Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Schultz is Wrong About Anonymous Comments

Anonymous comments are dangerous, Connie Schultz wrote yesterday on They lead to poison and vitriol.

Plus, she said:
"Anonymity on the Web offends most journalists I know, and not just because their own names go on everything they write. It breaks every rule newspapers have enforced for decades in letters to the editor, which require not only a name and a city of residence, but contact information to confirm authorship."

Schultz's preferred prescription: Get rid of anonymity and require commenters to identify themselves.

But she's wrong. This is just another example of the kind of faulty thinking that gets in the way of newspapers' ability to move successfully into the new digital era. Two reasons:

  • It fails to recognize that the online world is a world of its own--one that is much bigger than just news organizations. News organizations that try to force that wider online world to behave according to its preferred standards are going to fail. Successful organizations are the ones that try to learn the local ways and adapt themselves accordingly.
  • Those who take the time to do this--to understand the local ways--quickly realize that it's not anonymity that leads to uncivil discourse in forums. It's poor moderation. The way you encourage civil behavior in online communities is to have clear rules of the road and then to enforce them. Online community experts have known this for well over a decade.

So today's takeaway: The key to helping news organizations survive and thrive in the digital world is not to try to make that world conform to newspapers' ways of doing things. Instead, the key is to understand the digital world and its ways of doing things--and then to use those insights to help you accomplish your goals.

Photo courtesy of: gregmote. Creative Commons License

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Of Course No One Was Suprised That A TV Story Was Shot with an IPhone

At the end of June, a producer for a Miami TV station shot an entire story with the new iPhone... and the journalism world went crazy. The TV station wrote a story about it. Tweeters tweeted. And Poynter interviewed the producer in question.

Most telling in the coverage, however, was one assertion, in the TV stations' story about the story. The story itself was about the launch of the new iPhone, and the iPhone-shot story happened by accident. The producer had lined up in the wee hours with hundreds of other Apple fans to get the new phone. A good reporter, it occured to him there was a story there, so he started taking still pics while in line and then started shooting interviews once he got his phone. One thing led to another, and the station said why don't you just do a whole story for us with iPhone footage?

So here's where the telling part comes in. The TV station's story about the story includes the following line: "Oddly enough, not one of these Apple fans found it strange that a television station was shooting video with an iPhone!"

Let's ponder this for a moment. The news world is all abuzz, but the folks on the street think this is perfectly normal. Moreover, the TV station thinks it's odd that the folks on the street don't think it's strange.

You can only draw one conclusion from all this, and it's an important one of the news business: The news industry is behind its audience. And, in being so, most likely holding itself back from finding its way forward.

The reason you don't see more TV news stations shooting with iPhones comes down to quality. A traditional camera obviously delivers much better quality than video-enabled smartphones. But maybe news organizations should ask themselves whether that really matters. Maybe the smartphone video is good enough.

Not that anyone is suggesting TV stations jettision all their professional-grade cameras in all circumstances. Rather, it might be useful if they were to regularly consider for what types of stories and events it might be just fine to use a smartphone or a Flip. And to regularly experiment with how far they can push the boundaries on this question.

What's the point, you might ask. Why bother trying to see how much coverage you can get away with with a smartphone when you have perfectly good professional-grade cameras on hand?

There are a couple reasons:

  • Video-enabled phones are obviously more mobile--and take less expertise to use--than professional cameras. TV stations might discover a range of situations they can access that the couldn't access before, and they might discover they're able to do stories they never could do before. Or simply that they might be able to do more coverage than they were able to do before. In other words, they might discover that, although they sacrifice some degree of quality, they gain more in content. And if viewers don't care about the lower quality or, alternatively, are psyched about the new coverage, that creates growth oppotunities for TV news.

  • Budget. Smartphones are obviously a lot less expensive than professional cameras. Again, no one is suggesting that TV stations completely ditch their professional cameras (and professional shooters), but it might be possible to substituted smartphones for the big equipment in some situations, thereby saving money for cash-strapped news operations or, alternatively, freeing up budget for use elsewhere.

Don't Bother with the Investigative Journalism "Strike Force" Idea

Reports say that the summit of nonprofit news organizations that met at the Rockefeller estate at the beginning of July discussed the idea of setting up an investigative journalism "mobile strike force" that could be deployed anywhere in the country, to pick up the slack on investigative reporting that, by all accounts, is falling by the wayside in these tight-budget days.

It's a lovely idea. But news organizations will actually get a lot farther a lot faster if they invest their energy and ingenuity elsewhere.

It's clear why the idea is compelling: In these days when newspapers are cutting back, when local journalism is suffering, when the scaling back on reporting is "putting democracy in jeopardy," wouldn't it be lovely to have an expert strike team to be able to swoop in and rescue the locals? Yes, it would. But it's neither practical nor, actually, is it ideal.

  • First, ask yourself: Who's going to fund this?

    OK, you might get the Knight Foundation or some other organization to pony up the funds for a novel idea like this for a year or two. But after that? You need a sustainable business model, and right now, I don't see one. Unless you get a coalition of newspapers to fund it. But I imagine that after they did an ROI analysis of the returns they get out of supporting a strike force that, most of the time, will not be doing any journalism in their neck of the woods, those newspapers will decide their money could be better spent elsewhere.

  • Next: ask yourself: Is a group of outsiders really the best team to look into local issues?

