Notes from a trip to the Far West:
With apologies to Scott MacKenzie: If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear ... some comfortable clothes — at least, if you're trying to get there from Memphis.
Five Flyer staffers' journey last week to a web conference for alternative media began with a flight to Atlanta, because Delta. Then, after an hour-and-a-half layover, we spent the next five or so hours in the air before touching down at SFO.
I'm not a Kindle guy, and I like to read on airplanes, so I took the fattest unread book I could find at my house: Richard Ford's 2012 epic, Canada. A coming-of-age story, told from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old boy, the novel recounts roughly six months of Dell Parsons' youth, first in Montana, and later on the lam alone in far-rural Canada. It begins with the juicy and unlikely scenario of his blue-collar parents robbing a North Dakota bank.
It's a compelling start, and the story is full of oddball and menacing characters and unexpected twists, but to say this book is languorous is an understatement. I like Ford's writing, but an editor needed to slash 100 pages from this thing, at least. The upside was, I had nothing else to do, so I kept reading until San Francisco Bay appeared out the portside window. I recommend Canada, but only if you have the time to stick with it.
The conference was three days of sessions about ways newspapers can expand, improve, and innovate online content and traffic — and of course, the never-ending holy grail of these gatherings: How best to monetize websites. Which is jargonese for "How the heck do we make money with this stuff?"
We heard speakers from papers who'd installed paywalls, with decidedly mixed results. General consensus by those who heard the presentation: probably not the way to go, unless you are The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and can afford to lose the traffic.
There was an editors' roundtable where much kvetching ensued about the time-intensiveness of web editing, the perils of on-the-fly posting, and the hours spent tagging and promoting stories via social media. But all agreed, it is the new world in which we work and it sure beats not working.
There was also a spirited conversation about how to best handle website commenters. Some papers are considering banning anonymous comments; others are pondering banning comments altogether. The reason being that they're a constant pain to monitor and often generate more rancor and pettiness than enlightened discourse, and may even be driving away traffic. I'll be curious to see how these experiments work.
But meanwhile, if you're sitting in Huey's reading this column on newsprint, let me just say, Thanks! The web is tasty marmalade, but you're still our bread and butter.