Friday, December 26, 2008

Why startups will find the future and newspapers won't

"He concluded it would be easier to start from scratch rather than try and change a longstanding culture."

This from a story about a Philadelphian banker who left a name-brand financial institution to start the first green bank on the East Coast. Green banks work on "triple bottom lines." In addition to evaluating the financial bottom line of a loan, the also consider the borrower's impact on the environment and on people.

Such an idea runs counter to the aforementioned "longstanding culture" of most banks. Banks are traditionally about making money. To ask them to potentially compromise their ability to reap the largest amount of money possible is anathema to their very programming. Which is why the Philadelphian decided to start his own venture, rather than try to make it work within the walls of the name-brand institution.

The same could be said about the world of journalism. Much of what needs to be done to find the future of news runs directly counter to core principles in the newspaper world. The idea that news first and foremost belongs on newsprint, for example. That stories should be written in inverted pyramid-style. That the reporter is the voice of authority. That the news organization is in control.

Sometimes longstanding cultures are simply too entrenched to enable the requisite revolutionary ideas to grow and flourish. Which is why the future of news will likely be discovered by the succession of startups that are already emerging, rather than by newspapers themselves.

E&P got it wrong again

Joe Mathewson's column in Editor & Publisher a few days ago argues that a non-profit business model might be key to ensuring newspapers' survival.

Sadly, he's got it all wrong.

Mathewson is not necessarily wrong about the non-profit model. I don't have any immediate thoughts on the viability of the non-profit model of journalism. Instead, he's wrong because he thinks that the source of the newspaper industry's woes today lies in its economic model.

It doesn't.

The source of the industry's woes lies in the fact that it no longer creates a product readers want to consume. Yes, finances are contributing to the industry's decline. No one's arguing that declining ad revenues are not a factor. It's just that they're not the determining factor. The determining factor is the product itself.

The fact that Mathewson doesn't get this is encapsulated in the following comment: "A not-for-profit newspaper, of course, should have a vital online version." As if this online thingy were an afterthought, an appendage, a nice giveaway. This is archaic thinking.

A visionary thinker would put it the other way around: Increasingly, consumers like to get their news online. A new news organization should explore innovative ways of delivering news online -- and continue to print a dead-tree edition only if it can prove that the dead-tree edition has a sufficiently large customer base to merit its production.

It's a point I keep hammering away at: Until news leaders adopt the correct mindset, not only are they incapable of helping the news business find its future, they are a downright impediment to any progress.

A practice worth repeating

Here's a practice worth repeating: Voice of San Diego education reporter Emily Alpert is making a deal with readers: "Post questions you have about the SD school system, and I'll spend my Fridays tracking down the answers."

It's a great news strategy because it:

  • Produces better coverage. Alpert & the Voice of San Diego get tipped to all sorts of interesting goings-on worth reporting on that they might not have heard of otherwise.

  • Builds loyalty -- and thus increases readership. Anytime you allow someone to participate in what you're doing, you build a sense of ownership in them, and that ownership builds commitment to stick with you.

  • Increases ad impressions. It's a system that requires repeat visits (once to post the question and once, at least, to get the answer). That ups the number of eyeballs hitting the site.

To make it work, however, Alpert is going to need to do the following:

  • Track down as many answers as possible. Asking people to participate then not delivering on your promise is a sure way to turn off readers.

  • Deliver high-quality answers. Not just perfunctory statements from spokespeople. But genuine explanations to the issues readers want answered. Nothing will turn readers off faster than getting the same boiled over statements they could have gotten themselves.

Sure, Alpert will probably get more questions than she can possibly answer. And getting high-quality answers also takes time. So how should Alpert negotiate these challenges in ways that build loyalty?

  • Communicate with her readers about what she can and cannot do. Behind every reader is a reasonable human being. Human beings much prefer getting feedback, even if it's not the news they wanted, than silence. Ever been on a plane that's sitting at the gate long after its scheduled departure time? Does your blood pressure go up with every minute that passes with no news from the crew about the reason for the delay? And does it go down the minute someone explains what's going on, even if it brings bad news, like it's going to take another 45 minutes to fix whatever the problem is? Same thing with this. As long as Alpert communicates back what she can and cannot do, readers will be happy. But not giving any of the backstory will provoke discontent.

