Thursday, June 26, 2008

When is a blogger not a blogger?

A New York magazine article from last October* trumpeted "blogger" Laurel Ptak's coup in nailing a gallery curating gig. A while back, Ptak, a photographer by passion, designer by trade, and apparently inveterate Web surfer, had noticed how many amazing photographs she was discovering tucked away in various nooks and cranies of the Internet. Wanting to help others discover these works of art, she decided to use a blog as a way to collect them all in one place and share them with whoever might be interested.

As things sometimes happen in the blogosphere, Ptak's project gained a following. And where a following develops, big shots eventually take notice. So last year, Higher Pictures, a Madison Avenue gallery founded by a former exec at Magnum Photos, invited Ptak to curate a show.

New York breathlessly reported on the feat. A blogger, it exclaimed, curating a show! A real live show! It observed this was a rising trend. "Shows curated by bloggers," it said, were becoming increasingly common. Ptak was part of a growing breed who have "translated blogging success into the realm of real-world galleries."

None of this is inaccurate. Technically. But the framing is all wrong. Which is problematic. It's this wrongheaded framing that is making many in the traditional media struggle with understanding what digital media is all about. And until we understand the online world correctly, we can't move into it effectively.

New York magazine framed Ptak as blogger. The piece seems to marvel at the fact that a blogger, one of those great unwashed masses who sit at their keyboards and alternately pontificate about world happenings and navel-gaze about the flotsam of their own lives... it seemed to marvel that one of those people could have made it into the rarefied world of New York art galleries.

And yet, this is wrong. Ptak is not a "blogger." She's a photographer, a designer, an artist, a curator, who decided to use the Internet as her medium for creating her own gallery. And in leveraging these tools, gained notice. She did the same thing a physical-world gallery owner would have done. Just using different tools.


"If I wanted to start a gallery, I would not have the resources to do it," Ptak told ARTINFO.com (the online home of the group that publishes such magazines as Art+ Auction and Modern Painters), "but the tools that I use to make iheartphotograph.com are completely free, totally modest. Blogs open the door to a lot of people to participate in the conversation about art and to be able to find an audience."

So here's my suggestion: Let's start getting more thoughtful about flinging around the term "blogger." It's both loaded on the one hand and used to refer to so many different things on the other as to have lost the specificity that we communicators strive for. It's as if we called anyone who used a building for something "buildingers." A gallery owner wouldn't be a "gallery owner," they'd be a "buildinger." A bakery wouldn't be a "bakery," it'd be a "buildinger." A florist wouldn't be a "florist," it'd be a "buildinger." Doesn't make much sense, does it?

So let's stop thinking of blogs as a product, and instead recognize them for what they are: a tool used for myriad purposes. And instead of thinking of people who use blogs as "bloggers," let's think of them as what they are: "people who use blogs." In Ptak's case, let's call her a photographer and curator who uses a blog to exhibit photographs. In Josh Marshall's case, a reporter and commentator to report on politics. Hey, even Perez Hilton... call him what he is: a gossip-monger.

* The magazines stack up, and I get to them when I can.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Paradigm shifts always provoke resistance

When Copernicus suggested that the Earth traveled around the sun, people freaked out. When people began to suggest that the Earth was round rather than flat, people freaked out. Today people are freaking out when it's suggested that oil won't last much longer.

Any time new ideas, new approaches call into question something previously held sacred or provoke radical re-evaluations of previously seemingly inviolable world views, people freak out. They resist. They come up with millions of reasons why the new approach is wrong, misguided, or downright crazy. If possible, they'll even try to burn you at the stake.

It's natural, of course. Having one's world view taken away from one is enormously disorienting. Dizzying. Downright scary, especially if your livelihood depends on it.

This is what is happening in mainstream media today. Yes, there are some people who get it and are moving boldly into the new (unknown and uncertain) digital future. But many are resisting. That's simply par for the course when a paradigm shift is taking place. The paradigm shift that says newspapers, in their current incarnations, may no longer be necessary. That the canon reporters followed for most of the last 100 years may no longer be the best rules to follow.

It's unfortunate, of course, that these changes can't happen gradually, that we can't slowly evolve from the old newspaper institution into fully developed new digital forms, so that traditional newsfolk can see that much of what they hold dear about journalism isn't going to disappear. But unfortunately, that's not how it works.

