Monday, September 29, 2008

How to think about the new WaPo political news aggregation site

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

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

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

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

Here's what I like about it:

  • The Post is experimenting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The site is much too purty.

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

  • Talk about revenues.

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

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

Friday, September 26, 2008

Jarvis agrees: Zell is not the problem

This is quite exciting.

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

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

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

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

The rap sheet included the following crimes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

So how *should* newspapers use Twitter?

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

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

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

Unfortunately, many newspapers are doing exactly that.

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

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

But they were wrong.

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

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

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

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

So what are Twitter's attributes?

-- Real-time delivery of something happening now

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

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

-- Able to include links to the Web

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

And what's Twitter's usage style?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you make money from this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of apesara. Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who would you fire?

Newspapers are experimenting with new tools left and right, as well they should. One they're trying to get a handle on is Twitter.

As you probably know, Twitter is a tool that lets you dispatch mini-updates -- up to 140 characters in length. Recipients can choose to get them in any number of places: On their cellphones, in their RSS readers, etc....

Newspapers are trying to figure out whether Twitter has any value to them. They're asking themselves what are the situations, if any, where sending 140-character bursts is useful to readers? And, of course, can Twitter be used to generate audience loyalty that can somehow contribute to the bottom line?

As happens whenever you experiment, not all your efforts pan out. There are two recent examples where newspaper Twitter reporting fell flat on its face.

-- As Hurricane Ike loomed, the Houston Chronicle created a special Twitter account that people could subscribe to get the latest storm info. But, as Cory Bergman over at Lost Remote points out, they totally bombed with their implementation. Instead of posting immediately useful information -- like "Bridge X now closed" or "Johnson HS in Town Y now accepting displaced residents" -- they have simply posted headlines to their stories, along with links to the articles online. Now let's think about this for a moment. If you're in the middle of a hurricane (or its aftermath) and are trying to make game-time decisions about what's best for your family or business, are links to stories online really the most useful information you could be receiving? Obviously not.

If you're getting the tweets on your cell phone, you might not have Web access to get to the articles. But even if you do, do you really want to stop what you're doing to read an inverted-pyramid story about this thing or that? No, of course not. You just want information you can act on immediately, like "Avoid this street" or "FEMA grant applications being accepted at the library from 10-12."

-- Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain News has also been experimenting with Twittering, sending play-by-play updates from the Democratic National Convention, for example.

They got themselves into journalistic hot water, though, when a reporter sent to cover the funeral of a three-year-old victim of a widely covered traffic accident used Twitter to send minute-by-minute updates. The Poynter Institute's E-Media Tidbits blog challenged the news value of such tweets as "the father is sobbing over the casket" and "family members shovel earth into the grave." The Colorado Independent called the reporting "Utterly, and unforgivingly, inconceivable." Posters at a forum on called for those involved to be fired.

Which leads us to the question of the day. Between these two incidents, if you were going to fire someone, who would you fire? The creator the benign yet useless Houston Chronicle tweets? Or the people behind the conceivably tasteless Rocky Mountain News tweets?

If it were me, I'd fire the Houston Chronicle staffer.

OK, "fire" is a little strong. I would have them reassigned.

As for the Rocky Mountain News folks, we'd definitely do a debrief and draft "lessons learned." But fire them? Not for a minute. Here's why.

The key to figuring out the future of news lies in experimentation. It is only through experimentation that we'll figure out what new forms of journalism both serve our readers and generate the revenue news organizations need to survive and thrive. In today's environment, we should never fire staffers who experiment and fail -- especially when they fail. Failure is a necessary part of learning and growing. (In fact, I remember a friend of mine once telling me soon after he started at the New York Times that the editors there had told the newcomers that if they weren't messing up every now and then, they weren't trying hard enough.)

But people should be fired for being stuck in the past. And that's why I'd fire -- OK, reassign -- the Houston Chronicle staffer who authored those benign but useless Hurricane Ike tweets.

To explain:

-- The Houston Chronicle people fundamentally don't understand the technologies they're working with. They are stuck in the old world model: "We write articles. Our goal is to get our readers to read our articles." People who start out with that mindset will never be able to find the future. As tough as it is, news organizations need to get people like that out of the way so that the people who do get where things are headed can do their work and find the future.

