Thursday, July 31, 2008

They get it!

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has some exciting news:

57% of journalists at large newspapers say “web technology offers the potential for greater-than-ever journalism and will be the savior of what we once thought of as newspaper newsrooms.”

Only 4% worry that the demands of the Web might undermine journalistic values, especially accuracy.

Yay! Mindset is everything. Without the right mindset, we journalists can't find our way forward in this new space. This survey shows that journalists are shifting their perspectives and adopting (embracing?) the mindset that is fundamental to find the future of news.

We're on our way!

Photo courtesy of Eponabri. Creative Commons license.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What we can learn from GM

GM is madly scrambling to regain its footing, as the bottom falls out of its SUV business. Oil prices are through the roof with no sign of ever coming down again, and American consumers are taking note. GM is quickly ratcheting back its SUV sales projections and laying off workers and shutting down plants in the face of the new reality.

Sound familiar?

It's exactly what newspapers are going through. Environmental conditions change. Things that an industry previously could count on to drive its business are no longer there. The industry has to figure out a new model going forward.

The question, then, is: What can the newspaper industry learn from how GM's handling its situation?

I don't know what the answer is. I haven't done the digging to figure out what their strategy is and to evaluate how likely I think it is to succeed. But here's my point: There is something to learn. It might be that their strategy offers a roadmap for our industry. They may have insights on how you reprioritize initiative and reallocate resources. They might have insights on how to extract productivity from a reduced workforce. They might have insights on how to identify untapped value within the existing system.

Alternatively, the lesson could be that there is no hope. There is no strategy that's going to take one model that was so dependent on certain conditions into a new world where those conditions no longer exist. It may be that GM won't survive, that instead, smaller auto manufacturers that are designed to exist in the new conditions to rise up and take its place. Similarly, it may be that there is no future for the newspaper model and that newer models, like TalkingPointsMemo or CBS Marketwatch will rise up to take its place.

Maybe GM has figured out how to cross over to the future. Or maybe they're figuring out that there is no future. Who knows. But the folks looking for answers in the news business could do worse that looking under the hood at GM to see if those folks, those business folks, have any useful insights.

Friday, July 25, 2008

It's OK not to know

According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, 95 percent of newspaper editors and publishers feel like they can't predict what newsrooms are going to look like in five years.

And apparently, they think that's a problem.

"I feel I'm being catapulted into another world, a world I don't really understand," Virginian-Pilot editor Denis Finley told Pew.*

But you know what, that's OK. That's what innovation is all about.

When I first landed in Silicon Valley in the late '90s, nobody knew what the future of the Internet was going to be. They had no idea whether a certain kind of website would have a future. Whether a certain business model would pan out. Whether they would be able to find customers or an audience for a specific use of the web.

Not only was that not a problem, however, it was part of the fun. I can remember interviewing for a job at a specific Internet company, a new one that was doing something that had never been done, and thinking to myself, "By working here and coming up with new ways of doing stuff, I'm going to be creating the paradigms that websites are going to be using for years to come."

Of course, the difference was that there wasn't an "old way" of doing things that we were breaking away from. We weren't at risk of breaking any paradigms. No paradgims existed.

And this is what I think is the crux of the problem for traditional jouralists. Their paradigms, which served them extremely well in the print era, are the ball and chain preventing them from diving into the digital world, moving forward confidently, and actually discovering how to use the web to deliver great journalism.

There are two paradigms in particular: A canon, and a bias against failure.

The canon, of course, is everything that we think of as constituting "good journalism." Being "objective." Keeping attitude out of copy. Inverted pyramids. Publishing only once you have all your ducks in a row. I've talked about that before and will talk about it again, so I'll put this aside for now.

The bias against failure is equally problemantic. This is the longstanding view that any error was cause for monumental shame. What reporter hasn't dreaded filing a correction, knowing that too many of them would constitute a firing offense? What editor hasn't raged upon being scooped? What journalist hasn't died in their chair when a source called up to tell them they got the story all wrong?

And yet, in this new world we're entering, there's going to be nothing but failure. Maybe that overstates the case a bit. But by definition, when you're trying something new, you're experimenting. And when you're experimenting, many of your experiments will fail. That's how you find what doesn't work--and, eventually, what does. As Thomas Edison once said, "I haven't failed. I've just found 1,000 ways that don't work."

