Thursday, May 29, 2008

The end of news *as we know it*

TalkingPointsMemo.com founder (and Polk Award winner) Josh Marshall gave the 2008 Knight Lecture at Stanford last night. Among his more prescient observations:

"Journalism, as we know it, is in the process of being destroyed."

And yet Marshall, like me, isn't all in a tizzy about this. It's only journalism "as we know it" that is being destroyed, not journalism itself. He used one of the most apt metaphors I've yet heard to describe the phenomenon we're in the midst of. In the late 1800s, the railroad industry was on the cusp of a similar demise. The reason, Marshall said, that they failed to successfully transition into the new world was a faulty understanding of what their business was about. They saw themselves being in the railroad industry, rather than being in the transportation industry. Instead of asking themselves, "How can we create a long-term plan to continue to provide transportation?", they asked themselves, "How can we perpetuate trains?"

Newspapers are facing the same thing. Instead of asking themselves: "What's our long-range plan for continuing to do journalism?" (which, as I've mentioned before, we need to define as "the collection and dissemination of meaningful information"), they seem hell bent on figuring out how to perpetuate journalism as they know it today. Ie: perpetuating the forms that they're used to: inverted pyramids; a single entity that provides the whole kit and kaboodle, everything from national news to local news to business news to lifestyle news to sports; discrete stories that get wrapped up in a bow once a day, etc....

But this doesn't make sense. These forms are only a product of the technology to which they were beholden. When you have to deliver your journalism once a day via a limited number of physical pages, you develop certain ways of doing things to optimize for efficient use of the technology. But liberate yourself from that delivery vehicle, and you can "collect and disseminate meaningful information" in myriad other ways that are just as useful, authoritative, and effective. Or, as Marshall put it: "When you get out of that technology [physical pages delivered once a day], the canon of the news article seems arbitrary."

Here's another exercise: Take a beat. Any beat. Education. Crime. Green technology. Now ask yourself: If I were starting from scratch today and I wanted to develop a new entity to deliver information about my beat to everyone in the world who was interested in learning about it, how would I do it?
-- What technologies would I use for delivery?
-- How would I tell my stories so that people would be engaged and would keep coming back for more, would be chomping at the bit to hear what I was going to report next?
-- Who would I bundle myself with? A larger organization that also includes news on matters unrelated to mine? Go it alone? Somewhere in between?
-- Would I insist on publishing a completed story once a day, or unspool my story in drips and drabs, sharing things I knew as I learned them? Use Twitter to "live blog" from an event?
-- Would I straightjacket myself into an "objective", "dispassionte" voice? Or would I inject some personality into my reports?

Tip: Think about the websites, news, information sources you use today. Not for work, but just to gather information about whatever it is that interests you: knitting, swing dance, stem cell research, baseball, personal finance.... How do they deliver their information, and what it is it that you like about it that keeps you coming back for more?

Note: For now, don't worry about how you'd earn money to pay for this. For this exercise, simply take it on faith that, if you build a reader base, income will follow. (And if you don't believe me, again, just take a look at TalkingPointsMemo, which, today boasts at least 9 or 10 paid staffers, maybe more.)

Photo courtesy of festivefrog

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Someone who does get it

"...the salvation of the news industry... will come not from corporate board rooms but in unleashing the pent-up power of the citizenry as one leg of a multipronged participatory media strategy."

This from J.D. Lasica over at MediaShift's IdeaLab who was
reporting on a New York Times project to give outside programmers access to the data in the Grey Lady's databases for them to do with as they will (more on this later).

Lasica gets it. As, apparently, does the
New York Times. In the past, newspapers gained power by hoarding their knowledge and releasing it in drips and drabs. That worked because we readers had nowhere else to go for information (and, for that matter, not a whole lot else to do with our time). So we put up with that paradigm. Kind of like how in high school, you put up with crap from the popular kids, because they're the ones who hold all the chits.

But then you graduate from high school. The world becomes much bigger, and suddenly the popular kids no longer hold the sway they once did. The newspaper world is undergoing the same paradigm
shift. Their previously devoted readers now have lots more to do with their time. And plenty of places to go for information. So news organizations now
actually have to work for their money and woo those they once took for granted.

