Friday, December 26, 2008

Why startups will find the future and newspapers won't

"He concluded it would be easier to start from scratch rather than try and change a longstanding culture."

This from a story about a Philadelphian banker who left a name-brand financial institution to start the first green bank on the East Coast. Green banks work on "triple bottom lines." In addition to evaluating the financial bottom line of a loan, the also consider the borrower's impact on the environment and on people.

Such an idea runs counter to the aforementioned "longstanding culture" of most banks. Banks are traditionally about making money. To ask them to potentially compromise their ability to reap the largest amount of money possible is anathema to their very programming. Which is why the Philadelphian decided to start his own venture, rather than try to make it work within the walls of the name-brand institution.

The same could be said about the world of journalism. Much of what needs to be done to find the future of news runs directly counter to core principles in the newspaper world. The idea that news first and foremost belongs on newsprint, for example. That stories should be written in inverted pyramid-style. That the reporter is the voice of authority. That the news organization is in control.

Sometimes longstanding cultures are simply too entrenched to enable the requisite revolutionary ideas to grow and flourish. Which is why the future of news will likely be discovered by the succession of startups that are already emerging, rather than by newspapers themselves.

E&P got it wrong again

Joe Mathewson's column in Editor & Publisher a few days ago argues that a non-profit business model might be key to ensuring newspapers' survival.

Sadly, he's got it all wrong.

Mathewson is not necessarily wrong about the non-profit model. I don't have any immediate thoughts on the viability of the non-profit model of journalism. Instead, he's wrong because he thinks that the source of the newspaper industry's woes today lies in its economic model.

It doesn't.

The source of the industry's woes lies in the fact that it no longer creates a product readers want to consume. Yes, finances are contributing to the industry's decline. No one's arguing that declining ad revenues are not a factor. It's just that they're not the determining factor. The determining factor is the product itself.

The fact that Mathewson doesn't get this is encapsulated in the following comment: "A not-for-profit newspaper, of course, should have a vital online version." As if this online thingy were an afterthought, an appendage, a nice giveaway. This is archaic thinking.

A visionary thinker would put it the other way around: Increasingly, consumers like to get their news online. A new news organization should explore innovative ways of delivering news online -- and continue to print a dead-tree edition only if it can prove that the dead-tree edition has a sufficiently large customer base to merit its production.

It's a point I keep hammering away at: Until news leaders adopt the correct mindset, not only are they incapable of helping the news business find its future, they are a downright impediment to any progress.

A practice worth repeating

Here's a practice worth repeating: Voice of San Diego education reporter Emily Alpert is making a deal with readers: "Post questions you have about the SD school system, and I'll spend my Fridays tracking down the answers."

It's a great news strategy because it:

  • Produces better coverage. Alpert & the Voice of San Diego get tipped to all sorts of interesting goings-on worth reporting on that they might not have heard of otherwise.

  • Builds loyalty -- and thus increases readership. Anytime you allow someone to participate in what you're doing, you build a sense of ownership in them, and that ownership builds commitment to stick with you.

  • Increases ad impressions. It's a system that requires repeat visits (once to post the question and once, at least, to get the answer). That ups the number of eyeballs hitting the site.

To make it work, however, Alpert is going to need to do the following:

  • Track down as many answers as possible. Asking people to participate then not delivering on your promise is a sure way to turn off readers.

  • Deliver high-quality answers. Not just perfunctory statements from spokespeople. But genuine explanations to the issues readers want answered. Nothing will turn readers off faster than getting the same boiled over statements they could have gotten themselves.

Sure, Alpert will probably get more questions than she can possibly answer. And getting high-quality answers also takes time. So how should Alpert negotiate these challenges in ways that build loyalty?

  • Communicate with her readers about what she can and cannot do. Behind every reader is a reasonable human being. Human beings much prefer getting feedback, even if it's not the news they wanted, than silence. Ever been on a plane that's sitting at the gate long after its scheduled departure time? Does your blood pressure go up with every minute that passes with no news from the crew about the reason for the delay? And does it go down the minute someone explains what's going on, even if it brings bad news, like it's going to take another 45 minutes to fix whatever the problem is? Same thing with this. As long as Alpert communicates back what she can and cannot do, readers will be happy. But not giving any of the backstory will provoke discontent.

  • Enlist readers to help her answer. Encourage other readers in the know to post whatever they know. At a minimum, it'll turbo-charge Alpert's own reporting, helping her focus her efforts on the places where the answers lie. At most, it might even result in the answer itself, saving Alpert from having to do any groundwork herself.

Alpert's strategy is a great example of how moving news on to the Internet is not about just throwing the same old content that appears in print form out into the ethernet -- but it's about using the specific capabilities of the new media to produce better coverage and increase readership.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Journalism is alive and well

"Journalism is alive and well. It has merely moved beyond newspapers. It's not about the Internet. It's about better, faster more appropriate ways to communicate."

-- A comment from a visitor to The Journalism Iconoclast (not a bad place to hang out, if you're interested in the future of news)

Photo courtesy of d'n'c'. Creative Commons license.

Top Newspaper Stories of the Year -- Really?

Editor & Publisher released its annual list of what it considers the Top 10 Newspaper Industry Stories of the Year.

The problem with the list? All the stories are about, well, newspapers.

Not included:
  • Josh Marshall/Talking Points Memo's Polk Award win for tracking down the US attorneys general firings (long before the traditional media even had a clue anything was amiss, btw).

  • The rise of online organizations that are taking over the local news biz. Organizations like the Voice of San Diego, the St. Louis Beacon, and

  • The creation of new experiments, like, to try to discover new models for reporting and funding the news.

E&P's list reflects the fact that they continue to equate the news business with the newspaper business. It's as if horse-and-buggy people at the turn of the (last) century equated horse and buggies with transportation and refused to recognize that motor vehicle also equated transportation.

As long as the leaders in the newspaper business continue to see the newspaper as the core unit in this business -- rather than the practice of gathering and disseminating information, no matter what shape it takes -- they will remain fundamentally incapable, and thus unqualified, to help this industry find its future.

