Friday, August 29, 2008

The importance of getting inside your reader's head

A recent study of negotiating strategy showed that dealmakers who can see the world through the eyes of the person they are negotiating with are more likely to arrive at a mutually acceptable deal that people who don't.

The focus of the study was to figure out whether it was more important for negotiators to focus on the head or the heart. The answer was the head. Specifically, the study revealed the importance of understanding exactly why your opposite number is at the table and what they really want out of the deal.

The study holds important implications for people trying to figure out journalism's way forward.

In any deal, there's a buyer and a seller. Same thing in journalism. We journalists--or, rather, the organizations we work for--are the sellers. Our readers are our buyers. The deal we are negotiating is: "Give us your eyeballs" (so we can sell them to advertisers). The products we're selling are our stories. The currency our readers pay with is their time. According to the new study,
the better we understand why our readers might want to give us their time, and consequently their eyeballs, the more likely we are to get them.

This is a tough question for us journalists. Traditionally, we've assumed that readers open up the newspaper "because they want to be informed." I would suggest that's not necessarily the case. There are myriad reasons why readers used to open the newspaper:
  • To feel "in control," presumably by learning everything that had happened in the last 24 hours
  • To avoid looking foolish when current events discussions come up
  • To feel the thrill of seeing your team do well, or the agony of their defeat
  • To feel "in control" by reviewing the latest stock prices and getting feedback confirming that their stock strategy was on track
  • To laugh, by reading the comics
  • To experience the excitement of learning about exotic countries far, far away
  • And so on....

I don't know what the actual answer is. But news organizations need understand exactly what it is readers hope to get in return for the time they give us. That way, we can shape our offerings--our products--so that readers get what it is they want.

One caveat: When I start talking like this, friends who've never left the world of traditional journalism respond as if I'm suggesting this means we should consider selling all kinds of stories that aren't "proper" news. I'm not. I'm suggesting that we understand our readers' motivations and then shape our stories so that our readers get out of them what they're looking for. You can still report on town council meetings. But perhaps we'll learn to shape those stories in ways that are more enticing to readers than the formulaic and--let's be honest with ourselves here--often drearily boring approach we've used to report on civic life in the past.

Photo courtesy of frankblacknoir. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Getting ahead--and producing better journalism--by letting others help us

Wikinomics is a great new book about the open source economy that holds important lessons for us journalists.

The subtitle "How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything" underlines the book's thesis. Technology has made it possible for people to collaborate on projects in ways never before possible. Industries that grasp the power of collaboration, and put it to use in product development, are getting ahead.

Proctor & Gamble, for example, once an insular company, now famously outsources much of its R&D, through a program called "Connect & Develop." The company publicizes a research question they're working on and promise a big payoff to the researcher anywhere in the world who solves it for them. Thousands of individuals or smaller companies around the world, with deeper experience in the relevant areas than P&G has in-house, race to try to find the answer first. The approach gets P&G farther faster than when they did all their research, secretively, in-house.

The book is full of such examples in which companies that open themselves up and invite the participation of anyone who's inspired to participate actually get ahead faster than those who try to keep everything in-house.

So what does this have to do with journalism?

Journalism is a notoriously secretive profession. A reporter gets a whiff of something, tracks it down doggedly, all the while trying to keep his/her project a secret from others, less s/he get scooped.

The open source method (a name coined in the tech world for computer programming projects in which new software is developed collaboratively) could turn all this on its head. Imagine how much farther you'd get as a journalist, how much better a story you'd produce, if you told the world what you were working on and let the world help you with your reporting. Here's what you'd gain:

  • A much quicker understanding of what's at stake
  • A much more accurate interpretation of the information you've gathered
  • Quicker access to documents
  • Insights it never would have occured to you to look for
  • And in the end, a deeper, richer, more accurate and more complete story

In fact, this is already happening at organizations that are giving the open source method a shot. The Fort-Myers, Fla., News-Press posted an appeal to the community to help them investigate a proposed sewer and water rate hike. The response was overwhelming. Readers flooded the paper's online forums to discuss the story and share what they knew.