Science does not progress linearly, the late Berkeley professor Thomas Kuhn wrote in his seminal 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Rather, it progresses via "a
series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions"--paradigm shifts--in which "one conceptual world view is replaced by another." Kuhn was talking about science, but he could just as easily have been talking about technology. And in technology, he could have been talking about what we are witnessing in the world of media today.

A violent shift is taking place in the world of journalism today. Resistance, as I tell my never-left-mainstream-media friends, is futile. The best hope to make it through the revolution is dive in, try to understand it from within, and help influence the direction it takes.

Photo courtesy of apesara. Creative Commons license

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How Dan Rather could have kept his job

It's been four years since the flawed "60 Minutes" report on George Bush's National Guard service and Dan Rather's subsequent ignominious separation from CBS. But the incident still holds important lessons for newspeople today. Namely: Rather and his team tripped up not because they weren't doing good journalism, but because they were using the "old world" rules in a "new world" game. And it bit them in the proverbial patootie.

In the old world, investigative reporting went something like this: Get a hint of something juicy, spend months tracking it down, all the while holding your cards close to your chest to prevent competitors from finding out what you're up to and, dang it all, scooping you on your own story. Next, get your ducks in a row, double-check your piece, and then release it to the world in one fell swoop. Make a spectacular splash, and don't forget to take a victory lap so your journalism peers can genuflect in the face of your total awesomeness.

Because let's admit it, part of what motivates journalists to do kick-butt investigative reporting is to reap kudos from their peers. Don't get me wrong. Many reporters absolutely do care about the subjects they investigate. And for some, exposing wrongdoing is, in fact, their only motivation. But for many others, part of what keeps them slogging through the long, lonely, and distinctly unglamorous days of investigative reporting are visions of the recognition they will receive down the road. And not just reporters. What editor doesn't, after all, take into account "Pulitzer potential" when deciding whether to greenlight a story that will take one (or two) of their warm bodies out of the daily grind for the indeterminate future?

But here's the problem with playing the old game in the new world: Get one thing wrong, and you'll get skewered. Maybe even lose your job.

This didn't used to be a problem. Not because investigative reporters didn't make mistakes. They almost certainly did. But the difference is that reporters enjoyed what some today might call a special advantage: They owned the printing presses. Mechanisms for bringing their errors to light in any meaningful way simply didn't exist. No public commons existed for readers to get together and start bringing collective weight to things that seemed off. Like, "Hey, that thing you said about that boat was wrong. It doesn't use the XYZ motor. It uses an ABC motor." And, "Yeah, you're right. My dad had one of those when I was a kid. I remember him complaining that he wanted the XYZ motor, but it couldn't fit." And, "Indeed, I worked in a boat shop, and our customers used to ask for the XYZ motor, and we had to tell them they couldn't get it."

With the Web, all that changes. With the Web, everyone enjoys the special advantage. Errors no longer escape scrutiny. Just the opposite. Mistakes get analyzed and magnified six ways to Sunday. In the new world, reporters simply can't get away with the things they got away with before.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the "60 Minutes" team knowingly had doubts about the documents which cast shadows on Bush's National Guard service. They purportedly consulted with independent experts to verify the documents' authenticity. All well and good. That's standard journalistic practice. And in the old world, that was probably good enough. In the new world, however, it's not even sufficient.

The difference is in the confidence rate. Let's say the experts' assessments give you an 80% confidence rate that what you have is kosher. The experts' credentials are impeccable, and they say they are reasonably sure that the documents are legit. But they're not 100% sure. With the amount of information at their disposal, they say they can't be 100% sure, only 80%. In the old world, 80% might have been as good as you could get. There wasn't an efficient mechanism to reach 100% confidence. So 80% was good enough, and you legitimately went out the door with that.

In the new world, however, you often can get to 100%. How? By putting the material out to the world and letting the crowd respond.

At the 2006 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, new media thought leader Dan Gillmor suggested that "60 Minutes" could have saved itself buckets of headaches if, sometime during its investigation, it had simply posted portions of the documents online and asked for help verifying their authenticity. Given the amount of totally random, yet holding-a-piece-of-the-proverbial-elephant regular folk who weighed in after the fact (typewriter enthusiasts, a guy who was a Navy clerk in the early '70s, a former Air Force personnel specialist), it seems reasonable to believe that CBS could have determined the documents were, in fact, suspect--long before their report went on air.