Photo courtesy of Bombardier. Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Newspapers are over, but news is not

The Chicago Tribune is going into bankruptcy. Detroit papers are reportedly considering limiting home delivery. The Cincinnati Enquirer is the latest to announce layoffs.

For the last few years, journalists have protested that, all signs to the contrary, newspapers are so essential there's no way they could disappear. But there is no other way to interpret the above events, except that newspapers are disappearing.

Don't believe me? Pull out a piece of paper. Plot these latest developments on a graph. Then plot all the other recent developments in the newspaper industry: declining readership, plummeting revenue, layoffs. Plot a trend line. And now ask yourself: Where is the arrow headed? It's not ambiguous. The end point is the disappearance of newspapers.

But this is not cause for despair. The disappearance of newspapers is not the same thing as the end of news.

This is a difficult point to grasp, if you are one of the folks who believe that newspapers and the news are the same thing. But they're not, no more so than "horse and buggy" is the same thing as "transportation." Newspapers are merely one kind of delivery vehicle for news. The news will continue, even if this particular delivery vehicle disappears.

"Really?" you ask. "If you're right, show us the new vehicles, the 'motor cars' that will replace the 'horse and buggy' newspapers."

Ah, yes. Well that's the thing. The new vehicles haven't been invented yet.

Sure, there are a bunch of experiments out there. Voice of San Diego. Some people look at them and mistakenly believe that, because they are the only alternatives out there, they by definition constitute the future forms. They look at those incarnations, see all the ways in which they fall short of what newspapers provided, and conclude that their position is correct: Newspapers are so essential they cannot fail, because only they can provide the public services so essential to a democracy.

But this is faulty thinking.

To look at Voice of San Diego et al and believe they are the final forms is to misunderstand how innovation happens. You don't go from one fully designed form to another. Rather, as you evolve from one to the other, you go through a series of iterations, a series of experiments, a series of throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks. From those series of experiments, from those series of learnings, you eventually develop the final forms.

Anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley understands this. Very few of the ideas we had about how to use the Internet back in the 1990s--and the websites and businesses we developed based on those notions--still exist today. (, anyone? ExciteAtHome?)

But every website that does exist today is a descendent of those experiments. Every website, every contemporary use of the Internet is built on the learnings of those prior experiments.

And so it will happen in the news business. The new forms won't appear before newspapers die completely. (I actually believe it will take 20 years before the new forms are fully baked.) But the new forms will appear, eventually.

Again, it's experience in a place like Silicon Valley that gives one that certitude. New forms always emerge to satisfy needs. And there is a desire for news. Just not in the form that it's currently being delivered. People once liked and found value in the newspaper delivery vehicle. Just as they once liked horses and buggies. But no more. The old delivery vehicle no longer meets readers' needs and expectations. Which is why they are abandoning the form, even as the need persists. And given the persistence of the need, entrepreneurs and other problem-solving types will continue tinkering with forms until they figure out the new ones.

And that's why there's no need to worry. Newspapers are dying. But the news will survive. Just not immediately. And definitely not in any form we are used to seeing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Could we please stop using the word “blogger”?

In a recent post on the Pulitzer decision to open its awards to online-only news organizations, MediaShift pointed to Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall’s receipt of the Polk Award earlier this year, saying he was “the first blogger” to win such a prestigious award.

To which I reply, could we please stop using the word “blogger”?

Mostly because the term is loaded, and more importantly because it is inaccurate—if we define inaccurate as “incorrectly describing the thing being described.”

The term “blogger” is loaded because it still evokes images of dubiously informed pajama pundits pounding away at their keyboards in the middle of the night, offering little real value to the world of journalism, other, perhaps, than alternative ways of looking at news reported by others.

But as more and more serious journalism is being distributed using blog platforms, continuing to use the term does a disservice to us all. It’s not just that its somewhat dismissive connotations are quasi-disrespectful to the folks who are not “dubiously informed pajama pundits.” It’s also that using the term perpetuates the notion that most people who communicate via blogging platforms are indeed such folks when, in fact, they are not necessarily so. Perpetuating those incorrect impressions gets in the way of understanding the actual—and valuable work—that many journalists are doing online. A journalist distributing journalism online should be called a “journalist.” Only then can we all understand—and appreciate—that what they’re doing is, in fact, journalism.

If that’s not enough to convince you, how about the simple point of accuracy? The word “blog” describes a delivery mechanism, just as the terms “newspaper”, “TV”, and “radio” all describe delivery mechanisms. The term “blog” does not describe the activity performed by a person using that mechanism. Just as someone who appears on TV may do so in any number of contexts—actor, talk show host, reporter—a person who uses a blog to communicate to the world may be performing any number of activities—opinionating, traveloguing, reporting. So to use the word “blogger” to refer to someone who uses blogging technology is as inaccurate—and potentially ridiculous, if you actually think about it—as it would be to refer to someone who communicates via TV as a “TVer”.

So here’s my plea. Starting in 2009, could we retire the word “blogger” and, instead, simply label people using blogs according to the specific work they are doing? Call a journalist a journalist, a pundit a pundit, and people who do both (like Marshall) "a journalist and pundit."

Photo courtesy of procsilas. Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The single essential failure

"If the automakers' difficulties can be traced to a single, essential failure, it is their belief that they could avoid change."

-- Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 8, 2008

There's been a lot of ire in the journalism world about Jeff Jarvis blaming journalists for their current fate. But I have to agree with him. Newspapers' difficulties today can be chalked up to the same essential failure as the carmakers': The belief they could avoid change.

The difference, mainstream journalists will argue, is that journalism was producing a quality product. Unlike Detroit, which kept producing gas guzzlers when the tide was turning toward more fuel efficient vehicles, the mainstream media kept producing important, democracy-foundational journalism.

I will argue that the difference is not so great.

Both have continued to produce products that customers increasingly don't want. In journalism's case, the mainstream media may continue to be producing "important news," but it's not in the form readers want. The same way Detroit continues to produce "transportation," but not in the form drivers want. So this is the point: It doesn't matter how "valuable" your product is. If your customers don't want it, your future is limited. To survive, you have to evolve.

