Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Data Point of One: What Happens When Readers Only Want *Raw* News?

At dinner last night, a friend told me he has no interest in picking up a newspaper because the information in it is "outdated" and "fabricated." Interesting. So what does that mean for the journalism industry?

The “outdated” part is obvious. Sitting next to me, my friend picked up his iPhone. “By the time I walk by a newspaper box in the morning," he said, "I've already read the latest news on this," referring to apps from news organizations like the BBC which have the most recent breaking news. "The stuff in the newspaper is 12, 16 hours old.” Sounds reasonable.

As for the “fabricated,” what he didn’t like was that the stories in the newspaper had been kneaded and churned and framed this way and that until they were a package of sorts, presenting an interpretation and assessment and analysis of the particular news item. In the past 10 years, he, like many others, have gotten used to the snackable nature of the blogosphere, and now the Twitterverse. Readers like him are becoming increasingly used to consuming news in short hits more police-blotter style than 700-word inverted pyramid. The longer stories no longer hold as much appeal.

Which makes sense, if you think about it. It used to be the newspaper business had only one opportunity a day to deliver the news to its readers: In the paper that was dropped on everyone's doorstep. So it made sense that we crammed everything into that single story. But in a day and age when readers can stay tuned into latest developments as they happen, that longer story not only is no longer optimal, for many readers it's actually a drag. Why should I have to read through all that stuff that I already know to find out the latest?

So what does this mean for the future of the news business?

Long-time readers know that one of my main mantras is: Don’t worry about business models for now. Instead, re-think the product. So this one friend’s feedback should prompt the news strategists to consider the following kinds of questions:

  • In what situations/for what kinds of news does it make sense to provide readers with a short-and-sweet “just the facts”, snackable summary of a news event? Or, from a different angle: In what situations/for what kinds of news do readers generally just want the short-and-sweet “just the facts” snackable summary?

  • If readers want that, what does the end product that we create to deliver it look like? What would it look like on our news organization’s Web sites? What would an iPhone / iPad app just for that look like? How would we leverage Twitter to deliver that?

In other words, we might want to re-think what the atomic unit of news is. In the last few years, we’ve heard that the atomic unit of news is the article (rather than the newspaper or Web site). But maybe there's another atomic unit: the snackable summary? If that's the case, how should that change how we report—and design/deliver the news—to offer readers the product—and value—they’re looking for?

What 'The Big Short' Has to Say About the Journalism Industry

The epigraph to Michael Lewis' new book, The Big Short, could be applied as easily to the journalism industry today as Lewis applied it to the recently crashed financial industry.

It reads:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.

-- Leo Tolstoy

The primary challenge to journalism finding its way forward today, to finding new sustainable financial models, is the fact that many in journalism, especially at the highest levels, believe they know certain parameters to be immuatable. Until the industry goes back to the beginning, and revists every truth it believes to be self-evident, and assesses which really are immuatable, and which were simply artifacts of the ecosystem and technological environment in which they emerged, the industry will not be able to see, much less embrace, those new truths which will be the key to its future viability, and success.

Photo courtesy of:
ercwttmn, Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Chron's Massive Fail on Sunday Business Feature Should be a Wakeup Call to Newspapers

Wow. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature in their Sunday business section yesterday about two of their major hometown companies -- Google and Yahoo -- and somehow managed to get it totally wrong. Not just a-few-facts wrong. But 180 degrees wrong.

I did a double-take at the headline: "Yahoo and Google in high-tech news war." A war? Really? I follow Yahoo and Google's news ventures pretty closely, and I had never heard anyone talk about them being in any kind of a war. Yahoo and AOL? Absolutley. But Yahoo and Google? No.

OK, fine. Maybe I'd missed something. I quickly ran through the article to see which high-powered observers the Chron was crediting with this bold observation. Turns out: None. Yes, the article quotes the highly respected Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land. But Sullivan only describes what the two companies are doing in the news space: Yahoo is creating its own content; Google is continuing to index other publishers' content. He says nothing about them competing with each other, much less being in any kind of a war.

The Chron also quotes a Gartner analyst. But even that guy simply comments on one of Yahoo's tactics. He says nothing about any kind of Yahoo-Google competition.

So how did the Chron come to its conclusion? The trigger seems to have been the fact that both Google and Yahoo made news-related announcements in the past couple of weeks. Google News launched a redesign. Yahoo launched their new Upshot news blog. Fine. But, it's huge leap to go from coincident announcements (regarding minor tactics, at that) to drawing an overarching conclusion about the two companies' being at war.

Another pass at the story took me back to the lede. And herein may lie the source of the headline. The lede reads: "Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. are redefining the online news experience, but in diverging ways that underscore the evolving identities of the search giants."

