Thursday, February 28, 2008

Take your good news where you can get it

via Romanesko:
Although most Americans are dissatisfied with the quality of journalism (64%), overall satisfaction has increased to 35% from 27% in 2007, according to a new Zogby survey. Three in four believe the Internet has had a positive impact on the overall quality of journalism.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

small papers: where the action is?

The announcement of the winners of the Newspaper Association of America's Digital Edge awards--their awards for innovative digital news packaging--this week offers a surprising look at who's doing compelling online newspaper work. It's surprising for who isn't represented, namely virtually any nationally-recognized newspapers.

Yes, the Washington Post wins two awards, one for "Best Design and Site Architecture" and one for "Most Innovative Use of Interactive Storytelling," and the Chicago Tribune wins one for, uh... "Best Local Shopping and Directory Strategy," but beyond that it's a list of much, much smaller markets: In the over 250,000 circulation category, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wins three awards, besting the Washington Post and their much-ballyhood interactive initiatives. Amarillo, Texas is represented with two awards, beat out by Lawrence, Kansas with three. Knoxville, Tennessee? Three as well. The New York Times doesn't even appear on the list. Nor does the LA Times or the SF Chronicle or the San Jose Mercury News, two papers who should by sheer proximity to Silicon Valley be all over this stuff but, maddeningly, aren't.

Walk away from the Digital Edge awards list and you realize that maybe the best innovation is happening at the small papers in smaller towns, places that don't need to invest in "hyperlocal" initiatives because they're already locally-focused. And they're not reeling under the loss of major national advertisers because they didn't have that many to begin with. In a lot of ways, the smaller town paper is better positioned for the future than the big-city ones.

PS. One thing small towns apparently don't have anymore, however, is any sort of classified ad strategy: The under 75,000 circulation category didn't have any winner at all.

And with the Zell counter-argument

Editorial cartoonist David Horsey offers a pretty sobering counter-argument about Sam Zell, Tribune Co-owner and renowned profanitor.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"those that keep operating under the old thesis that 'Well, this is the way we always did it' aren't going to survive"

I'm still unconvinced about Sam Zell as owner of the Tribune company, but when he says stuff like this:

"I believe that newspapers, in fact, have a great future, and 25 or 30 years from now, the newspapers that adapt and take a position that create a future for them will survive, and those that keep operating under the old thesis that 'Well, this is the way we always did it' aren't going to survive."

He starts to win me over.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New York Times' info-graphics department drop peyote, make stunning chart

OK, maybe they're not on peyote, but it would help explain this amazingly psychedelic graphic depicting movies box office grosses as distributed out over time. It takes a moment to understand it (the height is amount of money, horizontal is the length of time. Scroll backwards to reach all the way back to the 80s--who knew the Patrick Swayze supernatural tearjerker Ghost brought in box office dollars for eight entire months?--or join the chart's creators in simply dropping in and tuning out with those wild swirls and trippy earthtones.

dropping the bomb on social networking

That's a literal title folks: The department of defense has adopted social networking technologies in a field-tested system designed to allow for more networked information flow than normal in the armed forces, according to a report from Rough Type's Nicholas Carr.
By clicking on icons and lists, [patrol leaders] can see the locations of key buildings, like mosques, schools, and hospitals, and retrieve information such as location data on past attacks, geotagged photos of houses and other buildings (taken with cameras equipped with Global Positioning System technology), and photos of suspected insurgents and neighborhood leaders. They can even listen to civilian interviews and watch videos of past maneuvers. It is just the kind of information that soldiers need to learn about Iraq and its perils.

The above is actually a fantastic model for a web-based journalism site to adopt. Can you imagine the kind of robust networked reporting that could happen with something similar?

TV goes mobile

Forgive the shaky camerawork and the spotty audio when you watch this.

OK, you don't have to watch all of it, but forgive it because it's shot using a mobile phone, and when it was first created it was streamed live from the phone onto the Internet. It's, as Jeff Jarvis points out, a human satellite truck, only at a cost so fractional as to be far beyond my math skills to compute.