This is how the traditional media failed. They believed they didn't have to change, because their product was so valuable. They were wrong. The world does need what they produce. But we need it in the form in which we'll consume it.

Photo courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal. Creative Commons license.

New media tools power coverage of Blagojevich scandal

Poynter's E-Media Tidbits blog has a great piece on how community news site Windy City is using new media tools to turbo charge their coverage of the Blagojevich corruption schedule.

Two innovative tools they created to report on this story:

-- "Blagojevitter" -- a page that lists all Twitters with words "Blagojevich" or "Jesse Jackson" in them.

-- A word cloud of the federal complaint against Blagojevich. A word cloud is a visual representation of how frequently particular words are mentioned in a particular document. The more mentions the bigger the word. A quick glance at the word cloud tells you which words are used most frequently.

"So what?" you might ask. What does this really tell us? Neither is the equivalent of a straight news story that answers the questions Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

True. But they're still valuable. They're still worth providing for your readers. Here's why:


-- For journalists, think of this as a new kind of primary source. Just as going out and doing a bunch of "man on the street" interviews helps you understand what happened and what people think about it, reading these tweets can help you build a picture of what's happening and help you get a read on what your community thinks about it.

-- For readers, this is fun and interesting. Sure, they won't get out of reading the tweets the same thing they'll get out of reading a standard news story. But some readers like this primary source stuff. As a Washington Times reporter recently told me, the rise of phenomena like YouTube have made the average person on the street increasingly used to reading and watching unfiltered information. It's building an appetite for raw information. News organizations should start thinking about how to provide that.

Word cloud

-- As E-Media Tidbits pointed out, "This approach can provide insight into a document -- even on a subconscious level. For instance, this image makes it obvious that the Chicago Tribune is a significant topic of the complaint."

-- Again, those insights are important both for journalists, who can treat it as a primary source, and readers who are hungry for raw information.

The fact that both of these are valuable even though they aren't "real" news stories illustrates a final point: In the new world, traditional news articles are no longer the sole offering of merit.

Rather, any piece of information you can put out there that helps provide insight into a news story or feeds you readers' hunger--whether it looks like a traditional story or not--is a value service to your readers.

Screen shot taken from Windy City Blagojevich word cloud.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The need to move from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance

I recently interviewed and Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Andrew Rasiej for a story on how new media turbo charged coverage of the 2008 presidential election. He made an important observation in that conversations: Many newspapers operate online with a scarcity mindset, when they really should have one of abundance.

For example, on Nov. 5, the day after the historic presidential election, the NY Times posted only a handful of photographs from the previous day—when they very well could have posted a slew.
I remember noticing that as well. I’d been in Oakland on election night. The next day I went looking for photographs of celebrations around the country. I wanted to see if they had been as wild as Oakland’s. (In fact, as I soon learned, many were much more wild.) I remember subconsciously being surprised at how few pictures the NY Times had up on its site. If ever there were a day to just throw out pictures galore, this was it.

This is the scarcity mindset. When you only have a certain number of physical newspaper pages, there are only a certain amount of photographs you can publish. So you get in the habit of choosing only the best and running with those.
But on the Web, bandwidth is limitless. So not only can you post a gazillion photos, should you choose to do so, but—and this is important—your readers actually expect you to—just as I expected the NY Times to.

Moving into the abundance mindset, and posting as much content as possible,* will help ensure the future of news organizations for two reasons.

-- It generates revenue. Think about how many more ad impressions the NY Times would have gotten from me—and people like me, hungry for images from that transformational day—had they posted a slew of photographs.

-- It allows you to meet your readers' expectations. Not making more content available, on the other hand, violates expectations, and that’s a very bad thing to do. It irritates people, decreases their loyalty, and reduces the chance they’ll keep coming back.

* A quick note on what I mean by “more” content. I don’t mean more stories necessarily. That’s unsustainable in these days of slashed staffs. “More” content doesn’t have to be about creating a lot of new work. Rather, it’s about using as much as possible of what you already have—photographs, interview transcripts, even interview audio turned into podcasts, plus all those little observations, behind-the-scenes happenings, and little nuggets that would never make it into a formal “story”, much less merit a story of their own, but that nevertheless could conceivably be of interest to someone, and therefore is worth throwing up on the Web as a standalone item.

Photo courtesy of Somerslea. Creative Commons license.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's not about finding a new way to pay for the same old thing

On Thursday, I wrote about how the SF Chron's editor is thinking about jacking up the paper's newsstand price in order to cover operating costs. Today, I'm reading a post on about how maybe some newspapers should convert to non-profit status as a means of ensuring their viability.

Come on, people. This is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The problem is not the business model. It's the product offering. How do we know this? Declining readership.

If readership were staying level--or, better yet, soaring--then you'd know you had the right product on your hands. And in that case, yes, tinkering with the business model would be the right tactic to take to ensure one's survival.

But declining readership tells a different story. It means there are fewer customers out there who want what you're selling. There's not a single business school out there that will teach the principle: "When you have a declining customer base, fiddle with the price structure." Instead, they'll say, "When you have a declining customer base, you have a problem with your product." Solution: Go back to the drawing board and rethink your product.

Journalists and news observers who continue to point to the business model as the source of what ails us are doing this business a disservice. What we need to do is to rethink the newspaper altogether. We need to go back to the drawing board, to develop a real understanding of what our potential customer base (ie: all the potential readers in our communities) want out of a "news" organization--and how they want to receive news--and then come up with a new product offering altogether.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Times Extra: An Assessment

The New York Times just launched "Times Extra", an "alternative" home page that appends to some stories a list of links for related stories at other websites.

The home page basically looks the same, except for the new list of links under certain stories, like the one at right.

What's future-of-news-y about it:

-- It embraces the mindset that "we aren't the only ones who know what's going on." In the early days of the Internet, the name of the game was attracting people to your site and keeping them there. Today, it's about helping your readers find the best stuff out there, irrespective of whether it's on your site or not.

