Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Should you be paying more for news?

My spouse got a sales lead the other day. At least the caller seemed like a good prospect. His product was written up in the magazine she publishes, and he must have recognized how well the magazine fit his product: He was asking for copies to circulate at his sales meeting that week.

So she packed up the magazines, put her account number on the air bill, and sent off the samples. Next week, her prospect called with a great idea from the sales meeting: If she gave him her magazine's circulation list, he could send her readers information all about his product.

This is the fate of the media company: to remind other businesses about this nifty thing called advertising.

It's no small feat to find just the right audience for a product, and potentially quite costly to scratch for that audience, much less pay to send that audience regular promotions in the mail. Media have a head start, and a thrifty way to piggyback on our skill at attracting a crowd. It won't even require a trip to the post office for stamps.

Last month the Chicago Reader claimed to have found a
"top secret" Tribune project to publish a weekly magazine of its most ambitious stories. I don't know that such a project actually exists, but it's no secret that media companies are looking for new ways to get paid. As my spouse found, marketers are unclear on the old ways we get paid.

A few days ago the New York Times described how its reporters are teaching online courses in their areas of expertise. Reporters often are as knowledgeable as professors, and they engage in daily feats of public education. But it's unlikely that candidates in this fall's election will call on taxpayers to support a daily report on how their government is doing. Considering how government is doing lately, very unlikely.

So government isn't raising cash for its civic watchdogs, and as my spouse found, business isn't necessarily seizing on cheap ways to drum up business. I'm going to propose that the audience should man up. That's you, class. If the paper is looking a little thin these days, you probably aren't paying enough for your news.

You need information, about any number of things. How the local schools rate. Where the city is spending your taxes. Ways to stay healthy. Ways to save money. Every day, what you don't know can cost you. If not money, maybe just time wasted on bad movies or bland food or boring TV.

There's no monopoly on that information, but research takes time too. You can search the public library, but hours are getting shorter and the time I'm waiting for book or a disk to arrive at the West Town branch is getting longer. Most of us don't think twice about going straight to the bookstore, or the iTunes store.

A Sunday newspaper costs less than a cup of coffee. Whether you think the Tribune more like Starbuck's or Dunkin Donuts, either way you're getting a good deal. If you paid more for the newspaper there would be more room for cream.

The cream of the newspaper for you might be more of the good parts, whatever you find most valuable. Or it could be a package that you can keep around longer, or gets topped off with more frequent updates.

An e-book might work for you over lunch, and a podcast on the way home. The reporter's online course could be the best way to dig deep into a subject, like researching a college or a car purchase. The more is at stake, the less you want to leave to chance.

These are all great ideas, but I don't expect all of them will work for you. If news is like any other consumer product, 20 percent of the customers consume 80 percent of the goods. So I don't expect all of you will pay for an ad-free newspaper. But if you had just the coupons, or just the help-wanted ads from your field, you'd use them more often.

Customized advertising is getting a lot of attention online. Social networks have the potential to focus the advertising on not only your interests, but your friends' recommendations. But even more useful ads have a cost. The reviews you get on Yelp are hit-or miss. The reviews on Angie's List, you're paying for. This week Facebook users are up in arms about how few of their actions stay private. Even if you're not paying more, there's still a cost.

So I'm making a simple suggestion. If you have a favorite gadget, an iPhone or Kindle or Blackberry, see if it makes news easier to handle. If you don't, pick up a magazine or newspaper or broadcast you're not normally using, and see if it makes more sense than what you're tuned into now. The news business isn't what it used to be. But maybe it can become what you want it to be.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Iron-deficiency chef: Let the battle begin!

I'm in training to become the next iron chef. As long as the contests do not involve actual ironing. Or actual cooking.

My quest in the ultimate gourmet challenge started as do most dreams, falling asleep at the TV.

My nose was stuck in a copy of Men's Health when I heard swordfight sounds onscreen. Well, I like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and I thought this must be the scene where Indiana Jones meets scimitar guy. But when I look up it's not Harrison Ford drawing his gun but men in loose-fitting white uniforms running around with knives in their hands.