It is, of course, rough. The audio is terrible (kind of losing the point of an interview), and it makes you beg for some editing. But it's the sign of things to come.

There will be progression in two directions. First, phones will get better at this sort of stuff. The optics will get better, the audio options will get better, and the connection speed (the real holdup here in the States) will improve. But second, real tools will begin to adopt mobile functions. Imagine a $600 HD video camera with a built in WiFi connection. A real lens. A real mic. That's real power.

Friday, February 22, 2008

All through a life

Ex Sun-Times reporter Howard Wolinsky has a moving look back at his 6,001 days at the ailing Chicago paper. It's a wonderful look across the field of time at the changes that have moved the marker for journalism, from the corporate mergers of the 80s to the death-by-web of today.

I frankly thought I would finish my working days at the Sun-Times at age 65 or 66. I was a creature of habit, accustomed to getting up at 5:05am, exercising, walking the dog, gulping down my oatmeal, making that 7:35 train, waving to Ike the news vender at the Metra Electra, getting to the office by around 8:30 and putting in my workday. It was comfortable, easy, predictable. I liked it. I knew how to do the time.

But something clicked for me after that meeting. I could see a different future.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

because who wouldn't walk away from $15 billion?

Mysteries abound in Palo Alto! It was quietly announced today that Facebook's Chief Revenue Officer, Owen Van Natta, is leaving the company to--say it with me now--"pursue other opportunities." Van Natta was the chief architect of the Microsoft investment, which gave the company it's $15 billion valuation. On the surface, it seems like an odd time to walk away, with every street lined with gold and every rose smelling like money. Even stranger that the position isn't going to be filled.

Though on the other hand, who needs a chief revenue officer when you don't have any revenue? And, well, with the news that the sites users in the UK dropped for the first time ever last month, maybe it's a sign that the rats are starting to escape a ship moving in the wrong direction.

(news via Fake Steve)

apple pwns your podcast

A recently unearthed patent filing shows Apple looking into methods of taking podcasts and turning them into user-customizable pieces, able to be cut up and put back together as a new, single, piece of audio or video ready for download into your iPod or iPhone. What to the who now? you ask.

The podcast could consist of one or several segments selected from a predefined set of continuously updated media categories on a digital download service, such as the iTunes Store. A 20-minute customized podcast, for instance, could consist of a 5 minute segment from CNN on the day's national news, a 5 minute segment from a local news station, and a 10 minute segment on sports highlights from ESPN.

In other words: pwned

It's an audio and video version of a customized RSS feed, breaking the content away from the content provider. It's a powerful tool for users--I'd love to put together my own podcast of a few minutes of a number of different newscasts--but it's yet another blow to the people actually making the podcasts and videocasts being hacked.

It once again raises the crucial question of the 21st century: If everything is dependent on content, but the model for creating that content has been completely broken, how does the content get made?

For Sale: One Newspaper, slightly used

It's not surprising that the Albuquerque Tribune, the second paper in a two-paper town, announced that Saturday's edition will be its last. The paper has shrunk from 42,000 readers twenty years ago to under 10,000 today, a precipitous drop that would be hard to right in the current environment. What is surprising is the current offer on the table to buy the paper: just $10,000.

Yes, for less than the cost of a Toyota Yaris, you can own your own daily newspaper.

Unfortunately, you'd have to invest quite a bit in the paper, as it doesn't do its own ad sales, circulation, printing, subscriptions or any business operations. Those were run by a jointly owned corporation between the Tribune and the other paper in town, the Albuquerque Journal.

If that sounds like a bad idea to you, that's because it probably is. But it's allowed under something ironically titled the Newspaper Preservation Act, which was passed in 1970 to save newspapers, whose circulation numbers were in decline. Looking at the list of papers that operated under a joint publishing agreement that have folded, it seems like maybe thwarting anti-trust laws by essentially divvying up a local monopoly among two parties wasn't the best idea--though I'm sure the media giants at the time couldn't wait to join up.