This might seem counter-intuitive. If a reader leaves your site to go elsewhere, aren't you losing those ever-important eyeballs--and consequently your bill-paying ad impressions? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. A site that declares, implicitly if not explicitly, "we know we don't have a monopoly on good information and interesting stories, and we want to help you find the best out there" builds trust. And trust these days is what builds loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps people coming back to your site. So you might lose a few ad impressions today by letting your readers go elsewhere. But that will more than pay for itself in the ad impressions you'll get in the future when they come back, because they've come to see you as the trusted source for news, wherever that news lies.

What's old-school about it

-- Not much.
(Though I'm not crazy about the green font -- It's hard to read -- But that's a nit. And it's just bad design, not old school -- It's OK. The Times folks will figure it out and improve later -- No need to get everything right the first time out of the gate.)

What else I'd like to see / What else I'd like to know

-- I'd like to know how the Times is choosing the links. Are editors hand-picking them? Or are they being automatically generated through some kind of bot?

One of the links listed under the Obama story in the image above takes you to a blog called Slog. That's cool. But who's "Slog"? If you told me the link to that site had been hand-curated, I'd have confidence it was worth my time. So would I if you told me it came from a bot built to find the best items out there. But right now, I'm wondering whether that list is randomly generated. If so, that's bad news. Not only would the list not necessarily be helpful, it could actually send me to a bunch of time-wasting stories. In that case, the value of the list would plummets and the Times would lose my trust as a reliable source of good information. Lose my trust, and you lose my loyalty.

-- I'd like to see a behind-the-scenes blog from the experimenters at the NY Times, sharing with us what they're doing, why they're doing what they're doing, and what they're learning from it. They could answer the above question in that blog, for example. They could also report back on how readers are using Times Extra. How many people who try it stick with it (as opposed to convert back to the regular Times home page)? Which links seem to invite the most clicks? How quickly do people who leave come back?

Many companies already offer these kinds of behind-the-scenes looks. The Google team has one. So does the Google Earth team. In fact, Google has a whole slew of behind-the-scenes blogs for people who want to look under the hood at what the company is doing. The NY Times -- and indeed all journos who are experimenting with new forms of collecting and disseminating news -- should have blogs reporting on their efforts. It's the only way to speed up our collective learning and turbo-charge the innovation we need to in order to save this business of ours.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In praise of experimentation

NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof started Twittering in November.

Here’s what I love about it, as reflected in a tweet on Dec 3:

@sashak and @myoung Thanks for the welcome. I'm trying to avoid going extinct. Help teach me how to do this....--ndk

Kristof has no idea what he’s doing… and yet he’s trying it anyway. That’s the kind of mindset we need in the news business: Just try it and figure it out as you go.

Here’s the second thing I like about it: “Help teach me how to do this.”

Gone is the traditional journalistic “we know best” arrogance. (Not that I’m accusing Kristof of being arrogant. I've never met the guy, but he actually seems like one of the most down-to-earth journos out there.) In place of that distance-creating arrogance are:

a) The admission that he’s ignorant (or, put another way, a beginner),

b) A recognition that the folks out there can probably help us journos find our way to the future, and

c) A willingness to help them help us.

All of these are incredibly valuable mindsets for finding our way forward. Kristof's courageous dive into something he doesn't quite understand--but realizes might hold a key to the future--is a model to emulate.

Why the San Francisco Chronicle is in trouble

The San Francisco Chronicle is in worse shape than I thought. Their editor, Ward Bushie, went on local public radio show "Forum" today to discuss the future of journalism in general and the Chron in particular, and his entire mindset left my jaw gaping open in incredulity. Showing an amazing lack of strategic sense, Bushie seemed to be saying he could only see two possible ways out of the hole: raise advertising rates or raise the cost of the paper.

Hmmm…. Talk about thinking "inside the box."

Bushie didn’t talk at all about possibly rethinking the paper—either the Chron itself or the idea of a newspaper in general. He apparently assumes that the Chron—or newspapers in general—should continue to provide the exact same product that they offer today (ie: the combined international/national/local/sports/business/home/life/entertainment package that they offer today). There was no: “Let’s go back to the drawing board and see where our competitive advantages lie and figure out what value we can deliver to our customers and then come up with a bunch of potential alternative incarnations that we’d be able to knock out of the ballpark and support financially.”

Instead, Bushie spoke about potentially jacking up the price of the paper, which is 75 cents today. And what was his rationale for thinking this was a reasonable idea? Most cups of coffee are about $2, he said. And the New York Times already costs $1.50. (At least it does if you’re in California. Maybe not on the streets of NYC.)

Such faulty thinking is flabbergasting. A thing isn’t worth more, just because other things are worth more. A thing is worth what your customer thinks it’s worth--what they’re willing to pay for it. Given the plummeting readership in newspapers in general, I sincerely doubt that the average San Franciscan would be willing to pay more for something they are increasingly less interested in.

The other revelation that further called into doubt Bushie's ability to lead the Chron into the future was that he repeatedly spoke about how much the paper been talking to “their readers” to find out what “their readers” want. But these, in fact, are the wrong people to be talking to. In order to survive, newspapers need to enlarge their customer base. Newspapers like the Chron should be talking to people who don’t already read (and buy) the newspaper. They should be trying to figure out how to convert those people from non-customers into customers. Normally, I fully support talking to and designing for your customers. But not when your existing customers don’t form a sufficient base.

In short, Bushie’s mindset seems to be this:
“The Chron is a great paper. We should figure out how to continue to support it, in its current incarnation, though maybe with a few tweaks.”

But to survive—or rather, to grow into a thriving news entity—a newspaper’s mindset today needs to be:
“What sorts of news are the citizens of our community interested in? What portions of those can we be really good at delivering? And how can we deliver them in a way that the members of our community will consume them?”

The full interview (available for download) is here.

Image courtesy of AlbySpace. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I was wrong

Last week I railed against newspaper CEOs and their Nov 14 confab at the American Press Institute on how to salvage their industry. It was the blind leading the blind, I said. How could these guys, who'd driven the newspaper business into the proverbial ditch, ever be the same folks who'd be capable of figuring our way out? A summit among them, I declared, was a waste of time.

Well, I was wrong.