-- The Rocky Mountain News folks do get what the new technologies are all about. It seems like they messed up in this one case, but that's OK. Try it and learn from it. You'll never find what is valuable and useful unless you're willing to push the bounds.

Here's an analogy. There are some people I know who will only go to a show (theater, music, etc...) if it's received a stamp of approval and they're guaranteed that it's going to be great. I take a different approach: I'm willing to try anything that sounds like it could be interesting. Invariably, some of the shows bomb, and I end up walking out at intermission. But because I was willing to take risks, I've also found a lot of good shows that my safety-minded friends never saw. It's only by taking risks that we make discoveries.

When it comes to weekend entertainment, the stakes are pretty low. So I have some friends who never get to discover cool shows because they aren't willing to take risks. So what. No harm done.

In the news business, however, the stakes are higher. The stakes are, in fact, our very survival. As such, we must
be willing to take risks. Playing it safe may ensure that we never accidentally transgress. But it will also ensure that we don't have a future.

Friday, September 19, 2008

How about them college papers?

I talk a lot here about the need to experiment, to take risks, try stuff, throw it up against the wall, see what sticks. That kind of no-holds-barred experimentation is the only way to find the future models for reporting and delivering the news.

I just had a new thought on this idea: Why aren't college newspapers doing this very thing?

Wouldn't college newspapers be the perfect place to try some of this experimentation? Why insist on their continuing to publish daily, physical newspapers? Why not just say to them: Go online, play around, and tell us what you learn about attracting and retaining readers?

Most college papers do, of course, have an online presence. But surf around them, and it's hard to find something groundbreaking.

There could be something going on that I'm not aware of. But if there isn't, I'd love to see a massive, coordinated project along the lines of the 100-newspaper project I described before: Gather at least 100 college newspapers and get each one (or teams of several) to pursue a project aimed toward attracting and attaining readers. And then share the results with each other--and the world.

There are a bunch of foundation-funded programs out supporting various "adult-run" experiments. But if you're going to make a bet, I think it would be hard to find a more sure thing than letting the next generation -- the tech-savvy, fearless, not-stuck-inside-the-box-of-the-old-canon generation -- go wild. Surely, they would find some of the answers.

Photo courtesy of Stinkie Pinkie. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The dangers of relying on insiders (to save you from dire straits)

Slate's new online magazine, a business and financial news hub called The Big Money, had an interesting piece yesterday on the mutual demises of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch--and offered an insight into why one of them was able to find safe harbor through acquisition while the other simply imploded.

The difference, suggested writer Henry Blodget (yes, he of the Merrill Lynch securities scandal, but who has since rehabilitated himself as a business and tech writer), lay in the fact that Merrill has been helmed for the last year by an outsider brought in to save the company, whereas Lehman continued to be led by a long-time insider.

The story suggests an important lesson for news organizations and the challenges they face.

Granted, financial organizations are imploding due to a crisis of their own making, whereas news organizations are being battered by external forces. But the net effect is the same. Both industries have been facing dire straits. It is possible that the lesson from the Merrill / Lehman parable is that a clear-headed, dispassionate outsider may be better able to find the way forward than one whose understanding of the world--and identity--is wrapped up firmly "inside" the box.

In the news business then, the way forward may be found by news organizations that bring in outsiders--to lead, to set priorities, to make the hard decisions about what beloved elements of the news business will be jettisoned and what supposed travesties will be adopted--rather than relying on long-time journos to try to invent futures for the institutions they hold dear.

Monday, September 15, 2008

At what point do you simply get off the treadmill?

An acquaintance who works at a local news station told me the other day that staffing changes are impairing the station's ability to develop quality news. Upon re-read, that last line feels like a "duh." But let me explain.

Specifically, he said that the station has three categories of staff: a) FTEs, ie: people with real full-time jobs; b) steady contractors, ie: people who work regularly and full-time for the station, but who don't get benefits and who can be terminated on a moment's notice; and c) traditional freelancers, ie: people who are pulled in for specific jobs but otherwise aren't part of the "team."