Those that talk of legislative action to save the declining newspaper industry today would do well to consider the ramifications of their actions. In the case of the Albuquerque Tribune, it's a "public trust" now worth less than a compact car.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"This business has been eroding before your eyes and you're worried about my language?"

A very good point made by new Tribune Co. owner (and pottymouth) Sam Zell, via Romenesko.

Can you write your own sports section?

That's the question now posed with the launch of Bleacher Report, a user-generated sports writing site.

It's yet another no-brainer of a concept that newspapers didn't already think of: Why not open your sports section up to fans? Isn't that half the point of sports anyway, the fan involvement and excitement?

Sports sections are expensive to produce and generate little ad revenue. Back when papers were selling, they helped to sell them, for sure, but now with superior (at least superior in quantity and immediacy) coverage of sports on the web, how does a paper compete?

It again comes down to the question of whether papers still need to be the end-all-be-all for their town when the monopolies of geography no longer apply. One way to still function in that role is to allow the town in, instead of keeping at a distance.

Letting them in through sports--where you have a large number of engaged, vocal people at a local level--seems like an obvious choice. Too bad someone else beat the local paper to it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

yes, depression

cross-posted from my Punk Planet blog

Today's announcement that No Depression magazine is folding up shop after the publication of their next issue is dredging up a lot of painful old memories for me. Last year felt like a bloodbath for independent publishers and the few that were able to hang on through it, I hoped would be able to persevere forever, defiant against what seemed like an inevitability.

But now No Depression, a magazine that I've always felt a kinship towards, has bent against the crosswinds that blew Punk Planet down as well. While No Depression didn't have a distributor bankruptcy to speed the downturn like we did, they still came up across the difficulties of being a publication supported in large part by the ads of record labels during a time when record labels are struggling on their own. As a result, the magazine saw its advertiser base dwindle:

The simple answer is that advertising revenue in this issue is 64% of what it was for our March- April issue just two years ago. We expect that number to continue to decline.

The longer answer involves not simply the well-documented and industrywide reduction in print advertising, but the precipitous fall of the music industry. As a niche publication, ND is well insulated from reductions in, say, GM's print advertising budget; our size meant they weren't going to buy space in our pages, regardless.

On the other hand, because we're a niche title we are dependent upon advertisers who have a specific reason to reach our audience. That is: record labels. We, like many of our friends and competitors, are dependent upon advertising from the community we serve.

That community is, as they say, in transition. In this evolving downloadable world, what a record label is and does is all up to question. What is irrefutable is that their advertising budgets are drastically reduced, for reasons we well understand. It seems clear at this point that whatever businesses evolve to replace (or transform) record labels will have much less need to advertise in print.

Thirteen years and 75 issues is a hell of a run for any publication; it's even more admirable when that publication did it without ceding their editorial beliefs and morals even one inch. Grant, Peter, and Kyla should know that their heads can be held high (that is, once they lift them off the pillows that they most likely collapsed on after penning their painful letter).

I know the exhaustion that comes with the end of a publication that's consumed your life for over a decade (and the many headaches that come with that end as well), but I hope that the publishers, editors, designers, and writers of No Depression know that they made an impact and helped to keep their little corner of the world exciting and new for readers like me.

The hardest part of doing this type of work is that, by and large, it is thankless. So Grant, Peter, and Kyla--along with everyone else that worked on the project for over a decade--thank you.

Monday, February 18, 2008

And the award for most depressing lede ever written goes to:

"Get out of media. Get into marketing."