    Or, turn this around, ask yourself: How much further ahead could you get if, instead of bringing in outsiders, you figured out how to leverage insiders? Think of the pro-am approach Amanda Michel is spearheading at ProPublica and that Robert Rosenthal has talked about doing on the Center for Investigative Reporting's California project. Instead of looking back to the old days, when communities relied on hotshot investigative reporters to break open corruption and wrongdoing, news organizations should be looking to the more recent model of crowdsourced reporting--of the kind Talking Points Memo did in uncovering the U.S. Attorneys scandal--and figure out how to leverage the informed and motivated people within their own communities to bring issues to light that need to be brought to light.

The value that experienced investigative reporters bring is their understanding of how to do investigative reporting. But most of the hour-by-hour work they--placing requests for documents and sifting through them--is work any reasonably intelligent person could do. So, just as accountants can now outsource low level accounting tasks to India so that U.S. accountants can focus on higher-level tasks, we don't need investigative reporters to do the whole soup-to-nuts part of investigations anymore. Yes, we need their expertise in the form of guidance or mentoring. But much of the work can be done by motivated readers.

Instead of spending a lot of time dreaming about some fantasy team of super-reporters to rescue them, news organizations should start rescusing themselves: By investing in developing pro-am methods of gathering and interpreting the news.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What journalism can learn from

The big topic in journalism circles today is how to get readers to pay for content online when they're used to getting it for free. For an answer, it might be worth looking at Kodak Gallery.

I've used Kodak Gallery forever. Back since when they were still Ofoto. I love them--for no other reason than it's a really easy way to share photos with friends and family, and a really easy way to store and organize pix. Take pix at the family Easter party? Upload and share. Take pix at Dad's birthday? Upload and share. Take pix at Burning Man? Upload and share. And the same happens when someone else takes pix. I now have easy access to other people's Burning Man pictures. My nieces' ski trips. A company party.

I've done this forever. For free. Never bought a thing. Not a single hardcopy photograph. And KodakGallery has let me get away with it. Until now.

The good folks at KG have recently sent me a notice. Two actually. Letting me know that, regrettably, they can no longer completely support my mooching. They will happily continue to store my photos online. But I, they say, must do something for them: For the amount of storage I'm using (less than 2 GB), I must make at least $4.99 in purchases every 12 months. Otherwise, bye bye pix.

Now here's the thing. I don't want $5 worth of hardcopy pictures. I have no use for them. I've gone completely digital. But you know what? I'll do it. I'll go ahead and buy $5 worth of pix I don't want.

Why? Because I find their service incredibly valuable.

Sure, I could download all those albums. But that would take forever. And it would take them away from my family and friends, who also still have access to them on Kodak Gallery. All in all, it's easier for me to just pay them the money and keep my pix there.

So what's the takeaway for journalism? If you create something your users really value, they'll pay for it.

There's a lot of talk about business models these days. But I don't see an equally focused and concerted exploration about what readers actually value--not just what kind of news they want to receive, but the forms in which they want to receive it, and the devices on which they want to receive it. Yes, there are a slew of projects working on various aspects of this question. But the dominant drumbeat you hear coming out of the news world these days is: How can we get people to pay? Not: How can we create something so great, people will happily pay?

Without that second discussion, however, there's little point in the first. If we do have that second discussion, however, if we do find forms of journalism that people truly value, I assure you, readers will pay. Happily.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What INDenverTimes did wrong

Back in March, following the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, three Colorado businessmen announced they were teaming up with former RMN journos to launch a new venture INDenver Times, a new online news site covering the local community. The launch date was set for April 23--assuming, they said, that 50,000 readers had subscribed by then. They needed the $3 million that would come from the $60 per annum subscriptions to fund the business.

Last week, the Denver Post reported that the three businessmen were abandoning the project. Among the disappointments: Only 3,000 people had signed up so far.

Perhaps this was a surprise to the INDenver Times team. But it wouldn't have surprised anyone in Silicon Valley. You see, the group's business plan violated one of the fundamental tenets of online innovation: You don't charge people first, and then deliver the product. Just the opposite: As anyone who's watched the evolution of Facebook, Twitter, and innumberable software products (online and desktop) knows: You give the goods away first. Then you charge.

The reason is twofold:

-- By putting your product out there for free, you get people to use it. And it's in watching real people use it that you learn what works and what doesn't. You then use this information to refine the product and ultimately produce something really excellent that you never could have figured out had you done all your development behind closed doors.

-- In the course of doing this, your users develop an attachment to your product, one they eventually are willing to pay for.

Together, this approach allows you develop two things you need in order to charge: A really excellent product and consumer demand for it.

The lesson is instructive for anyone considering a journalism experiment: You're going to have to find a subscription-less way to fund the project, at least for the first few years.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pulitzers measure nothing about a newspaper's viability

An investor at last week's New York Times annual meeting complained that the Times seemed to have plenty of money to send reporters all over the world but couldn't manage adequate coverage of the city's five boroughs. "Send these people to Brooklyn! Send these people to the Bronx!” he reportedly said. “You will increase circulation."

Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. response? That the Times had just won a Pulitzer for local reporting. Yes, well, here's the problem: Pulitzers are handed out by other journalists, based on how much those other journalists like specific stories. They have nothing to do with whether a newspaper is delivering a product that is valued by its customers.

