What’s wrong with local media?

What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

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Are facts inflammatory?

CensorshipInflammatory is the word I was told the Connection used this week in rejecting an ad by mayoral candidate John Trude*. That ad challenged some of the claims of one of his opponents by stating what actually happened at council this term in four areas: open and accountable government, the hospital redevelopment, working together with our municipal neighbours and sole-source contracts on major expenditures.

All of Trude’s comments are backed up by facts taken from the media, town agendas and town staff. Take for example, sole sourcing. You may recall back in 2014 that deputy-mayor candidate Brian Saunderson promised when elected he would oversee…

Change the purchasing policy to ensure there can be no sole sourcing of any contract for goods or services over $25,000, no exceptions.

But as the Trude ad points out, that never happened. In fact, just for sole-sourced legal consultants, the costs have ballooned every year of this term to more than $1.8 million: 2014 $268,000; 2015 $374,000; 2016 $414,000; 2017 $761,000,  and invoices are still coming in until at least year-end. By 2019 they will have topped $2 million – and that doesn’t include costs for sole-sourced consultants to create reports to justify the secretive Collus sale or the sole-sourced PR consultant hired to sell the town’s anti-hospital stance.

Is this inflammatory? Or simply truth that someone on the Connection staff didn’t want the public to read? How can the public engage in a conversation about these or other issues if the media hides them?

I suggest you ask a member of Trude’s campaign for a copy to decide for yourself. I’ve read it – it’s not an attack ad, it doesn’t call anyone names or make the sort of accusations and false allegations some candidates have been making as they go door-to-door (one council candidate was even served with a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer for doing this!). The ad simply states the facts – unlike some posts on social media about local issues and candidates, many of which spin conspiracy theories wildly distant from any semblance of factuality.

Since when does local media decide what the voters get to read or see or hear in an election campaign? Since when does local media decide for the voters what is appropriate? Isn’t that using the media’s position and power to unfairly influence the election in favour of one candidate?

Was the decision made because of personal bias or associations? Regardless of why, it’s still censorship.

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Marketing Wow

Canadian TireAdvertising and marketing, design and public relations, influence and persuasion – they all fascinate me. I love to listen to Terry O’Reilly’s show on CBC (both Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence). I’m actually reading one of his books, The Age of Persuasion, right now. I’m also reading a book on the science of shopping: Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy.

I like to read about the effect, styles, creators, the history, sociology, the science and craft behind them and their craft. I consume books on advertising design that illustrate the power of art, photography and word that can engage and galvanize consumers (as opposed to the dreary Collingwood town ads in the Enterprise-Bulletin, which merely bore and deter them…).

And, unlike most of you, I actually pay attention to the framework of the ads – the typography, the photography, the design, the colours and contrast. I look at advertising and marketing with a far more critical eye than many. While I lack the skills of a designer, I have at least an appreciation of the art and skills required (and, as some readers know, am periodically, mildly obsessed with typography).

In the Internet Age, how does on stand out amidst the clutter and the noise. How does one position a business, a store, a product in a veritable ocean of competition, all screaming for attention?

Estimates of how many advertisements, brands or product placements the average person encounters in a single day range from about 600 to more than 10,000. It’s tough to stand out in that crowd. Ad clutter tends to turn off the audience, rather than engage it. Bad layout and puerile typography drive them away.

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Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.

Stinky!I see the Town of Collingwood is still letting the EB layout its full page of ads in the paper.  Tragic. Embarrassing. Cringe-worthy.

The latest back page mashup has as its first ad the worst of the worst sort of ad layout, the sort only amateurs would create. It’s too wide for any human being to comfortably and efficiently read. Then there’s the second page with its fat partner in layout crime.

It’s embarrassing for a municipality to be thus represented. The only saving grace is that no one reads the EB any more, so not very many people see how bad it is. But those who do see it, wince.

Why, oh why, does the town continue to permit amateurs to design its advertising? Doesn’t anyone realize these represent the town? They affect our reputation?

These wide ads – and several of the smaller ads – break pretty much every rule in every design and typographic book. High school students could craft more elegant, readable, exciting ads. Maybe elementary school kids could, too.

I’ve written about these embarrassing, amateur efforts in the past and how they hurt the town’s image. Even a bungling non-designer like me can see they are ill-suited for presenting a professional, polished image. I suspect these are designed by the janitor, or maybe someone who delivers the paper. Certainly not by a graphic designer.

Anyone can read the basic books on layout and design to learn enough to see these are awful. Truly awful. Why can’t anyone in town hall see it?

But, you ask, why would the town give the job to someone trained and experienced in that art? That would break this term’s trend.

Council took the management of the water utility from experienced professionals on the board and gave it to inept councillors. Council kicked the experienced, professional, provincially-recognized winner of several awards and honours, the CEO of Collus, off the board and put the interim CAO in his place. The precedent for replacing people who know what they’re doing with those who don’t was set early in this term.

Council cancelled its individual subscriptions to the monthly Municipal World magazine, the best Canadian journal for municipal governance and politics, read by dedicated municipal politicians across the country. Why? Because council felt it knows everything already and doesn’t need peer advice. Besides, reading is hard work.