Yep, that's the lede for the saddest newspaper-related story you'll read all month. It's basic premise is laid out in its one-sentence lede and is only fleshed out from there, with such gut-punches as:

  • "One in four newspaper jobs have disappeared since newspaper employment peaked in 1990"
  • Looking at overall media (newspapers, broadcast and cable TV, radio, magazines and internet media companies ) staffing, "since media employment peaked in dot-com-infused 2000, media companies have eliminated one in six job"
  • Since May 2002, "a majority (11 of 19) media stocks have fallen"


  • "Employment in advertising/marketing-services -- agencies and other firms that provide marketing and communications services to marketers -- broke a record in November"
  • "Marketing consultancies over the past year added 14,500 jobs (up 10.8%), nearly matching staff cuts at newspapers (down 16,900 or 4.7%)"
  • Ad/marketing-services sectors have rebounded from the ad industry's January 2004 post-recession employment nadir. Advertising/marketing services has added 106,000 jobs since then

But that's a good thing, ultimately, for media, right? If all these marketers are booming, they need somewhere to market, right? Shouldn't we just wait for the national advertising to pour back into our papers like the waterfall it used to be?

Well... uh...

Marketers still invest in marketing, but they have options far beyond paid media: digital initiatives, direct marketing, promotions and events, just to name a few. That creates more opportunities for consultants to help define strategies.

Agencies also have adapted, expanding beyond simply creating and placing ads. Indeed, Ad Age DataCenter research has shown that U.S. marketing-communications agencies collectively in 2005 for the first time generated less than half of their revenue from traditional media and media planning/buying.

Yep, they've gone into business for themselves, realizing that the middleman was exactly that. Waiting for them to come back to a diminishing media landscape is like waiting for Godot.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

a tale of two cities, public broadcasting style

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Today's New York Times offers an interesting take on the fortunes and future of public broadcasting, both on TV and radio. It paints an interesting picture of two mediums on very different trajectories.

The average PBS show on prime time now scores about a 1.4 Nielsen rating, or roughly what the wrestling show “Friday Night Smackdown” gets. ... On the other side of the ledger the audience for public radio has been growing: there are more than 30 million listeners now, compared to just 2 million in 1980. “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” NPR’s morning and evening news programs, are the second and fourth most listened to shows in the country.

Friday, February 15, 2008

New York Times joins the cutting trend

The New York Times today announced that they'll be cutting 100 newsroom jobs.
The cuts will be achieved “by not filling jobs that go vacant, by offering buyouts, and if necessary by layoffs,” the executive editor, Bill Keller, said. The more people who accept buyouts, he said, “the smaller the prospect of layoffs, but we should brace ourselves for the likelihood that there will be some layoffs.”

You don't dig yourself out of a hole, you climb out. All these cuts of news reporters from news organizations only make the problem worse, not better.

Once more, with feeling

It's being announced today that Hearst, Gannett, the Tribune Company, and the New York Times Company are joining forces to launch the oddly named "quadrantONE," an online ad agency that will distribute ads out to all of the company's papers (though not the big ones like USA Today or the New York Times, because apparently that would make too much sense or something).

The goal of the company is to "to let national advertisers place ads on local Web sites with a single phone call," which is an admirable idea, but it ignores the fact that most of the money coming out of web advertising isn't from national advertisers, but instead from small classified-style ads matched to page content.

It's not the first attempt to do something like this: "The effort is at least the third in the last decade involving major newspaper companies joining forces to sell online ads."

In fact...

Several of the newspapers involved in quadrantONE are part of Yahoo’s newspaper consortium, which provides advertising technologies and sales, and all of the companies are partial owners of the Newspaper National Network, a network that allows national advertisers to place ads across thousands of papers’ print editions and, more recently, Web sites. The companies were also all part of the New Century Network in the late 1990s, which failed.

That's a lot of attempts, none of which seem to have panned out. So how is this one different?

Executives at the newspaper companies said quadrantONE will fare differently because it will have a central repository of advertising inventory, and thus will not have to call the newspapers individually to fill each order.

Why doesn't that fill me with confidence that they'll pull this off?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Everyblock Interviewed

Adrian Holovaty, the creator of the local news aggregator Everyblock (which I blogged about here) has a great interview up on It deals extensively with the technical side of the site, but also includes an interesting philosphical discussion of what the site does and doesn't currently provide. On user-generated content, Holovaty makes a good point:
If we'd launched with awesome reader-contributed content features, that's all that people would be talking about. "EveryBlock: a user-generated news site!" People are very quick to make judgments about a Web site, pigeonholing it into some generic "user-generated" or "Web 2.0" bucket. I wanted to send the message that our focus is on providing a newspaper for your block. The tone was set. Any subsequent features that we add -- whether they involve local voices or not -- are in support of that core goal.