The smart ones realize you get a lot farther when don't try to do it all yourself but instead leverage a variant on the "
wisdom of crowds." Instead of only using the 100, or 1,000, smart people within your own organization, you give the thousands (tens of thousands) creative folks out in the ethernet a way to produce dandy material -- whether blog posts or neat mashups -- for your website. And as everyone from Wikipedia to DailyKos knows, they're happy to do it. Some because they like being helpful. Others because they want a big canvas on which to exercise their creative talents.

Facebook knew this. That's why just about a year ago, they opened up their databases and let outside programmers and companies develop applications for Facebook users. Facebook knew that tens of thousands of highly motivated souls would come up with cool features that folks inside Facebook might never think of (and certainly would never have the time to actually build). And with every great application available to Facebook users, the value of Facebook itself goes up. Exhibit A: Within a month of launching the Facebook Platform, 40,000 developers had asked to participate.

The New York Times is apparently clueing into this. And it's clearly intuitive to Lasica:

"For every journalist on staff at a mid-size daily," he wrote, "I'll wager there are at least 10 data jockeys willing to dive into some aspect of its datastream to create an interesting new map, widget, chart, game, animation, virtual space -- anything that feeds off a rich source of data."

And that, boys and girls, is one of the ways you create content your readers love--and that keep them coming back.

Photo courtesy of Hc 07

Monday, May 26, 2008

Howard Kurtz doesn't get it

Howard Kurtz's column today bemoans the recent round of Washington Post buyouts. What he gets right is that it's painful to watch talented reporters like Tom Ricks and Sue Schmidt walk out the door. But what he gets wrong is what the future is about.

Specifically, he says:


"I know, I know. The future is digital. The Web is a cornucopia of fast-moving video and blogs and bulletins and gossip, while newspapers are old, slow and less than hip."

OK, he's right about the future being digital. But he's wrong about contrasting the Web as hip and newspapers as less than hip. It's not about being hip. It's about delivering information to readers in forms they enjoy and find useful. It's not that readers don't want to learn about "Jack Abramoff's dirty dealings" (as Kurtz describes Schmidt's investigative findings) or follow the Middle East that another Washington Post departee, Robin Wright, covered for a quarter century. It's that they don't want to consume the information in the way that newspapers are dishing it out.

Why should this be so surprising? We don't wear the same clothes we did 25 years ago. Our cars have features (cup holders, CD changers) that they didn't have 25 years ago. We don't make phone calls the same way we did 25 years ago. Know anyone who's thinks a landline only is just dandy? So why should we expect that news readers would be satisfied with inverted pyramids and text only?

It's easy to look at online news and dismiss it as nothing but "gossip" and "fast-moving video." Because, sure, among online-only news sites, that's the vast majority of what's out there. Today. And that's key: today. It's like that today, but it won't always be. The reporters of tomorrow are the ones who will look at all those tools and gizmos and realize, "Hey, I could use that to report and tell my story better."

Here's an exercise:
Take the Washington Post's two-year investigation of Jack Abramoff. Read the Post's Ombudsman's column about how it was done. Now, imagine how you might report that investigation today using all the digital tools available to you. Start at the beginning: Imagine how you might use blogs and crowd-sourcing to assist your investigation, long before you have anything meaningful to report. (Tip: Take a look at how Josh Marshall and TalkingPointsMemo.com did just that to uncover the US Attorneys scandal. And then consider this: He won a Polk Award for that story. Some might say that means he knows a thing or two about how to use the digital world to do important reporting.)

Then imagine how you might use "fast-moving video" or slide shows or Google mashups or mobile-phone content to create engaging reports. Just because it's "serious" doesn't mean it has to be reported in 4,000-word, text-only formats. Take a look at the Post's timeline, for crying out loud. Please don't tell me you couldn't come up with something more interactive, more engaging, something that would make people actually want to play with it. Of course you could. And their follow-the-money graphics. Very pretty. But come on people... totally static. With databases up the ying-yang these days, you could easily hook this up so that the reader could slice and dice the data in any way they chose.