I'm still going to hold on to my reservations about the CEOs themselves. I need to see concrete proof that they know what they're doing before I'm willing to give them a by. But Steve Miller and James Shlein, the turnaround specialists hired to lead the meeting, actually do seem to be on the right track. API published a summary of their recommendations. I have to admit that a lot of the things they're advocating are things I've called for myself.

  • Act like an entrepreneur; stop thinking first about why a new approach won't work.

    I talked about the value of experimentation and not waiting until something is fully baked--even at the risk of failure--in this post about how to think like a designer and
    this post about two newspapers' different approaches to using Twitter.

  • Create a portfolio of initiatives; recognize that some will fail and kill those quickly.

    "If I were a newspaper publisher today" talks about the need to create just such a portfolio.

  • Don't wait for every data point before taking action. "Ready, fire, aim" should be the operating principle.

    "How to think about the new WaPo political aggregation site," I noted how polished the new "Political Browser" site was and indicated that that was a red flag for me. A polished design could indicate that someone thinks they've figured it out when, really, we all need to be in "throw it up against the wall and see what sticks mode."

  • Use downsizing as a tool when necessary to achieve a larger strategy, not simply as a cost-cutting goal.

    I haven't really talked about this, but I totally agree. Downsizing without restrategizing just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to downsize, if you're going to leave yourself with fewer staff than you need to deliver a quality product, you need to rethink your product and come up with one that you can deliver with quality, given the amount of people you have.

  • Figure out how to leverage core competencies into new directions and new niches.

    In "The end of news *as we know it*", I talked about how the demise of newspapers doesn't mean the demise of news. News will continue, but in new forms. The mission of people in the news business today needs to be to find those forms.

  • Be honest with employees, and get ideas from those on the front lines.

    See my
    "How about Googling up?" post for ideas on how to leverage Google's "20% project" idea to get great ideas from the front lines.

  • Don't sit and cower and weep about your problems. Inspire.

    "Who, exactly, is the problem?" I talked about the need to put the recriminations aside and dive in and try to find the future.

  • Collaborate with outside entities that can bring expertise or resources.

    Yup, agreed with that in
    "Getting ahead--and producing better journalism--by letting others help us." Also talked about how Dan Rather might have avoided getting fired, if he'd brought in the wisdom of the crowds before he put the Bush/National Guard memo story out into the world.

  • Pay attention to, and leverage, the brand.

    I haven't addressed this, but I agree that, in the future, brand will be an important competitive advantage.
In sum, then, these strike me as extremely wise guidelines. Every news exec, whether on the business side or editorial, and, come to think of it, every person working in the news biz, should post this list on the wall next to their desk, fold it up and stick it in their wallets, and slap it on their bathroom mirror. And then they, we, all need to strive to live by these rules every day until we find the future of this crazy, struggling, but not hopeless business of ours.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The surge in newspaper demand on Nov. 5 don't mean a thing

When the news started coming out on November 5 that people were lining up to grab copies of newspapers the day after Barack Obama was swept into office, journalism discussion boards around the country lit up. "See!" they all said, in one way or another. "People really do want their newspapers."

Or, as Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi put it in a letter "To newspaper readers everywhere," which was posted on Poynter: "Finally, You recognized something in me [the newspaper] again. Something that had been dormant all these years. That You needed me."

But they got it all wrong.

To back up a second. When you design a piece of software, or probably when you design anything, you draw up a list of "use cases." These are the scenarios in which you expect your users to need to, well, use the tool you're developing. From those use cases, you extract "requirements" (ie: the system needs to do X, the system needs to do Y). And from those, you decide how you're going to fashion the thing.

What happened on the Wednesday after election day was simply a use case--the use case of "I want a memento of this momentous occasion." That's a very different use case than "I want to get news." To draw a larger conclusion about the future of newspapers than simply that people wanted a keepsake in the wake of a dramatic event is like suggesting that Burl Ives (were he still alive today) has a recording career simply because people like to listen to a particular song of his around the holidays. It's faulty thinking, and it only keeps us from clearly understanding what it actually happening in this business (ie: fewer and fewer people want to get their news from dead trees) and even further from finding our way forward.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Someone Who's Bullish on the Future of Journalism

"I'm sitting here at LaGuardia feeling absolutely bullish about the state of journalism."

Whoever said that has to be off their rocker, no?

Well, not exactly. David Cohn is an ambitious twenty-something journalist who's been hacking his way toward the future of news future. He's currently leading, a massive experiment in seeing if crowdfunding* can be used as a model to fund journalism. Previously, he teamed up with new media thought leader (& NYU J-School prof) Jay Rosen on New Assignment.Net, another project to explore potential new models for journalism. And before that, for those looking for traditional journalism cred, he wrote for Wired, SEED, and, yes, even the New York Times.

In a post on his DigiDave blog today, Cohn wrote that the reason he's feeling so bullish is because of the massive number of experiments going on, right now, to invent the future of news. (See his post for some examples.) "The answers are out there," he wrote, "in every startup (journalism focused or otherwise), community, blog, micro-blogging, micro-financing and CMS on the web."

How does that work, you ask? What does it mean that "the answers are out there in every startup?"

This is standard innovation practice. This is how Silicon Valley works. Thousands of players dive in, all with good ideas about how to make a particular industry work. They put their ideas in play, and, out there, in the market, and over time, the ones with legs emerge. But the ones that don't ultimately succeed also contribute. Because others learn from their experiments. They learn what works and what doesn't. They get new ideas for something new to try.

"What we need right now is 10,000 journalism startups," Cohn wrote. "Of these 9,000 will fail, 1,000 will find ways to sustain themselves for a brief period of time, 98 will find mediocre success and financial security and two will come out as new media equivalents to the New York Times."

I agree. This, simply, is how we are going to find the future. And we will find it. Through experimentation and trial & error. Eventually we will find the future. It will look nothing like what we know journalism to be (which is why those startups Cohn mentions can seem so baffling to traditional journalists). But we will get there.