Hmm, I think, that's an unusual approach to cross-training. Maybe I can learn something for my fitness routine, or maybe one of these guys will wind up like scimitar dude.

As usual, I'm just oblivious. These guys running with knives are chefs in a hurry, and this household is about to get hooked on another cooking reality show.

Since we're dieting in this household, staring at food seems not as much addictive as pornographic. And with the cheesy music swelling, this must be the sexy scene. Sure enough, the food was being stretched out on the plate. Just ... so. The camera lingers on the shot, then cuts to a commercial for something to quit smoking.

Cooking on TV is never what it seems. If it's not a substitute for sex, it's a competition sport. Same thing.

This fall the cable guide is full of macho food-sport choices like "Iron Chef," "Throwdown," "Dinner: Impossible" and "Glutton for Punishment." I don't know what's on "Dinner: Impossible," but I get this picture of Tom Cruise trying to make good on a half-hour pizza delivery guarantee. Papa John will disavow any knowledge of his actions. If the spies can't get it done, there's "Cupcake Wars," which is a contradiction in terms that not even the Pentagon can resolve.

And if I look away I'll be jolted back with more explosions than a spy movie too, although they turn out to be closely miked encounters with hot oil. Talk about selling the sizzle, not the steak. The cooktop sounds are so intense that the TV remote needs a button for the exhaust fan.

Anyway, I can relate to this competitive environment as an off-hours cook. The minute I'm home from work, the clock starts on how quickly I can cook dinner. My wife is either waiting there hungry, or coming back from the gym hungrier. So just like the cooking shows, the doomsday clock from "24" is always ticking away. If the cook can't jack up the grill in time, Jack Bauer grills the cook.

Mystery ingredients are a big part of performance cooking. That's when a roomful of chefs discover they have to make an entree using peanut butter, cream cheese, gummi bears and garbanzo beans. Hasn't everyone made that meal? When you can't get to the Jewel, you work with what you have.

In my case, I go to the Jewel without a shopping list and come back with macaroni and a couple cans of tomato sauce. This likely is what got my wife started on cooking shows, in self-defense: By planning menus her evening wouldn't start with my Garbanzo Bean Helper with crushed potato-chip topping.

So now I get to work with a shopping list of those impossible-to-find food-magazine ingredients. Sherry vinegar. Vegetable chutney with garlic. Prepared mango salsa in the special 14.25 ounce size. It's obvious that this is clever product placement by the Distilled Vinegar Council, which is supported by companies that sell food in 14.5 ounce jars. I'm pretty sure I can just substitute catsup. But my wife has seen the movie for this dish, and she wants it just ... so.

Shopping is not so much Food Network, more HGTV. You have to choose from three different jars of salsa. One's from an upscale neighborhood, one needs fixing up with chopped cilantro leaves and one looks like your grandmother canned it in 1987. At check-out, you pray you get your loan.

Back in the kitchen, the "24" clock starts ticking again. The first event in competitive home cooking is to match the ingredients from the shopping list with whatever recipes inspired them. The beef needs thawing, the fish needs marinating and the chicken needs grilling. The path to my best time ever is clear: Become a vegetarian.

Although I often talk up the vegan lifestyle, I've exhausted the meatless options early in the week so tonight I will have to play with a handicap and check the seafood pages of Cooking Light.

The actual recipe isn't obvious even though it's bookmarked: All marinades were placed by the Distilled Vinegar Council. I may get halfway through before hitting a catsup-substitution moment. That's when I have to face a man's most agonizing question: Should I just drive on, or ask my wife for directions?

I might be able to back off that precipice with a risky maneuver that eats precious minutes off the clock: I can read the recipe before starting to make it. Here's a warning to competitors: TV producers hide ingredients just to make the contest more interesting, and food magazines have set obstacles to make the race more challenging.

There are secret instructions, words invisible to most chefs. So when you the recipe calls for ¼cup plus a pinch of salt, do not, repeat do not overlook the secret word "divided." Choose wisely whether the sauce needs the pinch of salt or the quarter-cup.