So this is the point: In the old world, an 80% confidence rate was perhaps as high as you could get. You could get away with going out the door with an 80% confidence rate. In the new world, however, you often can get to 100%. We didn't have the tools before. We do now. So a journalist today has no excuse for not using the tools at their disposal to achieve that 100% confidence rate.

"But what about our scoops?!" some will protest. "If we post to the world what we're working on, we'll lose our scoops."

Hmm. I see what you're saying. Here are some thoughts:

-- It's possible that Rather and crew could have gotten the help they needed without tipping their hand. Simply post a portion of the documents and see what people say.

-- It's more likely, however, that they would had to have been more forthcoming. Online audiences only get involved when they feel invested in the person/site asking for their help. It's hard to feel curious, much less invested in something if a reporter/website only offers a blind shred of something. It's much easier to feel invested if there's a big hullaboo going on.

So yes, in leveraging the new tools to try to get to 100% confidence rate about the veracity of their stories, reporters are more likely than not going to have to tip their hands about what they're working on. This is a bad thing only if your goal is to get scoops rather than to bring the truth to light. And given that prioritizing a scoop over getting to the truth can bite you in the butt, as it did "60 Minutes," it's increasingly going to be in every reporter's interest to go for accuracy, scoops be damned.

The good news is that scoops aren't going to mean as much in the future as they did in the past. Newspaper scoops were important in two-newspaper towns. When as a reader, you're only getting your news once a day, you want to subscribe to the newspaper that's not a day behind. Online, however, all sites get everything more or less immediately. Maybe there's a lag of a few hours between when one site breaks something and others confirm it. But a few hours doesn't mean much to readers. (Most are not spending their waking hours waiting for the next big news item. They do have lives....) Scoops are not going to drive reader preferences. Much more important are going to be things like accuracy, how well the site helps the reader understand the significance of the things it covers, how engaging the writing is, and how easy the site is to use. Scoops? Pshaw.

Photo courtesy of scriptingnews. Creative Commons license

Thursday, June 19, 2008

On the Web, your readers are users

"In print, your customers, the people who buy your newspaper, are readers. But when they consume your content online, they become users."

This from Khoi Vinh, the New York Times website's Design Director, who spoke at the most recent Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.

It's an important concept. It's easy to look at the Web, see words and pictures, and assume that the people who visit your news website are looking for the exact same experience they have when they read your newspaper. Ie: "Tell me, newspaper people, what's going on in the world." In fact, however, they're not. The difference in the user's expectations is based on the tool.

Pick up a piece of paper, and your brain tells you: "This is a piece of paper. There are a few things you can do with this. You can read what it says. You can make notes on it (and share those notes with anyone to whom you physically hand the paper). If you really want to, you can fold this up into a paper airplane." But that's it.

Approach a computer, however, and your brain tells you, "You can use this to do a jillion things. Play a game. Give it information and get information back (eg: Orbitz). Post information for anyone in the world to see. Create a map. Etc... Oh, yeah, and you can read stuff too."

So when a reader approaches your news site, their brain is a priori telling them they should expect to have some control over the stuff on the screen, and they should be able to participate in what's happening there. A fundamental principle of design (any design: the design of buildings, tools, doorknobs, as well as computer interfaces) is: "If your user has certain expectations about how things will work, and you don't meet those expectations, you will lose your user."

Which means newspeople need to think differently about the stuff they put on their websites than the way they think about the stuff they put in their hard-copy newspapers. As I wrote previously, on the Web, content is not enough. You need to give your user control and ways to participate.

Image courtesy of b_d_solis. Creative Commons License

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time to Face the Facts: Newspapers weren't really all that great

At a cocktail party last night, a guy I met, a former reporter, raised one of the most common objections to Web-based news: "Sure there's a lot out there," he said. "But a lot of it is crap."

I hear mainstream media folks making this point all the time. But here's what bugs me about it: It assumes that everything that appeared in newspapers in the past was quality journalism. As in: "The problem with Web-based news is that, while some of it is good, a lot of it is crap. Don't we owe something more to the public, something like the fine journalism that has always been produced by newspapers?"