* DEFN: "Crowdfunding": Getting the public to pay for your project.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The blind leading the blind

I just don't get it. One of the biggest news stories of the day is the imminent implosion of GM and other car manufacturers. It's driving everyone crazy that we're thinking of bailing out corporations that willingly refused to read the writing on the wall, rejigger their business models, and position themselves for the future.

And yet.

Today, 50 newspaper CEOs are huddling at the American Press Institute in Reston, VA, to figure out how to salvage their industry.

On the one hand, their own newspapers are reporting on what numbskulls those automotive CEOs are and how they got us into this bind we're all collectively in--and even in some cases, how those recklessly mismanaging bums should be tossed out so that bailout money doesn't go to waste. And on the other hand, they can't seem to realize that, in looking at that story, they're staring into their own.

There isn't a single person out there who believes the car manufacturers will find their way into the future without it being dictated to them from clearer-thinking folks. So why, I ask you, why does the news business think that the executives who exhibited the very same behavior as those car executives--who clung to the old ways of doing things when it was clear those old ways had no future--will be the ones to now figure out the future?

You know who should be in that meeting? The people who've been working on the future, who've figured out how to do journalism in the new world. Why didn't they invite the head honchos from Talking Points Memo, Politico, Nerve & Babble, TechCrunch, GigaOm, Yahoo! News, TreeHugger and Huffington Post? Granted, not all of these are "news" sites in the traditional "newspaper" sense of the word. But they are all sites that report news--and are doing so profitably. So maybe they know a thing or two about how to make things work in this new environment we're in.

Albert Einstein once said something to the effect of: "You can't solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into it." So why, could someone please explain to me, does the news industry think it can?

Note: For a lively conversation on this topic, visit Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine.

PS: Upon further research, I think this is worse than I thought. According to a note on the API website itself, this is a meeting about how to "turn around" the news industry, and it's being led by a management professor and turnaround guru. Now, I'm not an expert in these things, but don't turnarounds only work when a company is underperforming within an otherwise healthy industry? I just don't see how they can do much good when it's the industry itself that is problematic. In that situation, you need innovation, not turnarounds, no?

Photo courtesy of clagnut. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NYT "If You Were President" game: An assessment

The New York Times has created this cool "If You Were President" tool where you can vote on who you should think Obama should appoint to various cabinet posts.

What's "future of news"-y about it:

-- It's fun. The news doesn't have to be serious. Yes, choosing cabinet secretaries is serious business. And most of the players appear to be making serious choices. (Daffy Duck has yet to make it into the rankings.) But anything a reader can play with is fun. And fun is good--for building brand loyalty and generating return visits.

-- It's putting control in readers' hands. It moves away from the old school "we tell, you listen" mindset and invites readers to participate.

What's "old school" about it:
-- It doesn't go far enough. Why aren't they taking a
Fantasy Football approach to this? Why don't they let people create individual accounts, so they can "own" their teams? Why don't they let people debate the pro's and con's of each candidate? Just imagine the discussion it would generate. That's a huge missed opportunity to score return visits -- and multiple ad impressions.

Good on the New York Times for going beyond the text-only mindset. But come on guys. Let go completely. Put it in the readers' hands and let them go wild.

The new Politico 44 site -- An assessment

Politico has a new site up -- "Politico 44," subtitled "A Living Diary of the Obama Presidency."

What's "future of news"-y about it:

-- It's breaking away from the newspaper-y "mental model" of news--everything thrown into the same package. Instead, the editors are thinking about their readers and what their readers want. Is there appetite for Obama news alone? Great, they clearly said, let's create a "product" that delivers just that.

-- The "President Elect's Calendar" feature (right). Sure, it might feel like it's not
telling us much (yesterday just had four items: Obama goes to gym, Obama arrives at office, Obama goes to Vets Day memorial, Podesta briefs reporters), but that's OK. It's breaking out of the "everything as text" mindset of traditional journalism. And that's a good thing.

What's "old school" about it:

-- It's lifeless. There's no party going on there. Just a bunch of stuff the Politico staff has thrown up there. No interaction. Nothing dynamic. Nothing in a crowdsourcing direction.

-- When you click through to a story, you lose your location -- you're thrown back into Politico regular. Sure, that might be a good way to drive traffic to Politico. But it won't last. People come to destinations because they want to feel like they're somewhere. Something that's just a wrapping paper over the old stuff won't build loyalty.

Good on Politico for giving this a shot. But like all v1's, it's going to need a few more iterations, many probably, before it finds its groove.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Time to choose: Deck chairs or lifeboats

Cheering the fact that the new design of the physical-paper Boston Herald "looks better" than the old design is like saying the Titanic, as it was going down, looked better with new curtains.

Come on people! You have to stop re-arranging deck chairs and start building lifeboats.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Why passion is key

While flitting around Twitter today, I came across the tweet stream belonging to the CEO of Zappos, the killer online shoe store. In one of his recent tweets, he made the following observation:

What I've learned in life and business: the people that care most always win. I've been on both sides. If you're most passionate, you'll win.

The wisdom seemed apropos to the news business.

I've talked before about how news organizations have to put their futures in the hands of staffers who are most passionate about the places news creation and delivery are going. Not the most senior staff. Not the ones with the greatest experience or most impressive accomplishments according to the traditional, paper-news metrics. But the people who are really jazzed about how we'll be able to generate and deliver news in the brave new digital world. Not only because they are more likely to win, as the quote above says. But also because only they will have the drive to keep on through the tough slog that awaits this business.

Photo courtesy of ms4jah. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

If at first you don't succeed...

"If at first you don't succeed, call it version 1.0."

It's an old saying in the tech world. But it reflects the mindset that has enabled Silicon Valley to produce the likes of Apple, eBay, PayPal, and Google. This mindset says: "There's no such thing as failure. There's only version 1.0. And then version 2.0. And then 3.0."

Things aren't expected to work great -- or even work -- the first time around. But that's OK. Things not working right the first time around doesn't constitute failure. It constitutes a necessary step on the way to figuring out what does work.

It's a mindset news organizations simply need to adopt. They need to move away from "We don't release it to the world until it's fully baked" to "Let's throw it up against the wall and see what sticks."