Iron chef is not an elimination event. You don't get to work on the side dishes, wait for the judges' scores, then return after a commercial and start the entree. It all has to be timed perfectly to Jack Bauer's clock. So our fish menu today is the ultimate challenge. Do we dare prepare the salad while the fish is baking, and risk pulling a smoldering mass of shoe leather from the broiler?

In this contest the family takes the judging roles, and all judges are Gordon Ramsay, the "Hell's Kitchen" enforcer: If you've burned the glaze, you will be hazed. No wonder as we await the verdict, the chefs back in the kitchen are hitting the cooking wine.

Can you hear the music? The dinner hour is mere hours away and soon iron chefs will enter the heat of battle. Your time starts now.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Click here

News that the Chicago Tribune will start a digital consultancy comes 15 years after the Trib launched its flagship website. Fifteen years is the span between the movies "King Kong vs. Godzilla" and "Star Wars," or the distance from "Star Wars" to "Jurassic Park." Enough time for a concept to grow from a curiosity to a killer.

Fifteen years ago, the few people working in new media would write a page of code, and then test to see if it would display in both Netscape Navigator 3 and Internet Explorer 3. Subtlety was our enemy, not our friend. Just two words held the keys to click-through. As in the headline here, they just don't hold the same magic.

These days most editors and sales people work simultaneously in print, broadcast, web and mobile publishing. Not that they're kings of all media, but reaching an audience takes any means necessary. All hands on the digital staff are essentially their in-house online consultants. Advertisers need the same help to figure out Twitter or Facebook, or niche websites, or any of the pages that follow "click here."

This economy could turn any of us with a job specialty, whatever the profession, into a consultant for hire. So there's much to gain in cribbing the techniques of successful sales consultants. They're not pitching a product or service as much as listening to a client. Before any money changes hands, the buyer will have realized there's an unmet need, and a need to take action.

The wrong choice has consequences; extra expense, lost customers, trouble with the boss. So a successful sale requires some level of trust. The best sales people level with their clients about what they can and cannot do, and customers feel that everyone's on the same team. This is the difference between beating your chest like King Kong and being a Jedi knight. If the strategy works, everything clicks.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chi whiz: Why clutter holds sway

Feng shui was in the stars for me this weekend. I haven't quite aligned my home's chi with heaven and earth. But I have been clearing clutter, which for me can be like moving heaven and earth.

All the rage a few years ago, feng shui is a Chinese concept that places buildings in relation to the stars. Older Chinese expatriates seemed to see it as a silly pseudo-science, the way I think of astrology — why would the alignment of the planets have more effect on me at birth than the alignment of the doctor's hand slapping my butt?

But interior designers discovered feng shui and liked the idea of an ancient wisdom that gave everything a proper place in the world. Newly rebranded as feng shui consultants, the decorators would tell you the best place to put a door to concentrate the energy or "chi" in the room.

That does seem a lot like the astrologist who predicts the result when a Libra tries to get it on with a Pisces. (The Libra would say, "If it was good for you, it was good for me." The Pisces would say, "What was your name again?")

In feng shui, clutter is said to make you tired, cranky and unfocused. I do not need a feng shui master to tell me that. My wife would say that describes me perfectly.

There's no dispute that clutter is an irritating distraction. Every room of my house has some reminder of an uncompleted project: Extra furniture. A boxed ceiling fan. A running toilet. Gaps in the floorboards, holes in the wall.

It's dangerous watching cable TV, because the home transformations on HGTV or TLC or the Style channel invariably start with "before" scenes that look like the "after" in my household. Every show seems to inspire another trip to the Home Depot to start a newly unfinished project.

A friend suggested the path to serenity: Turn off the TV set.

Clutter can be a compulsion, but fortunately there's a help line for everything that ails you. When the voice on the phone said, "For help with compulsion press 1," I pressed the button. I pressed it again. And again.