The thing is, a lot of what has appeared in newspapers has been crap. Don't you agree? Whenever I hit the road in the States, I always pick up local newspapers. From Idaho to Arkansas, Texas to Illinois, I'll always grab a copy of any local newspaper I come across. Not just the big ones. All of them, from the tinsy tiniest to the biggest of the big. For no reason other than sheer curiosity. I want to learn what's going on across the country. And even more, how people think and view the world. Nothing will give you greater insight into a community than what they cover in their local newspaper and how they write about it.

Based on those perusals, I can confidently claim the following: A lot of newspaper reporting and writing sucks. Sure, the topics they cover are important: The goings-on of local governments, new business deals, even local sports. But do most newspapers write about those things in compelling ways? No. Let's be honest. A lot of the stories appearing in newspapers across the country are either painfully amateurish or mind-numbingly formulaic. And as for the "investigative journalism" journalists worry will be lost in the digital era, the "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted...", if we're honest about that too, most newspapers don't do a whole bunch of it on any kind of a regular basis. Really. I challenge you to pick up any random newspaper in the country today (other than the biggie of the bigs), leaf through its pages, and try to find a single article that genuinely is holding some institution accountable or calling into question--in a meaningful, not just a taking-down-dictation kind of way--something being done by someone in power. Nine out of ten times, you're not going to find it.

So here's one more sacred cow that many newsfolks need to let go of: This idea that the demise of newspapers will be a terrible thing because newspapers have been performing such an important public service. They haven't. Or, at least, they haven't been performing it in such a powerful and consistent way that the service can't be similarly delivered digitally.

Photo courtesy of Scoobymoo. Creative Commons license



Monday, June 16, 2008

Four ways of looking at Mayhill Fowler

You know Mayhill Fowler. She's the Bay Area woman who notoriously splashed Barack Obama's private "bitter" voters comments across the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" blog -- setting off a furor in journalism circles about on-the-record and off-the-record quotes and about the long-held rule of identifying oneself as a journalist. People in traditional journalism might have thought Fowler "learned her lesson" after the incident, given the vitriol and diatribe launched her way by professional commentators. But apparently she didn't. Or, alternatively, perhaps she didn't believe there actually was a lesson to be learned. Because two months later, she was at it again.

Fowler is the person who launched Bill Clinton's evisceration of Todd Purdum and his
Vanity Fair article on the former prez into cyberspace. You know, the audio of Clinton calling Purdum "sleazy", "slimy", and a "scumbag." The comments quickly made it into the mainstream media, provoking yet further examination and excoriation of Fowler's methods.

Those in the traditional media were outraged that Fowler wasn't "playing by the rules." She didn't identify herself as a reporter. She reported comments a source might reasonably have thought were off-the-record. One NPR journalist even asked whether what she was doing was "fair."

But this is the wrong way to think about Fowler and what she did.

These are the kinds of comments made by people who can't see how the world has changed. The're tantamount to GM asking whether it's fair that Toyota isn't using oil to power its vehicles.

So how should we think about Fowler's behavior?

-- If you're a politician: There is no off-the-record anymore
"Off the record" was an informal agreement between those who spoke and those who had the capability to publish or broadcast what was spoken. Now that anyone has the ability to broadcast anything, no one -- not only politicans, but also ex-husbands, former bosses, dubious retailers -- can be sure that their questionable behavior will not be thrown up on the Web for millions, from Auburn to Zimbabwe, to view. They used to say, "Don't put anything in email that you wouldn't want displayed on the jumbo monitors in Times Square." The new rule might be -- for politicians and private citizens alike: Don't do or say anything, anywhere that you wouldn't want showing up on YouTube.

This isn't a sign of anything that's changed in journalism. It's a sign of how the larger world has changed. When anyone can publish or broadcast anything to the world, nothing can be guaranteed to be kept out of the public sphere.

-- If you're a professional journalist: This is a good thing
Stop thinking about Fowler's posts as "bad journalism," and start thinking about them more like leaked documents. As a journalist, you're not allowed to go into a company or government office and steal documents. But it's kosher if an employee gives them to you. Similarly, if someone with access to a publishing platform posts useful information that you, as a professional, could not have ethically obtained, it's fair game.

Don't compare Fowler to yourself and berate her because she doesn't follow the same rules as you. She's an amateur, not a professional. So think of her more the way you'd think of a private blogger who wrote on their public blog that a veep in their company was embezzeling millions. If their revelations can be substantiated, all the better that this stuff comes to light.