The point is, when MSM folks dismiss online technologies as nothing more than the purview of gossips and dilettantes, they are missing the point: The brave new digital world is not the scourge of journalism. It is the savior. Online tools offer journalists the opportunity to do better investigative reporting and find those important stories and then to tell those stories in ways that draw readers in, rather than turning them off.

Photo courtesy of Alejandro the Great

Begging people to subscribe is not the answer

Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz laid out the unpleasant truths in a graduation speech at the Columbia J-School last week:

"I know journalists are often math averse, but I will throw out some statistics: minus 3.9; minus 5.1; minus 3.6; minus 4.4."


He continued:


"What are these numbers, you may ask? Perhaps you instinctively know. These numbers represent the percentage declines in circulation over the last six months for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune."


His solution?


"Here is your first assignment. No matter where you next land, no matter what you do, please, please subscribe immediately to a newspaper!"

Really?

It's thinking like this that continually convinces me that folks from the mainstream media are
not going to be the ones to figure out the future of news. As any businessperson knows, you cannot ensure the viability of your product by begging people who are otherwise uninterested to buy it. Even worse by telling them they should buy it, that it's the morally responsible thing to do. You have to make your customers want your product.

Did Apple create a blockbuster music business by telling people, "You really should buy and listen to your music our way?" No, of course not. First, they took a look at prevailing conditions within the music industry that either weren't working for customers or could be done a lot better. Like: In order to get that one song you really liked, you had to buy a CD of 11 other songs that very well could be crap. To take your music on vacation, you had to cart around a large CD player and a bunch of CDs. To buy music, you had to physically go to a store--or buy a CD online and wait a few days for it to arrive by mail.

So why did the iPod and iTunes become instant successes? Become something customers wanted and flocked to in droves? Because it made the whole experience of buying and listening to music better. Just want that one song? Buy only it. Don't have room for all that crap? Look how small this device is. Want it now? You got it.

If mainstream newsfolks want to find the future of their business, they're going to have to stop whining about those horrible people who won't buy what they're selling and start thinking about how they can create something people actually will want.


Photo courtesy of dan taylor


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Who Reads Dead Trees Anymore?

Who still reads the print edition of a newspaper? That's what Robert Niles over at the Online Journalism Review asked his readers a couple of days ago. The unscientific response?
-- 35% said they read no print edition
-- 38% said they read one
-- 16% said they read two

To best gauge the meaning of those numbers, Niles also asked respondents how many print newspapers they read 10 years ago. The answer:
-- Only 15% read no print edition
-- 32% read one
-- 31% read two

These numbers tell us what we already know: No matter how many of your New York-based friends insist that there will always be space for a print edition because they "love to read the newspaper on the subway to work," the dead tree editions are actually on their way out. In this unscientific survey, the number of people not getting their news in paper form went up 100% in a decade. Whether that's the scientific number doesn't matter. It's a good enough proxy for the trend. And with the way change happens, the one thing we can count on is that rate of people ditching the paper version is only going to speed up.

So what does this mean? Newspapers say they can't ditch their print editions because that's where they're making their advertising dollars. Fair enough. Keeping the print edition is fine for a short-term strategy. Ten years max. Maybe more like five. As for long-term planning, these numbers should only increase that fire under newspapers' collective tushes to figure out the future business models that will make online news delivery a profitable enterprise.

Photo courtesy of dweinberger

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If I were a newspaper publisher today...

Newspapers are dying, there's no question about it. Every week brings news of more layoffs, whether at the biggest of the big or the teeniest of the tiny. The problem: Newspapers can't figure out how to turn a profit in this brave new world of new media.

If I were a newspaper publisher today, I'd heed the words of Ben Franklin: "If we don't hang together, we shall hang separately." I'd create a massive R&D project leveraging the resources of 100 newspapers. Each newspaper would pony up two staffers. I'd then create 20 teams. Each team would have the same mandate: Create a project to experiment with delivering news online in ways that attract and retain readers. Each experiment would run live, in real time, at one or more newspaper's websites.