Not that I'm a hoarder. The Chicago Tribune printed a harrowing story about a reclusive couple who collected a houseful of stuff, floor to ceiling. When neighbors complained they weren't taking out the trash, the city discovered they had been literally trapped by their trash and firefighters had to break into their home to free them.

I can't say I'm anything like that. Well, it did take awhile to find the Tribune clipping. And I'm from a long line of pack rats. You knew I was into a serious relationship not when I took a girl home to meet Mom and Dad but when I let her see the basement. That was always an adventure, finding our way back upstairs.

No, my issue is that everything stacked up at home is a reminder of more work. The only way to do them is to manufacture more hours in a day. This is how insomnia was invented, and although it has proved a boon to the Internet, insomnia does not get things done.

As managers we're used to breaking down tasks and taking at least the action that inches the ball another yard toward the goal post. With luck the goal posts don't move. What business has that's lacking in a home life is the way that profit can identify a losing proposition.

Unprofitable habits don't run out of money, they just wear their way into your life like dirt in a rug. At some point you have to go "NYPD Blue" with such a habit and start beating it out. That's usually when my habits lawyer up.

It's great to have friends if you have such habits. They stage an intervention of sorts: Their visit forces you to clean up. This weekend gave Brenda and I motivation to start getting organized before a Memorial Day cookout. We went through the house throwing out heirloom crossword puzzles and antique shopping lists. Most things easily sorted themselves into two piles: trash or compost.

Now the loose organic matter is pickling in a trash bin and surfaces are scrubbed with bleach. Chlorine at the YMCA turned my hair to straw, so I still find bleach a bit scary. A good splash of bleach will turns my wardrobe into rags, so I do treat it with the respect I would give a mob enforcer. But it seems to scare tea stains into submission.

Feng shui would hold that clutter traps energy as surely as it imprisons compulsive hoarders. Now I'm waiting for all the positive chi to move in, although with luck I won't have to wait longer for the shower.

Will we be able to keep this up? They say time is the best teacher, although it kills the students.

I'm told the ying and yang of energy are constantly shifting, which I guess means it could go either way. It's like when you first try yoga. A couple of bad sessions and you start whining to your instructor, "This is terrible. I get distracted, my back aches, I start nodding off. I can't stand it."

The teacher calmly answers, "It will pass."

Then just a week later everything clicks. You go to the teacher and say, "This is great! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive!"

The teacher calmly answers, "It will pass."

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Friend me, I'm a musician

What does a YouTube phenomenon do for an encore? David Choi is getting nightclub gigs. Web-analyst friend Matt knew his opening act at the Beat Kitchen, Mia LeBlon, so we took in their all-ages show after work. ("Then I'll split," my younger friend told his office mates at the bar, "because I'm old.")

Choi gets enough YouTube love to parlay into a CD and (his Facebook bio says) commercial work. I thought that was all I needed to know about his song "You Tube (A Love Song)," but like John Mayer, Choi has a light, date-friendly repertoire. He's so earnest that Matt detected no irony in a song about an online crush. These lovers aren't ready for "I love you too."

Both LeBlon and Choi pepper their sets with references to Facebook fandom, which was strong enough to fill the room with Naperville teens (Choi patter: "Did you say Neighborville?"), Northwestern students and a few idly curious wage-earners. After Matt left for greasy appetizers at the front of the house, Choi sang "Happy Birthday" for anyone who might be there to celebrate, and took crowd shots on his cellphone. It was just goofy fun, like YouTube.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fast ride on a slow election

I'm Grumpy, with the clip art to prove it. After voting in the Illinois primary I left town for a trip to Disney World, and the election followed me into Fantasyland.

How many people voted Feb. 2, and how many watched "Lost" that night? About 13 percent of TV sets were tuned to the "Lost" premiere, and 15 percent were were listening to contestants sing "God Bless the USA" on "American Idol." In the polling booth, at least I know I'm free. Yet two TV shows can capture more interest than voting. A scant 27 percent of registered Chicago voters were tuned in to the candidates, a record low for a non-presidential primary. Statewide totals were reportedly even lower.