So here's my advice to all the editors out there biting their nails over the fact that they don't know what the future is: Relax. Relax, experiment, learn, try again. And you will get there, eventually, even if you don't know where it is you're going.

* Via Maui Time Weekly, Via
AltWeeklies.com

Photo courtesy of Dementia_X. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The industrial purveyors of consensus

Just read this description of the traditional media by HuffPo Off-the-Bus project coordinator / PressThink blogger / NYU j-school prof Jay Rosen:

...the industrial purveyors of one-to-many, consensus-is-ours news...

Indeed, that's how it was.

One-to-many, because newsfolks owned the delivery channels. They controlled what went into their channel. From them (the one) to the many (everyone in the community).

Today, of course, the fact that anyone can publish has transformed the situation in one that the tech world calls many-to-many. Anyone can broadcast (the many) to everyone else (the other many).

"Consensus-is-ours" because the printing press owners, ie: the journalists, decided what the narrative was, what the interpretation was, thereby creating the illusion of consensus.

With myriad voices online, the illusion has been shattered. There is no consensus anymore. There is no single narrative. There is no single interpretation.

To some traditional journalists, the myriad of narratives and interpretations is confounding. They assume that those differing viewpoints are driven by agenda. Because if there were no agenda, there would be objective reporting. And, they believe, objective reporting generates a single, consensus view of what happened and what it means.

And yet, that's not what it means at all. Anyone who's seen "Rashamon" can tell you that. The illusion of objectivity was a by-product of the fact that there was only a single channel through which to tell a story. The fact that there now are myriad channels (myriad viewpoints) doesn't mean that no one's objective. It only shows what we've always known: There are myriad ways of recalling and interpreting the same event.

The "one-to-many, consensus-is-ours" world was certainly an easier place to live. Readers didn't have to do so much work, and journalists could go to be certain they'd gotten the story "right." The new world requires more work of readers and more confidence, or at less attachment to being perceived as an authority, on the part of journalists. But just because it's a harder place to live, doesn't mean it's wrong.

Photo courtesy of David Silverline. Creative Commons licence.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Twitter won't last -- and what that means for us

Twitter won’t last. It’ll be gone in two years. And the reasons why give us insight into digital journalism and how it will evolve.

Twitter is a hit, right? It’s caught on so fast that usage has crashed its servers. A superficial assessment would conclude that they really got something there. And that they’re so big and so far ahead that no one will ever be able to catch up. In other words, they came out of nowhere and cornered the market on this thing that no one even realized was a product. Kind of like Crocs, you might say.


But that superficial assessment would be wrong.

Here’s what a more sophisticated analysis would conclude:

-- Twitter accidentally discovered a latent need. Several actually. There was a need out there for what Twitter provides. Once Twitter it appeared, and people started playing with it, they discovered it was incredibly useful. And they discovered ways of using it that probably even the Twitter creators never imagined. Not just to update friends on the latest flavor of oatmeal they're eating. But to coordinate social gatherings on the fly. To broadcast messages from local emergency services. To do market research for consumer products.

-- No company could have identified these needs through market research alone. Companies, especially large ones, generally use market research to discover new product opportunities. But you couldn't have discovered the opportunity for Twitter, as it's designed today, through market research. That's because people aren't always good at articulating (or imagining) what would make their lives easier. Sure, they can tell you: "The buttons on my cell phone are too small. Their hard to push. Can you make them bigger?" Or, they can tell you: "The laces on my running shoes always break. Can you make them stronger?"

But it probably wouldn't have occured to people to say, "Give me a better way to meet up with my friends when I'm out on a Friday night." Because they had cell phones. And as far as they knew, those worked pretty well. You can't imagine a 63" plasma TV when you have a 12" color box that seems pretty nifty in comparison to the black-and-white box you just got passed on to your little brother. And they wouldn't have said, "Give me a better way to do market research." Or, rather, they couldn't have given you enough information in that request that your product designers would have read the research report and said, "A-ha! Let's build a Twitter." Sometimes you can only discover what people need by giving them something to play with and seeing what they do with it.

-- Nevertheless, even though Twitter accidentally discovered something that others missed, and even though so many people have taken to it, and even though its growth rate is so high that its infrastructure can’t keep up with usage, that doesn’t mean that no one else will be able to catch up.