The newspaper got help from everyone from retirees who had worked for sewer authorities elsewhere and could explain their ins and outs, to a local homeowner who'd been investigating on his own and had collected dozens of internal memos, to a local activist who similarly had been tracking the local utilities system and had other forms of documentation.

Just think about how much time this approach saved the News-Press and how much better an investigation they got out of it.

  • One of the handicaps of being a reporter sometimes is that you don't even know what it is you need to look for. The private citizens who responded to the News-Press' appeal helped the paper clear that hurdle much faster than they would have had they fumbled along on their own.

  • Another handicap is that, without deep experience in a particular domain, like sewers and rate setting, you're not sure how to interpret the information you receive. Sure, we like to think of ourselves as quick studies. But there's no substitute for someone with a lifetime of experience helping you understand the meaning behind the information you've collected.

  • A final handicap is getting access to documents. Even if you know what you're looking for, it can take a while to find it. In this story the News-Press benefitted from others' legwork.

The idea of opening ourselves up to the world doubtlessly feels uncomfortable to many journalists. We've been taught to keep our cards close to our chests, lest we get scooped. And we've been taught that "we're the professionals" and, as such, that we know best how to do this journalism thing.

But in some cases, it's clear that open source methods produce better, more complete, and more accurate stories. And isn't that, in the end, what we're all aiming for?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Crowdfunding will work -- for some

Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section carried a story about "community funded reporting," also known as "crowdfunding." This is an experimental business model for funding journalism that sort of works like everyone's favorite microfinance site Kiva: A news story with a proposed budget is posted on the website of the crowdfunding organization, Spot.Us, and once enough regular folks pony up the money to cover the budget, a journalist proceeds to report and write the story.

Right now the idea is being tested in Northern California only, with the support of a two-year, $340,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Stories that have been proposed include fact-checking of local political ads, ethanol as the weak link the California's energy strategy, and what really happens to recycled trash in various municipalities.

Here are my predictions about whether this experiment is going to work:
  • Crowdfunding will emerge as one of many new business models for journalism. This is because, unlike in the past, when journalism was all based on the same advertising-driven business model, in the future, there will be different kinds of business models for different kinds of journalism.

  • Crowdfunding will work for some kinds of stories, but not all. Mainly for stories that readers really care about, and that aren't already being covered elsewhere.

  • The success of crowdfunding will depend on how closely it emulates the social networking aspects that make Kiva work. It won't be enough for journalists simply to post the results of their work. They will need to find ways to make their contributors feel connected to the whole endeavor.
Crowdfunding already has a track record. Chris Allbritton traveled to and reported from Iraq, based on $15,000 in contributions from his readers. In the fall of 2004, when Talking Points Memo was just one guy's opinion blog, Josh Marshall raised about $5,000 from his readers for a trip to cover the New Hampshire primaries.

What made these appeals work were two things. First, the authors had a personal connection with their readers. Their readers enjoyed reading their take on things and felt personally invested in the writers themselves. Second, the readers really cared about the subjects being covered.

Going forward, crowdfunding will work for the same reasons, with a few twists. In the beginning, people will pony up dollars because they're excited about the topic. In the long run, however, contributors will continue to fund the work of specific journalists whose work they really like, the same way television watchers vote with their remotes by tuning in to Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Those audiences are not tuning in because of any particular story either show is covering. Instead, they're tuning in because they like Stewart or Colbert's points of view, the way they talk about what's going on in the world.

A few more things will help make crowdfunding work. The more Spot.Us works to make contributors feel invested in and a part of the work, the more likely they'll have repeat customers. How do you do this?

  • Reporters will need to let their readers get to know them as people, by talking about who they are and why they care about the stories they're reporting on.

  • Reporters will also need to bring their readers along as they're doing the reporting, not only posting regular blog-like updates about their latest research, but by engaging in a coversation with funders, letting the funders help them think about what parts of the story are important, about where to find various pieces of information, and possibly even help them actually do some of the reporting.