The problem with the setup, he said, is that, while the station has all the
bodies it needs to do the work, it isn't necessarily getting the best work out of them. The problem is with that middle category of people. The station thinks it's a good deal: It has the bodies it needs, but if it faces an economic downturn, it can let them go immediately.

What they don't realize--or perhaps do and simply don't care about--is that a person who can be let go immediately doesn't give you their best work. Not because they're holding back on you out of resentment or the like. But simply because, in order to hold on to their job, they become a "Yes Man." Good journalism results when journalists fight for the stories they believe in. When they stand up to editors and say, "No,
this is where the real story is." Good journalism does not result from journalists who never challenge a editor's take, for fearing of getting laid off.

It's stories like these that make me wonder whether traditional journalism even has a future. Instead of taking truly bold moves, making leaps to completely new ways of doing things, so many organizations seem to be simply trying to cut and reconfigure their way to profitability within the old model of doing things. And yet, you'd think that when you get to the point where reconfiguring just makes the quality go down even further, you'd conclude there is no future here.

It reminds me of that old line from the Red Queen in
Alice in Wonderland: "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

At that point, I wonder, why don't folks just get off the treadmill and move to a new game altogether?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Holding up a mirror to our bias

A new website,, is allowing regular folks to vote on whether particular news stories are biased right or left. As you can see from the images at right (or from the website itself), these aren't binary verdicts. Rather, sliders indicate the degree to which a collective readership believes a particular story leans left or right.

It's an interesting idea. I'm not sure it will have much standalone appeal. It would be more useful if the ratings were integrated into the original content. Like when you're reading a blog and can see that one post got 115 Diggs and another only 4. Those kind of indicators become handy guideposts to help you quickly locate the most interesting content. Similarly, Skewz ratings would be a great tool if they were embedded directly into articles on news websites themselves. How cool would that be? As a reader, you'd get an immediate indication of where the stories were coming from.

That will never happen, of course. Can you imagine the New York Times or CNN folding anything into their sites that seemed to suggest they weren't being 100% objective? Of course not. Which is why I like this site for another, more profound reason: For the very fact that it provides hard-to-ignore feedback to the mainstream media that, no matter how much we try to be objective, and no matter how much we believe we're being objective, there are very few readers out there who believe we are.

When blogs and other forms of new media started hitting the scene, my friends working in the mainstream media resoundly trashed them for their bias. They didn't constitute real journalism, my friends would say, because they weren't objective.

I argued back that there were certainly many points on which the MSM could challenge the journalistic merits of the bloggers emerging at the time. But objectivity wasn't one of them. The traditional media, I argued, has never been objective.

Needless to say, I didn't get many converts to my way of thinking. And it's certainly not a point of view I would have agreed on before I'd been out of journalism for a while.

Traditional reporters resist the idea that they are biased because they confuse the concept of "having a bias" with "having an agenda." For the sake of this argument, I'll agree that most traditional reporters do not have agendas. Most reporters do see their duty as finding out what's happening in the world and reporting on it without slanting it.

But the thing is: Not having an agenda is not the same as not having a bias.

Let me backtrack for a moment. "Bias" is probably too loaded a term. Let's use "framework" instead. Everyone has a framework they use to organize their understanding of the world. A set of assumptions, if you will, that tells them: This is important; that not so much. This person's point of view carries weight and should be paid attention to; that person's less so. This event will have meaningful ripple effects in the world at large; that one fewer.

We reporters have traditionally believed we weren't biased because we believed our frameworks were accurate representations of reality. It was easy to buy in to that belief, because the number of voices out there were limited, and most of those voices shared the same framework. If all journalists more or less saw the world in the same way, it was easy to believe our collective framework, our collective way of viewing the world, was the one true, unbiased, way out there.

The explosion of voices and perspectives made possible by the Internet, however, is exposing that belief for the fallacy that it is. There is no single way of looking at the world. The act of choosing a framework (or simply buying in to one created by those who came before us), then, becomes an act of bias. It becomes an act of deciding that some things are more important than others.

Take all the brouhaha over Sarah Palin right now. How many news outlets out there are pounding away at the story about Palin and "the Bridge to Nowhere." Many. Next question: Why are they devoting so much energy to this story (over other stories they could be pursuing)? Answer: Because they believe this story is more important than others. That ordering of importance is the result of framework that asserts: "A politician misrepresenting the truth is an important phenomenon, more important than others that we could be reporting on."That framework necessarily has a bias. There are plenty of individuals out there who don't agree with the assertion that a politician's misrepresentations are more important than other aspects of their career, beliefs, etc....

