Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I was wrong

Last week I railed against newspaper CEOs and their Nov 14 confab at the American Press Institute on how to salvage their industry. It was the blind leading the blind, I said. How could these guys, who'd driven the newspaper business into the proverbial ditch, ever be the same folks who'd be capable of figuring our way out? A summit among them, I declared, was a waste of time.

Well, I was wrong.

I'm still going to hold on to my reservations about the CEOs themselves. I need to see concrete proof that they know what they're doing before I'm willing to give them a by. But Steve Miller and James Shlein, the turnaround specialists hired to lead the meeting, actually do seem to be on the right track. API published a summary of their recommendations. I have to admit that a lot of the things they're advocating are things I've called for myself.

  • Act like an entrepreneur; stop thinking first about why a new approach won't work.

    I talked about the value of experimentation and not waiting until something is fully baked--even at the risk of failure--in this post about how to think like a designer and
    this post about two newspapers' different approaches to using Twitter.

  • Create a portfolio of initiatives; recognize that some will fail and kill those quickly.

    "If I were a newspaper publisher today" talks about the need to create just such a portfolio.

  • Don't wait for every data point before taking action. "Ready, fire, aim" should be the operating principle.

    "How to think about the new WaPo political aggregation site," I noted how polished the new "Political Browser" site was and indicated that that was a red flag for me. A polished design could indicate that someone thinks they've figured it out when, really, we all need to be in "throw it up against the wall and see what sticks mode."

  • Use downsizing as a tool when necessary to achieve a larger strategy, not simply as a cost-cutting goal.

    I haven't really talked about this, but I totally agree. Downsizing without restrategizing just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to downsize, if you're going to leave yourself with fewer staff than you need to deliver a quality product, you need to rethink your product and come up with one that you can deliver with quality, given the amount of people you have.

  • Figure out how to leverage core competencies into new directions and new niches.

    In "The end of news *as we know it*", I talked about how the demise of newspapers doesn't mean the demise of news. News will continue, but in new forms. The mission of people in the news business today needs to be to find those forms.

  • Be honest with employees, and get ideas from those on the front lines.

    See my
    "How about Googling up?" post for ideas on how to leverage Google's "20% project" idea to get great ideas from the front lines.

  • Don't sit and cower and weep about your problems. Inspire.

    "Who, exactly, is the problem?" I talked about the need to put the recriminations aside and dive in and try to find the future.

  • Collaborate with outside entities that can bring expertise or resources.

    Yup, agreed with that in
    "Getting ahead--and producing better journalism--by letting others help us." Also talked about how Dan Rather might have avoided getting fired, if he'd brought in the wisdom of the crowds before he put the Bush/National Guard memo story out into the world.

  • Pay attention to, and leverage, the brand.

    I haven't addressed this, but I agree that, in the future, brand will be an important competitive advantage.
In sum, then, these strike me as extremely wise guidelines. Every news exec, whether on the business side or editorial, and, come to think of it, every person working in the news biz, should post this list on the wall next to their desk, fold it up and stick it in their wallets, and slap it on their bathroom mirror. And then they, we, all need to strive to live by these rules every day until we find the future of this crazy, struggling, but not hopeless business of ours.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The surge in newspaper demand on Nov. 5 don't mean a thing

When the news started coming out on November 5 that people were lining up to grab copies of newspapers the day after Barack Obama was swept into office, journalism discussion boards around the country lit up. "See!" they all said, in one way or another. "People really do want their newspapers."

Or, as Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi put it in a letter "To newspaper readers everywhere," which was posted on Poynter: "Finally, You recognized something in me [the newspaper] again. Something that had been dormant all these years. That You needed me."

But they got it all wrong.

To back up a second. When you design a piece of software, or probably when you design anything, you draw up a list of "use cases." These are the scenarios in which you expect your users to need to, well, use the tool you're developing. From those use cases, you extract "requirements" (ie: the system needs to do X, the system needs to do Y). And from those, you decide how you're going to fashion the thing.

What happened on the Wednesday after election day was simply a use case--the use case of "I want a memento of this momentous occasion." That's a very different use case than "I want to get news." To draw a larger conclusion about the future of newspapers than simply that people wanted a keepsake in the wake of a dramatic event is like suggesting that Burl Ives (were he still alive today) has a recording career simply because people like to listen to a particular song of his around the holidays. It's faulty thinking, and it only keeps us from clearly understanding what it actually happening in this business (ie: fewer and fewer people want to get their news from dead trees) and even further from finding our way forward.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Someone Who's Bullish on the Future of Journalism

"I'm sitting here at LaGuardia feeling absolutely bullish about the state of journalism."

Whoever said that has to be off their rocker, no?

Well, not exactly. David Cohn is an ambitious twenty-something journalist who's been hacking his way toward the future of news future. He's currently leading, a massive experiment in seeing if crowdfunding* can be used as a model to fund journalism. Previously, he teamed up with new media thought leader (& NYU J-School prof) Jay Rosen on New Assignment.Net, another project to explore potential new models for journalism. And before that, for those looking for traditional journalism cred, he wrote for Wired, SEED, and, yes, even the New York Times.

In a post on his DigiDave blog today, Cohn wrote that the reason he's feeling so bullish is because of the massive number of experiments going on, right now, to invent the future of news. (See his post for some examples.) "The answers are out there," he wrote, "in every startup (journalism focused or otherwise), community, blog, micro-blogging, micro-financing and CMS on the web."