  • And lastly, reporters will need to share the success of the story with their funders. When they're finally done, the journalists will need to celebrate with their funders, cementing the feeling that they were all--journalist and contributors alike--in the project together.
People today participate in group endeavors not just because they believe in the endeavor itself. In our increasingly lonely society, people also participate in order to feel connected to others. The more Spot.Us reporters can make their funders feel like they're part of a grand endeavour, rather than just wallets on the sidelines, the more funding they will attract in the long-run.

Crowdfunding will not be the panacea to the financial challenges journalism faces as a whole. But it will be one solution that will enable some of the reporting we--and our readers--care about to continue.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Who's your competition? (Part 3)

My previous two posts talked about reasons why newspapers should not view each other as competitors and instead should collaborate to discover new methods to generate and deliver news. Here's the last reason.

When I talk to friends at newspapers, I get the sense they think that discovering those new methods will give them a competitive advantage over other news outlets. If they discover some clever new way to direct traffic from Google to their news sites, they'll be ahead of the game.

If I've learned anything from my time in Silicon Valley, however, I've learned that this is not the case.

Anyone who discovers a nifty new way of doing something has a competitive advantage for a few short moments. And then everyone else figures out how to do the thing the first company did. And then that new method becomes standard. At this point, having access to the method doesn't give anyone a competitive advantage. It's how different companies apply the method that puts them ahead.

Take printing presses, broadsheets, and photography. Those are all methods. Every newspaper uses them. No one has a competitive advantage simply in the use of the tools. What differentiates them is how they put them to use. The New York Times and the Podunk Review both use printing presses, broadsheets, and photography. Yet it's how the New York Times puts those to use that sets it above the rest.

All of which is to say: Not joining forces to discover the new tools and methods is a fatally short-sighted strategy. Smart news organizations will join forces with others during this phase. Then, once the industry as a whole has figured out how to generate and deliver news in an economically viable way in the new environment, only then will it make sense to start competing against each other again.

Photo courtesy of Herkie. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Who's your competition? (Part 2)

A fundamental principle of free market economics, as I noted on Monday, is that businesses succeed when they offer a better product or service than their competitors. Because of this, businesses keep their cards close to their chests, especially when they're developing new offerings. Not only do they want to be the first to market. They also don't want to give away their "secret sauce."

Normally, this approach makes sense. There's one situation where it doesn't: The case in which an entire industry might collapse before any one organization with in it can find a new offering that will save its skin.

This is the situation the newspaper industry finds itself in today. Every news organization is scrambling to try to figure out how to survive the onslaught of challenges that has them slashing staffs and cutting back on coverage. Isolated experiments in new ways of delivering news are taking place here and there. But for the most part, there's very little cross-organization collaboration to find new ideas.

Newspapers are still caught up in the old idea that other news organizations are their competition. Historically, newspapers have taken a firm stand against collaborating with each other. This makes sense when you're vying for scoops on a presidential campaign trail. Or even from your local city council. It doesn't make a lot of sense when your entire survival is at stake.

Remember the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster? The one Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air? The two climbing outfitters on the mountain that season--Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness--were die-hard competitors, perpetually vying for high-end clients to take the top of the world. When disaster struck, however, they didn't hesitate to do what needed to be done. The teams joined forces to save as many lives as possible.

It's easy to see what needs to be done when someone's life is at stake right in front of you. It's harder when the concept seems more abstract and slightly removed. But the situation the news industry faces is no less dire. Its entire existence is at stake, unless it can find its way forward.

Facing a challenge of this proportion--how to reinvent news coverage and delivery so as to ensure the industry's economic survival--requires a massive R&D effort, mainly because most experiments will fail. It's only through the collective effort that the new methods will be discovered.

I remain baffled at why there's so little collaboration between news organizations on this question. When I talk to friends in the news business, the answer seems to lie in the fact that the old mindset prevails. Instead of looking at the magnitude of the challenge and saying, "We better join forces," the competition mindset has become all the more entrenched, as news organizations seem themselves vying over the crumbs of reader clicks.

