For Chicago Public Square, a good start

Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Since my new project, Chicago Public Square—“Chicago’s new front page”—launched publicly a week ago Monday, things have gone well:

An organically grown subscription base of more than 500. 

And email open rates for the most recent four weekdays averaging 49 percent. (Compare to a media-industry average of 22 percent.)

Ask how I did it. Meyerson Strategy can help you do the same.

Note to longtime subscribers to the Meyerson Strategy email list: The launch of Square means features like the “3 Things” series or my previous work on the Chicago Tribune’s Daywatch and my late WBEZ blog will appear there, not here.

This blog—and the corresponding email subscription—will remain home to observations on content strategyjournalism, podcastingpopular culture and tech; and to occasional dives into the Meyerson archives.

I hope you’ll consider adding a subscription to Square here. (It’s free.)

Note to subscribers

Wednesday, January 18, 2017
A little housecleaning behind the scenes at the Meyerson blog. If you’ve been getting these dispatches by email for a while, you may notice a change: You’re now getting them via MailChimp instead of Google’s reliable (but kinda creaky) FeedBurner service. Please email me if this causes any trouble (duplicate emails, for instance). And thank you for subscribing. Your thoughts are always welcome here.

But, hey, because you clicked or tapped to read this, here are a few things you might also find worth some attention:

As I tweeted Wednesday — and was retweeted by, among others, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark — “At the heart of the #fakenews problem: Lazy advertisers. #kfcivichall” (a hashtag referring to livestreamed discussion at the Knight Foundation-Civic Hall Symposium on Tech, Politics and the Media).

Through the twitterstream that followed, I learned of a crowdsourced campaign to alert advertisers to their laziness — something often a consequence of automated, or “programmatic,” ad buys: The Sleeping Giants project (@slpng_giants on Twitter, on Facebook).

It provides simple guidance to help consumers enlighten companies inadvertently supporting “racist websites” with their ad dollars.

If you’re an advertiser, Sleeping Giants also offers step-by-step advice for being more selective in your own ad placement.

And another cool thing spotlighted at the #kfcivichall forum:

Upworthy CEO and veteran Eli Pariser‘s harnessing the power of the internet to address the fake news* problem, using one of the most boring possible tools you can imagine. A Google Doc.

He explained its evolution from a personal page of notes he drafted — just a few thoughts of his own — into what Forbes has called “a hive of collaborative activity.”

When he ran out of ideas, he invited, well, everyone in the world to read it and edit it. You can join in (or just delight in what happens when crowdsourcing works) here, on a page known — for now, because anyone can change it at any moment — as “Media ReDesign: The New Realities.”

If, like so many journalists at the conference and citizens everywhere, you find yourself regretting media’s “moment of great failure,” you could do worse than check out these two projects.

*As I’ve noted elsewhere, I don’t like the phrase “fake news.” If it’s fake, it’s not news. I much prefer “lies“ or “propaganda.” But that’s the phrase people are using to describe the problem, so it works as shorthand.

To a friend concerned about my journalistic credibility

Monday, January 16, 2017
Adapted from my reply on Facebook to a friend worried about journalism's "loss of focus on the tenants held so dear by those who used to lived by them" and concerned my commentary — and my sharing of others' commentary — has jeopardized my reputation as a journalist:

I'm touched by your concern about my career and my reputation, but I encourage you not to fear on my behalf.

You seem to have adopted a narrow view of journalism's true role in democracy for much of American history. You seem stuck in the mindset of the relatively brief "Age of Mass Media," characterized by, as Will Oremus noted in Slate last week, "traditional media outlets’ intense desire to be perceived as sober and objective, and thus to be respected by conservatives and liberals alike—a business imperative that has been transmuted into an ethical injunction."

I doubt you really were paying attention to my work, dating back to my time as a graduate student in journalism, when I celebrated the work of reporters who were open about their informed conclusions and didn't hide behind the false equivalence of "he-said-he-said" reporting.

I got into this business partly because I was inspired by journalists like Mike Royko, who did nothing to hide his opinions; and by Woodward and Bernstein, who were committed to seeking the truth but who were condemned at the time by people using rhetoric disturbingly similar to yours.

As I've said many times, I'm far more worried about reporting by journalists who (incredibly and impossibly) pretend to have no opinions than by those who are open about their position and let an audience decide, story by story, which reporting is fair and which isn't.

Journalism's a practice much broader and richer than your pigeonhole allows.

Also, the word you want is "tenets."

