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.