This is a short-sighted strategy. Individual organizations may prevail over others in the short run. But in the long-term, they will all go down. As Ben Franklin once said, "We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Who's your competition? (Part 1)

One of the core ideas in free market economics is that businesses succeed when they deliver a better product or service than their competition. OK, fine. So then the question becomes: Who's your competition?

Newspapers have traditionally thought of their competition as other newspapers. Maybe also TV news. But essentially, other purveyors of news. Because, after all, everyone reads or watches the news. So you'll get the most readers if you have the best news. Right?

Not anymore.

Newspapers' competition today is not other news organizations. It's anything else someone might do with their free time, other than reading the news. YouTube, MySpace, blogs, Epicurious, World of Warcraft, MarketWatch.com, Second Life, and so on.

Staying on top of the news is no longer a priority for many Americans. It's possible it never was. It's possible many people read the newspaper for other reasons: Habit, entertainment, the desire to feel connected to other human beings, the desire to feel a part of a community.

Let's take those last three for a moment: entertainment, the desire to feel connected, the desire to feel part of a community. Today, thanks to the Internet and other forms of digital entertainment, it's possible to satisfy those needs without ever touching a newspaper or any other news entity.

So as the news business tries to find its way forward, as it tries to preserve and grow its audience, it needs to be asking itself not just: How can we deliver the best possible news, better than anyone else who might be delivering news? But: How can we deliver an experience so great that the average person will choose spend time with us, rather than doodling around on Facebook, trying to up their score on "Madden NFL," or catching up on old episodes of "Desperate Housewives."

It's an odd thought, of course. And by no means am I suggesting that newspapers have to develop Desperate Housewives-type serials in order to attract readers. Instead, the idea is this: Newspapers have to ask themselves: How can we make the experience of reading the news as enjoyable as catching up on an old episode of DH. Or playing Madden NFL. Or updating your profile on Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Auburnxc. Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Who, in fact, is the problem?

In a recent Esquire article, Newark mayor Cory Booker paraphrases Martin Luther King:
"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."
These words could apply to the news business as well.

The problems that the news business faces today are not solely the responsibility of the Sam Zells and others who are slashing and burning journalism staffs. The Sam Zells are not the only villains in our current drama. The problems are the responsibility of every person in the industry, from the top muckety mucks to the lowly scribes. And so, as the old saying goes, if you're not working on the solution, you're part of the problem.

The past does not exist anymore. The future has to be created. This is a scary reality to face. It means we're all bobbing out at sea, with no map to guide us. We all have to help the business find its way.

If you're a reporter, and all you want to do is to do the same old job you always did--get up in the morning, pound out a story or two, and go home--you're part of the problem. Every person needs to devote some portion of their waking hours to teasing out the answer to the question: "How, going forward, can we attract and retain readers?"

I know this is not a comfortable thought. I know it's not what most journalists want to do. But it is the reality. If you're not comfortable with it, for whatever reason, consider leaving the business. If you need job security, you need to find another job. If you have no interest in experimentation, find a job where you can do whatever part of this job it is that you love to do. There are many jobs out there where you can exercise your writing skills, your reporting skills, your love of art, sports, politics, or business. But the bottom line is this: If you're not willing to pick up an oar and help row, you're just dead weight and you need to get out.

On the other hand, if you love the business, then you need to strap on some courage and take some risks. The business is in a crisis. And crises require good men and women to extend themselves, to take risks, to try things they never thought they could do. It's going to be a rocky period, one full of uncertainty, and you might not survive it. For all you do, you still might get the ax. But that is a risk one takes to save something one loves. And it's the responsiblity of every single one of us. It would be nice if this were a simple problem that the higher ups could fix with a little spread-sheet rejiggering. But it's not. It requires a complete re-invention of the business. The ideas on how to do that will not come from the boardroom. They will come from this odd corner or that. From this experiment that succeeded, and even from that one that failed.