I'm gonna find a home on wheels, see how it feels

Today Google announced that searches coming in from the iPhone are 50 times higher than any other mobile handset. It's a number so out of proportion from the phone's place in the mobile market that the company originally thought it was a mistake.

"We thought it was a mistake and made our engineers check the logs again," Vic Gundotra, Google's mobile head told the Financial Times.

It's a sign not only of the growing influence of the Apple device, but also of the fact that once you put the real Internet into the hands of mobile users, they'll use it the way they're accustomed--i.e. constantly.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It may be a bad name, but Reuter's "Mojo" initiative gets it right

It's hard to endorse something with such a terrible name, but Reuters Mobile Journalist initiative--that's MoJo for short folks, sorry--is a brilliant concept. The essential idea was to equip journalists with a do-everything mobile phone (Nokia's N95, which has a 5 megapixel camera stuck on the back), a bluetooth keyboard (so you're not typing everything out on the multi-tap keypad), a mini tripod (for easy video blogging), a little mic, and even a solar charger. This small collection of tools is powerful enough to accomplish most of the tasks a one-man-band journalist may need. If a journalist can shoot video, take photos, and even write and file stories using equipment that probably weighs less than three pounds combined, it means that that journalist can be quicker and more agile, able to adapt faster to a changing situation and get needed information out.

It also means that more people can be journalists. With one exception (an adapter to plug the mic in), all of this stuff is off-the-shelf equipment. And once you get past the phone, it's all pretty secondary. With the sheer volume and ubiquity of mobile phones across the world today suddenly the ability for everyone to be a journalist is within reach. Scary for journalists, yes, but amazing for empowering a multitude of voices.

While the collection of examples on the Reuters site is underwhelming (they mostly equipped tech journalists with the equipment, so you get the usual collection of trade-show handjobs), the possibilities are endless. I'd love to see them give 100 of these kits to youth media creators or 100 to farmers in developing nations or 100 to soldiers in the front lines (dare to dream--there's no way the Army would allow it) and see what happens. In the right hands, it has the potential to be a wildly disruptive technology, especially when paired with a backend designed for it (still waiting on that one though).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

$15 billion can buy a lot of publicists

Yesterday a few dozen people read this site. One of them, apparently, was a publicist for Facebook. Who must have had a very slow day at work yesterday, as she felt it necessary to send me a message through my Facebook account that began:

Hi Daniel,

Saw that you wrote today regarding Facebook account deletion and hoping you could update your piece with the following comment which you can attribute to Brandee Barker at Facebook:

The comment that followed was, as you might expect, generic spinning of the New York Times piece I wrote about yesterday, explaining that, of course, it's just a big misunderstanding and, of course, it's something they're working on explaining better:

We are working to better explain the simple deactivation process, and to ease the deletion process for those who want their personal information removed from our servers.

How much better? Well, the link she included to a page explaining their policies further wasn't actually valid. But hey, I'm sure it's there somewhere, because that's Facebook, right? They're always looking out for you.

In fact, they're so concerned about you, apparently, that they're going to send a legion of PR flacks out to send messages to anyone writing about them--no matter how two-bit that writer is (present company absolutely included)--so that you you know how much they care.

They care so much, in fact, that she was also so happy to provide "just as background" a "look at how other Internet companies address data delete requests." Those "other Internet companies"? Just Google--and those links worked just fine.

And so we arrive once again at the Facebook way: get caught fucking up and spin and spin and spin and spin and spin.