Two weeks later, the election is still not quite locked up. The top Republican candidate for governor, Bill Brady, had only a few hundred votes to spare and the results are not final. Not many people know Brady, a state senator from Bloomington. And the lieutenant governor's race had enough mystery to rival Oceanic Flight 815: First we voted, then we learned about the candidates.

Today the Democrats are pulling Scott Lee Cohen off the ticket. He ran a typical campaign theme: Successful entrepreneur wants the state to benefit from his business acumen. Then we learned that he has had trouble keeping his business going, particularly the part about paying taxes. He also has an ex-wife who filed a protection order against him, and a girlfriend who filed a battery charge. The Republican nominee, Jason Plummer, had the same pitch with few troubles and few experiences. Internships were still on my resume too when I was 27. But I was working in an industrial park in Elk Grove Village, not running for high office.

None of this Illinois news made it to Florida. National media were building up a speech by a former governor, Sarah Palin, who enthralled Tea Party conventioneers in Nashville by the hundreds. Tomorrow the Emergency Nurses Association will draw twice the crowd to a leadership conference in Chicago, without a hint of hype. But saving lives doesn't have the allure of saving on taxes.

When it came to electing an actual governor, we did not stream to the polls -- at 7:30 a.m. I was the third voter in my precinct. But it's not like the candidates did much to draw them out. Every hopeful for governor had a great plan for shoring up the state finances, but none had a great plan to get the plan through the Legislature. The Democratic race for governor seemed to be about the blame for misdeeds at Burr Oak Cemetery -- not a major issue for anyone in government other than the state prosecutor, who was running unopposed for another term. Polls say she would have beat all comers for governor.

Contests lower on the ticket obviously didn't demand much attention. The lieutenant governor's seat is vacant now, and there wasn't a lot there for the last one to do. For his $135,000 salary at least Pat Quinn did newsrooms the favor of holding press conferences on slow news days. Given the odds that an Illinois governor will end up in the hoosegow, maybe we should be watching the lieutenant governor more closely. As governor, Pat Quinn is still getting in front of cameras on Sunday mornings. Is that what voters reward in a politician?

If I want a show, I'll go to Disney World. It's easy to enjoy the landscape and its well manicured ponds, and not think about how shallow they are. Just about everything at Disney is gloss. The Italian exhibit at Epcot is not as imposing as Doge's Palace, but well scrubbed. Disney has adorable city streets, but they're Hollywood Studios backlots where no one lives. Thrill rides are packaged as research at the Dinosaur Institute or the Yeti Museum. Abominable Snowman: Fact or Fiction? You're at an amusement park. It's all fiction. Yet the boy ahead of me at Expedition Everest was excited at the prospect of actually seeing a yeti! Tourists make quick work of the mountain, no sherpa required. At Disney World, the fantasy is enough.

Frankly I was glad to be on the plane home to a real-world destination but was confronted by more fantasy. In the Sky Mall catalog Hammacher Schlemmer offered a faux security camera -- a battery-powered canister that does nothing more than swivel back and forth. A faux security camera is great if you're looking for faux security. I'd feel more comfortable if police were involved. But security cameras are costly, and cops are costlier still.

Government seems more willing these days to settle for the Disney version. Airport security is on the alert for terrorists, yet bombers slip past the hair-gel inspectors. Police departments vow to keep cops on the streets, but they have to think twice about arresting someone because it will mean a crosstown trip to the nearest lockup. And schools claim to leave no child behind. So why is it that city parents pull every string they can find to avoid enrolling their kids in a local school?

A better system couldn't help but cost more. But somehow we expect every politician to lower our taxes. We'd rather think every complex problem has a simple answer, and all we need are politicians who can run government like a business. Maybe there's some truth to that. Disney runs a collection of tidy villages in Florida. But getting into the park is $80 a day. Having been presented the bill at Disney, I cannot share the tea partiers' anger about their tax bills. Call me Grumpy, but good government is complicated. Getting it will mean all of us paying more attention. Anyone who says otherwise is just Goofy.