The problems that the news business faces today are not solely the responsibility of the "evil business people" tearing newsrooms to shreds. They are the responsibility of every person working in the business. And so are the solutions.


Photo courtesy of Bombardier. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The book of lists: Things we know

There are some great "things I know" lists out there where people in the news biz enumerate the hard truths they believe to be true about the state of journalism and this transition we're in the middle of. Here are three I highly recommend:

William Lobdell's "42 Things I Know"

Veteran LA Times journalist Lobdell volunteered to be part of the recent round of layoffs. He left his job Aug 1 after 18 years in the biz. In an email exchange with an OC Weekly reporter, Lobdell made the sobbering admission that he had concluded that "the risk of staying at the paper had become greater than the risk of leaving."

His list of "42 Things" offers his assessment of the news industry, including the fact that the newspaper business model is broken (#3), no one knows how to fix it (#4), and that's probably because it can't be fixed (#5).

He also says:


  • A news web operation can support far fewer journalists and layers of editors. It requires a different mindset. (#17)

  • Sam Zell isn’t the ultimate villain.... In the long run, he’s just an accelerator for a downfall that is happening naturally. (#20)

  • We operated as though we had a monopoly on truth and great journalism for far too long. We didn't listen to our critics and sometimes our readers. That cost us. (#24)

Ryan Sholin, "Ten Obvious Things You Need to Get Through Your Head," and "Ten Obvious Things, One Year Later"

Sholin is a San Jose State University grad student in mass communications. He's also a former Web developer and online editor. Plus, he's located in the heart of Silicon Valley. Maybe those things combined have contributed to his point of view.

"Ten Obvious Things...," written in June 2007, was one of his most popular blog posts ever. He updated it a year later. Among his thoughts:


  • Your major metro newspaper could probably use some staff cuts. If you’re not writing about local news, your paper’s readers are probably getting what you do from somewhere else. (#3)

  • Bloggers aren’t an uneducated lynch mob unconcerned by facts. They’re your readers and your neighbors and if you play your cards right, your sources and your community moderators. (#7)

  • You ignore new delivery systems at your own peril. RSS, SMS, iPhone, e-paper, Blackberry, widgets, podcasts, vlogs, Facebook, Twitter — these aren’t the competition, these are your new carriers. (#8)

  • THE GLASS IS HALF FULL. There is excellent work being done in the new world of online journalism and it’s being done at newspapers.... You don’t need millions of dollars or HD cameras or years of training to make it happen; all you need is the right frame of mind. (#10)

Mindy McAdams: "The Survival of Journalism: 10 Simple Facts"

McAdams teaches university courses in online journalism and the use of technology for communication. She says:


  • Journalism CAN be done, and done well, without newspapers. (#2)

  • Newspapers were a nice business.... It worked for a long time, but now, like trans-Atlantic leisure travel in big passenger ships, it will never work again. (#5)

  • The business model to sustain journalism in the 21st century has not been seen yet. (#9)
Photo courtesy of Claudecf. Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The necessity of triage

Last week, I wrote about how Google's 20 percent policy* fosters innovation and suggested that news organizations similarly consider giving their employees time to imagine and experiment with new ways of attracting and retaining readers. I also noted that most news editors would probably scream bloody murder at me for suggesting that they give their staffers a full day a week to work on something other than feeding the news beast, at a time when so many newsrooms are struggling to meet daily news demands. And I wrote that, in order to ensure that the operation even exists tomorrow, newspapers have to be willing to sacrifice some daily news demands today.

Happily, I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Chris O'Brien is a business reporter who's covered Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News for most of the past decade. He's also working on The Next Newsroom project, to design an ideal newsroom from scratch.

