures de-regulated.

So, Mr. Smarty Pants, what’s the answer?

This ship sailed long ago- but, they should have stopped trying to turn bits into atoms. This was explained long ago in a book by Nicholas Negroponte called “Being digital.” Negroponte was leading the MIT media lab- and said don’t take things that are digital- like words and video- and try to turn them into something physical- atoms, dead trees, paper.

They could have saved all that money on paper, ink, printing, delivery and bought every reader a tablet- with full time two way cellular connection and come out ahead by shiploads of cash. This also would have given them real stats on what was consumed by whom- which is the holy grail of targeted marketing in the digital age. You read a lot about gourmet cooking- we sell ads to makers of gourmet products, you read about sports, we sell your eyeballs to online gamblers, you read about politics, we sell your ad space to the political machine etc etc.

The key is, they had the greatest way of developing real user profiles of any media out there- by watching what you click on and how long you connect. Plus, they knew where you lived, and who you were. But that ship sailed long ago- and the social media sites don’t charge you for the right to read and interact- it sure is hard to compete with free, right?

But, they still can’t get over their lack of digital chops, and keep thinking “if we could only build a higher paywall” we’ll win. The Dayton Daily recently broke any last smidgen of usefulness to the world when they broke the “share a story” feature to just deliver a link to the home page of the digital edition. Plus, even if you navigate to the story, they think they’ve made it impossible to cut and paste too, which is only what a moron would believe. The fact is, for the most part, what they publish isn’t worth talking about anymore- and the talking about it- is where the hyperboost is. Comments and engagement have always been the hidden secret to growing a community- which is what a newspaper was supposed to do- be the voice of the collective community.

The Dayton Daily was stupid enough to think that by feeding the masses some tidbits on Facebook- joining the ranks of the digital sharecroppers would somehow be their saving hail Mary. Instead, it’s been a crucifixion of the last of their value. Now people have huge discussions of the Dayton Daily’s content on Facebooks site- not their own. Losing the chance to monetize their engagement.

Others have built communities that do what they could be doing – even better, and know how to steal the Daily’s thunder before the lightning even strikes. With a community and comments, the ability to get people coming back is the secret to being able to run more ads, but, they never figured that out.

The final nail in the newspaper coffin

When the newsroom used to have a hundred people in it- all living fat and happy thanks to the help wanted ads that Craigslist stole, the Real Estate Ads that the MLS, Zillow and Redfin etc stole, the personal ads that dating sites stole, and the sports scores, stock prices and weather that the internet stole, you end up with very few folks left writing and covering a local market that’s gotten bigger and more complicated thanks to sprawl. Think about Dayton before WWII, when there were 250K people inside the city limits, and only a few government meetings that mattered. Now we have 30 political divisions, 18 police forces and school districts, and all kinds of quasi-governmental slush funds all playing around behind semi-closed doors without the guiding hand of the fourth estate. In other words- more to cover with less talent.

Y’all should just throw in the towel right now. But then we’d really be in trouble.

The only real solution left is for government to intervene and realize that without the fourth estate keeping track of the other three, without an educated and enlightened populace, we’re all going to suffer. The NPR/Public Television/non-profit government sponsored news system is long overdue. In fact, it’s probably the only solution left. We’ve seen billionaires buy the Washington Post (Amazon’s Bezos) and LA Times (Patrick Soon-Shiong) and still the bleeding doesn’t stop.

While it’s unlikely that this initiative would come at the hands of the Feds or the State, if the forces of “regional cooperation” were smart, they’d start financing news the way they finance “economic development” with a subsidy. Even better, local government would realize the cost of duplication of so many services, websites, accounting for the public dollars isn’t helping the community grow and thrive. The amount of inefficiency is mind-blowing. The benefit to the community- minimal,.

Take today’s Opinion Piece by the aforementioned Ray Marcano, where he makes a totally arm-chair rant about the firings and investigations in New Lebanon. He suggests that the new Mayor, the new legal counsel, the new interim city manager, all did something wrong by terminating the previous City Manager and her crew. Did he bother to call the Mayor? Nope (I did- he said “Ray who?). Did Ray look into what’s been going on in this banana republic that is totally unnecessary (See Reconstructing Dayton site) he just threw some lazy shade at some people who are actually are doing the work of investigating corruption in their community.

Real journalism wouldn’t let his rant hit the paper. But, so many readers have given up, or lowered expectations. We’ve allowed stupid to suffice for news.

Building back a fourth estate is vital to our survival. WYSO has worked really hard at integrating the community in the production of its content. They’ve got kids doing it, veterans voices, podcast classes, citizen journalism is the start. Yet, the Dayton Daily still ignores those that are doing their own version of citizen journalism instead of embracing them. Creating yet more “Community Advisory” boards and having “community conversations” isn’t the same as creating a safe space for those who are interested and engaged in local politics to have a platform. Filling the paper with press releases pretending to be news isn’t going to win back subscribers- good content is.

And, it has to be multi-media content. Video, audio, words, pushed together through one portal- with comments and discussion managed by the community (see Reddit). And, community isn’t singular- there are sub-communities like those who follow Flyer basketball, or are foodies, or vegans, or movie buffs. If there is to be a successful return of news, it will be because it’s the platform for everything Dayton (as in greater Dayton, not just the city of).

But most importantly, a true news outlet today celebrates the talent and wonder of a community and shares it effectively. With the best writers, videographers, storytellers, connoisseurs and critics helping inform and educate. In an era of micro-payments for advertising per individual view- the secret is to have something people need to go to daily to be a part of their community. Not just the best event calendars- but the place to learn all of what Dayton has to offer.

Doesn’t that sound better than what we have now?

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