-- If you're a professional journalist: You still need to follow the rules
Just because a blogger is operating by other rules doesn't mean the old rules go out the door for the professionals. In fact, not only is it all the more important for the professionals to adhere to them, they also become a competitive advantage. Subjects will increasingly evaluate individual reporters based on their personal reputations and will increasingly choose to do business with the ones who have proven themselves to be fair and ethical.

-- If you're Jay Rosen: Stop trying to defend Mayhill Fowler's work
NYU J-school professor (and author of one of our favorite blogs, PressThink) Jay Rosen directs HuffPo's Off the Bus project. Per Rosen, Off the Bus has 2,500 contributors, which Rosen calls "citizen journalists." I eschew the term; it's flopped around so much it doesn't mean anything. I call the people contributing to "Off the Bus": "Random people who happen to be places, see or hear interesting things, and are motivated to share them with the world in text, audio, and/or video via the 'Off the Bus' site."

The above description is not meant to disparage. I don't mean to imply that, just because someone is not a capital-J "journalist," that what they have to share isn't newsworthy, that their observations aren't interesting, or that they can't produce compelling copy, audio, and/or video. But I do think we need to be precise about the phenomenon. Calling them "journalists" confuses the issue because we do have certain attributes we associate with journalists, and these people are not necessarily exhibiting those attributes. So call them contributors; I'm good with that. But not journalists. Not yet, at least.

Similarly, Rosen should stop trying to defend Fowler as if she were an actual journalist. He should stop because he simply doesn't need to. Let me back up a second. After the Clinton broo-ha-ha, Rosen wrote the following to Politico's Michael Calderone:

“This wasn't an interview where the former president sat for questions with Mayhill Fowler. It was a shouted question at a rope line.... Would it have been better if she said, 'Mr. President, I'm Mayhill Fowler, a blogger for OffTheBus and I write about the campaign...'? In the interest of full disclosure, I guess it would be. But in the press of the moment I can understand why she didn't.”

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this explanation feels disingenous. What Off the Bus is doing is an experiment, an experiment in gathering news in new ways. Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting I think Off the Bus tells its contributors not to identify themselves. Rather, when you're working with 2,500 amateurs in the fast-paced world of a presidential campaign, you can't possibly expect that they're going to master traditional journalism practices and then follow them to-the-letter, even if you do have guidelines you've asked them to follow (which Off the Bus does, per Rosen's email to Calderone).

If I were Rosen, I'd simply say the following: "Off the Bus is an experiment in gathering news using 2,500 motivated amateurs. We do our best to instruct them in traditional journalistic practices, but we don't necessarily use their adherence to those practices as a criteria for deciding whether to publish their reports. At this point, we believe we are performing a greater public service by sharing the valuable facts, quotes, and insights they are gathering than in withholding material because it wasn't obtained according to traditional journalistic standards. In the long term, we will use the learnings from this experiment to innovate new ways of newsgathering that hopefully will strengthen the practice of journalism."

I'm fine with that. I don't think it's a big deal that Off the Bus is prioritizing scoops over traditional journalistic practices. It's the Wild West out there. We're all trying to figure out the future. But transparency is key. Just tell us what you're doing, why, and how, and we'll be good with it. And that's why Rosen really should simply call it like it is, rather than trying to shoehorn the new stuff they're doing into the old frameworks.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What we can learn from the new iPhone launch

Yesterday, Steve Jobs launched the new version of the iPhone. The move was met with the usual fanfare and hoopla that accompanies such announcements in the world of techies and Apple afficionados. But the move also contained a lesson for those of us in the news business.

Many traditional newspeople take a look at news on the Internet and recoil. They see flash and snark and gossip and... well, not a lot that looks like the journalism they have long revered. And maybe they're right about what they see. The problem, though, is that they're seeing what is here today, not what will be there tomorrow.

Apple launched the next generation iPhone because the first version wasn't good enough. In the tech world, this isn't considered failure. It's business as usual. Every product goes out the door as "v1". Companies then learn from real-world use of their product what works and what's lacking. They go back to the drawing board, tweak, and launch v2. And so on. Internet Explorer, for example, is on v7. So is iTunes. Microsoft Word is at least v11.