There must have been something in the Bay Area water last week because O'Brien expressed many of the same thoughts as I was having, over on the MIT MediaShift Idea Lab blog. Specifically, he wrote:

If 100 percent of your newsroom's time is devoted to just producing your current products, then you're already doomed.
And he said:

No one can simply order up innovation on demand. Wish as you might, the innovation fairy won't sprinkle pixie dust on your newsroom while you sleep. But you can encourage innovation, nurture it by lowering barriers, supporting those employees with entrepreneurial drive, and providing a fertile environment for their ideas.
He also noted that myopia regarding how to innovate is not unique to the newspaper business. It's characteristic of any business that enjoyed a long period of uncontested domination:

It's the classic fate that strikes any once-dominant company when the world turns upside down. It happens all the time in world of technology. Look no further than Microsoft, which after more than a decade, is still trying to adapt its business to the Web, as evidenced by its ill-fated bid to buy Yahoo (another company that's failed to innovate). The Redmond giant can't let go of a legacy product (Windows) enough to reorient itself to where the market and its users have gone.
O'Brien's prescription is one many Silicon Valley technology companies use to create the future and ensure the continuing health of their businesses:
  1. Make it a priority

  2. Create a process

  3. Foster new collaboration

  4. Offer incentives

  5. Evaluate and learn

Again, this might seem overwhelming to news leaders already feeling strapped. But hopefully it's actually encouraging. It gives permission to editors to to do what needs to be done, even if--or, rather, especially when--doing so requires violating the canon. Previously, newspapers held firm to the notion that they needed to be the institutions of record, that they needed to cover everything newsworthy going on in their communities, that to miss a story was an almost unrecoverable shame.

In this new world, however, news organizations need to triage. They need to be willing to let go of some stories today, some news coverage today, so they can focus efforts on ensuring the survival of the institution as a whole.

* Google gives its employees one day a week to work on a project of their choosing.

Friday, August 8, 2008

How about Googling up?

When I was laboring in the trenches of Silicon Valley, one of things I admired about Google (who was a next door neighbor for a while) was that they gave their people one day off a week to work on a project of their choosing. And not just some project they had chosen from a list drafted by the Google leadership. Just the opposite. They were allowed to work on any project that they dreamed up that rocked their boat. Any idea that entered their little heads that they thought might be cool to try to bring to fruition. The projects, of course, had to be something to that might be useful to Google. Employees couldn't go off and build macrame birdhouses or 12-layer wedding cakes. But as long as it was something that might one day be useful to Google, it was fair game.

The policy was based on the idea that letting smart people work on stuff that they dreamed up and were passionate about was much more likely to produce useful inventions than a top-down process where the muckety-mucks, or even a committee, decided "what we should build next." People working on their own projects get to say to themselves, "Hey, what tool would I like to have?" And then they get to figure out how to make it happen. And since they're invested in, or at least inspired by, the project, they're much more likely to figure out a way to make it work.

The reason why the Google 20 percent policy works is that, in the world of knowledge or creative work, not all hours are created equal. On an assembly line, one man-hour essentially equals another man-hour. At the end of 40 man-hours of work, you have a number of widgets equal to 40 x the standard rate of widgets-created-by-a-person-in-an-hour. Knowledge work isn't like that. Creative work isn't like that. The output from one hour of an indifferent, or demotivated, employee's time does not equal the output from one hour of a motivated employee's time. You know this. Think how much more you get done when you're jazzed about a project, and how much more excellent the outcome is, than when you're indifferent about it.

So what does this have to do with newspapers? I previously wrote about how, if I were a newspaper publisher today, I'd organize 100 newspapers in a massive R&D project. This is a related idea. If I were a newspaper editor today, I'd seriously consider giving my staff one day a week to work on any idea they wanted as long as its ultimate goal was: Find ways to attract and retain readers. (And it goes without saying, of course, that I'm talking about attracting and retaining readers online. Print is on its way out. It's just a matter of time.)