So let's say it again: "If at first you don't succeed, call it version 1.0." (And then go back to the drawing board to start working on version 2.0.)

Photo courtesy of eyesplash Mikul. Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 29, 2008

How to think about the new WaPo political news aggregation site

Last week, The Washington Post launched a new offering called The Political Browser, a site to aggregate the best of political news from around the Web. Say what? Yeah. Just like The Huffington Post or Real Clear Politics.

So here's how it works: The Post scours the Web for great political stuff and posts its favorites on their site. And then various members of their political team weigh in and comment on that other stuff.

Say what, again? You mean, all that stuff that the traditional media has been railing against, the Post is now doing? Yeah.

So how should folks in the traditional media think about this?

Here's what I like about it:

  • The Post is experimenting.

    And you all know how I feel about experimenting. Anything that might help us figure out the future of news is a good thing.

  • The Post has turned around and embraced a practice that for so long was discredited and derided among the traditional media.

    This is a good sign. It means the leadership there is breaking out of the inside-the-box thinking that will sink any enterprise that is trying to adapt to new conditions.

Here are some things the Post should consider, as they move forward:

  • Is the person who's leading the effort wildly passionate about new media, and do they have a near-maniacal vision about how they want to execute the project?

    The site won't work if the folks at the Post are merely copying what's being done elsewhere. If the conversation behind the site went something like this, "Hey, look at those other aggregation sites. They seem to have some legs. Hey, you, random person over in the corner, tag you're it. Take this on and figure out how to make it work." If that was the conversation, then the site is doomed to fail.

    The Huffington Post and Real Clear Politics and all the other (successful) aggregation sites work because they have a driving vision about what they want to do and especially about the kind of content they want to post. The selection process becomes a voice, if you will, and it's the voice that builds audience loyalty.

    Here's an analogy. Let's say you want to open a sporting goods store. One of the things that will drive your success is if you have a vision of the kind of sporting goods you want to sell and the "personality" you want your store to have. A store that has no selection criteria, that just kind of takes whatever, will never have the success of, say, a lululemon, the wildly successful yoga apparel retail chain that builds devoted followers because it does, in fact, have a personality that buyers identify with and want to be part of.

    So to succeed, to build a devoted audience, The Political Browser is going to have to have a personality. And the personality is only going to come from someone with a driving vision of what they want it to be about.

  • The visionary who drives The Political Browser must be given complete latitude to execute how they see fit.

    This won't work if there's some committee looking over their shoulder, questioning various decisions or getting jittery and asking them to pull back. The project needs to have the latitude to try all sorts of different things. And yes, many of those things will be duds. And some of them might even end up embarrassing the Post. But this is par for the course, and there is no way but through. The Post are like newbies at soccer right now. You got to give them time to learn the game. And any time you're learning a new game, you fumble a lot more than you score.
Here are some red flags:

  • The site is much too purty.

    That's good right? No, it's bad. A site that looks as polished as The Political Browser means one of two things: The creators think they've figured out the formula (when they really should be in "throw it up against the wall mode," or they are placing an undue emphasis on design (when it really needs to be about the content). Take a look at Huffington Post or RealClearPolitics. They've been around for years, and they still look like were designed by somebody's brother-in-law on his day off.

  • Talk about revenues.

    The site's executive editor, Jim Brady, told Editor and Publisher that he hopes the site will become political junkies' first-stop shop for political news from around the Web--and generate revenue via ads.

    There's nothing wrong with trying to drive revenue, of course. That is the name of the game: How to find ways to drive traffic that will generate revenue. I just hope that the Post will give The Political Browser a little time and not immediately evaluate it based on revenue earned. No site whose primary goal was "generate revenue" ever succeeded in building a loyal audience. The first goal has to be to create a great site full of great stuff that people become addicted to. Then worry about the money.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Jarvis agrees: Zell is not the problem

This is quite exciting.

Sometimes I feel like the lone cranky voice out here, the party pooper at the journalism party, because I refuse to blame "rapacious" businessmen or cultural superficiality for the demise of the news business but instead lay the blame at the feet of reporters themselves. But now, it turns out I'm not alone.

Respected media commentator and Internet strategist Jeff Jarvis, he of BuzzMachine (#520 on Technorati's list of the top blogs -- not too shabby, given that there's only, like, a jillion blogs out there), declared last week that "Zell is not your problem. You are."

The post was written in response to a suit filed by a group of current and former LA Times staffers against Sam Zell, accusing him of "recklessness in the takeover and management" of the paper.

The Times veterans should not be suing Zell, Jarvis declared. They should be suing themselves.

The rap sheet included the following crimes:

"When the paper was the most overwritten, under-edited consumer of wasted ink and paper in the United States of America, boring its audience with jump after jump of self-indulgent text and forcing readers to flee for TV, did you get out your pencils and start trimming and tightening? No."

"When the internet came, did you all - every one of you as responsible, smart journalists, on your own - leap to get training in audio and video? Did you immediately hatch new ways to work collaboratively with the vast public of bloggers able and willing to join in local journalism? Not that I saw."

Not to toot my own horn, but what the hey, this is exactly what I wrote about last month in "Who, in fact, is the problem?"

At the time, I quoted Newark's mayor paraphrasing MLK in saying that, "The problems of today are not the vitriolic words and the evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people."

My point was that, in challenging times, the average person can't sit around and point fingers. The average person has to get off their duff and be part of the solution.

And, as someone who's felt like that lone cranky voice, it's enormously exciting to hear others making this point. I genuinely believe that the only way we'll be able to find the way forward is if every single person working in this business accepts that the old days are gone, faces the reality of our new environment, and dedicates themselves to exploring new--and effective--ways of doing what has always been the so very important mission of the news business: informing our communities about what's going on in them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

So how *should* newspapers use Twitter?

On Monday, we talked about two newspapers that made poor use of Twitter. Which raises the question: What is a good use of Twitter?

Another way to ask this question is: If I were still back at one of the Silicon Valley tech companies I used to work at, and that company was actually a newspaper, how would we think about how to use Twitter?