Woah. Hold on a second. Did I read that right? "The evolving identities of the... search giants"?!

OK. Now everything is becoming clear. If you think Yahoo and Google are competing "search giants," I can see how you might write a lede talking about how their different approaches to news is "underscoring their evolving identies." (Which, btw, says nothing about them being at war, a fact we'll get to later.) But, um, hello, Chron. Did you miss that whole Yahoo-selling-their-search-business-to-Microsoft thing? That took place, oh, a year ago? Which means Yahoo, by their own admission, has not been a search company for a year.

I'm a bit flabbergasted. How could the Chron possibly not be aware of this? Anyone who's been following Yahoo to any degree knows that
Yahoo ceded its search service to Microsoft and instead is focusing on content, with the goal of becoming the leader in online display advertising. This is not a secret. CEO Carol Bartz talks about this every time she steps up to a podium. Which, again, if you're following this, puts them at war not with Google, but with AOL, which also wants to be the leader in online display advertising. (This article on CNET, from way back in December, nicely sums up the real Yahoo news war, the one with AOL.)

So that was mistake #1: positioning Yahoo & Google as in competition with each other by identifying Yahoo as a search company. Mistake #2 was the headline. If you read the article closely, nowhere does it say the two companies are "at war." It just says their different approaches to news "underscores" their "evolving identies." Who knows where the headline writer came up with the idea for the headline, but there it is, smack-dab on the front of the Sunday Business section.

So what does all this have to do with the future of news? Simply that it's alarming harbinger of the state of things when San Francisco's major newspaper not only doesn't get a major local business story right, but that it gets it 180 degrees wrong. I'm picturing all those people who read the story yesterday and are now walking around with a totally wrong understanding in their heads. The paper's readers now have a categorically wrong understanding of a not-insignificant business story.

I can't tell you how this happened. I don't know the reporter who wrote the article, much less the editor(s) who reviewed it, nor the copyeditor who penned the headline. So I don't know how an error of this magnitude could have taken place.

But a massive fail like this should be a wakeup call. News organizations have a noble purpose: to help their readers understand their worlds. An error of this magnitude, where a news organization doesn't simply get a few facts wrong, but gets a story 180 degrees wrong, a story that was not that difficult to get right, underscores that the way newspapers are operating is simply not sustainable. They need to go back to the drawing board and completely rethink how they're doing what they're doing. It's one thing not to be able to do as extensive coverage you used to be able to do. It's another thing to be operating in such a way that a major Sunday business story is 100% wrong. Nobody wants that--not us, not the Chron. We need to stop pretending that we can continue as we always have. We do, finally, have to sit down and figure out a new way forward.

Monday, June 28, 2010

There is No Silver Bullet. And Trying to Find One Just Puts Us Further in the Hole

Here's a question I got recently: What would I do if someone handed me the reigns of a newspaper and told me: "Go at it"? The answer was simple. But also complicated.

I was on a plane, chatting with my seatmate (who, à propos of nothing, turned out to be a commander in the US Navy). The subject of the sorry state of journalism came up. I assured my seatmate, as I do whenever anyone asks me what I think is going to happen, that, despite however dark things look today, ten years from now, there's going to be great journalism takingplace, better than we've ever seen before, and it's going to be financially sustainable to boot. "Really?" he said. "So, if you were the boss of a news organization today, what would you do?"

The question's always difficult to answer. I could tell that he, like most people, are expecting a silver bullet. Like: "Print the paper on pink newsprint, put the comics on page 2, and boom, you're set."

What's harder to explain is the thing we'll actually have to do between now and the shiny future I'm confident lies ahead of us. Which is to experiment and to innovate. It's hard to explain that, if I were handed the reigns to a news organization today, I'd basically rip it apart. I'd throw the entire canon out the window. I'd say: Where do we have an opportunity to make a real impact, to do something better than anyone else can do it? Let's take that and start experimenting with different ways to actually do that. Let's set up a system of metrics that measures how much readers like it, whether it's serving our purpose of being of service to the community, and whether it shows any indication of being monetizable. I'd tell the staff that v1 of this thing is going to be a disaster. Not because of any failings on our part. Just by definition of being a v1. But we're going to push it out the door and learn from its real world implementation. And use those learnings to do a v2. Which will go out the door one month after v1. And I'd tell the staff: I'd going to do my best to guarantee your financial security. But it's going to be rough going. So if you decide to stick around, it better be here because there's nothing else in the world you'd rather be doing. (And it'd be helpful if you were married to someone with a stable job. Like a prison guard.)

Because there is no silver bullet. Not yet. Just a bunch of hard work. A bunch of giving things a shot and seeing what happens. And learning from it. And refining the thing and giving that a shot.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Until we finally find what works.

Photo courtesy of eschipul, Flickr. Creative Commons license.