Fake Steve, take it away:

it doesn't really seem to be in their nature to do the right thing. Their instinct, in fact, seems to be to do the wrong thing, and to keep doing it until they get caught. Even after they get caught, their instinct is to spin and fudge and brazen it out. ... Either that or they truly are a bunch of spoiled and scarily fucking clueless kids who honestly have no idea why people are upset about this, because they truly have no moral compass and they view this whole thing as just another pain in the ass hurdle to get over on the way to becoming rich.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Don't go away / say what you say / but say that you'll stay

“The thing they offer advertisers is that they can connect to groups of people. I can see why they wouldn’t want to throw away anyone’s information, but there’s a conflict with privacy,” said Alan Burlison, 46, a British software engineer who succeeded in deleting his account only after he complained in the British press, to the country’s Information Commissioner’s Office and to the TRUSTe organization, an online privacy network

Anyone not think that the site he's talking about is Facebook?

The New York Times today documents yet another privacy breech from Facebook: The inability to permanently leave.

And how do the Facebookers spin it? How do they always spin it: It's a feature designed to make things easier for users:

According to an e-mail message from Amy Sezak, a spokeswoman for Facebook, “Deactivated accounts mean that a user can reactivate at any time and their information will be available again just as they left it.”

Gee, thanks

"'Experiment' has not traditionally been part of the print publishing vocabulary"

Scott Karp has a good roundup of three newspaper sites using his new Publish2 linking system to offer their readers links to bloggers and other news sources outside their walls. He focuses on the speed with which these newsfolks implemented his system, but I'd rather look at something else.

I think the examples Karp gives are a great manifestation of the "smart filter" argument I've been making with colleagues lately: As the Internet becomes an ever-increasing cacophony of voices, readers are looking more frequently towards smart filters--sites that simplify the choices by offering a series of links that have been selected not by algorithm but by people. 

And who better to offer those choices than editors, the people who have been making choices as their career?

Just look at how the Knoxville News was able to integrate a nice collection of related links to bloggers writing about a similar topic:

But, the counter argument goes, these are links outside of the news organization--why would we want to send readers away? Because sometimes you've got to send them away to have them come back.

That's actually the crux of the smart filter argument: If people see you as a good source for links--be it internal or external--they'll come back regularly. And if they don't--if they see you only as a source for walled-in information--they'll only visit when they think you'll have something to offer a much larger conversation. And since the current state of online news is as much about eyeball equity as anything else, having people come back and look to you as an authority and a source of information--whever that information may reside--is a good thing.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

User-generated innovation

One of the unusual characteristics of a caucus versus a traditional vote is that everyone who attended knows the outcome. Yet traditional media has rarely reported these outcomes, waiting instead for official

That type of information embargo is impossible anymore, thanks to the ubiquity of user-generated content creators on the web.

Witness the information flow coming out of Maine today, with near-real time results being put up on a Google map:

It'll be interesting to compare these informal results to the real deal one they're announced. If they're even close, it'll be a major ground-shift on how this stuff can be reported.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

sometimes, local still truly does matter

In the shadow of Super Tuesday, it seems that the national media outlets have decided that coverage of the February 9th primaries aren't worth major attention. 

When The Bigs move away from a story is when you can truly see that local news does still matter--like the Omaha World Herald's coverage of today's caucuses which paints a picture of chaos and confusion that the national media isn't picking up on at all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

moving past free

"The Internet is a copy machine," explains Kevin Kelly in The Technium. And as such, Kelly suggests that it's simply not possible to try to fight the tide of facsimiles that wash over the web.

As a result, he argues, you've go to start offering things to go along with your content that can't be replicated, and thusly are "better than free." He lists eight good ideas to use as starting points and sums it up quite nicely:
Success in the free-copy world is not derived from the skills of distribution since the Great Copy Machine in the Sky takes care of that. Nor are legal skills surrounding Intellectual Property and Copyright very useful anymore. Nor are the skills of hoarding and scarcity. Rather, these new eight generatives demand an understanding of how abundance breeds a sharing mindset, how generosity is a business model, how vital it has become to cultivate and nurture qualities that can't be replicated with a click of the mouse.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

mobile transformations

A new UN report says that mobile phones are transforming developing nations.
The take up of mobiles was allowing developing nations to "leapfrog" some generations of technology such as fixed line telephones and reap more immediate rewards, said the report.