How does that work, you ask? What does it mean that "the answers are out there in every startup?"

This is standard innovation practice. This is how Silicon Valley works. Thousands of players dive in, all with good ideas about how to make a particular industry work. They put their ideas in play, and, out there, in the market, and over time, the ones with legs emerge. But the ones that don't ultimately succeed also contribute. Because others learn from their experiments. They learn what works and what doesn't. They get new ideas for something new to try.

"What we need right now is 10,000 journalism startups," Cohn wrote. "Of these 9,000 will fail, 1,000 will find ways to sustain themselves for a brief period of time, 98 will find mediocre success and financial security and two will come out as new media equivalents to the New York Times."

I agree. This, simply, is how we are going to find the future. And we will find it. Through experimentation and trial & error. Eventually we will find the future. It will look nothing like what we know journalism to be (which is why those startups Cohn mentions can seem so baffling to traditional journalists). But we will get there.

* DEFN: "Crowdfunding": Getting the public to pay for your project.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The blind leading the blind

I just don't get it. One of the biggest news stories of the day is the imminent implosion of GM and other car manufacturers. It's driving everyone crazy that we're thinking of bailing out corporations that willingly refused to read the writing on the wall, rejigger their business models, and position themselves for the future.

And yet.

Today, 50 newspaper CEOs are huddling at the American Press Institute in Reston, VA, to figure out how to salvage their industry.

On the one hand, their own newspapers are reporting on what numbskulls those automotive CEOs are and how they got us into this bind we're all collectively in--and even in some cases, how those recklessly mismanaging bums should be tossed out so that bailout money doesn't go to waste. And on the other hand, they can't seem to realize that, in looking at that story, they're staring into their own.

There isn't a single person out there who believes the car manufacturers will find their way into the future without it being dictated to them from clearer-thinking folks. So why, I ask you, why does the news business think that the executives who exhibited the very same behavior as those car executives--who clung to the old ways of doing things when it was clear those old ways had no future--will be the ones to now figure out the future?

You know who should be in that meeting? The people who've been working on the future, who've figured out how to do journalism in the new world. Why didn't they invite the head honchos from Talking Points Memo, Politico, Nerve & Babble, TechCrunch, GigaOm, Yahoo! News, TreeHugger and Huffington Post? Granted, not all of these are "news" sites in the traditional "newspaper" sense of the word. But they are all sites that report news--and are doing so profitably. So maybe they know a thing or two about how to make things work in this new environment we're in.

Albert Einstein once said something to the effect of: "You can't solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into it." So why, could someone please explain to me, does the news industry think it can?

Note: For a lively conversation on this topic, visit Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine.

PS: Upon further research, I think this is worse than I thought. According to a note on the API website itself, this is a meeting about how to "turn around" the news industry, and it's being led by a management professor and turnaround guru. Now, I'm not an expert in these things, but don't turnarounds only work when a company is underperforming within an otherwise healthy industry? I just don't see how they can do much good when it's the industry itself that is problematic. In that situation, you need innovation, not turnarounds, no?

Photo courtesy of clagnut. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NYT "If You Were President" game: An assessment

The New York Times has created this cool "If You Were President" tool where you can vote on who you should think Obama should appoint to various cabinet posts.

What's "future of news"-y about it:

-- It's fun. The news doesn't have to be serious. Yes, choosing cabinet secretaries is serious business. And most of the players appear to be making serious choices. (Daffy Duck has yet to make it into the rankings.) But anything a reader can play with is fun. And fun is good--for building brand loyalty and generating return visits.

-- It's putting control in readers' hands. It moves away from the old school "we tell, you listen" mindset and invites readers to participate.

What's "old school" about it:
-- It doesn't go far enough. Why aren't they taking a
Fantasy Football approach to this? Why don't they let people create individual accounts, so they can "own" their teams? Why don't they let people debate the pro's and con's of each candidate? Just imagine the discussion it would generate. That's a huge missed opportunity to score return visits -- and multiple ad impressions.

Good on the New York Times for going beyond the text-only mindset. But come on guys. Let go completely. Put it in the readers' hands and let them go wild.

The new Politico 44 site -- An assessment

Politico has a new site up -- "Politico 44," subtitled "A Living Diary of the Obama Presidency."

What's "future of news"-y about it:

-- It's breaking away from the newspaper-y "mental model" of news--everything thrown into the same package. Instead, the editors are thinking about their readers and what their readers want. Is there appetite for Obama news alone? Great, they clearly said, let's create a "product" that delivers just that.

-- The "President Elect's Calendar" feature (right). Sure, it might feel like it's not
telling us much (yesterday just had four items: Obama goes to gym, Obama arrives at office, Obama goes to Vets Day memorial, Podesta briefs reporters), but that's OK. It's breaking out of the "everything as text" mindset of traditional journalism. And that's a good thing.

What's "old school" about it:

-- It's lifeless. There's no party going on there. Just a bunch of stuff the Politico staff has thrown up there. No interaction. Nothing dynamic. Nothing in a crowdsourcing direction.

-- When you click through to a story, you lose your location -- you're thrown back into Politico regular. Sure, that might be a good way to drive traffic to Politico. But it won't last. People come to destinations because they want to feel like they're somewhere. Something that's just a wrapping paper over the old stuff won't build loyalty.

Good on Politico for giving this a shot. But like all v1's, it's going to need a few more iterations, many probably, before it finds its groove.