The key to having faith in the ability of the Internet to deliver the news we care about lies in having faith that technology evolves. You might not be able to do everything you want to today. But you will be able to tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of chakote. Creative Commons license

Monday, June 9, 2008

Before you can find, you must first let go

AdvertisingAge's 3-minute video roundup today features Newsweek senior staff writer Johnnie Roberts telling the audience at last week's "Future of Media" panel that everyone at the magazine, editorial and business alike, is descending on this year's gaggle of interns, hoping they'll reveal the secret to making social networking work--presumably because Newsweek folks think that's the key to making the Internet work for magazines.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. It is encouraging that editors and biz folk are reaching out to the younger, and perhaps savvier, folks in this biz, instead of trying to figure it all out on their own.

But what's wrong with the picture is a bunch of senior staff hoping to find a goose laying a golden egg -- the idea that the key to survival is to find something out there and bring it in here and then, boom, you're done.

The paradigm is wrong.

Yes, there's plenty of good stuff out there. But traditional news organizations will never be able to leverage it effectively until they first let go of outdated ways of thinking about news. You can't stuff new tools into old ways of thinking and expect that they'll work.

Andre Gide once said, "In order to discover new lands, you must first be willing to lose sight of the shore." In order to find the future of news, traditional newspeople must first be willing to say goodbye some of the things they know and hold sacred. Ideas that were entirely appropriate in the old world--on the old shores, if you will--but either won't work or are actually counter-productive in the new one.

The idea, for example, that news must be delivered seriously. That you can't have a voice, a personality, a point of view in your writing. The idea, for example, that you always have to write authoritatively, as if you know the score, never sharing with your audience the parts you do understand and the parts you don't. The idea, for example, that news is broadcast. We tell you. You listen. Rather than a conversation.

It will only be in letting go of those things that don't work, that traditional newspeople will be able to begin the journey to the new shores. And it will be hard. Because they will have to let go of the old long before they grasp the new. They will have to spend days, weeks, months, even years perhaps, bobbing in confusing seas, not really getting it, feeling horribly off balance. The exact anathema to what traditional newspeople like to feel.

And yet, they are entirely capable of it, if they only allow themselves to give it a shot. For what, after all, is digging up a story than that very experience? The starting out, not really getting it, not being able to see the story, but just continuing, continuing, continuing, asking more questions, and gathering more information, until finally the picture becomes clear. We do this every day in our reporting. We simply must find the courage to do it in our business as well.

Photo courtesy of tiarescott

Friday, June 6, 2008

On the Web, content is not enough

MediaBistro's FishBowl NY blog recently teased former MTV head honcho Michael Wolf about a YouTube video entitled "Help Me Find a Job." But in doing so, they missed some of the more interesting things he had to say.

Specifically:

"Traditional media companies don't understand that, on the Web, content is not enough, that it's about tools and applications, and it's about functionality that you can give the user, versus just content."

I recently interviewed the editor of RunnersWorld.com, dubbed this year's best online magazine by the American Society of Magazine Editors. He told me that the areas of the site that get the most traffic were the discussion forums (not surprising) and the Training Log. The what? The Training Log. A simple application where users can track each run taken, distance, time, even the specific pair of shoes they wore. Runners are data nuts, he told me. They loved the tool because it offered them an easy way to track their performance.

So the main traffic driver was not some six-piece investigative report on doping practices by elite runners. Or a comparison of the best running gear. Or even a heart-warming profile of a runner who had overcome some great adversity.* It was a tool, a fairly simple one to build at that, that was useful to readers on a daily or weekly basis.

In Silicon Valley, we call this "build once, sell to many." You build a software product and then sell it to millons of people. That's how you make money. In the case of the Training Log, you're actually "selling" to the same reader over and over, since it's something they return to continually. (And, of course, "selling" here means "enticing to return." The actual selling is to advertisers--the selling of all those ad impressions generated by return visits.)

Individual stories are more like custom projects. You build once and sell once, since few readers will return to a story they've already read.

I'm not saying, of course, that newspapers shouldn't run stories. That, after all, is the purpose of the news business. But to make money, newspeople need to think beyond only doing stories. It's a new way of thinking, maybe one that's hard for some newspeople to wrap their minds around. It was never something on journalism's radar screen before, because it wasn't something the old technology--ie: paper--could do. But the new technology--the digital world--can. So now, savvy newspeople will be the ones who think in terms of tools in addition to stories. Who create useful tools readers will come back to again and again. Traffic, after all, drives revenue. And revenue is the key to survival.