It's not that they believe that misrepresentations are totally unimportant. There are few people out there would would say the media shouldn't report when a politician strays from the facts. But different people would disagree over how much coverage a specific straying warrants. Some people would look at the amount of coverage being generated over the Bridge to Nowhere and say it's exactly right. Some would say it's a bit too much. Some a lot too much. Some not quite enough. Some not even close to enough. Each of these different assessments is a product of the framework with which a particular individual sees the world. Each represents a bias about what is more or less important.

So where am I going with this?

A key to surviving and thriving in the future of journalism is to understand and embrace the fact that we have frameworks that organize our understandings of the world--and, therefore, that we have biases, biases about what is more and less important. We need to embrace this and acknowledge this because our readers already believe this about us--and won't trust anyone who tries to deny it.

Going forward, trust will be a driver of loyalty. Readers who trust you will stick with you. Readers who don't trust you won't. This doesn't mean that readers have to agree with you. Trust isn't a necessarily a product of how much they like what you say. It's more a result of whether they think you can be believed.

Think about your own circle of friends, for example. There are probably people you trust more than others. Your level of trust probably doesn't have as much to do with how much you agree with a particular person than with how much you believe they are a straight-shooter. You're far more likely to trust someone you don't agree with who, as far as you can tell, has personal integrity, than someone who seems to agree with you but always seems just a bit shifty.

So what does embracing and acknowledging our frameworks mean, in practice? It means just that: Owning up to our frameworks. It doesn't mean going to the extremes and branding every news outlet as an agent of opinion, like The Nation or The National Review. But it does mean letting go of our defensiveness on this point. It means listening to people who challenge our frameworks. Not dismissing them, simply because they're asserting we're biased.

Some traditional journalists may resist this because of the deeply ingrained belief that to concede bias is to somehow concede failure. But I don't think it is. I think that owning up to our frameworks will actually make us stronger journalists. In some cases, it will open us up to new ways of looking at the world that deepen and expand our reporting. In other cases, it will simply enable a lively discussion to flow from a piece we've reported. In either case, in all cases, however, it will enable our audiences to receive richer, more complete understandings of the world we live in. And, after all, isn't that what we are hoping to achieve, as journalists?

Monday, September 8, 2008

A power shift is underway

I've talked before about the need to join forces -- both to find the future of news (by collaborating with other news organizations) and to find the news itself (by collaborating with the general public). It's not an original idea, of course -- though it sometimes sounds pretty revolutionary within the media world.

Still, this is the point that others who follow broader trends in the world of business and industry are making as well. And they also note that the news business--because it is a business--is not immune to these emerging realities. Specifically, it's a point that Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams make in their new book, Wikinomics:

"A power shift is underway, and a tough new business rule is emerging: Harness the new collaboration or perish.

"Those who fail to grasp this will find themselves ever more isolated, cut off from the networks that are sharing, adpating, and updating knowledge to create value."

So come on news organizations. Stop operating in isolation. Join forces to create the future. And deliver ever better news.

Photo courtesy of Valerie Everett. Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 5, 2008

We have more to work with than we might think

Sarah Palin had barely finished her landmark speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday before Yahoo! Buzz posted a whole page detailing answers to the burning questions the speech had generated.

The article, written by one of Yahoo!'s editors, explained what a hockey mom is, whether Palin really sold the Alaska guv's jet on eBay, and which race had made her hubby such a snowmobile stud.

Sure, these aren't heavy-hitting policy questions. But they were some of the things voters most wanted to know--as revealed by the terms they were entering into Yahoo!'s search engine.

The page was noteworthy for those of us trying to figure out the future of journalism. By turning to its search logs, Yahoo! was able to home in with laser-like precision on what the public most wanted to know--and whip out the answer almost instantaneously. In its own small way, the article sent convention coverage to a whole new level.

