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)