That’s because Twitter isn’t a mature product. It’s an experiment. No, the Twitter folks probably don’t see it that way. But people who study how new technologies emerge and evolve probably do. It's better to think of Twitter as an experiment than a mature product because it's not like the creators envisioned Twitter to be what it has become. Its users have made it what it is, not its creators. Like many inventors, they probably just said, "Hey, I kind of sort of an idea of something that might be useful. Since it's not particularly difficult to build, let's just throw it out there and see if anyone uses it."

The output the Twitter experiment, however, is not a fully fleshed-out product. Rather, the discover is an insight: The insight about the latent needs it is fulfilling. Unfortunately, that insight doesn't give Twitter a competitive advantage over would-be competitors. It's not proprietary. Anyone can use it to build their own Twitter-like tool.

And they probably are. Because Twitter doesn't have any other advantages that would normally keep competitors out.
  • Twitter is not best-in-breed. OK, it's currently the only-in-breed. For now. But the thing is, despite all the myriad ways Twitter is being used, the application probably doesn't meet them as well as it could. After all, it wasn't designed with those uses in mind. Someone who designs an application that meets those needs more easily and more conviently will exert a strong pull on current Twitter customers.
  • It won't be particularly expensive to switch. If you come out with a better car than the one I have now, I have a big reason not to switch: The money it's going to cost me to buy the new ride. But Twitter is free, and a competitor will similarly probably be free, at least at first.
  • It won't be particularly difficult to learn how to use other Twitter-like applications. If you come up with a better corporate database application than the one I have now, I have another big reason not to switch: The amount of time it will take my staff to learn and become proficient at the new tool. But how much simpler an application can you get than Twitter? How much more difficult could a competitor be?
  • My Twitter buddies will probably adopt the new tool too. If you create a better country club than the one I attend now, I have a third big reason not to move: All my friends are at my current club and few, if any, will switch to the new one. Since it will be easy to acquire and learn the new Twitter-like app, my Twitter buddies will almost all adopt it when I do.

Given that Twitter has no meaningful advantages to give a competitor pause, a Twitter-killer will almost certainly emerge sometime in the next two years. Probably sometime in the next year. If I know anything about Silicon Valley, I can guarantee you that someone is already working on it. Probably many someones.

So what does this have to do with journalism? A few things:

-- The forms and practices of online news are going to evolve similarly quickly. A tool or an approach that works today will quickly be overtaken by a better one that emerges tomorrow. This is a foreign idea to people who’ve long worked in an industry where the canon was pretty much fixed for 50 years, or more. People who succeed in the online world will be the ones who have the flexibility of mind to embrace new ways of doing things but not make the mistake of believing that the new thing is the new canon. Take blogs, for example. The ways of using blogs to connect with readers are evolving. Any newsroom with a blog bible that isn't open to frequent revision will soon find its blogs losing currency.

-- Every new thing online newspeople try is an experiment. And the purpose of each experiment is not solely to see if the new thing will drive traffic. Creating traffic-drivers is important, of course. But more important is to understand why the new thing is driving traffic. What previously unidentified or unaddressed reader need(s) is the new thing meeting? Once you understand that, brainstorm: What could we do to specifically address that particular need(s) better than the old new thing is? Then create something new based on those insights. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

-- Newsrooms must experiment. It's no good fuzting at the drawing board and only releasing something to the world once it's fully baked. Because there's no way to get most things right until you've let your customers (readers) play with them. News organizations need to get in the habit of throwing something together, tossing it out there, analyzing the results, and using the resulting insights to inform the next revision.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What journalism can learn from a handwashing campaign in Ghana

Last Sunday's New York Times had a really interesting article about how public health workers in Ghana solved the problem of getting more people to wash their hands (and therefore reduce the incidence of child-killing diseases caused by dirt). Tellingly, the article wasn't in the international section. It was in Business. Even more interesting, the article held important insights for those of us in the news business who understand that the average American's lack of interest in the news is largely what is killing newspapers.

First the background.

The problem: Illnesses due to dirty hands, like diarrhea, kill a child somewhere in the world every 15 seconds. The solution is simple: Get people to wash their hands more frequently. The difficulty in that: Public health workers could not for the life of them get people in countries like Ghana to take up the habit. "We could talk about germs until we were blue in the face, and it didn't change behaviors," Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told the Times.

Then a lightbulb went off: Companies like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever have mastered the art of creating habits in American consumers (exhibit A: Febreze fabric cleaner: Who knew fabric freshner was a critical part of everyday life? Apparently no one, until P&G decided they needed to sell it.) If anyone could figure out how to sell the habit of hand-washing to Ghanaians, the public health folks decided, these guys could.