The Times on the future of news

(via Romenesko)

So what's wrong with the newspaper industry? The New York Times offers their analysis today, including the sobering statistic that:

Newspaper executives and analysts say that it could take five to 10 years for the industry’s finances to stabilize and that many of the papers that survive will be smaller and will practice less ambitious journalism.

It's a good overview but misses some major factors--like bad acquisitions by newspaper's parent corporations or mismanagement (or straight-up corruption) by the same--and manages to gloss over the fact that the high-point in ad revenues they keep referencing (the year 2000) was also the height of the dot-com boom, when every IPO'd dot com was taking out lavish national ads touting their bubble-fueled companies. In fact, the dot-com boom was a statistical anomaly in advertising statistics.

PS. Not sure why there's been so much Times coverage this week. They must  be doing something right.

MEGO site update

You've probably already noticed that there's a fresh coat of paint on the site. Figured that it's about time to break out of the auto-template mold the site originated in. Also, I've gone back and painstakingly tagged every entry on the site, so you can now access various bits of writing by categories instead of simply chronology. Thanks for paying attention.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

It's official: Someone's started the New York Times deathwatch

And that someone is none other than Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen (who, come to think of it would know something about deathwatches). He does a good job of charting the story up until now, and leaves readers with a very good question that nobody seems to be asking:
given that the Internet is the central force dismantling the company's business, I'm sure that by now they've stocked their board with noted Internet experts.

He goes on to list all the board members, which include the former CEO of Nabisco and the current CEO of Sara Lee, both of whom seem like odd choices even in the best of days.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

CNN's broken news alerts

For those that signed up for CNN's e-mail alerts to get instant updates on Super Tuesday's election results, it's clear that the cable news channel's definition of "instant" is a bit different than the rest of us.
Here's the entirety of CNN's announcements I received tonight:
8:29 PM (2 hours ago)
-- CNN projects Huckabee winner of Georgia GOP primary.

6:47 PM (3 hours ago)
-- CNN projects that Clinton will win Massachusetts Democratic primary.

5:01 PM (5 hours ago)
-- CNN projects: Romney wins Mass.; McCain wins Conn. and Illinois; Obama wins Illinois; Clinton wins Okla.

5:11 PM (5 hours ago)
-- CNN projects McCain as the winner of the GOP primary in New Jersey.

4:01 PM (6 hours ago)
-- Sen. Barack Obama has won the Democratic primary in Georgia, CNN projects; Republicans in tight three-way race.

That's it. Eight states. According to CNN's Text Breaking News, this race ain't even close to over. Odd that their website seems to think differently.

UPDATE: They were much quicker this morning with this one:

7:30 AM (1 hour ago)
-- The NYC medical examiner's office has ruled that Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Is there a designer in the house?

The New York Times could not have come up with a less interesting way of presenting the photos they're pulling in from their citizen journalism experiment, the Polling Place Photo Project? It's possibly the least inspired design I've seen on the Internet since the end of GeoCities:

What's the incentive to click on any given image? What's the logic in the order? Or the overarching narrative in the design (seemingly the only place to find a narrative in the project)? The AIGA, the leading design trade group country, was involved in this project--were they brought in to cater?

Compare this with a truly dynamic photo project, The Whale Hunt, which dealt with a similarly formalist challenge of presenting a huge number of photos in a compelling way, but broke out of the table structure the Times chose:

Sure, photos of polling places are kind of boring, but there are hundreds of photos in the Whale Hunt that are just as boring as many of the polling place photos are--if not more so. But the way Jonathan Harris chose to present them simply demands a user click on them, ponder them, and think about the story they tell, both individually and collectively.

With the Polling Place Photo Project, the Times had a chance to tell a new kind of story about an overlooked institution. But in choosing the least creative way possible to display the images, they end up telling no story at all. It's worse than a missed opportunity--it's a blown one.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Google's old-media envy

“We need to find ways to target people of particular demographics that are comparable to the people you might find in The New York Times or a particular publication that you may be familiar with.”