This is important to remember. As news organizations look forward, they need to forget about using prizes as a metric of their future viability. The only metrics that matter are circulation--and whether those numbers are going up or down.

Photo courtesy of terren in Virginia. Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why are these editors so downright giddy?

There was something interesting about the editors giving advice to Michelle Nicolosi, the new editor of the Seattle Post Intelligencer's online-only edition in CJR's recent piece "To the P-I, on Its First Day."

Talk to any journalist today, and you get a lot of gloom and doom. A lot of talk about how the demise of newspapers is catastrophic for democracy. About how online news sources can't possibly deliver the quality we saw in print. About much will be lost when newspapers are gone.

But not these editors. Oddly, these folks speaking directly to the editor of the first online-only city daily in the country, the editor starting out with a measely staff of 20, yes that's right, 20! These editors were anything but doom and gloom. In fact, they seemed down right giddy.

Their insights were peppered with words like "liberating" and "exciting". They talked about the excitement of being able to experiment and try new things--and discover cool stuff when their experiments worked out. They talked about being freed from the tyranny of having to cover everything, from the canon that said you had to "run after every ambulance, or chase after every press conference.” They talked about how having "everyone do everything" was actually great.

So who were these iconoclasts speaking so far from the conventional wisdom within journalism circles? They were the editors of several of the online-only newspapers that have emerged in the last couple of years: the Chi-Town Daily News, Voice of San Diego, and MinnPost.

This is good news for journalism. These are the people who've already been to the future. And they're telling us: It really isn't all that bad. In fact, it's quite liberating. And exciting.

Photo courtesy of localsurfer. Creative Commons license.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Why the Wall Street Journal doesn't count

Whenever people start saying newspapers should make readers pay for content, they point to the Wall Street Journal. "See," they say, "those of you who argue that readers will never pay for content are wrong. The Wall Street Journal charges, and people pay. Ergo, if newspapers charged readers, readers would pay."

Problem is, they're wrong.

It's not an apples to apples comparison. The WSJ and your average hometown newspaper are not the same thing. The customer base is not the same. The perceived value in the product is not the same. The motivations for purchasing are different.

People buy the WSJ because they view it as an indispensible tool for making money. It's a core part of their business. Indeed, many WSJ subscriptions are paid for not by their readers but by companies who buy them for their employees. Readers are willing to shell out $104/year* because they expect it will help them make far more than that, via business dealings or career advancement. In their minds, the WSJ is comparable to their Blackberrys, or aircards, or business class seats. It's a critical tool for the effective operation of their businesses or career. In that sense, not only is $104 a completely reasonable price. It's so cheap most subscribers probably don't even think twice about it.

That's totally different from how the average newspaper reader (online or offline) views a newspaper. People read newspapers for a whole range of reasons, but just about none of them do it because they view their hometown newspaper as an indispensible business tool.

The WSJ and your hometown newspaper are two different products. You can't use the success of one's business model as proof that business model will work for the other. That's like saying "Airplanes and cars are both modes of transportation, so let's consider using an airplane manufacturer's business model and pricing strategies for cars."

I don't have a final opinion on whether readers will pay for newspaper content. But I do know that the argument "Readers pay for the WSJ so they'll pay for the hometown newspaper" holds no water.

* for online-only. Or $156 for print only. Or $182 for both.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why doesn't the SF Chron have a real "Prop 8 Central"?

California Supreme Court justices are in the process of deciding one of the most contentious issues to hit the state in a while: whether to uphold Prop 8.* But not only is it one of the most contentious issues. But it's one of the issues that has most gripped the attention of the average citizen. From a news organization's perspective, that spells opportunity--opportunity to draw readers to your website and rack up those ever important page views.

So how is the San Francisco Chronicle covering it? As if they were... a newspaper.

Which begs the question: Why don't they cover it as if they were... a new media organization?

Specifically, the Chron is basically filing daily dispatches on the story. News and analysis, for sure. But for all intents and purposes, the same kind of daily stories you'd be getting if this were 20 years ago and the Internet didn't yet exist.

But here's what I think they should be doing: Create the premier go-to hub for all things Prop 8. Brand it as its own destination site, the same way the LA Times created "The Envelope," a destination site for all things Oscar. When you go to The Envelope, you don't feel like you're wading through a newspaper. You feel like you're at a website that is completely and totally devoted to the Oscars. It has everything that kind of site would have: Forums, blogs, photo galleries, timelines, trivia, gossip. Yes, the Times' news reporting is there too. But it's not front and center. It's only one component in a larger experience.

Why is this important?

-- Traffic to was up 25% (!) for the month of February

-- The LA Times had 8.7 million page views** the day after the Oscars.

What's the lesson? To draw visits, you can't simply dole out daily dispatches. You have to create a compelling destination. You need to move beyond the mindset of "Give me a story to put in tomorrow's paper." Instead, you need to think along the lines of: "There's an important story going on in our community. What kind of information would the community like to get about that story? Let's find a way to give it to them."

So what would a Chron Prop 8 look like?

  • First, it would be a branded destination site, like The Envelope. When you arrived, you'd feel like you were at an independent website, not as if you were buried deep within the pages of the newspaper.