  • Enlist readers to help her answer. Encourage other readers in the know to post whatever they know. At a minimum, it'll turbo-charge Alpert's own reporting, helping her focus her efforts on the places where the answers lie. At most, it might even result in the answer itself, saving Alpert from having to do any groundwork herself.

Alpert's strategy is a great example of how moving news on to the Internet is not about just throwing the same old content that appears in print form out into the ethernet -- but it's about using the specific capabilities of the new media to produce better coverage and increase readership.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Journalism is alive and well

"Journalism is alive and well. It has merely moved beyond newspapers. It's not about the Internet. It's about better, faster more appropriate ways to communicate."

-- A comment from a visitor to The Journalism Iconoclast (not a bad place to hang out, if you're interested in the future of news)

Photo courtesy of d'n'c'. Creative Commons license.

Top Newspaper Stories of the Year -- Really?

Editor & Publisher released its annual list of what it considers the Top 10 Newspaper Industry Stories of the Year.

The problem with the list? All the stories are about, well, newspapers.

Not included:
  • Josh Marshall/Talking Points Memo's Polk Award win for tracking down the US attorneys general firings (long before the traditional media even had a clue anything was amiss, btw).

  • The rise of online organizations that are taking over the local news biz. Organizations like the Voice of San Diego, the St. Louis Beacon, and

  • The creation of new experiments, like, to try to discover new models for reporting and funding the news.

E&P's list reflects the fact that they continue to equate the news business with the newspaper business. It's as if horse-and-buggy people at the turn of the (last) century equated horse and buggies with transportation and refused to recognize that motor vehicle also equated transportation.

As long as the leaders in the newspaper business continue to see the newspaper as the core unit in this business -- rather than the practice of gathering and disseminating information, no matter what shape it takes -- they will remain fundamentally incapable, and thus unqualified, to help this industry find its future.

Photo courtesy of Bombardier. Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Newspapers are over, but news is not

The Chicago Tribune is going into bankruptcy. Detroit papers are reportedly considering limiting home delivery. The Cincinnati Enquirer is the latest to announce layoffs.

For the last few years, journalists have protested that, all signs to the contrary, newspapers are so essential there's no way they could disappear. But there is no other way to interpret the above events, except that newspapers are disappearing.

Don't believe me? Pull out a piece of paper. Plot these latest developments on a graph. Then plot all the other recent developments in the newspaper industry: declining readership, plummeting revenue, layoffs. Plot a trend line. And now ask yourself: Where is the arrow headed? It's not ambiguous. The end point is the disappearance of newspapers.

But this is not cause for despair. The disappearance of newspapers is not the same thing as the end of news.

This is a difficult point to grasp, if you are one of the folks who believe that newspapers and the news are the same thing. But they're not, no more so than "horse and buggy" is the same thing as "transportation." Newspapers are merely one kind of delivery vehicle for news. The news will continue, even if this particular delivery vehicle disappears.

"Really?" you ask. "If you're right, show us the new vehicles, the 'motor cars' that will replace the 'horse and buggy' newspapers."

Ah, yes. Well that's the thing. The new vehicles haven't been invented yet.

Sure, there are a bunch of experiments out there. Voice of San Diego. Some people look at them and mistakenly believe that, because they are the only alternatives out there, they by definition constitute the future forms. They look at those incarnations, see all the ways in which they fall short of what newspapers provided, and conclude that their position is correct: Newspapers are so essential they cannot fail, because only they can provide the public services so essential to a democracy.

But this is faulty thinking.

To look at Voice of San Diego et al and believe they are the final forms is to misunderstand how innovation happens. You don't go from one fully designed form to another. Rather, as you evolve from one to the other, you go through a series of iterations, a series of experiments, a series of throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks. From those series of experiments, from those series of learnings, you eventually develop the final forms.

Anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley understands this. Very few of the ideas we had about how to use the Internet back in the 1990s--and the websites and businesses we developed based on those notions--still exist today. (, anyone? ExciteAtHome?)

But every website that does exist today is a descendent of those experiments. Every website, every contemporary use of the Internet is built on the learnings of those prior experiments.

And so it will happen in the news business. The new forms won't appear before newspapers die completely. (I actually believe it will take 20 years before the new forms are fully baked.) But the new forms will appear, eventually.

Again, it's experience in a place like Silicon Valley that gives one that certitude. New forms always emerge to satisfy needs. And there is a desire for news. Just not in the form that it's currently being delivered. People once liked and found value in the newspaper delivery vehicle. Just as they once liked horses and buggies. But no more. The old delivery vehicle no longer meets readers' needs and expectations. Which is why they are abandoning the form, even as the need persists. And given the persistence of the need, entrepreneurs and other problem-solving types will continue tinkering with forms until they figure out the new ones.

And that's why there's no need to worry. Newspapers are dying. But the news will survive. Just not immediately. And definitely not in any form we are used to seeing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Could we please stop using the word “blogger”?

In a recent post on the Pulitzer decision to open its awards to online-only news organizations, MediaShift pointed to Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall’s receipt of the Polk Award earlier this year, saying he was “the first blogger” to win such a prestigious award.

To which I reply, could we please stop using the word “blogger”?

Mostly because the term is loaded, and more importantly because it is inaccurate—if we define inaccurate as “incorrectly describing the thing being described.”

The term “blogger” is loaded because it still evokes images of dubiously informed pajama pundits pounding away at their keyboards in the middle of the night, offering little real value to the world of journalism, other, perhaps, than alternative ways of looking at news reported by others.

But as more and more serious journalism is being distributed using blog platforms, continuing to use the term does a disservice to us all. It’s not just that its somewhat dismissive connotations are quasi-disrespectful to the folks who are not “dubiously informed pajama pundits.” It’s also that using the term perpetuates the notion that most people who communicate via blogging platforms are indeed such folks when, in fact, they are not necessarily so. Perpetuating those incorrect impressions gets in the way of understanding the actual—and valuable work—that many journalists are doing online. A journalist distributing journalism online should be called a “journalist.” Only then can we all understand—and appreciate—that what they’re doing is, in fact, journalism.

If that’s not enough to convince you, how about the simple point of accuracy? The word “blog” describes a delivery mechanism, just as the terms “newspaper”, “TV”, and “radio” all describe delivery mechanisms. The term “blog” does not describe the activity performed by a person using that mechanism. Just as someone who appears on TV may do so in any number of contexts—actor, talk show host, reporter—a person who uses a blog to communicate to the world may be performing any number of activities—opinionating, traveloguing, reporting. So to use the word “blogger” to refer to someone who uses blogging technology is as inaccurate—and potentially ridiculous, if you actually think about it—as it would be to refer to someone who communicates via TV as a “TVer”.

So here’s my plea. Starting in 2009, could we retire the word “blogger” and, instead, simply label people using blogs according to the specific work they are doing? Call a journalist a journalist, a pundit a pundit, and people who do both (like Marshall) "a journalist and pundit."

Photo courtesy of procsilas. Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The single essential failure

"If the automakers' difficulties can be traced to a single, essential failure, it is their belief that they could avoid change."

-- Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 8, 2008

There's been a lot of ire in the journalism world about Jeff Jarvis blaming journalists for their current fate. But I have to agree with him. Newspapers' difficulties today can be chalked up to the same essential failure as the carmakers': The belief they could avoid change.

The difference, mainstream journalists will argue, is that journalism was producing a quality product. Unlike Detroit, which kept producing gas guzzlers when the tide was turning toward more fuel efficient vehicles, the mainstream media kept producing important, democracy-foundational journalism.

I will argue that the difference is not so great.

