Sunday Espresso: Theater tweets, San Jose Mercury News is bankrupt, Theater twits

    You know the drill. Espresso, one for you, one for me. Rambling conversation to follow. Relaxed and informal. Disagree at will. Facts may or may not be a concern, but opinions most certainly will. BTW – who on earth smokes an electronic cigarette?

    And… please, don’t kick me in the balls. Monday is coming.

    Tweets in the house

    The new way to informally measure audience demographic, especially in Bay Area theaters?

    Twitter.

    It’s simple. Just track tweets at any given show. A larger number is a telltale sign of a younger audience. Broadway shows get the most, since they have the larger budgets, and soundtracks that also draw fans.

    San Francisco Bay Area Newspaper Woes (i.e. more of the same)

    It’s a wreck out there in traditional media, the newspaper industry possibly the ugliest of all.

    The San Jose Mercury News is officially bankrupt.

    One of the big three Bay Area papers, in addition to the San Francisco Chronicle and The Oakland Tribune, now faces an even more uncertain future. Last week their parent company, Affiliate Media, Inc. (holding company for MediaNews which runs the Merc and 53 other daily newspapers), made the announcement (“financial restructuring”) last week.

    But you’d never know it based on the lack of coverage.

    I don’t blame writers for keeping it so hush-hush, after all who wants to write about the demise of their own company, and possibly even their job. It’s not pretty. And there’s plenty of rubber necking going on across the country.

    A key part of the deal involves an equity for debt swap, reducing debt from $930 million to only $165 million. It’s purely banking math (and a balance sheet dipsy-doodle), and does little to solve the immediate term issue of survival. Where are the new business models? Where are the new partnerships with tech companies, and or an amalgam of newly formed regional publishers? Where’s the new thinking?

    But what bugs me is the stuck-in-the-mud, old school management that has watched all of this unfold in slow motion over at least a decade.

    This is not just the Mercury, of course, it’s an industry undergoing upheaval. It didn’t happen overnight though. The Internet has been around since the 1980s. Wide spread adoption of it at least since 1994. Online publications of some kind have been around for decades. So, why the lack of foresight? The ambivalence, and arrogance?

    Every time I see a white box van with satellite up-link I think the same thing: old school. Especially when the reporter and cameraman are wearing outdated puffy network jackets with emblazoned logos. Yes, traditional media has a proud past. Tradition. It should not be lost. But it must evolve or risk extinction.

    It used to be that if you were a century old business you were blue chip. Now if you’re a century old company, you’re a dinosaur, and most likely one Google away from going bankrupt. Unless, you reinvent yourself.

    I remember the glory days of telecom. And their demise. In 1994 John Roth, then Nortel CEO, called for employees to take an infamous “right angle turn” in response to the need to reinvent the company in a new world ruled by the Internet. Problem was, the ship had already hit the iceberg, and water (and cash) were exiting at a furious pace.

    That strategy, to my eyes at least, was flawed. I watched engineers—smart guys, good guys—walk the labs of Bell Northern with hybrid telephone clothing devices wrapped around their necks. They designed glorious high tech chairs for the future, using massive amounts of R&D budget. But who would buy them? Nobody. But they were cool.

    A sense of detachment from reality this grand is shocking, if not completely surprising.

    Today, I get most of my substantive, enjoyable news from blogs. Hardcore and regional news, mind you, still comes from online papers such as the San Jose Mercury. Tech comes from TechCrunch (and also Engadget and Gizmodo for gadgets). Politics from Huffington Post, CNN, and Fox (sort of). Wine, food and arts I get from a myriad of blogs also. It’s usually more personable, humble and engaging. Not that there’s anything wrong with peanut butter and jelly.

    As the Merc newsroom has been downsized so has coverage. The audience pleasing stuff like death, celebrity meltdowns and Apple continue to occupy the front page. Substantive stuff is relegated to the nether regions.

    So I keep asking why. And, why—again—has there not been a visionary leader, inspired force that arises from the back-halls, throwing typewriters aside, unleashing a massive wake-up call?

    I think I know. Or at least can propose a reason why this has not happened… and even if it were to happen now, it’s possibly too late.

    DNA.

    It’s not in the DNA of traditional media to understand new media (although, I admit, it could very well be argued that no one understands it; we’re in the early days, with plenty of hype to spare).

    Primarily because a lot of new media, be it video, blogs, social networks, is based on technology. And technology is not a core strength; writing, journalism fortunately are, but those alone can not save a sinking ship. You can not “write” yourself out of debt with a strong op-ed.

    Ultimately, MediaNews, and San Jose Mercury News, will restructure, re-emerge and survive. But changes need to be made, not just lay-offs.

    Here’s one prescription:

    1. Hire the right DNA – get some tech leaders (yes, tech) to complement the leadership team. Pay them oodles of money, based on performance. Big bonuses. You have to. Otherwise they go work for Google, Cisco and Adobe.

    2. Partner aggressively with new media companies and blogs – create a new model for virtualized regional reporting based on best-of-breed… not just re-hashed syndicated articles.

    3. Engage – get off the high horse of a bygone era. Yes, at the ground level, you need to roll-up your sleeves and get with the unwashed Web 2.0 masses. That means Twitter, Facebook. Talking with readers. Engaging with them as equals. This is not just a management challenge.

    4. Stop sponsoring every single event in sight – why must the Merc sponsor every single event? I mean, everything. The Merc here, the Merc there. Cut back. Make smart investments. Branding is not just about a big friggin’ Merc logo at McEnery Convention Center every two weeks.

    5. Divest and streamline – get rid of non-core assets. Also, think narrow. Right now local newspapers are too broad. The newsroom has shrunk but the number of sections is still wide. Too wide. Cut some of the non-essential stuff that others are doing better, and partner for that content.

    6. Inject personality – news is news. But opinions, arts, entertainment, theater, wine, food… come on, where is the personality? Attention spans are short. Adjust your content and style accordingly. It doesn’t mean the depth can’t be there, but people are more likely to connect with something real.

    Some starry eyed dreamers suggest Blogs are the end all be all. The death knoll. They are not.

    Others expect traditional medias to come back, stronger than ever, re-invented. Partially true. But if these companies have not adapted in the last 20-30 years, why now?

    More likely I suggest: the emergence of new, yet undiscovered (or invented?) publishing models. Perhaps a hybrid combination of some kind. I know one thing: innovation is coming from tech companies, not publishing companies. The present and likely future of content (at least distribution) is in the hands of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft. It’s a digital world; bits and bytes rule… at least for now. I will not miss the black ink on my fingertips from the Merc.

    Noisy wrappers and chair kickers be gone

    Please, pretty please. For the love of Skittles, please… make all your damn noise outside the theater. Before entering, before the show starts. Before the lights go down and before we’re all intently focused on the stage. And stop kicking the back of my chair. Yes, it is irritating.

    Are you the same guy that drives 55 mph in the fast lane on 101?

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