I can picture, of course, an army of newspaper editors telling me I'm friggin' crazy if I think they're going to give their people one day a week to work on some project of their own, when the paper is already short-staffed due to layoffs and the ever-voracious Web. But here's my response. And I say it, really, with the greatest respect and compassion for the position newspaper editors are in: The Titanic is going down. You can either use your staff to maintain the ship, or you can use them to build a lifeboat. In scenario A, it's going to go down and take most of your people with it. In scenario B, there's a fighting chance that some will survive and that a more seaworthy vessel will have been built. Newspaper reporters are smart, creative people. Given the chance, I imagine they will come up with some pretty neat ways of presenting stories online or with some pretty cool tools that will draw in more readers than the standard slap-up-our-print-stories-onto-the-Web approach that most newspapers are taking today.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What we can learn from NBA.com

Fast Company is always a great source of ideas on innovation and adaptation to changing conditions. The June 2006 issue (which I came across while culling my ever-growing stash of magazines) did not disappoint. There on page 97 was a story about how the NBA was using the web to hook a whole new generation of hoops fans. Their innovations sparked some interesting thoughts about things the news business could do online to similiarly attract and keep readers.

Here are a few things NBA.com did:

-- They realized that unlike TV watchers, Internet users weren't interested in watching a whole game over the Internet. So how to give them something they would want? Slice and dice game footage to give fans the ability to watch short snippets, especially snippets of the specific players or plays the fans were interested in.

-- NBA.com made it possible for fans to have specific snippets beamed directly to their handheld devices, based on preferences they had set for specific teams or players. Again, slice and dice and serve up specifics, rather than the whole 2 1/2 hour game.

-- They started to monetize the services by embedding short ads in the clips. And again, though the article didn't go into it, I'm guessing those weren't simply repurposed 15- or 30-second spots from TV. I'm guessing the ads were specifically designed for the devices (Internet or handheld) to achieve the advertisers' goal (brand impressions) without providing a bad experience for the user (like forcing them to watch a 15-second ad in order to watch a 15-second clip).

-- At the time of the article, NBA.com was also toying with the idea of sending text messages about specific developments, when a player had hit a certain number of points, for example. Clicking on the message would take the user straight to a live broadcast of the game. That way, the fan could tune in only if the game met certain conditions the fan considered interesting.

Newspapers could learn a lot from NBA.com.

The first thing is the whole mindset issue. The NBA didn't just look at the Web and say to themselves, "How can we use this thing to do the exact same thing here that were doing on TV?" (ie: broadcast games) They realized it was a different beast and that fans would want to use it differently.

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg once told me that one of the problems some print editors have had in transitioning to the Web is that they look at the Web and see words and so they assume that a reader wants to interact with the content there in the exactly same way as they interact with a print newspaper. And that all the editors have to do to make the Web work for them is to convert their print stories into digital form. Some of them don't get that a reader approaching the Web is going to want to do different things than a reader approaching a piece of newsprint. The difference is subtle, Weisberg said, but it makes all the difference in whether an online site succeeds or fails.

Second, the NBA realized that the nature of the Web made it possible to deliver things that had never been possible to deliver via television. With TV, broadcasters can only send a single thing out to the entire audience. So they choose the thing most interesting to the majority: the entire game. In the digital world, however, it's possible to serve up different things to different members of the audience, based on what those individuals request. Had the NBA simply used the new medium to do the old thing (send a single thing to the entire audience), they would have missed the real opportunity on the Web (the ability to enable individuals within the audience to receive only those things most valuable to them).

Indeed, noted the Fast Company article in explaining how NBA.com was different from its peers: "The strategy at most entertainment companies looking to capitalize on the new networked gadgets is just to peddle out the same old stuff in new places." The NBA's key insight was that people wanted to do different things on the new devices.

Specifically,
* In the old TV world, the user desire was simply: "Show me what is going on now."
* In the new digital world, there were two new desires:
-- "Show me only those aspects of past events that I care about"
and
-- "Notify me if a certain event has taken place or a specific condition has changed, so that I can take a particular action that is important to me"

Understanding those new needs, NBA.com built on the old content (game footage) and on activities they were already doing (following games in real time) to create new types of content (player snippets, play snippets, event-driven text messages) to meet those new desires.