  • Include all of the following components:
    * Running blog posts, so visitors feel like they're right in the middle of the action. Posts would come from numerous bloggers. Some inside the courthouse. Some outside. Some covering the machinations at the various interest groups. Some covering other aspects of the fight.
    * Legal analysis of the various aspects of the suit, from attorneys (not reporters)
    * Bios (with photos) of all the key players
    * Video from the various demonstrations that have been taking place -- with the option for visitors to upload their own video
    * Ditto photographs
    * Trivia about the history of this battle
    * Forums and/or social networking integration so that visitors can link up with other people interested in the debate and carry on conversations among themselves.
    * Opportunities for visitors to share their own stories, whether they are a gay couple talking about what Prop 8 means to them, or an evangelical Christian talking about their community and why Prop 8 is important to them
    * And, of course, traditional news stories and analysis pieces
    * Other?

To be fair, the Chron is doing slightly more than daily dispatches. It has bundled all of those dispatches onto a Prop 8 landing page. (And its donor database, where you can see who gave how much to the campaigns for and against Prop 8, is a truly inspired piece of new-world journalism.)

But on the whole, the way the landing page is organized, and the content on it, still says, "We think of ourselves as people who create daily stories. We're bundling them here to make it easier for you to find them." What it needs to say is, "We've created a great space for you to learn everything you want to know about this battle, as it's happening, and for you to participate in helping to tell this story."

* Prop 8, as you may recall, was the November ballot measure that created a constitutional amendment declaring marriage is only between a man and a woman only. It passed 52% for to 58% against, outraging many across the state. Advocates of marriage equality have brought suit to have it overturned.

** Via Romanesko

Photo courtesy of mugley. Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Views of Political & News Videos Up 600% -- Now What?

YouTube's news manager told BeetTV yesterday that views for news and political videos were up 600% this year. That's good news for journalism. It means that people are interested in news and politics. Or at least can be engaged under certain circumstances. And if news organizations can leverage that insight, they can increase their views-- and, hopefully, their revenue.

This is rich information we can use to help shape the future forms of journalism.

But first, here's how not to use this information:

Editor: "Political and news videos are up 600% on YouTube! Reporter people: Make me more videos about what's going on at City Hall!"
That's a really good way to waste your valuable staff time on stuff that'll never get seen.

It's like a food manufacturer learning that sales of Duncan Hines' cake mixes are up 600% and immediately ordering its staff to start producing more cake mixes. All kinds (chocolate, vanilla, red velvet...). Year-round. And then ending up perplexed about why their mixes didn't sell. The problem is, if the manufacturer had done a little digging, they'd have found that the majority of that 600% was for sales of chocolate cake. At Valentine's Day. See what I'm getting at? You have to look under the hood of the data to understand exactly what's driving the increase and where the opportunities lie. Only then can you create an effective video strategy for your news organization.

So here are some of the questions I'd ask about the 600% increase:
  • What types of videos were people watching, and what does the pie chart of types look like? Ie: What proportion of views was for:
    -- Campaign-created candidate-speaking-to-the-camera videos?
    -- Campaign-created ads?
    -- User-created artistic creations (songs, parodies, etc...)?
    -- Professionally-created artistic creations (SNL, etc...)?
    -- Raw footage from professional journalists?
    -- Official reports from professional journalists?
    -- Debates shown end-to-end?
    -- Snippets of debates?
    -- Etc...

    This tells you what kind of videos are worth producing (or enable to be produced and posted, if user-generated ones are among the most valuable).

  • What proportion of the navigation paths started outside YouTube vs. started inside?

    Ie: What proportion of video views:
    -- Started with someone arriving from an outside link?
    -- Started with someone doing a search on YouTube?
    -- Started with someone clicking on a video in the "Related Videos" list?
    -- Started in YouTube channels? (And what particular channel drove large numbers of viewers?)
    -- Happened when someone decided to re-view a video?

    If a significant proportion of video views started with someone using the "Related Videos" list, then you know that, to maximize the number of video views on your site, you're going to have to make sure your interface does a good job of drawing visitors in. Ie: The editor might get more bang for his buck by asking to the web team to beef up the site's interface, rather than simply asking the reporters to create more videos.

  • What kinds of videos did people watch all the way through, vs. what kinds did people leave in the middle?

    If you assume that the videos that people watched all the way through were the ones they liked (and the ones they didn't were the ones they didn't)*, then you'd want to analyze the videos to figure out what it was about the first set that people found interesting and the second that they didn't. And then use that information to shape your own videos. In order to create happy "customers" who are likely both to return and to recommend your videos to other potential viewers.
It is exciting that views of news and political items went soaring last year. Now let's use that information intelligently to help news organizations craft effective strategies.

* And you'd have to test even that assumption...

Sometimes, it makes more sense to start from scratch

"It may be better for a newspaper company to think about killing the paper and rebuilding itself online."

That's from Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Rosenstiel was speaking last week on a radio show about the future of the San Francisco Chronicle following reports that Hearst might shutter or sell the paper, given its heavy losses over the last few years.

He's right. Sometimes it does make more sense to kill a thing and start over, than to rejigger it from within. This sometimes happens in Silicon Valley. You build a product on a code base. And you add to that code base repeatedly over time. Eventually, the code base gets so byzantine and so out of date, that you can't efficiently morph it into a product that works for contemporary needs. So you slowly phase out the old code base while you build a new one. And then you launch a new product that can actually do what customers need it to do.

