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.