Both have continued to produce products that customers increasingly don't want. In journalism's case, the mainstream media may continue to be producing "important news," but it's not in the form readers want. The same way Detroit continues to produce "transportation," but not in the form drivers want. So this is the point: It doesn't matter how "valuable" your product is. If your customers don't want it, your future is limited. To survive, you have to evolve.

This is how the traditional media failed. They believed they didn't have to change, because their product was so valuable. They were wrong. The world does need what they produce. But we need it in the form in which we'll consume it.

Photo courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal. Creative Commons license.

New media tools power coverage of Blagojevich scandal

Poynter's E-Media Tidbits blog has a great piece on how community news site Windy City is using new media tools to turbo charge their coverage of the Blagojevich corruption schedule.

Two innovative tools they created to report on this story:

-- "Blagojevitter" -- a page that lists all Twitters with words "Blagojevich" or "Jesse Jackson" in them.

-- A word cloud of the federal complaint against Blagojevich. A word cloud is a visual representation of how frequently particular words are mentioned in a particular document. The more mentions the bigger the word. A quick glance at the word cloud tells you which words are used most frequently.

"So what?" you might ask. What does this really tell us? Neither is the equivalent of a straight news story that answers the questions Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

True. But they're still valuable. They're still worth providing for your readers. Here's why:


-- For journalists, think of this as a new kind of primary source. Just as going out and doing a bunch of "man on the street" interviews helps you understand what happened and what people think about it, reading these tweets can help you build a picture of what's happening and help you get a read on what your community thinks about it.

-- For readers, this is fun and interesting. Sure, they won't get out of reading the tweets the same thing they'll get out of reading a standard news story. But some readers like this primary source stuff. As a Washington Times reporter recently told me, the rise of phenomena like YouTube have made the average person on the street increasingly used to reading and watching unfiltered information. It's building an appetite for raw information. News organizations should start thinking about how to provide that.

Word cloud

-- As E-Media Tidbits pointed out, "This approach can provide insight into a document -- even on a subconscious level. For instance, this image makes it obvious that the Chicago Tribune is a significant topic of the complaint."

-- Again, those insights are important both for journalists, who can treat it as a primary source, and readers who are hungry for raw information.

The fact that both of these are valuable even though they aren't "real" news stories illustrates a final point: In the new world, traditional news articles are no longer the sole offering of merit.

Rather, any piece of information you can put out there that helps provide insight into a news story or feeds you readers' hunger--whether it looks like a traditional story or not--is a value service to your readers.

Screen shot taken from Windy City Blagojevich word cloud.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The need to move from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance

I recently interviewed and Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Andrew Rasiej for a story on how new media turbo charged coverage of the 2008 presidential election. He made an important observation in that conversations: Many newspapers operate online with a scarcity mindset, when they really should have one of abundance.

For example, on Nov. 5, the day after the historic presidential election, the NY Times posted only a handful of photographs from the previous day—when they very well could have posted a slew.
I remember noticing that as well. I’d been in Oakland on election night. The next day I went looking for photographs of celebrations around the country. I wanted to see if they had been as wild as Oakland’s. (In fact, as I soon learned, many were much more wild.) I remember subconsciously being surprised at how few pictures the NY Times had up on its site. If ever there were a day to just throw out pictures galore, this was it.

This is the scarcity mindset. When you only have a certain number of physical newspaper pages, there are only a certain amount of photographs you can publish. So you get in the habit of choosing only the best and running with those.
But on the Web, bandwidth is limitless. So not only can you post a gazillion photos, should you choose to do so, but—and this is important—your readers actually expect you to—just as I expected the NY Times to.

Moving into the abundance mindset, and posting as much content as possible,* will help ensure the future of news organizations for two reasons.

-- It generates revenue. Think about how many more ad impressions the NY Times would have gotten from me—and people like me, hungry for images from that transformational day—had they posted a slew of photographs.

-- It allows you to meet your readers' expectations. Not making more content available, on the other hand, violates expectations, and that’s a very bad thing to do. It irritates people, decreases their loyalty, and reduces the chance they’ll keep coming back.