Or take a more simple example. I had some friends who bought a house, primarily for the location. The house itself, however, wasn't great. They thought about trying to remodel. But finally they realized it made more sense to tear down the old house and build a new one. Sure it was painful (took forever). And sure it cost more. But there was no way to get the old house to the place they needed it. And now, years after moving in to the new one, every day of living there is a pleasure for them.

And that's how I feel about newspapers. I rips me up to watch newspapers try to shove new ideas into their old structure. For the most part, it's just not working. They'd get much further ahead if they just stopped, redesigned, and started over.

And yes, that would involve a huge amount of pain. But in the long run, we'd all be much further ahead.

Photo courtesy of Rick McCharles. Creative Commons license.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Walter Isaacson does journalism a grave disservice

Earlier this month, former Time CEO and current head of the Aspen Institute Walter Isaacson wrote a long piece in Time, called “How to Save Your Newspaper.” His argument was simple: Newspapers must start charging for their online content. The piece set off a tizzy in the journalism blogosphere, with bloggers and readers chiming in left and right about whether news organizations should, in fact, make readers pay. Charlie Rose even hosted an entire show on the future of journalism, with Isaacson as one of the guests.

The problem is: They've been talking about the wrong thing.

All the energy put into debating whether news organizations should charge for online content was wasted effort. You can’t talk about whether you should charge users of your product until you’ve created a product that a consumer would even consider paying for. The major problem in journalism today is not that news organizations haven’t figured out how to run their businesses off online ad revenue. The major problem in journalism today is that news organizations have not stopped to revamp the product they offer.

Sure, many news organizations have “added on.” They’ve added blogs. They’ve added slideshows. They’ve added video. But they haven’t revamped the core product. For the most part, they’ve simply put online the type of “product” they used to place in their print editions. Is City Hall doing something of note? Fine, write a 10-inch inverted pyramid story. But that’s not a product people want in the online world. In order to have anything to charge for, newspapers need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their “offering.”*

This idea hasn’t occurred to news organizations because they’ve simply assumed that all they need to do to “go digital” was to put online what they used to place in print. Problem is: readers (“users”) have different expectations of what online should provide them than what they expected from print. The same way that users expect far more functionality from a cell phone today than they ever expected from a landline. Landlines at most could store a few numbers and display the number of an incoming caller. But there’s no way a cell phone customer today would ever buy a cell phone that did nothing more than store a handful of numbers and display the number of an incoming caller. Cell phone users expect far more than that, and cell phones must deliver, or get out of the business.

Here’s an example of that means for print. A little while back, the city of San Francisco announced that, from March to November, it was going to do an inspection of all sidewalks in the city and issue repair notices where broken sidewalks need to be replaced. This was significant. Every property owner is responsible for the sidewalk in front of their buildings. Thousands of property owners—homeowners and businesses alike—would likely be affected by the notices. And given the cost of replacing sidewalks, that was going to mean at least several thousands of dollars out of pocket per property owner.

I learned about this online, from a San Francisco newspaper. As you might expect, all they did was post a 10-inch (probably more like seven) inverted pyramid story about it. Which is what you would produce if you were putting the story in print. But that’s the wrong way to go about it online. The news organization could have created a much more valuable offering. But they didn’t, probably because it never occurred to them they should rethink how to deliver this story online vs. how they would have done it in print.

So let’s do that now. Pretend, for starters, that you had never grown up in the print world, that you had grown up in the digital world. Now ask yourself, as a “digital native”: How would you do a story online about the city’s plans to perform sidewalk inspections?

  • Would you, perhaps, include an interactive map, showing which streets the city was going to be inspecting when?

    Presumably the city had a schedule of where their inspectors were going to be when. Why wouldn’t you, as a service to your readers, post a map where homeowners could click their streets and find out when the inspectors would be there? That way they would know whether they needed to start gathering their money now or whether they had a few months before their notice would come.

  • Would you include a calculator, to help homeowners calculate how much replacing their sidewalk was going to cost?

    Sidewalks in San Francisco are made up of squares. Contractors generally tabulate the cost of a job by multiplying the number of squares to be replaced by a standard price-per-square. An online calculator would allow readers to plug in the number of broken squares outside their homes and have it spit out a ballpark figure for how much the job would cost.
These are just a few, tiny, tiny examples of how news organizations might offer a product online that readers would find truly valuable—one that, if all the news were built this way—readers might indeed think was worth laying down a few pennies for.

So this is the point: The news business does not have a future online unless it rethinks how it does news online. You can talk about making people pay, but until you’ve created something people might be willing to pay for, such discussions are a waste of time.

Which is why Walter Isaacson—and others who think and advocate like him—are doing journalism a grave disservice. The more time we collectively spend talking about whether readers should pay for journalism before we’ve created something that they’d want to pay for, the more energy we’re wasting and the longer it’s going to take to find the future of journalism.

* “Offering” is a term used in the business world to describe the thing you’re putting out in the world that you want people to pay for. A Happy Meal is an offering. An oil change is an offering. A 5-day cruise with buffets included but drinks extra is an offering. Businesses spend a lot of time figuring out what should be in their offering in order to create something that people want (in order to maximize number of customers) and will pay for (in order to, at a minimum, break even or, better, make a healthy profit).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Timesmen in the Twilight Zone

New York had a short squib a while back on how Gay Talese is working with Leslie Gelb on a documentary about the New York Times' "struggles in the digital age." Talese's quotes are a case study in the faulty thinking that's hobbling journalism's ability to find its way forward.