* I'm making these up.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

How to think about the new Slate Group

The New York Times reported today that the Washington Post Company has created a new business unit, The Slate Group, to develop new Internet properties. Slate.com EIC Jacob Weisberg is heading the organization, which today includes Slate; Slate V, the magazine's new video unit; The Root, an online magazine the Washington Post created for black Americans; and The Big Money, a business site to launch later this year.

Journalism observers will doubtlessly start stumbling over themselves to dissect the move, trying to figure out why the Washington Post thinks this is a good idea, what Weisberg's going to do, and what the secret sauce is going to be. Others will probably jump on it immediately, tearing the idea down and writing its obituary before it's even started.

Someone with an innovation mindset will look at this differently.

-- This is great news.
It's going to take thousands of experiments to discover the forms of journalism that are going to be successful at attracting and retaining readers going forward. Experiments cost money. We should be grateful for each and every dollar invested. Thank you Washington Post Company.

-- The Slate Group is not going to find
the answer.
Anyone who expects that The Slate Group will go into their kitchen, mix up their ingredients, and come out with the winning recipe that's going to save all our butts doesn't understand how innovation happens. It takes numerous iterations to figure out the successful design of any new product. Look how many evolutions of the personal computer it took to get from the
Apple Lisa to the powerful tools we have today. Same with cellphones. Remember those brick telephones we had in the late '80s? Not exactly the kind of thing everyone and their grandmother would want to carry around, the way they do today.

-- The Slate Group is going to find some answers.
Any time you run an experiment, you learn useful information. The Root probably knows a bunch of things today about what works--and what doesn't work--in building an audience among African Americans, that it didn't know, and maybe no one knew, before it launched this past January. Similarly, The Slate Group will learn a ton about online journalism by throwing up its sites and seeing what works. (And yes, of course, they already know a lot. Slate.com has been hugely successful. But there's still tons more to learn, to ensure the future of journalism.)

Hopefully, The Slate Group will share their learnings with the rest of the journalism community. The competition mindset still prevails in our business. Everyone wants to hold their cards close to their chest. But as I've written before, this is no time for hoarding learnings. We're in a race for survival. On the one side are the slowly dying newspapers. On the other are the innovations in the new medium. We want the innovators to figure out the new system before the old one dies. Sharing learnings accellerates innovation and will make it more likely we'll cross that line before newspapers collapse completely.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Think like a designer

The people who figure out the future of news are going to have to think like innovators or, alternatively, like designers.

An old Fast Company article I clipped long ago and came across recently cited two key designer qualities that probably don't come naturally to most newspeople but that will be essential for figuring out the future:

-- There are no perfect solutions
"The work style in conventional companies is to seek the perfect answer. That's inefficient and slow. Designers 'try it, prototype it, improve it'--and move on."

Similarly, newspeople aren't comfortable with the old "throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks." We're trained to get it right. Get it fast, of course, but get it right. When it comes to figuring out what new forms of journalism are going to attract and retain readers, however, we need to toss that mindset out the window. Instead, experiment. Accept that about 70% of your experiments will flop. Get over the idea that a newsperson should never be wrong in public and instead get used to the fact that your flops will all be public. But your flops will also help you move forward, faster. You'll quickly learn what works and what doesn't--knowledge you can use to inform your next experiment. Which leads to the next point.

-- Don't wait for the proof
"Traditional companies reward those who 'prove that something actually operates or that something must be.' Design shops reward those with the foresight and courage to act on what 'might be.'"

Same as above. Have a reasonable intuition about something that might attract or retain readers? Give it a shot. After all, it's the Web. It doesn't take a huge amount effort to throw something up. And if it doesn't work, it's just as easy to take it down.

From "The Business of Design," by Bill Breen, Fast Company, April 2005

Photo courtesy of Craig Anderson

Cathie Black's not worried

"As long as we're smart, and we're open minded, and we're all change agents, I think we're going to be fine."

-- Cathie Black, president of
Hearst Magazines
speaking in San Francisco, January 17, 2007

(a bit out of date, yes, but I just listened to this for the first time)