* A quick note on what I mean by “more” content. I don’t mean more stories necessarily. That’s unsustainable in these days of slashed staffs. “More” content doesn’t have to be about creating a lot of new work. Rather, it’s about using as much as possible of what you already have—photographs, interview transcripts, even interview audio turned into podcasts, plus all those little observations, behind-the-scenes happenings, and little nuggets that would never make it into a formal “story”, much less merit a story of their own, but that nevertheless could conceivably be of interest to someone, and therefore is worth throwing up on the Web as a standalone item.

Photo courtesy of Somerslea. Creative Commons license.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's not about finding a new way to pay for the same old thing

On Thursday, I wrote about how the SF Chron's editor is thinking about jacking up the paper's newsstand price in order to cover operating costs. Today, I'm reading a post on about how maybe some newspapers should convert to non-profit status as a means of ensuring their viability.

Come on, people. This is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The problem is not the business model. It's the product offering. How do we know this? Declining readership.

If readership were staying level--or, better yet, soaring--then you'd know you had the right product on your hands. And in that case, yes, tinkering with the business model would be the right tactic to take to ensure one's survival.

But declining readership tells a different story. It means there are fewer customers out there who want what you're selling. There's not a single business school out there that will teach the principle: "When you have a declining customer base, fiddle with the price structure." Instead, they'll say, "When you have a declining customer base, you have a problem with your product." Solution: Go back to the drawing board and rethink your product.

Journalists and news observers who continue to point to the business model as the source of what ails us are doing this business a disservice. What we need to do is to rethink the newspaper altogether. We need to go back to the drawing board, to develop a real understanding of what our potential customer base (ie: all the potential readers in our communities) want out of a "news" organization--and how they want to receive news--and then come up with a new product offering altogether.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Times Extra: An Assessment

The New York Times just launched "Times Extra", an "alternative" home page that appends to some stories a list of links for related stories at other websites.

The home page basically looks the same, except for the new list of links under certain stories, like the one at right.

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

-- It embraces the mindset that "we aren't the only ones who know what's going on." In the early days of the Internet, the name of the game was attracting people to your site and keeping them there. Today, it's about helping your readers find the best stuff out there, irrespective of whether it's on your site or not.

This might seem counter-intuitive. If a reader leaves your site to go elsewhere, aren't you losing those ever-important eyeballs--and consequently your bill-paying ad impressions? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. A site that declares, implicitly if not explicitly, "we know we don't have a monopoly on good information and interesting stories, and we want to help you find the best out there" builds trust. And trust these days is what builds loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps people coming back to your site. So you might lose a few ad impressions today by letting your readers go elsewhere. But that will more than pay for itself in the ad impressions you'll get in the future when they come back, because they've come to see you as the trusted source for news, wherever that news lies.

What's old-school about it

-- Not much.
(Though I'm not crazy about the green font -- It's hard to read -- But that's a nit. And it's just bad design, not old school -- It's OK. The Times folks will figure it out and improve later -- No need to get everything right the first time out of the gate.)

What else I'd like to see / What else I'd like to know

-- I'd like to know how the Times is choosing the links. Are editors hand-picking them? Or are they being automatically generated through some kind of bot?

One of the links listed under the Obama story in the image above takes you to a blog called Slog. That's cool. But who's "Slog"? If you told me the link to that site had been hand-curated, I'd have confidence it was worth my time. So would I if you told me it came from a bot built to find the best items out there. But right now, I'm wondering whether that list is randomly generated. If so, that's bad news. Not only would the list not necessarily be helpful, it could actually send me to a bunch of time-wasting stories. In that case, the value of the list would plummets and the Times would lose my trust as a reliable source of good information. Lose my trust, and you lose my loyalty.

-- I'd like to see a behind-the-scenes blog from the experimenters at the NY Times, sharing with us what they're doing, why they're doing what they're doing, and what they're learning from it. They could answer the above question in that blog, for example. They could also report back on how readers are using Times Extra. How many people who try it stick with it (as opposed to convert back to the regular Times home page)? Which links seem to invite the most clicks? How quickly do people who leave come back?