That's a senior VP from Google interviewed in the Times (dug up by Rough Type's Nick Carr), talking about the search giant's shortcomings in selling ads on social networks. That's the trick about turning your ad sales over to an algorithm--there's no good way to target demographics and, as a result, for every spot-on ad that gets placed, there are plenty of total misses (like the ones in the sidebar on this page, which are currently advertising get-rich-quick schemes because a few posts on the front page deal with the challenges of making money with online publications). In the social networking space, where most pages aren't going to return easily computed subjects (how do you come up with an ad for a page filled with people commenting "thanks for the add"?) the challenges are even more daunting.

One wonders if that's part of the driving force behind Google's new initiative to create a semantic social web: Once you can define relationships between users across sites, you're starting to create a machine-definable demographic.

Until then, though, Google will be looking back fondly at the ease of how a publication could define its readers and then sell them to high-value advertisers. Ironic then, that those very same publications now look to Google to bail them out of web advertising.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

100 years ain't what it used to be

"Once every hundred years media changes" announced Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg last November at a press event for it's (now basically aborted) Beacon ad-spying program. It was, of course, a ridicule-worthy statement back then but now, with new numbers showing that the public interest in social networking is fading, it's becoming clear that they just don't make centuries like they used to.

While the news isn't all bad (Facebook's still up, just trending back down to earth), it certainly doesn't spell good news for the long-term viability of social networks.

The problem is that while social networks are fun and addictive, they're not actually all that useful most of the time. For most users of general-interest sites like Facebook and MySpace, it's a video game: collect as many friends as you can, add as many applications as you can, bite a few zombies, and... and... and... suddenly it becomes a bit boring. After all, after a few hundred friends it becomes apparent that you're reaching ("Sure, I guess I can add that friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend"). Eventually, you move on. After all, an infinite number of options are just a click away and I'm sure there's a zombie bite waiting for you somewhere out there. Or, as The Register puts it:

We're not suggesting that social networking sites are totally useless or are going to disappear anytime soon (Friends Reunited is still around? Who knew!) - they're a boon for prying journalists and recruiters for sure, and damn it, Scrabble is a good game. But today's shocking confirmation that their "phenomenal" growth isn't impervious to human nature does make the $15bn valuation Microsoft slapped on Facebook when it paid $240m for 1.6 per cent equity seem even more preposterous, if it were possible.

Add to that coverage of Facebook's announcement that they plan to have a cashflow of negative $150 million this year, and you begin to wonder how it is that the VC's of the world are still holding strong on tossing money down the monetization drain while continuing to insist that companies that are actually making things (*cough*newspapers*cough*) are doomed when they say things like the “perceived value of content is approaching zero" (dig for the quote here). Maybe when you strip away the due diligence and competitive analysis reports, the venture capitalists are really just as faddish as the Friendster users that fled to MySpace that fled to Facebook: the grass is always greener on the other side. Turns out, however, that the money may not be.

So here's to the end of Facebook's hundred years, 99 years premature. May the hundred years that came before last another thousand.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

Part of the problem affecting news organizations right now isn't simply the notion that giving away their news for free is killing them, it's that there are so many new ways of interacting with information that can lessen the need to go to a traditional news site.

Take, for instance, the current (as I write this) top 50 Google Trends listing:

Anyone want to guess what the biggest story touching people's lives is right this instant? Clearly there's a massive snow storm pummeling Chicago. People have woken up and want to know if the schools are open. I know this not because I've gone to one of the dozen or so news sites that are being queried on Google, but because the aggregate data of Chicago news organization searches and snow closing searches clearly point to only one logical conclusion.

One silver lining: Clearly when there's an emergency, people still turn to news!

One not-so-silver lining: Bad news for print--apparently nobody thinks of it as a breaking-news medium, as every single search is for TV and radio.

One bonus lining: I love that enough people have gotten sick of the Midwest winter at the same time that they've queried "Groundhog Day" enough to spike it into #28: