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.