And they did.

First, they conducted a series of surveys to understand how and when Ghanaians perceived the need to wash hands. Talking about diarrhea and other diseases apparently had no effect, since, in the minds of Ghanaian mothers, those were just normal part of childhood, not dramatic calamities they were desperate to avoid. Next, they discovered that, when people did wash hands, their decision to do so was prompted by a feeling of disgust. They felt their hands were dirty--after cooking with oil, for example, or traveling through the city. Feeling their hands were dirty, they soaped them up and washed them clean. Now here's the interesting part: many Ghanaians didn't feel disgust after using the toilet. Hunh? You might say. That makes no sense to us. Exactly. But here's the thing: beautiful porcelain toilets had replaced latrine pits. In the minds of Ghanaians, then, toilets were actually associated with cleanliness.

With the marketers' help, the public health advocates figured out a new strategy. Forget about preaching about germs. Instead, cultivate a sense of disgust about using the toilet. "The commercials, which began running in 2003, didn't really sell soap use," the Times wrote. "Rather, they sold disgust. [emphasis mine]"

And apparently the campaign is working: Soap use after using the toilet has gone up 13 percent. And soap use before eating has gone up 41 percent!

So what do this have to do with journalism, you might ask. Very simple. Just about every single conversation among journalists about the demise of newspapers focuses on how bad this is for the country. News is important, the argument goes. Newspapers should be saved because of the "critical democratic function" they perform. (For the latest culprit, see Eric Alterman's piece in the upcoming issue of The Nation.)

What the Ghana handwashing story tells us, however, is you can't make people pick up a habit if they don't see the value in it, even if the value is objectively there. To us, avoiding germs is a perfectly valuable thing to do. To the Ghanaians, it wasn't. And no matter how much the public health workers tried to bang it over the Ghanians head that they needed to avoid germs, it didn't have any impact on their habits. It wasn't until the public health folks took the time to understand how the Ghanians saw the world, what was important to them, and what was effective in triggering certain behaviors, that they were able to craft messages that generated the behaviors the public health folks were gunning for.

The same goes for journalism in the States. We journalists can talk until we're blue in our faces about the importance of journalism. But if the average reader doesn't perceive that importance,* that argument isn't going to move any mountains. We will be more likely to succeed if we can appeal to something that does matter to the average American reader. I don't know what that is. But I ask you: What value can you think of that would be effective in "selling" the news-reading habit to the average American? What does the average American care about, that would get them in the habit of reading the news?

Tip: Think outside your journalism mindset box. Really. Think beyond everything you were taught in newsrooms and j-school. That's our mindset, our germs-should-be-avoided belief system, as it were, that the average American doesn't share. Instead, what is their mindset?

--------------------------------------------
* And after the lead-up to the Iraq War, who can really blame them? We subscribe to our mythology, that we provide a valuable public service. But there are many non-journalists out there who have every reason to be skeptical of that claim. But that's a whole different topic.

Photo courtesy of asplosh. Creative Commons license.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chill out on the tools

A friend who teaches at a prominent j-school told me recently that the staff is at a loss about what tools to tell their students to master. Do they really need to tell budding journalists that they need to become master video-graphers, pod-castsers, video editors, and slide-show creators, she wondered?

I told her no.

Back in the late '90s, when the Internet craze started snowballing out here in Silicon Valley, everyone and their grandmother was rushing to master HTML, Photoshop, Illustrator, and javascript. There was this belief that, in order to get a job in this biz, you needed to master all the tools, even if you really were mainly a writer. And sure enough, there we were, there I was, taking classes left and right to get up-to-speed.

And then a funny thing happened. Well, two things actually.

First, the tools (and the coding capabilities) progressed so quickly that, increasingly, people had to specialize in order to really be on top of everything that could be done--coding-wise, layout-wise, visuals-wise. Specialized fields emerged, and companies that once hired a single jack-of-all-trades to do everything for their website started hiring specialists--specialized programmers, specialized user interface designers, specialized visual designers. That trend continues today. Within programming, there are myriad specialities. Within UI design, there are myriad specialities. Same for visual design. There are people, for example, who are so specialized, they spend all their time designing buttons for cell phones. Go ahead, take out your cell phone. See all those buttons on the screen of your phone? There are people who specialize in designing only those.