Let's go through them, one by one. And, to help make the point, let's imagine that, instead of a journalist at the turn of this century, he's a horse-and-buggyman at the turn of the last one, when the automobile came on the scene, and see what his quotes would have looked like.

New York: Why are you doing this documentary?

Talese today:

“[The documentary is] about why the Times is having difficulty attracting readers when in my opinion it’s still a very good paper, and about the difficulty of convincing young people to read it."


"We're trying to understand why we're having a hard time getting young people to drive buggies, when we still have so many fine horses and solid buggies."

New York: Is it because young people are reading the paper online? / Is it because young people are driving automobiles?

Talese today:

“We’re not interested in their Website. We’re interested in our insights as veterans of old-fashioned journalism.”


"We're not interested in their automobiles. We're interested in our insights as veteran horse and buggymen."

New York: Do you read the Times site occasionally? / Do you ever take trips in automobiles?

Talese today:

"Never, and I never will. I don’t even have a cell phone. I don’t deal with the technology. I don’t even know how to go into the Web. Maybe Gelb will do it. I insist on being with the people I’m writing about.”


"Never, and I never will. I've also never ridden in a train. And I have no interest in those flying machines either. I insist on having an initimate relationship with my mode of conveyance."

Am I getting my point across? Talese and others who think like him need to, put simply, get over it. Yes, the New York Times is a fine newspaper. But it's a newspaper. It doesn't matter how good it is. Its days are over. Those who care about journalism, and journalism done well, must let go of the thing that performed such a valuable service in the past, and of which they were masters, and use all their insights and intellectual power to figure out how to do all of this using the tools of the future.

Photo courtesy of: Welfl. Creative Commons license.

How to get 6MM views without really trying

Sports Illustrated's website had an amazing 5.7 million video views in just two days after launching the 2009 swimsuit issue.* That's got to amount to a significant chunk of advertising change.

There's a lesson in here for news sites. Granted, it's not a particularly high-minded one. But it's an important one nonetheless: Post information (would it be better if I put that in quotes: "information"?) on your site that people want, and get traffic that pays for the other stuff--the stuff that, yes, is important, but that, let's face it, is a little like oat bran: necessary for the smooth functioning of a system, but not always the stuff you're chomping at the bit to get at.

If you aspire to higher things, like uncovering secret CIA prisons or even simply holding your local officials accountable, the idea that your news organization might have to devote resources to such, um, lowbrow activities as stories about (or better yet, photos and video of) sexy women rolling around in the sand might make you recoil. "But surely," you might argue, "if we're a news organization, why should we have to lower ourselves to stunts like this?"

Because that's where the money comes from to pay for your investigative reporting, or even just your daily beat reporting. Cold, hard truth.

After all, why do you think Sports Illustrated even has a swimsuit edition? Why do newspapers have movie listings, or recipes, or, for goodness sake, that thick auto section that's almost nothing but ads?

There is a way to make news pay online. You just have to think in terms of the 80 / 20 rule: What's the 20% of content that's going to pay for the other 80%?

In fact, if I were to screw my evil marketing director hat on good, I might even propose that news organizations set up a dedicated Department of Juicy Content That Draws Clicks, instead of requiring editors from the traditional world of journalism to have to think this stuff up. After all, if you're going to do it, you might as well hand it over to folks (ex-Maxim staffers perhaps?) who are going to give it everything they've got.

. . .
What's that? Oh, you want the link to the SI swimsuit videos? You sure? OK, here you go. :)

Monday, February 16, 2009

College journalists are mutinying

Student journalists can't stand it anymore. They say their j-school profs are out-of-touch and incapable of properly preparing them for the future that awaits them. So they're mutinying. In a manner of speaking.

Next weekend (Feb. 22), College Journ is having a "Bring a professor chat" on ways to modernize college journalism curricula.

"We’re not just suggesting, but demanding an education that prepares us for the real world of 21st-century journalism."

That from the organizers.

Smart, smart, smart. And telling. The subject of whether j-schools are doing a good job preparing their students for the future comes up every now and then in the journo blogosphers. Looks like it's reaching a tipping point.

Photo courtesy of Frodo Babbs. Creative Commons license.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The inmates are running the asylum

Charlie Rose hosted a segment on the future of newspapers earlier this week. The guests? Someone from the Wall Street Journal, someone from the Daily News, and the former CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time.*

What's wrong with this picture?

If you were doing a story on the future of the prison industry, would you only invite prison administrators? Or would you invite people from think tanks or wall street analysts or people who were experimenting with innovative methods of incarcerating and reforming convicted criminals?

To find the future of the news business, we have to stop looking to the inmates.** We need to understand that the answers might come from -- probably will come from -- people whose worldviews have not been shaped by the system in need of reform.

* WSJ: Robert Thomson; Daily News: Mort Zuckerman; CNN/Time: Walter Isaacson.

** No pun intended. The title of this post comes from a book of the same name, a classic in the world of software design, about why technology products designed and built by software engineers without input from the outside world result in devices no one can actually use.

Photo courtesy of insunlight. Creative Commons license.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The best newspaper websites are probably not the best news sites

What's wrong with this picture? No, not the one on the right. What's wrong with the fact that the -- they of the Super Bowl-related ad proclaiming the greatness of newspapers -- today touted a summary of the Top Ten Best Newspaper Websites?