Here's the important thing: The teams could do whatever they wanted. They could develop tools. They could develop series. They could experiment with social networking. They could connect to something else that already exists on the Web. There would be no vetting of projects whatsoever. The only requirement would be that each project should be geared toward attracting and retaining readers. We'd be leveraging the wisdom of crowds, the principle that answers don't necessarily come from experts. And they almost never come from on high. They come from leveraging the collective wisdom of large groups of people with diverse sets of experience, expertise, and mindsets.

The purpose of this approach would not be to find the "one" silver bullet. We'd be mature enough to know there won't be a single silver bullet. The purpose, instead, would be to accelerate the process of learning what does and doesn't not work. Any innovator knows that it takes numerous iterations (tens, hundreds, thousands) before you hit on a solution that works. As Thomas Edison once said of his own experimenting, "Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." It was only working through those thousands of things that didn't work that he found the few things that did.

The teams would constantly be sharing information. Here's what we're thinking of doing. Here's what we are doing. Here's a roadblock we ran into. Here's how we got around it. Here's how it sunk us. Here's something unexpected that worked. Here's something we thought would work and did. Here's what our project totally nailed. Here's what totally bombed. Sharing information would let teams leap-frog each other, avoiding having to re-invent the wheel on each individual question. Teams would be given the lattitude to ditch projects mid-stream that weren't panning out as they'd thought and create new ones on the fly.

The payoff? At the end of a year, the collective team would know a heck of a lot about how to deliver news online, how to attract and retain readers. They would have discovered a handful of new paradigms. And hopefully, at least some newspapers will have already permanently incorporated those new paradigms into their own websites.

When I run this idea by friends in the mainstream media, they almost universally say this will never happen. Newspapers will never collaborate with each other. Newspapers consider each other competitors. They would never join forces. To which I say, that's a luxury you no longer have. Sure, in the old days, when you were monopolies in your own fiefdoms, and your continued existence was guaranteed no matter what, you had the luxury of never joining forces. But today, you don't. If you continue as you are, you are all going down. Absolutely, positively, you are going to die. Your only hope of survival is to figure out how to make the Internet work for you. And that you absolutely positively cannot do on your own. You don't have the necessary staff and budget to make it happen. And even if you did have that luxury, no one institution is going to find all the answers on its own. But if you join forces, collectively you have the resources you need to find the answers. So, as Benjamin Franklin put it, would you rather hang together, or hang separately?

Photo courtesy of euthman

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Future is Exciting - and Bleak

Spend any amount of time talking with journalists about the state of their industry, and you'll walk away thinking the news business is going to hell in a hand basket. Newspapers closing over here. Massive layoffs over there. Bloodletting all around.

It's true that newspapers are dying. It's no longer a question of whether, only a question of when. (Me, I'm giving them 10 years, max.) But journalism, which I define as the gathering and disseminating of information, will continue. I'll even get more specific if you like: the gathering and disseminating of information that is important to geographical and civic
communities will continue.

I know this because, in addition to having had a career in the daily news business, I've also had a career in Silicon Valley. Anyone who's worked in technology knows that functions persist, even as forms morph. We still write letters, make calls, take pictures, and listen to music today, just as we did 20 years ago. Those are the functions. The forms, however, have completely changed. The devices we use today are totally different than the ones we used before. The ways in which we perform those functions are also different. Ever taken a picture of yourself trying on clothes at a department store and then emailed it via cell phone to a friend to get a thumbs up or thumbs down? You definitely weren't doing that 20 years ago.

And the same will hold for daily news. 20 years from now, people will still be getting information about what's going on in their communities. But the way they get that news-- and the ways in which it's written--will be totally different than the newspapers most of us have been used to reading until now.

So here are my four core beliefs about the future of news:


-- Journalism will survive
-- It will look nothing like the news we traditionally associate with newspapers
-- In the long term, awesome new ways of delivering news will appear
-- In the short term, there's no guarantee that anyone working in the news business will be able to support themselves doing this work.


The future is bleak for anyone who wants to be sure of a paycheck in this shakeout period. But if you want to create the future, it's an exciting time to be in the business.


Photos courtesy of joanofarctan and viagallery.com