The second thing that happened was that tools increasingly emerged for amateurs. First, you had to be able to code HTML by hand. Then tools like Dreamweaver emerged, where you still needed to generally understand what was going on under the hood, but you could use a lot of user-friendly shortcuts, like drag-and-drop. Today, there are tools for people who want to design their own webpages without any understanding whatsoever of what's going on under the hood. Maybe you've even used them yourself.

These same trends are going to take place in the news business. On the one hand, new specialties will emerge. You might already be seeing that in your own newsroom, with the emergence of video specialists. On the other hand, the tools will get easier to use. Think about how easy it is today to shoot a digital picture. It will get that easy to shoot video, download, and edit.

This doesn't answer the question of: But no matter how easy it gets, I still don't have time to shoot video, do a podcast, post to a blog and write my story. It's OK. I have an answer for that too. There was a similar frenzy in the late '90s. It didn't take long to figure out that one person simply couldn't do everything. There was a shaking out period. People figured out which activities were highest priority. And tasks were assigned accordingly. More on that later.

Photo courtesy of Peter Kaminsky. Creative Commons License.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

That old bit about glass houses

Here's the second nugget worth considering from Howell Raines piece on Romanesko in Portfolio. (The first nugget was here.)

He notes that, "The fogies are in an uproar about the internet's glorification of opinions from a nation of bloggers sitting around, figuratively speaking, in Romanesko's old bathrobes."

Then adds, "Oregonian editor Sandy Rowe... counsels us to ignore the 'journalistic tizzy fit of righteous indignation.' We were never as careful with facts as we claimed to be...."

I agree. Traditional journalists have to be careful about getting all up in arms about the current state of reporting online. It's that old line about glass houses. There were plenty of transgressions from the canon when news came in paper form. It's just that there wasn't an efficient mechanism to identify them and hold the culprits up for scrutiny.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The demand is not plummeting; it was never there

Howell Raines' mildly interesting piece on Jim Romenesko in the current issue of Portfolio is probably not worth the 15 minutes it takes to read it, but it does have a couple of nuggets worth reflecting on. I bring them to you here.

The first is Raines' observation that "it's not technology per se that's killing newspapers; it's plummeting demand for quality information."

I would propose that the demand for quality information is not plummeting. Rather, that it never was there to begin with. Technology has made it possible for readers to go elsewhere for the things they actually were seeking in newspapers. That is the phenomenon that is being revealed here.

We don't really believe that readers bought newspapers because they wanted the latest news from city hall, do we? If we're honest with ourselves, we'd admit that readers bought newspapers for the sports scores, the stock quotes, the TV and movie listings, maybe even the comics. The news? No. The news was simply a freebie thrown in with the other stuff customers were actually buying.

Readers were also buying newspapers--and reading the news--for other reasons that had nothing to do with the content itself, nothing to do with any desire to consume "quality information. Reasons like:

-- The desire to feel connected to the community

-- The desire to feel on top of what's going on in the community

-- The desire not to look stupid at the next cocktail party

In the design world, we call these "affective" attributes, the word "affect" being a stand-in for "emotional." Affective attributes are those that generate specific emotions or feelings in a person using a product. Not everyone who bought an iPhone did so because they thought it was the most useful and beautiful cell phone out there. Some bought it because they wanted to look cool, hip, down with the latest. Some bought it because they wanted to feel like they were on the cutting edge. Some bought it because they were afraid of missing out on something special.

Many purchase decisions are driven by these kinds of factors, rather than the practical value of the object in question. Exhibit A: Killer muscle cars that don't actually run all that well. The "quality" in the information? That's like the medicine in the cough syrup. No child who ever agreed to slurp down cough syrup did it for the medicine. They did it for the cherry flavor.

This might sound depressing, but it should be encouraging. Because it offers the key to the solution: Figure out what your readers really want from you--whether it's the sports scores or the desire to feel connected, or both, probably--and then figure out how to deliver the news so that the reader gets those things they're actually looking for.

And accept that there never was, and probably never will be, any meaningful demand for quality information. Except among a tiny minority of news junkies, and those of us in the business. Sure, when something like the domestic wire-tapping story or the Walter Reed scandal come to light, people are interested. But on a day-to-day basis? Really, they're more interested in the sports scores. And the stock quotes.

Photo courtesy of Yogi. Creative Commons license.