Answer: It's great that the creators of this list (Internet strategists The Bivings Group) are finding good stuff at newspaper websites. But it would have been a lot more helpful to the news business if they'd created a list of the Top Ten Best Sites Delivering News.

Draft that second list, and you'll find a lot of great insights about how to do news online.

But draft only the first list, and all you're going to see are what newspapers are doing online. This is a flawed data sample. Not just because newspapers aren't the only ones doing news online. But because newspapers actually bring biases to their work that probably both get in the way of finding the best possible ways of doing news online and that also lead them to create things that might look good to newspaper folks, but probably are orthagonal to what readers actually value.

This isn't to say that newspapers aren't doing good stuff online. It's just to say that:

If you want to find the future, you first have to get out of the box.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

If you have to tell people you're cool...

A consortium of newspaper execs is apparently running an ad in newspapers, the thrust of which is: "We're not actually dead yet."

The problem with this, as anyone who's ever been to high school knows, if you have to announce you're cool. . . well, you know, you're probably not.

On the plus side, at least they have a blog. The purpose of the newly launched consortium, called, is, according to their blog, "to support a constructive exchange of information and ideas about the future of newspapers." If they have a blog, at least they get the first principle of the new world -- that it involves having a conversation with people outside your walls.

Let's hope they're listening.

(Via AgencySpy)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The media is thriving

There's a new Twitter feed in town you might want to check out: The Media is Thriving.

It's a riff, of course, on The Media is Dying, the dismal feed that chronicles the daily demise of newspapers and the like.

The Media is Thriving is the brainchild of Rick Bass, co-founder of The Barbarian Group, a digital services company headquartered in Boston. Bass found The Media is Dying terribly depressing. Not to mention, horribly misguided.

The media isn't dying, he says. It's thriving. And his feed seeks to prove it, with observations like:

  • The fact that online newspaper uniques are going up.

  • A quote from Reuters' CEO: "I have no idea what journalism will look like in five years except that it will be different than now. That's a great thing." (emphasis mine)

  • Rosy reports from various media companies showing revenue going up.
It's worth noting that when Bass says "media", he means all media, not just journalism. But this should be no less encouraging for those in the news biz. The data demonstrates that people will consume media, when it's presented in a compelling form. This doesn't mean all Britney all the time. Or that it has to be dumbed down. Or presented by anime characters (not that that would be a bad thing, necessarily.)

It just means that those in the news business would do well to study and learn what forms of media are soaring, and how the news biz might adapt lessons from those fields into their own biz, to make their product (the news) more compelling.

For example: What can you learn from how YouTube manages to suck you in to figure out how to serve up content on a news site? Who hasn't, after all, gone to YouTube to check out a single video forwarded to them by a friend, only to be sitting in front of a screen an hour later, checking out the 15th video they had never intended to watch? How awesome would it be to suck readers into your news site the same way?

Newspapers are dying. Their presentation format no longer works for most people. But media is not dying. It's thriving. Journos who seek to learn from media in general will figure out how to create a product that will carry journalism into the future.

Image courtesy of FreeRangeLife. Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 30, 2009

How the New York Times can save itself

The New York Times is struggling, right? Its parent company just accepted a $250 million investment from a Mexican businessman. And now there are reports it's looking to sell its share of the Boston Red Sox in order to raise cash. That, after news that its revenue for the last quarter of 2008 fell almost 50% over the comparable period the previous year.

As inconceivable as it sounds, the Times could actually go under.

But it doesn't have to.

There is, in fact, a simple way it can save itself: Go open source.

The Times should lay itself open on the table. Put it all out there. What's working. What's not. Where revenues are coming from. Where they're not. What areas are getting traffic. What isn't. Lay everything out in the open that right now is only discussed in closed board rooms.

Then, invite the world to share ideas about how to get the Times on more solid footing. What should get more coverage? What should get less? How should they rejigger the entire format of the newspaper, how should they integrate social media, how should they use interaction with readers to change the way they report? Where should they look for new revenue streams? What current streams should they jettison?

Do that, and I promise you, the ideas will roll in.

Sure, some of those ideas will be rubbish. Some will be ingenious, but ultimately unworkable. And some will hold the kernels of the solution.

Why not do this? What does the Times have to lose? Nothing, right? I mean, if they're going down anyway, why not open themselves up and see if some smart soul out there -- or souls, plural, more likely -- has a brainstorm.

As the good folks at Wikinomics say, when it comes to innovation, when it comes to creating something entirely new:
"Increasingly, you should assume the best people live outside your organization."
[emphasis mine]

In other words, the folks at the New York Times may be the best out there at beat reporting, investigative journalism, and even long-form narrative (via the Magazine). But when it comes to figuring out the future of journalism, the simple odds are that the smartest people who can help them figure out how to move forward are not within the walls of the Grey Lady. Not even, necessarily, within the walls of any consulting firms they might have retained to help them. They are somewhere out there.

So why not solicit their help? You'd tap the best people for your investigative teams, wouldn't you? Why not do the same for, well, your very survival?

So what do they have to lose?

Well, there is one thing. They'll lose their seat on Mount Olympus. They'll lose their status as the "be all and end all" of the journalism world. They'll have to admit that they're human, just like the rest of us.

The sad thing is, this isn't really a big deal. Anyone who's ever fallen from grace--a high school sports star who gets to college and realizes she's not really all that, a middle manager who flubs and gets demoted back to individual contributor, a parent who messes up big in front of their kid--anyone who's ever been through that knows two things: a) it totally sucks and b) it's never the end of the world. In many cases, in fact, it opens up whole new vistas.