Many companies already offer these kinds of behind-the-scenes looks. The Google team has one. So does the Google Earth team. In fact, Google has a whole slew of behind-the-scenes blogs for people who want to look under the hood at what the company is doing. The NY Times -- and indeed all journos who are experimenting with new forms of collecting and disseminating news -- should have blogs reporting on their efforts. It's the only way to speed up our collective learning and turbo-charge the innovation we need to in order to save this business of ours.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In praise of experimentation

NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof started Twittering in November.

Here’s what I love about it, as reflected in a tweet on Dec 3:

@sashak and @myoung Thanks for the welcome. I'm trying to avoid going extinct. Help teach me how to do this....--ndk

Kristof has no idea what he’s doing… and yet he’s trying it anyway. That’s the kind of mindset we need in the news business: Just try it and figure it out as you go.

Here’s the second thing I like about it: “Help teach me how to do this.”

Gone is the traditional journalistic “we know best” arrogance. (Not that I’m accusing Kristof of being arrogant. I've never met the guy, but he actually seems like one of the most down-to-earth journos out there.) In place of that distance-creating arrogance are:

a) The admission that he’s ignorant (or, put another way, a beginner),

b) A recognition that the folks out there can probably help us journos find our way to the future, and

c) A willingness to help them help us.

All of these are incredibly valuable mindsets for finding our way forward. Kristof's courageous dive into something he doesn't quite understand--but realizes might hold a key to the future--is a model to emulate.

Why the San Francisco Chronicle is in trouble

The San Francisco Chronicle is in worse shape than I thought. Their editor, Ward Bushie, went on local public radio show "Forum" today to discuss the future of journalism in general and the Chron in particular, and his entire mindset left my jaw gaping open in incredulity. Showing an amazing lack of strategic sense, Bushie seemed to be saying he could only see two possible ways out of the hole: raise advertising rates or raise the cost of the paper.

Hmmm…. Talk about thinking "inside the box."

Bushie didn’t talk at all about possibly rethinking the paper—either the Chron itself or the idea of a newspaper in general. He apparently assumes that the Chron—or newspapers in general—should continue to provide the exact same product that they offer today (ie: the combined international/national/local/sports/business/home/life/entertainment package that they offer today). There was no: “Let’s go back to the drawing board and see where our competitive advantages lie and figure out what value we can deliver to our customers and then come up with a bunch of potential alternative incarnations that we’d be able to knock out of the ballpark and support financially.”

Instead, Bushie spoke about potentially jacking up the price of the paper, which is 75 cents today. And what was his rationale for thinking this was a reasonable idea? Most cups of coffee are about $2, he said. And the New York Times already costs $1.50. (At least it does if you’re in California. Maybe not on the streets of NYC.)

Such faulty thinking is flabbergasting. A thing isn’t worth more, just because other things are worth more. A thing is worth what your customer thinks it’s worth--what they’re willing to pay for it. Given the plummeting readership in newspapers in general, I sincerely doubt that the average San Franciscan would be willing to pay more for something they are increasingly less interested in.

The other revelation that further called into doubt Bushie's ability to lead the Chron into the future was that he repeatedly spoke about how much the paper been talking to “their readers” to find out what “their readers” want. But these, in fact, are the wrong people to be talking to. In order to survive, newspapers need to enlarge their customer base. Newspapers like the Chron should be talking to people who don’t already read (and buy) the newspaper. They should be trying to figure out how to convert those people from non-customers into customers. Normally, I fully support talking to and designing for your customers. But not when your existing customers don’t form a sufficient base.

In short, Bushie’s mindset seems to be this:
“The Chron is a great paper. We should figure out how to continue to support it, in its current incarnation, though maybe with a few tweaks.”

But to survive—or rather, to grow into a thriving news entity—a newspaper’s mindset today needs to be:
“What sorts of news are the citizens of our community interested in? What portions of those can we be really good at delivering? And how can we deliver them in a way that the members of our community will consume them?”

The full interview (available for download) is here.

Image courtesy of AlbySpace. Creative Commons license.