Council has turned to obscure one-and-two-person consulting firms few if any of us have ever heard of for recommendations on big, important, strategic issues that affect the town’s well-being, rather than listen to respected, worldwide firms like KPMG.

The arrogance of amateurism is this council’s legacy. The inmates are running the asylum. These ads are regular, graphic reminders of that.

Continue reading “Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.”

Bad Designs

Bad designI’m not a graphic designer. I was not formally educated in that art. However, over the years, my jobs in editing and writing for books, newspapers, magazines and publishers have required me to learn the rudiments of layout, typography and design.

I am the first to admit my design talent is merely adequate. Despite that, I did absorb enough to be able to recognize egregiously bad design.

And this week, I found what may be the best example of the most egregiously bad design and layout I’ve ever encountered: the Town of Collingwood’s advertising section on pages D6-D8 of the Enterprise Bulletin, April 24, 2015.

Whoever assembled these ads has – incredibly, it seems – even less talent than I have in layout and design.

First, the size: the ads sprawl across two-and-three quarters pages when they could easily have fit in a page-and-a-half.  Since we taxpayers pay for those ads, this wasteful layout is costing us money. There is no excuse for this.

Second, the type: about 99 percent of the text is set in the same sans-serif typeface – Arial or Helvetica – body and headlines, making it incredibly boring and dull to look at. Couldn’t someone had clicked the font menu and selected a serif typeface just once?

Serif fonts  improve ease of reading; they have been used since Roman times. The serifs help guide the eye along the line – and the longer the line, the more they prove useful. But even if you use sans-serif for the body, it is good design to use a different typeface for the headlines. This wasn’t done: instead the pages have a monolithic sameness.

As the Creative Market site notes,

Perhaps the single most important part of graphic and web design is typography. Like color, texture, and shapes, the fonts you use tell readers you’re a serious online news magazine, a playful food blog or a vintage tea tins shop. Words are important, but the style of the words is equally essential.

So what do the fonts of the town’s ad pages tell readers? Boring, dull, unimaginative, stiff, stodgy, amateurish? All of these?

The type size, too, is unnecessarily large for body type – 12 or perhaps even 14 point. At the most, it should be 10-11 point and probably could be smaller. This oversized text is the major cause of the sprawl, too.

But the headline size has not been scaled to match the large body size, so the headlines look grotesquely small. And to compound it, the small headlines are all centred, looking orphaned amidst all that extra space.

And why are some headlines in black, some in blue, and others a mix of blue and black?

All of the body copy is justified – again adding to the boring similarity of every ad. Fully justified text like this has been proven harder to read in large blocks than ragged right text. And the full justification creates awkward gaps between words in the longer lines.

Then there’s the excess leading (the space between lines) and the embarrassingly wide distance between paragraphs (did someone hit return twice? That’s a bad habit from the typewriter era). Thick horizontal lines of whitespace mar the appearance and force the reader’s eyes to drift too far to find the next paragraph.

I won’t even begin with the issue of kerning in the headlines, except to note that there doesn’t seem to have been any effort made in that department.

Continue reading “Bad Designs”

Facebook, Likes and Big Data

GizmodoI suppose you could call it ironic. There was a story from a ‘friend’ on my Facebook news feed today called “Quitting the Like” all about escaping Facebook’s data collection processes by simply not “liking” items or comments you see.

Right below this ostensibly anti-Facebook story were three related links produced by one of the Facebook data-collection bots all about the same thing: breaking free from Facebook’s data mining. I suspect the FB programmers hadn’t planned it that way. But aside from the irony, it caused me to read them all.

The first story, fully titled “I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity” is by blogger Elan Morgan who explains:

I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me as I had been in the past, but another and much larger issue was my real curiosity: how was my Facebook experience going to change once I stopped feeding its engine with likes?

Her conclusion is that by not feeding the bots through the automatic reflex of clicking “like” below a ‘friend’s’ (real or artificial) post or comment, and instead by writing something positive in a comment, you can increase the human interaction on FB and reduce the generated noise.

Quit the Like and experiment with amplifying a better signal. What will happen to your Facebook without your likes? What will happen to your perception of not only your Facebook friends but the world at large? What will happen to us?

That’s an interesting approach, one I had considered but never taken. It encourages me to try it, but I also wonder if sharing a post also generates the same sort of algorithmic reaction. Is a ‘share’ a formulaic equivalent to a ‘like’ or are they weighted in some manner? And I am not sure the algorithms don’t also track comment density and content: is replacing ‘like’ with a comment merely a cosmetic change, or does it have a significant effect?

Gizmodo reported FB is doing some automatic liking for you, behind the curtain:

You might think clicking “Like” is the only way to stamp that public FB affirmation on something—you’re wrong. Facebook is checking your private messages and automatically liking things you talk about.

What I’d really like to know is how FB’s bots manage all the content, beyond the like button. So they weigh keywords, track what we post, how we comment, share and so on? I suspect they do, but how they parse the results is a fascinating, sometimes a bit scary mystery.

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