Think about it for a minute. The traditional approach to covering a convention speech goes like this:

  • Report on what the speaker said
  • Ask talking heads what they think and report that too
  • Get a few man-on-the-street quotes (whether at the convention or on some actual street in your hometown) and report those too
  • Done

In the pre-digital world, that might have been enough--even though it makes for a pretty bland story, and rarely a particularly revealing one. Who among us, after all, hasn't been able to predict what the talking heads and men-on-the-street were going to say before we asked them (as reporters) or picked up the newspaper (as readers).

In the old world, however, that might have been enough. With the resources at our disposal, we couldn't really have been expected to do more than that. And since no reader was getting better than that elsewhere, they were quite happy to eat what we fed them.

No more.

There are new tools in town, and the news organizations that figure out how to use them will be the ones generating more compelling coverage--and attracting more readers.

That's great for Yahoo!, with its search logs, you might be saying at this point, but what does it have to do with newspapers?

The larger point I'm aiming at is that in the digital era, anyone with a website has more resources at their disposal to identify news leads and generate compelling stories than the average journalist usually thinks of.

When we think about finding and reporting news, we follow the traditional m.o.: Get wind of something (through press release, phone call, or back-of-the-bar chitchat). Pick up the phone and track it down. Write it up. And publish.

But today, thanks to the Web, we actually have another possible starting point for identifying potential stories: the data that our servers gather and tabulate every day. What do your server logs tell you about the kind of information your readers are interested in and looking for? Looking at those logs on a regular basis can give you insights into potentially compelling--exciting--stories that readers will gobble up and pass on.

The gloom-and-doom mindset over the future of news comes when we think about journalism in terms of how we've done it in the past and think about how much harder it is to do--and to reap readers with--in the future.

But it's a lot easier to get optimistic when we turn away from thinking about how much we've lost from the old world and start thinking about how much we're gaining from the new one. The new world doesn't look like the old one--but it does give us a slew of new resources to accomplish the same task we've always aimed for: Generate compelling and meaningful information about--and for--our communities.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Good news: Folks are reading more... online!

A new survey says Internet usage by people in the top-fifth earning households in the U.S. more than doubled in the last five years. This is good news for news organizations. It means if you build it (correctly), they will come.

The survey, by market researcher Ipsos Mendelsohn (and reported by AdAge), determined that Internet usage had gone up from 10.7 hours five years ago to 22.1 hours today. The survey didn't give any indications of what these people read online or what attributes they particularly enjoy of the sites they visit. And of course, it's reasonable to assume that not all of that usage is spent reading. Some of it doubtlessly involves shopping. Some of it playing online games. But some of it is allotted to reading. So it's reasonable to assume that the amount of reading the affluent do online has gone up in the last five years.

This is good news for news organizations. It means online journalism does have a future. The key is to learn more about what sorts of sites people like visiting and then to dig deeper to understand what it is about those sites that make people keep coming back.

In tech design, we call this "researching user requirements." In other words: What are the attributes that a site has to have to build reader loyalty? Think about a regular phone vs. the iPhone, for example. They're both phones. But the iPhone has attributes that make it immensely more popular than other phones. Its aesthetics. The ways the user gets to interact with the device. The things it can do.

Just as not all phones are created equal, not all online media are created equal. But again, as I've said before, the locus of the inequality is not necessarily in the subject matter. Just because you're writing about city council meetings and another site is writing about Paris Hilton doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get fewer hits. (OK, maybe that's a stretch, but you get the point.) It's not what you write about that will determine whether readers come to you. It's how you write and present the information.

When delivering their product online, news organizations need to get away from the methods they use to deliver their product (information, news) in print and instead think about which methods make consuming media online enjoyable. And once we get a handle on that, we then need to think about how we can present our stories -- whether they be about school board measures, local housing prices, or offshore drilling -- in a way that people enjoy reading--or, more precisely, experiencing--them online. How should we structure stories for maximum online enjoyment? How should we design the pages in which they lie? What functionality should we incorporate in and around the stories?

The answers to those questions don't need to be a mystery. The answers, as the X-Files used to say, are out there. It just requires a little user research to find out what people already like about online content. Once that data is collected, online editors can extract generalizable principles to guide the structure and design of future content. To get more readers. And thus more hits.

Photo courtesy of striatic. Creative Commons license.