The first thing we'd do is recognize that Twitter is a unique technology with unique attributes. Which means that even though is kind of looks and acts like a different technology we're already using (ie: RSS), we shouldn't immediately assume they're the same and start using Twitter for the same kind of stuff we're using RSS for.

Unfortunately, many newspapers are doing exactly that.

RSS is a great way to draw readers to your newspaper's website. It solves the reader's problem of "I don't want to have to visit a bunch of websites in order to decide what I want to read today. Instead, I want the headlines of all my favorite websites in a single place, so I can decide what I want to read." And that's how many readers use RSS. They sit down at their computer, open their RSS reader, and start to read the day's news. (Or yesterday's, if they're behind. Or last week's, if you're as behind as me.)

A quick survey of newspaper tweets (like The State Newspaper in Columbia S.C., or the Chicago Tribune, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) shows that a bunch of editors looked at Twitter and said to themselves: "Oh, hey, this looks like RSS. Let's use it exactly the same way to broadcast our headlines and bring readers to our sites."

But they were wrong.

Twitter is a different technology with different attributes than RSS. And more importantly, users use it completely differently. Not acknowledging that users use it for something different than RSS is setting newspapers up for failure. What worries me most about that is that, once they fail to build up an audience using Twitter in this way, they'll decide that Twitter "doesn't work." And then close it down and never use it again.

And again, they'd be wrong. More importantly, they'll be losing a big opportunity to serve their readers -- and build up a revenue-generating audience.

So let's start at the beginning: What do "different attributes" and "different usage styles" mean?

Take cars vs. bicycles, for example. A very simplistic interpretation would say: "Oh, hey look: Things you can sit on that will take you somewhere." If that's all you understood about them, you might make the assumption that, since a car can take you on a 400-mile trip, a bike can too. Which, of course, it can't. And if you'd gotten on that bike expecting it to take you 400 miles, and then got winded after five, you'd probably think the thing sucked, kick it to the curb, and never use it again. And again, you'd be wrong. And worse, you'd miss out on an opportunity to enjoy all the great things bikes can do.

So what are Twitter's attributes?

-- Real-time delivery of something happening now

-- The ability to get updates on my cell phone, so that no matter where I am, I can find out what's going on now

-- Really short missives (no more than 140 characters)

-- Able to include links to the Web

-- Potentially interruptive (if I set my cell to beep at me when I receive a Tweet, it's going to interrupt whatever I'm doing)

And what's Twitter's usage style?

-- Users use it to stay on top of real-time events. As its founders stated, it's designed to answer the question, "What are you doing now?" (A very different question / problem, we should note, than what RSS was designed for.)

The next thing we'd do at my fictitious company is ask ourselves: Given Twitter's attributes and usage styles, what are the situations where it would make sense to use it? ie: In what situations would a reader enjoy or appreciate receiving short, real-time updates that are potentially interrupting whatever else they happen to be doing at the time?

You see where I'm going with this? The reader is not going to say, as you've already figured out: "I want you to interrupt me to tell me whatever the latest story you posted to your website is."

Instead, they'll say: "I want to follow along on something happening now that I can't attend but that I'm really interested in."

The obvious first great use, then, is sports games.

And not just major league sports or record-breaking Olympic swims. In fact, local papers will probably much better serve their readers by tweeting popular local games -- football, basketball, or hockey, for example. Think how many people in the community are heavily invested in those games. If they can't be there, wouldn't they love to be able to follow along from whereever they are? And not just the actual plays, but also the lousy ref calls, any fights that break out, and maybe even occasional commentary on the cheerleaders. Anything that helps a tweet recipient feel like they're actually there and participating.

Then next great use is any live event in which there's great community interest.

The first thing that comes to mind is the OJ Bronco highway chase. That was, of course, a long time ago. But it occured to me because he's back in court this week. And yeah, I realize that just about nobody had cell phones back then. But if we had, and if we hadn't had access to a TV while OJ was cruising down an LA freeway at 10 mph, wouldn't we have loved to have followed along via Twitter?

For a more recent example, we can turn to the Orlando Sentinel which tweeted the launch of the shuttle Atlantis back in August. Shuttle stuff is huge in the Orlando community. Most people can't attend the launches, of course. But there's probably a bunch of people who'd like to follow along and feel like they were there.

Or, for example, the day Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick finally got arraigned. Motown had been following his saga for months. How many people would have loved to have been (virtually) present for the day he finally had to face the judge?

So how do you make money from this?

Once our ficitious company had defined the situations in which it makes sense to tweet, the next question would be: Is there any way to use the tweets to attract readers to the website? After all, there are no ads in a tweet. No ads, no revenue. If tweets aren't going to be a complete financial hole, we'd have to figure out how to use them to lure recipients to our website.

The answer, thankfully, would probably not be -- is probably not -- particularly complicated.

Let's take the local football game, for example. Reading the tweets will probably only whet a reader's appetite for more, especially if it was a particularly dramatic game. So invite them (via tweets with links) to come on over to the website and watch clips of the best plays. Or read in-depth analyses of what went right (or wrong). And I should note this isn't a completely original -- or unproven -- idea. As I wrote about in a previous post, the NBA had been using a similar offering to drive traffic to their website.

Similarly, live-tweeting a mayor's arraignment just drives appetite for all the Web-based goodies related to that story. After you're done with the play-by-play, shoot over a few tweets describing the related video clips, podcasts, blog posts, photos, etc... available on your website. Junkies will click on through.

One more note: To do this successfully, newspapers are going to have to set up tweets differently than they do now. Most of the ones that are tweeting offer a single tweet channel that includes everything from the latest crime news, to football player trades, to city council goings on. Again, this is an implementation by someone who thought Twitter was the same as RSS.

Instead, smart news organizations will set up seperate Twitter channels for separate types of news or events. There would have to be some kind of mechanism for letting readers know what kind of channels were coming up (eg: "Sign up for tomorrow's tweets on the Kilpatrick arraignment" or "Follow the Cougars-Buccaneers game on Twitter on Thursday"). But the point is: People will want to follow discrete events, rather than getting ongoing grab bags of everything, so this is something news organizations will have to figure out how to set up.

Photo courtesy of apesara. Creative Commons license.