So, come on New York Times. It's time to do the thing that, at some point in life, everyone finds themselves having to do: Ask for help.

The perils of not staying current with your readers

"If you don't stay current with users, they invent around you."

More wisdom from the authors of Wikinomics.

Folks in the newspaper world might not think much of the new news organizations cropping up, like the West Seattle Blog or the "-ist" clan" (SFist / Gothamist / Austinist etc...), but the fact that places like these are vibrant sources of information for their communities means that they are staying current with something that readers value, and the traditional media ignores (or, moreover, disdains) them at their own peril.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The media needs to do a better job of reporting on itself

In an article in Adbusters about the state of journalism, titled "State of Emergency," Sean Condon writes:

"If the media wants to find a solution, it's going to have to start doing a better job of reporting on the problem."

I couldn't agree more.

One of the things that has baffled me the most is how traditional reporters who can provide the most incisive analyses of other industries often seem fundamentally incapable of viewing their own clearly.

If they were able to view the newspaper industry clearly, we wouldn't be having a lot of the debates that are currently going on in journalism circles. Instead, we'd all be able to see--and agree on--the following things:

  • Slashing jobs without revising your product strategy has always been a direct path toward collapse.

  • Continuing to produce the same product when your customer base (ie: the demand for your product) is shrinking is similarly a direct path toward obsolescence.

  • Declaring you are a public good entitles you to nothing. (If it did, we'd have fully funded health care, education, and job training programs.)

So why doesn't the traditional media take as cold-eyed approach to the shortcomings and challenges within their own industry as they do with, say, the current crisis in the automotive industry?

It's not malfeasance or misdirection. Instead, it's simply human nature not to be able to regard something clearly in which you are personally vested. Some journalists so deeply believe certain "truths" about the newspaper world, that they can't see that those truths are more mythology than reality. For others, the problem is that their identities are too wrapped up in a very specific idea of what it means to be a journalist. To have to look that idea in the face, and accept that some of it is (irrevocably) broken, means having to let go of that thing that has defined them and their place in the world.

These are perfectly human responses. But from a pragmatic point of view, they are hampering traditional journalists' ability to clearly understand what's happening to their industry, and thus, armed with that clear understanding, to help it move forward.

So what can traditional reporters working at newspapers do to develop the ability to see--and report on--their industry clearly?

  • Put the fear on the shelf.
    Seeing the industry for what it is is scary for someone living inside it. You'll feel fear just looking at it. Maybe even panic. Accept it, but don't let it get in your way. Feel the fear. Put it in a box. Put the box on a shelf in the back of a very deep closet. And leave it there. It's a natural feeling. But it's not going to do you any good right now.

  • Ask yourself: If this were a different industry, what questions would I be asking?
    If this were the health care industry, the automotive industry, the industry that produces incandescent light bulbs, what questions would I be asking to determine whether the industry had legs, whether it could survive, and what other industries were emerging to challenge it? And then ask those questions.

  • Ask yourself: If this were a different industry, who would I be talking to?
    Who would I be interviewing to get their reading on the state of that industry? Then get their reading. And give that reading as much credence as you would give to their reading on any other industry.

  • And then write the story as if you were writing about another industry.
    If it helps you quell the fear, and get through the first draft, substitute "the automotive industry" for "the journalism industry" and write what you've learned. You might be surprised by what you produce. And you more than likely end up doing a huge service to everyone--your colleagues and those on the outside--who are trying to figure out how to enable journalism to survive, even if newspapers themselves are dying.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Data Point of One: Why podcasts trump newspapers

A friend in Seattle recently observed that, despite having grown up with a newspaper-reading habit, she couldn’t feel particularly distressed about the pending demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (The Hearst Corp. announced earlier this month that it would cease publishing a print edition of the paper in 60 days if it couldn't find a buyer.) My friend cares about the news. And she’s just the kind of accomplished, business school grad, tech industry veteran you’d expect to be interested in public affairs. But the fact is, she hasn’t subscribed to a local newspaper in years. The newspaper format just doesn’t work for her. With three kids under 10, the idea of having a window of time where she could actually sit down and read a newspaper is ludicrous.

What she does instead is listen to podcasts. Specifically, Slate’s weekly "Political Gabfest." Podcasts work for her. She can listen to them while folding laundry, exercising at the gym, or toodling around in the car on errands. Not only that, she actually looks forward to listening to them. This isn’t a “take your vitamins” kind of habit. She enjoys listening to Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz go back and forth on the week’s events. It’s sort of like grabbing a cup of coffee with a fun group of friends, she said.

Newspapers aren’t dying because people don’t care about the news. Newspapers are dying because the format doesn’t work for the average person. News organizations that can figure out how to deliver the news in formats that work for their target audience will find a future. Organizations that can figure out how to create a compelling offering that “readers” are excited to dive into will find a future. Organizations that continue to insist that news should be delivered in 500-word, inverted pyramid stories on pieces of paper that require you to devote your full visual attention to them them probably won’t.

It’s a mindset thing. Organizations that can break out of thinking that news is only news if it looks like your father’s news are doomed. Organizations that say to themselves, “How can we deliver this information in a way that fits people’s lifestyles today?” are on their way to finding the future of news.