So, off the top of my head, what similar kinds of things could newspapers do to attract and keep readers?

-- What if readers could sign up to get news only about certain public figures or certain issues they cared about? In San Francisco, for example, if they wanted to get alerted every time there was a new item about supervisor Chris Daly? Or about parking regulations? Or about a business in a specific industry? Or even a specific restaurant?

The New York Times is already doing a version of this with its Keyword Alerts, which enable readers to tell nytimes.com to send them only those stories that include the readers specify (like "Afghanistan," "interest rate," or "Manolo Blahnik," for example). More newspapers should be doing this.

-- How else could the news be sliced and diced and delivered to readers in ways that make sense on handheld devices? It can't, of course, be a matter of just shoving an article or a blog post down the pipe. It would have to involve reshaping the content into a snippet that was useful to someone who's receiving it at work, while riding the bus home, or at a baseball game. I don't have the answer, but I'm sure it's there.

-- And how else could the news be provided to meet the desire "Notify me if a certain event has happened or a condition has changed, so that I can take a particular action that is meaningful to me"? Again, I haven't thought this one through, but I'm sure there's an answer. Or many.

Photo courtesy of spcoon. Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Minding the gap

Last week, The News Hour noted that with the termination of the Los Angeles Times' standalone Book Review section, only three newspapers still had separate book sections: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times.

The News Hour invited Steve Wasserman, a past LA Times book review editor, to comment on the demise of book coverage in print and the explosion of literary commentary online.

Wasserman took the position that this demise is catastrophic: "Despite the robust nature or at least very excited nature of the conversations on the Internet, the best criticism still being written today is being published in magazines," he said. "It will be a long time before the Internet gives us a forum in which people unsupported by institutions can deliver us that kind of literary criticism."

In these few phrases, Wasserman makes himself both right and wrong.

He may be correct that the caliber of online criticism does not match the best of what is in print. I say "may be" simply because I don't follow this world, either in print or online. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And he may also be correct that it will be a long time before this caliber exists online. Again, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. (Though I suspect that at least some independent online reviewers would challenge him on that, perhaps including Kassia Krozer, editor of Booksquare.com, who was also on the show.)

Where he's wrong, though, is in the big picture. Just because there will be a gap between the demise of quality print-based reviews and the rise of quality online criticism doesn't mean the demise of print is a calamity. It just means exactly what he said: There will be a gap.

This is what happens when one industry dies and another emerges to take its place. It takes a while for the new industry to pick up all the slack left behind by the old industry. Whether you think that's a calamity or not depends on your viewpoint. I'm pragmatic, so it doesn't bother me. The gap is only temporary. I have faith the new industry will take on the old roles. I have faith.

Friday, August 1, 2008

What we can learn from the Orlando Sentinel

The Orlando Sentinel, it turns out, has taken a novel approach to ensuring its survival: It turned basic notions of how to run a newspaper on its head.

-- They taught their reporters to think of themselves as "news gatherers" responsible for delivering for both Web and print

-- When it came to breaking news, they taught their reporters to think "Web first"

-- They eliminated editing layers and increased front-line accountability

“We were very newspaper-production driven,” Sentinel editor Charlotte Hall told the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "I wanted to see ourselves in the new world as driven by news gathering across platforms."

Yay!

Here's what I like about this:

-- The Sentinel realized that many of its modus operendi (modi operendi?) were merely artifacts of the constraints imposed on journalism when journalism gets delivered in paper format once a day.

They realized that, when you have multiple means of delivering journalism, you can jettison some of the givens you previously took for granted.

-- They broke out of the mindset of being newspaper reporters. And instead, they taught themselves to think of themselves as "people who gather news and disseminate it in different ways." Mindset is hugely important. Everything you do follows from who you think you are. When the Sentinel taught its people to think of themselves as newsgatherers first, it probably liberated them from some of the thinking that was blocking them from operating effectively in the new world.

Photo courtesy of sskennel. Creative Commons license.