Your friend forever,


Some tips for better podcast sound

Sunday, January 15, 2017
Snappy answers to frequently asked questions:

What do great interviews have in common?
(Photo: Sergey Galyonkin)
Your answer’s as good as mine. Probably better. Depends on the interview’s goal. If you’re Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, and your goal is at least partly to entertain, it’s great interplay between the guest and the host, with lots of laughs or emotion along the way. But most of us aren’t Stewart or Colbert; our goal is to connect our audience seamlessly with our guest and his or her insight. To that end, the less of us and the more of the guest and the guest’s wisdom the better. Some of the best interviews I’ve done have been those in which I just ask a little question and let the guests run with it. I get the first words (the words that explain why the guest is interesting or important) and the last words (to say whatever I want); I don’t feel compelled to be anything more than just a low-profile instigator along the way.
(Image: Dave Gandy)
What’s the best way to structure an interview?
Depends on your intent: Do you want a full interview segment, or just soundbites? (I recommend going for the full interview, so you have that option even if you just wind up using soundbites.) Ideally, you script a strong intro and a strong close and insert well-scripted questions in between. Here’s a piece I wrote with four tips for creating a great audio interview. Here’s slightly more basic advice, created mainly for students.

How important is it that I not interrupt someone?
Very important. Makes editing harder. If you’re interviewing someone in person or on Skype, you can prep them in advance to watch for your hand gestures, like the raised finger to indicate you’d like to interrupt; or the “wind it up” motion to indicate you have all you need and it’s almost time to close or move on to the next subject. If you have a sense of how much you need from your guest, or how longwinded she or he is, you can coach them beforehand with guidance like “Hey, we have a lot to cover in a little time. Do me a favor and think in terms of (2-, 3-, 4-, whatever)-sentence answers, OK? If I need more on a subject, I’ll ask a followup question.”
What kind of questions should I avoid?
Yes-or-no questions. And plain statements that aren’t questions. (See my interview tips above.)

I can only interview someone by phone. How do I get great sound?
Each of you can record your voices using a smartphone as you talk over a landline. (Clap a few times at a recording’s start to create marks for syncing.) Then your guest can email or otherwise share with you the audio he or she has recorded at that end for melding with your voice. Key to doing this right: Make sure the phone is about 5-6 inches from the speaker’s mouth, preferably pointed at the corner of the mouth so as to avoid popping Ps and blowing Bs. Note: Some phones (early iPhones, among others; newer ones are more flexible) aren’t able to send long recordings. If you’re not sure, you’ll want to test or record in short increments (8-10 minutes) and so each segment’s not too big. Or give each user software that has no limits. (I use Twisted Wave.) Failing this—for instance, if timeliness is more essential than quality—you can use Google Voice, which records both ends of the conversation at phone-quality.

I’m interviewing someone by Skype. What should I do? Use the best microphone available, ideally a nice USB mic attached to the computer. These don’t have to be expensive; the Blue Snowball, for instance, can be had for under $50 and it works fine. Failing that, an iPhone or other smartphone headset can be better than a computer’s onboard mic. But the onboard mic on most desktop and laptop computers can work reasonably well, too. The key is figuring out where the mic is located on a computer and getting yourself and your guest to sit as close to your computers’ mics as possible. It’s not always intuitive; the mic on some computers is in back of the screen, for instance. On some MacBooks, it’s along the edge—a couple of pinholes next to the headphone jack.

How do I get the best sound when I’m not recording in a studio?
Regardless of the tech you use to record, minimizing echoes is the biggest key to a professional sound. (Clap and listen carefully and you’ll get a sense of how much echo a space has. It’s often a lot more than we realize in everyday life.) For someone using a smartphone to record, simply draping a coat over one’s head can (look stupid, yes; but also) improve the professional sound of the recording tremendously, eliminating the sound of one’s voice bouncing off a nearby wall, mirror or computer screen. Another option: Unmake the bed and get under some pillows or a blanket. Or make a fort out of couch cushions.

How can I make the interview more conversational and casual to get good information?
If you're aiming for a talk-show vibe, you can achieve a lot by constructing and ordering your questions thoughtfully. As I explain here, it’s not an easy thing to write a script (or questions) so that, when read, they don’t sound like they were written and they don’t sound like they’re being read. Note: This isn't so important when you're in the hunt mainly for soundbites or quotes; in that case, your goal is to get your listeners useful, actionable information as frictionlessly as possible. They’re not listening for small talk. Either way, reduce the noise: The “uh-huhs” and the statements that repeat or foreshadow exactly the things your guests have said or will say.

Bonus tips:
  • Avoid the urge to make statements, like, “So, that works pretty well for you, then.”
  • Avoid the old reporter’s trick of seeming to agree with your interviewee to get him or her to keep talking. This is fine if you’re just taking notes, but it makes lame (momentum-killing) listening and difficult editing if you punctuate interviewees’ answers with things like “Huh” or “That’s great” or “Yeah.”
  • Bite your tongue. Your job is to be a question-asking machine. Ask questions and then get out of the way. The easiest way to do that is to write out your questions in advance. You can always ad-lib, but do so knowingly. If you have nothing substantial to say or add, just move on efficiently to the next question.
More questions? Drop me an email.

[Adapted from advice to a Meyerson Strategy client.]